Ode to a Re(tired) Pastor

Pastor Gary is officially re(tired)! And today is his 65th birthday! I’d be tired, too, if I had his stats. Imagine! It’s been thirty-nine years of (approximately):

  • 1,000 sermons, most preached multiple times on a Sunday
  • 195 weddings (average of 5 per year)
  • 390 baptisms (10 per year)
  • 390 funerals (10 per year)
  • 500 youth confirmed
  • Dozens of Bible studies and other small groups led
  • 10,140 handwritten notes to parishioners (5 per week)
  • 4,056 hospital calls (2 per week)
  • 20,280 meetings (10 meetings per week, a conservative estimate)
  • 468 potlucks (one potluck a month), consuming an average of 1,500 calories each time for a total of 702,000 calories; since 3,500 calories is a pound, this is a net weight gain of 200 pounds at church
  • 202,800 handshakes/hugs (100 per week)
  • 121,680 hours worked (average 70 hours a week)
  • 101,400 pieces of paper handled (50 per week; much more were it not for computers)
  • Occasions when Gary had two weeks off in a row (not nearly enough)
  • Churches Served: First UCC Congregational Church in Milford, Connecticut (3 years); Ogdensburg UMC (6 months) and Central UMC in Traverse City, Michigan (4 years); Centenary UMC in Pentwater (8 years); First UMC in Grand Rapids (20 years); and First UMC in Birmingham (4 years)
  • Numerous conference leadership positions, including chair of the West Michigan Annual Conference Program Committee, chair of the Conference Nominations Committee, Dean of the Michigan Area School for Pastoral Ministry, and member of the Board of Ordained Ministry.

Of course, these stats do not take into account innumerable youth group sleepovers (i.e. sleepless nights) and mission trips, nursing home visits, CROP Walks, graduation parties, and millions of dollars raised from ten building campaigns.

Nor does it count how many times our oldest daughter escaped from the nursery and ran into the sanctuary during worship or how many accidents our three children had on church property or at homes of parishioners: (a broken arm from falling out of tree; a broken wrist from falling off a pony in our backyard; a finger slammed in the front door of the church; a shock from a nail stuck into an electrical socket; lacerations from broken bottles and somersaults off couches, etc., etc.

The word “retire” comes from the 16th century French word retirer, which means “to withdraw” or “to retreat” and was used in reference to armies. It also meant to “withdraw to a place of privacy” or “leave an occupation.” Actually, Gary is withdrawing from Michigan today. A moving truck is arriving to take our remaining belongings to the Des Moines, Iowa area, where he will start a new life as chief cook, bottle washer, chauffeur, golf partner, and comic relief.

Gary was a highly effective pastor for 39 years and will always carry with him the privilege of walking alongside others in the most tender, painful, happy, and profound times of their lives. Shepherding children, youth, and adults from guests to observers, to seekers, to learners, to disciples, to difference makers has been a source of great joy.

He’ll also remember the sixteen years (thirteen in Grand Rapids and three in Birmingham) that we pastored together in the same church. We were the source of endless good-natured ribbing from parishioners because our styles were very different. At the same time, we learned how to play off each other’s strengths, respect our individual uniqueness, and grow our congregations by focusing on the mission, vision, and strategic priorities of the churches we served. The memories are priceless.

  • Serving a church in the middle of cherry orchards
  • Living in a house on a hill overlooking the beauty of Grand Traverse Bay
  • Our tiny 12-month-old old daughter, walking underneath tables in the fellowship hall and getting into the purses of all the women
  • The three kids asking every Sunday when they were little, “Are we going to Mommy’s church or Daddy’s church today?”
  • Walking to the Lake Michigan beach from our parsonage in Pentwater
  • The time Gary had to leave for a week-long Board of Ordained Ministry interview retreat one day after I fractured a wrist. I had to care for three children under the age of six with one arm.
  • The Saturday night after Christmas when both Gary and I came down with the flu at the same time. We not only had to find people to fill the pulpit at a late hour but had to find someone to care for our kids the next day as well.
  • That fateful first Sunday in Grand Rapids, when our elementary school age children were being introduced and Garth marched right up into the chancel, waving like a politician. Later in the service he was making paper airplanes in the front row from church bulletins.

Through it all, Gary served faithfully, joyfully, creatively, and expectantly and was continually learning and growing. Every Sunday he expected God to show up and offered his very best. Gary loved the people in his churches, and they loved him. He offered Christ every Sunday and spread scriptural holiness throughout Michigan.

I am especially grateful that after I was elected to the episcopacy on July 14, 2016, Gary essentially did his job at Birmingham First UMC as well as mine over the past year. He did it willingly and eagerly, even though it meant that we would live in different states for nine months.

Gary’s last sermon series was called “I’m Still Growing!” On April 30, he preached about Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32 and concluded the sermon with these words, “May you wrestle until you stand up in the dawn with the assurance in your heart that you’ve seen God face-to-face. And, like Jacob, know not only that your life was spared, but that the eternal God of our mothers and fathers is with you. And that the nature and the name of this God is love. It’s worth wrestling for, my friends. God wrestles with us before we even know God’s name. We wrestle with our sins and doubts until God’s grace transforms us. Then we wrestle for a better life, for ourselves and for all the world. And we do it with a leap and a laugh. Hell, earth and sin are all overcome. We belong to the One whose nature and whose name is love.”

Ministry is a very demanding vocation, and many of us are constantly tired. Gary, like all of the other pastors who are retiring in the next month, especially deserves to be tired, but now he can sleep in as long as he wants, and a whole new life awaits. One thing I do know. When you are a pastor, that’s who you are forever. For it’s not a job, it’s a calling. As a re(tired) pastor, Gary will continue to grow, learn, and serve.

But most important, will you be making me dinner tonight, Gary? I confess I haven’t once turned on the oven yet. It’ll be great to have you in our new home in Iowa. And if you ever get bored, I think I might be able to find you an appointment. No pressure. Just love and gratitude. Well done, good and faithful servant!

Dear Mom

I am not sentimental about Mother’s Day. I’ve never made a big deal out of Mother’s Day and don’t care for the hype and commercialism (an estimated $26.3 billion this year) of this holiday that has roots in the Methodist Church. After Anna Reeves Jarvis died in 1905, her daughter Anna M. Jarvis campaigned for the creation of an official Mother’s Day in honor of her mother’s service to the church as well as her work for peace and reconciliation during and after the Civil War.

In 1908, Anna petitioned the superintendent of the church where her mother had spent over twenty years teaching Sunday School. On May 10, 1908, the first official Mother’s Day celebration took place at Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. By 1909, forty-six states were holding Mother’s Day services, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother’s Day to be a national observance.

My own Mother’s Day tradition began many years ago when I decided to write letters to both my mother and mother-in-law on Mother’ Day, thanking them for the positive influence they were in my life. Yesterday was the sixth Mother’s Day since my Mom died on November 30, 2011. I’d been thinking about my mother all week and finally decided it was time to write another letter.

Dear Mom,

Here I am, five and a half years after you died, and I still miss you! Over the past week, I have been reminded of you in so many ways. And then, when the hotel I was staying in had a bowl of your favorite candy on the counter, Mary Jane, I knew it was time to write you again. I suspect you already know that you continue to shape and form who I am.

First, I want to thank you for telling me about the love of Jesus and raising me in a Christian home. Among my earliest memories are you reading to me from Little Visits with God. Thank you for taking the time to read to me. You always were a lover of books, Mom, and it was a joy to exchange book lists with you when I became an adult. You were the church librarian at our Mennonite Church for fifty years and oversaw the library at a time when it was the only public library in Souderton, PA.

When Zion Mennonite Church built a new facility on the outskirts of town because we had run out of room, a large, new library was located right outside the sanctuary where it was easily accessible to all. You may not have realized it, but that library was in great part a tribute to your love for reading, for learning, and for God.

Thank you for your faithfulness in marching us four kids to one of the front pews of the sanctuary every single Sunday and making sure we didn’t act out too much while Dad sang in the choir. Thank you and Dad for teaching the senior high Sunday school class for many years. And thank you for taking us to church even when we went on our annual summer vacation to the New Jersey shore. It was a wonderful witness to your faith.

Second, I want to thank you for becoming a living and walking imitation of Christ.

It did not escape me that when the teenage son of a church family was sentenced to prison for a time, you wrote a letter to him every single week until he was released. Joe is a wonderful Christian man today, who more than once thanked you for never giving up on him.

It did not escape me that you hosted children in our home through the Fresh Air Fund when I was growing up. This program enabled disadvantaged children in Philadelphia to visit families outside the city and enjoy summer in the country. It did not escape my attention that our family hosted an exchange student from Argentina for a year when I was in high school. It did not escape my notice that you volunteered in numerous church and community organizations and were always a strong advocate for being in ministry with those who needed a boost, a helping hand, or someone to believe in them.

Third, I want to thank you for encouraging me to become the person God created me to be. You allowed me the freedom to discover my gifts and passions, even when you did not understand where I was headed. You were forbearing when my “lefty” handwriting was never as elegant and beautiful as yours and I eventually gave up cursive writing in favor of printing.

You were patient when I did not choose a college until a month before my high school graduation. You were faithful in writing me every week for a year when I studied in Germany. And you were perplexed as well as supportive when I completed undergraduate and graduate degrees in music and then decided to go to seminary. In response to your persistent question, “Why do you want to keep going to school?” I could only reply, “It’s what God is calling me to do.”

 

Finally, Mom, I want to thank you for your willingness to keep growing and learning all through your life. In many ways, you were raised in a very sheltered environment. You did graduate from Juniata College as an English major and gave me a love for writing and grammar, but you were also willing to spread your wings and try new things later in life.

You were not naturally athletic, but you learned how to ski and play tennis and golf so that you were able to keep up with the rest of the family. You even learned how to fish but drew the line at taking a walleye off the hook. You started to jog in your 50’s and even did a five-kilometer race where you finished first in your age group.      

But more than that, you grew in your ability to express your feelings; verbally and physically, after growing up in a very reserved Pennsylvania Dutch household. It was pure joy to observe how you would hug and kiss your grandchildren and tell them how much you loved them. And Gary and I will forever be indebted to you for the times you cared for our young children so that we could get away for occasional vacations alone.

Mom, sometimes I wonder who I would have become without your nurturing and influence. For it was you who modeled for me unconditional grace. It was you who showed me how to give my life away in service. Your life was pure and holy. Is it any coincidence that one of the lectionary readings for Mother’s Day this year is found in 1 Peter, chapter 2?

“Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” Mom – you who had no malice in your life for anyone, and you who nurtured me with the spiritual milk of pure grace — thank you for showing me how to taste and see that the Lord is good. May all that I am and hope still to become reflect God’s glory as well as honor the goodness and fruitfulness of your life.

Love,

Laurie

P.S. Save some Mary Jane’s for me!

And I Mean to Be One Too

I knew Peggy Whitson was from Iowa but didn’t really pay much attention until I saw a live interview a week ago on CNN. You may have watched President Trump, daughter Ivanka Trump, and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins make the first ultra-definition livestream from space with Whitson on April 24. Trump congratulated Peggy on becoming the longest-serving American in space, passing astronaut Jeff Williams’ record of 534 days.

Whitson, who at 57 is the oldest woman to fly in space, blasted off on Expedition 50 for the International Space Station on November 18, 2016, and will return home in September. Having flown into space since 2002, Whitson is also the first woman to command the International Space Station and is now in command for the second time. In addition, she holds the woman’s record for the longest amount of time spent outside the spacecraft (more than fifty hours).

Whitson’s history is fascinating, as are all stories of those who break barriers that no one would have thought possible at the time. Like many native Iowans, Peggy Whitson was born on a farm in Mount Ayr and grew up in Beaconsfield, which had a population of fifteen when she was born and was still fifteen in 2010. As Iowa’s smallest incorporated community, Beaconsfield not only produced one of our world’s most celebrated astronauts but is also the place where the giant supermarket chain Hy-Vee traces its roots.

Whitson’s father was an engineer and her mother, a teacher, still lives on the farm. From her parents, who worked day and night on the farm, Peggy learned the value of hard work. In an interview last year with the Des Moines Register, Peggy said, “Drive and desire was something I was raised with. It became a very important part of how I’ve become. I like to say I’m determined; some people would call it stubborn. It depends on your perspective.”

Peggy grew up wanting to become an astronaut and just happened to graduate from high school in 1978, the year that the first female astronauts were named. It was then that Whitson realized her goal might actually be attainable. She graduated from United Methodist-affiliated Iowa Wesleyan University with a degree in biology and received a PhD degree in biochemistry from Rice University four years later.

Explaining her passion for biology, Whitson said, “Maybe it was teachers, but I think really, maybe, growing up on a farm and being around animals and plants and seeing things grow, I think is probably why I was interested in that… It struck a chord in me; the farmer’s daughter thing.”

Whitson’s story has a lot to teach us about leadership. First, she was never discouraged from following her heart. In a time when women still experienced many barriers, Whitson knew who God had called her to become and never wavered. In fact, she worked at NASA for thirteen years before ever becoming an astronaut. Whitson was one of eight astronauts selected out of eight thousand applicants. She just kept working hard and never gave up her dream.

I can’t help but think that Whitson’s liberal arts education at Iowa Wesleyan was an important time in her life, especially considering the university’s mission statement, “Iowa Wesleyan University is a transformational learning community whose passion is to educate, empower and inspire students to lead meaningful lives and careers.” How might our world be changed if every girl and boy had the opportunity, nurturing, and mentoring to achieve their dreams?

Second, Whitson had the perseverance, patience, and dedication to keep working toward her goals, even when it took many years for her to actually fly in space. Whitson said, “When NASA picked the first set of astronauts, I think that was when I decided I wanted to become an astronaut. Still, I knew very little about the whole process or what it would take to get in. But I do have a healthy dose of that stubborn thing going for me which, I think, kept me pursuing the goal.”

In last week’s live-streaming on CNN, students had the opportunity to ask questions of Whitson through Facebook. When an eleven-year-old girl asked how she could become an astronaut, Peggy said that students should take classes in math, science, and engineering. But, at the end, she advised them to pursue something that stimulates their minds and that they love. “You can become anything you can dream about. Anyone who works hard and puts in a lot of effort can do it!” Whitson reminded the children that our world needs engineers and scientists and astronauts, but whatever their passion is, they need to have the courage to take the next step.

Third, life-long learning, an intense curiosity about the world, and working smart are skills that enable human beings to produce at maximum capacity. In reality, very little in life comes easily, and it sometimes takes years and decades of hard work and dedication to achieve our goals. After Whitson became the first woman Chief of the Astronaut Corps and was entering the later part of her career, she realized that her best days could still be ahead of her.

Once Whitson made the decision to apply for Expedition 50, she worked hard to pass the medical tests necessary to have the physical strength to perform space walks, of which she had already done six. She passed the tests and was selected from a group of 43 active astronauts to join the November 2016 launch. The crew is working on station maintenance, growing Chinese cabbage, and doing medical experiments such as studying bone cell growth in order to minimize bone density losses in space.

When asked why she still wanted to fly when many people her age were winding down their careers, Whitson said, “What amazed me the first time in space (on Expedition 5) is, ‘Oh my gosh, so much color and texture.’ I don’t know if it has to do with the clarity because there are no particulates in the air, but you see so much.

“Outside, on a spacewalk, takes it up another notch. You are traveling 17,500 miles an hour across the planet. You are looking down with views going past you. It’s like being a bird maybe, the perspective of flying over the Earth.

“One of the most beautiful sights is when the rim of the Earth is bright on one side, and you see this defined line of the atmosphere. You see how close and thin it is. We’ve got to be careful. We’ve got to take care of this planet.”

As to the value of experience, Whitson said, “I think it gets easier as you get older. You know what to worry about and what not to worry about.”

Whitson said in a recent CBS interview, “Breaking records has never been my goal. I think it’s important that we’re continually pushing our limits and showing that we can extend beyond what we have done before.”

This is the time of year when graduations take place, and speakers encourage our young people to dream big, see possibility, and focus on achieving their goals. But heroes (saints) like Peggy Whitson inspire us all, from young to old.

One of my favorite hymns is “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” The lyrics were written by Lesbia Scott in 1929 as a teaching tool for her children. Eighty-eight years later, the words still ring true, and I am sure that if Scott were alive today, she would change just one line:

I sing a song of the saints of God,
Patient and brave and true,
Who toiled and fought and lived and died
For the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor,
And one was a queen,
And one was a shepherdess on the green (an astronaut in the sky)
They were all of them saints of God – and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.

Will you, God helping, be one, too?