The Learning Curve Is Never Flat

At 16 what did I know? Well, truth hidden, maybe even from the “aware conscience,” I probably thought I knew more than ever. Hopefully that was true then, although now pushing into, not a month yet but still pushing into my 76th year, there continues to be lots of learning. Ah, truth experienced: the learning curve is never flat.

Back to 16. I could drive…actually started at 12 driving, at his insistence, my father’s 5-gear stick shift garbage truck. It was a short trip that in my mind and fear and “not me!” took a lifetime. Just 6 blocks from the Veteran’s Housing Project, our last customer, to our house. I kept it in compound low and we didn’t flow smoothly; we lurched. Made it with luck and with no traffic either behind me or coming the other way. Northeast Portland tended to be quiet, even when we played kick the can. Well, not at 16, but that just came to mind.

More happened, though. Because my best buddy [then we had no acronym named BFF], Jeannette, advised in answer to my question what I should do in life, to be a minister, it seemed apt and proper…truth pushing again no one else would do it…for me to preach two sermons [two services] at our home German Congregational Church in Portland, Oregon. All immigrants who belonged were German, arriving in Portland from Nordka, Russia. So, if you weren’t a Krieger or Spady or Schlitt or Schnell or Miller or Deines…forget it.

Remember I didn’t know what to preach, but my pastor said, “Preach what makes sense.” I remembered what made the most sense then, one of the Ten Commandments. But not from Exodus…had never read that. But from Billy Southworth’s “Ten Commandments of Baseball.” The one undergirding the sermon went like this, “If what you’ve done yesterday looks big to you, then you haven’t done much today.” That sounded good. I then read more than a few pages from the New Testament…probably thought the Old Testament was for another century and after all, this WAS 1956…and came upon some words from the Apostle Paul, “Press on to the upward call of Christ…” Or something like that. I didn’t see Jesus in the sky, but somehow felt he came along for the ride…and the sermon.

Probably more important than what I said…which for many was “the best sermon ever.” I knew that was not true, but a child of the congregation can be deceived for his own good. Most important the day of my first sermon, and I only learned this later, was that my father got dressed for the first worship service. That was way out of routine since my parents ALWAYS went to the second service. My mother, puzzled, inquired, “Hank? We normally go to the second service.” My father replied, “Es, look at it this way…if he was pitching a doubleheader we’d go to both games, wouldn’t we?” Mother got dressed and off they went.

That was October, 1956. In those days I had no idea what the Bible was. When in seminary when relaying “our first sermon,” a YDS [my seminary] classmate asked, “Did you use the lectionary?”

Lectionary? I had never heard the word before. Think I thought it might be something—did you ever have “lectionary” I asked myself—do you need penicillin for that?

I have learned, though. One would hope. Right? I have learned that lectionary preachers are more varied and certainly more relevant and effective in their sermons. Why? Because without a lectionary every minister—truth pushing again—does NOT have more than 3 sermons. Deal with it I tell my buddies. I have learned that Christianity isn’t the only way to God. I have learned that God’s willingness to listen and understand is greater than God’s need to judge, let alone reject. I have learned when sitting in the office and someone comes to visit never stay behind the desk. [Thanks to Don Essig in Eugene, Oregon for that tip…shared in 1970. He should know, he got a phD at the University of Oregon in Communication.]

I have learned that a sermon manuscript tends to keep the heart hidden but that sermons are better when heard than read [like in a book]. I have learned that we are all human. Hey, what a revelation…right? I have learned that Marcus Borg is on target when he advises the Bible is to be taken seriously but not literally. I have learned an essential in ministry is to heed Woody Allen who said, “In a relationship, being there is 90%.” Fred Trost taught me this in my 2nd year of ordained ministry. I have learned from Rabbi Harold Kushner that “prayer to God redeems us from isolation.” I have learned to keep the ratio in communication of two ears and one mouth. I have learned how important it is that humility trumps hubris, although that’s tough sometimes.

This is perhaps prattle. But now I’m in a reflective mood. Maybe the clergy reading this can remember their first sermon. Maybe the other folk can remember a helpful sermon. Hopefully non-clergy do not believe a minister is closer to God. Ain’t true. Used to get that illusion before weddings when a family member, most often the mother of the bride, would more than ask, she would demand that I make sure the weather would be good for the wedding. My best answer seemed to work, “Ma’am, I’m sorry, but I’m in sales and not management.” And maybe those reading this can think back when they were 16. And rush to today and ponder what are the best lessons you’ve learned?

Finally, perhaps the best of all. A personal note. Andrew? Today, July 7, is your 43 birthday. May it be a day of joy. We love you…and as you and I used to say forty years ago…”for 2 more weeks.” That still holds. Since “2 more weeks” is our version of forever.


About Mark H Miller

Diane and I live in Leander, Texas. This past June 17, 2015 I celebrated the 49th anniversary of my ordination. We returned to Texas after three years in Washington, during which I served as interim minister in Bellevue/Eastgate and Mercer Island. Am planning to begin a 5th novel that will have my protagonist, Tricia Gleason, serve a year in licensed ministry in Snoqualmie, Washington. The novel, "The Lemon Drop Didn't Melt," will find Tricia wrestling with ministry challenges. None of which more daunting than someone wanting her breathing to stop. All the published novels are available on Amazon and Amazon Kindle under Mark Henry Miller. A primary goal in our return to Texas is to make sure grandchildren get lots of attention--here and in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Traveling is definitely an activity that will not slow down. With that, of course, fishing will happen. To that the t-shirt is apt, "I fish; therefore I am." In addition to novels, the book of Blogs, "Voice Of My Heart," is also available on Amazon.
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