Tuesday, September 12, 2017

returning thanks over nearly 40 years...

In looking backwards over the course of nearly 40 years of serving the church, a few accomplishments stand out. I had the privilege of visiting the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe four times including a tour I led with 50 of my Saginaw teens and their parents and another I organized under the auspices of the National Council of Churches and the Ohio Conference of the United Church of Christ. I was twice elected to the Cleveland Board of Education as part of an interracial reform team and served as its Vice President. It was my joy and honor to preside as the Moderator of the Southwest Conference of the United Church of Christ, pastor the first Open and Affirming congregation in the United Church in the Arizona, and participate in the historic General Synod that came out in support of marriage equality. In Cleveland, Tucson and Pittsfield I worked to launch faith-based community organizing efforts in concert with the Gamaliel Foundation, IAF and the Inter-Valley Project. And I give thanks to God that I have been able to encourage seven different adults to enter into full-time, ordained Christian ministry.

Each and all of these experiences have been blessings. But there are four very different encounters that have given my life in ministry meaning and depth - and for each of them I will be eternally grateful. The first was putting together a folk band, the Saginaw Rounders, that worked to revive Pete Seeger's commitment to group singing. I loved each of the members of that small troup and am grateful that through Facebook we've reconnected. This song has been embedded in my memory and always makes me think of those good times.

The second involves being connected to Fr. Jim O'Donnell's Oasis House in Cleveland. His ministry of quiet presence and prayer gave me a model I have yearned to incarnate. His wise counsel saved my soul when I was crashing and burning amidst divorce. And his association with both Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen opened my heart to a new way of living. His transformation of wounded, urban neighborhoods took place parcel by parcel, person by person. I aspire to go deeper into this ministry of presence in whatever time remains for me in this world. Sally Rogers' take on Bob Franke's masterpiece, "Thanksgiving Eve" will always evoke this blessing for me.

The third was our band in Tucson: Stranger. They were soul mates. They were my micro faith community while I served a larger congregation. And their creativity, love and courage showed me how to marry popular culture with spirituality and worship. Together we fashioned Good Friday experiments that used sound, sight and silence in radically new ways.  Our weekly Eucharists enriched my love of this holy sacrament. And the beauty and energy of playing with Don E, Linda, Kim, Dianne, Brian, Erik, Sean, Thomas, Ina and Elie not only kicked up my love of music but kicked up my chops, too. Leaving this band - and all they represented - broke my heart. It was necessary but agonizing and I miss them nearly every day. This was our go to standard...

And the fourth was our Pittsfield band:  Between the Banks. We started small - two voices and an acoustic guitar. Then Jenna joined as a vocalist. Then Brian on guitar. In time Eva, Sue and Jon became integral in the spirituality of our creativity - and Carlton, Dave and Elizabeth, too. As a small ensemble with tight four part harmonies, this band kicked ass.  We could rock out with David, go blue-eyed soul with Brian, be totally jazz when C brought in Charlie, Andy and Jon (on drums) or pure spirit when we channeled the Wailin' Jennys. Over the years we raised thousands of dollars for emergency heat in the Berkshires as well as serious bucks for our eco-justice mission partners. We played Coltrane for Good Friday one year and Paul Winter for an early November concert another.  The music and camaraderie was sublime. When we were cookin' we attracted other artists and locals who had grown weary of traditional worship. I will love these people forever.  For me, Herbie Hancock's remake of Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up" defined this era.

One old salt said to me: You don't get many chances to work with truly holy people in your career. It happens once, maybe twice, so cherish it when you find it. As I look over my time in ministry, I've been blessed by sacred encounters in each of the four churches I have served. I am grateful when we taste the kingdom like this and sad when it departs. But such is the ebb and flow of death and resurrection, yes? 

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