April 2015


Lent 2015 is coming to an end, and I write one last entry in this log of pastoral memories. As the season began, I chose to make this my primary Lenten discipline: to write each day, and to write about the pastoral work from which I was called into retirement. On the face of it, this daily activity doesn’t seem like much of a “discipline.” But, because I still try to write somewhat thoughtfully, and care about such old-fashioned things as syntax, style, and, yes, spelling, sometimes these little essays of mine took a couple of hours of each Lenten day. (I know…hard to believe, isn’t it?)

Now, it is the Saturday between Good Friday and Resurrection Day. Some call today “Holy Saturday.” Others “Black Saturday,” or its very opposite, the “Saturday of Light.” It’s also known as The Great Sabbath (Sabatum Sanctum). I like all of those better than “Easter Eve.”

Maybe we could just consider today “the day between…” — that is, between the grave darkness of Crucifixion Day and the brilliant Lightness of Resurrection Day. On this “day between…” I share one last remembrance of the pastorates I served. It involves candles.

Joan and I have a candle in almost every window of our home. They are electric candles, perhaps not as romantic or authentic as real flames, but a lot safer. We like light, especially when darkness falls and we are surrounded by light’s absence, that visual nothingness that a little flickering light can defeat. Maybe someone might think of these candles as little more than a nightlight in each room. But Joan and I think of them as far more.

Our consideration of such a thing goes back to a conference sponsored by the Presbyterian Association of Musicians, held at our alma mater Westminster College, in New Wilmington, PA. One summer evening after supper, we took a walk around the village and noticed a single white-bulbed candle shining in the front windows of most of the homes we passed. I later asked our by-then retired Dean of Students Graham Ireland why New Wilmington was filled with candles. “It”s just a sign of friendship and welcome,” he told us. Turns out, as we later paid more attention, it seemed to be a customary thing in many parts of Pennsylvania. (The tradition may have some Amish roots there, but going back further, this may be an Irish custom.)

We liked the idea. And when we got home, we pulled from the attic one of the candles we used at Christmastime, and put it in the front window of our Richmond house. At the time, U.S. forces were involved in the 1990 “Gulf War,” and on my weekly radio programs, I promoted the idea of putting a candle in the window to “keep Christmas” until troops came home, but also as a sign of peace. And hope. Light against the darkness. Like the parable of the sower, the idea spread (radio helped!), and we noticed that all over the Richmond area, candles appeared in windows well after Christmas was over.

Even when that “campaign” had played out, many candles remained, including that of our neighbor across the street, and the church where I served as Associate Pastor. The symbol of that little light had various meanings. Welcome. Peace. Safety. I’ve previously written on this site that one night a young woman seeking shelter from a storm of abuse found her way to a comforting friend’s home, and it was my friend’s “candle in the window” that literally lighted the way down a strange, dark road. “How will I find my way to your house?” the young woman asked on the phone.

“My house is the one with a candle in the front window.” A safe haven found.

When Joan and I moved to Vermont, we placed candles in the windows of the manse there, and one frigid night in the midst of Vermont’s seemingly unceasing winter, two strangers knocked on our door well after midnight. The young men had spun their car off the snowy road into a ditch, and hiked toward the only visible light they could see…our candles. “We saw the light,” one explained. “Can we borrow your phone so I can call my Dad?” Welcome, indeed. And a warm one.

The brown-shingled East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church was just across a small field from the manse. During those long winter nights, it stood dark against the landscape. I really wanted to see some spark of life there, and I thought a little spark of light would make a difference. So, I went up into the tower room and put a candle in the stained glass window. It was a sign of life. To me, a sign of peace. And, again, welcome, especially on those very dark nights. I was prepared to defend the constant burning of the candle against any complaints that we were wasting electricity. I would say, “Look, it’s only 4 watts; take it out of my pay.” But, of course, no one complained.

I know that when I moved from Bon Air Presbyterian Church in Virginia to Vermont, the interim pastor who followed me had the candle removed from the front window. He reportedly said, “I don’t think we need Jeff’s candle there anymore now that he’s gone.” He didn’t get it at all. And I suspect that when I left Vermont for New York State, that the candle there eventually went dark too. I guess it was my thing after all. There I was then in the Trumansburg church, and there in my study window, facing Main Street, I put a candle. Just a little sign again of life. And welcome. And peace. Light against whatever darkness one perceived.

And here we are. I no longer have a church to pastor. But there’s a candle in each window of our home. Of course, our home isn’t the only one with candles. A neighbor whom we’ve never met also keeps candles alight. From New Wilmington to Lancaster, from Williamsburg to Richmond, in Ireland and, I hope, in Jerusalem, candles burn, hope lives, welcome beckons, and people yearn for peace.

On this Saturday, the day between the times, called both black and light, we await the sunrise that will dawn with eternal light. Light, no longer flickering, not merely persistent, but shining with a brilliance that will never be extinguished. Easter.

A candle. and then, the Sunrise.

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Today is Good Friday (2015) and with tomorrow’s entry in this series I will have completed forty essays, one for each day in Lent. I’ve been writing reflections each day about my pastoral ministry, especially considering the confessions and celebrations that arose from my work in various churches. Today it seems appropriate to write of Good Friday and the way we shaped our commemoration of Jesus’ crucifixion.

As I grew up in my home church, Union Presbyterian Church, Endicott, NY (which is, thanks be to God, the church in which I worship in my retirement), I think I recall a fairly traditional ecumenical Good Friday service. I’m hedging here because I’m not certain of it; after all, it’s been many, many years. But here’s what I seem to remember happening. It was that prototypical three-hour service that ran from noon to 3 p.m., with various local pastors responsible for one of the “seven last words of Jesus.”

I do know that due to the heavily Roman Catholic population of my hometown, there was no school on Good Friday, and, leaning toward the ministry as a vocational choice as early as ninth grade, I was likely to have gone to church that day, and stayed for most if not all of the “last words.” I mention this traditional service because the custom carried forward to my first call of any length in pastoral work.

It was the mid-1980s in Richmond, Va., and I was serving as part of the pastoral leadership at the Bon Air Presbyterian Church. During at least some of my tenure there, we did host area pastors for that “seven last words” format. If memory serves (that phrase again), the service must have rotated among the several churches in our neighborhood, but I do recall Bon Air’s hosting it, and my occasional participation. With two pastors on staff, the preaching usually fell to the “senior” pastor, but I would have assisted in leading worship, and did, at least twice, offer my commentary on one of the “words.”

It is, as I’ve noted, a well-worn model. But I liked it for a couple of reasons. First, with many local clergy involved, it recognized that Good Friday was a day of profound meaning that we all held in common, despite our differences in polity and theology. “Christ crucified” was the message at the heart of the day, and drawing neighbors together for worship in one place was a sign of our oneness in Christ. Second, I appreciated the idea that though I might have some responsibility during the service, there was still time for me to be a worshiper, a listener, a learner. Preachers don’t have many opportunities to hear the Word proclaimed, but during those long Good Friday services, we all could hear someone else’s viewpoint and value their insights. (Or, squirm…there was that now and then.)

When I moved to Vermont, that format didn’t go with me. The community was very rural and there weren’t enough pastors in the neighborhood to fill that three-hour period. Plus, farmers couldn’t exactly take Good Friday off. I’m not sure what, if anything, the East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church had done on Good Friday before I arrived there. But with Joan and me so inspired by ideas absorbed annually at Montreat Worship and Music Conferences, I was determined to mark the day somehow. Joan would be playing the organ at her church in Danville, and the East Craftsbury organist wouldn’t be available (she taught physics at a nearby college), so I was on my own. I came up with providing resources for one’s private silent meditation, whenever one could stop by the open, warm church on that Friday.

Because this was new, we had few participants the first year, and maybe a couple more in subsequent years. Sometimes I found myself alone in the sanctuary, but that was helpful for me personally as I meditated on the meaning of the day.

One year, the East Craftsbury Church did have a powerful Good Friday service that was well-attended by the whole community. Proprietors of a Bed and Breakfast just down the road from the church were members of a nearby Episcopal Church, and also had a drama group that was working on a portrayal of the dark events of Good Friday. They offered to do the play at our church and we quickly accepted. Someone had built a huge wooden cross for the drama, and a young actor portrayed Jesus being crucified, complete with theatrical bloodshed. It was far from hokey. The script, the actors, the live musical accompaniment — it was, pardon the expression, awesome —  far beyond what we had expected that night in our small rural church. We left that service in utter silence.

By the next year, the B&B folks had moved away, the drama group had disbanded, and we went back to a day of silent reflection and meditation. Frankly, that one profoundly moving night of drama couldn’t have been repeated. There was no need to make it an annual event. But the big cross was left to our church and was used during Holy Week and Easter Sundays from that year on. And a curious thing…that “blood” from the play’s crucifixion scene had made a small, permanent mark on the carpet. When we put the pulpit back in place for the Easter service, it didn’t cover the stain as we had hoped. Being behind the pulpit, it was visible only to the preacher, and if I were a more pious man, I’d say that from that day on, every time I approached the pulpit of that church, I had a stark reminder of the blood of the Lamb. That’s if I were more pious.

I mentioned Joan’s playing the organ on Good Fridays at the Congregational Church in Danville. Many years there, the “service” consisted of three hours of music, with some printed devotional materials provided for those who answered the invitation: Come when you can; leave when you must. Joan played through much of that time, but other musicians played or sang, and I enjoyed being in the pews there with no responsibility except encountering “Christ crucified” through Joan’s music, and my own prayer and mediation.

My last church was in Trumansburg, NY. There, we did have enough local ministers and priests to hold a “seven last words” service. But customs were already in place in that community, and those traditions served the community well. The village had a small town atmosphere and the churches were only blocks apart. There was no need to offer “competitive” offerings. Thus on Good Friday, the Episcopal Church always offered an hour-long noontime service in which local pastors joined together to provide leadership. The good news was that, though there was little planning, four or five of us (the Epsicopal host, along with Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian pastors) shared in the readings and prayers, and I think the sermon rotated among us year by year.

Sadly, for many good Christian folk, if the service isn’t held in their own church, they don’t attend elsewhere. Each year at the Episcopal church’s Good Friday service, I’d look out in the congregation and see only four or five people from my church in the pews. (I admit to being chagrined when at least one member of my church said Good Friday services are so depressing…so sad…that she wouldn’t be going, ever.)

In Trumansburg, Joan and I also attended the Roman Catholic “Stations of the Cross” service on Good Friday evening. The priest there invited us Protestant ministers to join in the readings as we processed to each station, and with time for silent mediation, that was a helpful addition to our Good Friday devotional life.

Now, in retirement, we continue “walking the stations of the cross” at a nearby Catholic church where the young people there enact tableaus while the congregation sings music from Taize. With those kids taking it so seriously, with voices singing in lovely harmony, we add our Presbyterian presence to “ecumenize” the service, making it a Good Friday custom for us.

Tomorrow, the last entry in this series: I think I’ll write of light, a gentle, flickering, but persistent light, something that shines hope into a dark day of waiting.

Anytime one spends several years taking root in one geographical locale, working in the same general field, raising a family, becoming involved in the community, it’s likely that one can start to feel overwhelmed. That’s especially true if that one is I (admit it ; “me” would sound better there).

The word “no” has always been difficult for me to say; I never wanted to let people down, because I liked being liked. So I said yes to almost every invitation that came down the pike. And, after some 25 years in Richmond, VA, from my seminary years to my three half-time jobs (yeah, I know), I was, to use the common term, over-committed. I was serving the Bon Air Presbyterian Church as half-time Associate Pastor, I was teaching and directing the Video Education Center half-time at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (PSCE), and I was still doing radio programs and some speaking engagements (another half-time, many weeks).

Somewhere, I wish I could remember the circumstance so as to give credit where it’s due, I got the idea of drawing my life in the form of a tree. I think I had read of Jesus’ “I am the vine…” statement, and I was thinking of the benefits of pruning in order to make any vine more fruitful. Aha! That’s my life, I thought. But I was better at drawing trees than vines, so I drew a big tree, with my name on the trunk. I drew the main branches as church, family, teaching, media ministry, and community service. And each branch had its own extensions.

Then, when every aspect of my life had been noted on that tree, I looked to see what I could prune. What board might I resign from? What activity could I curtail? Now, as I implied earlier, this was a 25 year-old tree, and it was in full bloom, but threatened somehow.

Then we hit our big year. Joan and I came to year 25 of our marriage. And our daughter Wendy was hitting a pretty big year too. She was graduating from college, moving into her first full-time job, and getting married. Son Jim was graduating from high school that same year, and heading to college in Maine. But wait! There’s more. The senior pastor under whom I served was retiring. And the president of PSCE had resigned to move to other work. There were some other signs that change was in the air. PSCE was under financial stress, and radio airtime for public service programming was drying up. Maybe pruning wasn’t the issue. I needed a chainsaw.

Joan and I wanted to renew our wedding vows and we asked our close friend Judy Sutherland to “officiate.” She agreed, but only if we sat with her for some mid-marital counseling. Those conversations with Judy were wonderful experiences, culminating with her challenging us to do three things that we had never done, but maybe meant to, in our quarter century together. It turns out that one of those things was moving to Vermont. Not what Judy had intended.

How that came about is the stuff of “call.” Earlier in this series of Lenten writings, I wrote of our thinking about moving to a New England church and how a particular church was “open,” though a year earlier than we were able to move. (Jim still had one last year of high school at the time, and we couldn’t uproot him just a year from graduation.) Well, someone else was called to that church, and we put the thought away. Until an ad appeared in a church publication a year later, and that church was open again. The candidate couldn’t accept the call, it turns out.

So, in our personal fullness of time (see “our big year” above), I took a big breath (praying) and applied to the East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church. Being a viable candidate, I was invited to preach at a neutral pulpit, met with the appropriate committees, and went back to Richmond where my big tree continued to grow. We waited. And a few weeks later, at the doctor’s office for a routine physical, I happened to pick up a copy of “Yankee Magazine,” and there in the centerfold was a photo of the Bailey-Hazen Road, Craftsbury, VT. I took it as a sign. Because it was.

The call came. Make that Call, with the capital C. Now, Joan’s mother had moved to Richmond to live out her years near us, she had assumed. She was not pleased that we were about to abandon her. But when our house went on the market and sold in one day (!), I think Betty was persuaded that this cosmic conspiracy of timing, trimming (remember my tree?), and signs was indeed God’s way of uprooting us and replanting us in our own promised land.

Of course, this uprooting was painful. Twenty-five years worth of friends, neighborhoods, connections, vocational adventures, and raising a family would be coming to an end. The Call came before our last Christmas in Richmond, and I remember leading the Christmas Eve service at Bon Air knowing it was our last in a very special place. I looked at the faces as carols were sung, hoping I could keep my composure through the final benediction. In a few weeks, I’d be doing my last radio program, ending an on-air presence of 26 years in Virginia. We had to say some hard goodbyes.

The day the moving van came was amazing. It started at the house in Bon Air, moved to the church for boxes of books and office furnishings, and then to the school for my office and equipment there. Was there room on the truck for the big record cabinet? Sure. Just barely. It would go on the shelf over the red Pontiac Sunbird. (Yes, one of our cars was in the van!)

As we drove over the Vermont state line, Joan cried. And that made me shed tears of joy, too. A new Call. New life. And I am convinced, a longer life, more simple, slower, re-centered, re-calibrated for fresh ministry alongside a faith-filled congregation.

Next…candle light in the darkness.

I have only a few days to go until I have completed my forty days of Lent (2015), writing about my various experiences working in churches. My parents had often encouraged me to write up the stories I shared with them in our frequent phone calls. I usually responded that I’d have to wait a few years to avoid stepping on toes, hurting feelings, or jeopardizing future pastoral work. But, by this time, I’m several years into retirement and I’ll just let the chips fall where they may. (Sorry Mom and Dad didn’t live to read these blogs!)

Today, I must write something about the church musicians with whom I’ve worked. I’ll name a couple, but the others will go unnamed, lest I be sued.

I am married to a church musician, you know. And as I’ve said many times, we’ve never worked at the same church; thus 47+ years of happy marriage. We had thought about how good it would be to work together professionally. But one trusted colleague was quite serious when he cautioned us about that. If we worked in the same place, he reasoned,
1) church members would feel stymied in their self-expression, i.e., they couldn’t remark about a sermon or music choices or leadership in general without a spouse nearby, and one with “big ears.”
2) if one member of the team were to have an unsatisfactory personnel report, or even be let go, how would that go over with the remaining (and perhaps beloved-by-the-church) spouse?
and 3) when the time came for a new call for one or both members of the team, the congregation would be left with no staff in place, or at least conducting a search for two people at once, a hardship for most churches.

For Joan and me, well, we just never quite happened into the same place at the same time. But, Joan was my “hymn lady” as I put services together. I’d be looking for a hymn to fit my theme for the day, and I’d call out from my home study, “Oh, hymn lady! I need you!” Or, I’d find the perfect hymn text to go with some liturgical element, and, not being swift when it comes to reading music, I’d ask Joan to tell me if the hymn was actually singable. The main example, though, of our teamwork was going to the Montreat Worship and Music Conferences together, thoroughly enjoying the personal and professional growth we shared during that week of continuing education in our respective fields.

On to the other musicians I’ve worked alongside. One whom both Joan and I admired and respected and learned from was Grace Chandler at the Bon Air Presbyterian Church in Richmond, VA. Grace was a fine organist and a talented choir director, and for all her talents, what I recall best are two times when she took charge of situations that called for more respect than she felt she was getting in the moment. One Sunday as she played the postlude (the closing organ piece), the noise of the departing congregation cancelled out the music she had prepared, rehearsed, and was playing for us. So, in the middle of a musical phrase, she abruptly stopped the piece, jumped off the bench, and left. If she said anything in the process, it’s best left unreported here.

I still smile as I think about the time when she was at a wedding rehearsal and the pastor told the couple that they would be moving from the floor level up to the raised platform for their vows. He indicated to Grace that maybe she could play some simple “moving” music as the wedding party went to their new places. “Why don’t you just mumble something instead,” she replied.

I was spoiled by the collegiality of the large church staff at Bon Air. We met regularly and shared in planning ahead as well as assessing past efforts. But working in smaller churches, “staff” meetings were almost non-existent. One organist was set in her ways and wasn’t going to bend no matter what I suggested. She’d been at the church forever, and if she didn’t like a new idea or a fresh approach to something, she’d mention quitting. No recently-arrived pastor needs to have the long-time, beloved curmudgeon of an organist quit in a huff (and could she HUFF!). Unlike our friend Grace, this church’s organist loved to have people talk loudly as she played the prelude. She really didn’t want anyone listening too carefully.

Another church organist-choir director had few people skills. When choir members arrived for rehearsal, there were no words of greeting, no chit chat. She just got us all down to the business at hand. I did see her smile once in awhile, but I sure didn’t see any warmth in her personality, or hear it much in her music. She was a very competent musician, though I got the impression that she played strictly according to the musical notations, but forgot the art, the heart, of the purpose of music.

In a previous post, I mentioned that one church I served had been given a (used) grand piano. The piano the church had used previously in the sanctuary was an old upright, and I think its manufacturer was something akin to the Chicago Cable Company, cable as in piano strings, not TV. The choir was used to sitting in an arc around that upright as we rehearsed in the sanctuary each week. When the Steinway arrived, however, its larger footprint put an end to the way the choir had rehearsed for all those generations. I think most folks were happy to receive the gift, but I suspect that our musician felt slighted. (I’m sure I asked her opinion before we accepted the instrument, but she may have felt that there was no use refusing the gift if it were a “done deal” as it seemed to be.) She rarely spoke to me after that. Seriously. I’d get a “hello” and that was that. Planning sessions were awkward. I confess that I wasn’t good at fixing that kind of thing.

One delightful musician with whom I thoroughly enjoyed working was Alice. She was the choir director at the First Presbyterian Church in Trumansburg, NY, my last pastorate. She was creative, energetic, and wide open to almost any new idea that popped up. She directed the English hand bell choir, and worked easily with the church youth (most of whom she knew from the middle school where she taught). She might choose an African tune for the anthem one week, and Brahms the next. Thanks to her ideas, we found ourselves ahead of the curve when it came to “blended worship,” escaping the so-called “worship wars” over the contemporary/traditional musical divide.

Regarding her ability to roll with the flow, I once admitted I didn’t want to “step on any toes” with suggestions or ideas I might offer. Alice said she had no toes.

Alice led our youth through snowy Trumansburg streets caroling at Christmas. She even recruited the non-musician pastor (me) to fill in with a hand bell once with the youth. One bell was all I could handle, sad to say, but I did ring it when I saw my note! And I can still hear Alice’s solo voice drifting from the church balcony a cappella at the late Christmas Eve service, singing the Huron carol “‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime.” We needed a few minutes of silence following her solo.

I especially remember a jazz service we did, with a rain theme. (I’ve written about that previously in this Peace, Grace, and Jazz blog). Alice, her husband, and sons played jazz together in other settings, so I thought, why not in church? We got no complaints from the congregation, and would have done more if I’d not retired.

Music has so much to do with our worship experiences, and professional church musicians who’ve answered God’s call, spent years of preparation and formal education, and who put up with clergy like me — should certainly be ordained to their ministries. We needn’t call them “reverend;” just revered.

My next entry: Discerning that call from Virginia to Vermont.