(We had a beautiful and moving Service of Celebration and Thanksgiving for the life of Jerry Handspicker this afternoon at the Second Congregational Church, UCC, of Bennington, Vermont. The Pastor, the Reverend Mary H. Lee-Clark, presided and delivered a fine homily. Jerry was Professor of Practical Theology at Andover Newton Theological School for 36 years, my former teacher, colleague and a family friend. I was asked to give one of the remembrances. Here are my remarks:)
I’m Rick Floyd. Jerry was my teacher, my colleague and my friend. I knew Jerry for 45 years through many ups and downs and changing experiences of life.
I met him when I arrived at Andover Newton in 1971. That very first week I applied for a field education position, running a coffee house (that dates me!), at the Newton Highlands Congregational Church. There were two token youths on the search committee, Amy Handspicker and her best-friend Martha Talis. By Amy’s telling they judged I was hip enough for the job, and convinced the skeptical grown-ups that I was their man.
Thus began a long association with that congregation, where Jerry was the associate pastor, and with the Handspicker family. Jerry and Dee embodied what today we would call “radical hospitality,” and I had many a dinner with them and Amy, Jed and Nathan. I once briefly lived in their attic! (And I wasn’t the only one.)
I also spent many an hour at the kitchen table with Jerry, drinking cheap red wine (Tavola Red, Jerry was doing field research for his later book on addiction) and eating Saltines, solving the problems of the universe, and more specifically for me, trying to discern whether I had a calling to this strange ministry business.
Jerry wisely suggested I do an intern year at the Newton Highlands church to see if I liked the work, and he was my advisor during that year. It was a trap, of course, because I soon loved the work and never looked back. Jerry was a big part of that. His love for the church, his passionate ecumenism, and his lively and curious intellect were inspirational to me.
Jerry’s Andover Newton colleague Mark Heim used the metaphor of “utility infielder” to describe Jerry’s role at Andover Newton. It is an apt metaphor, for Jerry was a generalist in the very best sense of the word, not because he couldn’t have specialized in any number of things, but because of the breadth of his interests.
For example, one time around the legendary Handspicker kitchen table, I mentioned I had a church history paper due for Gerald Cragg on the difference between the biblical interpretative schools of Alexandria and Antioch. “Oh yeah,” said Jerry, “the Alexandrians employed allegory, while the Antiochenes preferred the plain sense.” OK! I wrote the paper and it turned out he was right.
It was George Peck who was known as the Barthian on the faculty, but Jerry did his PhD. at Yale with the estimable Hans Frei, and knew his way around Barth’s magisterial Church Dogmatics. It was also Jerry who first told me about the writings of P.T. Forsyth, still a theological preoccupation of mine.
Jerry’s vast learning undergirded his practical approach to ministering in congregations. Jerry’s title was Professor of Practical Theology and it fit him perfectly. I still use methods and approaches I learned in his Theology of Pastoral Care course. My minister daughter called me last fall for advice on pre-marital counseling, and as I gave it I realized I had learned it from Jerry.
He called his very part-time position as associate pastor at the Newton Highlands church “a dollar-a-year” job. This was not a conceit on his part, but an intentional symbolic embodiment of Jerry’s conviction that theology exists for and in the church. Jerry was a small c as well as a large C Congregationalist.
When I finished my studies at Andover Newton I was called to two little congregations in Maine, and I asked Jerry to pray at my ordination in the Newton Highlands Church.
A year later I was back there again to be married to the aforementioned Martha Talis. That was forty years ago come June. Jerry co-officiated with Dudne Breeze, the pastor. A friend of ours from the choir named Deborah Perkins sang a solo.
Again and again we returned to Newton to “weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice,” for Dee’s Memorial Service, for Jerry and Deb’s Wedding, and for Jerry’s retirement from Andover Newton.
And then in 2004 after my accident when I suddenly had to retire from my pastorate in Pittsfield, it was Jerry who presided at the service of thanksgiving for my ministry. So he book-ended my active pastoral ministry.
Through all the years of my pastoral ministry Jerry was my go-to phone call when a knotty problem arose, because he was not only smart, he was wise. One colleague said, “Jerry was always adding a new arrow to his quiver.” Whether it was the Harvard Business School case-study method or neuro-linguistic programming; he used whatever new tools he could find to help students be better in the practice of ministry.
The conventional wisdom is that pastors should be empathic listeners and avoid becoming problem solvers. Jerry was an empathic listener, to be sure. Nobody was better. One colleague said Jerry was like a fly on the wall at a meeting, he took it all in, including your body language and where your eyes were looking.
But Jerry was also a problem solver. If he didn’t have a method to offer he had a book to recommend. I’ve been accused of believing in “salvation by bibliography” but Jerry was equally guilty. And you know what, the methods and books he offered were usually spot on for the problem you shared with him!
I want to conclude with two small stories about Jerry that tell a lot about his grace and his faith.
First the grace: A friend of mine, Alan Macy, says he got off on the wrong foot with Jerry when he was his student. He’s not sure why, but he was an older student, nearly a decade older than Jerry, and he didn’t quite trust Jerry to grade him for this one required course. So he told Jerry he wanted to take it pass/fail. At the end of the semester Alan was in front of Jerry in a receiving line and Jerry said, “You worked hard on that paper, didn’t you?” “I sure did,” Alan said. “Come by my office and I’ll give it to you.” When Alan came Jerry handed him the paper and it had a big fat A on it. “How’s that pass/fail thing working out for you?” Jerry said with a twinkle in his eye. Alan allowed as how it might not have been such a good idea. Jerry opened his desk drawer and pulled out the piece of paper Alan had given him indicating Pass/Fail. Jerry said, “I seem to have neglected to give this to the registrar.”
Now the faith: my last story is about the time in 1972 when the Newton Highlands Church and its Youth Group put on three performances of the musical Godspell. Jerry was the narrator and also played the part of John the Baptist. For that role he borrowed his Baptist pastor friend Gene Bartlett’s ecclesiastical black baptismal waders.
I played the role of Jesus (of course!) and Jerry and I had to perform a soft-shoe duet called “All for the Best.” So picture Jerry with a top hat and cane singing and dancing a soft-shoe, shuffling around the chancel in black rubber waders. You had to be there!
We had envisioned the show as a worship service rather than merely a performance. If you know Godspell, you will know that it ends with the cast carrying the cruciform body of Jesus down the aisle while singing “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.”
This means that Godspell ends with anticipation, but unfinished. Much like the Gospel of Mark, which ends with the women fleeing the tomb, what happens next is left as an open question.
Now the Newton Highlands church has a beautiful stained-glass chancel window of Jesus breaking bread with the two disciples he met on the road to Emmaus as recorded in Luke’s Gospel. Jerry had an idea. He said, “Let’s give Godspell an Emmaus ending!”
So, a little bit after I was carried out down the aisle to the final song, the lights went down and Jerry started reading the Emmaus story from Luke while I (as Jesus) and two youth group members mimed a conversation as we walked “on the road” to the chancel. There Jerry met us. He and I blessed and broke the bread at the communion table and the “disciples” shared it with the whole congregation.
Jerry really wanted this service to end with visible, tangible expressions of the Resurrection (new life) and Eucharist (thanksgiving), which I believe is a very appropriate valediction for this gracious, faithful, lovely man, who saw possibilities for new life everywhere and gave thanks for real life anywhere. I give thanks for him!
(Photo by Jared Handspicker)