One of the first people I met when visiting Vermont to be interviewed for the pastorate of the East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church was Albert Urie. Though his family had immigrated from Scotland to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom a couple of generations before him, Albert sure sounded as if there were still some brogue in his speech.

If I remember correctly, Francis Whitcomb, a member of the church’s “search committee,” was driving me around to show me the territory, the hilly, rugged, and  rocky lay of the land, and we stopped by Albert’s farm. He jumped down from his tractor and came over to the car window. Literally, his first words to me were a question, and a very important query it was. “Jeffrey, have you spent much time on a farm.”

It was an important question because we were surrounded by small, family run dairy farms, most of which had been owned by the same families since they had come to America in the 1800s. Albert wanted a pastor who understood farmers and farming, who would honor the land, the labor, the strong traditions and sturdy routines of those Green Mountain foothills.

I had to be honest. I told Albert that there had been farmers in our New York State family, and that my Dad had hoped to study “ag” at Cornell, until WWII changed his plans. I wasn’t sure Albert would be impressed, but I think I also mentioned spending a week on a 1200 acre farm on the banks of the Shenandoah in Virginia almost every summer. They raised beef cattle there, I added. And then ‘fessed up: it was a Trappist Monastery. My spiritual retreats took me into the monastery chapel everyday, but never into the barns.

I was called anyway to the East Craftsbury Church, and Albert Urie would never have considered himself one of my spiritual guides in ministry or in life — but he was. And here are four reasons why.

First, I learned how grief can shake the foundations of the most solid church folk. Shortly after my arrival as pastor, cancer returned to the body of Albert’s beloved wife Marion. I had not gotten a chance to know her as the strong matriarch of both family and community. I was beginning to know her only as cancer wore her down. Within four months, Joan and I returned home from a week-long conference at Montreat, NC, to find Albert Urie sitting in his car waiting for us in the driveway of the manse.

Marion was failing and he wanted me to go right up to his home and be with her. He was, of course, devastated by her loss a few days later. The question that haunted him (yes, haunted is the right word) from that day until his own death ten years later was, “Where is Marion?” It was a wrenching question, and he asked it in almost every conversation we had in the years following her death. “I don’t understand where she is now.” He expected me to have an answer, some answer, and every time I tried to explain that “where” was a word that found meaning in time and space and that wherever Marion was, it wasn’t in time and space…well, Albert found absolutely no satisfaction in my theological speculations about “heaven” or “spirit.”

He was a farmer tied to acreage and tending the land, milking cows,  plowing and harvesting,  shivering in frigid, deep Vermont snows, a man with calloused hands and “farmer’s lung” disease, a man who bore the scars of farm accidents and now loss beyond measure. He understood the physical and the sensible, but not the spiritual; it made little sense. “Where IS she?”

Yes, I learned the depth of grief, second-hand — the same way I learned about farming. But even second-hand understanding contributes to our growth as persons who grasp onto first-hand faith.

The second thing I learned was that farmers don’t “pledge.” At least not in that church. I had been warned that even though I had some training in “church stewardship” programming, and had always been in churches that used those little offering envelopes in Sunday worship, and furthermore, that most of my pastoral predecessors had tried to convert this congregation to those traditions — these folks wouldn’t be converted.

Within a couple of months of my arrival at the East Craftsbury Church, I piously announced that the right way to strengthen the church budget was through pledging a certain percentage of one’s income and increasing that percentage at least a smidgen each year. Albert was a mainstay on that committee, and he exploded. He stood and raised his voice in protest. “Jeffrey, you haven’t lived in a farming community long enough to tell us how to contribute to our church!” Or, something along that line.

Someone told me more quietly why farmers were reluctant to pledge. They didn’t want to promise God something they couldn’t deliver if the forthcoming year went badly for them. There was too much risk in farming, and God would know that they would do the best they could for the church.

Albert was right. And the passion in his protest quieted my piety mightily. I didn’t bring up the subject again. And the church continued its former ways, and the church prospered to the point where my part-time call became full time because of the people’s financial faithfulness. And when the Community Care Center was built right across the road, the church added an elevator and a new entrance that welcomed folks in wheelchairs, and dedicated it all debt-free.

Quickly, the other two things I learned from Albert Urie. One was a wonderful, almost giddy curiosity about the universe. For such a sturdy Vermont personality, Albert became childlike when he considered why a bright light shone off Mount Mansfield at the same minute on the same day, once a year. He spotted the light one morning many years back, a quick glint that caught his glance, and like many farmers, he kept good notes on the day. And sure enough a year later, while he stood in the same spot in his front door yard, at the same minute of the morning, there was the light of the sun bouncing off a window on the mountain.

I loved his fascination with the earth and its rotation and its rhythms, the migrations of whales, and the special grain of the wood boards which he loved to fashion into furniture, including a new Communion table to honor Marion’s memory (as well as Jesus’ !). He taught me to pay closer attention to natural wonders.

And finally (you are good to have come this far through all these words), Albert and I sat next to each other every Friday night at choir rehearsal. Yes, Friday night. What else was Friday for in our little town? He loved singing bass, lovingly maintained the modest pipe organ in the sanctuary, and faithfully kept track of people’s favorite hymns. If he had a soft side (and he had more than one), it showed in his deep devotion to the church choir. That impressed me.

Albert was quite ill by the time I left that village for my next call. His death came a few months later. Besides memories, I have a tangible artifact that I had meant to leave with him while he was well enough to enjoy it. It was a model plane, the P-38 Lightning, the plane he couldn’t see well enough to fly during WWII, but that he maintained as an engineer in the Army Air Corps. I never finished it. But when I do, I’ll think about Albert, and wonder where he has gone.

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