I head down to Cape Cod this weekend to mourn the death and celebrate the life of my friend Gabe Fackre. Gabe was very important to my life. I knew him first as my seminary teacher, then my mentor, later a faithful colleague and a life-long friend. Most of all he encouraged me again and again in my ministry. Continue reading
(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.) Continue reading
Our two scripture readings today both speak about crying. The first reading speaks to the church on earth today, what I was taught as a child to call the church militant, and the second reading speaks to the church in heaven, what I was taught to call the church triumphant. Perhaps those terms are too martial for us today, but by whatever names it is the distinction between the church here and the church hereafter.
In the first reading Paul admonishes the Roman Christians on how to be the church now, and one of the things he tells them they need to do is to “rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep.”
The second reading is from the Revelation of St John the Divine. I have a soft spot for the writings of St John the Divine, as I was baptized at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York, which is the world’s largest gothic cathedral (so I come by my high church inclinations honestly.)
In this beautiful passage from Revelation, St. John describes the holy city, the New Jerusalem at the end of time and history. He says then there will be no more crying there because God will “wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
So in engaging these two texts about the here and the hereafter, I started thinking about the function of crying in our lives, and especially in the church. I did a little research on crying, and discovered that we don’t know all that much about it. There are several competing theories about why humans cry, including those theories of evolutionary biologists who think it may have some social function. Continue reading
I was reminded of that today when a friend sent me a funny clip about church from Saturday Night Live and I immediately recognized that it had been filmed at the little church I grew up in.
I had seen rumblings about this on the Norwood Facebook page, that there had been a film crew at the Church of The Holy Communion, a beautiful Episcopal church in Norwood, a small town in Bergen County, NJ.
Both my parents were raised in Congregational churches (and my Mom was for a time a Methodist), but when my Mom beat the dust of the Midwest off her heels and moved to New York City she became an Episcopalian. Both my parents were, for a time, librarians at General Theological Seminary, an Episcopal school in the Chelsea section of Manhattan.
They lived on the Upper West Side when I was born, which is how I came to be baptized at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, which if you’re keeping track of things like this, is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral.
Before I started school we moved to Closter, New Jersey, a little town in Bergen County across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan. My Dad was a commuter at the time, working downtown as the photo and caption editor for the Religious News Service, the public relations arm of the old National Conference of Christians and Jews.
While in Closter we attended the little church in Norwood, where my brother Bill was baptized, a very early memory of mine. My father, never baptized, was then a grumpy agnostic, and from him I learned to take both faith and doubt very seriously. My mother was devout and active in the church.
We moved to Norwood when I was in fifth grade, and then were within walking distance of our church.
I am sure there was sin, gossip, and the sundry pettiness that plagues every congregation of humans, but I felt loved and accepted there, and the fact that I ultimately became a Christian minister speaks well of their care and nurture for and of me.
The rector was a gentle, ancient man, Mr. (always “Mr.” as he was low church) John Foster Savidge. He had an odd way of speaking that I assumed was some kind of special ecclesiastical patois. Only years later did my Dad tell me he had CP and a resulting speech impediment. He was very kind to me, and one time when I was about 11 he came to call and neither of my parents were home. He treated me with great respect and dignity, and told me about his trips to England. Years later I had my own times living in Oxford and Cambridge.
His successor was The Reverend Robert Maitland, who was ironically more blue collar but also more high church and always “Father” Maitland.
It was under his care that I was confirmed. He was a very down-to-earth guy, much a contrast from the patrician Mr. Savidge.
When I was in high school my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. In those days cancer was an unmentionable and few adults talked to me about the prospect of her impending death. One was my beloved basketball coach, John Shine, and the other was Father Bob Maitland. He took me to lunch at the Red Coach Inn (any Bergen County folks remember that?). He showed me what a minister could be.
My Mom did die during my first weeks at college at the age of 53. Fr. Maitland presided at the service at the Church of the Holy Communion, to a packed house as only those who die too young can bring out. I was having none of this God who snatched away the most important person in my life.
But years later after a long and arduous faith pilgrimage (which is another story for another day) I came back to the church and to a calling as a minister, although in a different franchise.
So the Church of the Holy Communion remains one of my landmarks, a holy place. And since I always (usually) love SNL the confluence of these two made my day.
The little clip was a trip down memory lane. I took voice lessons from the organist, Walter Witherspoon, and saw the organ near where I stood for my first recital. I saw the lovely stained-glass windows. I wrote recently about the window dedicated to a Sunday School classmate of mine who died in a sledding accident when I was in the second grade.
It has been years since I have been back there, but I thank God for the place and the people, mostly now in the church triumphant, that were there in my growing-up days.
“To sing and love as angels do” is a line from one of Isaac Watts’ hymns (he wrote over seven hundred). I love the phrase. It places singing right up there with loving as one of those activities that pleases God. I have long pondered the central place singing holds in worship, and its importance to the worshiper. Here is an excerpt of an article I wrote about “the worshiping self:”
“In hymn singing the worshiping self experiences transcendence as one among many within a congregation. There, in worship, God the other is addressed by the singer, not in isolation, but as one voice among many others. The hymn singer uses the body as well as the intellect in an integrated act of worship engaging the whole self. Hymn singing also roots the worshiping self within the life of the congregation among whom the singer works and plays, rejoices and weeps. Since the congregation is the local embodiment of the church catholic (what P. T. Forsyth called “the great church”), the hymn singer is part, not only of the congregation physically present, but also the great congregation, both the ecumenical church in its geographical breadth, and the communion of saints in its temporal length across ages and generations.
Additionally, the hymn is a repository of the tradition of the great church, and the faithful learn scripture and doctrine from singing as much as they do from sermons and catechesis. Finally, and most significantly, the singer of hymns not only addresses God, but is, at the same time, addressed by God, so that hymn singing becomes an event of grace. The singer is addressed as a forgiven and justified sinner, and it is often in the singing of the hymns, that the worshiping self is able to experience the grace of justification, and respond with faith and obedience.” (“The Worshiping Self” in Persons in Community: Theological Voices from the Pastorate. Edited by William H. Lazareth. Eerdmans, 2004.)
I also believe that music in general and singing in particular can give us access to the divine presence as no other medium can, which is why even non-believers often are lovers of Bach’s great religious works. Even though my writing is primarily theological and devotional, I have sometimes turned to writing hymns because there is something I want to express that I can in no other way (to see some of my hymns go here.)
I recently wrote:
Singing can help faith, for sometimes we can sing words that we are not yet able to say. I have often noticed singers in choirs who would not call themselves believers belting out sacred music as if they meant it.
Perhaps they do mean it. Who is to say that a singer singing out “And he shall reign for ever and ever” in Handel’s Messiah is not expressing a faith and hope that he or she might have trouble putting into spoken words? (From my Still Speaking Daily Devotional, to see it all go here)
Singing binds us together and reminds us we are not alone. “Our personal faith may wax and wane, but the church’s faith goes on from generation to generation. I like to think of it as a great choir, where each part supports and strengthens every other part, creating something beautiful and harmonious. ”
(Photo: Easter Sunday, 2014, at the First Congregational Church UCC of Stockbridge, MA, where I am a member.)
Martha 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.
“For those who did not know him, he was the often-insightful/often-infuriating gadfly of the United Church of Christ, and a long-time participant in the Confessing Christ group. He died old and full of years”
I met Willis at the very first Craigville Colloquy back in 1984. He spoke at dinner about the “Christian Connection,” the often overlooked piece of the four-church merger that became the United Church of Christ. I thought, “Who is this guy?” Smart, articulate, funny, and insightful. He had a full white beard like Santa Claus, and I thought he was really old, but that was thirty years ago so what did I know?
Later we had him at my congregation as a speaker and with his wife Loree a guest in our home. He was a brilliant, multi-lingual polymath, a former fundamentalist, and at times as difficult and uncompromising as Jeremiah. If there had been a shop that sold iron yokes, Willis might have purchased one. But he could also be an encouraging mentor. Years ago I did a presentation at the MA Conference annual meeting and afterward he made a point to come up and thank me. He also said, “I didn’t know you had it in you!” That was Willis.
In the 1990’s he was one of the founders of Confessing Christ in the United Church of Christ, along with Gabe Fackre, Fred Trost, Jim Gorman, Leslie Zeigler, Barbara Clemons, Bennie Whiten, Herb Davis, Andy Lang, Ted Trost, myself and many others. “Confessing Christ” was an invitation to “joyous theological reflection and serious theological work” on behalf of the ministry and mission of the United Church of Christ.
For years we had our Confessing Christ annual meeting at the church I was serving in Pittsfield, MA, and I got to know Willis well. He was one of the least compromising people I have ever known, and the least career oriented. He had been the librarian and Old Testament Professor at New York Theological Seminary, and before that had served on the national staff of the UCC.
He was a deeply committed Christian, reading the Bible every day in the original languages. His “Think-Sheets,” free of an editorial hand, were challenging, quirky, often brilliant, and, just as often, maddening. They always made you think.
In his latter years his eyesight waned, but he kept up a lively correspondence and participation on the Confessing Christ list-serve conversation.
The “thickness” of the conversation in the United Church of Christ, and the great church, will now be poorer for the loss of his voice, but he had no doubt, and neither do I, that he is now numbered among the great cloud of witnesses. I thank God for him.