Monday, January 29, 2018

bringing it all back home one more time: retirement begins now!

Yesterday, Sunday January 28, 2018, I celebrated worship for the final time as a local church pastor. It was an experience chock full of emotions:  I led the sacrament of Holy Baptism for the great-grandchild of one of the congregation's saints who passed from this life to life everlasting late last year; I experienced the choir's blessing through two particularly important musical selections - "Jazz Alleluia" and "Peace Piece;" I shared a message using the music of St. Bob Dylan and St. Lou Reed to reflect upon how the Spirit has encouraged me to increasingly honor smaller acts of tenderness as my true ministry; and I celebrated Eucharist one last time. As a surprise, a young guitar protoge played "Blackbird" in honor of our shared friendship. And dear friends made the effort to be in the house for this closing Sunday.

Our trip to Tucson helped give me perspective for this finale. As some know, the past few years have been conflicted both within and without. I have known my time in this ministry - not just my church, but more generally in the entire realm of local church service - was complete. What I didn't know was what God had in store for me next. That meant 30+ months of wandering in the wilderness, trusting that when the time was right, I would find the clues to help me cross over into clarity. There were also the inevitable administrative struggles as we sought to resolve new staffing in a balanced budget. My style is horizontal and collaborative. Others tend towards hierarchy and directives making a clash inevitable. In yesterday's message, I reminded my folk that I once believed Don Corleone's dictum in "The Godfather" to be true when he ordered a "hit" on an opponent saying: "Understand this is not personal, it's business." 20 years ago I was shown that ALL of ministry - even administration - is always personal. We deal with precious and broken human beings so must honor the presence of God within them even with the most complicated choices. Tucson gave me the clarity to sort out the many layers of conflict I was carrying - and let most of them go.

I was able to look backwards over the totality of nearly 40 years of ministry as
well as consider the accomplishments of the past decade. I was able to speak with old friends who know my light as well as my shadows. I was given a chance to walk quietly in the desert. I spent hours in conversation with two of my dearest friends, our hosts, whom I treasure. I had time to rest, read and reconsider what was of the Lord and what was just my wounded heart acting out. They are often connected, to be sure, but as the Hebrew Bible text put it in yesterday's worship:  My ways are not your ways says the Lord. By the time we touched down back in Albany, my heart was full to overflowing with gratitude for our time in Pittsfield.  

Cleaning out my books and papers from my church study helped, too. It was exhausting. My back still aches. But as we wrapped art work and chalices, as we tossed 10 years of papers into plastic bags to be sorted during February, as we laughed at some of the memories that popped up unexpectedly: another layer of joy took root. I suspect that as I take the next month to sort through the mess in our basement, more blessings will be revealed. I am not doing anything but this - and going to Ottawa - for all of February.

Part of the farewell liturgy the United Church uses for a retiring pastor includes words about asking for and sharing forgiveness with the congregation. In Tucson I realized that even my mistakes are covered by God's grace. So I truly have no regrets. I didn't get it always right - but neither did the church - or Christ's own disciples. Still, we opened our hearts to the way of Jesus in a radical way during these days. We made beautiful music together for both praise and justice.  We kept reaching out to those on society's margins with a message of grace. And we created a new way of doing the politics of church administration that are admittedly incomplete, but hold the promise of tenderness for the future. 

Now, it is chill time. Time to bring my instruments up from the basement. And add hundreds of books to my home study bookshelves. And throw away pounds and pounds of paper. And prepare to make new music with my dear friends. And get back to the community of L'Arche Ottawa. And visit with my family. And walk in the woods with my dog. And rest gently with my beloved.

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