I am home from church today. My young brother Jeff preached his heart out in a great call to his people for unity. He painted the picture of what we could do for God in this day if we were united.
He was preaching to the name-change issue. Some people, younger and newer, think the word “colonial” in American history means slavery and the horrors that went with it, and stands as a barrier to anybody coming to be part of a church with such a name.
They don’t understand why our church founders, back in the 1940s, chose such a name. To the founders that name recalled the brave young pilgrims of the Puritan movement who left their native land, crossing a dangerous ocean to find freedom in the New World that would become America, where they would be free to worship God without the interference of the English State that declared the Monarch to be the head of the Church.
It was a daring adventure for those who brought their vision of a free church in a free land – epitomized in their Mayflower Compact, in which was an inspiration for the later revolutionary generation’s Declaration of Independence, and later Constitution of the United States.
The Congregational Way of church life in America grew directly from the settlement at Plimoth and Boston, the major settlements of English Christians on the Eastern seaboard of what was to be America.
The heart of the Congregational way of church governance was the periodic gathering of church members to bring their concerns together in open discussion – and prayer – that would lead them to a common view – a unity of spirit that enabled them to undertake important tasks together.
The church of ours experienced steady and even dramatic growth in the decades of the 1970s and 1980s. It was a controversial time. Many issues. People left. But new people came. From about 1500, Colonial membership grew ultimately to nearly 3900.
We couldn’t hold all the people. We talked of building larger where we were. But that was all too close and impractical. A committee searched for a new site – which, at the last minute changed to a 3+ acre site at the Crosstown and Tracy Avenue. A site on which Pemtom had hoped to build townhouses, but finally gave up and offered to Colonial for half price. Our fundraiser was dismayed and our fundraising chairman resigned (temporarily) in disagreement.
Many church meetings were held. We did not achieve unanimity but the votes were lopsided, like 300 to 10, or 400 to 12 (approximately). Finally, it all came together and a new church rose from the midwestern plains. It became our promised land, and on a January Sunday in 1979, a thousand of us, led by Paul Revere on horseback (left over from our Bicentennial celebration), marched across town to the new land, where hundreds more waited to greet us and join in a great celebration service.
Jesus said, “When two or three gather together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them.” And so He was leading us into new life and new ministries, in Edina and across the world. Surely, all a miracle. Indeed, a cluster of many miracles.
There is a “Congregational way” to do business, if God’s people will dare. Very different from a council of 10 or 12 making the decisions. The challenge is to dare to follow Jesus into visions the people can embrace, and say, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to me.”
Some of you know I have a “patron saint,” the Very Reverend James S. Stewart of Scotland, lyrical, eloquent preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen victorious from the dead. He was my teacher in New Testament during my year of study in Scotland, in the coronation year of 1953. He was my friend.
But he also saved my life. I was a first-year divinity student at Union Seminary, living in the old “prophets chambers” with my young wife, who gave up a Harvard degree to finish college at Barnard College in that city idolized by so many.
My “practicum” was teaching a Sunday School class of 7th grade boys, some from New York’s East Side, and others from upper Broadway in Manhattan. My seminary friend, Harvey Bates, and I decided to have a Saturday swimming outing for our two classes in the Madison Avenue Church’s pool.
One of my students was Eddie Frank, only child of his middle-aged parents in their modest East Side home. I went by subway to pick up Eddie, terribly excited, his parents told me to be having this swim day.
The two groups of boys jumped into the pool, splashing and playing. I was an Eagle Scout with a swimming merit badge, and a Red Cross Junior Lifesaving badge. I was a swimmer all my life from summers in New Hampshire.
While checking the boys we suddenly could not account for Eddie Frank. High and low, we looked. No Eddie. Until suddenly, something blue at the bottom of the pool. It was the body of little Eddie. We brought him up, started artificial respiration. Called the police. We could not bring that so eager boy back to life. My responsibility. I had not done what I could have easily done – asked them all “can you swim?”
The church looked to insurance and legalities. Eddie and his parents were left to me. Eddie’s parents were devastated, yet somehow kind to me. I was mortified, sunk in grief for the remainder of that year.
A classmate, in Holy Week, said, “Arthur, James Stewart of Scotland is preaching at Brick Presbyterian Church, why don’t you go?” I did. He was, somehow, a delivering angel to me. On Good Friday, he came to Union Seminary Chapel and preached on “The Renting of the Veil. I can hear his Scottish voice crying out the great truth of the crucifixion day. “As Jesus breathed His last, the veil of the temple was rent in twain, from the top to the bottom, as from the hand of God.” And that veil of exclusion that hid the Holy of Holies was opened. Where only the High Priest was allowed into once a year, the Holy place of God’s presence was open now, to all sinners to come.
It was opened for me, that day. My sin, my guilt, ever mine, was FORGIVEN that day.
I said to my Molly that night, “I need to go where that man is.” She immediately agreed. I worked construction that summer and we boarded the SS America in late September, bound for London. On our first night there, we cried together, wondering what we had done.
But, we found our way to Scotland, to temporary “digs,” and finally a lovely apartment for the year. Molly studied Education at Moray House, taught school. I studied with James Stewart, John Bullic, Tom Torrance, and old Dr. Burleigh – and found myself on the University of Edinburgh crew. We traveled with Molly’s parents on spring vacation and hitchhiked Europe in the summer, came back to Union, finding the president of the seminary had discovered the Holy Spirit among the Pentecostals of South America.
My heart was healing and Jesus was my Great Physician. “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” And Jesus became my companion in a whole new way. I own the beginining of my own journey with the Spirit. It is the Great Gift I longed for the church I loved, to have.
This afternoon, as I wakened from my nap, I found the trees in our courtyard being blown by a high wind under full sunshine. Could this be a sign of the Spirit?
Several caring people, great lovers of the church talked about the church that means so much to them. “I talked with another couple,” one woman said. “We agreed we must speak-up and speak-out.”
And I must too, for there is a way – the Spirit’s way to come together, to be one, just as our preacher pleaded from the pulpit. The Spirit is precious to me. He’s the way Jesus comes to us – alive and unseen – like the very wind of Pentecost.
May I share my beloved teacher with you? He has long since gone to glory. But he has left his books – Heralds of God, The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ, along with sermons. Abingdon Press published Wind of the Spirit. Hennepin County Library has the book. From its early chapter, “How to Deal with Frustration,” comes the following:
Winds of the Spirit, p. 12:
Easter and Pentecost! Bless the Lord that through all the chaos of the world, through all the complexities of your own life, God’s Spirit is forever active. On that fact depends all our hope and expectations. In the blackest night, if you open the windows and listen, you will hear the wind, and know that God is stirring, never slumbering, never resting, never desisting from His work of providence and redemption; and His cosmic patience is the salvation of the world.”
Bless you on the pilgrimage.
Arthur A Rouner, Jr -
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ARTHUR ROUNER MINISTRIES