This morning, like most mornings, I stopped at the corner store to get some caffeine on my way to the office. The clerk was on the top step of a step ladder, with her back to me, stocking cigarettes. I put my drink on the counter, showed her the money, and offered to just leave it on the counter so she could ring it up at her convenience. Since I probably purchase the same item 200 times year, I have the total amount down to the penny.
“I’ve seen you ring me up enough times. I could probably hop behind the counter and ring it up myself. But you guys probably don’t want to get that started here,” I joked to her. I heard a laugh from the storage room, where her coworker was working on the books. Everybody likes it when people laugh at their jokes.
The clerk laughed and replied, “Seeing as how you’re a pastor, I think that’d be fine!”
For some reason it hit me. If I ever need a reminder that I’m in the Bible Belt, I never have to wait long for it. I know she was half-joking, but there is some truth to it: “You’re a preacher. It’s a small town in the south. Help yourself to the cash register.”
I live in the buckle of the Bible Belt. Local churches (including ours) will host the hometown football team for a pregame meal every Friday afternoon before home games. Almost every social media post originating from my zip code in the past 24 hours has been supportive of the court clerk in Kentucky who went to jail rather than granting same sex marriage licenses.
I was instantly reminded of something that a church-planter friend of mine had posted just 18 hours before. He’s not so much in the Bible Belt. To be correct, his city technically is in the Bible Belt, but it’s an outpost of modernity, higher education and skepticism, in a region that’s not generally known for those things.
Here’s what my church-planting friend said: “It’s hard to put into reports how often people see me reading my bible and then start loud conversations about how Christians are bigots because they oppose gay marriage.”
If I carry a bible into our local coffee shop on the court house square, I’m likely to have someone offer to buy my lunch, not argue with me. Every week is a home game for me. I’m on familiar ground. I grew up here. I know this place and these people. I love this place and these people. And I realize I’ve got it comparatively easy here.
This week I was doing some background on Thessalonians for our Wednesday night bible study at our church. I was reading John MacArthur’s notes from 2011 as he thanked his church for being a blessing to him like the Thessalonians had been to the apostle Paul:
“God also knew the limits of my weakness. And He knew that He had to put me in a church that was just well-nigh perfect, where I would be loved and supported and encouraged and prayed for and cared for and listened to so that it could continue. There are plenty of churches, you must know this, where if I tried to go there and teach through one book, they’d throw me out, let alone the whole New Testament.
The Lord also knew the limitations of my tolerances and knew that perhaps I couldn’t handle some of the things that others are asked to handle, or I might have lost my focus or left. It doesn’t run in the genes in our family. I think my Dad pastored twelve churches. And when something went wrong, he would feel he needed to go to another place.”
I was struck by MacArthur’s humility. He has led a thriving church for 46 years now. He’s preached through the entire New Testament more than once, and produced a set of commentaries that will be his legacy. And now, nearing the end of his ministry, MacArthur thanks God for giving him an easy, supportive congregation to pastor. Because he might not have been able to handle a tougher flock. That’s humility on high parade.
To my brothers in the Bible Belt: No, not everybody agrees with you. No, people don’t come to church because they’re supposed to. Why not? Because it’s not the 1950’s anymore. We can mourn that, or we can thank God that it’s not the 1950’s anymore. It may have been the glory days of evangelicalism in America… but the Russians were threatening to annihilate us, and African American kids couldn’t go to school with white kids. I didn’t live back then, but I’m not sad those days are gone. Let’s stop whining about how hard we have it, just because we’re going to be in the religious/cultural minority before long. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Unmerited suffering is redemptive.” Let’s stand up and take it like men.
To my brothers out in the trenches on the front lines: I love you guys. Maybe I’ll be there with you someday, playing on the road every week. Until then, I’m not questioning your motives and your methods. You’re in a hostile environment, and church is going to look different there. I celebrate you and your work. Keep your chins up. Go get it.