Ode to an Old Man
You were ninety-one and a bit when you made your exit – a ripe old age for a retired pastor. When I heard of your passing I knew in my heart I had to attend your funeral to pay my last respects. You were the only pastor I knew as a kid growing up in the country church at Rose Farm. Back then we were not enamored with titles. We simply knew you as Cornie Harder – who also happened to be our pastor.
You were one of the last of your kind to go. They don’t make ‘em that way anymore! By all counts you were an ordinary man. The story of your life, read at your funeral, depicted you as a human being with your fair share of warts. I loved it! I know a lot about warts and how they play interference with our attempts to be somebody important. You were not a successful farmer, it was said, because your heart was never in farming. Apparently you never cut a board at right angles because you didn’t own a square – and you didn’t care. It just wasn’t in you to keep the family farm, on which you grew up, in tip-top shape like your dad would have liked it.
How refreshing to hear a life story that rang true to the way it actually was! I have attended too many funerals, especially of important leaders, where the stories told were those of flawless saints who had lived above the world where the rest of us live. Not so in this case. Indeed, I remember you from early on as an earthy kind of guy. No pretense or show. When I heard you visiting with my dad I was dismayed to learn that you knew the language of the barnyard as well as he did. Low German is very forgiving, even to pastors.
One of the first memories I have of you is listening to you preach in High German. I didn’t understand much but I did notice the tears running down your cheeks. On the way home I asked my mother why you had been crying on stage. She simply replied that you loved the people and were concerned about them. That made sense to me even when the High German didn’t. Your tears left a mark on my soul. I have since then been caught crying on stage myself.
Perhaps it was by divine appointment that we met in different circumstances when I was a young man. My family had moved north of MacGregor in 1964, just a few years after you had moved that way to pastor the church at Austin. Although my family began attending a church closer to home, it seemed an invisible hand drew me out of my family circle and into the Austin church. You had baptized me a few years earlier and it was said the Austin church needed a youth leader. I couldn’t resist the hand. And you put me to work. You believed in me. You invited me to preach on Sunday mornings over the objections of those who felt Sunday church-goers had a right to listen to a bona fide pastor. I stretched my wings under your watchful eye.
I need to confess, Pastor Cornie, that sometimes I was critical of your sermons. You see, I had attended Bible School and even some university. At least occasionally I wished you would have gone a little deeper or tackled some of the existential questions I was facing in my life. But I am sure you had never been on a university campus. You had barely had a chance at primary education. You had started your walk with God in the field, like King David had. And like so many of the prophets of old, you felt a fire in your mouth that came from your belly.
It was said at your funeral that, while still on the farm, your family had often heard you up in the hayloft – pleading with God for a “Word” for your people. A prophet weeping in the wilderness. So that is where the tears came from on stage – left-overs from the hay loft! I remember you saying once that you had not received a “Word” until you were milking your cows on a Sunday morning. And in your rush to get the “Word” to your people, I am sure you failed to rid yourself of all the smells originating in your barn. They still clung to you as you made your way to the pulpit.
Like I said, they don’t make ‘em that way anymore. My generation pushed for more educated pastors whom we would pay good salaries. We would offer them a nice office at the church with all the time in the world to study and pray and prepare deep sermons. They would learn to come to the office at nine and leave at five – and then complain about too many evening commitments. And sometimes they even got to see themselves as professionals, without flaws and with all the answers.
They would even begin to say that they were too busy running the church to make house calls, or that that was not their gift. Such thoughts never even entered your mind, I am sure. I want you to know, Pastor Cornie, that after many years of studying and teaching, I have made a concerted effort to get pastors out of their offices and onto the ground where their people live. Or perhaps even into haylofts. I have even suggested that a tear or two on occasion might be helpful – over objections that such a display of weakness would not be good for a pastor’s reputation. People might even begin to think they don’t have it all together.
I hope you don’t mind, Brother Cornie, that my understandings about theology have shifted somewhat from what you preached back then. But I want you to know that I respect you for the passionate, gutsy and loving pastor you were. Like I said, they don’t make ‘em that way too often anymore.