As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. – Colossians 3:12-13 NRSV
Two years ago, shortly before Christmas, I met with the session of this congregation at their invitation. I was invited to speak on Sundays for the months of January and February. I remember being told things had become stagnant and it was sort of a “do or die” situation. They were looking for something different, a different approach. I don’t know what they’d heard about my reputation but they seemed to want something that would help them to grow, to rediscover their purpose. Someone made a comment about getting very little help from “across the road!” So, having been speaking “on the road” for several weeks, I agreed to “candidate” a couple months as weekend supply speaker and see if it made any difference. I said I would like to have a guitarist friend, Howie Evert, come along when possible to assist with the music. And I also requested that after each sermon and service I wanted to have a discussion class, answering any questions about the sermon and also to read and discuss pertinent books which would help describe my philosophy and vision.
Around Valentine’s weekend, having now been appointed the Moderator by the Presbytery, I was asked at the annual meeting if I would consider staying longer! Love seemed to be in the air and so I agreed to stay up to two years if necessary. I would continue as Moderator with the status of a weekend supply speaker to help save monies for the future. Everybody seemed happy as we ate Valentines and exchanged hugs.
I moved into the office some of my robes and personal things; brought in some of my worship “toys” such as a Tibetan singing bowl, sage incense and anointing oil, and was given keys. I remember the first day I came to the office, loving the feeling I had of again becoming a teacher/pastor, something I felt confidence in doing, albeit on a much smaller scale than in previous years. If I could just launch some hope and visions for the future, I would leave as soon as possible. Within a few weeks I conducted a funeral for one of the members, Bill Halligan, and was impressed by the openness and love of his family. I felt the same way a few months later when I conducted the funeral for Paul Rasp. I was impressed with the widows Myrt and Betty along with both their families. I felt hopeful for the next year or so serving part-time. My hope was to help raise the attendance so that within 2 to 3 years you would be able to hire a part-time pastor and spiritual leader.
Then came the first Easter, and as we had been discussing in the Sunday groups, and even on a week night evening, I shared some of my ideas about the resurrection not being a literal event but a symbolic one describing the awakening of one’s mind to the awareness of God within. A week later an editorial of mine appeared in the Sunday Buffalo News. The editorial summarized my feelings that the basic reason for Christianity’s decline in the U.S. was lack of reason and information of historic data concerning the origins of Christianity. I felt then as I do now of the possibility the story of Jesus was a similar one to others of that region going back thousands of years to ancient Egypt.
Well it appears I never recovered from the publicity of the editorial and my frequent comments in Sunday reflections. A few weeks later at the Presbytery meeting in North Tonawanda, without warning, I was severely criticized by a fellow pastor who recommended that with such views I should never be allowed to teach or preach in a Presbyterian Church! I tried to reach out to the pastor, retired as myself, to join together in some conversation but was refused. Last year, just before Christmas, I was also invited to breakfast by two clergy of the Presbytery who suggested I quietly just leave the Presbyterian Church, resigning at the next Presbytery meeting to be hosted by my previous pastoral charge at Wayside! They felt I had drifted too far away from the Reformed traditions as taught in our theologically approved schools.
A few months later I was asked to meet with a delegation from the Committee on Ministry and answer further questions about the editorial and my theological views. I spent an hour with four members from COM and had what I thought to be a cordial conversation. One strongly suggested I represented the future in giving a supporting vision for inclusiveness with other religious teachings. Since then I have met with the complete COM to answer more questions and describe “my faith journey”. I think I did more of the later, but it seemed to go well and I was assured of at least cordial support. But within a few weeks another retired minister (May he now rest in peace) wrote up several pages of official charges stating I was no longer within the Reformed Tradition and should not be allowed to do any more teaching or preaching. I soon met with required members of a special Judicial Commission. Following those meetings I received a call from the Presbytery Clerk telling me all charges were dropped and I was to enjoy my summer! The Chair of the Commission even took one of my books, read it and returned it to me saying it was an excellent book and the ideas were very interesting.
Meanwhile this last March I was asked to take a couple months off as Moderator of this session so that again the Committee on Ministry could see how much conflict I may have caused in this congregation! I received a call from two Committee members assuring me after the first meeting that I would be back soon. Telling me it was okay to return in June, I did but discovered some had changed their minds and that I was to not be Moderator now for an indefinite period of time! I had just urged the Session to become a part of a New Beginnings process that I hoped would help discern where we might be in our beliefs, and if it would be possible for me to continue here much longer. But in May I was told that it would be better if I was not part of the process! Rev. Nancy Bassett then moderated some of the meetings, reporting back to me that I was the one that should have been there. Finally in October we had another meeting with representatives of the COM, here at West Seneca with the Session and leadership from the New Beginnings. They wanted to make sure issues were clarified so the program could be a success. It seemed to me to be more of a “he said\she said” kind of meeting. It got confusing. I finally had a very strong feeling that it would be best for all if I soon left, for the good of my own health and for that of the remaining congregation. It seemed enough was enough, and I only seemed to be aging more quickly! I wrote the session a letter saying I would remain until the end of the year, if wanted. And so we come to today.
I have always had a very strong belief that all things work together for good, and this is no exception. I feel that new avenues, new freedoms, and new possibilities will and are opening. Knowing myself and some of my family traditions, I probably will never be one who quits being busy and doing what I love until I die.
The other part of this two year process I have learned is a deeper level of forgiveness for myself and for others. I have had to forgive myself for naïveté about understanding the process of provoking new concepts and thoughts within a Presbyterian tradition I have known and been part of for over 40 years. This period has also taught me that to be engaged in defense and anger toward those who oppose me only destroys the remembrance of the true Christ within me. As the Course in Miracles book teaches, “If I defend myself, I (the Christ within) is attacked.” I reflected on that often over these past months and in the light of the stories of Jesus. When Jesus was attacked as breaking religious beliefs and traditions, of being a blasphemer, his normal response was to “answer not a word.” Truly, at times “silence is golden.”
I was interested and surprised a few days ago when I read in the News that a Buddhist group had purchased two former Roman Catholic Churches in Buffalo. They have remodeled them, saving much of the art and architecture as possible, into beautiful Buddhist temples. I hope to visit them in the next few weeks. (This is our secret!) Soon after opening, some students from the former Catholic school broke in and did several thousands of dollars damage in vandalism. When caught, the Buddhist leadership refused to bring charges against them, saying that was not in keeping with the Buddhist teachings. They seemed to relate to those we often see in the Amish community. I believe this attitude represents some of my own feelings. It’s time to move along.
I thus leave with no ill feelings toward any but a sense of deep thankfulness for a rich experience in learning more about the church and the need to trust my deeper Self which is the Center of peace, joy, and forgiveness. I’m a member of a large family, having 5 other siblings and a 91-year-old mother. Most of my family and relatives also do not agree with my religious and theological conclusions. But what keeps us still together is our work at building respect, appreciation, patience and even support for one another. As one of my brothers told me when my father died last year, “We are all very different in our ideas and locations but one thing we do have is a respect for each one’s individuality.”
So after a few sleepless nights and struggles about what to do I am at peace. I hope that in some way I have inspired you and encouraged you to continue the journey of faith and search for the Christ within you. And when you come to the place where you feel the conflict and confusion is too much, just let it go and let the waters of Spirit carry your boat gently down the streams into the Ocean of Love.
So much pushing and pulling, so much fighting and straining,
So much laboring against waves and wind.
I am tired, my arms and weary, back is aching, eyes are blurry,
I think I’m ready to give it!
I struggled, I’ve cried, I screamed inside
About the kind of life I’ve tried to lead.
Well right now I think it’s time/for the very first time
To lay down my body and mind, And just be.
If I stop steering my boat, does it sink, oh no!
Current carries it along just so
If I stop steering my life, I’m gonna be all right
I’ll just go where the ocean says to go!
– Words from Daniel Nahmod’s song, “Where The Ocean Says to Go”
Talk shared with the wonderful folks at the 1St Presbyterian Church of West Seneca. May God bless them with peace and visions for the future.