I write with the mark of the cross in ashes on my forehead. Pat applied the smudge saying, “Repent, and believe the Gospel.” I said Amen, and moved back to my pew. As this Lenten season begins, I realize I am better at believing than repenting. Much better. Having fixed my sights on the theme of “Confessions and Celebrations,” I think back to my very first pastoral experience.

I was a seminary “middler.” That doesn’t refer to my academic standing, being in the middle of the pack; that would be generous. It means that I was in the middle of my three year degree program at Union Seminary in Richmond. Most of us in the class of 1969 were due for a summer internship of some kind, and classmate Rich Boyd offered me a job at his home church. Rich had grown up in the First Presbyterian Church in Dunedin, Florida, and as a child of the church he had served as a summer youth director for maybe three years there. He had hand-picked Ike Kennerly to take his place the previous summer, and for the summer of 1968 I was his choice.

I was pleased at the invitation. First, it meant Rich had confidence in my ability to handle the job. Second, it meant that I didn’t have to go through the hassle of actually finding an internship of some sort in a church who-knows-where doing who-knows-what. Frankly, I never felt called to be a youth minister. I was into media, specifically radio. [Note: for far more on that long-standing ministry, check our my “Celebration Rock” blog — http://www.celebrationrock.wordpress.com ] But my radio show in Richmond was aimed at high school and college audiences, and I spent lots of Sunday nights speaking to Richmond area youth groups. So, I thought, sure; I can do youth ministry in Florida.

Except…I told Rich that I wasn’t a swimmer, so if beach ministry was the focus of this position, I wasn’t cut out for that. No, Rich assured me. The kids at that church live at the beach; they don’t need the church to sponsor time at the ocean. Instead, I’d be responsible for an extensive summer program designed for young people from kindergarten through college age. A curriculum was already in place for the younger kids, so that planning would be relatively easy. And for the junior high through college ages, I’d come up with a variety of programs that would provide spiritual nurture, recreation, and some special activities. But no beach time, right? Right.

My wife Joan was still teaching in Richmond when I had to begin my Dunedin ministry. So I drove from Virginia to Florida alone. A sidelight: the trip itself was, in the vernacular of the late 1960’s…well, a trip. I passed through Charlotte within a mile or so of a huge traffic jam near the Charlotte Motor Speedway and its Memorial Day event. In Atlanta, I stopped at the Protestant Radio/TV Center out of curiosity and happened to catch Father Malcolm Boyd taping a television show. Since I had been using Boyd’s “Are You Running with Me, Jesus?” prayers on my radio show, that was a fine bit of serendipity.

When I finally arrived in Dunedin, I was warmly welcomed (no pun intended, but it was really hot that week…that summer!). The Associate Pastor Joe Amory told me that I’d be introduced to the youth of the church at a picnic at a nearby lake. “Bring your swim suit,” Joe advised. Should I mention again that I don’t (can’t) swim? Meeting everybody was fun, and the food was great, and all was well…until someone asked if I wanted to water ski.

Lord, God…help me. “Save me… for the waters [will] rise up to my neck.” (Ps. 69:1) Not wanting to lose face at my first youth event, and with the assurance that a life jacket would keep me from drowning, I agreed to try water skis. After a quick lesson, I attempted four or five times to actually ski on the water, the point of it all, but whenever I got up in the right position, and came close to actually skiing, I’d panic and collapse violently into the lake’s depths. Not having much of an athletic physique, an under(water) statement, my legs were so weak I couldn’t even crawl back into the boat for another try. I was thankful that everyone understood that that was natural, and was relieved when someone said we could try again later. I knew in my heart that “later” would never come.

But I had proved, I guess, that I was game, and it was a good beginning to a very long, hot summer in Dunedin. Tomorrow, I’ll write more about this first “professional” church experience, about softball, my radio show, a seven-year-old peeping Tom, and why I was twice called on to repent in that work.