There was a man who gave me the gospel. It was 1995. He kicked me out of Bible class. I was in adult catechesis, exploring membership in his church. He told me I didn’t belong in that class. He met one-on-one with me for months. He knew what I needed, and he took the time.
There was a man who gave me the gospel. I knew it all. I’d been reading a lot. I knew what I was coming out of. I’d studied it. I liked it still, in many ways, but there was an itch I just couldn’t scratch. And so I asked a lot of questions. I brought up how much I knew. And that class just wasn’t the place for me, he said.
There was a man who gave me the gospel. He put up with me for months. He heard my objections. He listened to me pontificate. He put up with me, because he loved me, because Jesus loved me, and He knew what I needed, and knew I didn’t know it. I suspect he didn’t just know it abstractly.
There was a man who gave me the gospel. He talked about train tracks all the time. Perhaps it’s no coincidence I took the train to see him one last time. He talked about train tracks because I wanted to know everything all at once. When I pressed too much, he told me the tracks come together down the line, but when I got there, there’d be more tracks, and that they’d come together down the line, too. He said that it was that way until heaven on his train. Paradox was part of the deal. God was fine with questions and protestations and griping. None of that stuff was what mattered most, anyway. Just don’t expect the tracks to come together this side of the grave.
There was a man who gave me the gospel. He died this week. I cannot express how much it has gutted me. I can honestly say that I’ve maybe never been more upset. I’ve heard the gospel in his voice for more than twenty-five years. I will hear the gospel in his voice for as long as the Lord gives me. He was and is and will be for all my mortal life the voice of Jesus for me. My voice of Jesus died. The man who gave and gave, listened and listened, and never asked anything in return. The man who sat there and took it no matter what I was going through, because that’s what his Jesus, my Jesus, had done for him. The man who told me, when I objected that the gospel was too easy, that I’d one day understand that it wasn’t easy at all, that nothing could have been more difficult.
There was a man who gave me the gospel. That being said, I sinned against God and this man. At some point, I made things about more than a voice on God’s good news. At some point, I wanted more than Jesus for me. I found all sorts of help. It seems many are bored with such voices. Before long, the kid who came knowing it all knew even more.
God’s voice to me often vested in robes I wouldn’t wear. He didn’t do the liturgy as I would. In fact, he didn’t like my jokes about “saying a Mass.” He probably had never even heard of some of the people and teachings I later loved to get into debates over. I know he was very proud of my academic work, but I also am pretty sure he didn’t ever want to discuss it over coffee or a beer. I sometimes wonder if he got worried about me tiring of his voice. Is there anything more damning of humanity than our proclivity to boredom, even with the best things?
There was a man who gave me the gospel. I wouldn’t be a Christian without him. I wouldn’t be a Lutheran without him. I wouldn’t be a pastor without him. I wouldn’t have my wife and kids. I wouldn’t be teaching where I teach. I would have never put a voice on the gospel for anyone, for all I know. I wouldn’t be me. Even worse, I’d be entirely me.
There was a man who gave me the gospel. I hear his voice still now. And the most shameful thing I’ve ever done is moving beyond that. Whatever vestments he wore, whether he said a Mass like I would, despite the fact that he probably had zero desire to read some obscure sixteenth-century treatise from a debate I had at some point become obsessed with, regardless of the “pressing” issues of any church body I might have become concerned with, Karl Vertz was the voice of Christ to me. And that is what made me a Christian. And that is what will keep me a Christian and a Lutheran. God through Karl Vertz brought me from death to life and put me on a course to do the same for others, not because I had any powers, but because I had a power completely out of my control. It wasn’t because he was Karl Vertz. It was because he was a baptized child of God, whose baptism never aged, although he did.
God saves us through people. He saves us through means. He puts a voice on the gospel. And the person who bears that voice is part of our union. That person bears our flesh, shares our sins, knows our fallenness, wrestles with our doubts, experiences our trials. And God sent me a person, and put a voice on the most beautiful words in the world, and at some point, I took it for granted, and now he’s gone.
The most shameful thing I’ve ever done is moving beyond that. Another voice reminded me of that today. He followed the man who will forever be my pastor. And he doesn’t say a Mass like me, and he doesn’t vest the same, and he probably doesn’t read the same books, and, if he’s wise, he’d probably rather not hear about my sixteenth-century treatises, but he sure did give me Jesus, and in his voice, I heard Karl Vertz, and that, that, is why I am a Christian, a Lutheran, and will be unless someone manages to pry me from my Savior’s once-dead but forever-living hands. In his voice, I heard Karl, who was but a blessed echo of the Savior.
There was a man who gave me the gospel. The most shameful thing I’ve ever done is move beyond that. There was a man who gave us the gospel. And, despite the fact that we’ve grown bored and wanted to move beyond that astonishing truth, he still gives it to us through those in the kind of man. Hear His voice. Hear his voices. Never take them for granted. Know that your voice might be that voice for someone, too. Not because you deserve it—Karl Vertz would be the first to say he never did. Deserving doesn’t factor. It’s not even a category when God puts a voice on the gospel. As Karl Vertz would have told me, “Get over it Wade. Jesus loves you, and he’s gonna use you, too.”
The train tracks don’t come together anymore for the man who bore God’s voice to me. He’s reached his destination. I can’t wait hear him again. In the meanwhile, I’ll play reruns, because there was a man who gave me the gospel. And, boy, let me tell you, when I get to glory and God says hello to me through him and a cloud of others, man, I will lose it, which is what I should have done all along.