“The fundamental things apply as time goes by…”
During the spring and summer, we have “Faith and Film Night” at the church, which is – OK, I admit it – an excuse for me to watch a movie while at work.
And although I’d like to tell you I select from a variety of films for these occasions, truth is, like the preacher who chooses the biblical passage that “God laid upon my heart,” I just pick my favorites.
Many of them are classics like “High Noon” or “To Kill a Mockingbird,” both of which I have shown on previous Faith and Film Nights. Last week we watched “Casablanca,” another movie I had seen many times but not recently.
We always end these film sessions with a brief discussion about spiritual themes detected within the story: Where did you see God in this film? Where did you see evil? Where did you find grace?
After watching “Casablanca,” some of us said we saw God in the struggle for freedom as well as Rick’s sacrifice of his own wants and needs for the greater good. We saw evil in Maj. Strasser and Capt. Renault, and we saw both good and evil in several characters, as is often the case in any good story – the characters display their humanity, showing their capacity to do wonderful or terrible things.
And we saw grace in Victor Laszlo as he offered mercy and forgiveness without condition to both Ilsa and Rick.
Following this discussion, another observation was made that I had never thought much about before: This movie is about refugees. And the movie viewer who made that observation could not help but think about the world being in crisis, once again, over the plight of refugees. This is such a strong biblical theme, yet we often miss it, or simply ignore it. Essentially, the entire Old Testament is the story of refugees. Even Jesus was a refugee, fleeing into Egypt to escape a violent government attempting to kill him (Matt. 2: 13-15).
In “Casablanca,” a rapidly changing series of events occurs within the context of desperate people trying to escape from impending peril, and they are willing to take tremendous risks to find a new start. We are clued in that goodness does indeed dwell within Rick – despite his claim of “never sticking his neck out for anyone” – when he clandestinely provides funding for a newly married Bulgarian couple to obtain exit visas for America, thwarting Renault’s plan to seduce the young wife and thus saving her honor.
Those of us who call ourselves Christians believe in a God who gave up everything in love to rescue us, and that we are called to give of ourselves for others. The “good guys” in this film are the ones who are willing to give up something for those who have the forces of evil nipping at their heels and no place left to turn.
This is one of the compelling themes of many classic stories – sacrifice for others, or giving up some selfish desire for the betterment of the whole. To some extent, movies are simply reflections of society. “Casablanca” reflects a society where people banded together against an evil – Nazism. While it is true that, in Casablanca, there was always someone who would take advantage of the refugees’ situation, others tried to help them. A place of freedom and possibility – America – awaited those who somehow could make their way there. Like the staff of Rick’s club, who expressed regard for Rick’s actions on behalf of the Bulgarian couple, the hearts of those who watch “Casablanca” are warmed by depictions of goodness and grace – people reaching beyond their instincts of self-preservation and economic gain.
As we approach Independence Day this election year, much has changed from the America in the 1940s. It is a different world, with different threats. And, of course, there is a danger in being overly nostalgic, as well, for something we think we once had. The “good old days” were not all that good for many people, including women and racial and ethnic minorities.
Still, “Casablanca” reminds us that there was a time when real heroes were considered to be the ones who stood up for the defenseless and the persecuted while putting themselves last. Greatness was determined by willingness to sacrifice for the greater good. People venerated the Golden Rule, not those who lived by the mantra of “he who has the gold makes the rules.” It seems that once (or was it just in the movies?) our political and religious leaders talked more about helping the least of these – values held up in scripture and taught in churches – than they did the glorification of self. And Americans applauded such expressions of genuine love and community. Such ideas seem to be fading farther into the mists of memory – or perhaps they are just the notions of quaint, old movies and those of us who treasure them.
Every Father’s Day, I remember ‘The Bus House.’ And every day in between, I miss the presence in my life of its determined builder and caretaker. (This was first posted here in January 2012).
From our big picture window, the skinny white building at the end of the gravel road looked like a sentinel, standing at attention against the backdrop of a cold, gray Texas sky.
Bundled in my winter gear – the ski mask reminded me of Dr. X, one of the bad guys from the “Championship Wrestling” show on Friday night – I trudged the quarter-mile route carrying my metal, Charlie Brown lunchbox and perhaps a few worries over what the new school day would bring.
The path ended at the cattle guard, which lay between two handsome red brick pillars. Just this side of the last barrier between our farm and the road to town stood…
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What is that line from Forrest Gump? “Life is like a box of chocolates … you never know what you’re gonna get?”
Opening my email on Tuesday mornings after being off Monday is sometimes like that. Only it’s not always chocolates.
Today, hidden among dozens of emails about meetings and projects and prayer requests, there was a diamond.
The subject line was “Flooding,” and it went like this:
Dear Pastor Curry,
I am the chair of Missions and Benevolence at a small Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania, Valley United Presbyterian Church. We are looking for a Presbyterian church in Texas that has been affected by the recent flooding. We received the name of your church from a list of flooded churches. Is your church in need of our help, or can you refer us to someone who might be in need following the recent flooding?
I came in to start my week with a heart aching from the shooting in Orlando, struggling with questions over how best to express the love of God amid such hatefulness. And there were many much smaller matters crowding my mind and vying for my attention, as well. The regular life stuff.
But, first, the email pileup. I took a deep breath, plunged in and began scrolling. My eyes were almost immediately drawn to the email above, and as I read it, I began to smile.
For the record, we have had no flooding at my church, and I let Ms. Barrett know that, and also forwarded her email to our presbytery, in case other congregations might benefit from her kind offer.
But I just cannot stop thinking about this church in Pennsylvania, looking far and wide for a way to help others. What a powerful witness to Jesus Christ. I was not surprised that reaching out is apparently nothing new for them. Their web page shows that they host Al Anon meetings and have a food pantry, and later this month they are hosting a free community meal and inviting everyone.
A flood of thoughts. Among them:
- If anyone reading this lives in or near Athens, Pennsylvania, and is looking for a church home, I strongly suggest you visit the Valley United Presbyterian Church. They apparently are willing to follow Jesus all the way to Texas, if He tells them to go there. That says something very good about this church.
- I am reminded once again that God does great things with small churches every day. Perhaps the greatest things. Heck, Jesus only needed 12 disciples, and they were pretty confused a lot of the time. Imagine what 12 Presbyterians can do!
- We Presbyterians use a lot of language that involves our being something called a connectional church. This email demonstrates what being a connectional church is all about.
- Disaster in our world often appears big and overwhelming. Faithfulness means doing something – even something small – to stand with those who need someone to stand with or beside them. What small actions might each of us undertake to show love and respect to our gay friends and neighbors after the horrible event in Orlando? Having a heart open toward others – this is what following Jesus is all about. Every small act of love makes a big difference. This is what a Presbyterian minister named Fred Rogers was talking about when he spoke of “looking for the helpers” and ultimately finding HOPE.
- I don’t know you, Valley United, but clearly, you love the Lord. And if I could just wrap my arms around your entire church today and say “Thank you,” I would. You give me hope.
I live in a community where it is still common when meeting someone new to say, “So, where do you go to church?”
Still, like other parts of the country, church attendance is declining. People find other ways to spend their Sunday mornings: Sports, family time, community festivals or civic events, or simply sleeping in – the popular activity my church organist is referring to when he glances over his shoulder, spots empty pews and says, “Well, looks like we might have a few people attending The Church of the Holy Comforter today.”
I am a pastor, but I have not always attended church regularly. I grew up in a churchgoing family, and as a child it was expected (demanded) that I hold down a pew every Sunday. But when I was liberated from the rule of my parents, I underwent a lengthy period of what I then called “freedom.” Most of those years, I worshipped at The Church of the Holy Comforter.
Then, after I was married, I finally reconnected with weekly worship, though it came in a different Christian tradition than the one in which I was raised. Involvement in the church eventually led to full-time ministry.
To say that going back to church changed my life for the better would be quite an understatement. Everything changed. Over time, I saw myself and the world around me in a new light. Some people call this process transformation.
Perhaps one of the most persistent questions asked by Americans these days is: “What’s in it for me?” So here, based on my experiences, in no particular order, are six things that are in it for you if you come to church:
- When you are sick, or a loved one dies, people actually pray for you. Can you imagine? They ask God to make you feel better because they are worried about you. Church people bring food to your house. They visit and tell you that they care about you. When my Dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, one church member after another showed up at our home to pray for him and wish him well. When my son was in the hospital and we were away from home for a week, two people from church arrived at different times because each wanted to be the first to mow our 2-acre lawn. I know there are negative church experiences out there, and they are real and regrettable. But the behavior I am describing here is something I have seen all my life, in big or small churches, regardless of denominational affiliation. I don’t know how I would have made it through tough times without the church.
- Holy Communion. John Calvin said we should have communion as often as we meet. Calvin was pretty “old school,” but what he said about the Lord’s Supper still works today. Whatever your views are about what happens when we take the bread and the cup, the body and the blood, it is something mysterious and special. The only way I can say it is to tell you that I have never experienced God in any similar way as the way it happens at the communion table. It’s just super cool. People are reconciled to each other and with God through something God does when we share the Lord’s Supper. Jesus wanted to make sure that his followers did not miss this transformational experience (Luke 22: 19-20).
- The critical opportunity to spend time with people who are not like you. Tom Long says if you are not worshipping on Sunday with people whom you would not ordinarily associate with during the week, then you are not really at a church. God is a God of Surprises and has a way of surprising us by putting us with people who do not necessarily look like we do or believe all the same things. When we are open to what God is doing through others, such relationships are one way we experience spiritual growth. Many of us tend to try to create God in our own image. Our god is too small. When we catch a glimpse of a God who is bigger than our personal preferences, it is life-changing. (If you are looking for a church, I encourage you not to settle for a place where everyone seems to look like you and agree with everything you believe.)
- Sabbath. Jesus said the Sabbath Day was made for humanity, not the other way around (Mark 2: 23-27). As the church lost its authority in society, it also lost touch with the meaning of Sabbath. This is a gift we desperately need to reclaim. More than ever, we require Sabbath: slowing down, setting aside our ever-growing to-do lists and carving out time to worship God. Something special happens when we practice Sabbath-keeping. Our minds, bodies and souls are placed in proper alignment with the God of the Universe. We are renewed, and our Monday-Fridays are enriched, as well.
- Potlucks. This is closely related to No. 2. People bring food to church for you to eat, and you are invited to do the same. You get to share your favorite family recipes in a meal following the service and sample everyone else’s longtime favorites, as well. I call that a win-win situation. By the way, if you are at a church in my part of the country and you do not find fried chicken, white gravy and mashed potatoes on the table for such an event, double-check to make sure you are at church. What’s in it for you? a full heart and a full stomach!
- Finding a purpose. Being part of a church means becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. In church, we find people who can help us discover what role we have to play in God’s work in the world. At church, we become equipped to minister to others, sharing the Good News that God brings into the world through Jesus Christ. When we serve each other in response to what God has done for us in Christ, we find our purpose. This does not mean that we begin living trouble-free lives. It does mean that we are doing what God created us to do – and that is what real freedom is all about. When we focus on serving God and serving one another … what’s in it for you? Abundant life.
Do Lord, oh do Lord, oh do remember me.
As the group gathered in a circle before me sings out the children’s Sunday school song with more gusto than usual, I cannot help but think how appropriate a selection this is for our morning worship.
The worshippers are all in memory care, suffering from various stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Yet God does not forget. And so there is hope to be found, even here.
Do Lord, oh do Lord, oh do remember me.
It’s not the same today, though, because Jo is not in her usual place. I look all around. Maybe she is seated at a table in the other room. But I don’t see her. I lead the singing as usual, read stories from the Children’s Bible and say a few words about God’s love – but I am distracted.
Has Jo died?
It happens so often.
But not Jo. Please, not Jo.
What a terribly selfish thought. How could I not be overwhelmed with joy that this faithful woman has finally been allowed to claim her heavenly reward and to escape the ravages of Alzheimer’s?
Jo is my mentor. She discipled me. She taught me most of what I know about doing ministry with Alzheimer’s/dementia patients.
When I first began having a twice-monthly worship service here a few years ago, I tried to preach a sermon like I was speaking from the pulpit on Sunday morning. Looking back on it now, the folly of it almost makes me laugh.
Then Jo showed up and kept yelling in my face that she could not hear me.
She did this every time, until I finally gave up and formed another plan.
Which is what I needed to do.
Now we tell stories and sing and pray – and sometimes we have communion or do anointing with oil. But we always sing, especially children’s songs and the old hymns. And we always talk about the love of God.
Jo was suspicious of me in the beginning. Once, as she glanced in my direction from the back of the room, I heard her say, “I do not like that man.” So I decided I should try to keep my distance for a while, not wanting to cause her any undue alarm.
Then one day, she simply started praying for me.
I found out that’s what Jo does. She may not recall much about her life, but the staff tells me she served as a missionary. And I can see it in her. She still always carries her leather-bound, King James Bible. When staff or other patients are not doing well, Jo puts her free hand on them, and holding the Bible in the other, prays. She encourages those around her, telling them they are loved and appreciated.
At some point, without warning, her attitude toward me seemed to undergo a major shift, and she began encouraging me, too, and telling me how she looked forward to my visits. I don’t know why. Maybe she appreciated that I am still willing to learn.
I always look forward to seeing her.
Recently, she would grab me by the arm, pull me close and say in a hushed voice, “You love Jesus! I love Jesus too!” And I would say, “Yes, Jo, and Jesus loves you very much.”
I don’t know how many times Jo has said something that changed my day for the better by making me more aware of God’s presence. Once she informed me suddenly during our service that she was going to meet Jesus soon – and, having learned not to dismiss those kinds of declarations – I listened. She began to say more. “I don’t know who else I am going to see, but it is all right, as long as I see Jesus. Is there anything wrong with that?”
And I said no, there is nothing wrong with that.
But it wasn’t Jo’s time then. And now is not her time either. I took aside a staff member as soon as worship ended today, and I asked, with trepidation, “Where is Jo?” Turns out, she moved to a memory care center in another town, to be closer to family.
I hope that will be good for her.
Selfishly, perhaps sinfully, I’m not sure how I will get along without her.
Do Lord, oh do Lord, oh do remember me.
The Lord is my shepherd.
So says the gravestone by the path that stands in the sunlight as I emerge from the tree-shrouded tunnel.
It is a new day.
To my right, the ghosts of Richards Park are presumably at play, quietly, undisturbed by a solitary walker or the intrusion of hundreds of silent granite sentinels. I imagine that the field waits for some secret signal to erupt with the voices of decades past – cheers, talk of springtime, baseball and love – a full-throated celebration pouring forth from within the painted walls and beneath the grassy infield, where they have been held in trust.
My stride quickens and slows again as I read words from distant years etched in heartache: Budded on earth to bloom in heaven. Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Gone but not forgotten.
A voice inquires of me, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
I have no answer, other than I do find life here. It is a different kind of life – a conundrum that is elusive and yet as real as anything I have ever experienced. I find it in the trees and the dewy grass and the sound of cardinals and mockingbirds that can be heard, yes, at other times but only in fullness here, on certain days, when the air is cool and the sun is not fully up. Life comes to me as I breathe in and breathe out and my steps become more rapid. Sometimes in the overwhelming stillness and motion come names – prayers for the people I love to the God who invented the morning and could not be contained by a tomb. And sometimes what comes is silence.
Nothing to think about.
Nothing to say.
From darkness to light, back to darkness. Back through the leafy canopy, my feet hit the trail faster and faster. The pavement is hard. The water flows around me, gurgling on my left and then my right.
Water is life.
I am suddenly back where I started.
The day begins.
The Lord is my shepherd, today, tomorrow and forevermore.
By the measure of a lifetime, I only knew Keith Wright for a moment.
On Nov. 14, 1992, Keith married Kerry and me on a warm afternoon at Faith Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas. He was to retire in a matter of months and said then that he expected ours would be the final wedding he would perform.
It was years before I realized his gentle manner and firm convictions served as my introduction to Presbyterianism and the beginning of my own path to ministry of Word and Sacrament.
As time passed, I wondered about him. Finally, in March 2014, I did a Google search and found that he was serving as the parish associate at University Presbyterian in Austin. I could not believe it. I shouted to Kerry, “Keith Wright is still doing ministry!” I decided I should let no more time pass before telling him that things he had done years earlier had made a difference in my life. I sent him this email, with the subject line, “Thank you for your ministry”:
Dear Rev. Wright,
You won’t remember me, but I believe my wife Kerry and I were the last couple you married at Faith Presbyterian Church. The date was Nov. 14, 1992.
Many times over the years I have contemplated writing you. The main thing I have always wanted to say is we are still very happily married, and your ministry has made a big difference in our lives. Thank you!
Kerry (Haglund) was a member at Faith at the time of our wedding. I met you at a counseling session. That day, you asked Kerry to name something about me that she loved, and she said that I cooked breakfasts for her. You told me not to stop doing that once we were married! Great advice! You also described the possibility that marriage could be continually life-giving for the two of us – that we could really thrive together. This, you said, was your wish for us. I was 28 when we were married, I’m 50 now and more cognizant every day of the great gift of our union and the joy it continually brings to our lives.
I remember being nervous during the wedding rehearsal , asking you where I should stand, and your reminding me whose day it was. You said, “It doesn’t matter where you stand. It’s not about you!” Ha! Of course, you were right.
I did not know then that pastors also went to wedding receptions but there you were. I believe it was there that you suggested to me that we start our marriage off right by attending worship the next morning. We did, and I think you were quite astounded! I say that because at the end of the service, you asked us to stand with you in the Narthex and allow the congregation to congratulate us. As the last handshake was given, you leaned over and told me that you had always asked couples to start their marriage by coming to worship – but that we were the first ones to do it!
I remember those loving people filing by who so graciously grasped our hands, asking us about our plans for the future and wishing us well. You must have many wonderful memories of the significant times you spent in the lives of those folks.
Kerry had a UCC background when she first found Faith Presbyterian. I was a lapsed Baptist. When we moved to Amarillo shortly after our wedding, we looked for and found a PC(USA) church, St. Luke, which became our family. Eventually, we moved to Grapevine, where our faith was nurtured at First Presbyterian and continued to grow.
More than a few times, I have thought back about the day Kerry and I sat in your office and thought we had a chance to make it together. We now have a 14-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter to keep us on our toes, and we still grow closer as a couple and a family. Of course, we have had some difficult times along the way, but in the long view those times have been overwhelmed by joy.
You were my introduction to the Presbyterian Church. Several years ago, I began making my exit from my first career in journalism and entered the Presbyterian Studies Program at Brite Divinity School. Kerry and I both felt my calling, and it was confirmed by our faith community. So we moved forward together. I was ordained as a teaching elder in 2012 and called as the pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Waxahachie. Kerry, who had a very successful journalism career, is now a free-lance writer and a pastor’s wife.
In many ways, you started me on the road to returning to church, and ultimately to becoming a teaching elder. We are thankful to God for your ministry. As a pastor now myself, I realize that it is rare to get to hear about a positive impact made on a life. Your faithfulness has made a big difference to the two of us, and I thought it was time I told you so. Kerry and I hope and pray that your retirement years are blessed, filled with joyful moments.
Two days later, I heard from Keith:
You were very kind to send me this email and let me know that I played a significant part in your marriage to Kerry back in 1992. I am so glad to hear that you and Kerry are still happily married and the proud parents of two wonderful children. I am also pleased to hear that you not only made your way back to active membership in the church but that you became a pastor as well. That is great news!
My hope for you and Kerry is that you will steadily learn to love each other more and that you serve each other faithfully. I would warn you, Matt, that ministry can demand a lot of your time and energy and I hope that you will always conserve some of that time and energy for Kerry and your children. I would love to have a picture of your family if you could send one.
My wife, Mona, and I celebrated our 59th wedding anniversary on Jan. 21 of this year. Unfortunately, she has Alzheimer’s and is now living in an assisted living facility. I get to see her frequently but Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease that makes it difficult to remember the many events of the past. So, I would wish you not only a close relationship for many years but also good health. God bless you in the years to come.
I was struck with sadness over the illness of Keith’s wife. And I noted that he was still providing pastoral care to me, counseling me two decades later to keep paying attention to my wife and family and not to become overwhelmed by the demands of being a pastor. And he gave us a blessing for the future.
We were overjoyed to hear from you but saddened to hear about Mona’s Alzheimer’s, an illness that has also taken a toll in my family. You both are in our continued thoughts and prayers.
I deeply appreciate the wisdom of your advice concerning how the demands of ministry can affect my marriage and family life.
Here are two pictures: one with you, from our wedding album, and the other from our spring break vacation in Arkansas this last week.
Kerry is as beautiful as ever. You may or may not notice that my appearance has changed – a little.
Blessings to you and yours,
Keith wrote back:
Thanks for refreshing my memory by sending the pictures of yourself and Kerry and the children. I must say that the picture taken in Arkansas does reveal a considerable change in your appearance. Actually the preacher standing between you and Kerry does not have black hair anymore – he now has white hair. Guess we all change as time goes by.
This week, I enjoyed spending time with other pastors attending a conference at Mo Ranch. One evening, I was talking with our worship leader, Judy, and discovered that she was from Austin. I took the opportunity to ask if she knew Keith. She replied, “Yes, he was a friend of mine, do you know that he died a year ago?”
I did not know. Keith had died at the age of 83, about 10 months after I first wrote him, following a brief illness. Survivors include his beloved Mona and their children.
Judy enjoyed hearing the story of our showing up for church the day after our wedding, and she shared that Keith had continued to his dying day to be enthused and invigorated by ministry, taking up a new cause in advocating for the Charter for Compassion, encouraging people to work for a world where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. Judy said that while ministers are rarely able to be both priests AND prophets, Keith managed to do it.
The next day, as we finished our week of meetings and gathered for communion, Judy gave the message: a story of joy and uplift from a book written by Robert Fulghum. As we prepared to share the bread of life and the cup of salvation with one another, she turned to me and said the book from which she read had been a gift to her from Keith. He was ministering to me still.