Saturday, July 26, 2014

Beginnings, Middles, Endings

This is my last Sunday as the regular preacher at North Baptist Church.

Four years ago this month, Jean Dinsmore asked Martha to do some supply preaching at the church in August. Martha had other obligations, so she suggested me, a layperson whose preaching skills consisted mostly of fund-raising homilies for American Baptist Churches and other church organizations.

My first sermon here was in August of 2010. Then, like The Man Who Came To Dinner in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1939 comedy, I never left. 

As a journalist, I am familiar with deadlines. But the weekly discipline of studying, researching, writing, and preaching sermons was a new and stimulating experience for me. I am quite aware how lucky I have been to have a loving and indulgent congregation. I am also aware that I often missed the mark when it came to theological insight and interpretation, but I learned a lot. And you listened, nodded, smiled, and occasionally offered an affirming amen. I am grateful for each of you.

Now I’ve reached the conclusion that this is a good time to move on to other ministries, including the incomparable blessing of sitting in a pew with my family on Sundays. And I want you to know that I depart with much gratitude to God and to every one of you. 

I also want you to know that, after a lifetime in church bureaucracies, this kind of transition is old hat to me. Virtually all my church experiences have had a beginning, middle, and an end.

Sometimes I counted the days until the experience was over. When I served as an Air Force chaplain’s assistant in England and Kansas from 1965 to 1968, I couldn’t wait to get home. The three years I spent in the United Kingdom seemed interminable as I struggled to stay in touch with family, friends, and would-be girl friends in Central New York. In the dark ages before email and social media, keeping in touch involved writing on paper, placing the envelope in an APO mailbox, and waiting two weeks for a reply.

While I was in the midst of military duty, I was very conscious of all its unpleasant aspects. Monthly KP duty began at 4 a.m. and ended after we cleaned up from evening chow at 7:30 p.m. Alerts to practice for World War III were called every few weeks, usually at 3 a.m., and I would spend many cold hours on the flight line as an  augmentee guard, an M1 carbine on my shoulder, pacing in front of a parked F4C Phantom fighter jet that seemed perfectly capable of defending itself. Later, when I added a third stripe to my sleeve, I pulled all-night CQ duty – Charge of Quarters – sitting sleepily in front of a telephone in the squadron orderly room in case LBJ called. Usually the calls were messages from the Red Cross that a close relative of some poor airman had died. Then my job would be to awaken the squadron commander – a second lieutenant about my age – and together we would awaken the airman to give him the bad news. 

I hated this monthly routine, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized the four years I spent in the Air Force were very happy ones. As a chaplain’s assistant, I typed the chaplain’s sermons, set up altars for masses and Protestant worship, and hosted chapel luncheons and gatherings that included GI’s, their dependents, and British civilians. I stood as a witness at a dozen shotgun weddings as a sheepish airman and a British girl with an expanding waistline stood self-consciously in front of the chaplain. Sometimes I gave the bride away. I organized official retreats to Rome and Israel, took the train to London on my days off to visit discotheques and see shows, wave at Harold Wilson in front of Downing Street, and spend hours in the visitors gallery at the House of Commons, which I thought was the best show in town. I spent weeks on leave traveling around Europe, and counted the days until my duty tour would be over. 

I mustered out with exultation. But today I don’t have a single unhappy memory of those years. They were, like all of life, years that had a beginning, middle, and an end.

In that sense, my life has been like everyone elses: full of beginnings, middles, and endings. I’m focusing on my professional experiences rather than personal ones, and each experience has offered life-changing and life-renewing lessons. 

I waited too long to leave the American Baptist Churches staff because, after 20 years, I was burned out and needed a change. After I left the Baptists, I worked three years as a newspaper reporter and enjoyed the experience thoroughly, in part because when my stories were filed for the day I could go home and not think about them any more. I learned more about writing at the Pottstown Mercury than I did in all my years as a Baptist editor. When the mayor fired a police captain, I asked Hizzoner why he did it. “Because,” the mayor said, “YOU would be a better police captain than this joker.” Quickly deducing I was not being offered a job, I wrote: “The mayor said his decision was related to performance issues.”

Since then, I’ve enjoyed other professional opportunities that have had beginnings, middles and endings. I loved working for the World Council of Churches. The WCC didn’t pay well, but it had wonderful fringe benefits, especially the frequent flier miles I was allowed to keep. I was deeply saddened when budget cuts at the Council brought the experience to an end. 

After that, I worked for the National Council of Churches as a communicator for seven years that I regard as the most satisfying period of my professional life. When the Council was forced by financial exigencies to radically reduce its programs and staff, I watched sadly as many devoted colleagues called to this ministry lost their jobs.

Looking back over these beginnings, middles, and ends, I remember so many gifted and occasionally saintly people who allowed me to share their walk with them. I should mention their names, but I know you don’t know them – and of course you have special persons who walked with you through the ebbs and flows of life – so I will simply honor these spiritual guides in my heart.

Looking back on any experience – beginning, middles, ends – it is obvious that life has its ups and downs, its gains and losses, its joys and sorrows.

Nothing can change that. But if there is a single message in all the sermons I’ve preached here (and most preachers acknowledge they have but one sermon, repeated, altered, and revised with new anecdotes and poems – I hope it is this: no matter where we are in our life journey, God is with us and God loves us.

And the people who walk with us on our life journeys are an essential component of God’s love: parents, partners, family, mentors, teachers, colleagues, even critics and adversaries. Their influence does not diminish when we move from one phase of life to the next. Fifty years after I graduated from high school and joined the Air Force, I still remember as if it were yesterday those whose time and space I shared. And so many of them will forever surround me as a cloud of witnesses to the gifts God gives each of us to help bring a little more peace, a little more justice and a little more love to the world.

So as I bring this wonderful experience to a close, I am reminded of two things:

One, no experience in life is ever truly over. We need not lose touch with one another, and I hope each of you will take advantage of the telephone, computer, and social media to keep us up to date on new beginnings, new middles, new endings.

And, finally, I am reminded that beginnings, middles, and endings are essential and eternal elements of God’s eternal plan.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

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