There was a big party recently. To celebrate my getting to be 90 years old -------.
My dear successors in the Ministry: Dr. Daniel Harrell of Colonial Church, and Dr. Jim Olson, President of the Pilgrim Center for Reconciliation, got together to make it happen. What a gift: to see all those dear faces together, precious friends in my life. And, my children, and grandchildren, and my dear companion in life, my fierce and faithful, wise and humble Molly - who went to her knees in Rwanda, asking forgiveness of the Africans, putting the unique mark of her humility upon the whole deep and tender work of the Pilgrim Center for Reconciliation - across Africa and the world.
They have all loved me, and forgiven me, and encouraged and taught me the ways of Jesus - Who called us, sent us, and showed us how to make peace and to love all people.
Would I want to say something? Dr. Jim asked. I thought - "Of course." But what? So much I would want to say.
I even tried to write something out. But it didn't work. Till my dear wife bounced up to me on Friday morning, "You need to just thank them. Tell them what they mean to you. Thank them for the years. For standing by, and what they mean."
"And I will begin by thanking you, Molly, my wife, who has taught me, and encouraged me all my life, and who has worked so hard to keep me alive. I am so grateful."
"Well, you don't need to do that," she said. "I already know that." So humble she is.
But, being grateful is always the thing. It is always the most important thing to say: Thank you. Thank you.
We would of course, never get to a great age, never do a good work, never succeed at anything, without the help of so many others along the way - who've believed in you, loved you, taught you, encouraged you, given you so much from their own lives.
Teachers: dear James Stewart, chaplain to the Queen of England, lyrical preacher of the love of Jesus, my New Testament teacher at New College, Edenborough, my friend, and patron saint, if you will. He wrote a book about St. Paul, called "A Man of Christ," but his humble, winsome life was all through it.
Bob Seaver at Union, teacher of speech, who taught me and a handful of others the crucial importance of words, and THE WORD.
Coaches: my Harvard rowing coach, the "saintly" Tom Bolles.
Christian friends, like Bill in Williamsburg, who said when I left, "Arthur, you always preached one thing, the Church, what it means to be the Church."
There were so many others. Dear Prof. Stanley Ross, professor of economics at South and Amherst, and faithful Moderator of our own country church, who said, when I confessed to him my trembling heart and knocking knees when I entered the pulpit to preach, "Arthur, the day your knees don't knock and your heart doesn't tremble, is the day you can no longer be my preacher."
So, on it went, through the years: Agnes Sanford teaching me the healing ministry of the church; all the dear people of those three congregations, who, like Karl Barth's little congregation in the Alps, looking up and asking, "Is there any word from the Lord?" The Campus Crusades staff intent on winning the world as their mission, the Lutheran minister who baptized me in the Holy Spirit in front of the Abbey Church at St. John's University, and the handful of wise women of faith, who showed me courage as they lived boldly for Jesus - like Mary Lou whose funeral I shared in yesterday.
We all need to look back, and give thanks. And, look forward to each day's life, and the hope of heaven.
Written on Sunday, April 28
How dark is death when it comes. We rage against that night, that pulling of the shades, and closing of the shutters, and welling of the tears.
And, how inept we stand, at the edge of the crowd, when that one who has been left behind is our minister, our preacher of the immeasurable love of Christ, and of the victory of life, in the Resurrection, the purveyor of hope Sunday by Sunday, on this day when, at last, in church, he must lay away his beloved, his partner, even - in ways of faith - his teacher, and let her be taken from his arms, his daily life, his family, his ministry - his hopes and dreams of raising their daughter, and their growing old together.
He knows the answers. He knows the truth. He is a good and wise, faithful and following disciple of Jesus. But oh, the hurt of this day, to send that magnificent woman home to heaven. How deep that wound, beyond the real understanding of any of us.
Even as we know our time will come, of either letting our dear one go, or our being the one to go through the dying, and the crossing - to the far shore - ourselves. We know it's time, we must "walk that lonesome valley, we must walk it by ourselves. Oh, nobody else can walk it for us, we have to walk it by ourselves."
So this day of the gathered friends, and the beautiful service is both the sad, glad day. The parting day, the home-going resurrection day, the suddenly alone day, on this side.
So, pray on, brothers and sisters. Still rally round, faithful company, do not abandon our leader, more beloved than ever. Find ways to be there. Keep him in prayer. Love him through these days, and all his days, and our days.
Holy Week this year has seemed so much a dying time. Dear Dawn gone Home - on Easter morning. And Mary Lou, beloved sister in Christ, wise woman of faith, courageous defender of every child of God's right to life - a brave battler too, of the dread disease, "went home to Jesus at 5:00 this morning," as her Floyd called to say. And, too many others, it seems, walking that road these dying days.
This week I spent with one, still young, son of this church, a Jesus man, an oarsman - like me - but, a historian, a teacher of America's history, a studier of the tumultuous decades he remembers here of the Christian task, the preacher's work and words, of call, to the life of "our utmost for His Highest," to point out the Jesus journey through this time. He wanted to read those sermons he heard as a teen-age lad, and see what hope there was, for the people of faith, in those days.
We talked of complexity, of conflict, of compassion, even of courage demanded of the Jesus way.
It is a stab at a legacy that can perhaps be left, for those who care. Not probably so much for children and grandchildren, as for perhaps strangers of generations yet to be, to see visions and dreams once brought to these shores by Puritans and Pilgrims, who laid here, in their churches and communities a foundation of the heart, that can be claimed again, and lived out and built into a people whom God sent to these shores to be as a "city set upon a hill, with the eyes of the world upon it." The servant nation with a heart for all people, and their life and hope.
Dawn herself has set visions and dreams, in her waiting, in her fierce believing, in her trust in the One with whom she dared to die.
So also, with Mary Lou, herself a courageous woman of faith, who died today. So many wise sisters - and brothers, too - to be the Lord's servant daring to march with love, into the critical days and decades ahead.
As I write this, I'm actually not there yet. Will I feel differently when that day in May really comes? Will I think I've made it, that now I can take a rest, maybe not care so much, sort of lay down my arms, as though the battle days are over?
Actually the battle days go on to the end. They did for Jesus. And we are following Him.
He knew the end was near at hand. Jesus knew His time had come. John 13 says, "for we knew that His hour had come to depart from the world and go to the Father. Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end."
His work was love. His destiny was love. He couldn't stop loving them. He kept right on living the life of love, and doing the work of love. It was why He was called. It was His great vision. It wouldn't be over until it was over. Even on the cross - in the middle of dying, He said to the thief beside Him, who had said, "Lord, remember me when you enter into your kingdom." "Verily, verily, I say to you, this day you will be with Me in Paradise."
Loving, promising healing, right to the end.
I can't see 90 as the time to stop loving, to stop caring, to stop living. God will end my life when He's ready, and when He's determined I'm ready.
I think the joy and wonder of life beyond 90, is just that: Joy and Wonder. To be alive, oh my! To see the dawn come. To look at far hills. To still have friends who want to talk and ruminate about life and its meaning. To hold Molly's hand and Jesus' hand. To do what I can. To write a letter. To say love to people. To write down thoughts, and reflections, maybe even another book. To listen to people over coffee, or by the fire. To pray with them. To be an encourager.
To have that lunch with Rachel, or that philosophical conversation with Billy. To go to Arthur's concert. To visit with big John.
So simple. Maybe that's the thing: Simplicity. The love my children need, caring about their lives. Helping as I can.
Maybe declaring as I can, the things I know to be true. To read the Bible. To hold it up. To offer it again to my dear family. To get Molly to read to me on a summer night by the fire.
At sunset time, to paddle my own canoe up Pine River. To look at flowers. To sing as sometimes they ask me, ""Ossipee, My Ossipee." "Though far from thee their feet may roam, they'll ne'er forget their mountain home. But love and guard and work for thee, Ossipee, my Ossipee."
In the days of my parish ministry many a young middle-aged parent in the church spoke dismissively of confirmation courses for 8th and 9th grade young people and raised questions about the value of "Sunday School." Some disparaged the church's effort to teach the faith to young people. "It's too academic," some said. "The world is too much with us," others said. "Television and radio with their secular biases are too seductive for the pious approach of the Church and Sunday school."
I saw very different signs in the young 9th graders who came to me weekly to learn the elements of Christian faith, the teaching of the Bible, and the history of the "Congregational Way" of church life.
These efforts to teach the Way of Jesus, were "too elementary," some said, "too simple." "Not challenging," some said. Yet I encountered in those 1970s and 1980s classes of 14-year-olds a surprising seriousness about the business of God, the challenge of the life of service of the "journey with Jesus," that "life on the trail" those three years with the Master.
When it came to their own personal commitment and decision to follow Jesus, it was serious business. When occasionally a serious young person would say, "I'm not ready," or "I am not sure of Jesus and His Way", I tried hard to take them at their word saying, "Well, confirmation is your public act of committing your life to Jesus, and we are not asking you to stand up and declare something you don't believe. You can wait and take that step in high school, or at any time in the future."
Some brave young people seriously decided. Their end of the year paper on "Why I am a Christian" became "Well, I am not ready to be a Christian."
They had the chance to be honest, to see that they were not being asked to make a show by saying that they were not ready.
Sometimes parents were dismayed and embarrassed to have their child not declare the Christian faith to be theirs. They were not ready to have their son or daughter be that serious as to decline or wish to wait.
In these later years, it has been a singular joy to have former confirmation young people - now in their 50s and 40s - declare that Confirmation was important to them. One repeatedly declares, "It laid my brick foundation."
And now a study has come to hand from Harvard University - of all places - that a significant study of theirs "found that religious parents have lasting, positive effect" on adolescent children.
Harvard's School of Public Health published important research by Tyler J. Van der Weele and Ying Chen "which evidences the positive role played by traditional religion on the development of youth and their health and welfare."
Their study "analyzed data from more than 5,000 children and concluded that teens with religious or spiritual practices lead happier and healthier lives in their 20s and beyond." "....The study specifically found that a religious upbringing greatly helps adolescents navigate life's challenges by providing them with an inner strength that brings about many positive outcomes in young adulthood (including processing and giving expression to emotions.)"
"Concluding that 'the effects of a religious community are profoundly positive' the study states, 'there is evidence that religion is an important social determinant of health over life-course.'
"By setting boundaries and standards for children, 'religion provides directives for personal virtue to help maintain self-control and develop negative attitudes toward certain behaviors.'"
There's much more. But, what an encouragement to us who are trying to live this life and pass it on to those around us.
Well, it's half time in the second Semi-Final game, and only a two or three point difference between Texas Tech and Michigan State. The University of Virginia has already beaten Auburn in the first Semi-Final, by a hair.
I find myself transfixed by these fast-moving young men in their climactic NCAA Final Four games.
But, much more significant for me has been the seven hours Molly and I have spent today helping with the Pilgrim Center's retreat for 19 or 20 mostly young people at Koinonia Retreat Center in Annandale. Our task was to lift up "The Meaning of the Cross" and later share in the healing prayer time.
Over lunch two young women sat down eagerly beside us to talk about their country and their lives. They are both from South Sudan. One was born in Khartoum, capital of Sudan. The other was born in the U.S. "Our parents came to find a better life here. They had known nothing but war in South Sudan," one said. "I am a Dinka, and she is a Nuer. Yet we are friends.. We are part of the new possibility for our country. Ours are the largest tribes. They are long time enemies. But we are friends. We love each other."
Then one said, "You know, tribal hatreds are passed on from earliest childhood." Enmity and hatred are part of their heritage. But in their own friendship, far from "the home they loved" these young women are building a new and hopeful heritage.
What an honor to have been with them today. They are fashioning and living out a new life for their people.
That is what the work of the Pilgrim Center is all about: healing hurt hearts, and helping forgiveness replace hate among people who so need peace to help their families, tribes, and country build a new life.
We feel so honored to have but even this short time today with these remarkable and hopeful young people.
I will go back to the game on our TV. But what will be high in my dreams tonight, and in my thoughts these next days, will be these young people far from their home country who are living here at peace with each other, and witnessing to the peace their Lord gives them as He changes the dread heritage of war at home.
What an encouragement to Molly and me, to have had those few hours on retreat with our colleagues of the Pilgrim Center, and those who gather with them.
We went to a long and beautiful funeral service for a woman of great soul in our life at Colonial Church. She's touched everyone's life in this Christian company, by her love of Jesus, her passion for justice, her forgiving spirit as one of only four or five African-American people in Colonial's life.
She sang in our chorale. She couldn't keep still as the music kept her swinging and swaying. She sported wild dreadlocks. Her loving was tender and deep with all of us in church.
On Martin Luther King Day several years ago, she was invited to speak a word to the congregation. It was a prophetic word of truth. "My friends said, 'Why do you want to go to that white church in Edina?' but I said I go to that white church because I want to learn not to hate white people." She came as a reconciler, a woman of brave heart and an honest spirit. She has probably been a Colonial member for fifteen or twenty years. She never gave up on us.
And the service gathered white folks and black folks together to thank God for her life. She was a skilled nurse, with a servant's heart. She loved Jesus and she loved us. Her death came suddenly, as a great surprise. But with Gospel singing, our Chorale's anthems, the testimonies of her family, and a sweet, loving sermon by our dear Jeff - and, with many tears - we truly thanked God for this earnest, honest emissary of His who was our true and beloved sister in Christ.
Others died too. News came that a much younger man than Wanda died this past week. A friend of the years. A surprise. A pain in our hearts.
And, here at Covenant Village of Golden Valley, four pictures and accompanying obituaries went up in the mail room announcing the deaths of people who were just yesterday among us.
One woman, standing by, shook her head and said, "Too many deaths. Too many deaths."
For sure, we are all dying. And in fact, in our Senior Residence, the death of dear friends is almost a daily occurrence. How we miss them. How much we think of them, and lift our prayers for them.
And how much these passings of the dear ones cause us to think of our own lives, and how fragile - and yes, how short - they have turned out to be. All our lives are short. The Bible tells us that." Those "fourscore years and 10" come to an end so soon. For so many years, we thought we would live forever. But now we know every year and every day was a gift. God has been so generous with us. So, slowly in our old age, we learn to cherish each day - in our own lives, but of so many others too. Of our dear friends. Of our children. Of our wives and husbands.
Finally we get to the point of why Jesus says: Put me first in your lives. Love me the most. Then all the other loves will be fitting and right, fulfilling and forever.
Each day friends, love life, cherish the dear family and friends. And most of all, our dear Lord.
The coming of spring is almost the very moment as I write you - on Wednesday, March 20, at 4:45 pm. We used to sing at Easter time: "Spring! Spring! Spring burst today. Alleluia."
From our apartment window I can see grass, and - the tiniest buds on the linden tree just beyond our balcony. Everybody's talking about the warming temperatures.
The earth turns, and we turn - to small things. To tiny birds singing lustily, unseen, on branches that have just doffed their snow; and as yet have only the buds that have not yet brought leaves. We look at small blades of grass, already turning from brown to green. We look at little signs of something wonderful coming.
We're ready for warmer winds, for waving daffodils, for Easter's lilies. We're ready to walk, to cross puddles, to marvel at what actually happens as the earth turns into its most welcomed, and loveliest, season.
Joy comes more easily to our hearts that were so snowbound, and cold. I follow a Lenten journey that comes from New Hampshire - the work of an environmentalist par excellence, who for 20 years has fought to preserve the waters that she fights to preserve for us all: the great Ossipee acquifers, the Bearcamp and Pine that flow into Lake Ossipee, and Ossipee's own river - the "channel" as it's called running out of the lake, soon to converge with the Saco, coming down from the north, both heading to the sea.
My friend, who heads the Green Mountain Conservation Group, is an artist, with camera and paintbrush. She tracks the winter moonlight shining down on forest snow paths. She brings poetry to the pictures. And scripture. And her own thoughtful reflections. I get printed copies of pictures and thoughts. They all move the heart. They bless me, and help me walk through the strange season of changes from winter to spring, from sadness to hope. And most of all, to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Her reflection has help so much in this year that has seemed so chaotic, so angry, so unkind, so full of "gotcha" politics - and so, of hurt, and withdrawal, and darkness, and defeat.
Blair bears the gospel in her own attentive riverside and mountain trail way. Her following is quite large. Her blessing is so wide, not to be contained.
She offers something very different. Something thoughtful and loving. A song, just when so many of us have given up singing. Praise God for her. She reminds us of the good God. Of His redeeming power. Of His infinite love. She's on the restoring side.
St. Paul says, "Whatever things are good and lovely, think on them." Don't dwell on the dark. So, in this season of light and hope, I rejoice to think of the sun, and sky, and birds, and grass. And, of Jesus, out on the trail, stopping before the likes of me, and in His compelling way, saying, "COME. FOLLOW ME. I will change your life." I'm ready, and I rise to go.
The church I love, and so many members and friends love, is going these days through its own "March Madness."
Not at the sidelines of basketball, but in the pews of prayer, carried on through the days and nights of our bearing close upon our hearts the very lives of our minister, and his wife, and daughter.
Our minister's wife is living through the first stages of her cancer diagnosis and chemo treatment, while his daughter and he bear with her, walk with her, uphold her, love her with their wise, brave, and wounded hearts standing bare before the Christian company they so well serve, and so deeply love, pray and uphold, and serve with a love growing deeper and more tender every day.
Heroically, the family has already headed out to a long-planned pilgrimage to Israel with a company of pilgrims committed to traveling with them.
They will see and embark upon the Sea of Galilee, worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, walk the stations of the Cross to Calvary, and stuff their own earnest prayers into the crevices of the Temple's Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
They have done deeply and tenderly what God calls His pastoral families to do - to live out their own lives of growing faith and painful experiences before the congregation they love, and who love them - teaching them, and telling their story as the days pass as they walk the way of the excruciating process of confronting Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, enduring the pain of the very treatment itself, and holding close their own hurt hearts, as they walk with God, the Great Physician, and hold out hands and hearts to the multitude of believers who surround them, and serve them, and comfort, and encourage them, even while they become more and more precious to those in their deepening faith and growing and learning love.
It is, I suppose, a kind of ancillary love and deepening unity and caring that is God's own work of His Holy Spirit, forging a forever bond of faith and oneness as this precious family comes close to the pastoral family who are, inevitably teaching them the ways of God out of their own experience of the pilgrimage through this battle for health, with the accompanying hope of the Gospel, in Christ Jesus, Who is Lord of it all.
It is the experience for which no one asks, yet it comes as the context for the life of congregation and pastoral family, as we all are made ever more surely into a company together, of love, and hope, walking together, and growing mysteriously, into a wisely taught and lovingly lifted true body of Christ.
Tonight I read stories in the Wall Street Journal about all sorts of wealthy people. People who had money, and people who wanted money. About one young woman, a fast-talker, who founded a company that invented a little box that could test your blood and do amazing things for your good health. Reputable people bought into it and invested wildly in what this young woman said her invention could do.
Apparently, she knew it didn't work, but she looked people in the eye and never blinked. Told them all sorts of wonderful things about her little box. She made people believe her, trust her, invest hugely in her scheme, till finally she was caught, and exposed. She peddled trust and sold nothing for millions.
We live in a world that wants to make money - that is fascinated by the plots and plans of people to make money, and win power.
I've also been reading the lives of great national leaders in America - Ulysses S. Grant, Harry Truman, and now, of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and a "golden age of journalism."
In every story of these lives there was privilege and power, poverty and slums. "Teddy" Roosevelt and Will Taft were both sons of privilege, with parents who encouraged and provided for them. Harry Truman grew up working hard on his family's farm, living close to the earth, and learning by working, by trying and failing. He not only did not have a college education, he hadn't a high school education either! But, he read, every day - all kinds of books. Those books, and the people around him, were his classes and his education.
All these people learned at home, about giving. You gave because God had given to you. So you passed on the blessing to others. You shared what you had.
It was obvious to all of them, that those who had plenty often had unfair advantages, and that the very wealthy had gain that was "ill-gotten."
The struggle for all of them, in the Presidency, was how to make it fair. How could advantages come to those without them?
I am struck by how unsuccessful we've been. Donald Trump came representing the factory workers of the Rust Belt. He talked of preserving jobs. Of forcing off-shore companies to come home. He seemed to represent "the Common Man."
But the tax "reforms" he signed seemed to benefit far more the people of wealth and power. His story is remarkably like that of President Teddy Roosevelt. We need somehow to be wiser in who we choose to make these decisions as a nation.
But, in the meantime, we need to look around and see that we ourselves are in that top 1 - 5% of America's and the world's wealthiest people. We have endlessly more than most people on the earth. We are not among the poor.
We care about the poor. We want to help them and change the balance, but we are still among the privileged of the world. We own cars, TVs, cell phones, houses, - often a "cabin up north," too -
But, how can we be generous? How can we help those who have little? Here, and across the world?
We can see our wealth in a new way: That it isn't ours. It's all a gift from God. He has set us in pleasant places. He has surrounded us with family and friends who help us.
We can count the poor of the world as part of our stewardship. We can take seriously the Biblical tithe as a minimal standard of our giving. Many Christians give at levels of 1 or 2%. Think how much more 10% could be. Or 20% or 30%.
The hard thing is to decide who should receive our gifts. There are organizations that bear the Gospel to the world. They are funded solely by people like us. There are schools teaching the way of Christ to young people. We could help them.
We could ask God to show us who needs our help. Like the churches we love. The missions we know personally. The work for good we have to believe in. Supporting God's people doing His work is a good place for us to start.
Let our giving be honest. Let us help children and friends. Let us give in prayer. Let us allow God to show us how to give what is His, but which we are called to manage. When we are on track, the giving will be a great joy.
What prompts us to make a decision in life that would change, perhaps forever, our direction, our place in the world, our fundamental purpose for being?
It could be a book we read. Or a lecture we hear. Or the opinion of a friend. Or, a story in a newspaper or magazine. After all, we are hearing opinions all the time, on radio programs, and TV news shows. "The media" fills our minds every day with reports, events, pronouncements, tweets, that are intended to influence us. To fill us with rage, to make us join a movement, whether it is "#Me, too" or a political platform.
We're told of injustice, of mistreatment, of court rulings and judgements. If we're on Facebook, we may respond, by agreeing or countering the opinion we've heard.
But, for real life changes, the influence usually comes from a person. Someone who has captured our attention, and calls us to action.
One of the most compelling calls to action we have ever heard, has come to us from a person. Often an unusual person, an unexpected person, a "different" person. Someone who compels our attention.
The Bible offers us one of the most unique confrontations in our experience. It is from a man on the beach. Someone walking along the shore. If we're there with our boat, or our fishing pole, or picking up shells, the beachcomber man, stops to watch what we're doing. In two great instances the beachcomber offers an invitation or a question.
One time, He says, "Come, follow Me, and I'll change your life." In another, He swiftly says, "Peter, do you love me?" It is, of course, Jesus with a question for our lives. "Come, be with Me," is the first thing He says. Much later, He says, "Peter, do you love me?"
Huge questions. Life-changing questions. Questions to challenge our very being. Questions calling us to change. Questions to make us review our lives, question our own assumptions.
What if we were to leave what we're doing and follow Jesus. Actually, go with Him as those young fishermen did so long ago. Or look within our hearts to see if we are true; if we're on track, keeping our promises?
We can do it. By prayer each day, remembering the journey, and looking for Jesus at our side. He will remind us where to go and what to say. And how to pray.
There will be signs of His presence - in answers to our prayers. We will see the sick healed, the blind seeing, the lame walking.
Look around. It's already happening. And that is News - "The Kingdom of God is at hand." Pray for eyes to see.
Arthur A Rouner, Jr -
|Arthur Rouner Ministries||
ARTHUR ROUNER MINISTRIES