The very first time anyone ever called me “pastor” was during the early '80s at First Baptist Church of Hopland, Calif.
For 52 Fridays in 1981, I left my seminary classroom in the San Francisco Bay area and drove 100 miles with my wife, Becky, to my weekend pastorate.
Parishioners often hosted us in their homes, but they eventually converted a Sunday school class into a kind of bed-minus-breakfast room for their newlywed pastor. The church ladies strove for a homey feel, covering our poster bed with doily pillowcases and a homemade quilt. They welcomed me as their faithful, fun and fearless pastor.
Fearless, that is, until I wasn’t.
Our clapboard church building was wedged between an interstate highway and a railroad track, a highway for drifters. Late at night the building moaned with unexplained noises. The empty building proved to be an unsettling place for a young couple when the lights were off.
There were summer nights when wide temperature swings caused the floors to mysteriously squeak. Sometimes the winter wind harmonized with a thundering train and we’d jerk from our sleep in fear that God’s wrath was coming through the walls.
One Sunday afternoon, I raised my security concerns with the deacons.
“Who do I call if there’s a problem at night?” I asked, especially in the absence of a police force.
“Well,” suggested one older man, “if you’re a-scared, how’s about I loan you my .22 rifle?”
I thought a minute about the NRA youth course where I’d qualified as a marksman 1st class. I accepted his offer, reassuring Becky I could revive my skills.
I put my borrowed rifle under our bed and pulled it out at night. That’s when I’d walk the inside perimeter of the sanctuary looking for nonexistent intruders, swinging that rifle like some sort of third leg.
I remember one stormy night when a man came pounding on our church door. At first, we played possum and tried to ignore him.
However, his knocking grew too intense. He seemed determined to break the door rather than retreat. We imagined a stowaway who’d jumped from a train in search of someone to harm.
Becky egged me out of bed, and I ventured down the darkened church aisle with my flashlight. I stopped inside the vestibule, rifle at the ready and loudly demanded to know the man’s intentions. From the other side of the locked door, he said only that he needed food and money.
I tightened my grip on the rifle. I had a new wife to protect. I wasn’t inclined to entertain a stranger, even if it might be an angel, as suggested by Scripture.
I recommended he go elsewhere, but made no mention of my Remington argument. Gratefully, he heeded my prompting.
In the years that have followed, I’ve done serious soul-searching about rearming. I’ve had to ask myself, “What am I really afraid of? Who am I “a-scared” of? Can a pastor really practice a gun-toting faith?
Hopland taught me that my desire to carry a gun only fanned the fears that I’d conjured up myself. That kind of fear can suck the meaning completely out of life. When we succumb to those anxieties, we become the little boy afraid of the dark, imagining all kinds of no-good things.
But at the end of the day, I don’t like where those fears put me. So I lock my doors, keep reasonable vigilance and take comfort in Paul’s words of 2 Timothy 1:17: “For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
By the way, several weeks after our late-night disturbance, someone broke into our unoccupied church. They tore though our locked bedroom door and stole my trumpet, our pillows, and the deacon’s rifle. Apparently, guns don’t protect themselves.
Thus marked the end of my gun-toting days.
Reach Norris Burkes at email@example.com, 843-608-9715 or @chaplain.
Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.