At a trustees’ meeting during my first week as the co-pastor of a small congregation in rural eastern North Carolina, things suddenly took an ominous turn.
The trustees had discussed what I took to be the usual topics — raising money for new carpet in the sanctuary and fixing a leak in the nursery — when one of them turned to me and said, “Well, if you’re like most preachers I’ve known, you don’t know how to do anything to that lawn mower but sit on it.”
He was giving me too much credit. My father was 56 when I was born, so by the time I was old enough to learn how to mow the lawn, he’d been paying someone to do it for years. Once I had a yard, there always seemed to be someone with a mower roaming the neighborhood looking to earn a few dollars, which was fine by me.
When the farmers in the congregation asked me to pray for rain the next Sunday morning, I was secretly praying that it wouldn’t. The longer the dry spell, I reasoned, the longer I could wait before asking one of the trustees how to start the mower.
The rain came and the grass grew, but I got lucky. My father-in-law, who knows how to run all sorts of gas-powered machines, came for a visit from Tallahassee, where he has a small farm. Since he’d already given up hope that this city-reared, academic son-in-law would ever become a lawn equipment enthusiast, I wasn’t afraid to get his help. When he asked what kind of mower it was, my best answer was “green.” He patiently showed me step-by-step how to use the riding mower, beginning with the lesson on how to get on.
The next time I wasn’t so lucky. The riding mower ran out of gas, so I pushed it back to the shed and finished with the push mower. What I didn’t do was turn the riding mower’s ignition switch to “off.” Two weeks later, when the grass was so long I could have lost my 2-year-old in it, the riding mower’s battery was dead and my father-in-law was 600 miles away.
Fortunately, one of the trustees was nearby. I knew Ralph would be able to help, so I began to walk across the field between the parsonage and the church, considering as I went how to say, “I’m stupid,” and save face.
When I told him my problem, Ralph was kind, as I now know he always is.
“Of course, you wouldn’t think to turn the ignition switch off after the mower ran out of gas. I’ll drive the truck over and give you a jump.” While he was at the house we chatted about batteries, weed eaters, and the date he and his wife were going on that night to a gospel concert.
Asking for help wasn’t so hard, I learned, and these guys loved to give it. So I asked him if he could show me how to start the weed eater in the parsonage shed. His quick inspection revealed the problem — no gas. “Now you know,” he said, “you have to mix a little oil in the gas on this one or it’ll blow up.” Seeing the look of horror on my face, he handed me his weed eater. “Just leave it here in the shed,” he said. “I’ll come and get it.”
I wanted to learn this language of blades and batteries, and to understand the life that goes with it. Not to impress my father-in-law or avoid humbling myself before the trustees again — they will always know more about Craftsmans and John Deeres than I will. Nor did I want to learn these things to make up for what I hadn’t learned as a boy. Rather, I was beginning to suspect that if I wanted to learn how to preach to these men or counsel them I would need to be able to chat with them. And around here, if the chatting wasn’t about gardens, it was about mowing and the machines to do it with. If I didn’t want to stay a stranger, I’d have to learn this way of life.
Isn’t that why, as the beginning of the Gospel of John says, Jesus “pitched his tent among us” (John 1:14) — because in Jesus, God refuses to be a stranger? If I am called to “live a life that becomes gospel,” in the words of writer Robert Benson, how can I get by with anything less than pitching my own tent among the people I serve?
And at this church, pitching my tent meant getting used to carrying a knife in my pocket — “If you’re a man and have your pants on, there’s a knife in your pocket,” I heard many times — and it meant being willing to stand around chatting about the really important matters, like whether it’s better to mow around the house first or last, always, as I was instructed, blowing the debris away from the house.
I decided to take the borrowed weed eater back to Ralph. I found him behind his house, tinkering under the hood of an old blue pickup. I shook his greasy hand and we talked for a few minutes. He told me about his relatives — where they lived, where they went to church, and why they quit coming to ours. He told me which ones were sick, which ones had kids who needed to come to Sunday school, and which ones were rescued by the recent tobacco buyout. With every conversation like this one I felt that I was driving another tent stake, making my home among the people of this community.
The next time I needed to find Ralph it wasn’t just to chat. His wife, Betty, had called earlier that day to tell me that their daughter’s doctor had said her cancer was winning and she should begin thinking about hospice. When I went to see Ralph and Betty, no one answered at the front door. I walked around to the back of the farm house and found Betty pacing near the fishing pond next to the tobacco field.
She walked over to me, and I put my arm around her. “We knew this was coming, but didn’t want to admit it,” she said. “Ralph is over there in the shed, if you want to say something to him.”
There he was, his back turned to me. As I entered the shed, now a sanctuary for his grief, I found him opening and closing drawers in the workbench.
“Looking for something to fix?” I asked.
“Just piddlin’, ” he answered.
We were surrounded by his machines and the tools to fix them. And while those machines didn’t matter then, the fact that I had come to him earlier, embarrassed by my ignorance, gave me permission to be next to him now, standing silently with him in the face of this frightening new reality before which we both felt helpless.
L. Roger Owens earned a master of divinity degree at Duke in 2001 and a doctorate in theological ethics in 2006. Roger always expected to teach in an undergraduate religion department, but is delighted that God led him into the local church. He and his wife, Ginger Thomas D'01, currently serve as co-pastors of Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham. They have two sons, Simeon and Silas. Owens has two books forthcoming: The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices and Wendell Berry and Religion: Heaven's Earthly Life, co-edited with Joel J. Shuman.