A Reflection on Forty-Five Years of Ordained Ministry

On this day forty-five years ago, September 21, 1975, I was ordained into the Christian Ministry of Word and Sacrament at the Newton Highlands Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts. I was 26.

I had had my ecclesiastical council weeks before and waited for a call for a church before I could be ordained. Late in the summer it came. I was called to be the pastor of the Congregational Churches of Limerick and West Newfield, a “Two-point charge” serving two small congregations nine miles apart in the Northwest corner of York County, Maine. I had preached my neutral pulpit sermon in nearby Fryeburg, and a candidating sermon in each of the two churches.

I remember my ordination vividly. The church secretary, Irene Fultz, had designed. printed and mailed out the invitations. My family was there. My Associate Conference Minister, Oliver Powell, was there. The Reverend Joanne Hartunian, represented the Metropolitan Boston Association. The Reverend Meredith (Jerry) B. Handspicker, presided over the Laying on of Hands, and gave the Prayer of Ordination (after the ordained ministers were assembled he invited the whole congregation to participate, the first time I had seen this. It is commonplace now in the UCC.) The Reverend Dudne M. Breeze gave the sermon. He admonished me to be a Minister of the Word of God. I now know how wise that counsel was and how hard it would be.

I served those two little churches for four years and have never been happier. I married Martha while there and those churches threw us a big party. I trained as an EMT and became a firefighter.

Next, we went to Bangor, where I was Chaplain at Bangor Theological Seminary and Associate Pastor of the Hammond Street Church, United Church of Christ. There I ministered to students and congregants. I was a founder of Maine Clergy and Laity Concerned (CALC) a national anti-war organization. I chaired the Social Justice Committee of the Maine Council of Churches.

Finally, I came to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1982 to be the Pastor of the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield. I had three sabbaticals from there: Oxford (1989), St Andrews (1995) and Cambridge (2000). I studied and wrote articles and books while on those wonderful respites from active ministry.

I stayed in Pittsfield for twenty-two years and would have stayed longer if I hadn’t sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in a bicycle accident and had to retire early on disability.

After that I eventually discovered a new chapter as a writer. I started this blog, I wrote devotions for the United Church of Christ, and found a new ministry of the Word in my words.

So, there you have it. Here I am 45 years later. I once kept count of how many weddings I officiated at, but I have lost count well into several hundred. The same for baptisms, confirmations. I can’t count the hospital visits, the funerals and graveside committals I was part of. I’ve held people’s hands in Rehab Facilities and Psychiatric Wards. I’ve put my arms around people in overwhelming grief. I’ve been humbled by theses encounters.

I have heard numerous confessions. I have listened to more kinds of human consternation and misery than you can imagine. I have also been privileged to be part of people’s lives at some of their more poignant moments. I have shared many joys and sorrows. I have “wept with those who weep, and rejoiced with those who have rejoiced.” (Romans 12:15)

I have led countless Bible Studies and other courses for adults. I have authored “A Course in Basic Christianity” for adults. I think of it as a course to teach you “everything you should have learned in Confirmation Class, but probably didn’t because you had your mind on other things.”

I’ve valued the relationships of my clergy friends and colleagues in the United Church of Christ and other Christian denominations. I served  the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ as their representative to the Massachusetts Commission on Christian Unity for twelve years. There, I made many friends and came to appreciate the richness of the “Great Church” of Jesus Christ.

I have also treasured the relationships I have had with my Jewish brothers and sisters in the clergy. We have become trusted friends and interlocators, and in that safe space of friendship have had rich and deep conversations about both what unites and divides us. It was a great honor that the family of my dear friend Rabbi Harold Salzmann asked me to speak at his funeral at Temple Anshe Amunin in Pittsfield last year.

I’ve witnessed people’s lives changed by their confrontation with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And I, myself, have been profoundly changed by a life-long engagement with Jesus and his Gospel of freedom and grace. Jesus is still the most interesting and engaging piece of our faith, and after forty-five years he is still the one with whom I have to deal in thought and deed and prayer.

I have struggled to be faithful to the truth as I have known it. My reach has exceeded my grasp. I have pondered the deep things of the faith and have written countless articles, papers, and three and a half books. I have spent years trying to reform my denomination and restore its historic theological and ecumenical vision through leadership in such activities as the Confessing Christ movement, the Mercersburg Society, and the Craigville Colloquies.

I have also, to be quite honest, been a leader throughout my forty-five year ministry, in an enterprise that is in decline in institutional vigor and societal esteem. The schools where I received my masters and my doctorate are no longer there. The mainline church in whose rocky vineyard I have labored is smaller, poorer, and less respected than it was before I began. My last church, where I served for 22 years, is selling its grand gothic meeting house.

But I do not despair about this. God will not be left without witnesses. The church of the future, I believe, will be smaller, leaner, and more faithful. People won’t go because it’s “the thing to do” as it once was. They’ll go because they have found something of great value to which they are committed. Or they will go because they are searching for something important that seems missing in their lives, something more durable, something deeper than the shallow seductions and distractions of our consumer culture that values having more than being.

So, while I have regrets about my failings and limitations as a minister, I have none about choosing this calling and living it out for four and a half decades. My daughter has chosen to be a pastor, and I watch with awe at how gifted and faithful she is. It is young clergy such as she who give me much hope for the church of the future. I thank God for sustaining me through this long calling, and for calling me in the first place despite my manifold frailties and failures. To God be the glory.

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.” Amen. —Ephesians 3:20-21.

“It was twenty years ago today” My Life with Traumatic Brain Injury

Ride leader. BCA Wednesday Ride

On August 5, 2000 I set off to ride the Greylock Century Ride, a grueling 100 mile ride through the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts. I had already gone up and over Mt. Greylock, the highest point in the state, and up the famous “Hairpin Turn” on Route 2, “The Mohawk Trail.”

At mile 33 I found myself off the road in a drainage ditch  (I found out later they are called “paved waterways” and are designed to keep then snow melt off the road.) The waterway led to a grate. It was too steep to ride back on the road or onto the shoulder so I literally went head over heels onto the pavement, still clipped into my pedals. Continue reading

My Top Ten Posts from 2017

Once again, as the old year passes and the new year beckons, it has been my custom to look back at my most popular posts of the year. Some years a theme emerges, and this year the idea of perseverance seems to be the theme. In the light of God’s unending faithfulness and lovingkindness let us all live in hope in 2018. Continue reading

A Hidden Gem in the Berkshire Music Scene: Berkshire Lyric

The Berkshires are widely acknowledged as a mecca of culture, especially for great music. We all know about Tanglewood and South Mountain Concerts. We read about them in The New York Times and The New Yorker.

These venues, and several others, feature some of the world’s best professional talent, and we are grateful for it. But what often flies under the media radar here is a number of homegrown, grass-roots community organizations that produce some first-rate music. Continue reading

“He’s Back!” A Christmas Story with a Happy Ending

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My friend and former Pittsfield colleague Karen Gygax Rodriguez is the Pastor of the Federated Church of Green Lake, Wisconsin. On the Second Sunday of Advent, December 6, the baby Jesus figurine was stolen from the church’s nativity scene.

The police investigated, but had no leads. They speculated that the thief was from outside Green Lake, since “everybody knows everybody here, and it would have been returned by now.” Continue reading

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

“Now the First of December was covered with snow”

 

December caught me by surprise today. We left last Tuesday to go to my brother’s in Maine for Thanksgiving, with a stop in Boston on the way back to see Martha’s folks and pick up our son at Logan Airport as he returned from London. We got back late Sunday night.

It was all good, but exhausting, and yesterday I just zoned out. I stayed up late last night to watch the Pats get a whuppin’ from the Saints (that’s American football for my international friends.)

This morning I woke up to see the first snow of the season, and thought, well, it’s the last day of November so that’s about right. I blogged on being ill-prepared in Advent, but still didn’t realize I’d lost a day until I posted and noticed the blogpost indexed in DECEMBER!

I recall all those crazy years in local church ministry when the First Sunday of Advent fell in November, and came hard after Thanksgiving. Now I can’t even keep track of the date

The snow on the ground this morning reminded me of a line from the James Taylor song Sweet Baby James:

“Now the First of December was covered with snow
And so was the Turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
Lord, the Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frostin’”

Whenever James Taylor comes to Tanglewood and sings that song (and he always does) a big roar comes out of the crowd when he gets to that line about the Berkshires.  We even have some dear friends who named their baby James after that song.  I have many warm memories of all the James Taylor concerts we heard and saw over the years camped out on the lawn at Tanglewood when our children and the neighbor’s children were all growing up together.  One of those children is all grown up and the mother of baby James.

And now it is the first of December after all.  The snow has stopped, and is melting, but for a time the Berkshires did indeed “seem dream-like on account of that frosting.”

(Photo: R. L. Floyd)

Bicycle Touring in the Berkshires

It’s that time of year again when the ice is off the road, the bikes come out of the garage and we pull on our cycling shorts to find that once again they have shrunk over the winter. Here in the Berkshire Hills we have an active cycling club called the Berkshire Cycling Association, which organizes and sponsors a number of events, from road and mountain bike races to time trials.

For those who prefer not to go so fast there is a also series of weekly touring rides beginning this week and continuing into September. The oldest of these rides is the venerable Thursday Night Ride, which has helped many a new rider to learn how to ride in a group. Ably led by Shaun Weigand the ride attracts 20 to 35 riders on any given Thursday night. The rides begin in different locations and over the course of the season cover most of Berkshire County, with an occasional foray into adjacent Vermont, New York, or Connecticut.

A newer and smaller touring ride that meets during the day is the Wednesday Morning Ride, which regularly attracts about 15 riders. This ride, which I help to found four years ago and led for three years, is now led by Margie Safran.

Both rides are pretty leisurely, with friendly, helpful people. One needs a safe working bike, a helmet (always!), and knowledge of how your bike works, the highway laws, and how to ride safely on the road. (Photo above from left: R.Floyd, Marge Cohan, and John Yuill in front of the Monterey Genreral Store)

Spring Comes Slowly to the Berkshire Hills

I believe that spring will finally come to my corner of the world because two weeks ago I was down in Princeton (about three hours south of here) and saw green lawns, apple blossoms, and tulips. To use the language of Christian eschatology, I wait in hope for the future to break into the present.

Here in the Berkshires we must wait until early May for real spring to arrive. Later in the summer when the city dwellers descend on us for our cool nights and lovely days we are thankful for our geography, but this time of year we experience first hand T. S. Eliot’s observation that “April is the cruelest month.” (The Wasteland, 1922)

But here and there I spy glimpses of things to come. I have some crocuses (croci?) popping up around the edges of my house, and my lawn shows hints of green and begs to be raked. The days grow longer and each one, if closely observed, yields signs and portents. I recently read the children’s classic The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and though it was the dead of winter, shared in her rich descriptions of the garden’s daily changes.

So on a warmer sunny day this week I climbed on my bike for the first time in 2009 and hit the Ashuwilticook Rail Trail. I had to take the snowshoes out of my trunk to make room for my bike bag and floor pump, surely another sign of the changing season. It was a bit chilly alongside Cheshire Lake, but after all, the ice has been out of the lake for only a few weeks. There was no ice on the trail, but still a few stubborn chunks clinging to the shady cliffs alongside the Hoosic River at Cheshire Harbor, and some remaining big sandy piles of snow in the parking lot of the Berkshire Mall near the head of the trail.

The Canadian geese were in abundance, some lazy ones now never migrate and have become pests and foul the trail. We had one white swan for a few days several weeks ago but he or she is gone now.

Over the years of riding the trail I have seen a black bear, deer, snapping turtles as big as a lawn mower, and numerous other animals and birds. This week, though, I didn’t see much besides the geese and ducks.

 The buds are getting red, and here and there some begin to show the gold that precedes the green, reminding me of Robert Frost’s little poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

It’s been a long, cold winter here with lots of snow. But spring is slowly coming to the Berkshire and soon we can share in Solomon’s song:

“For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth:
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land.”
(Song of Solomon< 2)