Rev. Edgar F. Wheeler: 41 My Call to the Ministry

My parents left me a rich and varied legacy, but the greatest was in religious values expressed in consistent moral and ethical living. Regular church attendance was the climax of lives lived on a high spiritual level. Theirs was a life witness more than “doctrinaire.” I can almost feel that religion was “in my genes.”

From early childhood I had a deep attraction for “God,” as I perceived Him. My earliest conceptions were akin to pagan superstition, especially as I related God to visible objects. My earliest imaginings of God could be called almost pagan. God was forbidding yet attracting. My life continued through my youth with good will toward God, yet, dominated with fear of His holiness.

Christian example and training, Bible reading prayer and meditation, congregational worship and teaching, began to dispel false notions. At the same time, those influences deepened reverence, along with dread.

Pastor Lester Osborn was my pastor during my most impressionable teen years. He was a forceful preacher and influences several of our youth toward pastoral ministry. He also became kind of an “ideal.” As I mentioned earlier, when we were teenagers, Allen Bond and I dreamed and talked of becoming pastors, to that calling by the dynamic ministry of Lester G. Osborn. Two other youth in the Nortonville church also answered that call, inspired by our pastor. We dreamt of being dynamic, like him; of preaching the Gospel to “sinners” who would respond to the Good News. Allen and I shared our feeling that we had the calling. We saw pastoral ministry in the light of Pastor Osborn’s ministry.

Time has confirmed the correctness of that persuasion.

At eighteen years of age, through the personal witness of Allen Bond, who had recently become a believer in Jesus Christ as Savior, I “turned the corner” through faith in the redeeming grace of God through Christ. That changed the whole tenor of my belief. And, like Amos, who was called from harvesting sycamore trees, I became assured of God’s call.

As a youth I gained the respect of the congregation. The congregation recognized my aspirations toward Gospel ministry. However, encouragement to the ministry was not always forthcoming. The problem was not my perceived character. Some of the congregation had reservations due to my lack of natural attributes they deemed essential to that calling. I was “farm bred,” had a lisp, was extremely shy in public, and appeared to lack gifted speech. My elders were kind, but they told the old story that went like this: “A young farm boy thought that he saw the letters “PC” in the clouds and assumed that it was a message to him to “Preach Christ.” Those who knew him best said that those letters might mean “Plow Corn.”

As the congregation observed my life (not faultless) and persistent faith, they began to encourage my life in pastoral ministry. After I was away in college I was surprised to be informed that the Nortonville congregation had voted to grant me a license to preach. That encouraged me and confirmed my sense of calling to pastoral ministry.

God has confirmed that call over and over again, making possible college and seminary training. And He gave me a wife who was fully in accord with that calling with qualities that fit a well-rounded ministry. All this is to say that we can look back over many years of pastoral ministry, a mixture of encouragement and discouragement, success and failure, joy and grief, and know that we have been instruments in God’s hands.

Although we might not have admitted it, Allen Bond and I felt that great respect would be given to those in Gospel ministry. That was our ideal view of pastoral ministry at that time of our youth. Dream and reality can be quite different. While my experience has since revealed this contradiction, I by no means have regretted accepting the call. Rather, it has brought personal fulfillment that neither of us could have then imagined.

I was naïve in entering the ministry as a profession. Deep conviction and faith made up for that somewhat. I dreamed of leading congregations in harmonious relationships. I had visions of individuals converted to personal faith in Jesus Christ. I cannot deny that I felt that personal respect would come with this service.

Seminary training was both challenging and pleasurable. Dedicated instructors at the New Orleans Baptist Seminary were a defining source of knowledge and wisdom that stood in good stead repeatedly in many situations. Those who stand out in my mind are Dr. J. H. Kennedy and J. Wash Watts, who was a polio victim who shared our concerns and encouraged us when Robert became ill with polio. Their enriching teaching of the Old Testament helped me place it in its rightful place in the preaching of the Gospel. We were taught to humbly avoid presumptions that might lead us into compromising or destructive situations. This has become a bulwark for me, with God’s blessing, to stand strong in many potentially disastrous episodes that came to confront me.

The reality was yet to dawn upon me. There would be sad times with broken homes, illness and death. There would be administrative responsibilities which would call for motivating members to work together with vision and harmony. Resistance would develop from stubborn, self-willed members. And (surprise!) there would be personality conflicts with myself.

Our large family was a positive part of our ministry. Without exception, they showed respect for our parishioners. Their overall conduct was such that the parishioners thought well of them. They showed compassion for the unfortunate. In one instance they did extensive “patterning” to help a girl who, though brain malfunction, had become immobile, to regain physical capability. They were industrious, each one delivering daily newspapers faithfully in all kinds of weather. They were friendly and fun-loving, attracting other youth. Further, I believe we were able to model effective parenting. Our children had their individual traits, there were times we were disappointed, but they have shown personal incentive in leading functional lives.

Pastoral ministry demanded different roles. One role was Peacemaking. I once received a complaint from a renter in a house owned by one of our elders and respected church members. The complaint was that the landlord was swearing and threatening him. I went to the home of our member, and, sure enough, he was boiling. He had discovered that his renter had lied about keeping a dog in the house. While I do not remember what was done with the dog, I do remember that after a meeting together, they were able to reach compromise and peace.

In another case, a young fellow complained to me that his mother, a respected church member, was cussing at his dad. I went to the home on the pretext that it was just a pastoral visit. She met me at the door and said, “I know why you are here, and my husband deserving a cussing!” There was not much I could say, for I knew that he was a disagreeable fellow.

The unexpected was occasionally bizarre. I had been counseling a couple over marital discord. He was a big, almost threatening man with a drug habit. Early one morning I had a phone call from a morgue, asking me to come and identify a body. The request was from the wife. The victim had struck a light pole at high speed and had been thrown from his car and killed. I went alone to make the identification, and it was the husband. He was as he had been found, a rather gruesome sight.

One of the joys was the unfortunately rare case of evident conversion. A couple had been living together unmarried. I had dropped in on their home on a general community visitation. Their home was slovenly as their life style would indicate. I made repeated visits to them sharing the Gospel. In time they professed their faith, married, and their home was transformed!

One of the delights of pasturing was to visit Christian homes where there was holiness, love and commitment. Those were “food for the soul,” and there were many of them.

There were times when I was embarrassed to discover that I was less compassionate than some acquaintances who made no strong profession of religious faith. Painful, but wonderful lessons!

I found that I could generally relate to youth and was respected by them. I found that this was more difficult as home family environment and religious training declined in the community at large. I discovered, too, that youth tends to have a stronger appeal to youth. With my advancing age it seemed that the personal respect from youth was not as warm as in the earlier years. And yet some responded with real appreciation for “the wisdom of age.”

An acquaintance once remarked of me: “He is not a great preacher; but he is a good pastor.” That was the accolade! That is where my heart lay, although I did feel privileged to preach and especially to teach. I can say of pastoral life: “And I thought farming was hard work” But, above all, “It’s a wonderful life!” The love of God calls.!

There were many occasions for hospital visits, funerals and weddings.

I observed the outcome of many marriages through the years and decided that pre-marital counseling was essential. If prospective couples did not agree to this, I would decline to officiate at their wedding. This did not happen often.

Weddings had their similarities and their differences, as well. I remember one in which the groom was marrying a beautiful Hispanic girl. Tears rolled down his cheeks – in joy, I presume. After thirty-five years’ absence from the Rhode Island area, I was pleased to meet several couples who told me of their happy marriage in which I had officiated. During my eighteen year pastorate in Ashaway, Rhode Island, I had so many weddings that someone suggested that I was “Marryin’ Sam.”

Funerals could be difficult, and yet somehow there seemed to be more satisfaction in ministering during a time of grief than on joyful occasions. During my DeRuyter, New York time I was called on many times to conduct a funeral at the last moment, and for total strangers. The local undertaker did not like the other village minister, so he would call me in preference if the choice was up to him. Quite often there were opportunities to minister to the bereaved on a continuing basis.

Our pastorate in Rhode Island was a busy time, and my hours many times kept me away from the family in the evenings and at mealtime. Yet we were a close-knit family, and Xenia Lee was the moulding source. We did find time to share in our children’s school life, which was a very rich experience.

Vacation time was generally spent in conjunction with trips to General Conference meetings.

I served as General Conference president in 1970. I also served for eighteen years in Council on Ministry, the larger number of years as chairman. I did feel successful and appreciated for expediting discussion and business. I received a gold Seiko pocket watch and a plaque in recognition of my service upon resignation

I can truthfully say that pastoral ministry has been a wonderful life, especially with Xenia Lee as my wife and the mother of our children. I am convinced that she was God’s choice as a helper for me. Her personal faith, natural ability and intelligence, her patience and her love for people have, to my mind, made the difference between being a struggling failure and a minister who could relate to people and honor God. It was said of an egotistical pastor of our acquaintance, “He would be nothing without his wife.” No doubt that could be the case with me.

We have become convinced that the church is more than a repository for safekeeping of the Gospel. It is the foundation and launching area of the Gospel to all the world. Similarly, Christians must reach into “haunts of wretchedness and sin,” in keeping with the Savior’s stated life purpose: “To seek and save that which is lost.”

We have discovered to our chagrin that “many would be called but few saved.” But we have seen many hungering for righteousness and finding life through faith in the Christ of the Gospel. If there were hardships at any time (and there were!), we have experienced the Lord’s promise not to forsake those who trust in Him – and we have found the joy of suffering for Christ’s sake -if indeed we can.

Next Chapter: 42 My Pastoral Experience

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