It started Friday evening when we all travelled to my daughter and her loved one's farm about 40 miles from us in the hill towns. They are both excellent cooks, wonderful souls and generous hosts who welcomed us to an evening of mezze, wine, story-telling and reconnecting with two dear friends from Tucson. By 9 pm, my other daughter arrived from Brooklyn and the party ripened. On Saturday, still another cherished colleague from Cleveland had arrived and we spent the afternoon at our favorite tapas bar getting caught up. I love this kind of revelry with people I know and trust and love: it is soul food of the best type.
What is hard for me - harder even than I feared - is when I am the focus of all the attention. That's not false modesty (I pray) but at last night's party and roast, I was done hearing nice things about me after 30 minutes. It was sweet - and flattering - and an honor I will carry with me for a long time. But after a while I wanted to say, "Ok, this is great but come on, can't we talk about something else!?!"
But a number of people had not only made a commitment to come a long way for this event, but they had worked hard on their public remarks. And what I began to realize is that this celebration gave people both a shape and a form to express their gratitude and respect - and that is exactly what they did. My man, don E, from Tucson sent a video (I will post it soon) of tender words that closed with him singing one of my favorite of his songs: "Here with the Broken." Linda and Larry shared something of the depth of ministry and compassion we experienced in the Southwest. Sue, Jon, Rick and Paul shared genuinely funny stories about my ministry here in Pittsfield - honest and beautiful words - that spoke to the love we, too have come to share. My band mates sang a new song Brian wrote for this celebration - a bluesy gospel tune based on words he took from this blog over the years - as well as "In My Life" by the Beatles. Andy, Sue, Steve, Ethan and Dick sang a short history of my life they had cooked up based on "The Ballad of Jed Clampett." And a great meal was savored by about 80 people - including some of my local colleagues from the Berkshire Association.
So as uncomfortable as it was for me to be the center of attention, it slowly started to dawn on me that my job, at least for a few hours, was to suck it up, enjoy what I could and receive the whole thing with thanksgiving. But let me tell you, while the old timers may have been telling the truth when they advised us that "it is better to give than receive," it is also true that for some of us it is much harder to receive than give, yes? When we receive, we are not in control. When we receive, we have to live with open hands and hearts. When we receive we have to create space for others in real humility. For when we receive, we have to live from the core of grace.
All of that was good for me to experience: the music, the love, the gratitude, the kidding, the sharing and the gifts. After all the words, my moderator, Dana, shared three gifts with me from the congregation. The first was a plaque from the national church honoring my 30 years of ministry. The second was an incredible home-made memory book of pictures telling the story of this ministry. After only 3 pages I had to stop looking because I couldn't hold back the tears. It is beautiful on so many levels. And then they gave me a third gift: first the formal, second the memories and third the artistic - a copy of Mako Fujimura's four gospels art work commissioned for the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. This is one of the most awe-inspired art I have ever seen - we went to a gallery in Soho last winter to check it out - and now my people have shared it with me.
It was now almost impossible for me to speak - usually not a problem as my friends noted later - I was overwhelmed with emotion. Earlier I had written down my comments knowing I might be unable to share spontaneously - and it was a good thing I had. Here is what I had written and what I read:
It is important for me to share two things with you tonight: a poem and a debt of gratitude. Most probably my list of thanksgiving and gratitude will take a few minutes – so be forewarned – because this is important for me to say out loud. There are four broad groups of people that I want to thank deeply and tenderly – your presence and love, your various ministries and commitments – have touched me deeply and continue to nourish me in ways I will never be able to express.
That’s group number one – I told you it would take a little time – ok? The second group I am indebted to are my colleagues and friends who are no longer a direct part of my daily ministry but have loved me and shared wisdom with me and help me discern God’s still speaking voice when I am perplexed or too tired or simply befuddled.
I cannot forget two people who were there with me on the night of my ordination 30 years ago but who have now gone on to join that great cloud of witnesses: The Reverend Dr. Sam Fogal and the Rev. Dr. Ray Swartzback.
Now group number three includes my partners in music – both at First Church and in the Jazz Ambassadors – because you all have nourished me and helped me realize sacred dreams of sharing beauty and hope and peace throughout the world.
And lastly to my beloved family – who have found ways to love me in a complicated and all-too-public job – who have experienced my failings all too profoundly – and made room in yours hearts both for my absences when you were growing up or in need and my even my sins:
Then with lots of tears I closed with this poem from Mary Oliver:
Everyone should be born into the world happy
and loving everything.
But in truth it rarely works that way.
For myself, I have spent my life clamoring toward it.
Hallelujah, anyway I'm not where I started!
And have you too been trudging like that, sometimes
almost forgetting how wondrous the world is
and how miraculously kind some people can be?
And have you too decided that probably nothing important
is ever easy?
Not, say, for the first sixty years?
Hallelujah, I'm sixty now, and even a little more,
and some days I feel I have wings.
After the party a few of us retired back to our home for more stories and some wine. Then this morning we gathered for my musical/theological reflection on ministry. It, too, was a gas. My dear friends, Hal and Terre, made a special trip up from Connecticut to be a part of the groove. And oh my God did the band play and sing with soul and conviction our rendition of "Don't Give Up" as a call to ministry here in this place and time.
Exhausting and exhilarting - sweet and complicated, too - this has been a full 60 hours. At dinner last night, my daughters were talking about a farm puppy a friend wants to give away. Now that the feasting is over, we'll head out for a visit tomorrow and... who knows.