Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.

So Great A Cloud of Witnesses

“Ultimately, one should not ask what the meaning of her life is, but rather must recognize that it is she who is asked. In a word, each person is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

— Viktor Frankl, 1905-1997, Austrian Psychologist and Holocaust Survivor, Inventor of Logotherapy

 

Fifteen years. That’s a long time to live anywhere, and long time to be pastor at one particular church. The longest I’d served a church before this was seven years. At that time, seven years was considered the right length for a pastorate—long enough to make an impact but too short to become stale and counterproductive. These days the experts are extolling “the long pastorate”—by which they mean fifteen to twenty years or even longer—because they say that in these changing times, stability in pastoral leadership can turn the tide that is washing so many other churches into oblivion. 

Of course, that in turn assumes good chemistry between a pastor and her congregation, which ought to alert us to the fact that it’s not just the pastor, it’s the congregation—its character, its shared sense of values, its love of one another and its positive relationship to the community where it lives—as well as relationship to pastor and staff—that make all the difference. In the final analysis, pastors and staff come and go, but what remains is the church—by which I mean not its building but the people who are formed and shaped, generation upon generation, by a congregation’s particular unique calling by God. Pastors and staff can shape those things, yes, but they are also shaped by them. 

For instance, when I arrived at St. Stephen some fifteen years ago, I soon began to say as part of my announcements, “St. Stephen is an intentionally inclusive community of believers. We welcome everyone who is seeking to know God through Jesus Christ.” I suppose some people thought that I made it up; that it was, as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew says, “extempore from my mother wit.” I wish I could take credit. But those words, “intentionally inclusive community of believers,” came directly from the mission statement that the congregation adopted in the mid-nineties, seven years or so before I arrived here. They were penned during a tough time in the history of the Presbyterian Church USA when an amendment adopted in 1996 confined ordination to those who lived “in fidelity to the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.” That rule exists no longer, but then it was the source of a lot of controversy.

Pioneering leaders of St. Stephen gently but firmly pushed back. The mood was set in the early nineties during the AIDS Crisis when an AIDS outreach was looking for an office here in the building and the session debated the pros and cons. What to do? 

Leaders like Walter Adams and Dick Spencer led the way. Elder Walter Adams had the final word: He said, “If we’re who we say we are, then we know what we have to do.” And the session voted to let them office here. 

If we’re who we say we are, we know what we have to do. It reminds me of something that psychologist and holocaust victim Viktor Frankl says in his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl wondered why some people survived in the concentration camps and others didn’t. He determined that it came down to believing in something, believing that life has meaning. If you believe life has meaning, you believe your life has meaning, he argued. “Ultimately, one should not ask what the meaning of her life is, but rather must recognize that it is she who is asked. In a word, each person is questioned by life; and she can only answer to life by answering for her own life; to life she can only respond by being responsible.”

Over the course of one hundred and thirty years, St. Stephen and its members have responded to God’s question, “What does this church mean?” by responsible and faithful discipleship, by a character shaped by the values of its members, but also by a character that has shaped the values of its members. There are a lot of key aspects of our character that we tend to associate with the Rev. R.W. Jablonowski—mission orientation, high worship, thoughtful and intelligent faith—but the truth is that those values long preceded Bill Jab. They were already well-established in St. Stephen’s predecessor church, Broadway Presbyterian, which was founded as a mission church to the Southside and was known for its strong worship and music program led then by the late, and much beloved, organist and choir director Elza Cook. The congregation already had all those values in 1950. Bill Jab figured out how to make them shine. 

What we call “intelligent faith”—or as some people like to say, “When you come to St. Stephen, you don’t need to check your brain at the door”—is built into St. Stephen’s DNA. People like Catherine Durway and Margaret Frazier—both of whom were members of St. Stephen while it was still Broadway Pres and even as they were pushing—or in Catherine’s case, well past—100 years old, were some of the most intelligent and intellectually curious folks I’ve ever met—would not have been happy if they were receiving mindless platitudes from the pulpit or in the Sunday School class. And can you imagine Dr. Bob Fry or sweet Margaret Mellott ever joining a church where questioning was eschewed, or literature was not truly appreciated?

St. Stephen could be viewed as a contradiction. On the one hand, there are few Presbyterian churches that are so magnificently beautiful as St. Stephen. There is a delicious irony to our sanctuary—the early church reformers, people like John Knox, detested stained glass windows and gold crosses and pageantry as idolatrous; but, well, here we are, with all these windows, including the window of the Great Reformers, which honors Calvin and Knox and all the others who’d as soon break a stained glass window as look at it. 

On the other hand, St. Stephen has always been a haven for iconoclasts.  One thing that has often intrigued me is that people who are edgy and like to challenge authority are often also the people who are most attracted to our style of worship. Look at Max Courtney, a forensic scientist who viewed it almost as his calling to present his objective research in a way that frustrated both prosecutors and defense lawyers. He loved and valued and also shaped St. Stephen’s worship. Or Dick Haller, who duct-taped the church together at the times when the money wasn’t coming to fix everything that’s broken, was also passionate about educating everyone about climate change, and he didn’t care whose toes he stepped on—in fact, I think he kind of liked it. And Ada Dickerson, who always lived her life joyously and on her own terms, started the first chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays—PFLAG—at Paschal, in the eighties during the height of the AIDS crisis.

Iconoclasts have been vital to shaping the identity of St. Stephen—people who didn’t hesitate to walk into the pastor’s office and say, something’s wrong and it needs to be fixed. Max was one of those, and so was Brad Davis, another sharp mind with a deep passion for worship. These were folks who knew that sometimes in order to fix something you have to break it first. These folks went out on a limb, often at risk of crossing the pastor or a significant subset of the congregation—because they believed they were right—and time has proven them right.

There was Carol Kelly, who during a time of pastoral crisis in the years following Bill Jab’s retirement placed her small frame firmly in the breach and said, “This needs to stop NOW.”  Her courage was not appreciated by everyone at the time, but what she did was right, and it had to be done. I think of Ray and Corbie Brown, whose passion for social justice ensured that Room in the Inn would become a central outreach in the life of the church. 

I think of old warriors who kept on being courageous for Christ and for the good of St. Stephen, even if it put them at odds with the world. I remember Kit Carson, a veteran of three wars who also piloted nuclear bombers at the height of the Cold War. He didn’t mind saying NO to Bill Jab when nobody else would; and I’ll never forget him, a 90-year old retired Air Force colonel, publicly standing up for LGBTQ inclusion in the face of a cold-hearted anti-gay theologian one-third his age. 

And I remember my dear friend Charles Garrett, another Air Force veteran, who had the most interesting conversion story I’ve ever heard. He was a wild and crazy young Texan, whose dad sent him into the army in hopes it would straighten him out. He ended up a pilot stationed in North Africa in the earliest days of WWII. He took off one day and got caught in a storm. With visibility low, he crashed into a mountain. His unit gave him up for dead; but the truth was that villagers had found him in the wreckage of his plane and nursed him to health. He was the guest of their leader and when he was well, he was returned to his base dressed in finery and with a royal entourage. You can imagine everyone’s shock. But for Charles, it was literally a “come to Jesus” experience. After that he stopped his wild ways and began to take his faith as a Christian seriously. 

He’d told me the story that way for years, but one day about a year before he died, Charles added a new insight. Attacks on American Muslims had been in the news and he was troubled. He said, “I recently realized something that I’d never thought about before. You know all those people who helped me when I was in North Africa? They were Muslims. They were Muslims.”

I’ve thought of Charles a lot the last few years. 

I think I know why iconoclasts are so attracted to the liturgical worship we so value here. Iconoclasts distrust simple explanations. They understand the world is complex. Our late Director of Music Mark Scott felt the same way. He despised the fundamentalism in which he was raised and as a result the thing he sought to convey in his worship leadership was mystery. Mystery that both honors the complexity of life and makes us one with that complexity; mystery that makes us aware there is something larger than ourselves, and then makes us part of that which is larger than ourselves. Mystery that makes us aware that our lives as individuals, and our life as a church, have a larger, eternal meaning, for which we are deeply grateful—and to which we are called to be responsible. 

There are so many more I could mention, and I hope you forgive me for all those I’ve missed. There are simply too many to name in a few minutes. These are the people the Letter to the Hebrews is talking about, people “who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight…” This is the great cloud of witnesses that have surrounded and shaped us, who continue to shape us, even as we, in turn, bring our own gifts and uniqueness as we build the St. Stephen of the present and future. They are the great cloud of witnesses who have shaped me, and to the extent I am a good pastor to St. Stephen, they are the ones who deserve the credit. And you. All of you. Thank you. 

In the church, the race isn’t a marathon. It’s a relay. These saints have handed off the baton to us, and it’s up to us to keep on running, and hand it off to generations still to come, who will face challenges and opportunities yet unseen. We have a long way to go before we reach the finish line. The pace they set for us put us way ahead but now we need to kick it into high gear to maneuver through the new obstacles, challenges and opportunities that lie ahead of us. We love and are shaped by those who preceded us, but we keep our eyes ahead, on Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith—the author and finisher of our lives—and the author and finisher of St. Stephen Presbyterian Church.

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