October 31, 2020

Everlasting Is the Past: A pastor’s preparation and first church family


Note from CM: We are devoting this week to reviewing some recent books that have caught my interest and attention. Thursday will be an Open Forum day for you to share what you have been reading.


IM Book Week
Book Two: Everlasting Is the Past, by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
A pastor’s preparation and first church family

• • •

My past is so heavily present that I can scarcely bear it. But I am my past.

• Walter Wangerin, Jr.

I can testify that there is a special place in a minister’s heart for one’s first church. God bless those first call churches, who pastor us and teach us to take our first baby steps in pastoring! In my case it was a Baptist congregation tucked in the mountains of southern Vermont in a village of two hundred people. White clapboards, ringing bell, one-room schoolhouse attached to the back end for classroom space. Our parsonage stood across the road, a plain two-story white house with no heat upstairs to keep us warm in the Vermont winters and a dug cellar for the furnace that flooded each spring when the brook out back swelled with melting snow and rainfall. I walked the hills and gravel roads of that village to visit folks, walked to the post office each day to get our mail. I preached from the Bible, sang in my wife’s choir, made more than my share of youthful mistakes, doubted my calling constantly, and made lifelong friends.

Walter Wangerin, one of my generation’s best writers, tells his story in Everlasting Is the Past, a memoir of personal and pastoral formation. Winner of the National Book Award for his novel, The Book of the Dun Cow, Wangerin wanted to be a writer from the time he was a schoolboy. Son of several generations of Lutheran pastors and seemingly destined to follow in their footsteps, his college years were marked by depression and loss of faith. Walt was raised in a devout home and memorized his catechism diligently as an adolescent, but, as many of us do, began to question the vitality of his faith in his later teens.

Was this my own true faith? My own fearing and loving and trusting in the Almighty Father? Not really. It was the faith, that which I could deliver word for word. A static thing. I had learned about the commandments and the creed of the Church. I believed they were true — as I believed the stars are true. But I did not cling to this creed. Rather, I wore it like a badge. My father’s son on his way to fulfilling my father’s dreams.

…Finally, it was in the snows of Oxford, Ohio, when all the trappings and the external forms of faith no longer acted as the shape that shaped my soul, that I learned that to believe in something — as opposed to believing something about something — was not my truth after all. Not the truth of a personal trust. (p. 17f)

These years of studying and training to become a teacher were marked by loneliness and depression, homesickness, frustrations at trying to write poetry, indecision with regard to his educational path and personal identity, and many, many questions about God. Wangerin writes about these personally tumultuous days with a gentle honesty, weaving formative episodes from his childhood through the story of his young adult wilderness wanderings.

Near the end of this section he recalls a time reading the Bible that was of particular help to him on his journey. It was the story of the man born blind, healed by Jesus in John, chapter nine. He observed that the story gradually strips away all the connections that give the blind man identity until he is nothing. But he is free because Jesus healed him. Wangerin realized that he too had come to a place of nothingness.

But Jesus meets the man born blind (which means that he who lived in darkness is given light again. Jesus names himself, and the man falls down and worships him.

By this act alone is established a relationship between him and the Son of God. Christ raises him up with a fresh and everlasting identity. He is, as it were, born again.

That is what I prayed for. To be free. To be one sheep of the shepherd. to give over what tatters I had left to Christ. (p. 53f).

In the next part of his life, Walter Wangerin married, served as an assistant pastor in Lutheran congregation, and went through a process of determining that he was called to ministry. These were years of turmoil and schism in the Lutheran church, when conservative leaders at Concordia Seminary ousted those they considered too liberal, even heretical. Those who left founded Seminex (Concordia Seminary in Exile), and Wangerin got his degree from there and was ordained in the newly formed Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. This caused problems for many young ministers as they sought placement in churches that were also in turmoil.

But he eventually found his first call congregation: an inner city black church called Grace Lutheran in Evansville, Indiana. They’d had white pastors before, and the children the Wangerins had adopted were African-American, but Walter’s early experiences there still forced him to confront the racism in his own heart and to deal with many cultural divides that both he and the church members had to bridge. He also learned, over the course of his ministry, that his own loss of faith in youth and the “resurrection” he experienced in Christ enabled him to sympathize with his congregation’s struggles.

The characters and stories that make up the second half of Everlasting Is the Past, are marvelous. We meet Odessa, a woman in the hospital for whom the children of the congregation sang Christmas carols. When she died soon after, Wangerin writes about the delicate task of shepherding his own young daughter through her first experience with death. We meet Arthur, a retired policeman who loved to fish and used to ask his pastor, “Reverend? You want to toss a line t’mornin’?” He introduces us to Allouise, a graduate of the Tuskegee Institute, who had to face losing her landmark home in a gentrification project.

We also watch as Rev. Wangerin learns to negotiate various aspects of ministry in the inner city: how to deal with needy folks, how he learned a storytelling style of preaching, how he dealt with an outbreak of gossip in the congregation, how he focused on counseling people, something few other ministers were doing, and how he had to learn to deal with domestic violence in homes. We learn about how the church developed a choral ministry and traveled around, not only to spread the gospel, but to help white congregations understand their black brethren better.

Walter Wangerin was the minister of Grace Lutheran Church from 1974 into the late 1980s.

I baptized their children and confirmed them. I confessed, communed, and married them. I preached weekly. Even the ones I had catechized grew up and had babies of their own.

. . . I visited the sick. I sat by their beds, touched their brows with the sign of the cross, sang soft hymns in unhearing ears. I shoveled the snow from the church porch and the walks that went down to the street. Kneeling at the rail in the chancel, I prayed for the souls of the people whom God was pleased to place into my care. I cried out against the Devil who sought to oppress them. At their gravesides I spoke the words they knew by heart:

“We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. . . .”

And I followed their young men to the courtroom and into their prison cells. (p. 171f)

God, always give us faithful pastors like this. And grant them congregations that become their families to nurture and support them in your work. Amen.

• • •

Everlasting Is the Past
Walter Wangerin, Jr.
Rabbit Room Press


  1. Love these stories. Thank you.

  2. I love Walter Wangerin’s writing, will definitely order this book. Thanks Chaplain Mike.

  3. Michael Bell says

    “I shoveled the snow from the church porch and the walks that went down to the street. ”

    If you want to free up your Pastor for Pastoring, this is a job that you can volunteer to do.

    • Unless he likes shoveling. I do, and I’ve occasionally had to yield my shovel to a strapping youth who really can’t believe me. Still, I’d rather have kindness even than those twenty minutes of exercise, solitude, and fresh air.

      • Twenty minutes? That’s what you would call a little snow.

        • I’m selective in what I shovel. We live in the country and have a long drive, so our neighbor comes with a snowplow to dig us out. I shovel our porch and the approach from the garage.

    • I was always around the Man O Gawd types, and how dare you not shovel the holy man’s driveway.

      “Touch not the annointed (driveway)” didn’t fly in response.

      Incidentally – http://www.stufffundieslike.com/2015/10/celebrity-status/

    • I don’t know… shoveling porches and walk ways sounds pretty pastoral to me. 🙂

  4. Christiane says

    people don’t appreciate their pastors completely until they need them, often in times of sickness and grief . . . and then comes the realization of how truly the presence of these men and women are valued by us . . . the oil with which they were anointed then becomes the ‘balm of Gilead’ for our suffering at those times when words fail

  5. I’d love some recommendations of more books that fit this genre: prosaic narrative about the pastoral life, whether fiction or nonfiction. Gilead would be a prime example.

    I’ve just started The Pastor as Minor Poet which I believe was written about here in the past.

    • One of my all-time favorite books is an older one (1947) by Hodge Macilvain Eagleson, called “Laughing Into Glory”. It is about a Methodist pastor and the folks of his parish. It is around 200 pages of both lightheartedness and depth.

    • I enjoyed “The Hammer of God” by Swedish Lutheran Bo Giertz. It’s a novel (actually three short novellas) tracing three separate pastors through three different time periods in one Swedish parish. Just chock full of pictures of God’s grace.

    • “Gilead” was wonderful. Have you read the two follow-on books, “Home” and “Lila”? I found the former good, but a bit depressing, while “Lila” was a marvel.

      • I have! I loved Home almost as much as Gilead. I’m not quite sure what I think of Lila yet… I have to give it a second and third read.

        • There was something about the Lila character that I found absolutely fascinating, pushing that book above “Home”.

    • This isn’t exactly what you asked for, but I found it a profound and moving account of Christian service. Never Dies the Dream is a novel by the same woman who wrote Anna and the King of Siam, about a single, middle-aged woman missionary in Thailand in the 30s. Chances are anyone in ministry long enough will go through the same winnowing process the main character does.

    • David Cornwell says

      Sean, “The Pastor” by Eugene H Peterson is one of the best I’ve read. Once you start reading, it, till pull you in until the end. It is at once autobiographical, pastoral, and scriptural in the best sense of the words. I think it has been discussed here previously.

    • David Cornwell says

      An old book is “Papa Was a Preacher” by Alyene Porter. I haven’t read it, but I remember my mother and dad reading it in the early 1950’s, reading it to each other, and always laughing at the story. In Goodreads, it gets very good short reviews by readers.

    • From this group especially, this is a treasure trove of recommendations. Thank you.

      Keep them coming, please!

      • Haven’t read it yet, but I have heard many good things about “Diary of a Russian Priest” by A. Elchinanov. A small offering from the less known area of Christianity 🙂


      • Jan Karon’s “Mitford series “. Wonderful fiction about a small town priest.

    • Have you ever read Georges Bernanos Diary of a Country Priest? Probably not what you have in mind, but it is about the “cure of souls”, and is one of the great French novels of the 20th century….even in English translation.

    • How about The Country Parson, by seventeenth century English poet George Herbert?

    • The novel Holy Masquerade, by early twentieth century Swedish author Olov Hartman.

    • The novel A Month of Sundays, by John Updike. Uproariously funny, and a little blue, the story is told by the Reverend Tom Marshfied, who has been sent by his denominational superiors to a desert retreat to reflect on his pastoral indiscretions. Part of his discipline involves journaling during his stay, and the novel itself is comprised of his journal entries.

    • Christiane says

      You might like ‘Saving Grace’, a novel by Celia Gittelson . . . it’s about a man who becomes pope and, feeling that he has lost touch with the common people, runs away from the Vatican for a while to live incognito in a poor village. It is a very touching book about a man who really believes in the pope’s title, ‘Servant of the Servants of God’

      yes, when Pope Francis became pope, I remembered this book and thought then about certain shared characteristics of Bergoglio and Celia Gittelson’s character Leo. It’s really quite remarkable.

    • Sean, Here’s Chaucer’s take on a good pastor. Things haven’t changed since the 1300s — aside form the spelling . . .

  6. I have never had a “servant pastor”, but I’ve known pastors who were servants. Every pastor I’ve had has been a Man o Gawd, a CEO, a “Touch Not Mine Annointed”, etc.

    This sounds like a really good book and one I’d find refreshing.

    • You know, I’ve heard people on here comment before about being surprised how much some of us have been burned by fundamentalism and craziness…

      On the other hand, to me, hearing good stories…I wonder how many iMonk commenters aren’t American.