In my previous post, I mentioned going to hear William Sloane Coffin, Jr. with my friend Bill Lingelbach. When I first started thinking about this Lenten discipline of giving up time to write each day about my mentors, teachers, pastors, and friends — those whom I have followed along the path of faith and ministry — Bill Lingelbach was one whose name came to mind early on.

They say that pastors have few friends. We have parishioners and acquaintances, but perhaps because so many people in ministry are introverts, we lack close friends. (One caution is that getting too close to a member of the congregation negates one’s ability to shepherd or counsel that person objectively. At least I think that’s how it goes.) Especially in small towns, colleagues in ministry are few, and time constraints and miles keep us apart. That is why Bill Lingelbach was such a gift to me.

I first met Bill when we were active on the Northeast Kingdom Habitat For Humanity board. I was in my first “solo” pastorate, a rural church in Vermont.  Bill was a psychotherapist, in private practice, but also serving in schools. My first impression of him, one reinforced over the years, was that Bill was one of the most gentle spirits I ‘ve ever met. He was almost childlike, sometimes even seeming naive, I thought. It’s not that he wasn’t bright — because he was — but he had such an appreciation of wonder. Now, that word encompasses a number of meanings, and all fit Bill, from simple curiosity to genuine awe.

I saw in his work with Habitat a soul-stirring compassion, and sensed in conversations with him a free-hearted spirituality that I admired. I remember a visit Bill made to a broken-down house trailer, with  an old stove  filling the home with far more smoke than heat, evidence of a bad leak in the roof, the residents among the poorest of the rural poor of Vermont. As Bill described the visit, there were tears in his eyes. Not the best kind of wonder.

I think that at that time, Bill was the supply pastor of a nearby church, which was between ministers. Bill was a layperson, but had had some theological studies in his background. It was only a part-time position, yet he knew how to be a shepherd to a flock, and he was well-liked there.  

A few years after we became friends, Bill made the decision to take the necessary ecclesiastical examinations, and he was ordained and installed as pastor of a struggling little UCC church. I was privileged to join in the service that day, and I occasionally still wear the liturgical stole he gave me as a sign of friendship and gratitude. With a “regular” pastor on board, the church’s membership increased and the contributions Bill made there helped build the church’s spirit.

Even before his formal call to that church, he and I had been meeting every Tuesday morning at his house to consider the Lectionary texts for the week and share our study and ideas for sermons. More often than not,we would choose different readings to preach from, but just the idea of getting together every week was helpful. The wood stove would warm the room, and Bill’s dog would cozy up to one of us. Bill would make coffee with his French press, and I would search high and low for something sweet to put in my mug. (Apparently, refined sugar in the Lingelbach household was a rarity.)  Gosh, that coffee was bitter. (Not so, the cheap stuff I was used to.)

Often, we would trade our sermon manuscripts from the previous week, and I wondered (that word again) at the warm simplicity of Bill’s writing: the stories, the honest wrestling with the text, the people whose life situations he shared (while maintaining confidentiality I must add). My sermons rambled on, showing off my homework with the text, my words often in the way of the meaning. In fact, sometimes I admitted to Bill that I didn’t see much of the text in his sermons. He’d shrug and ask if that was a bad thing. I’d smile and say, no, not necessarily, but since we Presbyterians were people of the Word, I spent more of them trying to prove it!

During the years of our friendship, Bill’s marriage ended, he endured no little loneliness for quite some time, and then he met Jackie, whom he eventually married on a sunny afternoon amid a happy gathering of  folks who laughed and ate and drank there in his yard. The occasion reminded me of the scripture that said, “There was a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee…”

One other thing that was very significant in Bill’s life — he shared with me some times in his life when God intervened in very mysterious ways. Bill had seen what I considered more than his share of “signs.” I don’t mean little coincidences that we take to be “leadings” of some kind. I’m talking about visual appearances, faith informed by things seen with the eyes, and discerned with the heart. If anyone else had shared such things with me (well, of course, people did, but…) I would have been suspicious. But Bill I trusted. And I was relieved that God is (as the UCC reminds us even today) still speaking!

More than one Tuesday morning, on leaving his old Vermont house, I would drive home aware that he was just about my only close friend in town. When he told me in the parking lot of the Community Care Center one morning  that he had prostate cancer, it took my breath away. I remember the sound of his voice and the look on his face as he said it. It was as if he had just then gotten the news, and couldn’t quite believe it. He had had some tests, and the results didn’t look at all good.

He received treatment a couple of hours away in New Hampshire’s Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and the many drives over there and back gave several of us some quality “drive time” with Bill. As his health declined, it still strikes me as strange, very strange, that we saw much less of each other. One would have thought that friendship be a healing bridge, but there was this mysterious gulf instead.

Bill  and Jackie had joined the church where my wife Joan was the church musician. I knew the pastor there, and I guess I must have unconsciously, but very appropriately, given Bill over to her pastoral care. I just can’t explain it now, but my visits with him were so very few toward the end.  His funeral came tragically soon after that joyful wedding afternoon.

Bill’s influence on my life path involved finding that friendship is (as one might expect but not often enough experience) a sure foundation for faith-sharing; that we who preach each week must work harder at wonder; that what we preach can be communicated most effectively when we speak from the heart, warmly, honestly, sincerely; and that holding to some decidedly unorthodox theological views is refreshingly freeing, a liberation from what is expected, to what is more surprising as the Spirit moves.

Bill: gentle friend, compassionate intellect, child-like faith, a bit of mystery, and very strong coffee.

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