The end and the beginning

Settle down and get comfortable – this is a long tale.

Rod, ready for Easter a few years ago
Rod, ready for Easter a few years ago

I usually give something up for Lent that I’ll really miss and look forward to getting back on Easter. For a middle Protestant with no tradition of Lenten giving-up, that seems like a neat part of the tradition. It reinforces the hard waiting and the joyful return. (Although after the year I gave up coffee, Adam asked me never to do THAT again. I had to agree. There’s hard and there’s almost missing your tax return date because you can’t fathom doing taxes without coffee to help you.)

At a graduation party for a dear friend.
At a graduation party for a dear friend.

This year, though, I approach Easter with both joyful anticipation and great reluctance.

You see, the week AFTER Easter will be the last week that my pastor will be my pastor. Rod, and his lovely wife, have been a more-than-weekly part of my life since the day I became an adult. With my history, I more or less know what month that happened. In August of 2000 – two months after I graduated – I married Adam. I was 21. He brought me home to a lovely, sunlit apartment in Roslindale that I had not seen before I crossed its threshold with the 23 year old I’d only had a few hours to call “husband”. We only spent a few hours in the apartment before we took a flight out of Logan to Greece, where we’d honeymoon. When we returned on a Saturday a week or so later, we were tired. Now I am Presbyterian. I was born in the mission field to missionary Presbyterian parents. I was baptized in a Presbyterian Church by a fire-speaking pastor on an equitorial Sunday. I have attended Presbyterian Churches my whole life. My summer camps that weren’t orchestral were Presbyterian. My sister, brother, mother, father and I are all ordained Presbyterian elders/deacons (actually I’m the only one)/ministers. So while I was LITERALLY in the honeymoon phase of my marriage, I wanted to start the married habit of attending church with my beloved new husband. And I wanted a Presbyterian church. But they are few and hard to find in New England, so that groggy Sunday after we landed I took the path of least resistance and we went to the Presbyterian Church 20 miles away that had been near Adam’s LAST apartment.

A much younger Rod & Brenda on a Spring day more than 10 years ago.
A much younger Rod & Brenda on a Spring day more than 10 years ago.

I settled into the pews, fresh in my matronness and ring sparkly on my left finger, and the sermon was GOOD. And we were warmly welcomed. And there was a coffee hour in the finest of Presbyterian traditions. And it felt very right. And so the next week I also forgot to look up a closer church. And the week after.

We have attended that church through three different houses in three different towns. We have taught Sunday School and confirmation there. We have baptized our sons there. We have made life-long friends. We have taken solemn vows to love and teach the vibrant rainbow-line of squirmy children on the stairs at word for children. We have buried friends, and comforted the grieving. It is our church, our home, our family.

At Grey's baptism
At Grey’s baptism

For the fourteen years that span my adult life, there has been one person standing in that pulpit – Rod. That pulpit-relationship is where it begins, of course. Rod is one of the finest preachers I have had the chance to listen to. (And remember, I have attended services every week of my life.) He finds that difficult line between offering a challenge that makes me think differently, and sometimes change how I behave, but without go so far to challenge that in fear or recoil I stop listening. His sermons are academic enough to keep me interested, but relevant enough to speak to my heart as well as my mind.

This might be my favorite picture of Rod. Apparently that t-shirt is an original.
This might be my favorite picture of Rod. Apparently that t-shirt is an original.

But the relationship – the friendship – goes far past the pulpit. Rod, his wife (who prefers her privacy) and I have shared dinner together. We’ve played music together. (He plays a mean piano – you should try to lure it out of him.) We’ve caroled together and sung rousing renditions of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” to folks whose illness or debility means they have trouble leaving their homes. We’ve done skits together. We’ve attended countless committee meetings. We’ve sung hymns through late nights in long Presbytery meetings which have decided small steps in the question of whether the Presbyterian Church would be one that welcomes all people.

When the time came for me to give birth to my second child, Adam and I were in a bind. We have no family in New England. Michael was terribly sick with the lingering aftereffects of cancer – he would die only a few months later – and Laureen could not come to us. My parents were working and tied down in Seattle. We were only just coming to know our neighbors. Who would stay with Grey while I delivered our second son? A friend got the first call and overnight shift, but on the second shift, we called Rod. He came and stayed with Grey – a familiar and friendly presence. He even did the dishes. With both my sons, he was the first to come and visit the new life in the hospital room. Friends who saw the pictures asked, “Is that your dad?” No, it’s my pastor.

Rod with a new-born Thane, only hours old.
Rod with a new-born Thane, only hours old.

So as I count up to Easter, with joy, I also count down to farewell, with very mixed feelings. I will miss Rod and his wife very, very much. In our church, when a pastor leaves, it is a real leave-taking. He will never lead another service from that pulpit, or chair another committee meeting. They are moving – not so far away that we’ll NEVER see them, but far enough that it will be rare.

On Maundy Thursday, Thane took communion with us for the first time. I finagled it so I could kneel before him to serve it. But then I also served Rod, who had blessed our cup and our bread. Then he turned and served me. And I was breathless with tears at the sacrament – a first and a last so close together.

Rod at word for children
Rod at word for children

Rod and his wife go forward to a new stage of their lives. I have told them that I’m a little jealous. They have finished with the stages of “should” and “ought” and “supposed to” and “had better”. They are now in the only stage of life where your labors are determined by what you would do, what you are called to do, what you want to do – and what you can do. A part of me feels like a parent with a graduating high school senior. I send them away from me and will miss them horribly, but would not wish them back to their old roles. The time for moving on is here.

So, Rod and Cathy, go into the world in peace and continue the service. What does our God ask of us but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God? May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all: today, tomorrow and always.

Benediction
Benediction

For any who have also loved Rod, we’ll be giving him a rousing BPC farewell with a huge International Dinner at 6 pm on Saturday, April 26 2014. The next day, Sunday April 27th, will be his final service with us and will be followed by a massive coffee hour I’m hosting. So come.

Sing to the Lord a new song

My husband and I started attending Burlington Presbyterian Church the Sunday after we got back from our honeymoon, back in 2000. We were members by that winter, and I think my husband got conscripted to session, er, nominated to the high honor of monthly meetings within a year. (I ended up serving on Deacons.) Since then, we’ve gone pretty much every Sunday that we weren’t travelling, with a very few sleeping-in exceptions. The only other church we ever go to is the church I grew up in, when we visit my parents.

I love my church. I love the people. I love the pastor. I’ve been to the baptism of most of the cute kids on the front steps during Word for Children. Coffee hour ranges between good and excellent on a consistent basis.

But this last weekend, my brother was preaching at the church he’s interning at: Fourth Presbyterian in Dorchester. So we upended our familiar Sunday routine and took 93 south through the city to watch him.

What an interesting experience. I hadn’t realized how used I was to the way we do things. For example, the order of worship was different. They do all their announcements and prayers and concerns in the beginning. I actually really liked that — once the worship part started it was all worship. The music was great — they did interstices between parts of the service, and even played quietly during some of the prayers and readings. They did a fantastic job of integrating their children into their service. And the preacher was great too. (Heh.)

I also really liked the feeling of connectedness. One of the big reasons to be Presbyterian, instead of something else, is that we are tied through a connection and community to each other. Fourth and Burlington belong to the same Presbytery. I’d met several of the people at previous Presbytery meetings — in fact our September meeting will be held there. I felt a bit like an ambassador between two distant colonies of the same home country. It was all familiar but distinctly different, as well. And I felt just a touch of that church universal to which we aspire.

I love my church dearly. I have no desire to worship somewhere else week in and week out. But this makes me wonder if it might not be a blessing to me and to my service to BPC to periodically see how it’s done other places, and come back with new ideas and energy. I also think it is a joy to create connections between the communities. Matthew’s sermon was on the strength that we gain from working together, instead of alone. He’s right. That goes for churches as well as people.

My friends and family at BPC
My friends and family at BPC

Paragraph B

Monday night was a Presbytery meeting. For those not up on the inner workings of Presbyterian governance, it works like this. The smallest collection of Presbyterians is a congregation; the local church you find familiar. The governing institution within that church is called session, which is populated by members carrying the ordination of “Elder”. Our pastors are not actually members of our churches. They are instead members of the next biggest body, called Presbytery. I belong to Burlington Presbyterian Church, which belongs to Boston Presbytery. Presbytery is part of a larger regional body, called Synod. I think we’re in the Synod of New England? The Northeast? Then all the Synods come together in a body called General Assembly, which is a national body. There is no international body, but the various GAs usually have a certain communion with each other. It is also important to note that all Presbyterians in this body share two common books. The first is our creeds, which begin shortly where the Bible leaves off and has been added to as recently as th 60s. The second is our Book of Order, which is more or less the constitution of the church. All officers of the church vow to be guided by these two documents.

That’s a long introduction. Monday night we gathered together for a Presbytery meeting far more fraught than usual discussions. In 1996, an amendment was made to the Book of Order with the intention of preventing practicing homosexuals from being ordained in any capacity within the church. (It doesn’t actually SAY that, but that is widely understood to be the outcome.) Since then, every time GA assembles, an amendment has been proposed to Paragraph B. The latest version has come out of my church’s session and through the Boston Presbytery. It returns the language to a more Biblical focus (instead of a focus on the Confessions). (You can read more about it here) Needless to say, the original amendment was controversial and every amendment since then has also been controversial.

There is a lot to say on both sides of the issues. My main points would be:

1) We are all sinners. I personally violate the ten commandments once a week. I do a terrible job of remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy and I have not been committed to changing that sin of mine. If ordination is only available to those who are not sinners, our church will quickly be depopulated, or only populated by hypocrites.
2) Jesus doesn’t talk much about sexual sin. He’s much more interested in hypocracy and money. We should go forth and do likewise.
3) None of the amendments would mean that any church had to accept or elect as an officer or minister any person they did not think was appropriate.
4) Who are we to say who the Holy Spirit can and cannot call?

Anyway, the amendment to Paragraph B above worked it’s way up to GA and now has come back down. It must be approved by the local Presbyteries in order to be adopted. Monday night was the night that our Presbytery took that vote.

For all that we sponsored this to GA, the passing was not a given. There was one commenter as we discussed this who said, “This amendment was born here. Let it die here.”

The meeting took nearly 5 hours. I’m sure that for some people there, it was agonizing. For me, it was inspiring. There is no doubt we disagreed. There is no doubt that people felt extraordinarily passionate on both sides. I know that some of my brethren in Christ feel as thought his amendment is corrupting. I see their point, although I disagree in both form and substance. What excited me, enthused me and filled me with joy was that we could come together. We debated this hot, passionate topic with kindness and love. There was prayer and song throughout. We sat mixed together in faithfulness. During the long vote counting process, as the clock neared midnight, we sang together as we waited.

I find it utterly thrilling, in this age of division and segregation on lines of opinion, that we could and did come together to lovingly disagree with each other. It feels like, as a culture, we have increasingly written off those who disagree with us as stupid, malicious, ignorant and vindictive. The Presbyterian church holds that people of good character can disagree with each other on issues of faith. I think that is an increasingly precious and beautiful point of view.

The future of the amendment to Paragraph B is uncertain. It narrowly did pass in Boston Presbytery. While I care about the amendment, I hope and pray that the church may continue to come together to argue with each other and disagree, and yet cheerfully be part of the same community.