was my birthday. (And, by the way, thanks for all the birthday greetings.) There is absolutely no reason to discuss on this blog
how many of those birth celebrations I've experienced. But this birthday
was special. It was special because just before the worship service, I
stood in front of the chancel, talking to a parishioner, when a familiar
voice called my name. Down the center aisle a two-and-a-half year old
grandson propelled himself as he screamed my name. He was followed by
his brother who did not run but walked in a more dignified and demure
manner, a pace that reflected his more mature four-and-a-half years.
don't think I have ever been as glad to see them. The very sight of
them made my heart skip a beat. Their presence on this Sunday morning
churned up the depth of my love for them, reminded me of how precious
they are, how innocent they are, and, in this world in which we live,
how fragile they are as they attempt to navigate through the good and
the bad of this world. Seeing them brought to the surface the tension
that is part of our modern life.
Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, is but a short drive
down the road from where those two grandsons live. They skipped down the
aisle of my church just two days after twenty children, only two years
older than the four-and-a-half year old, were gunned down by a deranged
killer. The Governor of Connecticut made the comment that Evil had come
to visit that New England village that day. And Evil visited too close,
way too close, to where my grand kids live. They are too young to become
acquainted with the horrors of this world. And, yet, there it was: Evil
wrecking havoc in my grandchildren's neighborhood.
preached my sermon; the worship ended, and those two grandchildren, my
daughter-in-love, and Uncle Edward headed to a local restaurant. It was a
good lunch, with lots of laughter and teasing. We colored the pictures
on the table mats at the restaurant. And, because I was there, it was
okay to have a lunch of pancakes and scrambled eggs, both smothered in
maple syrup, and a chocolate fudge sundae.
watched those kids having fun with me. I watched their glimpses toward
their mother whenever they realized I was offering a departure from
normal behavior. And, as I watched, I thought of a teacher sheltering
children in a closet as gunshots reverberated down the hallway. I
remember the news reports that she made a concerted effort to have each
child look into her eyes as she said, “I love you. I love you.” She was
sure they were going to die and she wanted them to die knowing they were
I told my grandsons I love them. It's all I can do. In a short while
they will return to that place where they live, down the road where Evil
walked and spread Evil's destruction. I can tell them I love them. And I
tell them that because I am convinced that love can overcome evil.
can react to the shootings in a childish way by demanding there be more
guns. Or I can react with a childlike faith, the childlike quality seen
in my grandchildren, a faith that recognizes the goodness of this world
and holds fast to the belief that in the end Evil will be defeated by
pundits still say it's going to be a close one. There's even the
possibility of one winning without the majority of the popular vote,
What disturbs me most about this election is the possibility one man will win and we all will lose.
We have become a divided nation, a nation of dogmatic positions, of uncompromising demands, a nation of “my way or the highway.”
can't tell you which program it was, but on a National Public Radio
program in the last few days they reported on the extremes to which
we've gone. One family was having a cookout, barbequed ribs on the
grill. But the husband of the host family told his brother-in-law he
would have to bring his own ribs if he was going to vote for President
not sure exactly what the implications of that conditioned invitation
were, the thought a vote could be bought for the price of some ribs, the
proclamation of “you're not welcome unless you conform to my views,” or
simply “I'm the north end of the southbound horse married to your
am sure of this. We are a house divided. We have become a people who
believe that those who disagree with us are the enemy. We have little
patience for those on the opposite side of the political issue.
much of the division is based on a particular religious perspective.
It's one I'm not comfortable with, one based on dogmatism, a certainty
of the will of God. It is that position that makes me uncomfortable.
What kind of God would be a God whose absolute will I could comprehend?
Years ago, I read Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming, The Rise of Christian Nationalism. In
this book she illustrates how an increasingly uncompromising
fundamentalism is gaining traction in our political processes. She
illustrates the ever-widening gap between the believers and the
non-believers. I have this dread that, whatever the results of the
election, we will be drawn more and more into this divide and the
possibility of bridging the chasm will become more and more difficult.
are times when I feel part of the problem is the hesitancy of those
less fundamental, more tolerant of other views, lest prone to wish for
some type of oligarchical outcome of the electoral process, never
standing up to the fundamental assumptions of the other side. And yet,
to stand up with any sense of insistence, would move toward the same
intolerance that makes the other side unattractive.
don't have an answer here. I just raise the question. And I'm firmly
convinced that whatever the outcome, whether Mitt Romney is elected or
Barack Obama gets another four years, it will not be either of the
candidates abilities that determine our future. It will, rather, be our
ability to confront, deal with, and resolve the divide between the
religious right and left.
Thacher refilled the parson's decaf. She stared at the table, then
said, “Okay, Parson, if you want some more eggs just ask.”
“What are you talking about?” asked the parson.
talking about that plate. Good gracious, Parson, you sopped that plate,
I guess with the toast, so much it looks clean. I'd have been glad to
bring you some more.”
“How do you know I didn't wash it?”
“Right,” she smiled, picking up the plate and swirling on her heel.
The parson looked back at his Kindle and his morning reading. He didn't get to read much.
“Well, well, look who's still kicking,” proclaimed the voice.
parson looked up to see Frank Overtop, looking down at him. Frank was
the senior pastor of the Church of the Set Aside As A Light to Those
Below. The church was a congregation in the parson's denomination, but
the parson had heard that one would be hard pressed to recognize that.
“Frank,” the parson responded. “What brings you to the neighborhood?”
“Just stopping to get a bite to eat, Parson. I'm headed up to a meeting in Nashville.”
“It's good to see you,” said the parson. “How's Ellen and the kids?”
doing great, Parson, just great. I won't tell you how great because
you'd then start bragging about your grandchildren.”
“Dizzy Dean said if it's true it's not bragging, Frank.”
“Okay, point taken.”
Frank sat down at the parson's table. Betty approached, poured him some coffee and took his order.
parson and Frank began to swap stories, catch up on each other's
knowledge of mutual friends, and, as was always the case with the two of
them, began to debate the needs and the realities of their
know as well as I do,” said Frank, “the larger churches are the driving
force of this church. You've been the pastor of a large church; there's
no way to deny it.”
“Oh, I can deny it, Frank. I can deny it with relish. Tell me Frank, how many members do you have?”
“We reported 2300 at the end of the last year.”
Moley, Frank, I've lived in towns with less population that that. So,
now tell me, how much money did your church give to providing housing
and rehabilitation programs for the homeless last year?”
“I don't know the answer to that off the cuff, Parson?”
“Okay, how much did you give to missions, national and international?”
walked up and placed Frank's breakfast before him. She looked over at
the parson with a wrinkled brow. “Everything okay here?” she asked.
“Of course, everything is okay, Betty.”
Betty leaned down, “Well, how was I to know. Your voice is getting a little loud, Parson.” She walked away.
was smiling. The parson leaned over the table toward Frank. “Okay,
Frank, I apologize if I was a bit insistent. Look, how about you do
this. When you get back home, you email me the exact number of members
you have and I'll email you the exact number of members I have. Then
we'll exchange the amount of support each of our churches gave to any
cause you pick that's common to churches of our denomination. We'll then
divide the amount given by the number of members to discover what the
per member contribution is. And when we do that we'll continue this
discussion about which of our churches is the driving force of this
On a reasonably regular basis, the parson disappears. Well, he doesn't completely disappear, but it might as well be the case. On those scheduled times, a few sentences appear in the Sunday bulletin informing the congregation the pastor will be unavailable on a specific date and, in the case of an emergency, he can only be reached by contacting the Chairperson of the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee, who has the phone number of the place the parson's hiding. Charlie Brown, the parson's faithful canine companion, is dropped off at the vet's office where he spends the day. The parson then turns off his cell phone and heads toward the small church-related college twenty-five miles from the parson's church.
By mid-morning the parson was settled back in an armchair located in a corner of the library of the small church-related college tucked away in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, book in hand, notebook and pen for notes resting on the chair's arm. The notebook already had scores of pages filled with notations. It was promising to be a good day of study and reflection.
“Excuse me,” she said in a hushed library tone, “you're the Parson, aren't you?”
The parson put the leaned forward, put the book on the coffee table, and said, “I am. Have we met?”
“Yes, we have,” she responded with enthusiasm. “My aunt is Geraldine Powers. I've visited your church with her two times.”
The parson now recognized having seen her at church, talking with her as she left, but for the life of him he couldn't place Geraldine Powers.
“Yes, I remember, how are you? I didn't know you were going to school here?”
“I enrolled in the fall. Since I decided to go into the ministry, I thought it would be better to go to a church school. Besides, I study a lot more here than I did at the university.”
“Well, I'm glad for you,” said the parson. “When did you decide to go into the ministry?”
She sat down in the chair which was ninety degrees to hers, then she leaned forward. “It was really a quiet thing. I mean, I didn't hear any voices or anything like that. I was just sitting in a chapel at a youth camp in Dahlonega, where I was on a weekend retreat. Something unusual happened. I just felt like I was in the presence of God and when I left that chapel I was headed for a life in the church.”
“Oh, my goodness,” the parson exclaimed. “I sat in that chapel when I was about your age, too. And here I am.”
“Cool,” she said. “Maybe we should form a 'Called at the Chapel' society.”
“Now, that sounds like a plan,” said the parson. “And from what I've learned over the years there would be a large membership.”
She smiled. She leaned back in her chair. “Can I ask you a serious question, Parson?”
“Sure,” said the parson.
“Why do you keep doing it?”
“Keep doing what?” the parson asked.
“Keep serving the church Sunday after Sunday, week Almost all of them after week?”
“Why do you ask that?” the parson asked.
She seemed to think about her response a moment, then replied, “I just keep getting these doubts. Here I am just six months after knowing I want to be a pastor and I'm having doubts.” She took a deep breath and said, “Look, Parson, since I've been here I've gone to lots of different churches every Sunday. And I've been talking to a lot of pastors. You know what? Almost all of them are frustrated. I just had no idea how many ministers were so upset with the church. Are you?”
The parson took a deep breath. He began to formulate an answer in his mind. But she gave him a reprieve.
“Oh, Parson, I know you're not upset like some people. I mean, goodness, look how long you've been a pastor. I guess that's why I wanted to talk to you. Why do you keep doing it?”
In a split second the parson's mind raced back over the last forty-seven years. In particular he raced back over the last six months. He looked at her. He envisioned her next decade, her ordination, her first church.
“Remember the chapel?” the parson asked.
“I do,” she said.
“That's why,” said the parson. “That's why. There's no other explanation. It's a crazy reason. It's not logical. But it's why I keep going. It's why I'm going to preach next Sunday and make the hospital visits next week. It's why when attendance is an insult I preach anyway; it's why when …. Well, it's why. That chapel in the mountains is why.”
She looked at him a minute. “Do you come here often?”
“I do,” said the parson. “At least once a month.”
“Can we talk again?”
“I'd like that,” said the parson. “I'd like that,” said the parson. “That would help me a lot.”
The parson had known her close to twenty years. Long ago, when she was a single girl, working in the growing IT industry, she moved into a house seven doors from the parson's church. It was then she became a lurker.
She was a lurker but not in the lurk around the blog sense. She lurked around the parson's church. She might have attended a couple of times in the decade the parson served that parish, but, if she did, the parson couldn't remember it. Nevertheless, she was spiritual; she was a seeker; she was what the parson termed a “non-church going Christian.” She wasn't afraid to ask questions, hard questions about God and Jesus, and sometimes she asked unanswerable questions about the organized church.
It took a while for her to discover that right fellow. But he was the right fellow, the very right fellow. The parson married them at a wonderful celebration at a country retreat not far from where the parson would retire.
When the parson did retire, he didn't seem them as much. But there came that day when the call came, “We're pregnant!” There was rejoicing, anticipation, trepidation. And within months they brought their child to the country where the parson supplied the pulpit in his retirement to be baptized. There was lunch following the baptism accompanied with Ms. Parson rocking the baby in a rocker on the front porch of the restaurant, rocking him and rocking him and rocking him, cooing and smiling and, unknown to the parson then, creating a precious memory for him. A memory she too had and which she shared with the parson.
Two years later they were back. The second child was baptized. Lunch was shared again. Ms. Parson was happy to have another child to rock.
It wasn't long after the tragic call came. Her fellow, her knight in shining armor, had cancer. It was a horrible cancer. It was a devastating cancer. There was no cure. The parson and she shared flowing tears. The parson and she talked a lot about bad things happening to good people. But there was no adequate answer. “Why do these things happen?” she asked. The parson told her he didn't know.
There was hope. There was an experimental treatment he could volunteer for. He did. It wasn't the easiest treatment to be borne, but he endured it and he got better. He was better for a few years. And then it happened. Things when from bad to worse. The boys were now five and seven. Their daddy was dying.
The phone call came. The parson answered. She told the parson he was home now. Hospice had been called. The doctors said maybe it would be two weeks. She told the parson she thought it would be two days. The parson told her he'd be there the next day.
It was a beautiful spring day in the inner city of Atlanta. The youngest boy met the parson at the door. He wasn't in kindergarten that day. Her high school friend who was there to help her told the parson she'd let them know he was there. So the parson and the five-year-old played games on the floor. Then the hospice nurse came out. She talked a while. Then the oxygen technician came by. Then the contractor remodeling the basement came up. Then the ….
Finally, she came out. She told the parson they'd just given him some morphine and he was out of it. She and the parson went out on the deck, into the bright spring sun, the budding flowers, and the promise of new life. The dog accompanied them, assuring their conversations would punctuated by periodic tossing of the tennis balls which were quickly retrieved and dropped at their feet.
That conversation bounced from one thing to another, from talks of death, of her acceptance of what was coming, of the fact she'd already been grieving for years. They talked of funny things that had happened back when she lurked around the parson's parish. They talked about the children and the counseling they'd been put into to prepare them for what was coming. They laughed about children, and Christians, and the absurdity of it all, of the wedding when the parson danced a jig with her eighty-year-old grandmother.
Four hours later the parson left. He headed home, knowing he'd retrace his steps soon to return and talk some more, if she wanted; but to be there because he wanted. Navigating through the traffic the parson thought of how she was so typical of the new Christians. Church membership is secondary to faith. She is full of faith; she is well-acquainted with God. The parson remembered how when she and her fellow, having not seen the parson for a year or so, were there when Ms. Parson died, being pastors to their pastor.
She'll lose her fellow soon. The parson is experienced with what that will feel like. She'll go on, probably facing it much better than did the parson. And maybe that's the miracle of it all: even in the shadow of death life goes on.
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