The Faithful Work of Pastor Jack

AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2012: INSIDE OUT

by Jason Lief

“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible…. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” 1 Corinthians 9:19, 22-23

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.” As a lifelong educator I’ve heard this uttered too many times. I used to get righteously angry, which led to a militant defense of my profession. After a while I started responding by rolling my eyes and changing the subject. Now? I crack a smile. It’s not that I believe it–I am, after all, a teacher who occasionally talks to teachers about teaching from a Christian perspective. I’ve just come to realize there might be something to it—a kernel of truth that doesn’t apply only to teaching. Take, for example, the current emphasis on “leadership”: I have to wonder if those blessed with the gift of leadership just lead, while those who talk about it ad nauseam are trying to talk themselves into something. And then there are those in academia who feel the need talk about being “academic.” You get the point.

When it comes to the church and pastoral ministry, one buzzword that’s been around for awhile isoutreach. Numerous books have been written, seminars attended, churches planted, and worship styles changed, all with the intention of convincing people who aren’t part of the church to come in. I wonder if this isn’t a case of “those who can, do,” and “those who can’t, write books, give seminars, and talk it to death”–making everyone feel guilty about the plight of the so-called “unchurched.”

This spring a pastor in Mason City, Iowa, will give his last sermon at the church he’s served for over thirty years. Pastor Jack Vanden Heuvel is retiring. He’s certainly not fancy, and by his own admission he’s not the most gifted orator to ever step into a pulpit. To be honest, there’s not much about Pastor Jack or his ministry that pops or dazzles. All he’s done for the past thirtysome years is love people.

The focus of Jack’s ministry hasn’t been the development of grandiose programs. Some people like to talk about “ministry” and “outreach,” while others, like Pastor Jack, just do it. His ministry has always been about entering into the lives of others. Over the years he’s spent time at hospitals, the local soup kitchen, halfway houses, psychiatric wards, and the prison. My memory of Rolling Acres Christian Reformed Church is that it often resembled the “island of misfit toys” (think: Rudolph), with Pastor Jack playing the role of the generous and beneficent King Moonracer (the winged lion who ruled the island). People from all walks of life would show up Sunday mornings, and while most wouldn’t stay long, they found a place where they were welcome. Pastor Jack would make a point of emphasizing the unique gifts these newcomers had to offer. They were artists, musicians, and nature lovers, every one of them a misfit searching for a place to belong.

Jack is a unique character–a transplant from Michigan who made his home in the rough, blue-collar town famously known as “River City.” Jack’s a photographer who loves nature. He’s just as much at home in the forests and prairies as he is in the pulpit. Creation is a powerful form of “church” for Jack, demonstrated by the numerous sermon references to flowers and birds, and his popular slide shows that bring together snapshots of the natural world, powerful music, and the love of Jesus. He was one of the first adults to show me how Jesus and rock music could coexist. Jack loved to talk about the artistic genius and faith of the likes of Bob Dylan, Larry Norman, and U2.

But this Lutheran transplant from Minnesota will be forever grateful for what Pastor Jack drilled into the heads of every Rolling Acres CRC high school Sunday school class: my only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own, but belong body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ. I give thanks for his years of faithful ministry out on the prairie.

Jason Lief teaches religion at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. He is a member of the editorial board ofPerspectives.