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!
Lots of people have had close calls - and lived to tell about it.
Today I was speaking to a group of 40 men of faith who have gathered together as a group every Friday in early morning to tell their stories of life to each other. To encourage each other. Often to tell very intimate things that have been life-changing events in their personal history.
And this day they had invited me to tell mine. To tell perhaps the little-known things in my life, that were turning-points, life-changers.
Long ago, for some years, I had been their pastor. Two and a half decades have passed since I was in that role with them. I had gone on to work in Africa, to try to bring about reconciliation after the 1994 genocide between the ruling Hutus and the Tutsis, their targets. It had been something awful. One million people brutally killed in four months time. And, not just by police, or soldiers, but by neighbors - friends - with whom they had grown up.
Rwanda was a traumatized country. No-one knew how to fix it. Only prayer seemed to offer any hope, and the reminders of Jesus' love - the reason why He had come.
We worked at it slowly. But determinedly. And, it worked. Jesus always came. And, by love - His everlasting love - He healed.
There are so many stories, which we love to tell. Of how the great change was wrought.
And this early morning, I was able to tell a few of these, to help them look back to their own incidents and issues, and see that in their encounters, almost always the hand of God was present. Time and time again, Jesus had come to them, and offered Himself and changed their lives.
One man was eager to tell of a time, years ago, when he and I had prayed, about his addiction. Jesus came then, and healed him that day. And following that, God gave him a wonderful, growing ministry conducting "interventions" that have in turn led over and over, to healing and freeing and restoration in the lives of men and women all over the state.
I had told some Molly stories, and one man said, "We all need to thank God for our Mollys."
There was affirmation all around. Though I had hesitated to go, it was a chance for continuing and deepening reconciliation with these men. I found they loved me, and believed me. I came away uplifted by a great and brotherly affirmation.
These things always go both ways. We love and affirm each other. And we find healing in our lives. And they find healing in theirs.
We need - all of us - to be about the loving work, because it is the healing work, and uniting work. The way great mending takes place and the restoration that every family, community, church - and yes, country, needs.
Let's all work at doing it - for the healing of the nation, and the bringing of the peace that this land we love, craves.
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.
Arthur A Rouner, Jr -
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ARTHUR ROUNER MINISTRIES