People answer "How are you?" with "I'm good." I find myself apologizing with "Well, I'm not good, but I'm trying to be."
Today, oddly, was something of a test for me. At the Flagship health club this afternoon, I was approached by an old student of mine. "Well, where was the best sermon you heard yesterday?" He knew I had heard his. He wanted an affirmation. And I answered. "Well, I heard many affirmations about yours," I said. "It was a good word."
It wasn't a setting for honest assessment, a critique of a public speech. It was really a plea for commendation. ""How'm I doing, Dad?" The young man has no father in the critical years of his maturity, who could say, "You're okay, son. It was a good word. It opened up the Bible. It gave people a theme, an assurance, of eternity."
Then, another young man, half the age of the first, entered the locker room. "Hi, Arthur. How are you? The sun is shining. It's going to be a lovely evening." We've become friends over several years there. He is African-American. He works out diligently, building a beautiful body. He is loose-limbed and soft-spoken. His name is Christian. He lives up to it. He shines a certain light. He asks nothing. I reminded him how he lights up the room. He smiled shyly, accepting the compliment.
He didn't have to ask for compliment. His quiet demeanor invites them. So humble. So unassuming. From one side of the tracks. No home advantages. Just a great workman. There's a difference.
Such a lesson for me.
As America has grown increasingly secular, many have wondered, "Where are the influences for good in our common life?" Thoughtful people have looked about to see what remains in our society that are the conscious and intentional movements to create honesty, courage, decency, fair play, hope, humility, faith and the quiet virtues that we vaguely remember being articulated by grandparents at home, certain teachers at school, people of honor to whom we looked up.
Who cares anymore? Who is consciously promoting the highest ideals and goals in the hearts of the young, and of all of us?
We know, to our sorrow, the stories of those in high places who have betrayed ideals we have assumed were common in the morals and ethics of Americans: professional athletes who have abused wives or girlfriends; the President of the Patriots found in an indecent massage parlor; intentional cyclists who have cheated by taking performance-enhancing drugs.
No realm of our common life seems untouched. And on and on it goes. Police. Judges. Politicians. Priests. Ministers. Famous athletes. It is the grim reminder of what the Bible has always known - the reality of sin in our lives.
But who is working to overcome and counter these influences? What are the intentional trainings for decency and goodness in America's life?
For sure the churches still consciously work for humility, and hope in the human spirit. President Carter still teaches his Sunday School class at age 94 in his Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. Joe Cavanagh, energetic young Catholic boy grew up in our town, went through "Pilgrim Fellowship" at Colonial Church, and has founded and successfully led his growing organization that teaches civility and kindness to high school students across the county.
And, there is still the Boy and Girl Scouting movement, gathering 12- to 18-year-old young people to teach them skills of the outdoors, and a whole host of abilities that are invaluable in life. Not only that, but they teach qualities of character, the virtues of courage, the ways of humility, the spirit of faith.
All across the country churches are often the leading sponsors of Boy Scout troops. I remember my Troop 164 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that gave me my start in scouting. The North Congregational Church was our sponsor. My mother particularly helped me work on the requirements for Tenderfoot, Second Class, and First Class ranks in scouting, community leaders helped me with the merit badges that led to Life Scout, and finally Eagle. I was away at prep school when I managed to earn the 21 merit badges that made me an Eagle.
There was honor in these hard-won ranks. At Camp Manning, of the Daniel Webster Council, I became a member of the Order of the Arrow. Here was an organization for boys that encouraged achievement, leadership skills, fair and just relationships, working together, survival in the outdoors.
"A scout is honorable, trustworthy, brave, clean and reverent." "On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country. I will keep the Scout Law."
We saluted, we shook hands, we tied knots, we swam, we worked together.
And, to my surprise, through the many years, I found myself part of a life-long fraternity of Eagle Scouts, who, in their various professions and lives, kept a code of ethics and morality in their lives and relationships. I am grateful that two of my grandsons were scouts, and one of them is also an Eagle.
One of the great honors of my life was to find, at his Eagle Scout investiture, my grandson Billy had claimed me, his grandpa, as his Eagle Scout Mentor. I wear that pin with gratitude and pride, knowing full well how many and good influences he has had in his life.
A couple of parishioners are Eagles and acknowledge that influence in their lives and mine.
I am grateful for scouting in my life, even as I acknowledge multiple other influences that have been profound and good, for me. The Pilgrim Fellowship in the Congregational churches I have served, where, for a season of years often 400 high school young people were gathering on Sunday nights at Colonial Church, under dedicated and skilled lay and professional leaders, to come to know Jesus, and follow Him.
Young people of many backgrounds and different churches are proud to tell me they went through "P. F." at Colonial Church.
And, there is Young Life, which our first full-time Youth Director worked in the ministry to help establish for all young people. Loving and faithful, that movement continues to bring kids close to Christ.
There are fellowships in college, like Campus Crusade, and InterVarsity Fellowship, supported by churches and individuals, that winsomely witness for Jesus on campuses across our country.
There are people who care, who have learned themselves, and passed on to later generations - praying and supporting such work. The late Dr. Bill Starr, dear friend of mine, led Young LIfe nationally for 20 years. So many have come along to give their lives to such service and influence.
In cynical, secular days, God is not dead in America. His people still care, and dare. Praise God for them all.
Lots of people feel that. They talk about it. They confess their unease to their friends, their confidantes.
I do, too. Certain dear friends feel deeply that some in America, have gone awry. That our churches have gone awry. That ministers are following a different drummer. That the rhythm and beat of Jesus' Biblical call is too stark, too straight, too uncomfortable to be heard as Good News by the people of our time.
They see success coming to the "young, hip, and aware." They want the church to remind people of the world they are in. They want church to look like a movie theater. They want music to be loud, for the young.
Dr. Billy Graham's daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, has written a book called, "Just Give Me Jesus." That's where a lot of us older folks are. We're near the end of the trail. It has been a long walk. We have heard Jesus' challenging words, His seemingly impossible call to leave everything - "follow Me." We hear our Lord calling us to be highwaymen of the heart. To be out on the hustings, telling "the old, old story of Jesus and His love."
He wants us to go confessionally to the world, saying "yes, we know we are sinners. And we know Who saves us sinners, and how He does that, and we want to just lay before you that naked truth of Jesus and His love.
He tells us it can be done. There are those who have told the story, the beloved gospel story.
My friend thinks it has been told even in this privileged town we love. That when the chips were down, and the world was turning away, a Christian company called Colonial Church wasn't. It was hearing direct, hard, loving words from their young preacher, and then dared to listen and to hear in that preaching, God's call to them, to tell it, to run it out, to proclaim it.
And Judd, the young researcher, is saying "it really was proclaimed here, that 'STRANGE CALL' of Jesus, and that company heard." It heard marching orders, and then began to go out, in Jesus' name, to the poor, to the inner city, to the movements for justice, and they made a difference. They reached the young, the druggies, the lonely, the lost. And gave them hope.
It actually happened. And they worked to stand where the message could be heard. They dared to be the proclaimers.
It's still what the world needs to hear. And young Judd says, "Here is one place where it was happening. It's a message needing to be heard again."
We're in a strange time, where that strange call can be heard. And can be answered.
It can happen in our time. It's not too late to RISE up and FOLLOW.
The cards keep coming, and it's already June. They officially marvel that I've made it to 90, and, they try to say something about "the meaning of it all." That is, the meaning of life. Particularly about "touching other lives."
Of course, they don't know what particular lives. They guess about Africa, and Colonial, and Ossipee, and Newton, and little Williamsburg. Often, their reference is to themselves - memories of times where we have connected and they were helped. "You came to see me in the hospital long ago, and I haven't forgotten," or "I walked down the aisle from the group watching the parlor TV, when you said in your sermon, "Talitha Kouni, little girl, I say unto you arise, and I did, and you received me, and I've never forgotten." Or "It was Pentecost Sunday when I was a teen-ager. I don't remember what you said, but the Spirit came upon me, and I've walked with Jesus all these years."
So many, and their memories touch me deeply. I cherish them. I long to be worthy of these so many lives. Many of them I saw at that wonderful May 5th celebration. But others, equally dear, wrote to me from little Kiwawa, remote among the Pokot young people, who remember me as Kuka - grandfather. Others from Center Ossipee, NH - our wonderful summer church there. "I found a letter in my husband's robe, after he died, which you had written to him. He saved it along with a letter from me. You meant so much to him, and to me."
I am awestruck by those messages. Some of those people I still see in the summer. But, no longer the Africans. Except Bishop Paul Ndahigwa of our Rwanda work, and John Londinyo, our early-on Kiwawa pastor. They both were there at the party.
Others also came whom I didn't get to see: Steve Moore of the "Washington Fellowship." And Dr. Jacobson, heroic missionary doctor in Arusha, Tanzania, and his Lynne. What a sweet thing.
It says to one, "you'd better watch out with your life. You'd better keep time and go straight. Run the race like Paul did, looking to Jesus.
Of course now I can't "run" anywhere. I've climbed all the 47 high peaks of New Hampshire, the most rugged part of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Mr. Ketahdin in Maine (twelve more there, and seven in Vermont). But now, because of "respiratory issues" I struggle to climb stairs. I can't easily make hospital or home calls, like the old days.
But, what I can, I do: sit by the fireplace at Covenant Village, and receive old friends, new young friends, and others from along the way - to talk, drink coffee, and pray. And also, do the same at my favorite Starbucks, writing and reading in the back of the store, with a small solo macchiato, waiting for some who've asked to come, and others who just show up. Part of the "Ministry of Presence" God has given me in these late "post-parish" years.
What an honor just to meet my fellow children of God, out there in the world.
I can still stand up and preach each summer at Wonalancet Chapel and Mirror Lake Church in New Hampshire, and on Christmas morning at Colonial Church. Such an honor.
But mostly, it's down to quiet conversation with whomever comes along, and also sitting and listening. Talking with dear grandchildren, and even with my grown, graying children, so precious to Molly and me.
And - a special privilege - to have a website for weekly blogs, and Channel 6 TV programs - all made possible by my friend and fellow traveler and Pilgrim Center colleague, Laury. And, as they come along, helping out, with Molly, in the now much more frequent Pilgrim Center retreats held on 1/2 days, full days, even three days, in Minnesota, and annually in Center Ossipee, New Hampshire.
I am so privileged, and glad for it all. Time, as a friend, with all the dear people. Yay!
Arthur A Rouner, Jr -
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