Hands of the Strong: Great and Small

Great and Small

Do you recall the moments when you unexpectedly encountered greatness?  Such times often arrive without forewarning; thereafter they are permanently imprinted in our memories.  On May 12, 2005 I had one such experience.  I was baccalaureate speaker at the University of Southern California.  This, in itself, was quite an honor for this Southern Indiana preacher!  Overly nervous, I arrived almost an hour early and thought I would find a place to sit quietly and review my talk.  I was ushered into the green room and took a seat. 

After a few minutes the university president Steven Sample entered with another person on the platform that day.  I recognized him even before the words were spoken: “Phil, I would like for you to meet Neil Armstrong.”  President Sample then excused himself and left us alone in the green room. Suddenly I was confronted with rare greatness. 

Sitting across from him on the sofa, I recalled that Mr. Armstrong had a reputation for modesty and didn’t seek celebrity.  Moments passed… it seemed like an hour.  Mr. Armstrong was comfortably quiet and me — well, I was tongue-tied, amazed, aware that this was a rare privilege.  I decided it best if I visited with him like he was just another fella from small town in the Midwest.

We had a marvelous conversation — about normal, everyday things — how the world had changed… his love of flying as a youth, attending Purdue… his having to break off from his masters degree course work at USC because he was called up to serve as an astronaut.  (USC awarded him his master’s degree on this day.  I remember thinking they should have made it a doctorate!)

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I was amazed that he seemed just as interested in my experiences.  We probably had twenty-five minutes together.  I spoke of being a pastor, teacher and time working in urban settings.  Near the end of the conversation he told me about one of his experiences on the moon.  He said it had been misunderstood.  As best I can remember he said, “Some people have misinterpreted an action while on the moon.  At one point I focused on that tiny, pretty blue pea that was the earth.  I stuck up my thumb and shut one eye.  Some thought this was an expression of our great achievement — making the earth so small — but I didn’t feel like a giant at all.  I felt very small and I realized there are dimensions of our universe that are beyond imagination.  There is beauty all around.”

On July 20, 1969, Elaine and I watched the moon landing, first steps and the planting of the flag from a living room in Tenafly, New Jersey.  We were in the home of Rev. Robert and Mrs. Katherine Kelly, a Presbyterian minister and spouse serving in Harlem.  I didn’t realize it at the time but as we watched Neil Armstrong on a fuzzy black and white television screen, we were seated with greatness.  The Kellys had given up opportunities to serve in more distinguished pulpits in order to serve folks in a rough NYC neighborhood. 

Sadly, I don’t have a photo of the Kellys to share — but they left an imprint on our hearts and lives that lasts to this day.  They would never be celebrities.  In the eyes of many their lives were not all that significant.  But I know better — I know that they contributed to healing and transformation in a tough neighborhood.  They too saw the beauty all around them and understood that the universe contains dimensions beyond our imagination.

Near the end of George Elliot’s novel Middlemarch, is a passage about Dorothea, a person who is not thought of as great.  It reads: “But the effect of her being, on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Neil Armstrong, the modest fella from a small town in Ohio understood.  Greatness is more… sometimes it is recognized, sometimes folks miss the point.  That point?  There is beauty all around.
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Hands of the Strong: Epiphany Day

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Snow on Snow

Snow came.  As it was supposed to come.  Today is Epiphany — Twelfth Night.  In Colonial Days this was the day of parties and celebration.  Christmas Day was more somber among the early settlers – a time to go to church and stay at home with the family.  Epiphany is when we remember the visit of the Magi, when we look to the light that is coming into our world — and share our joy in being able to share this LIGHT.

I can see the corn stalks from harvest from my window.  They rise tall above the white blanket.  They remind me of those young, frozen columns of French soldiers in the winter of 1812 on Napoleon’s futile march to Moscow.  Or, more positively and nearer home, I remember the rag tag collection of farmers and shop keepers, the Colonial Army who appeared to be in full retreat from the British.  Icy, freezing, apparently snowbound, they make that amazing push across the Delaware River and give the Hessians that “Christmas Surprise” in 1776, capturing Trenton.  It was a time of turning to a new reality.   

The bluebird house at the edge of the field stands empty, hungry for spring and new life.  In the wood beyond, a doe and her young find refuge.  I wonder.  What might they understand of the death of the father, that 14 point buck “harvested” along with the corn in November?  A trophy for a young neighbor.

Our lives follow patterns.  Harvest, snow, anticipation of spring.  Some of us head south.  Surprise in these routines is possible, precisely because we have certain expectations of the world.  Epiphany is a time when we are invited to exchange our lives of expectation for lives of expectancy.  This, for me, has become one of the great signs of a people of faith.  Do we believe change is possible?  Do we still have the capacity to be surprised?

I mentioned in an earlier post that two movies premiered this fall about the work of pastors: Calvary and The Overnighters.  There have been a number of movies in recent years about faith, God and the church.  The list includes: Heaven Can Wait, The Apostle, Sister Act, Oh God!, Bruce Almighty, The Preacher’s Wife, Higher Ground.

There are many more — some of these are silly and embody magical thinking more that any actual faith experience.  Some are more substantial demonstrating the complex realities of the life of faith — a life lived within the bounds of a paradigm while still remaining open to surprise.

Where can one explore the realities of parish life without resorting to magic or hero worship?  Where are the everyday foibles and hopes of a people of faith presented?  The movies Calvary and The Overnighters are a rare gift to us this year.  Real life here.  Calvary is a drama written and directed by John Michael McDonagh.  The role of Father James is played masterfully by Brendan Gleeson (who also provided an extraordinary performance this year in The Grand Seduction).  The Overnighters is a documentary and so is filled with the contradictions and challenges of real life.

I do not remember movies that capture parish ministry better than these.  (One exception to this that does come to mind is the wonderful BBC comedy Ballykissangel broadcast in the late 1990’s.  It exposed many of the dilemmas contemporary parish ministry — especially in a small Irish town.) 

I find myself wanting to sit down with lay people and/or young pastors or seminarians (or older pastors for that matter) and discuss the dimensions of community and life that are portrayed in Calvary and The Overnighters.  Perhaps this summer we will invite a few persons to the farm to watch these or other movies and spend time reflecting on Paradigms and Paradoxes.

Please don’t think I am in sympathy with the decisions made by either of the central characters.  They were flawed — as we all are.  And that is a part of the point I wish to make.  Within 15 minutes of the start of The Overnighters I was deeply troubled by Pastor Jay Reinke’s actions and theology.  More on that in future blogs.  For now, let me just say that if you want to be challenged to think about congregation, faith and God this winter, I highly recommend these two movies.

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The snow has now stopped and the sun is shining.  The roads have been plowed.  Our neighbor Greg has cleared the long drive way and I have powered up that new snow blower to clear the walks and the path to the barn.  Time to get in the car and drive SOUTH!

Elaine and I are off on what we are calling our Winter of 2015 Southern Tour!   Georgia, Texas and Arizona await.  Along the route we will be visiting the Presidential Libraries of six former presidents.  Next posting?  Somewhere warmer!

Happy Epiphany

Phil Amerson 1/6/2015

HANDS OF THE STRONG

Paradigms and Paradoxes

2015 arrived in Northern Indiana filled with wonder.  Astonishingly, no snow can be seen in the field outside my window.  Strange and wondrous.  We who live in and around Chicago saw December 2014 come and go with no measurable snowfall.  “First time since 1912” we are told.  It shatters expectations.  As much as many wanted a white Christmas, this anomaly was just fine with me.

If you live in a place like La Porte county Indiana, you expect snow – and lots of it by now.  We “enjoy” that lake effect snow and perhaps rival Buffalo in our expectation that each year we will see whiteness in abundance by now.  “December” and “snow” fit together for us on any analogy test.  None came in December 2014.  Maybe it is climate change.  Maybe sheer luck.  Maybe it was that new snow blower I purchased.  What has held back the “gifts” of winter?  Maybe a new snow blower is like carrying an umbrella when rain is in the forecast. I know it is superstitious and I can’t afford to buy a new snow blower every year!  Fortunately, I like winter.

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A month from now this will all have changed.  We will again experience (and, yes, enjoy) the haunting beauty of winter days.  We will again live with “what we have come to expect as normal.”  So, snow will arrive.  In fact, it may make its entrance tomorrow — if the weather channel is to be believed.  For now, however, it is a welcome break with the expected.  It is not Arizona or Florida weather but it is a nice surprise.  (Although some of us are already worried about what this may mean for the water level of Lake Michigan.  Last winter’s heavy snows and ice coverage turned around a decade long drop in the lake threatening the operation of many harbors.)

Snow, or the lack of it, in our neck-of-the-woods is a nice symbolic image for this entry on Paradigms and Paradoxes.  Over my years as pastor, teacher, administrator and student I came to value these two elements of analysis — paradigms and paradoxes.  They inform little thought experiments; more importantly, they help me as I seek to live faithfully as a Christian.  They assist as I seek understanding of others and, hopefully, how to better understand myself.

More to come.  For now let me suggest a framework (paradigm) is related to assumed structure we bring to the world – like snow in La Porte County in December.  Some theologians speak of a master narrative or meta-narrative that serves as a scaffolding or primary storyline behind a person’s thought and action.  It is variously referred to by scholars as paradigm, gestalt, template or matrix.  Most recently Nancy Ammerman identifies the resilience and dimensionality of frameworks or paradigms in her fine work Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes, Finding Religion in Everyday Life. 

The other element?  Paradox?  It is Parker Palmer who first opened my thinking to the power of contradiction or, better, paradox.  An early and little known work by Parker The Promise of Paradox.  It proved to be critical to my own faith and work in ministry.  Like Jonah in the belly of a whale, Palmer draws on the work of Thomas Merton to write about the value of facing alternative, even oppositional views of life and work.

Paradox assumes the power of paradigms — like the paradox of no snow in December.  Paradigms may be challenged and made pliable (more human and humane).  This is often referred to as a “paradigm shift.”   Such a transition incorporates contradictions or conundrums and may lead to more textured and richer insights into our world.  All of this leads to my an ongoing interest in and value placed on transformation and conversion.

Okay.  A pretty cerebral start, I know.  Stick with me, we are going to have fun here.  There will be silliness and lots of whimsy.  And there will be seriousness — especially in thinking about society, politics, the church and ministry.

Oh yes, about the title of this blog Hands of the Strong.  It is something I learned from a mentor years ago, Robert K. Greenleaf when he spoke of the core value of “strengthening the hands of the strong.”  What he meant by this was both paradoxical and paradigmatic. 

Coming up soon will be reflections on ministry derived from two movies in 2014.  Each provides remarkable fodder for insights on being a pastor or a lay person engaged in congregational ministry.  The first, Calvary, tells the story of an Irish Catholic priest, Father James (Brenden Gleeson), as he faces the challenges of parish life and of his own past personal demons.  The second is the documentary film The Overnighters about a Lutheran pastor (Jay Reinke) who seeks to provide shelter for homeless folks drawn to North Dakota to find work in the booming oil industry.   Both movies are filled with ample material for reflection on the frameworks and paradoxes that shape life and ministry in our time.

Stay tuned…