Winning us over — Written on my 51st birthday


Today is my birthday. 51 years ago I was born on a blustery day in Jackson, Mississippi. What a long, strange trip it’s been. It’s good to be here. Good to be alive. Very good. Now I can see if anybody is reading this. I expect to read a few “happy birthdays” in the comment section. (It’s my suspicion that there are some of you who haven’t figured out how to leave a comment. You click on the word “Comments” below, and a screen opens up where you can write something.)

Yesterday I went to another district clergy meeting. I arrived late and sat in the back as opening worship was going on. It was testimonial time, and people were standing up telling stories of good, surprising things that were happening in their church. I know that this is more me than them, but I experience it as a version of “Can you top this?” and I sit there feeling out of it, wishing I wasn’t there. This is old, old stuff for me, going back way before I became a minister.

The one story that I will remember from this sharing was Silas telling how, just before his church conference was about to begin, a 76 year old woman was hit by a car outside the church. She was lying on the street, apparently lifeless. The windshield of the car was broken from the impact of her body. Everyone was distraught, terrified. They cancelled the business meeting and held a prayer meeting for the woman instead. Amazingly, the woman survived with a few broken bones that will heal. She was resisting the pain medication they were giving her the day after because, she said, she felt no pain.

After testimonials, it was time for the guest speaker, a woman named Grace who is a pastor in Wisconsin and author and story teller. She is black and from Kenya, somewhat flamboyant and quite charming. What will stand out in my memory is that she brought along her husband, who is a science photographer, and not especially inclined towards the Church and Christianity, a part from the fact that he is married to a preacher. David’s parents are Danish and Welsh. He is pale, reserved, and apparently has a house in the wilderness of northern Scandanavia — a place where he loves to be. Grace had David show us slides of his photographs. He would speak for a time, and then she would speak. His photographs were wonderful. There was one that included the beautiful child they have together.

Grace was speaking about Advent, and how we live now out of a vision of the end. Her marriage, it seems to me, provides a sign of the final healing of this broken creation that God has in store for us. Two people from very different worlds coming together in a love that generates new life and wonderful new perspective on this world, not to mention hope. The preacher drawing inspiration from the secular science photographer and vice versa… The African and the Northern European, the flamboyant one and the reserved one, finding delight in one another.

The other things that stand out:

David focusing attention on the wonder of light in all its many subtleties. The photographer is dependent upon the light — must be willing to be led by the light.

He said that the subject of a picture should be off center; it is more interesting that way. The beautiful old sanctuary we met in had stained glass windows with classic images of Jesus the good shepherd and Jesus in Gethsemene. In both windows Jesus was smack in the center.

Grace told a story of when she first arrived at her church and an old pillar of the congregation told her on the first Sunday of worship as he passed her by, exiting the church, “I have two hearing aids and I wasn’t wearing them this morning and I don’t intend to wear them as long as you are here. I don’t have anything to learn from your kind. And by the way, your stole is crooked — fix it.” She described how devastated she felt, but she also described how the relationship was transfigured over time. Cued by God, Grace gave the old man the job of fixing her stole every Sunday morning before worship. Overtime she (and God) won him over. One year the old man presented her with a Christmas present, a sweatshirt he had purchased in March and held onto for nine months. It read, “Jesus loves you (but I’m his favorite!)” I assume he also puts his hearing aids back in now when she preaches.

At a break I was feeling my usual dis-ease at these gatherings, and then Renee, the new district superintendent came and sat with me for a few moments, expressing what seemed to be a genuine interest in me. I think that she, too, despite certain differences in perspective is winning me over as well.

Then my old friend Marcia, similarly ill at ease with the staid structures of the United Methodist Church, came and sat with me, and we enjoyed sharing our unconventional view on the Church. By the end of the break I was feeling connected, and pleased to be there.

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