Written by Gradye Parsons
Each month the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Moderator or Vice Moderator of the 220th General Assembly write a column of general interest for the church-at-large.
This is approximately my 96th monthly column. It is the bookend for my eight years of writing these columns. I want to thank you for sharing your stories with me. You have trusted me with your joys and challenges in conversations across the congregations and mid council bodies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Please know that each of your stories has impacted me and will always remain part of my understanding of faith. What follows is my journey of faith that I prepared as part of my reentry into the Presbytery of East Tennessee.
There are eighty-nine years of living between my mother and my grandson. Yet they are experiencing similar journeys of self-discovery. My mother lives with dementia. It would be inaccurate to say she suffers from it. She treats it more like a traveling partner. While she has forgotten a lot of good things, she also has forgotten a lot of hurts and angers.
One of the great aspects of my time as Stated Clerk is hearing about the mission and ministry of Presbyterians and their congregations. Sometimes it is ministry in its own community. Other times it is a mission trip to some spot in the world. Universally I hear how these experiences are transformative.
There appears to be a math equation in this quote from John Calvin. Toleration plus pardon plus mercy equals freedom—the freedom defined as children being able to ask their parents anything. I wonder if this formula cannot be applied to our life as community.
Sustainability is a word that is used in many contexts. We talk about it with farms that have found the balance between what the soil can give up and what the soil needs to be healthy. It is used to refer to communities who have the resources they need to maintain a healthy economic life. Energy sources that are renewable also are viewed in terms of their sustainability.
There were many of us who went to see the new Stars Wars movie, The Force Awakens. Kathy and I always think back on our first Stars Wars movie when we took our six-week-old son to the $2 theater in Saugus, Massachusetts. We were struck at the kind of imagination it took George Lucas to create the movie.
The church and imagination have always been uncertain dance partners. They have stepped on each other’s toes and fought over who leads. We have witnessed the trouble a poor soul encounters when they imagine a piece of church furniture can be moved or a tradition changed. While no one wants to hear the same sermon every Sunday, whoa to the preacher who lets their imagination get beyond the congregation’s.
I can count on one hand the number of times I have spent Christmas in my own home as an adult. We have shared that day with grandparents and other family. In a pre-Amazon era, we hid presents among the luggage and spent those days on the road just like Joseph and Mary. But of course I knew that my bed was there to welcome me when it was all over.
Henry was way past 80 when I first met him. He had not attended our congregation for many years because of his wife’s illness. Although I tried to visit with them often, it was not till she was hospitalized that Henry and I had regular conversations. Henry had been a deacon in this congregation almost thirty years previously. One of our conversations led to the solution for a maintenance issue that had puzzled us for a long time.
Renee was a vivacious young girl who wanted to marry me when she grew up. She actually sort of let me off the hook a few years ago when she got married. Renee had great insights into the Bible and what it meant to be good people.
As I write this the airplane carrying Pope Francis is probably in its final approach into Rome. In the United States it is Monday, with all of the start-of-the-week chores waiting for us. The analysis of the impact of the Pope’s visit continues. It continues in the media and in the minds of the people who heard him speak or enjoyed an individual encounter. The Pope used his influence to talk about many of the important issues of the day. Immigration, climate change, and the death penalty were directly addressed, just to name a few.
We are making a generational shift in our family this year. My wife, Kathy, is not teaching school for the first time in thirty-three years. Our grandson, Dylan, started preschool. So there is at least someone in the family in a classroom this fall.
My grandson is at the age where my and mine can become rather loud. He also is very committed that whatever he is eating is shared by everyone else. If you don’t mind the sticky hand that is offering goldfish crackers to you, it can be a sweet learning moment.
As I look over the monthly columns that I have written in the past twelve months, I realize that a fourth of them have been about racism. The latest public incident is the murders at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church (Mother Emanuel) in Charleston, South Carolina. Mother Emanuel is another in a long tragic list of African American churches that have been bombed, burned, shot up, and defaced.
People like to use numbers to measure. Your doctor wants to know your blood pressure, your dentist wants to know how many times you floss, and your spouse wants to know on what temperature the thermostat is set. In the church we tend to count two things: how many members and how much money. In some sense we are counting how much have we gathered in our fold. But what if we counted a different measurement?
[한국어] [Español] Well it seemed impossible even on March 22nd, but it does appear that Spring may arrive after all. Back in Tennessee we could still have a succession of mini-winters, but we soften the blow by giving them names like redbud winter or blackberry winter. In South Carolina, my son-in-law has already mowed his yard. In Chicago they still have their snow shovels working. We are in the same season but not in the same way.
There is something about snow that binds together a neighborhood. I noticed on my street that the first driveway cleared was the house of the widow of one of our more colorful characters. She never touched a shovel. People helped each other push their cars out of icy ruts. As our streets became more narrow, folks did the dance of who went first with some grace. Without any discussion we agreed to only attempt the hill at the entrance one at a time.
“The Brief Statement of Faith” says this:
The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith,
sets us …
There is this space between the Baptism of the Lord and Ash Wednesday when we return to ordinary time in the church calendar. In ordinary time there are still plenty of extraordinary occasions. There is this general sense of leaning into the New Year. We get a lot of ordinary questions during these days. Questions such as “what is the proper order for committee reports at a congregational meeting?” Questions like “which is better, a pipe organ or electric?” Or, “can I count the Smiths on our statistical report even though they never joined?”
In a season where the church …
If you ever watch any show on HGTV you know that every remodeling project will involve a wall coming down. The homeowner usually takes a few swings with a sledgehammer for show, and then the pros take over. The reasons these walls come down vary. Usually it is about creating greater flow, or better entertainment, or a more spacious feel. Whatever the reason, it is the opposite reason of what a wall does.
Tracy Kidder wrote a book titled House. It followed the construction of a house from acorn to last nail. He states that walls define a room's purpose. I have often thought about that when I am faced with walls that attempt to define people.
A barn with cattle and horses is the place to begin Christmas. After all, that’s where the original event happened, and that same smell was the first air that the Christ Child breathed.—Paul Engle
It is probably fair to say that those candle shops that do a big business at Christmas don’t have candles that smell like barns. Before anyone goes on the offensive, I have been around enough barns to know that a farmer worth his or her salt keeps a clean barn. Engle does make the point that the rarified air of our elaborate nativity scenes …
Sometime in November after this little column is posted the grand jury in St. Louis County will present its judgment of the Michael Brown shooting by Officer Darren Wilson. Unless King Solomon is the foreman of the jury it is hard to imagine that its’ decision will satisfy everyone. However, I think we might want to reflect on this moment of chaos and what it calls the church to be about.
We are studying the Belhar Confession as a possible addition to The Book of Confessions. This could not be a more Kairos moment. The confession …
October contains World Communion Sunday, Reformation Sunday, and All Saints Day. While the Reformation is not just about the Reformed family of faith, I would like to share with you what some of our Reformed saints in the making are doing in the world.
School has started in our city. I watch the young people from our neighborhood trudge up the little hill to the front of the subdivision to catch their bus. Because it takes a while to figure out which bus is the right bus, the mothers are often seen standing in front of homes watching their children until the bus comes along. Then, one by one, they take their coffee mugs and head back into their houses.
I am even more aware that some of the moms still carry a great deal of anxiety about those children. The mothers of color have the extra burden that some unintended action by their sons may get them into trouble and possibly shot. They might not receive their sons back at the end of the day, but receive a phone call or a knock on the door with the message that no parent ever wants to receive.
In August there will be a major change in my family’s life. My daughter’s family will be moving from our home to her new call as the college chaplain at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina. This means that my grandson Dylan, who has lived with us since his birth in March of 2013, will be leaving our daily life. I thought I would share some things he has taught me these past months.
YEA as a liturgical response. Dylan says a loud Yea to preludes, hymns, prayers of the people, sermons and the passing of the peace. While I …
[Korean] [Spanish] The late Maya Angelou showed real insight into people when she said, “I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way(s) he handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.” Hopefully she never observed me in any of those situations.
We were anxiously watching the chunks of bread disappear from the silver plate. Good weather and the Holy Spirit had brought a very large crowd to Easter Sunday. The young woman serving the bread repeated the phrase “Bread of Heaven” as her family, neighbors, church brothers and sisters walked solemnly up the aisle. I have known her since she was a little girl and watched her family and the church nurture her into a beautiful, young Christian woman. In her young hands was the Easter bread representing 2,000 years of witness and remembrance.
Question 129 from the Heidelberg Catechism (revised version) says the little word “Amen” means: “This shall truly and surely be! It is even more sure that God listens to my prayer than that I really desire what I pray for.”
The image this brings to me is of a patient parent listening to a child who is asking for something that is exactly not what the child needs. Listening is a spiritual gift. Most of us hear but fewer of us actually listen.
The lectionary gospel text for Ash Wednesday this year is Matthew 6:1–6. The first verse of which is: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
This is an interesting verse to think about when you leave a worship space with ashes smeared on your head. What does the ash cross on our forehead say to others? I suppose that people who are Christians have some idea what it is about. Many times we forget that it is there and wonder why people are looking at our heads.
Cold creates community. I drive past a bus stop every day. It is where two routes cross so there are usually several people gathered. Normally they are pretty good about respecting each other’s space. The polar vortex has changed that. They have packed themselves into the little bus shelter like sardines for warmth and to avoid the wind.
You could probably make the same case for warm weather that sends us to the beach in droves, for opening day in baseball, and for fall foliage drives that become bumper-to-bumper. There is common interest like a stream heading in one direction, and before you know it the stream has created all kinds of communities of floating things.
Abraham Lincoln said “The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time.” I wonder if Abe would say that today with our high-speed high-definition world. To review the speed at which the first home computer became today’s tablet does seem to reflect a future that shows up faster and faster. I also wonder if the president had the same patience for the news of the American Civil War ending. Everything I have read says he did not.
We need to start planning now. We have only 10 years till it is the 800th anniversary of the Nativity Scene. Tradition has it that Saint Francis started the custom upon returning from Bethlehem in 1223. He staged a Nativity Scene in a cave with live animals and people. It went viral and became the thing to do at your cathedral, chapel or palace. At some point statues were substituted for the characters. Then people made smaller versions and the crèche industry was born.
It was initially a desperate idea. How could we engage our middle school youth in good “ole” VBS? We realized that all of these youth were participants in the school band program. So our wild idea was to have them form a band led by our choir director.
The first Sunday they accompanied a hymn was, well, painful. The hymn took twice as long to sing and it was hard to determine if they were all playing the same one. But they were determined to get better. The youth recruited friends to fill out the band. They practiced more. The congregation never murmured a word.
Thomas Edison said “The body is a community made up of its innumerable cells or inhabitants.”
This sure sounds like Paul to the Corinthians. It is interesting to think of the body as a community instead of a mass of cells and organs. A revisit to Paul’s image of the body in 1 Corinthians 12 can lead us into an understanding of community. The body parts in Paul’s metaphor—feet, hands, ears, and eyes—are talking. It is not nice talk but it is conversation.
August 28 marks the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. A young, 34-year-old Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. set aside his prepared notes to declare “I have a dream.” That dream seems to have been realized in part—but not anywhere near the whole—as events this summer have shown us.
Memories of other long-ago summers bring to mind my son and his best friend in high school, who played in the band and did many teenage things together. Even before cell phones were prevalent, they could always easily both be found either in our house or his. I never really thought about his life as an African American being any different than my son’s.
Cindy Bolbach accomplished many things in her life. Not only was she an accomplished attorney and business executive, let’s not forget that she was also elected Moderator of the 219th General Assembly (2010) in Minneapolis. The appointment of a woman—raised a Lutheran in the land of Lutherans—to the highest elected position in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is no doubt one of God’s little jests. Yet among all of Cindy’s many achievements and accolades, what she was most fiercely proud of was her role as a ruling elder.
Miss Arnold, Mrs. Estes, and Mrs. McKinney were my first-, second-, and third-grade teachers. They brought me all the way from a basic understanding of words—courtesy of Dick and Jane—to a command of long division. That is quite a journey. They were responsible for us from the minute we set foot on the school grounds until the minute we ran out of the building at 3:00 p.m. at the sound of the bell. They knew Mr. Ingram, the principal, had their back when it came to discipline. They supervised our play time, our lunchtime, and every minute of the school day. Their only break was when Miss Red took us off for music and quickly brought us back.
It was a generational moment. I had just baptized my grandson and was now presiding at table with my newly ordained daughter. Three generations intersecting in the historic Sacraments of the church. On the table was the freshly baked loaf of bread and the cup full of wine.
If you date a generation by roughly twenty years, sometime in this century we will approach the 100th generation to tear the bread and drink the cup. We should probably pull a committee together to work on that anniversary, because—for me—it marks one of those rare occasions that call us to pause and take stock of the life of the church. It has been a long journey since the first Christians met in small house gatherings throughout the Mediterranean to the multi-continental collection of the people of faith we are today.
One sure sign of spring in my hometown was the return of the old men to the benches outside the courthouse. I was never certain where they went in the winter. It was not entirely clear what they did for a living. But they would appear yearly some time after the arrival of the robins and before the trees leafed out.
Upon seeing a Facebook photo of me holding my newborn grandson, one of my friends wrote that I looked “smitten.” To which I replied, “I am.”
Smitten is a word you do not hear used much anymore. The fact that its root is the verb “smite” makes it all the more interesting.
Ashes are the remains of a fire. Any fire. Whether a warming fire from logs burning on a cold day or a raging fire that results in the destructive loss of a home. The ashes before us this month originate in the fires that consumed the palm leaves from last year’s celebration of Palm Sunday.
No matter the fire, the results are the same. Ashes. The palm ashes are the remains of a fire. It is a long time from Easter’s celebration to the cold, winter day when we step forward to have our foreheads smudged on Ash Wednesday. The fire of Holy Week has dimmed. Many of the extra Easter faces have retreated. Sanctuaries are cold, the pews never quite warmed up by the furnace.
October 15, 2012, marked the 60th anniversary of Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, one of the classics of children’s literature. National Public Radio reported on the struggle E. B. White had recording the audio version of the book. When it came to describing Charlotte’s death, it took the author seventeen takes before he could get through it without showing emotion in his voice.
My neighborhood is a great place to be these days. We are reaping the benefits of dedicated home gardeners in our midst. The bounty of produce is amazing. But what amazes me even more is the level of trust that is displayed.
The gardeners put their crops of tomatoes on untended stands in front of their homes. You pick your tomatoes, weigh them on a nearby scale, and put your money in a metal box. I have never heard of anyone stealing either tomatoes or money. It is really kind of remarkable in our gated, alarmed, and locked-down world.
It is said that our sense of smell is linked to some of our strongest memories.
One of those August memories for me is the scent of stacks of blue jeans in McKee’s Store. You might say that those jeans smelled of transition, as if they knew they were waiting for patient-thin mothers to purchase them for ungrateful boys for a new school year. They were very stiff jeans, as though their purpose was to rein in the freedom of summer. They were jeans meant for the combat of school playgrounds – jeans that would survive the school year through no effort of the one wearing them.
I will observe the 33rd anniversary of my ordination this summer. It seems a long time ago when I answered ordination questions for the first time.
I have had different calls to ministry over the years, with different questions to answer at each installation. Those questions have never lost their significance. The “do you” and “will you” still evoke a commitment to a life rich with meaning.
The following is an account popular in the storytelling world and passed along in William White’s Stories for the Journey (Augsburg Press, 1988).
People in a remote village purchased a television set. For weeks, all of the children and all of the adults gathered around the set morning, afternoon, and night watching the programs. After a couple of months, the set was turned off and never used again.
Zippy was a thoroughbred horse that competed in ninety-nine races and never won. Ever. He was finally banned from rack tracks “for the protection of the betting public.”
I want to salute those silent and often unseen sisters and brothers who have the call of being a church janitor. The position may have a different name where you are, but the functions are the same.
It does not matter whether your congregation’s calendar is filled with daily programs and activities in your building or the space is used just a few times during the week. Someone, paid or volunteers, keeps it clean.
Who taught you in Sunday school? I can remember most of my teachers, which included my parents. My father taught the rowdy third-grade boys and my mother, the more mature sixth graders.
Mrs. Arnold corralled the kindergarteners on Sunday after teaching first grade in public schools during the week. She was infinitely kind and had x-ray vision for any good impulse. She was intolerant of meanness. She was an advocate for play and joy. She relayed Bible stories as if she was actually there – and, well, she did seem old.
The Mayan calendar indicates that the world will end in 2012, which is a claim that several archeologists dispute. Either way, the business of making predictions generates a lot of energy – and money. People are paid to predict everything from the weather to the next president.
The liturgical year, however, is more than a prediction. From Advent to Christmas to Epiphany to Lent to Easter to Pentecost to Ordinary Time and more, the liturgical year is a steady progression – a cycle that tells us over and over again the story of God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.
Advent is here – the days of preparation for the birth of the Christ child. The root word in Latin for Advent is advenire, which means to arrive. Interestingly, it is the same root word for adventure – to venture.
Where is the sense of adventure in this liturgical season?
In the Lord I'll be ever thankful,
In the Lord I will rejoice!
Look to God, do not be afraid;
Lift up your voices: the Lord is near,
Lift up your voices: the Lord is near.
This song by Jacques Berthier (Sing the Faith #2195) is one of my favorites of all the Taizé music. It combines the ingredients of gratitude, joy, fear, and the desire for the Lord to be near.
September 25, 2011, found me worshipping with the spirited folks of the First Dominican Evangelical Church of San Pedro, Dominican Republic. It was a lively service with lots of music, many children, a fine sermon, and a moving celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Joining me in worship were five people from denominations across the Caribbean. We were one of several small groups that had spread across the region that Sunday morning as part of our meeting of the Caribbean and North American Area Council, a regional part of the World Communion of Reformed Churches.
The Blessedness of Unity
1 How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.
3 It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life for evermore. (Psalm 133)
Life after disasters is full of stories of tragedy and miraculous survival.
Recently, I visited Joplin, Missouri, which was devastated by a class E-5 tornado in May. It was the deadliest tornado since 1950, killing over 155 people and destroying around 7,000 homes. The tornado tore a path three-fourths of a mile wide and ten miles long through town.
It is difficult to see what force the church has against the magnitude of such destruction. Yet, what impressed me in Joplin is the extraordinary power of the ordinary life of the church.