“Nowhere special. I always wanted to go there.”
—Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles)
Almost nine years ago, not long after I’d retired from a job I’d held with a large, multi-national corporation for around 20 years, a friend contacted me with news of a position the Ministry Council was seeking to fill. I really hadn’t planned on returning to full-time employment, but this opening—involving as it did an opportunity to serve the denomination that has been family to my family for several generations now and to indulge long-dormant passions for theology and the written word—seemed too much like a Call to ignore. While I know there are readers (and former readers) who will disagree, I believed then—and still believe—that that Call was a “God thing”. In my own roundabout way, I had said, “Here I am, send me…” And it was with the conviction that God had called and had sent me that I accepted responsibilities for our Communications Ministry.
Now, however (with apologies to W. M. Thackeray), it is time to shut up the box and the puppets, for my play has played out. Most readers know by now that this will be the last issue for which I will have editorial responsibility as I prepare for my second (and hopefully final) retirement from full-time employment on June 1st. Like most folks facing such a transition, I have spent a fair amount of time reminiscing lately about my tenure here. Like any calling, this one has had its ups and downs—mostly ups, but some downs, to be sure.
Not everyone was as excited about my arrival as I was. There was that one subscriber, for instance, who canceled his subscription before we’d even published my first issue, complaining bitterly about the changes he assumed we’d implement.
Just a few months into my tenure, there were those several readers who objected to the inclusion of an interview of theologian Stanley Hauerwas wherein he suggested—in the midst of devastating war in Afghanistan—that Christians ought to be advocating for peace, rather than the escalation President Obama was considering at the time. Imagine that…
And then there was the Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who, after reading my conclusion in an editorial following the events in Ferguson, Missouri, that Black Lives actually do indeed Matter, left me what he thought was an anonymous voice mail tersely suggesting that I “go to hell”. (Sadly for him, he was unfamiliar with Caller ID technology…)
All in all, however, this has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and I wouldn’t trade the last nine years for anything. At almost every turn—meetings of General Assembly, meetings of Presbytery, Ministers’ Conferences, Ministry Council and Team meetings, and numerous other ministry events—I have been met mostly with kindness, encouragement, wise counsel, support, and grace. There was Beverly St. John who, other than my own mother, was my most vocal and frequent encourager. And I won’t forget Roy Blakeburn, Mrs. Mina Smith, Dara Jones, Dudley Condron, Sam Estes, Jr., Sowgand Sheikholeslami—and of course, my family—among many others, all of whom supported and encouraged me in this calling; they have strengthened me likely more than they realize, and I am humbly and forever grateful.
It is, I think, the unavoidable lot of an inveterate optimist (an attitude that probably requires at least some measure of naiveté) to accumulate a few regrets along the way, and I’ve got mine. There are things I’d hoped to accomplish with the magazine that just never seemed to enjoy much, if any traction, and I accept responsibility for those failures. Perhaps it was laziness, or a lack of diplomacy, or simply the impatience of someone who has wanted desperately to see this denomination be all that it was created to be. In any event, the buck stops here, and I’m at peace with that.
I had hoped, for example, that by raising questions and proposing different ways of thinking about real-world issues we face through the magazine’s content, we might as a denomination engage in some serious, respectful, and productive conversation about how to navigate the deeply divided societies in which we minister. For whatever reason, such conversation has proven elusive. To engage in that kind of dialog is to open oneself to the possibility of changing one’s mind, and that just seems to be a bridge too far for too many of us.
One thing that has become painfully apparent to me during my tenure here is that our beloved denomination sometimes does not handle change very well. Of course, we’re not alone in that fear—especially in the world of Christendom—but it is a defect that does not and will not serve us well.
As I see it, while resistance to change may not always be a bad thing (I’m not very good at it myself at times), we ought to be engaging in some serious soul-searching when fear of it becomes an existential threat to who we are. We keep trying to put new wine into old wine skins, fearing, I suppose, that the new ones just won’t look as good or serve us as well. That fear, in fact, may be the most serious challenge we face.
While fear of change did not keep our forebears from being the first in the history of Presbyterianism to ordain a female to the ministry, it prevents many of our congregations today from calling one of our capable, available ordained women to full-time service in their pulpits. It is preventing us from recognizing the face of God in our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community and calling them to Christian service on our sessions and in our classrooms and pulpits as full participants in the community of faith. And, as I see it, it is preventing enthusiastic unification of black and white Cumberland Presbyterians in common ministry.
It’s almost as if we’re searching for disagreements that can keep us divided—at least that might be a logical conclusion for an outsider to draw when observing us fight over such non-doctrinal issues. As Jesus knew too well, it is so much easier for us to complain about the speck in our neighbor’s eye than to consider removing the log from our own. I regret that The Cumberland Presbyterian has not been able to facilitate the kind of dialog that might help us abandon fights over whose understanding of “truth”, if any, aligns with God’s understanding (when in reality, none of us knows) and instead move us toward the things that really matter—like living our lives as much as possible like Jesus lived his.
As writer Madeleine L’Engle put it, it is sufficient, I think, “to draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” As I see it, that’s the essence of our calling.
So I’m off—to nowhere special. I’m pretty sure that it’s a place populated by people who need good news and a lovely light, and thanks to this denomination, I’ve got plenty of both to share. With a little luck, it also has a fiddle, a writing desk, streams to fish, a woodworking shop, forests to hike, and bicycles to ride. And it has my family, who have sacrificed a lot so that I might answer this calling. Whatever good there may be in me, I owe much of it to them. Thanks again for the opportunity to be a little more of who I believe God created me to be.
Now, in homage to Kerouac, I leave to lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies. Amen.