God can be comical when he wants to be. And some of his people, gathered in churches can do some pretty funny things. I was a pastor for over 30 years in four different churches. Lots of great eternal stuff happened, lots of sad stuff, but lots of weird and funny things too. Some of these weren’t funny at the time, but looking back, I’ve got to laugh.
If you have funny stories of your own, I’d love to hear them. Send me an email. Obviously, the possibilities are endless. Here are a few of mine…
The elderly couple and the aftershock…
In 1989 we had a major earthquake in the area close to our church building – a 50 year old theater that we had bought and turned into a place of worship. As a side note, you might be amused to know that the building had been used for a season many years before as a porn theater! Anyway, we endured many aftershocks over the months following the big quake.
One morning around 6:00 I was praying with an elderly couple at the church facility when we were startled by a pretty substantial aftershock. The little old woman, Winnie, looked up at me and said demurely, “Should we run?” You know how your mind can picture an entire scenario in a millisecond? Well, I immediately “saw” a whole newspaper headline that said, “Pastor escapes crumbling church facility while elderly couple dies in the rubble.” No way was I going to entertain any thought of outrunning these two very precious, but extremely slow-running elderly saints! If the building was going to fall down, no way was I going to be outside (and down the block), while the were still getting off their knees under the rubble. I said, “No, let’s just wait and see what happens.”
The lady on skates, the leotard, and the parrot…
Santa Cruz is a funky place. The most popular bumper sticker in town reads, “Keep Santa Cruz weird!” Though I’ve led churches in three cities, almost all of my funny stories come from there because it’s like no place on earth.
So, our church was meeting in a former bank building. Yes, the bank vault was still intact. We used it for the nursery. Those concrete walls sure did the trick to keep those screaming babies from interrupting my sermons! Anyway, we had some characters coming to our new church in those days. One of which was a woman named, Sally (the names have been changed to protect the weird). There was really nothing about Sally that wasn’t bizarre. But one particular Sunday, she won the bizarre-church-attire-award when she came dressed in a hot pink leotard. If that weren’t enough, she was on roller skates! But wait, that’s not all. She had a parrot on her shoulder (a live one, not like the blow-up one in the Pink Panther movie). The bizarrest part though was when she went straight to my wife, thinking this would be some sort of friendly gesture, and placed the bird on her shoulder. Remember, we’re not out in some park, we’re in the middle of the high and holy experience of worshipping God in church. My wife, not particularly noted for any adoration for parrots, especially on her shoulder, kindly requested it be removed, and the service continued as weird as usual. The bird, as far as I know, didn’t get saved.
My first beach baptism…
If you haven’t actually been at the ocean and seen the waves come and go (and sadly, there are people out there of whom this is true) you might not get this picture. But, take it from me, at the beach the water comes in and then goes out again. It’s a regular thing. Sometimes it’s a few seconds between waves, and sometimes minutes. But if you’re standing in the water, it rises and then it falls. The cycle, since God made the seas, continues – up and down, in and out. I’ve known this since a child. I was born in Hawaii and have lived by the beach both there and in California for most of my life. I love the feel, the sound, the power of the waves at the beach. I have been swimming, surfing, skim boarding, even boating (my least favorite of marine activities) in the ocean. But until about 1981 I had never been baptizing anywhere but a calm, warm, controlled pool or baptistery.
Just to clarify, our method of baptism is total immersion. I’m not knocking the other methods, but in order to get the full impact of this story, just know that my goal at every baptism is to put my baptizee completely under the water. It doesn’t have to be a long time. But he, and in this case, she needs to be covered in the cold, salty water of the Pacific Ocean at least momentarily. Also, we do it by bending the person backwards. I’ve heard that some go forward, and others squat straight down. I don’t know why we go back, unless to more clearly simulate a person in a grave, face up. (That, by the way is the message being portrayed in the act of baptizing. The subject is symbolizing their death to the old life – going under the water, and their resurrection – coming back up; that is if we’re so kind as to bring them back up). I instruct them to bend at the knees, lean all the way back, and let us do the work of bringing them back up. I also ask them to hold their own nose when they go under. Obviously, since they’re face up under water, I’m not interested in them inhaling half the Pacific while on my watch. Also, I always do baptisms with another person on the opposite side of the person we’re immersing. I don’t know where I got that idea. I think it has something to do with the fear of not being able to raise the more ample subject out of the water. How embarrassing would that be! “I’m sorry, Bob, but your wife was just too large for me to lift her out of the water (buoyancy notwithstanding). But you’ve got to admit, it’s great way to go!”
Anyway, in this case, my first ocean baptism, was at a beach that the surfers affectionately call, “Suicides.” That should have been my first clue about the suitability of this particular location. The tide was low and the swell (a surfer term for the size of the waves) was moderate. We – the baptizee, my helper, and I went into the water about waist deep and turned around to face the onlookers on the beach. I’d been taught in Bible College about what to say before immersing your subject below the water (have I mentioned the water in the Northern California Pacific is cooooold?). I recited said formula, we helped our new convert backward into the icy sea, and found that what was once waste deep, was now about mid-ankle! We slapped her down into the 3 or 4 inches of sea water, and without missing a beat, both of us began to shovel, splash, and swoosh as much water onto her as we could. It turned out to be a sort of hybrid immersion-splashing method. Please, no one tell my denominational leaders. We then lifted her up, everyone clapped, some laughed, but she was officially baptized as far as I was concerned. I hope God agrees.
The beach baptism and the topless woman…
You’ll notice that several of my stories surround baptisms. I’m not sure why that is. It’s either God’s great sense of humor or the devil’s disdain for this sacred rite. Either way, as I’ve said many times, “You either laugh once in a while, or you cry all the time.”
We decided to have an entire service on the beach prior to the baptism. We all sat in a circle, more of a clump, on the sand. We sang songs, heard the testimonies of the baptizees, and did a little preaching (louder than usual for the sake of the onlookers on the beach). Speaking of onlookers, the beach was packed that beautiful sunny Sunday day – surfers, volleyball players, sunbathers… One of which was a rather inebriated female sunbather, who just happened to be wearing no top, came over to view the proceedings. I mean, a bunch of people singing about God on the beach, that’s pretty odd! Just so you know, my favorite place to baptize people is on the beach. No, not because of the possibility of this scenario, but because our Christianity (and especially the baptism declaration itself), though personal, was never meant to be private. What better way to call attention to Jesus than to do our worshipping on a public beach! The problem that day was that there was something also calling for attention. Anyway, may God’s greatest blessings be on a couple of the women in our gathering for this. They got up, tapped the female attention-caller on her bare shoulder, and gently led her away from our group. No, they didn’t berate her for her indecency. They kindly shared God’s love with her, while at the same time getting her out of eye-shot of our group. Talk about having a difficult time getting the attention of our guys back on to God and what we were there for!
A guy follows me into the church bathroom…
Did I already say that the mission statement of the city of Santa Cruz is: to be, and to stay weird? Especially in the earlier days of our church we had the privilege of attracting some real characters. One that stands out was a regular attender who called himself, “Francis” (after Saint Francis of Assisi). I never knew his real name, but he had a shaved head and long beard, dressed in a robe which was tied at the waste with a rope. As far as I knew he lived pretty much on the street. He had many annoying habits when worshipping with us, not the least of which was his tendency to get up from his seat at strategic moments in the service (during the challenge to receive Jesus, the offering, etc.) mumbling under his breath about something or other. Did I say that he really didn’t smell very good either? A couple of times Francis went off on some church member, talking loudly and with some colorful language. All of which I repeatedly pointed out to him was inappropriate and troublesome to our young congregation.
I remember one day in particular an incident with Francis. In order to tell this I have to say something about me using “the facility,” the kind of facility that flushes, the kind of said facility that you use while seated, even if you’re a man. If this image is too uncomfortable for you to read about or offends your belief that pastors don’t do such things, then simply skip to the next story.
Anyway, I went into the little cubicle within the men’s room to use the facility that flushes. We were a simple church with no special such facility for the pastor or staff members. We just went right beside the commoners. And that was all fine until Francis decided to follow me in there (inside the bathroom, but outside the cubicle door – the kind of door which has space for viewing the feet of the user – for which I was thankful – thankful not that the door shows feet, but that he didn’t join me in the stall). He stood outside the door that reveals feet and began a conversation with me. It wasn’t technically a conversation, since I wasn’t participating, Nevertheless, he continued. The worst part of it (that’s right, we haven’t divulged the worst part yet), was that the topic of Francis’ “conversation” was the ills and inconveniences of hemorrhoids. You get the picture, right? Wait, I don’t mean “picture,” rather context. You don’t really have to picture this in your mind. The service that I’m supposed to officiate is about to begin. I’m trying to do something kind of private here; the captive audience of a man who thinks he’s a saint from the 17th Century, and I’m being subjected to a lecture on how to do this kind of personal business in such a way as to avoid hemorrhoidal consequences.
I have many friends for which I’m eternally grateful for their contribution in my life – those who led me to the Lord, the ones who prayed for me to be filled with the Holy Spirit, others who encouraged me along the way. But right up there in the top ten of such partners in the faith is Henry. He saw my plight that day (actually all he saw were my feet and Francis talking to them) and gently ushered him out of the room so that I could continue preparing myself for the service. Henry, if you’re reading this, thanks again! I love you, man.
A woman worrying about my ………… during a baptism…
OK, here’s another story that might offend your sensibilities, especially if you’re inclined to think that pastors are fundamentally (even anatomically) different than the rest of you. And speaking of anatomy, this story includes a reference to a part of the anatomy that you don’t talk about in polite conversation. Nonetheless, I include this story because – well, because I think it’s funny, and because you and I aren’t having a “polite conversation,” or any other kind for that matter. I’m writing and you’re reading. If this sounds too risqué for your tastes, I understand. Just move on to the next story without reading the rest of this one.
I’ve already said that weird stuff seems to happen at baptisms – at least they do to me. This one happened, not at the beach, but in a backyard pool. The home was owned by a church member who gladly offered her pool for the proceedings, since it was just too cold (wintertime) to go to the beach. The mistake I made was in neglecting to ask her if the pool was heated. I just assumed that she’d have it close to toasty for us, since the reason we were there instead of the ocean, was because the water in the ocean was in the 50 degree range, And of course we just had to have a bunch of people to baptize that day! That’s usually is a good thing. But the fact is, the water in her pool was colder than the ocean. And what I usually do when baptizing is stay in the water the entire process of testimonies, prayers and immersings. Sometimes we even sing songs of worship in between. It can take some time, and I can be in the water for quite a while.
By the way, there are two things that I firmly object to in relation to certain practices of baptizing by immersion (both of which are based on machismo alone.) I don’t have a Bible verses for these or anything. The first, and most vehement of the two objections, is the method used by some in church buildings where the pastor dunks people from outside the tank. This is where the baptizee is in the water and the baptizer is standing outside the water in his warm, dry suit and tie. That’s just not right. The dunker ought to get wet with the dunkee! The other method to which I have a repulsion is where the baptizer wears a wetsuit, whether in the ocean, a lake, a river, or a pool. I don’t care if those being baptized wear them, although I suspect the Lord has more love for those who don’t. But heaven forbid that I should ever stoop to such wimpiness (either as a dry-dunker or a warm one)!
So, that day at the pool I stepped in the water first – the pastor always goes first. They taught us that in Bible College. The water was arctic. After the initial shock, I went pretty much numb. I sucked it up and didn’t show it on my face for the sake of those who were about to join me in the freeze. But remember, they are in and out. I’m in for the duration. One after another gasped as they entered, and sighed in relief when exiting. They weren’t as committed as I about keeping up the ruse of it being intolerable.
Then it happened (so far this story isn’t all that funny). The pool owner, who was quite aware of the water’s temperature, and evidently troubled about it, approached my wife. She said, and quite matter of factly, “I’m concerned about your husband’s…” OK, I can’t use the word, even though it’s a term you’d use in Anatomy Class (Gym Class too), but not in what we’ve already referred to as “polite conversation.” I thought I was going to be able to bite the bullet and just say it here, but then I worry about someone thinking I’m the most unsanctified Bible teacher they’ve ever known. So, here’s what we’ll do instead. I won’t use the word, but I will tell you that without these little spherical anatomical parts or, apparently if one of them gets frozen somehow, a man couldn’t contribute to the process of impregnation. (That word is not too bad, right? At least not in comparison to the other one I declined to use.) Anyway, this gal said to my wife that she was “concerned about” that part of my anatomy. At least she whispered in her ear, rather than shouting it across the pool! At which point my wife looked at her quizzically and responded, “Excuse me?” I don’t think she used the same whispering tone that the woman used. And then she responded with something very much like, “Honey, feel free to get my husband’s … out of your mind. Immediately if not sooner!”
Just in case you were wondering, we had two healthy children following that baptism (not immediately following, but sometime afterward). The water was cold, but not so cold as to leave us childless.