Remembering Andrew F. Wissemann (1928-2014)

Andrwe F. WissemanMartha and I went down to Springfield on Monday for the funeral of our friend Andrew Wissemann. I had not talked to him recently and so his death caught me very much by surprise. The Service of Thanksgiving at Christ Church Cathedral was quite lovely and would please him.

Before he became bishop he was my colleague next door at St Stephen’s Church in Pittsfield, where he was rector. I came to be the pastor of First Church of Christ, Congregational, in Pittsfield on December 1, 1982. I was taking books out of boxes and putting them on shelves in my new study when a lively bearded gentleman in clericals appeared at my door. He introduced himself and welcomed me and before he left the room we were friends.

We started an ecumenical study group at St Stephen’s that met in the late afternoon on Tuesdays and then we would all go to the chapel for Evening Prayer. We would read the assigned texts from the lectionary and talk about them to prepare for our sermons. I felt such joyful collegiality from that group. There was Fr. Fran the Roman priest, Julie the Methodist, Ed the Lutheran, and Andrew, David and Tom the Episcopalians. We had frank and spirited discussions and then we would pray together. I don’t know how many other churches anywhere had a ecumenical rota of ministers leading Evening Prayer in an Episcopal church but we did over 30 years ago.

Andrew had gravitas, but he also loved to laugh and as he aged the smile lines in his face grew more profound. He was not a big man, more thin and spry, but he had a great big laugh that took over his body.

And he loved to make others laugh. One day we followed him into the chapel and he was standing straight with his back against the wall and his hands folded at his chest as if he were a statue of a saint or an apostle. He had put an offering plate behind his head like a halo. He cracked us up.

In 1983 he was elected bishop, and in 1984 he was consecrated. He called me and asked if I would do him a favor. Would I come forward with the bishops and ask an ecumenical question in addition to the several canonical questions the bishops would be asking? He had secured permission from the Presiding Bishop to have this done. Andrew said the consecration would be in a Roman Catholic Church and it was an important ecumenical sign for there also to be someone there from the Reformed side of the family.

I was honored. And so it came to pass that I lined up with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and (was it 5?) other bishops. I, in my black Geneva gown, and they splendidly arrayed in copes and mitres. I felt a crow among peacocks. My wife Martha took communion from Andrew’s hand. She was nine months pregnant, my daughter Rebecca arriving a few days later. It was just thirty years ago in April and Rebecca herself is now an ordained minister.

Andrew was my model of a faithful parish minister, hardworking, diligent, prayerful, and loving. He brought those habits and qualities to his episcopacy. For years we would meet to have lunch in Springfield (at the Student Prince) or in Lee (at the Morgan House.) We talked theology and ministry and shared personal joys and challenges. Since we weren’t in the same franchise he could be more priest and confessor to me than my own leaders.

He was one of the first people to tell me about P.T. Forsyth, for which I am most grateful. He claimed he wasn’t a scholar, just a good reader and he loved to read (and buy) books. He once joked, “of the buying of books there is no end.”

When I had to leave my pastorate for health reasons ten years ago he came to my goodbye service and spoke at the dinner.

Last week my friend and colleague Jane Dunning sent me the news that Andrew had died, and I called her and asked if it was OK for me to vest and process. She said, “Of course.”

So I did. I vested on Monday and processed with the clergy, and I am especially glad I did, because I think I may have been the only one in the procession who wasn’t an Episcopalian. That sense of what Forsyth called the “Great Church” was so important to Andrew, and an essential part of his belief in the life we share in Jesus Christ.

Before we entered the cathedral Bishop Fisher had a prayer with us. He prefaced it by asking us all to speak one word that came to mind about Andrew. Mine was “kind.”

I could have added many others. One is “humble.” He and I once drove to Hartford to hear N.T. Wright, with whom I studied briefly at Oxford years before. After the seminar I wanted to introduce him to Tom Wright, but he demurred.

Another time we were together at an ecumenical banquet for the judicatory heads from Massachusetts, an annual event for the Massachusetts Commission on Christian Unity (MCCU.) I was the United Church of Christ’s representative. We wanted to sit together and he led me to the far end of the table. He looked around at all the clerical dignitaries and said, sotto voce, “When you are invited to a feast, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.” (from Luke 12) He smiled that twinkly smile.

Andrew always wrote these encouraging notes in his fine handwriting. I have a bunch of them which I treasure. Rebecca got one last year at her ordination. His fine hand was still the same.

I am blessed to have many dear friends, but Andrew’s death leaves a certain hole in my life, for he was such an extraordinary person and so good at being a friend. He had such a steady faith that I would dishonor him by only grieving, for he believed, as I do, that “we do not sorrow as those who have no hope.”

So I give thanks to God that he was my friend. I give thanks for him. May he rest in peace, and rise in glory.

 

 

“By Their Groups Ye Shall Know Them”: Celebrating Max L. Stackhouse

Max Stackhouse FlyerWe had a very moving day today, as we celebrated Max Stackhouse at First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ,  in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, first in our morning worship, then followed by a first-rate public lecture on Public Theology by his former student, Dr. Scott Paeth, one of the editors of a new anthology of Max’s writings, Shaping Public Theology (Eerdmans, 2014). It was not lost on many of us that we were hearing about Public Theology in the congregation where Jonathan Edwards was the second pastor and Reinhold Niebuhr was a member.

Max, and his wife Jean, are well-loved, long-time members of this congregation, and many friends, former students, and colleagues were there. There was very special music from some of Jean’s colleagues at the New England Conservatory, and a beautiful letter/tribute was read from Yo Yo Ma, a board member of BITA, who was unable to be there because he was performing in Cleveland. It was a red letter day. Thanks to my pastor Brent Damrow for putting it all together and for giving me the opportunity to say a few words. Here they are:

“By their fruits ye shall know them.”

Matthew 7:20

 Max’s mentor, James Luther Adams, liked to expand on Jesus’s words “By their fruits ye shall know them” to say, “By their groups ye shall know them.” For me to list all the groups, societies, and institutions Max has founded or been active in would use up all my allotted time this morning

So I’d like to highlight two groups that Max and Jean created here in the Berkshires. When they moved here they planned monthly gatherings of the United Church of Clergy clergy and their families in their home on Sunday nights. We’d all share a potluck supper, and then the children would retire to watch a video (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was a favorite), and the weary pastors and spouses would go to the living room and enjoy friendship and good conversation.

The very first time we went there I firmly instructed my kids during the car ride to address Max and Jean as “Dr. and Mrs. Stackhouse.” When Max greeted us at the front door he knelt down low and said to them “We lived in India, and in India the children call grown-ups Auntie or Uncle, so you can call me Uncle Max.” Andrew nodded soberly and said, “OK, Dr. Stackhouse.” Those gatherings were a blessing to me and to my family, and to many clergy colleagues.

You all know about Max and Jean’s wonderful organization The Berkshire Institute for Theology and the Arts (BITA) that brought together artists, lay people, pastors and scholars for discussions, performances and fellowship. Again Max and Jean opened their home for a meal to the participants.

I mention these to illustrate the commitment that Max (and Jean, too) have to bringing people together to think and talk about important matters, and to share their life with others. Wherever they have lived or traveled around the world, and that list is also huge, they have made deep friendships and countless connections with all sorts of people.

I must confess that in addition to being my teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend, Max is also “a voice in my head.” I think Scott (Paeth) and other former students of Max will recognize how the Stackhousian voice lingers long after the studies are over.

What does this voice say? Well, to take just one example, Max, who is the son and grandson of Methodist preachers has an allergy to hyper-individualistic religion. “Pietism” is the word he uses to describe such impulses.

“Pietism” is a perennial danger for Christians and a regular feature of American religion, where the emphasis is on me: my faith, my experiences. So the Stackhousian voice in my head sometimes says things to me like, “Be careful, Rick, that your faith doesn’t become too individualistic, too private, because faith, though personal, is not private. Your faith is about you, but it’s not all about you.”

Some view a congregation as a collection of beautiful cut flowers collected as in a vase. The beauty is in the individual spirituality, which each person brings to make a beautiful bouquet.

Max, or at least the Stackhousian voice in my head, rejects that view. For Max participation in a congregation is more corporate and organic than that. He might prefer to think of us more like a tree with common roots.

He wants us to think of ourselves as bound together by shared covenants and commitments that are thicker and more transcendent than the sum total of our individual spiritualities. Which is to say that our personal faith is shaped, formed, strengthened and enriched in life together as a congregation.

He wants us to always be asking big questions, such as, “What does it mean to live life together under God?” “What does it mean to be the body of Christ?” He wants us to think about important words such as covenant and vocation.

He believes that out of this shared life and these deep conversations comes a world-transforming Christianity, like that of our Reformed and Puritan forbears, that helps shape our larger community and society.

You can read in Max’s many books the arc of his Christian Social Ethics, but you can also clearly see in his life and commitments the embodiment of his thinking, the caring for peoples and societies by attending to the way they organize themselves and by how they think about who they are together under God.

I give thanks to God for Max’s part, and Jean’s too, in my life and the lives of my family, and also in the life of this congregation. Amen.

Max L. Stackhouse and Public Theology

 

Max Stackhouse Flyer

 My teacher, mentor, colleague,  friend and Berkshire neighbor Max Stackhouse, one of the primary founders of Public Theology, will be celebrated at our church in Stockbridge on Sunday. (see flyer below)

Dr. Scott Paeth, one of the editors of a new book of Max’s writings, Shaping Public Theology (Eerdmans, 2014) will give a presentation after morning worship.

Several years ago I posted on Max’s  “God and Globalization.” You can find that here. In Max’s body of writings he has persistently challenged the dominate economic view of society (whether capitalist or socialist) as reductionist.For example, here is an excerpt from a letter he sent us back in 2009:

The economies in each area (of his several travels in the world) have some things in common, such as whether people have little or much, they want more, and in all contexts the laws of supply and demand operate. But, what people want more of and why they want what they want, and what they are able to supply and what they demand for what reasons are quite different. These things differ according to their view of and experiences in family life, political power, legal systems, educational opportunities, medical conditions and technological capabilities. In other words, economics is less an independent cause in social stability or change, than a result of the cultural and civilizational fabric. And, here is the main point, these are all deeply influenced by the dominant religion as shaped by the professional leaders of that religion — the clergy, intellectuals, theologians, and charismatic leaders who appeal to the core of the faith and relate it to the social realities the civilization faces. Under the influence of the secularization hypothesis, religion is a by-product of economic (and psychological) factors. (For the whole letter go here.)

 

If you are in the area join us for this celebration of Max and his important contributions to Public Theology:

 

Max Stackhouse Flyer

“O Captain! My Captain!” Walt Whitman and Robin Williams

LincolnThe Internet is full of kudos for the late great Robin Williams, many of them referencing the Walt Whitman poem “O Captain! My Captain!” (which is a line from William’s movie “The Dead Poets’ Society.”)

It would be sad if the original context was lost. The poem is an expression of Whitman’s grief at the death of Abraham Lincoln. It is one of my favorite poems, and as much as I loved Robin Williams, and appreciate his cometic gifts and obvious humanity, I  want us to hold on to the power of this poem about the man that emancipated slavery, saved the union, and changed our nation forever. And I imagine that Robin Williams would be first in line to agree with me.

“O Captain! My Captain!”

BY WALT WHITMAN

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

More reflections on worry: “The Peace of Wild Things”

Berry Pond

I recently posted “Are you choking? A reflection on worry” and a friend sent me this poem by Wendell Berry called “The Peace of Wild Things.” As always Berry is deeply insightful about the ways of the world and the human soul.

“The despair of the world” is great these days with wars and rumors of wars and it easy to let fear run away with us. We fear, as Berry puts it, “of what my life and my children’s lives may be.” We worry about the Middle East and Ukraine,  about Ebola outbreaks in Africa, about the tragedy of children on our borders fleeing violence. We worry about the stock market, rising income inequality, and the loss of jobs that cast a shadow over our children’s futures. With the 24/7 news cycle and the relentless posts on social media the fodder for worry is inexhaustible.

One of the features of our humanity is an awareness of the past and an anticipation of the future. It is a mixed blessing, for the cause of much of our anxiety is rooted in what Berry calls “forethought of grief.” We know that we will suffer and one day die, or as the basketball player/philosopher Charles Barkley aptly put it, “Father Time is still undefeated.”

When Jesus admonished his listeners to “be not anxious,” he told them to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. This is “the peace of wild things” that Berry suggests can free us from our anxiety for a time and let us be.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron
feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– Wendell Berry

(Photo by R.L. Floyd. Berry Pond at the Pittsfield State Forest, Pittsfield, Massachusetts)

Remembering Rubem Alves (1933-2014)

Rubem AlvesRubem Alves, the Brazilian writer and theologian, died last week at the age of 80. I had the privilege to get to know him during one of his visits to the United States in the early 1980’s. He came to Bangor Theological Seminary in Bangor, Maine, where I was the chaplain at the time. One of my unofficial duties was showing hospitality to visiting scholars, and so over the course of a week or so, I shared several meals with him and  drove him around town to see the sights. I remember I took him shopping for his family at T. J. Maxx. He had a shopping list from his wife, and was very methodical about what to bring home to Brazil.

He was one of the most intellectually curious people I have ever met. A professor of philosophy, he was interested in literature, music (he wrote eloquently about Vivaldi), education and psychoanalysis (in which he was trained.) He was such great company, full of ideas and ready to discuss a world of topics. He had a wonderful sense of humor and a great laugh

He loved poetry and his 2002 book, The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet (SCM Classics) is an important work in the field of theopoetics.  He went on to publish over 40 books on a wide variety of subjects.  A popular lecturer and speaker he was also a columnist for his local newspaper.

He is often credited as one of the founders of liberation theology and his dissertation at Princeton Theological Seminary was later published under the title A Theology of Human Hope (Corpus Books, 1969) with a foreword by Harvey Cox. It was an important early work in English on the subject.

I just learned of his death from a tweet from the World Council of Churches, memorializing his many contributions to the ecumenical movement. The remembrance of him from the WCC can be found here.

I recall him with great affection and give thanks to God for him.

Here is a quote of his:

“Let us plant dates even though those who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see. . . . Such disciplined love is what has given prophets, revolutionaries, and saints the courage to die for the future they envisaged. They make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope.” (From There is A Season by Joan Chittister)

 

“We are storied creatures!” A reflection on Psalm 139:16

StoryAs I approach the forty year mark of my ministry I more and more appreciate that one’s life is part of a story. Over that span of years I spent many of my days in the give and take of pastoral ministry while at the same time I was marinating in Scripture preparing to give a good word on Sunday. Here’s a reflection on what it means to have such a storied life:

“We are storied creatures. There is no essential “I” apart from the story I am living, which is populated with a multi-generational cast of thousands. It is quite a story. It begins “in the beginning,” and ends only in God’s own good Time. And, praise be! God has written me into it, giving me a part to play, and, oh look, you have one too!” (From my Daily Devotional for today. See the whole post here.