Magazine article The Christian Century

Unplanned Ministry: Being Jackson's Pastor

Magazine article The Christian Century

Unplanned Ministry: Being Jackson's Pastor

Article excerpt

THE TELEPHONE RANG. I picked it up. A woman's voice: "Pastor, I have a problem. Can I come and talk with you?" Variations on that introduction are numerous in a pastor's life. What would it be this time? She interrupted my hesitating silence: "Maybe not a problem--it's a good problem." And then she introduced herself, "This is Donna. Remember me? I was Leif's kindergarten teacher a few years ago."

I remembered her. Attractive and alive with enthusiasm. In Donna's first year of teaching, my wife, Jan, had been a volunteer teacher's aide in her classroom one day a week. She had also become acquainted with our daughter, Karen, in a pottery workshop they both attended. Jan and Donna liked each other and developed a casual friendship. One day, having greeted each other at the grocery store, they were making small talk, and something Donna said prompted Jan to say, "Why don't you come to church some Sunday?" Donna laughed. "Sunday is a blue-jeans day for me--I don't think I'd fit in." Jan said, "Karen always wears blue jeans to church. I think you would fit in just fine." Through the years when they would meet in a store or on the street, there would be some banter that usually included a reference to blue jeans. But she never came to church.

"Yes, Donna, I remember you. So what is this good problem?" She told me she had a friend, an old friend from high school days, who thought he had become a Christian and asked her if she knew anyone he could talk to about it. She thought of me, although we had never met face-to-face (but I had seen her in action while visiting her classroom).

"Can I bring him to meet you?"

After school the next day she brought Jackson to meet me in my study at the church. The three of us got acquainted. I learned that Jackson had recently come back to his hometown after several years' absence, the last five of which he had lived in the federal prison at Leavenworth, serving a sentence for trafficking drugs in and out of Mexico. He had been released from prison and now was serving out another six months of probation in which he was able to work through the week but had to spend weekends in the local jail.

Then Jackson told me what had happened three days earlier, Sunday night, in his jail cell. "In the middle of the night I woke up, and my cell was full of light--a kind of pulsating light. It lasted maybe five minutes, it seemed like a long time. And then it was dark again. I was still in my bunk wondering what had happened, and then it came to me: 'I think I'm a Christian.' But I have no idea what that means. I don't know any Christians. Donna thought you might be someone I could talk to." He assured me that drugs were not involved. "I haven't used cocaine for over five years."

We agreed to meet for lunch every week and talk about what it means to be a Christian.

I soon learned that everybody in town knew Jackson. He had been the most accomplished athlete the local high school had ever graduated. He had a personality that exuded "juice," an infectious friendliness that was irresistible. When he entered a room, everyone there knew it. He had a kind of charismatic presence apart from anything he did or said.

Jackson had flexible hours. He was a used-car salesman, so we went to out-of-the-way restaurants and diners after the major lunch traffic had subsided, and we talked about faith and Jesus and prayer and just what went into being a Christian.

After about six weeks of these meetings, Jackson said, "Don't Christians pray before they eat?" I said yes, most do.

"Well, why aren't we doing it?"

I said that since he wasn't used to this kind of thing, I didn't want to make him uncomfortable by imposing my practices on him.

"If this is what Christians do, we better do it." So I prayed before we ate. Then one week I said, "Jackson, you pray this time. He looked at me hard, stared in disbelief. And then he bowed his head and prayed. …

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