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.

Forty-five years in Ministry and I’m Finally a Televangelist! My YouTube Debut.

I filled in to lead worship for my pastor daughter today. Her amazing worship team put together an engaging and inspirational multi-media worship experience unlike any I have ever been a part of. It’s a new world we are living in, and my message was about how I have taken the lessons I have learned from my brain injury to think about life after the Pandemic. How we might use our religious imaginations to see what “new normal” might look like, because in the life of faith there is no going back:

“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

“Imagining our New Normal?”

“Behold I make all things new!” – Revelation 21:5

Twenty years ago my life changed forever in an instant when I flew over the handlebars of my bicycle and landed on my head. Like Humpty Dumpty I “couldn’t be put back together again.” The name for my new situation is traumatic brain injury (TBI), the injury so many of our troops return with from war. Continue reading

“Rich Toward God” A Stewardship Sermon on Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” —Luke 12:13-21 NRSV Continue reading

My Blog is Ten Years’ Old: A Retrospective

In the Beginning: 2009-2010

I’d like to thank all of you who have dropped by this blog over the years. It is hard for me to believe a decade has passed since I began it. I started to write again as a personal act of healing which in time morphed into a new chapter of my ministry. Continue reading

“Unexpected Miracles” A Sermon on Isaiah 43: 16-21

Last spring, when your pastors Bruce and Barb invited me to come be with you I didn’t realize that I would be with you on a momentous day. For today is the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended The First World War on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. So before this service is over we will have reached that centenary. Continue reading

“Holy Weeping” A Devotion for Lent

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”—Romans 12:15

One of the stranger symptoms resulting from the traumatic brain injury I got 17 years ago is my tendency to cry at odd times, such as while watching sappy jewelry commercials on TV or foolish pet videos on Facebook. Continue reading

“Taking the Long View” Reflections of a Retired Pastor

Presiding(This is a talk I gave to “The Saints” which is the United Church of Christ retired clergy group in the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. The talk was in Cromwell, CT on May 14, 2015)

I’d like to thank you for inviting me to be with you today. I have great respect for ministry as a high and holy calling, and I enjoy the company of ministers. I am proud to be a minister, and this year is the 40th anniversary of my ordination. And it is good to be in the Connecticut Conference. I never served here, but my daughter, Rebecca Floyd Marshall, is an ordained minister here in CT, serving in Westport. If you bump into her at a Conference meeting introduce yourself.

My talk today is entitled “Taking the Long View” which was the title of a UCC STILL SPEAKING Daily Devotional I wrote for March 14 of last year. I see it was re-printed in your newsletter. I’m going to share with you some of my personal back-story behind the writing of this particular devotional.

I began the devotional with an anecdote about Ralph, a congregant of mine in my first church, who owned an apple orchard: “I drove over to see Ralph at his hilltop orchard a week after I had presided over his wife’s funeral and burial. He was well into his nineties and they had been married for seven decades. I was all of twenty-seven. It took me awhile to find him, because he was out planting apple trees. He seemed glad to see me and said, “You may wonder why I am planting trees that I will never live to see bear fruit. But it’s what I have always done, and I am not going to stop now. There were apple trees in this orchard when I came here that somebody else had planted, and there will be apple trees here after I’m gone.”

I’ve held onto Ralph’s words for forty years, and lately they have helped me as I think about what it means to be a retired minister. That hasn’t been easy for me. Because when I left my role as a pastor it seemed, at first, and for a long while, like the loss of my calling as a minister. Now I have come to realize that, although I am no longer a pastor of a congregation, I am still a minister. When I turned 65 the UCC Pension Boards mailed me a good little book by Paul Clayton entitled Called for Life (Perhaps you all got one, too). I love the play on words in the title, and I do believe we are “called for life” in both senses of the phrase.  Continue reading

Disability and Grace

Ten years ago tomorrow I went over the handlebars of my bicycle and landed on my head. I have written about that day elsewhere.  Since that time I have been grappling daily with being brain injured.  Of course, before that day I grappled daily with being human, an enterprise that continues, but brain injury complicates it considerably.

In fact, “a complication” has been a useful way for me to think about brain injury.  My injury is, of course, in common parlance, “a disability,” and the Social Security Administration has recognized mine as such. It is a credential I would have preferred not to have needed, but it makes me officially disabled.

Yet, I don’t really think of myself as a disabled person, any more than I think of myself primarily as a white person, an ordained person, or a male person. All these realities inform my identity but do not, even in the aggregate, constitute it.

I have always had an allergy to identity politics, and question whether it is helpful for one to think of oneself as primarily identified by race, gender, sexual orientation, or for that matter, disability. If pressed for an identity I would pick a really big one, such as “created in the image of God,” and its new creation correlate, baptism. I say this because I believe that any identity that ignores our relationship with God is bound to be too narrow, and lead to some form of self-deception.

But I understand why people with disabilities often choose to make their disability a primary identity, because other people certainly use disability as a social marker, just as they do for race and gender. If you are in a wheelchair or walk or speak differently that will be part of what defines you. And many people can’t look beyond the obvious. People have a fear of disability, that if that can happen to you, it could happen to them. I think there is also a tendency to distance oneself from the disabled by blaming them for their disabilities.  They must have brought it on themselves by bad behaviors. This helps us maintain the illusion that we can have control over protecting ourselves from becoming disabled by being careful. And sometimes it is true that persons acquire disabilities from poor life choices, but most times that is not true.

My disabilities are largely hidden, since I am able to walk and speak. Nonetheless, enough people in my community know about my accident and its aftermath that I find myself in awkward social situations where people aren’t sure how to approach me. My memory is largely unimpaired (and was good to begin with), but the assumption is that brain injury is largely about memory loss, so I find myself in these painful (and sometimes comical) encounters in the supermarket where people are trying to tell me a story but filling in huge amounts of unnecessary back-story (like the names of their kids that I baptized and have known for over twenty years.) Others talk really slowly and enunciate carefully, and I must resist the temptation to say, “I’m brain injured, not stupid.”

Many people just want me to recover and be better, though I will always have a brain injury. “How are you doing?” they ask empathically and I really want to say fine, but, of course, I am not fine, so I resort to something like, “I am doing OK.” Sometimes I say, “For a man in my condition, I’m in great condition.”

A lot of dealing with injury is self-care, and it is frustrating how much of my time and energy goes into just keeping healthy. There are many things I could once do but now cannot. One of the reasons I resist disability as a primary identity is the temptation to use it as an excuse to do less than I can. For I can still do many things, and need to do them, even when it is hard. The daily challenge is to find the sweet spot between too much and too little activity, and of course, when you live with others, this balance is not always completely under your control. Sometimes I choose to overdo just because the thing I choose is important enough to me to pay a price for several days. But I can only do so much of that or I risk my health, which is easier to protect than to restore.

There is also a level of dependency involved with disability that is very hard for me. I rely on my wife and children and family for love and support and a great deal of care-giving. So in some very real sense my injury is a family affair, something that has to be factored in to all our interactions. I want to be strong and brave and independent, but have to face my reliance on others. The positive part of this is that I often experience their care for me as grace, that is, as something freely given though undeserved. And I am often in awe of their patience and forbearance with me, for I am not always the easiest person to be around, especially when I am tired, which is much of the time.

Even before the accident I was powerfully moved by the pathos at the heart of the Christian story: how God’s power is made manifest in the weakness of the cross of Jesus Christ. I have recounted often before that my mother died when I was 18, and that my return to Christian faith as a young adult was the result of a struggle to make sense of a world where such losses (and others) take place.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that I became a theologian of the cross, which I see, not as a symbol of violence and brutality, but as the place where God’s reconciling love encountered human sin and overcame it.

These last ten years have made me more acutely aware that faith lives in the midst of weakness. Disability has sharpened that awareness for me, but one doesn’t have to be disabled to experience human weakness. As a pastor for over thirty years I learned that people undergoing a crisis of loss or humiliation could often hear the good news of the Gospel in  fresh new ways, or even for the first time. In such moments God speaks. Perhaps only when enough of us is cleared out of the way to silence our own voices can there be the space for us to hear God.

My injury and its deficits also complicate my spiritual life, and that too, has made me aware of faith as a gift that I can’t create in myself. “Grace,” I once heard James Forbes say, “is where you find love in full bloom in a climate where it is too cold to grow.” I’m not very good at faith anymore, so it seems even more of a grace when it is there at all.

During my long ministry I was privileged to spend many hours with the aging and dying. They have been my teachers, helping me prepare for my own aging and dying, and also for disability, which shares many of the same features of limitation and loss. In all these challenges of living one relinquishes features of your previous experience of living. This is painful, but faith can enable us to exercise “a holy relinquishing,” that is literally “graceful.” I have been blessed to witness this again and again among those who retain a wonderful dignity in the face of the indignities visited upon the old, the sick and the dying.

Ultimately, grappling with the complications of disability (or just humanity through its life stages) exists within a horizon of hope. This too, is a gift of faith. I have stood at hundreds of funerals and proclaimed, “‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ said the Lord,” and that promise gives me hope.

I don’t know what that new reality will be like, but I cling to bits of Scripture that give us hints and clues. Paul says, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. ”(1 Corinthians 13:12)

The scripture that speaks to me most about disability comes from the vision of John the Divine as reported in the 21st chapter of Revelation. John looks up and sees a new heaven and a new earth, and a New Jerusalem coming down from God out of heaven. He says, “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”

I take comfort from this promise that God’s ultimate intention for us is a community where we don’t suffer pain or death or loss.  That would have to include disability. No more sleepless nights, no more depression, no more chronic pain, no more anxiety and fear, no more shame. No more of all the things that beset us in this earthly life. Quite a vision!

This horizon of hope often allows me to bounce back from my set-backs, to experience forgiveness for my failings, to face the challenges and complications of each new day, and to enjoy the quotidian little (and sometimes not so little) graces that visit me unbidden and unexpected.