April 2011


It is Easter Day as I write this. Time to put the Lenten decorations back in the attic: the purple, the wood and nails, the minor chords. This is the day we retrieve the box of alleluias we had put away, and it is the season of joy and light and promise that we want to celebrate from this day forward.

One thing I’ll be putting away is the discipline of writing almost daily about someone whose life journey touched mine (or brushed by, or lighted my path) and made me more who God called me to be. Forty days to write of forty people. And none of them was a “stretch,” that is, when I got to Easter’s Eve, I didn’t have to make anyone up! Nor exaggerate. In fact, I could go on…

There were other teachers, and other pastors, and many more friends, and relatives. And I could have named some authors, too, people I’d met only through their words, but people who did feed my spirit along a shared journey. I might have written of Edmund Steimle, a Lutheran pastor I heard many times on the old “Protestant Hour” radio program. His theology was progressive and his delivery was conversational. The man communicated and did it prophetically. Yes, he was an influence on my radio personna.

I could have written about some of the children and youth of my churches, for they too taught me, and nurtured my understanding of the unconditional love of Christ.

I could have written about my own two children, such impressive adults now, so beloved by my wife and me that I swear that a private prayer never passes my lips without its giving thanks for the gift of Wendy and Jim. But, goodness, it was hard enough to write just a few paragraphs about Joan, failing to do justice to her heart, soul, and voice. Sometimes we are just too close to those whom we love so deeply that without the words of a poet and the music of a great composer, we can’t adequately express what is in the heart. Trust me; it is a glorious and life-giving too-close-ness that is so right that if you gave me ten seconds I could produce tears of joy.

So, yes, I could have written more. But the forty days are up. And I will take a sabbatical of sorts. Spring is coming, at last, to Upstate New York. And the hour or two (usually two) I spent each day through Lent at this keyboard I now need to devote to something beyond sitting in the nook where I write.  Besides, there’s something wrong with my chair. It keeps sinking lower. There are bike rides and hikes to take, some baseballs that need throwing, and some pounds to lose.

And there is a trip to take. They say Denmark has some good jazz.

And then, eventually, in the fullness of time, I will have to write about the next forty who will change my life, or let it be.

In the meantime, I pray for you, for us all really, peace, grace, and jazz. And if jazz isn’t your thing, then let peace and grace suffice!

It is Easter! “He is risen!”

And then you say….

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Joan and I assisted our pastor Pat Raube with today’s Good Friday service at noon. Pat had asked Joan to share some ideas for this first-in-a-long-while Good Friday worship at Union Presbyterian Church in Endicott. Between the two of them, they designed an appropriately moving occasion for readings, hymns, and prayer. I was glad to have a role in the readings and liturgy.

Joan and I have both retired, and for almost the first time in some 42 years can worship together side by side, same church, same pew. When we met at college, Joan was preparing for a vocation in church music at the school’s Conservatory of Music, and I was a pre-ministerial student in the Religion Department. When we took the chaplain’s Pre-marriage Seminar together, I’m sure it must have occurred to us that one day we might work together in the same church. I don’t recall that ever being the plan, however. Good thing. Would have been a waste of a plan, because we never did work for the same church.

First of all, and well-documented here previously, I wasn’t called to be a pastor of churches, at least not for the first 19 years of my ministry. I did radio. And Joan answered the call to be a church musician (usually both organist and choir director) wherever the way was clear; that wasn’t always a Presbyterian congregation. In fact, it rarely was. She played in three Presbyterian churches during her career, but also played the organ and led choirs in Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, and UCC congregations. So the likelihood of our finding a position where I was pastor and she was the musician were close to nil.

What we did best together was enjoy one another’s friendship and love together, create a warm and welcoming home, and raise two wonderful (or insert another very special positive adjective  or six here________________) children, Wendy and Jim. This is not the place to write about what a good marriage we celebrate or to express my gratitude to her for all she means to me. This is the last of my forty entries about the people in my life who have contributed in profound and lasting ways to my Christian faith and vocation. While I didn’t make a list of those forty at the outset of this Lenten journey, and would never in a million and one years try to rank the forty, I did know from the very start that Joan Maisch Kellam would be on my list, and near the top. (Yes, near… I did write of Jesus, after all!)

So, while we did not work together professionally in the same church building, we did share a ministry in the same Church, capital C: the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, and often in the same building, that is, our home. As we raised our children, we did our best to live up to the sacred promises we made at their baptisms. Together, pastor-father, musician-mother, created a church within our home, where prayers were prayed and songs sung, where Christian holidays were treated as the holy days they were, and where we nurtured the faith of our own family always within the wider family of faith in local congregations.

Maybe it was a good thing that I didn’t serve as a pastor until later in my vocation. Because my kids never had to be PKs — Preacher’s Kids. I wasn’t the preacher of the churches they were raised in. So they weren’t under the stereotypical scrutiny of church parishioners whose steady gaze apparently turns normal children into monsters. (Since I am one of those ministers who was not raised in a manse or parsonage, I wasn’t a PK either, but I understand that there have been such things in some churches.)

As I look back on the days when our children were growing up, I realize that it was a good thing for them to be exposed to our common Presbyterian heritage, the denomination in which both Joan and I were raised, as well as those other traditions where Joan provided music leadership. When Christmas and Easter and other special liturgical occasions came around in the Episcopal Church where Joan played, or in the Lutheran or UCC churches, Wendy, Jim, and I would go to share in the services Joan helped lead. Yes, it supported Joan’s ministry of music, but it also communicated to our children that the beliefs of other Christians were as valid and meaningful as our own.

Yes, that is one way that Joan and I shared in ministry, albeit informally. But eventually, we began to grow together vocationally. While I had always appreciated Joan’s musical talents and creativity, it took two events to draw us into a kind of vocational nexus. God called me into pastoral ministry, gently and part-time at first, but eventually into full-time solo pastorates. And summer Worship and Music Conferences at Montreat,NC provided for us a shared experience of learning, spiritual renewal, and fresh approaches to worship design and leadership.

At Montreat, Joan would find master classes in organ performance and conducting. I would attend courses and seminars related to worship planning and preaching. We would go to some classes together, such as Bible studies or Psalm singing. We would both sing in the choir, sometimes 600 voices strong. We would share our ideas and dreams while we grabbed lunch between our busy schedules. And when we got home, we were eager to make liturgy more lively in our respective churches.

Then we started to think, wouldn’t it be fun to do some of this new stuff together? What if we looked for a church that wanted both a pastor and a church musician at the same time? One trusted friend warned us that that wasn’t necessarily a good step for a church to take. Yet we knew of clergy couples sharing a call in one congregation. It must work somewhere, we reasoned. Yet, for one reason or another, or many, we didn’t pursue that vision. There may still be time to try something together though. (More about that in a couple of paragraphs.)

Joan has been a steady and faithful guide for me in my pastoral role. At Montreat, we often heard of rifts between musician and pastors. Maybe it was a matter of musical tastes clashing. Or, the pastor was making unreasonable demands on the hired musical hands. Or, the organist just wanted to be left alone: you preach your sermons and don’t tell me what to play or how fast or slow to play it! But thanks to common experiences at Montreat, and because we have grown together in our faith and in our understanding of church ministry and mission, and because we share similar theological dialects — we do good work together!

Joan has such a good sense of the flow of worship, and she has such theological and musical integrity, that I often asked her help in working out my own services. I would call downstairs from my study at home, “Oh, ‘hymn-lady’ … is #242 singable?” Or, “I need a closing hymn that fits with the theme of ‘taking steps.'”  Or, “Remind me what this tune sounds like.”

But more than those minor mechanics, Joan has a creative streak that finds new ways to sing, pray, and act the faith we profess. I loved watching her move from the organ bench at her last church, and walk up the center aisle teaching and leading an unfamiliar but utterly singable African or Latin American song. At first the parishioners are startled, then calmed, then joining in, smiling and singing at the same time.

I love the fact that Joan values integrity in worship and music, knowing that our worship is centered only on God, not on the personalities of worship leaders or on whether pew sitters are having a good time. Is God having a good time? That is the question. Or, is God embarrassed at the silly jingles or TV co-anchor chat that contemporary culture injects as a drug into sanctuaries, film at 11 (or video at 10?).

Though I’ve gotten carried away with my own words again (it took 10 to say that), I must note Joan’s pastoral skills, too. As a church choir director, Joan served as a pastor to her musical flock, noting their joys and concerns, always letting them know she cared about them. And when a church posse came after me in one congregation, a small but vocal group of complainers, Joan knew how hurt I was, and though she too felt the sting, she was incredibly, pastorally supportive during that rough stretch.

I have kidded my wife about how we really couldn’t ever have worked together successfully in a church. I am a day-at-a-time kind of planner, and she plans w-a-y ahead, as musicians must do. But we have both moderated our styles over the years. So, if the way be clear, and if grace abounds, as it always has, we hope to join our creative spirits in designing some special church services called “Hymn Festivals,” and sharing those occasions with churches that would enjoy (why not?) a special Sunday when, through liturgy, proclamation, and choral music, the service integrates those gifts to interpret a single theological theme. Forgiveness. Faith journey. Names for God. The parables of Jesus. Baptism.

That grand idea will certainly work… especially if I follow her lead.

[I have one more entry in this series, a kind of conclusion as Easter brings its new beginning. Watch this space:]

“Dr. E. T. ” is what almost everyone called him. And that was before anyone had heard of the other E.T., the one who called home in the movie.

“Dr. E. T.” was Ernest Trice Thompson, the patriarch of what was once called the Southern Presbyterian Church. Once upon a time in the American Civil War, the Presbyterians split over cultural, social, and theological issues, and when I was growing up in the 1950s, there was the so-called “northern church” (the United Presbyterian Church in the USA, formed by a 1958 merger of two other once-divided churches) and the more aptly called “southern church” (the Presbyterian Church in the United States). When I was ordained in 1969, I was caught between them.

I grew up and was ordained in the UPCUSA, but I was asked (required?) to transfer my membership to the PCUS almost immediately, since I would be employed in ministry related to the southern church, working in Richmond. The UPCUSA folks didn’t want to be responsible for me at such a distance.

At the time, I didn’t think it was a big deal to change denominations. The Southern Church required just a rather awkward re-examination on my “views,” a pesky hoop to jump through. My leap through the hoop almost bent the thing out of shape. I messed up one answer so badly that the chair of the examining committee asked the premier Old Testament scholar of the time, John Bright, “What are you people teaching over at that school house?” — the school being Union Theological Seminary in Virginia where Dr. Bright taught. Taught me. I have conveniently forgotten Bright’s answer. I do recall the probing question put to me, though. What doctrine of the atonement did I find most attractive in my own theological thinking? I’m still not sure.

Now, by this time, Dr. E. T. Thompson had five years before retired as the school’s professor of church history. But Dr. E. T. still lived in Richmond, and was considered both the “grand old man” of the former Hanover Presbytery and the revered saint of the whole denomination. In an earlier day, however, Dr. E. T. had survived a church heresy trial, where, to make this story simple, it boiled down to the conservative, yea, verily, even fundamentalist wing of the church versus the progressive, yes, liberal champion of higher biblical criticism, E. T. Thompson. E. T. survived the fight, and went into his later years vindicated by history.

E. T. also had helped found an independent and progressive Presbyterian magazine called “The Presbyterian Outlook,” (to which I still subscribe). His name was on the mast-head until he died in 1985 at the age of 90. The obit in the New York Times mentioned not only his early advocacy for racial integration and civil rights, but also for the full recognition and ordination of women in the denomination. The obituary also noted his many published works, which included the definitive history of the Presbyterian Church in America. But at his death what he was most noted for was his successful campaign for the reunification of the two main branches of the American Presbyterian church, to heal the rift that had divided the church since the War Between the States.

That reunion took place in Atlanta in 1983. It was the only Presbyterian General Assembly to which I was elected a commissioner, and what a thrill it was to participate in the vote that reunited the church of my childhood and the church in which I was serving as a minister. There, physically feeble, wheelchair-bound, but mentally as sharp as ever, was Dr. E T.  I took a photograph of him just after the vote, and tied to his wheelchair were colorful helium balloons!

In my early days in Hanover Presbytery, that is, the decade from 1970 to 1980 or so, we could always count on Dr. E. T.’s wisdom as he stood before the microphones during various debates on the floor of Presbytery. Whatever he said, I believed. However he voted, I followed. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he was a fan of mine, too, but  Dr. E. T. knew of my radio ministry, and of my then unorthodox format of secular rock music aimed at a young audience. And on more than one occasion, he told me that while he wasn’t a listener himself, he thought it was a wise and effective approach. That meant a lot to me.

When he was in his late 80s, I had an opportunity to take the school’s video equipment over to Dr. E. T.’s home to tape a conversation between him and one of his north side Richmond neighbors, another professor at Union Seminary, Wellford Hobbie. The topic was a denominational study paper entitled “Peacemaking: The Believers’ Calling.” I met E. T. Thompson in his kitchen where we talked about a book he’d been reading, a history of Western Civilization, some thousand pages in length. It was a warm summer morning, so we thought his back yard might be cooler than the house, and I set up the equipment there.

Hobbie arrived and took the lead on the conversation about the paper, but E. T.’s comments were sharp, direct, and, not surprisingly, quite supportive of what would be a controversial document. After all, it advocated peace. And peacemaking. And emphasized that it was the calling of every believer.

I treasure the copy of the video that I still have. It is a piece of Presbyterian history. A professor of church history who made history. I pray that if I live to be anywhere near 90, that is kind of 90 I want to be: not just still breathing, but still teaching, still advocating for peace and justice, and, maybe even a servant of the best the Church can be. At least, I’d like someone to tie some balloons to my chair!

When I started this blog called “Peace, Grace, and Jazz!” it was to allow me a great deal of latitude (read freedom) to write about all manner of topics, rather than just the more narrowly focused “Celebration Rock” e-journal I had previously authored. Today, we do focus on jazz, but not to the exclusion of the other two gifts of life.

It’s easy to identify the Rev. Mr. Bill Carter as one whom I’ve followed along the path of faith, but harder to write about him. After all, I “work” with him, collaborate on projects, listen to and thoroughly enjoy his music, and will see him at the Firehouse Stage Baldwin piano tonight at a concert that celebrates April as Jazz Appreciation Month. He composes and plays jazz, and I appreciate it. Teamwork.

A sometime radio ministry colleague Greg Hartung is the one who first introduced Bill and me. Was it at a national conference about “preaching?” Washington, D.C.? The thing I remember best is that we had lunch together, the three of us, and we drew strength from all the creativity around the table, if not the slaw-laden Reubens. I knew Bill Carter as the founder/leader of the Presbybop Quartet. It was good that day to get to know him as a friend. Especially since I was already a fan.

I’ve previously written here that my Mom introduced me to big band jazz through the shellac 78s that she had played during the war years (that’s WWII FYI), and as a kid I further scratched up her Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Harry James, and Ralph Flanagan records. My first exposure to “live” music was at big band concerts at the old IBM Country Club in Endwell, NY: the Dorsey Band, Flanagan, the Hi-Lo’s. And in college, my first radio interview ever was with George Shearing.

In the early 1970s I started a radio show on Richmond’s Public Radio station, “Headset Jazz,” playing jazz just for fun on Saturday nights. And on my “Celebration Rock” show, I had broken format a couple of times to feature “liturgical jazz,” by Howard Hanger, Eddie Bonnemere, and others, as examples of jazz going back to church. It is easy to argue that the roots of jazz are the “spirituals” of lament and joyfilled hopefulness sung by slaves in the fields and plantation cabins of the U.S. southland. Thus, jazz was finding its way back to communities of faith.

By the time Greg Hartung got me and Bill in the same restaurant booth, I was producing a syndicated jazz show for Greg’s Presbyterian Media Mission out of Pittsburgh (“The Spirit of Jazz”), and Bill had recorded an album I reviewed (very favorably, of course) for “Presbyterians Today” magazine. I learned that Bill was (and still is) a Presbyterian pastor in Pennsylvania, while composing jazz compositions and performing with his quartet of piano, sax, bass, and drums. And Bill had had a lesson or several from the legendary Dave Brubeck, at Brubeck’s home of all places.

Now, the actual chronology of all of all this learning is fuzzy. But I know that the next time we got together was a weekend for “jazz in the church” fans that Bill headed up at our denomination’s Stony Point Conference Center, just north of NYC. The conferees were to give Dave Brubeck an award for his many religious jazz compositions. Brubeck and his wife and daughter attended, and as he listened to recordings of his music in Bill’s plenary session, Brubeck’s fingers moved over his knee as if it were a keyboard. Eventually, he went to the aging upright piano and played some things for us.

So, yes, it was magic to be in Dave Brubeck’s presence, thanks to Bill’s imaginative conference planning, but that weekend also put me back in touch with someone in my high school past. When Bill introduced his Presbybop Quartet, he reported the hometowns of the players, and the sax player Al Hamme was from my hometown! His first teaching job was in my high school in my junior year. In the years that have passed since that conference, I’ve moved back home and discovered Al’s celebrity here runs deep.  He’s been long retired from university jazz studies programs, but still draws musicians together for concerts (like tonight’s) and bi-weekly jams.

Bill in the meantime amazes me with his multi-tasking abilities of serving a church as solo pastor, leading a significant Presbytery committee (yes, there are some insignificant committees), composing and performing and recording jazz, and being a family guy. He is far more Internet savvy than I, and his Presbybop Music projects pop up on Facebook, YouTube, CD Baby, Mail Chimp, you-name-we’re-on-it. I have a lot to learn from him about all that.

Alongside the technical-digital-electronic stuff, or more accurately way beyond all that, is a profound sense of the Spirit that inspires and invades and breathes through Bill’s music. His jazz is prayer. His jazz comes from sojourns at Iona in Scotland, a monastery in New Mexico, the Presbyterians’ Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, NM, and, one would expect, at his piano there in his living room. Sometimes we find the Spirit, and sometimes we are found. Most often the latter.

Bill’s personal friendship is spiritually edifying for me, of course. And his music inspires in at least two ways. For one thing, on a personal level, it provides a soundtrack for the hopes, dreams, headlines, and drama of what life brings day by day. His “Psalms Without Words” 2-CD set includes enough lament and praise to cover whatever happens between the time we rise in the morning and fall back into bed at night. Bill’s music is more than liturgical, meant for more than expressions of worship. (Notice in the Gospels how little time Jesus spends “in church” compared to being on the road?) Jazz helps us in our own improvisational responses to whatever Providence and Grace offer as we live and breathe.

Now the other thing is this: back in my radio days, early on, I used to play recordings of Malcolm Boyd, an Episcopal priest who wrote a book of prayers entitled Are You Running with Me, Jesus? Boyd took his prayers into night clubs like the “Hungry i” in San Francisco, and read them from a spotlighted stool on stage. Occasionally jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd accompanied Boyd’s meditations. It was “church” witnessing to its message in an unorthodox way in an unorthodox space.

So there is Bill Carter playing a jazz Psalm on stage at the Scranton Jazz Festival or on public TV. I love it. As Martin Bell put it as the subtitle to his book The Way of the Wolf, it is the Gospel in new images.

I had the privilege recently of working with Bill on a video about the making of his most recent jazz project, a Presbybop Quartet CD called “Interior Window.” It was great fun to follow the band into the recording studio and watch the tracks come together, from Bill’s manuscripts to the digital mix in the state-of-the-art control room. I shot video throughout the day, and combined my images with some video Bill and I had shot previously. Editing all that together on my home computer (using Pinnacle’s Studio HD Ultimate editing software, for you techies) was a huge challenge, and I got embarrassingly befuddled looking for a file of this scene or that interview. Bill was pushing me beyond my comfort level, which I’m assured is a good thing in the creative process, but he was also calming, rather confidently so, knowing I could do what needed to be done — even if I wasn’t that sure.

So, at the jazz concert tonight, Bill will deliver to me the professionally duplicated and handsomely labeled final product, “A Short Film by Jeff Kellam.” The whole thing is a far cry from my video days and nights at the old Presbyterian School of Christian Education. And even further from my days as “the video minister” at a downtown Richmond, Va. church where the emerging technology was VHS.

So, yes, Bill Carter is one of the forty I have followed, been inspired by, and learned from. This old dog is still learning new tricks. And improvising. In retirement, thanks to people like Bill, my life is indeed a riff.

I was fairly happy with most of the video programs we produced at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education. The majority showed evidence of our low budgets and our entry-level video equipment, but we did good work with what we had. What we lacked in state-of-the-art technology, we made up for in creativity and pedagogical effectiveness. I just watched a copy of a program we produced on “Family Wellness: A New Model for Family Ministry,’ and there is still some good material there after some 20+ years.

On the other hand… there was the program we did on the mentor-protegé relationship. I cringe even now just thinking about it. Our school was asked to create that video and study guide for the national Presbyterian Men’s organization. It was to be shown at their big annual breakfast, and then distributed to chapters around the country. The theme chosen for the year’s study was mentoring. The video was to present something of the philosophy behind the concept, including biblical principles, and then to show a couple of real life examples of mentors and proteges telling their stories. So far, so good.

Somehow we came upon a wonderful example of a Richmond area mentor, a man who worked at an A&P super market as a butcher. He had taken under his wing a young man from his neighborhood who had just been released from jail. The older man described their African-American neighborhood, how it did “take a village” to provide role models and parental discipline for the youth of the community, and how he had come to mentor that one young man who’d been in trouble with the law. The A&P employee was driving his new friend to church on Sundays, keeping in touch through the week, and generally helping the guy make a healthy transition back into the life of the neighborhood.

I went to the A&P store with camera and lights and interviewed the mentor. There he stood in his meat-stained white apron.  I’ll always remember his line, “I don’t know if you’d call me a mentor. I just try to carry myself in such a way that it helps people see a Christian life.” I then drove into what might be described as a tenement area, and interviewed the young man. It was the perfect example of how mentoring could work to change lives. But, we needed another example. The deadline for the completion of the project loomed, and I told the President of the School that I hadn’t identified another two men to tell their stories. (As I write that, I know how strange it is to write of “two men,” knowing full well that women can and do fulfill those same roles. However, this program, I remind you, was designed for the Presbyterian Men’s group.)

Someone suggested that I myself was a mentor. My “protegé” was Matt Matthews. Now, it may very well have been that informally Matt and I had that kind of relationship. Matt and I had met over burgers when he was a college student and I was doing radio. Matt later went into seminary on the campus across the road from our school, and he took an interest in media, particularly radio, but also slide shows and video, all somewhat of an extension of his degree in journalism and his call to ministry.  (At one point, Matt would take over a live Sunday night hour that I had started, a relief for me and a testing of the waters for him.)

That first meeting at lunch had led to many conversations and shared projects, including a video I am still very fond of. In moving into the formal process of “coming under care” of his Presbytery (opening the way to ordination), Matt wanted to go beyond the  standard, required written paperwork he was to submit to the presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry. He proposed that we work on a video that showed his faith journey in his local church, his love of the Hampton Roads – Chesapeake Bay area, and an earnest verbal description of his call to full-time Christian ministry, perhaps in media. We used a  hit song of the Little River Band (“Cool Change”) as part of the soundtrack, and I loved shooting the scenes in Hampton, Va.

So, yes, maybe this was a mentor-protegé thing. But the very awkward part, very, very awkward, was my producing a program about myself, that is, using myself as a major piece of the content of the half-hour. Stranger still was pointing the camera at Matt and asking him to describe our teacher-learner relationship. Finally, and most strange, was the after hours video I shot of myself talking about being a mentor. The deadline for the program was past, I was desperate to finish it, and for some reason I found myself alone in the Video Education Center that night, and had to get the thing taped. Essentially, I set the lights, attached camera to tripod, previewed the camera shot, pinned on the microphone, and interviewed myself!

Weird, yes. Unseemly? I don’t even know what that means, but probably so. Yet I thought, well…if people don’t pay attention to the closing post-production credits, maybe no one who sees the tape will know that the producer used himself as an example of mentoring. Unfortunately, someone I knew did see the video and could tell that I had produced my own segment, just by the way I talked to the camera in an empty room. So, even today I cringe.

“But enough about me; let’s talk about my protegé,” he smiled as he typed. Since this series of reflections is about how some forty people have provided spiritual and vocational guidance, shepherding, and/or nurturing to me through my life, maybe this is a kind of turning the tables on the mentor thing. To be sure, every “mentor” would be well advised to learn a few things from the “protegé,” right?  Well, here’s how my friendship with Matt has shaped my understanding of ministry and life.

Among other things, I have thoroughly enjoyed our friendship. We have backpacked along a section of the Appalachian Trail, attended the annual NABS-
WACC (an ecumenical broadcasting group) conference together, took cameras out to shoot nature’s beauty, and shared an appreciation for movies. Not incidentally, I was his best man at his wedding to Rachel.

More to the point in this space is that I’ve learned from him the value of leaping into creative projects that many folks only imagine or daydream about. Yes, Matt is a pastor, and a story-telling preacher, with literary gifts that express gospel truths through fictional narrative. He has shared his stories with me through the years, and I am always intrigued by his creative and sometimes playful insights. Matt is also a musician, a guitar-playing troubadour who not only writes his own songs, but has the common sense to surround himself with talented musicians who enrich the mix of his concerts and recordings. See, I only dream of writing short stories. And I never  practiced any musical instrument long enough to actually make a pleasurable sound. And I’m not much on collaboration. Yet, I do see in Matt Matthews’  lively ministry some hope for my own, even in my retirement. Heck, I’m writing now, aren’t I? (Don’t ask me to do this 40 day thing in meter or rhyme though.)

And Matt’s latest triumph (and I have carefully used that word) is his newly published novel Mercy Creek. What a good read this book is! Since I have read much of his early writing, I can attest to the progress he’s made as an author. He has matured in his ability to move us into the heart of his imagination. I started to go on about Mercy Creek, but will save my review until my forty essays have come to an end. Just watch this space, though.

I guess Matt did indeed go into media ministry, but instead of following me in radio-video, he uses the media of stories and songs to broadcast the gospel seeds of compassion and justice, of unconditional love, and peace that is within reach, if not at hand. What a blessing to have such friends around us! And what a good and pleasant thing it is when protegés turn the tables on us.

Meriwether Anderson Sale. I think that’s his full  name. But we just called him Andy. He was one person whom I very literally followed along a path.

Back in the 1970s, long before he had become a Presbytery Executive in Virginia, Andy was the Associate Pastor at the church our family attended in Richmond. A few years after Andy and Bill Painter occupied that post at the Bon Air Church, I was called to follow them there in that role. As I have added to this Lenten journey journal each of these forty days, I’ve thought about the many folk whose lives have influenced mine in holy ways. Today, I think about Andy, not so much for his official role at church, but because he  introduced me to what became a sacred place: the Appalachian Trail.

While Andy was on staff at Bon Air, part of his responsibility was youth ministry. I was working in media ministry, but not at a particular church back then, so I was free to worship where I pleased and Bon Air was my choice, and that of my family. I was either teaching the senior high Sunday School class at the time, or serving as a youth group advisor, when Andy announced a five-day trek on part of the Appalachian Trail that runs through western Virginia. It was for senior highs, but he needed some adults to go along too.

I wasn’t much on camping. In fact, I don’t know if I’d been in a sleeping bag or tent since my limited Boy Scout Tenderfoot days. But I went to the orientation session that Andy put together, and I liked what I heard about the physical challenge of the trip, as well as experiencing the scenic wonder of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Plus, I got a radio interview of it, with Andy describing the preparatory details (physical training, what to pack, and how this youth event would build community), and the theological rationale behind it all. (Yes, I still have the cassette tape of the final show.)

I bought hiking boots, and followed Andy’s advice about breaking them in. In fact, I decided to walk from my house to the church in those boots, just to get a feel for the long miles ahead. It was about a four mile walk, and I did feel it. And I thought to myself, if these boots hurt along this flat road…wait ’til I climb a mountain in them. Yikes!

Then I had to buy a backpack, a sleeping bag, and maybe a small tent. (Not sure if that were required, since we planned on hiking shelter-to-shelter, something discouraged these days due to trail wear and tear.) Canteen? Check. Dehydrated food? Yum. Check. Clean socks? Yep.

We met at the church on a summer Monday morning, drove west 90 minutes or so, and started the hike. We camped that night in a shelter. Arose the next morning, and after breakfast, we started out again. As we hiked, I documented the trip on film. Lunch. Hike. Rest. Snack. Hike. Hurt. Camp. The second day.

And so it went. Tolerable meals, multiple complaints from the sneaker wearers, and spiders in the shelters. A few wild animal sounds at night. Skinny dipping in the cold creek, girls upstream and out of sight. Leaping into that pool took my breath away. I remember starting out one morning, midway through the week, thinking how hot it was already in the hour after breakfast, but how refreshing the dew was that rolled off the foliage onto our bare arms as we brushed by. By week’s end, one girl had called her parents from a country store pay phone, asking them to come get her; her feet were blistered and bloody.

The rest of us made it. Physically, it was the most demanding week I had ever endured. Spiritually, it was the most rewarding journey. Part of it was that we had persevered and survived, though Andy, the veteran hiker, had never doubted the survival part. But mostly, it was the idea of having climbed to the top of a mountain like “The Priest,” and paused for all too short a respite to enjoy a magnificent panorama that no one could fully appreciate without having suffered on the way up.

Andy was a good guide, pushing us and pastoring us, chiding and encouraging, leading us in prayers and imparting the wisdom of the trail mile by mile. At the end of the trip, when I met Joan in the church parking lot with my five-day beard, I went for a kiss, but got a welcome home handshake instead. I’ve been clean-shaven ever since.

I am so grateful for Andy’s introducing me to hiking the AT, for that journey was the first of many along that mountainous pathway. My son Jim and I hiked sections of the trail twice. On one trip, he did trip, and suffered a slight wrist fracture. He had just told me he was tired, but it was so close to lunch, and I saw dark clouds rolling in, so I suggested we go just a little further. That’s when he fell on the rocks. And then the clouds did come forth, and lightning, and loud clashing thunder, and drenching rain. On a mountain peak. Amid the trees. We didn’t have time to pitch a tent, so we just huddled under our ponchos, and I prayed aloud that we would be safe.

When the rains subsided for a time, we set up camp, cooked supper while we could (at about four o’clock in the afternoon), and then we entered the tent for the longest night I’ve ever spent anywhere. It was my first experience of claustrophobia. At 4 a.m., I finally had to spring from the tent into the drizzling rain just to catch my breath!

At sunrise, after a hurried breakfast, we broke camp, and with his wrist throbbing, we found our way down the mountain to a ranger station telephone, and called Joan to pick us up early. A local hospital X-ray confirmed a cracked bone, and we drove home. But even after all that, Jim and I still recall the hike as a fun and fulfilling father-son time.

The other AT hike we took was less dramatic, though a dried-up spring meant our water supply ended long before the hike did. It’s amazing how thirsty one can be when there’s no promise of relief any time soon. From that day forward, I’ve been an advocate of clean water and well-drilling and cisterns in developing countries.

Another hiking companion along the Appalachian Trail was Matt Matthews, a friend much younger than I, and able to leap big rocks in a single bound, while I hobbled forth with bad knees. And he wore sneakers while I was outfitted properly with those old boots. Still, there’s a lot to be said for youth. And the less said about my knees the better. That’s why my backpacking days are over —  though, thank the Lord, not my hiking days.

Out of that hike with Matt, a hike filled with friendship and even theological meanderings, came one of my favorite Advent sermons, “Christmas Along the Appalachian Trail,” in which I re-imagined a conversation with Matt about the Christmas story, a kind of dialogue that put new flesh on the old bones of the Incarnation story (sorry). To bring this reflection full circle, I preached that sermon as the Associate Pastor of the Bon Air Presbyterian Church, giving praise to God, and thanks to Andy Sale for his shepherding along the Trail.

Having gotten just a day behind, here’s where I catch up by writing about a couple of folks in one entry. John and Katherine Paterson have both provided significant spiritual guidance along my path of faith and ministry.

John is a retired Presbyterian minister who chaired the Committee on Ministry of the Presbytery of Northern New England when I was called to the East Craftsbury Church in Vermont. That formality aside, John became a supportive and dependable colleague once I got settled in my church there. I don’t know if John knew much about me prior to my arrival in the North Country. Since he had gone to Vermont from a Virginia pastorate, as I was doing, and since Katherine and I had become acquainted when I was doing video at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (she was an alum and on the Board there), I guess John had a “heads up” of some kind.

My first impression of John in his COM role was that he would be a protector of a pastor’s professional standard. That is, since I was being called to a three-quarter time position, John wanted to be certain that I only worked three-quarter time. He urged me to only preach three Sundays out of four, to keep the contract between me and the congregation honest. I couldn’t see relinquishing my place in the pulpit to someone else once a month, so I assured him that I would find other ways to, well, slack off. John trusted me to work it out, which I did. (Things eventually went so well  that the church grew and its budget expanded enough to extend the call to full-time.)

The more I got to know John, the more I came to appreciate his leadership in Presbytery, part social conscience and part community-builder. And a large chunk of friendship. The church John served was in Barre, and near Montpelier, the state capital. His congregation was in partnership with several community groups, and when John got wind of financial grants that would address serious social needs within his city or our state, he would write or call and invite our churches to partner in mission. Sometimes his ideas stretched us beyond our cozy little picturesque communities. But we needed that prophetic prod. One grant was to help the poor and disenfranchised find affordable (or was it free?) dental care. Others would feed hungry neighbors.

John’s concern for social justice led him to run for the Vermont State Legislature. (I helped voice his radio spots, one of my very few broadcast endeavors since leaving Richmond.) John was an organizer in Presbytery as well, similar in oratorical style to the pastor with whom I had worked in Richmond, Bob Busey. Both men were able to speak to issues extemporaneously, articulately, clearly, and effectively. Those are adverbs that are foreign to my own speaking style in public meetings, sad to say. I need both notes and guts. That’s why I follow the leaders.

As I look back on John’s influence on my ministry in Vermont, I have to note his pastoral support of his colleagues in ministry in the other Vermont Presbyterian churches. I recall a retreat that got most of us together at a local camp. And through his encouragement, we gathered in his and other homes for much-appreciated conversation and discussion. Many, many miles separate the eight or nine Presbyterian churches in the state, and it was easy to become detached and downright lonely in ministry there, but John worked hard to keep that from happening.

I must mention one more thing about John, something I learned when we first visited the Paterson’s home. John ardently supports local artists and has something of the artist burning in himself. He had collected a gallery’s worth of art objects, and built that gallery as an addition to his home. When he first guided us up the stairs, I was amazed at the variety of art forms on display, from oils and water colors, to sculpture and paper arts. And it was all by folks with whom John had a personal connection. If a person is known by the company he or she keeps, John is not only a connoisseur of the arts, but an artist himself.

Hanging in the front window of our home is an opaque section of glass on which John has applied stained glass lettering, to form in Hebrew characters, the word Shalom. Peace. Every time we visit John and Katherine, John holds up an object or three and tells us its story, or that of the artist. When we were taking leave one night, he handed me that stained glass art, and I have treasured it ever since.

Of course, John is a writer too. What preacher worth her or his salt of the earth isn’t? (Answer: those who ad lib ill-prepared homilies and wander about the front of the sanctuary trying to act folksy.) Having written countless sermons over the years, one would expect that John would know the craft of building a good sentence or two. He has co-authored at least four books, one with his son John Paterson Jr.,  (Roberto’s Trip to the Top, which we gave our grandsons recently) and the others with his wife Katherine.

Here we segue to add Katherine to the forty I’ve followed along my journey. Actually, I’ve known Katherine longer than I’ve known John. She came to the PSCE campus for an event of some sort, but truth be told, anytime Katherine came to campus, it was an event! The author of Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved was one of the school’s best known alumnae, and somehow the two of us connected to do a video interview at a local Richmond bookstore.

I fear the videotape is long gone by now, but it is one I would love to have. Not because it was such a good Q &  A on my part, but because it’s a record of our very first meeting. I could tell she was a pro at this book tour/interview kind of thing. Under hot lights, big camera lens, and pinned-on lapel microphone (“Just act natural…”) she was a gifted conversationalist. We talked about writing literature for children, about what makes a “Christian” book (and what doesn’t), and we discussed the “mouth” of The Great Gilly Hopkins, that is, Gilly’s swear words, right there for children to read!

When Joan and I arrived in Vermont, John and Katherine welcomed us, and we still enjoy their hospitality when we go north. Born of missionary parents in China, Katherine often serves meals that require chopsticks, and I smiled at that thought the other night as I struggled with the sticks at a local restaurant. I love the fact that the front door of their home leads right into the kitchen. It is the essence of a warm-hearted welcome. Along with the wine.

When Joan and I look back on our time in Vermont, we still recall with fondness an event that Katherine helped Joan pull together at the Barre Church. Joan had been an admirer of musician, composer, and arranger Alice Parker for many years. When Katherine said she knew Alice Parker, Joan’s eyes lit up and, the next thing we knew, Katherine and Joan had cooked up an Alice Parker “sing” at the Barre Church, attracting an ecumenical crowd of songsters, church folk, and car-key jinglers. (You had to be there.)

In Vermont, so frigid and snowbound so much of the year, with long distances between neighbors and sometimes even longer miles between friends, we knew we could count on John and Katherine Paterson for faith-filled friendship,  generous, and genuine.

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