Friday, July 14, 2017

The Strength & Splendor of Belief: Words for Consolation

Last week, I shared a gem of a story from Dr. Fred B. Craddock.   His stories never fail to inspire and stir the heart!  (Indeed, the feedback from last week's post has been quite wonderful as colleagues have learned of this particular story for the first time or joined me in giving thanks yet again for Craddock's insight as he learned around a baptism service that included a camp fire and a square dance!)

I was looking for some good words with the preaching task at hand for the upcoming Sunday.  Recently, one of our Region pastors had a young adult son die of cancer.  As part of the care of the pastor, his family and congregation, I offered to preach on the next available Sunday, which happened to be the day after the same church sanctuary held the son's funeral, officiated by his father the pastor.  Preaching for a colleague is part of the ministry work we do, though I imagine from my own experiences of being kin as well as the officiating clergy, it's good to have an opportunity to sit in the pews without the pressure to be in the pulpit immediately the next day.

I shared a passage from Romans 8:31-39 as my New Testament reading.  Here's what I shared on last Sunday morning:

In 1972, Fred Pratt Green wrote the hymn entitled: “How Blest Are They Who Trust in Christ.” In the last verse, Green ends with some words that I wish to use as this sermon’s beginning words:
In Christ, who tasted death for us,
We rise above our natural grief,
And witness to a stricken world
The strength and splendor of belief.

Over the last few days, I imagine you have been feeling, well,…. I suppose the options to finish this sentence to describe our feelings range from descriptors like: numbed, shaken, bereft, stunned, pained, and the list goes on, multiplied by the number of hearts deeply grieved by the death of Jake. When Death comes, grief follows, and we struggle to put words together to express what we feel. And, at the end of things, we find some respite in just being silent and still, pondering the past few days.

In sorting out our thoughts, we turn to the wisdom of sacred text, allowing the ancient cadence of Scripture to provide a rhythm to help us reclaim a measure of hope and grace. I find myself wading into the language of Pauline epistles, which may be an odd place to start. Sometimes, we forget that Paul wrote his various letters not so much for teaching for belief, but in the task of helping churches understand, often in the midst of deep conflict, how their faith called them to live a life together in Christ. In Paul’s letters, we are richly reminded that there is a great strength in the various people called “Church.”

We gather each week in this sacred house of worship, seeking a little respite from the rigors of our lives, yet during a week like this, with a great loss felt deeply within our fellowship, perhaps we sit in the pews feeling shaken as well. I find in the midst of such times to recall Paul’s words to the church at Rome. Despite anything and everything that could go wrong, God does not abandon us. “Nothing” separates us from the love we know in Christ Jesus.

Charles Spurgeon, the great British Baptist preacher of the 19th century, had a personal motto:  "Teneo et tenor".  For those of us (myself included) who did not grow up learning Latin (short of the variant known as "pig"), the phrase means "I hold, and I am held".  The saying is depicted in a stained glass panel in the Baptist ministry training school bearing his name in London.  It depicts one hand reaching up and another hand coming down to clasp it.  "I hold and I am held".  Indeed, “Nothing” separates us from Christ.

Many years ago, I attended Spurgeon's College for a semester, so my wife and I worshipped with various British Baptist churches. One common practice among these churches involved the benediction that was given each Sunday. The minister or worship leader would invite the congregation to say the benediction. The first couple of times, we were befuddled, as the churchgoers did not bow their heads. Instead, they looked around the room at one another, reciting together this verse of scripture: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all.”

This practice of saying this verse together is a remarkable reminder of what draws a congregation together. While we are different in many ways, we are drawn together by a common confession and desire to follow God, known to us as Father, Son, and Spirit. Our congregation is shaped by grace, love, and fellowship given to us by God. We experience this especially at times when we face challenges and shoulder burdens alongside one another. Especially these days, Ed and Chris have endured much this week.  Such is the nature of "church", where we share the pain of loss with them, and many of you have brought food, cards, words of care, and love along with you.

It was the custom in that church at Easter to have a baptismal service, and my church immerses and it was held as baptismal service in Watts Barr Lake on Easter evening at sundown. Out on a sand bar, I — with the candidates for baptism — moved into the water and then they moved across to the shore where the little congregation was gathered singing around a fire and cooking supper. They had constructed little booths for changing clothes with blankets hanging, and — as the candidates moved from the water — they went in and changed clothes and went to the fire in the center. And finally — last of all — I went over, changed clothes, and went to the fire.
Once we were all around the fire, this is the ritual of that tradition. Glen Hickey — always Glen — introduced the new people: gave their names, where they lived, and their work. Then the rest of us formed a circle around them, while they stayed warm at the fire.

And the ritual was each person in the circle gave her or his name and said this,
“My name is ____, and if You ever need somebody to do washing and ironing...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to chop wood...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to baby-sit...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to repair Your house...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to sit with the sick...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need a car to go to town...”

And around the circle, and then we ate, and then we had a square dance. And, at a time they knew — I didn’t know, Percy Miller — with thumbs in his bibbed overalls — would stand up and say, “It’s time to go.”

 
And everybody left, and Percy lingered behind and — with his big shoe — kicked sand over the dying fire. And my first experience of that, he saw me standing there, still. And he looked at me and said, “Craddock, folks don’t ever get any closer than this.”

In that little community, they have a name for that.  I’ve heard it in other communities, too. In that community, their name for that is “church.” They call that “church.”
(Craddock Stories, by Fred B. Craddock, edited by Richard Ward and Mike Graves, Chalice Press, p. 152)

Once I visited a family who also lost a son unexpectedly.  As we drew the visit to a close, I said, “Please know that the church is concerned for you and will support you in this time.” The father said, “After the past few days, that is more than evident.”

Such is the nature of "church".  Little by little, even in ways we do not quite realize are graceful moments when we feel nothing but fumbling for the right words or if it's alright to offer a hug, in our own way, we have lived out the grace, love, and fellowship of our faith. Thanks be to God.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The name for that: A story about church

The great late preacher Fred Craddock learned many things in his early days of pastoral ministry. He tells this splendid story that I love and will be sharing this weekend in a sermon.

Craddock recalls,

 It was the custom in that church at Easter to have a baptismal service, and my church immerses and it was held as baptismal service in Watts Barr Lake on Easter evening at sundown. Out on a sand bar, I — with the candidates for baptism — moved into the water and then they moved across to the shore where the little congregation was gathered singing around a fire and cooking supper.

They had constructed little booths for changing clothes with blankets hanging, and — as the candidates moved from the water — they went in and changed clothes and went to the fire in the center. And finally — last of all — I went over, changed clothes, and went to the fire.

Once we were all around the fire, this is the ritual of that tradition. Glen Hickey — always Glen — introduced the new people: gave their names, where they lived, and their work. Then the rest of us formed a circle around them, while they stayed warm at the fire.

And the ritual was each person in the circle gave her or his name and said this,
“My name is ____, and if You ever need somebody to do washing and ironing...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to chop wood...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to baby-sit...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to repair Your house...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to sit with the sick...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need a car to go to town...”

And around the circle, and then we ate, and then we had a square dance. And, at a time they knew — I didn’t know, Percy Miller — with thumbs in his bibbed overalls — would stand up and say, “It’s time to go.” And everybody left, and Percy lingered behind and — with his big shoe — kicked sand over the dying fire.

And my first experience of that, he saw me standing there, still. And he looked at me and said, “Craddock, folks don’t ever get any closer than this.”

In that little community, they have a name for that. I’ve heard it in other communities, too. In that community, their name for that is “church.” They call that “church.”

 (Excerpted from Craddock Stories, by Fred B. Craddock, edited by Richard Ward and Mike Graves, Chalice Press, p. 152)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Installing a New Pastor: Planting Seeds in Earnest

Installing Rev. Perdue
FBC Cooperstown, NY
Special occasion preaching is part of the call to ministry.  We preach at life transitions most frequently (weddings and funerals) as well as for civic holidays (woe to the preacher who skirts a Mother's Day sermon too many years in a row!).  Also, we preach for occasions rare yet wonderful:  when a person is ordained to ministry or going into a new ministry call.  
 
It was my pleasure earlier in June 2017 to offer remarks at the installation of the Rev Joseph Perdue, recently called as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Cooperstown, NY.  Brevity is a virtue (and I am chief of sinners), so I decided to use a shorter scripture text that I think works well at the outset of a hopefully long and fruitful season of ministry for Joe and the congregation.
 
Hear now the Good News in brief---two verses to be exact!
 
The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. (Mark 4:26-27)
 
Two verses, and yet so much to unfurl and explore!  On one hand, we have the image of the Kingdom, the very crowning glory of Jesus’ vision of God made known in the world and yet it is like seed, to be tossed around willy-nilly. Jesus gives an image messy and unpredictable, far removed from the “cut and dried” understandings about following Jesus we often presume.
Worse, contrary to our churchly habits and sensibilities, Jesus presents us with the image of a farmer who goes out, plants the seed liberally, and then saunters off until the end time.
At this point, I hear from Kansas my old farmer father’s voice calling out:  “Son, what sort of fool does that?”
 
Admittedly, I have never met a non-anxious farmer, including my father. For farmers, something is always worrying you at the back of your mind: grain prices falling and rising (well, mostly falling), pests and pesticides, drought, deer turning your crop into a buffet, freak storms, too much rain, too little rain, flooding, hail, the bills coming in and not enough money to cover everything this month, and the list goes on.
Every farmer goes through this, having that moment when you laugh at yourself. That foolish dream you had, thinking yet again you could plant a crop and turn a profit. Sigh!
 
For the church “with ears to hear”, we have an unsettling thought.  The Church that Jesus seeks to sow in the world does not fit into plans we alone devise, let alone for us to micromanage!
The gospel will be planted where you least expect it, and trying to guess how it will flourish and yield a goodly harvest is at best guesswork and at worst presumptuous on our part.
Where the Kingdom of God grows, there shall be a harvest and we have to learn how to live within the mysterious ways of God.
But can we really handle mystery?  Further, can we be in that mystery as a Church and live to tell about it?
 
The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
 
In the splendid Oscar-winning film Shakespeare in Love, William is a young man seeking money, not literary awards. He writes plays for the theatres with their raucous crowds. Theatre was very much a rough and tumble experience in Elizabethan England. There is a new play needed, and the theatre manager insists that writer’s block is not an excuse. He demands a script readied for the production of “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter”, a comedy about love and a bit with a dog doing tricks.
The film follows several characters as they rush around, trying to stage a play not quite written with a financial backer and his thugs threatening them with pain if there is no profit.  A young woman disguises herself as a man so she can tread the boards.  At the epicenter of this chaos is a young playwright named Will who seems too flaky to be the great Shakespeare.  Will this end in disaster?  Surely it will!  
Throughout the film, people ask the theatre manager Philip Henslowe what the play is about and more importantly when the play will be ready. Henslowe bluffs to buy Shakespeare and the company more time. When his financial backer storms in, ready to have his men beat him up, Henslowe begs for more time, claiming the theatre business is one whose “natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster”.
The financial backer asks, “So what do we do?” Henslowe replies, “Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.” “How?” the backer is incredulous.
Henslowe replies, “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”
 
If we let them be, the parables confound and unsettle us, defying a quick or complete interpretation alike. In these seed parables, we get a cautionary tale about thinking we know the ways of God and how we should be God’s people. We build our houses of worship, our traditions, our creeds, and still we have sacred texts that challenge and remind us of a faith more comfortable with welcoming children gladly, considering the lilies of the field, and scattering seed and letting things be.  Or as Jesus said,
 
The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
 
I suppose the Markan parable would ask to keep things loose and try not to tame the Spirit’s movement. We certainly need to talk with one other. We need to pray and listen for God in the midst of our ministry and missional work. We need to work with purpose and hope, but at the same time, we are in God’s hands, not our own. The future holds much possibility. So much Kingdom/Reign work is yet to come. God scatters seed abundantly. The harvest shall be abundant. Rather than pondering the future or undercutting its potential by our reticence to embrace it, we enter into the mystery that is God at work in the world.
 
            So, here we are, in the midst of a mystery.  A long-time pastor retires.  A period of search and call happens.  A new pastor was called, arrived and has been serving here for a few months now.  What form will this new season of ministry take?  What will be different about it?  What will come up as the newest experience of an old challenge?   Will we grow, will we flourish, will we have so-so crop yields, will the future be anything like the past (a chronic question in every church), and can we handle a future that looks nothing like the past (a scary question for every church)?   What happens next?   What does the future hold?
 
            Hear the Good News:
 
The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Adventures in Baptist History: William Sawyer (1821-1909)

What does an old Bible, likely given as a “presentation” Bible to a young person, tell us about the 19th century in the Capital District of New York?

Earlier this week, I received an inquiry through the local ABCNYS Association about a family wishing to donate a Bible to an area American Baptist congregation. They were going through an elder parent’s household and found a number of Bibles. One Bible was clearly a family heirloom, given the name inscribed. Another Bible they found indeed had an inscription, but the family could not identify any connection to the family or any idea why the Bible had come into their loved one’s possession at one time in the past.

The Bible in question has a handwritten inscription to a person for their attendance of the Sunday School of the Robin Street Baptist Church in Albany, NY. The date given is 1886.

Living in Albany myself, I knew already that there is no American Baptist (formerly Northern Baptist) congregation by that name any longer. Through some Google searching, I discovered the beginnings of a bread crumb trail about the Robin Street church, which indeed has closed. One thing I discovered via Google Books was a lead on the formation of the Robin Street church.

In a two volume book on the history of Albany, NY, I discovered Robin Street Baptist was part of the efforts of church planting supported enthusiastically by businessman and abolitionist William Sawyer (1821-1909). In this Albany retrospective, we read:

In religious preferences, Mr. [William] Sawyer is a decided Baptist. In 1840 he united with the Pearl Street (now Emmanuel Baptist Church) while Elder Jacob Knapp was assisting Rev Dr B.T. Welch. In 1871, he removed his church relations to the Calvary Church. His interest in the Sabbath School and mission work of the Baptist Church has been great and constant for many years.
 
To it he has given much time and toil and money July 29, 1866, the Kenwood Chapel which was started in 1864 was duly dedicated, Rev. Dr. Magoon preaching the sermon. This he gave to the Albany Baptist Missionary Union as a chapel for church purposes forever. On the day of its dedication the cars of the Albany Railway made the first trip to Kenwood. The Sunday School here numbers about 100.
 
The Robin Street Baptist Chapel was established by Mr. Sawyer in the German Baptist Church on Washington Avenue, November 4, 1866, and removed to the Robin Street Baptist Chapel into a building formerly used as a cabinet factory which he had purchased and remodeled for that purpose April 7 1872 as an Independent Sunday School. To its interests he has ever given his most watchful care. The school now numbers about 300. The Madison Avenue Chapel was purchased by him for Sunday School purposes in the spring of 1867. The school was started August 4, 1867, and placed in charge of the First Baptist Church. It has about 150 members.
 
Mr. Sawyer was one of the earliest and most active workers for the establishment of the Home for Aged Men, in soliciting subscriptions, organizing, and in selecting its location. He was a member of the first Board of Trustees. He has often addressed audiences of young and old in exhortation and textual discourse. His knowledge of the Scriptures, his zealous spirit, his nervous and rather eccentric manner, have made these addresses effective.

Likely some additional research as time allows will help me connect more of the dots about how this Bible came to be presented to a young person attending the Sunday School on Robin Street. Such efforts remind us that congregations come and go, ministry efforts in a community may ebb and flow, but the furthering of the Gospel is always in the hands of one generation passing the faith onwards to the next.

Returning to the Bible's inscription, I realized that the book was presented by William Sawyer himself! 

We may not have a great statue or likely any real institutional memory about William Sawyer and his work among the churches in the area. Nonetheless, a presentation Bible mixed in with other odds and ends of a household yields a testament to sharing faith and spreading the Baptist witness in Albany, New York.  The mission work of a Baptist layman comes back to life once more, offering inspiration for those who might think about being this generation's William Sawyer, sharing the faith with a new generation!



RESEARCH SOURCES:  Behind the Scenes

To find out something regarding Robin Street Baptist, I referenced Google Books and found out about William Sawyer.

LINK:  https://books.google.com/books?id=nWkJAQAAIAAJ&dq=%22william%20sawyer%22%20albany%2C%20ny&pg=PA648&output=embed

To discover Mr. Sawyer’s date of death, I played a hunch about cemeteries in the area and discovered his grave at the Albany Rural Cemetery where many luminaries of Albany’s past are interred. (For example, U.S. President Chester A. Arthur is buried there.)

LINK:   http://albanyruralcemetery.org/  (I input William Sawyer's name and searched for a compatible date, knowing his birth date from the above source and seeing minor mentions of his name that he was still alive in the late 19th century.  Sawyer lived into his eighties!)

Friday, May 26, 2017

That Would Be An Ecumenical Matter

"That would be an ecumenical matter."

During the three year run of the venerable Irish comedy Father Ted, viewers around the world watched the exploits of three priests serving a small Roman Catholic parish on bedraggled Craggy Island.  Quite readily, viewers learn why these three priests are serving together.  Essentially, the Bishop exiled them to a place where they could not get into any more trouble than they had caused previously.

In one of my favorite episodes, the Vatican sends envoys to review the possible miracle of a certain holy relic on the island.  Father Ted and Father Dougal (the middle-aged and young priest of the household) quickly realize they have an issue.  How will the cantankerous, slovenly and erratic old Father Jack possibly be ready to meet the special visitors?   After all, he sits in his chair (mostly), sleeps, grunts and drinks (or sleeps and grunts in his sleep after passing out from too much drink). 

The barely verbal Father Jack is coached little by little to remember how to say socially acceptable phrases.  Eventually, Father Ted tries to help Father Jack learn a phrase that would please the bishops but not require Father Jack to remember much more than that.  They land on the phrase "That would be an ecumenical matter", which Ted observes is just enough to imply you are interested or are able to follow some arcane theological discussion some priests like to indulge in.  Just respond with that phrase, he has learned, and others will consider you profound and wise. 

(And hopefully leave you alone!)

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Baptist tradition has eschewed hierarchy and high structure.  Nonetheless, many Baptists around the world recognize their love of local church autonomy can lead to isolation and missed opportunities for mutual collaboration and encouragement.  While Baptists vary (cf. the "Heinz 57" ingredient list like nature of Baptists just in the United States!), we have local churches who are often relating to churches elsewhere of similar faith and order or common ground ministry and mission goals.

Saying "that would be an ecumenical matter" holds some amusing resonance when attending Baptist organizational meetings.  While low in structure and lines of authority, Baptist inter-church fellowships (Associations, denominations, networks, etc.) can be a great gathering of different and divergent voices, people gathering around common affinities for mission and ministry more than events listed on "the official program" for plenary sessions, etc.  Nonetheless, when such gatherings have discussions traveling down less engaging pathways of discussion, I think of old Father Jack grunting, "That would be an ecumenical matter."

(And for the record, Father Ted's advice translates well in my own context!)

I am quite pleased with a recent article from Dr. Neville Callum, the General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance.  A pastor and scholar, Dr. Callum's writings on the Baptist movement and particularly the large network of Baptists embodied in the BWA are always a welcome discovery when he publishes in a journal or online posting.  Recently, Dr Callum shared a word about Baptists and connecting together:

"From as early as 1644, seven Particular Baptist congregations in England stated in the celebrated Article 47 of what has come to be called the "First London Confession of Faith" that "Although the particular Congregations be distinct and severall Bodies, everyone as a compact and knit Citie in it selfe; yet are they to walk by one and the same Rule, and by all meanes convenient to have the counsell and help one of another in all needful affaires; of the Church, as members of one body in the common faith under Christ their only head."

Eight years later, the Abingdon Association in England affirmed the urgent need of Baptist churches "to hold firm communion with each other."

Over the years, churches existing in close geographical proximity have affirmed their inter-relationship and have developed patterns of cooperation deriving from their fellowship.
This has happened trans-locally in regions and nations and, with the passage of time, internationally, both at the continental and the worldwide levels.

More reflection needs to be given to the precise nature and meaning, not simply the purpose, of Baptists associating at the global level.

Baptist interdependency is capable of bearing the burden of the associational obligation that celebrated Baptist historian William Brackney had in mind when, writing about associations, he emphasized the need for Baptists "to learn again how to wrestle in love with difficult issues and to celebrate one another's successes and bear one another's burdens."

LINK:  http://www.ethicsdaily.com/why-we-must-reclaim-baptist-interdependency-cms-23887

In his essay linked above, Dr. Callum notes the shortcomings of Baptist connections and the need for revisiting the nature of what we take for granted as the current form for those relationships and any implications they may have among Baptist bodies around the world.  He reminds that even in our efforts to be radical Reformers, we are still part of "Church".  

We have a "church" minded ecclesiology, yet that lowercase "c" is as much part of our theological heritage as it can be an impediment to following Christ's High Priestly prayer often cited in ecumenical circles, "that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,[so that the world may believe that you have sent me."  (John 17:21).

With such a prayer, it is indeed always "an ecumenical matter."

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Mourning at Church

Since the beginning of May, three congregations up in the Adirondacks have been in a season of loss and mourning their pastors.   On Friday, May 5, 2017, Rev Linda Hoeschel died.  Then on May 12, 2017, Pastor Joyce Bruce passed away.  Both women served congregations in rural communities and provided splendid leadership during their time as ministers.

I write this column on the other side of these life transitions, responding to the needs of the congregations going through a very unique form of loss and grief.  As I shared with Linda's two churches recently, it's one thing to go through the loss of a congregant, especially one who was engaged in the midst of the life of a local church.  The loss and grief of losing a pastor is even more complex as pastors are woven into the fabric of a congregation.  It's a shared loss as congregations are families in their own way, regardless of how many people are actually kin by blood relation. 

When Jesus called together his first followers, some of these men and women were indeed related (the brothers Zebedee).  Each person who followed Jesus navigated a challenge with their own biological family, as they would take leave of their kinfolk with no small measure of disruption to the "normal" life they led before hearing Jesus' call.  Dropping your fishing nets to go "fish for people" continues to vex generations of Christians about what it means to hear and follow.  Congregations can be a place where believers can gather together and learn together what the faith calls us to do.  (I realize churches are also prone to circle the wagons and avoid anything that disrupts comfort, but I keep having hope that the Spirit works at ensuring our foundations are solid but our forms are not so set in ruts that we lose our way.)

Pastor Joyce Bruce

About my colleagues in ministry:

Pastor Joyce Bruce served the Jay Baptist Church in the upper Adirondacks for nearly twenty years.  As a lay preacher, she provided her gifts and care to the congregation in this small town church.  The church recalls its origins in a barn, using hay bales for pews back in 1798.  The church has a long history of lay women preachers, as her predecessor served for many years before Joyce was called in 1996.  For the past two generations, the minister of Jay Baptist has been a laywoman preaching, teaching and caring for the needs of the flock!

At her visitation hours on Tuesday afternoon, I brought words of greetings and thanksgiving for her years of service to one of our Region churches.  Her family had musical instruments close at hand, and from time to time, they would take a break from greeting friends and family to play a bit on guitars, clarinets, or mandolins.  A number of persons spoke about Joyce's own musical gifts, starting Sunday morning worship for many years with some "ragtime Gospel" at the piano.


Rev Linda Hoeschel
Rev Linda Hoeschel served a shorter season of ministry, called in March 2015 to her first called position with the shared pastoral call of the Village Baptist Church (Fort Edward, NY) and the First Baptist Church of Glens Falls, NY.  Ordained in 2016, she was a second career minister, called later in life to prepare for the ministry.  She was remembered throughout the May 12th memorial service and celebration as a person with great enthusiasm, care and love for her call and the two flocks who called her to serve. 

After joining the Region staff four years ago, I worked closely with the Ft Edward and Glens Falls pastoral search.  Like the congregation in Jay, NY, the ministry model for the two churches leaned toward a part-time model.  Linda dove into the ministry of two churches, and even as her health challenges came from time to time, her sense of call and the drive to serve God and neighbor sustained her in remarkable ways. 

Grieving a pastor's death is difficult.  Remembering the minister for their gifts and graces, their strengths and their challenges--all of these things allow congregations to rehearse their beliefs in life, death and the Resurrection.  We mourn and grieve differently in such times and at differing pace, yet churches can be a place of remembering well what death means for Christians.  Such memory recasts the loss with hope, the sorrow with a foretaste of faith's promises being fulfilled in God's good End.

======
Note:  A resource on the unique situation of a pastor's dying while serving a congregation is the book  "Speaking of Dying: Recovering the Church's Voice in the Face of Death" (Brazos, 2012).  Learn more via this link: http://bakerpublishinggroup.com/books/speaking-of-dying/338880.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Pilgrims on the Journey (Luke 24:13-35)

The writer Nora Gallagher speaks of being “outside” the church for many years, until she went to a place where she felt something different within herself about faith and being among others keeping the faith. Her wonderful line is that she came to the church “as a tourist, but stayed a pilgrim.”

Over time, her time in church became less of attendance and became participation, and her faith less a matter of inquiry and more of belief. The beauty of her writing is not skill but of depth: the depth of belief and experience growing in the faith in the care of a congregation that did likewise.

On the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, two disciples of Jesus are walking back home, despondent with the news of the crucifixion and unaware of the Easter Good News.  The Resurrected Christ joins them on the journey, yet the two disciples do not "see" him (an ongoing motif of the Gospels, where God's mighty works unfold in plain sight, yet people reserve their judgment to near epic proportions).

Hearing their woeful tale of belief crushed by the powers that be, Jesus engages in a time of “bible study” while walking alongside them. He guides them through the texts that speak of what God had in mind through the patriarchs, prophets, and other writings. Jesus walks them through these narratives so that when they have made the trip, they will see the Savior who weaves all of these threads together.

When I was in seminary, I helped with a congregation in transition. They had endured a church split, and the folks who “left” form fed a separate congregation. The immediate problem, however, was the fact that the newly formed group had no place to worship in. They were fortunate to find an old urban neighborhood church that had been turned in a community outreach center. The current occupants had kept the pews, pulpits, and the stained glass, so it was quite a good rental opportunity for churches in transition who came inquiring about space.

However, as the church folks settled, they realized that they were missing more than (literally!) a roof over their head. They had to create and recreate a number of things that they didn’t realize one took for granted, including Sunday School curriculum. How could they teach the young children without what they used to have?

 I sat in on a Christian education meeting where they wondered what direction to go. I suggested that they could do something without spending any money. The congregation had these beautiful stained glass windows with a bible story in each one. And so the next Sunday, the children got led around the sanctuary of this old church, the stories of Adam and Eve in the Garden, Noah’s Ark (a crowd pleaser for the tots), Abraham being called to sacrifice Isaac (not a crowd pleaser for the tots!). Moses on the mountain with the two tablets, and so forth. As they rounded the sanctuary, the kids were asked who this person was in the last stained glass. They said, “Jesus!”

That’s the sort of work that Jesus did on the road to Emmaus, building up the knowledge among those who needed to be acquainted with the texts that led them to this point on the road to Emmaus. It’s drawing close to evening by this point, and the disciples invite him to stay for dinner. Jesus consents, though he is ready to go on the way. (Another sly Gospel shorthand: if the disciples cannot “see” Jesus, they also cannot go “on the way” with Jesus either!) They gather at table and have a simple meal. It’s when Jesus breaks bread that these disciples finally “see” Jesus.

For those perplexed why food and not words get the message across finally, read Luke and its companion, the Book of Acts. There is a great deal of eating that happens in these two books. There are scholarly books that trace the importance in Luke/Acts of the Christians and their meals, because in the breaking of bread, something so simple, the abundance of God becomes clear. In particular, recollect how Jesus breaks bread in the Last Supper, and notice the repetition here at Emmaus: Jesus takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to them. In the Last Supper, Jesus foretells of his broken body in the symbolism of the last supper. In the Emmaus meal, the same words and actions are used. And over in Acts, when the early Christians break bread as part of their prayers, proclamation, and sharing in common, they call it not “suppertime” but “Church.” And when it happens at that table in Emmaus, it’s not just a meal. It’s “belief!”

“Were our hearts not burning eagerly within us?” these disciples ask. This experience of the risen Lord prompts them to get up from their table and head back to Jerusalem. They went home despondent, and now they run back to Jerusalem with the news.

Pilgrims. You go to a church service, and you see them out there in the pews at worship. They might light a candle, read the pew Bible, or sit or kneel in prayer. They come in all shapes and sizes, all walks of life. But there’s one thing that sets them apart from the tourists.

What is it that does that? 

They have seen the Lord.