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.

“Unfinished Business” A Devotion on 1 Corinthians 3: 6

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”—1 Corinthians 3: 6

At the beginning of my ministry I taught myself to cook. I was serving two small congregations in rural Maine. I was single then and rattling around the parsonage, so to keep myself occupied (and fed) I started reading various cookbooks and trying out different recipes. Continue reading

“You’ve Got To Serve Somebody” A Sermon on Luke 4: 1-13

When Patty Fox had her ecclesiastical council here in January I asked her to talk about how she goes about interpreting a scripture text to prepare to preach on it. She said several wise things, but one really struck me as particularly insightful. She said, “I always look for the odd, unexpected or unusual verse, and then I ask, ‘Why is this here, and is it important?” So as I was looking at today’s story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness I looked for something I may not have paid much attention to before. And you need to know that the temptation story, which is also in Mark and Matthew, appears in the readings for the First Sunday in Lent every year (from one of these three Gospels.) And I’ve been ordained 44 years, so I have had a chance to preach on this story more than a few times. Continue reading

“Searching for Holy Ground”

“Then God said to Moses, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’” —Exodus 3:5

You can’t find holy ground with your GPS. You won’t even find it at famous holy places, though you might. Ordinary places become holy ground only because we meet God there. Continue reading

“The Time of Trial” A Daily Devotional on Luke 22:39-40

and-still-he-loved-them“Jesus came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’” —Luke 22:39-40

Since I was a child I have prayed the line from the Lord’s Prayer “lead us not into temptation.” Too often my “temptations” have been of the trivial sort, such as whether to eat that second cupcake. My mother liked to quote New Yorker writer Alexander Woollcott, “All the things I really like to do are either illegal, immoral, or fattening.”

But the newer translation of this line is “save us from the time of trial,” which echoes Jesus’s words here to the disciples. Continue reading

“Of Fig Trees and Second Chances” A Sermon on Luke 13:6-9

266_AlexanderMstrJHlsCrppWmnPrblBrrnFigKoninklijke_BibliotheekTheHague1430CROP-1Author T. C. Boyle has an intriguing short story entitled “Chicxulub.” Chicxulub is the name of an enormous asteroid (or perhaps a comet) that collided with the earth sixty-five million years ago on what is now the Yucatan peninsula, leaving an impact crater one hundred and twenty miles across, and twelve miles deep.

Boyle’s short story intersperses such episodes of catastrophic natural disasters with a story of one night in the life of one family. The main characters are a husband and wife, parents of a 17-year old daughter named Maddy. They receive a phone call from a hospital: “There’s been an accident!”

Apparently Maddy has been hit by a drunk driver while walking home from the Cineplex. They head to the hospital in that dream state of shock that overtakes those in the midst of disaster. At the hospital they are unable to get much information out of the staff. They are told she is in surgery. They wait and wait. Finally a young doctor comes out and speaks to them. He drops his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he tells them.

When I first read the story I was deeply moved, even though I knew it was a work of fiction. But Boyle was toying with his readers. He was toying with me. Because in the end we learn that Maddy is not dead. The dead girl on the gurney is a sixteen year old friend of hers, Kristi, who borrowed Maddy’s I.D. to get into an NC-17 movie in the next theater. Maddy gets another chance. Continue reading

“Thin Places”

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“Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’”—Genesis 28: 16

In Jacob’s dream he sees a stairway to heaven with angels ascending and descending it. He named the place Bethel, “the place of God.” The ancient Celts called such spots “thin places,” where the distance between heaven and earth collapses.

Thin places can be famous holy spots such as the Isle of Iona or the Cathedral de Notre Dame, but more often than not they are ordinary places, such as Bethel, or a dusty road on the way to Damascus.

You can search for thin places, but, as with Jacob, it is more likely that they will find you.

Such unexpected encounters with the Holy seem to happen in times of crisis: Jacob running away from home, Saul on his way to persecute the church.

Is it the place itself that allows for these glimpses of the advent of God? Or is it some special state of mind and heart? Either way there are times and places when the ordinarily reliable distinction between heaven and earth gets erased.

Even if we see no burning bush or ladder to heaven, nor hear the voice of Jesus, we are no less certain that we have come upon a thin place, and can say, as Jacob did, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”

Prayer: Keep us alive and alert, O God, in all places and times, that we may not miss the moments of your visitation.

(This is my daily devotional for today from “Wonder,” the United Church of Christ’s 2015 Advent Devotional booklet. Photo meme by Pilgrim Press)

“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

On Holy Ground: A Sermon on Exodus 3:1-15

Burning bushOne of the accepted truths of our faith is that God is everywhere. But here and there, now and then, the Bible tells us about a particular in-breaking of the Divine Presence into someone’s life in a most extraordinary manner.

One of the best known and most important of these stories is the encounter we just heard about between God and Moses on Mt. Horeb.

The back-story to this event starts with the migration of Hebrews to Egypt during and after the time of Joseph, where they increased in number and flourished.

But a new Egyptian king, or pharaoh, came to power who hadn’t known Joseph, and he was threatened by the presence of the Hebrews and he subjected them to slavery.

This is the world Moses is born into, a world where his people are oppressed, and his own life is in danger. This paranoid king orders the Hebrew midwives to kill all the Hebrew boy babies, but in an act of revolutionary daring they disobey him.

You all know the story of how the baby Moses was hid in the bulrushes along the Nile River, and was discovered by Pharoah’s daughter. And how when Moses grew up she adopted him, and he was treated like an Egyptian prince.

So Moses escapes the plight of his people, but not for long. One day he saw an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave, and Moses rushed to defend the slave and in the ensuing fight he killed the man.

Fleeing for his life he ends up far away on Mt Horeb, where he settles down with a wife and tends the goats for his father-in- law.

That brings us to our story for today. It is not a very promising story, Moses wanted for murder, running away from his home and his people. And he knows that his people suffer terribly under the authority of pharaoh, who is the king of the most powerful empire in the world. Moses may have just been relieved to get out of town with his life.

So it’s just another ordinary workday for Moses, keeping an eye on the flocks as they forage for food on the side of the mountain. And then, suddenly, the ordinary day is transformed by this extraordinary sight, a flaming bush that seems to burn but is not consumed. And there is a divine messenger in the fire, for that is what an angel is. The angel never speaks, but the voice of God speaks directly to Moses, calling him by name, “Moses, Moses.”

Moses knows he is the presence of something or Someone much greater than he, and so he says, “Here am I.” Then God warns Moses to come no closer: “Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground!”

What makes it holy ground? It is holy ground because God is present there. God is holy, and where God is present it is holy ground. Did you know that the Latin word, sanctus, meaning holy, is where we get our word sanctuary? A sanctuary means “a container for holy things.” This room is called a sanctuary because it has been set apart as a place where we may know the presence of God. There is nothing intrinsically holy about this room, or Mt. Horeb, for that matter. They only become holy ground because God becomes present there.

I need to say a word about mountains. The ancients often viewed mountains as holy places where the gods or the larger powers dwelt. They were places best left alone. I recently learned that there are very few Native American artifacts on the tops of mountains. For example, Darby Field, who was the first European to climb Mt Washington in NH in 1642, could convince only one of his 26 Indian scouts to approach the summit with him.

They discerned that holy ground can be dangerous ground. Something Moses sensed as well. On Mt Horeb he finds himself suddenly on holy ground, that sacred space where heaven and earth meet.

One of the things I love about scripture is that I notice new details every time I read a passage, even a familiar one like this. Here’s what I noticed about this one: first, it doesn’t say that God is invisible. On the contrary, Moses turns his face in submission to that which is greater than he. The belief was if you looked at God you would die. Later in Exodus, after a long and complicated relationship, Moses gets bolder, but here he turns his face away from God.

The other detail I had never noticed before was the angel. And why doesn’t the angel speak? That’s their job as intermediators. But here it is God who speaks directly to Moses.

Think about it. This encounter with God must have been both terrifying and amazing, both awesome and awful, two words that used to be synonyms but have evolved to being opposites to show the tension that exists in any encounter with God’s presence. Was it awesome? Or was it awful? Both.

There’s an old hymn that captures the former use of awful, “Before Jehovah’s awful throne.”

So Moses finds himself on holy ground, and knows there are dangers. What are some of the dangers of holy ground?

  1. The first is that you are on holy ground but don’t know it. The great English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God . . .” and it is true. You may not see a burning bush, but if you are paying attention something of the grandeur of God is everywhere apparent. But you might be busy or distracted and miss it. You were on holy ground and never knew it.
  2. A second danger is that you are on holy ground and you do know it, find it awesome, but then don’t want to leave it. This is the punch-line of the Transfiguration story, when Peter’s answer to the divine encounter is to want to pitch his tent right there and stay. Recall how Jesus said, “No. We’ve got to go down from the mountain. We have work to do. I have a cross to face.”

And that is the essential truth about all divine-human encounters. They always come for a reason and a purpose. They are always attached to a call. They are not information about God, but an invitation into the work and will of God. We don’t discover God, like the New Yorker cartoons where the pilgrim climbs a mountain to find the solitary guru to tell him the truth about God. Our God is not a God we can discover, but a God who reveals himself to us, for a purpose, the divine purpose.

That’s what makes these encounters so dangerous. Moses recognizes that this invitation is fraught, because God’s work is not safe. This is why Moses offers excuses and alibis to get out of it. And I love that God never refutes his excuses and alibis, but simply ignores them.

It’s a great story, but is it our story? I think it is. And here’s what I think we may need to hear from this story. Moses is going about his day job, and he thinks he is autonomous and answerable to no one. In that way he is like us, because that is the great myth of our time: that we are both autonomous and accountable to no one.

So on this ordinary day on the mountain God breaks into Moses life, calls him by name and tells him he has a job for him. The sudden presence of God, the bush, the angel, the voice, make it clear to Moses that he is not autonomous, that there is something, Someone, greater than he with whom he is in relationship, and he is accountable, he is called. In the face of the divine presence and before the divine authority Moses realizes he has a vocation, and that his own fate is closely linked with the fate of his people, who are enslaved. The very people he has run away from.

Something else I noticed for the first time in this story. In the beginning of Exodus Moses’s people are called “the Hebrews.” But here there is a shift. God says to Moses, “The cry of “the Israelites” has come to me.” This naming creates a new identity. I am reminded of the line from the 1 Peter 10:2: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”

So Moses wants to know who is this God? We assume monotheism, but in Moses time there were lots of gods around. God says this is who I am, and discloses the divine name: Yahweh, which means I am who I am. “Tell the Egyptians I am sent you.”

And now that God has identified the Hebrews as Israelites, recall that Jacob’s name became Israel, he explicitly identifies himself as not any old god, but the same God who made covenant with the ancestors. “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

This is the central story that constitutes a people, Israel, and by extension the church. It is not the end of the story by any means; later on this very same mountain God will give Moses the Ten Commandments. The book of Exodus tells us God bestows on his people Presence, Law, and Covenant as the abiding features of a new community set apart to be holy. They are to be slaves no longer, but to live for his will and way on behalf of the whole world.

And on every Passover Jewish families repeat this story at the Seder table. They don’t say, “when our ancestors were slaves in Egypt.” They say, “When we were slaves in Egypt.” In doing so they collapse the time from then to now.

In much the same way when we Christians hear this story and think about this story we know that it is our story too. It is a story of liberation. It is the Passover from slavery to freedom. It is the Easter from death to new life.

The story reminds us that we are neither autonomous nor accountable to no one. That is a lie our society tells itself. But it is not true. On the contrary, our God sees, hears, knows, calls us by name, and invites us to share the divine work of liberation from every form of bondage, and every structure of oppression, whether it is personal or societal.

The bush still burns. The call still comes. “Who will speak for me? Who will hear and respond to the invitation to work for my will and way?” Amen.

I preached this sermon on August 31, 2014 at the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. To hear a podcast of the service that contains this sermon go here.