In 1999, the Rev. Billy Joe Raymond was universally recognized as the fieriest preacher in Lennox Valley, and with good reason. Not a Sunday, or Wednesday night for that matter, passed at First Baptist Church without an altar call and at least two rededications by souls who had wandered astray, ultimately finding their way home during a latter verse of “I Surrender All.”
Back in the ’60s, Bob Dylan unknowingly prophesied the future of Lennox Valley when he sang, “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” Change they did when Lennox Valley Lutheran Church called Jacob Gehrig, direct descendant of Lou Gehrig, to serve as its assistant pastor.
Assistant pastors were a rarity in Lennox Valley. First Baptist Church had an assistant on staff for as long as anyone could remember, but the other churches in town were too small for such gaudy, frivolous behavior. That all changed with the hiring of “Brother Jacob,” as he liked to be called, in 1997.
While associate pastors at First Baptist Church were known to preach a sermon now and then, almost always on Sunday or Wednesday night, Lutherans generally relegated their associates to working with the youth and visiting the sick. That changed in 1998, after Brother Jacob attended a church growth seminar in Kansas City, Missouri, held at a famous Methodist “megachurch.”
To hear Brother Jacob tell the story, his heart was strangely warmed at the conference, and he felt led to come back to Lennox Valley and begin a “contemporary service” at his church. Contemporary services — usually with drums and electric guitars — were all the rage, as he explained, at Methodist megachurches, and he saw no reason they couldn’t do wonders for the good folks at Lennox Valley Lutheran Church.
For sixteen months, Brother Jacob had led a group of 15 to 20 parishioners who met in the fellowship hall of the church at 8:30 a.m. every Sunday. Unable to find any drummers or electric guitarists to help lead the service, these hearty early risers made do with a young junior-college student who came home on weekends to play the keyboard for the service.
At least two things were different about Brother Jacob’s preaching style. First, he never wore shoes when he preached. It was bare feet every Sunday, even in the winter. He said it had something to do with Moses and a burning bush.
Second, Brother Jacob always used a “paraphrased” version of the Bible when preparing his sermons. He picked up the habit in seminary, when he learned he could actually understand the Good News Bible better than The Lutheran Study Bible, the translation preferred by his professors.
He hid his less-favored Bible from his fellow seminarians and professors but brought it to Lennox Valley, where he often used it during sermon preparation. There were times when that was problematic, as Lutherans preach from the “Lectionary,” meaning they used prescribed Bible passages each week in their services.
Perhaps the most memorable such problem occurred on a Sunday when Brother Jacob was preaching in the main worship service in the sanctuary while the senior pastor was on vacation.
The Lectionary Scripture that morning was Psalm 50:9. In the Lutheran Study Bible, the passage had something to do with not removing oxen from a neighbor’s property. However, in Brother Jacob’s paraphrased Bible, the passage was translated, “I shall take no bull from you.”
“Pastor” Jacob was not allowed to use his Good News Bible after that Sunday.
Each week, “The Good Folks of Lennox Valley” chronicles the happenings of a fictional American small town.