Carnett: A true guiding light from the pulpit

It was one of the most meaningful experiences of my youth.

Between the ages of 10 and 13, I served as an acolyte at my church, and it was a duty I relished.

I turned 8 in 1953, and my family began attending Newport Harbor Lutheran Church on Cliff Drive, overlooking Newport Bay.

I loved everything about the church: its location, its spectacular view, its formal liturgy and its informal culture. My family became active, and within a matter of months we knew every other family in the church.

Many church dads — like my father — were World War II veterans. Many mothers were stay-at-home moms. My mother soon became church secretary and Sunday school director.

Church pastor Robert B. Gronlund was a decorated World War II veteran. Not yet 30, he was fresh out of seminary. I was drawn to his charismatic personality. His vivacious wife led the children's choir.

When I was 10, Gronlund recruited me to become an acolyte.

It was my responsibility at services to light altar candles before the first hymn, assist the pastor with communion and extinguish the candles following the final hymn. Plus, I got to wear a cool uniform. It consisted of a floor-length black cassock with a white robe over the top.

I loved the solemnity of my duties. I felt I was doing God's work. I also figured a certain seventh-grade girl might notice me.

Because my family was so involved with church, I became the go-to acolyte. I was regularly tabbed for assignments. On many Sundays I served both services.

My dad, an usher, my mom and the family would arrive early for the 8 a.m. service. We'd stay for Sunday school, and then my parents and two younger siblings would go home. I'd remain to do my duties during the 11 a.m. service. Dad would pick me up at 12:45 p.m.

I did Sunday morning services, midweek evening Lenten services, Christmas Eve candlelight services, and Easter sunrise and morning celebrations.

I loved listening to Pastor Gronlund preach. I'd closely listen to the 11 a.m. Sunday sermon, trying to grasp teaching points I'd missed at 8 a.m. And I anticipated second-service audience responses to the pastor's anecdotes and jokes. No two audiences, I discovered, were alike.

In our church, an acolyte remained seated at the side of the altar for the entire service. I sat in a slightly recessed alcove, with a direct view of the pulpit.

The pastor sat opposite me. I watched his face. My stomach would feel sympathetic butterflies as we sang the hymn preceding his sermon.

Techniques for effective sermon delivery became an interest of mine. After services I'd occasionally step into the elevated pulpit and look out over the nave. I wondered what it felt like to address a sea of faces.

I'd look at Pastor Gronland's neat sermon notes sitting on the pulpit's lectern. He scripted his sermons in a longhand scrawl, using a fountain pen — never a ballpoint — on a legal pad. His handwriting was slightly showy, and his sermon was written out in manuscript form.

I often saw him writing sermons at his desk when I visited my mom in the church office.

I began confirmation classes at age 11 and was required to take sermon notes and write a weekly summary. I learned to listen critically. It was then that I decided I wanted to become a pastor just like Pastor Gronlund. I wanted to stand in a pulpit and mesmerize an audience.

When I was 12, Pastor Gronlund left Newport Beach. He, his lovely wife and their two children left the Cliff Drive parish to take a position with a Lutheran college. I was crushed.

One doesn't easily forget a season spent with a hero. To me, Bob Gronlund was Mickey Mantle in vestments.

I saw him one time after that, in 1965, I think. I was home on leave and in military uniform.

He died in 2007.

A pulpit never became my workbench. But Pastor Gronlund influenced my life in more ways than I can possibly enumerate.

JIM CARNETT, who lives in Costa Mesa, worked for Orange Coast College for 37 years.

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