“Anniversaries & Endings” | Blog #50

“Anniversaries & Endings” | Blog #50

August 10, 1986 was a Sunday. I was back in my hometown. Six weeks earlier I had moved south from Princeton, NJ to begin the work of building the Alpharetta Presbyterian New Church Development which would, in time and God’s providence, become the Alpharetta Presbyterian Church. There was a lot to do that busy, hot summer before we began our first worship service. One of the tasks was getting ordained. At that time, the normal practice was to be ordained in the “calling church.” That is, the church that issued the call and among the people with whom you would be ministering. But, in my case, there was no church, no congregation. Yes, Atlanta Presbytery had issued the call, but there was not yet a community of believers much less a local Session. Thus, I chose to return to Bethlehem and be ordained in my home church, First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem (FPCB).

Part of the reason I wanted to go back was so Pop wouldn’t have to travel. Both his MS and emphysema had been getting worse necessitating a wheelchair and oxygen bottles for travel. But, as the great Scots poet said, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley.” A week before the ordination, Pop had to have emergency abdominal surgery for a bleeding ulcer, and he was still in hospital. As it turned out, he never regained his ability to walk, and we had to move him into a Presbyterian Home. So, he missed the service after all. The last two times I really had Pop out were graduation from Seminary, where Bill Carter wheeled him around the campus and Father’s Day in June of ’86, just before I left for Georgia, when I had the joy of preaching at his home church, First Welsh Presbyterian, Wilkes-Barre, PA. 

What I remember most about the day I was ordained was how oppressively hot and humid it was. I no longer remember when the rain started, but by the time the service was over in the early evening, it was black and pouring rain. My intern supervisor, Rev. Dr. Graham Bardsley, brought up a group from Little Falls PC in Arlington, VA, but had forgotten to turn his car lights off. After the service when they went out in the downpour to begin the drive home, he discovered his car was dead. 

In addition to Graham, Rev. Keith Brown, my longtime home pastor, Rev. Sally Brown, associate pastor at FPCB who later went on to teach homiletics at PTS, and Rev. Alexander C. “Sandy” Zabriskie, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Bethlehem, were the clergy in the service. Sandy was the dad of my friends, Paul, Tyler, Lane, and Sally. I spent a lot of time at their house and when Paul stayed over at my house on Saturday nights in junior and senior high school, we had to show up at worship at his dad’s church. Being pridefully Presbyterian, I refused to kneel.

The Elders were Will Smiles, who had been my Session liaison throughout my PTS years, and Vivian Noblett from Easton, the Presbytery Moderator. Vivian kindly gifted me with a book which later would become very important. For the time being, I wrote a thank you note and shelved it. A few years later I took it down, read it, and have been reading it ever since. It was Ted Loder’s Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle. The prayers are in poetic form and are staggeringly beautiful. If you have been in a class with me, you likely would recognize some of them. More importantly, the title, “guerrillas of grace” has become a metaphor how I understand my vocation as a pastor. I ended up writing a 50-page qualifying essay to get into Columbia Theological Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry in Christian Spirituality program entitled “Guerrillas of Grace: A Contemporary Model for the Twenty-First Century Church.” 

Thirty-six years ago today, members of Lehigh Presbytery laid hands on me and prayed as I knelt in the chancel of my home church. Sometimes it seems like a blink of the eye. On the other hand, so much has changed in in the church and the world, that it seems much longer, like instead of a glossy photo and 80’s clothes I should staring back from a daguerreotype sporting a stovepipe hat. Still, I count myself so very blessed to have been called to this work. There is an old Pennsylvania Dutch saying that comes to mind: “We grow too soon old and too late smart.” I look at the only picture from the ordination service of me walking out after having given the benediction and shake my head contemplating how young I was when the NCD Commission entrusted the work of developing a church in Alpharetta to me. Like Moses, I wasn’t “worthy” but I was “willing.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

While I celebrate the anniversary of my ordination, this also marks the last of my blog posts. It has been fun being back at church, preaching, providing pastoral care, pumping up the staff with my signing and whistling around the office. I’m pretty sure most of them wish I were still away from the office. But it is good to have the crew back together getting ready for the fall to fall in just a few weeks. We’re in the process of figuring out the classes but I’m very excited by our Sunday morning line up in the Covenant Class in Fellowship Hall and our Westminster Academy Wednesday night program. 

It has been humbling to learn how many of you have kept up with my blog. Many of you have kindly spoken to me about it and have encouraged me to continue writing. I’ll have to see whether that might work. I can say it has been a deep pleasure to do it. I wasn’t sure blogging was for me, but found, much to my surprise, that it was a great discipline allowing me to reflect on so much in the light of God’s grace. So, thank you for your interest and encouragement. May God bless you as we continue the journey together. As Paul says to his beloved friends in Philippi, “I thank my God for every remembrance of you, always in every one of my prayers for all of you, praying with joy for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:3-5). 

In Christ,