Visitors didn’t visit our humble church unless they ran out of gas, were visiting one of our members, or were Presbyterians moving to Benton County. The chances of that happening were about the same as one of our families buying two new cars in the same year–extremely rare. Benton County, according to postal service statistics, had no more than forty families established residence in the county in a given year. A few others considered moving, even discovered temporary housing, and quickly reneged when they couldn’t find work. Consequently, with the exception of Rev. Saint’s fabulous church, other congregations were shrinking as more people died than were born within their aging congregations. So I could always spot a new face in our sanctuary with a simple scan from left to right upon entering the pulpit.
However, every rule begs for an exception. One summer Sabbath, a short thin gent took a place about halfway back on the left center aisle seat. He was bald with a long broad nose that allowed his glasses to drift lower and lower as his head shook with a nervous twitch. Finally, he could see me without looking through the thick lens. Fortunately, he didn’t select a pew of any of our regulars, or he might have been asked to politely slide down by a few of our folks that thought their offering on Sunday reserved them a particular seat. This old feller’s bolo tie, white transparent nylon shirt, and his thread-bear plaid sport coat looked out dated.
The old man looked about 85, bent with a few adventures dating back to memories forgotten. I noticed him stick the writing end of a pen in his mouth to moisten the tip, and then jerk it down with the movement of his eyes as if apparently writing. I assumed he was jotting down the key points to study the rest of the week; but I should have known better. No one in the church took notes of the sermon in those days and I frequently wondered how long my carefully written sermons actually influenced any of the attendees beyond the few minutes necessary to deliver them.
The old fellow snuck out of the church without anyone acknowledging his presence. He was there and then gone similar to a breeze on a hot day. I surmised he was a member of some pulpit committee from another church. It was not uncommon for churches that were searching for a minister to send a team of “spies,” made up of one to three people, to evaluate a minister’s preaching before formally making overtures of an interest in serious discussions related to a job offer. They often arrived with no warning and disappeared without a word of explanation, particularly if they were unhappy with what they had seen.
But, the thin visitor came back with an exclamation point. The following Sunday I was at church by 6:30 AM for prayer and study. The time between 6:30 and 10 a.m. on Sunday is unbelievable critical for a minister. It sets the spiritual climate for the entire worship service. I always like to withdraw from the crowd as much as possible from conflict or confusion to have my wits about me to preach.
At a 10:45 a.m., 15 minutes before worship, the old man knocked on my office door. I rose, opened the door, and he introduced himself as the Rev. Mark Mann, former Jew and now a retired minister of the Christian Church. He dropped a few monumental names from that faith tradition and claimed to be their friends during the years he lived in the Chicago area. After a very few moments of chatting, he said, “I don’t want to take up a lot of your time now, but I have a few suggestions about your preaching.” He mentioned several things but I remember only two. He said, “Bob, you have the possibility to become a fair preacher and I want to help you with a little refinement. You mind?” At least he knew how to get my attention with a moment of positive reinforcement. He continued, “You have to quit using the words ‘I think’ so much. People in the congregation don’t really care what you think; or if they do, they are sadly mistaken. They need to know what the scripture teaches. Be more authoritative! Say, ‘THE Bible says.’”
I was listening, but I was also thinking, “I don’t believe this guy; how do I get rid of him?” His forehead wrinkled and said, “And, you need to become less dependent on your notes.” Thank God, he didn’t know I was preaching from a manuscript or he would have definitely been critical. Rev. Mann finally left and I collapsed in my chair, rolling my hazel eyes in disbelief and anger. And, I silently asked, “What did I do, Lord, to deserve this personal curse that arrived out of no where? Why me? Why our church?”
This little “coaching session” went on every Sunday morning for three weeks, until I came unglued. I was kind to my new uninvited mentor; in fact, I pragmatically appreciated the chance for some constructive feedback. But I was starting to dislike the man for his indiscrete choice of time. On the fourth Sunday, I spoke first when he made his entrance, “Rev. Mann, I appreciate your thoughtful help, but please come in during the week. I get all confused with your comments right before I preach.” He stuttered, “Well, well, okay,” and left.
Despite his positive response to my request to not “shoot a hole in my preaching sail” on Sunday morning, he did return the next week on Wednesday morning with his pet criticism; he was persistent that I continued to frustrate him with my using “I think.” Mark insisted, “I am going to break you of this unconscious habit. Every time you say ‘I think,’ I am going to reach in my shirt pocket, like this, (he demonstrated his new strategy) pull out my pen, hold my little yellow pad in front of my face, and make a mark!” I faked a grin and nodded my understanding.
He continued, “I guarantee you will see me and it will be so irritating; you will break this habit!” He proved correct. He was so intentional and obvious about his movements that not only did I see his actions, others in the congregation began to ask, “What is that ‘old man’ doing with his silly notebook during worship?”
His messing with my brain soon drew a halt to announcing an expression of my opinion; and I began using a methodical exegesis of scripture, complemented with the application of those truths to the life of the congregants. As I improved my delivery, Rev. Mann became less and less distracting and everyone could focus more on the sermon and less on the little yellow spiral notebook.