I'll never forget the day of my ordination, kneeling before the altar at St. John Lutheran Church in Robstown, TX.
It was time for the presentation of the stole--the time where the burden of becoming a pastor is laid upon an ordinand's shoulders.
I was privileged on this day to have my grandfather, Roy Grote, do the honors.
Grandpa was retired at this point. No longer gracing the pulpit week after week, he was still active in leading Bible Study weekly. He and my grandmother had traveled down to South Texas to be a part of this momentous event in my life. I was very happy to have them there. I was thrilled that my grandfather would place the stole on my shoulders.
As I knelt there, I looked up to my grandfather. He took the stole from my bishop. He moved in front of me. And he spoke. Shunning a microphone and speaking as he had preached for many years he spoke of how honored he was to be placing this stole on his grandson. It was the passing of a torch in many regards. There have been several clergy in my family. God willing, there will be another after me.
I wish I could say that this moment was the highlight of my grandfather's career as a pastor, but that would probably be a lie. Well, maybe it was in one fashion, but he has never spoken to me about the day of my ordination. There was another event in his career that he spoke of many, many times, however.
It seems when he was starting out in his ministry, a community member had passed away, and my grandfather had been called upon to preach at the man's funeral. The man was an avowed atheist and no member of any congregation. A rather large crowd had showed up to see what this young preacher would do in this situation--how would he handle it.
Grandpa said, "I wondered what I should preach, so I prayed and God led me to the Gospel. I read John 3:16, 'For God so loved the world that God gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.' I sat down my Bible, and I said, 'I am sorry your loved one did not believe that promise.'"
According to my grandfather, the family wasn't exactly happy with him, but within a few years, many of them had joined his congregation and were worshiping regularly. Grandpa would always begin this story with the question: Do you know the most influential sermon that you've ever preached?
I'm still waiting on that sermon. I don't know if I will ever get that opportunity or see that kind of fruit. But interestingly enough, John 3:16 (and 17 for good measure) appear in nearly every sermon I preach these days. Every. Single. One.
I can't say exactly that it was this story that influenced me in preaching in such a fashion. It would be another piece of wisdom that Grandpa imparted unto me.
That wisdom came several years ago after I had gone through a bit of burn out. My family and I had traveled to visit him, and I was very much in need of healing. I spent several afternoons just talking to Grandpa, and I asked him if he had ever gone through burn out while he was preaching. He began going through his memories.
They were long and fruitful, and I came to realize just how alike the two of us were as clergy. I would not have thought it considering that there were times when I found Grandpa utterly frustrating in his single-mindedness and hard headedness. (On second thought, I guess I shouldn't be too surprised at our likeness...) But he, like me, had an aversion to getting involved in all the church hierarchy. He, like me, refused to attend local clergy gatherings. He, like me, avoided synodical gatherings and the like. He, like me, was a simple, country preacher.
And he realized this about himself. He knew that he had never pastored anything close to a mega-church. He knew that he had never risen the ranks of the church, corporate ladder. But he had been a faithful pastor and preacher. He had followed the Lord's calling.
Reflecting on those things, he spoke a sentence that is forever ingrained into my heart and soul, "I didn't accomplish much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on very good terms."
Aside from the good news of Jesus Christ, there hasn't been a statement that has affected my life as much as that statement. For right after Grandpa uttered those words, I understood why I had burned out, and I also knew the solution to avoiding burn out for the rest of my life. I had been living my life focusing on that first clause. Grandpa was living his life in the second. And that's where I needed to be.
And I knew that I could spend a lifetime trying to accomplish that first clause. I also knew that the second clause had already been accomplished--not by anything that I had done, but by everything Christ had done. "For God so loved the world..." The first part of my grandfather's statement convicted me, the second helped bring me to healing. Feet firmly planted in the reality that the Lord and I are on very good terms, I no longer worry about how I am seen in the eyes of the world, and I know beyond a doubt that it is now my job; my calling; my duty; my joy to bring others to the One who brought them to good terms with their Creator.
I understand now why Grandpa was so unwavering in his commitment to faith. I understand why he didn't care what others thought about his stances. It wasn't because he was trying to be difficult or that he thought he was better than anyone else. It was because he focused on his relationship with the Lord. It was because he trusted the Lord. It was because he knew what he was called to do--what he was called to be. Nothing could pry him away from that. He didn't fear much of anything because he knew that he and the Lord were on very good terms.
I find myself still looking up to my grandfather and wondering if I will have that kind of resolve as well? Perhaps others already see that I do although I am not as confident in myself. Maybe one day, I will get there.
In these last few years, Grandpa has longed for release. He was not afraid of death--not at all. One could say that he was ready to embrace it. He had a long, fruitful and faithful life. There is no way I can encapsulate all the things he has done in this post. All the places he has lived. All the lessons he has taught. All the stories he has shared. A man who grew up in the horse and buggy days marveled at my dad showing him how to use an iPad. Things had changed greatly during his lifetime.
But his trust in Jesus never changed. His desire to speak of the things of God never changed. His generosity never changed. His understanding of God's goodness and grace never changed. Many in the church he once served would consider him a dinosaur; unenlightened; out-dated. I don't think so. Not in the least. In fact, I am proud to carry on his legacy. He was the original country preacher. I'm 2.0. If I am lucky, I will one day pass along his wisdom and understanding to my own children and grandchildren. If I am granted the opportunity, I will share with them my most influential sermon. If God allows, I will share with them what is most important in life--not a list of accomplishments that the world revels over--but the love of the God who died for them and with whom they are on very good terms.
Rest in peace, Grandpa. I told you how influential you were in my life before you left. I am still not sure you realize just how influential and what our conversations meant before you died. But I know that you know now. Until we meet again.