As part of the process of a minister separating from a congregation, our denomination has instituted “exit interviews”, whereby the minister (and separately, the governing board of the congregation) get to sit down with our District Executive and discuss how things have gone during the ministry that is drawing to a close—major accomplishments, whatever challenges there were, lessons learned, pitfalls or ruts that might have been avoided.
Even though this was something new to me (we didn’t have “exit interviews” twenty years ago when I left Rockland, Maine to come here to Stoughton), I think it’s a useful process. The ancient Greeks used to say that the unexamined life wasn’t worth living, and I suppose the same is true for the unexamined ministry. It’s always good to pause, take a breath, consider where one has been, and where one might be headed.
So it was that on Monday afternoon of this week, our District Executive, Bill Zelazny, came here to Stoughton, and we sat in the church parlor and chatted for about an hour and a half about the past twenty years (actually, nineteen years and ten months) here in Stoughton. (The Board of Trustees would have their chance to meet with Rev. Zelazny later that evening.) As I said, I think it was a helpful process.
Bill had sent me a series of questions (over 20 of them, I think), so I’d had my chance to formulate my answers ahead of time, and submit them in writing, and we then went over them. One of the questions in particular, I thought, was quite interesting, and I have been pondering it since. “Imagine this time you served this congregation as a play or a movie,” the question read. “What was the story?” If this had been a movie we were in over the past two decades, what movie would it be?
Hmm… The card file in my head got to rolling, and I started to think of some of the movies I had seen down through the years. That was too many to process, so to narrow it down, my mind jumped to this past February, when Elizabeth and I went to the second week of the “2013 Best Picture Showcase” at the Lowe’s AMC Theater on the Boston Common and saw five—count ‘em five!— Oscar-nominated films at one sitting (and it was a blast, by the way). So I went through those five films in my mind, to see if any of them fit:
Beasts of the Southern Wild was about Hurricane Katrina and Life of Pi was about a shipwreck. It hasn’t been that bad.
Silver Linings Playbook was about bi-polar illness, promiscuous sex, and ballroom dancing. None of those metaphors seemed especially apt.
Zero Dark Thirty was about the capture (and execution) of Osama Bin Laden. No, Kids Cook was pretty exciting but it never got quite that dangerous. (Almost as loud, but not as dangerous.)
That left Lincoln. Now, I think I have a pretty healthy ego; I really do. But Lincoln-esque? I don’t think so. And happily, we have pretty much avoided those “civil wars” to which some churches seem prone. We have been very fortunate in that regard.
None of those films fit. So I just wrote that the main plot line of our ministry together would involve a group of people endeavoring to care for one another to the best of their abilities, and succeeding pretty well in fostering the day in/ day out ties that bind us to one another.
Nothing too dramatic there. But a true statement, and right from the heart.
Then, after Bill left, I remembered the movie Babette’s Feast.
Babette’s Feast was a 1987 Danish film (“Uh-oh,” some of you are now saying, “a weird European flick. Figures.”). It was based on a novel by the Danish writer Isak Dineson, who also wrote Out of Africa.
The story is set is the 1880s, and Babette, a woman approaching middle age, was once a renowned chef in Paris, something very unusual for a woman in that time. But in 1871, both her son and husband die tragically in the civil war that was then raging in France. She flees her war-torn city and seeks refuge with two kindly old sisters in a small, isolated Norwegian village. The sisters are poor, but deeply religious, and they are trying with all their might to maintain the small religious community which their father, a brilliant minister, has established years before, but which is now in danger of dying out.
Several years after arriving in the village, Babette wins 10,000 francs in the French lottery—an amazing amount of money at the time—and asks the sisters for permission to prepare a special dinner for their small community, to mark the 100th anniversary of their father’s birth. With some hesitation and with deeply mixed feelings, the sisters agree. The other members of the village aren’t sure the great banquet is a good idea either. They wonder if all this fine food and wine, all this feasting, all these earthly delights, won’t draw them away from their deeper, spiritual calling.
But out of politeness to Babette, and out of deference to the honor of their founder, they all, somewhat reluctantly, decide to go to the feast. And they are transformed by the experience.
Not so much by the food and drink—which was sumptuous and abundant. They are transformed by the grace of sharing this magnificent meal together. The members of the community discover the power of reconciliation and the love and hope that had brought them together in the first place.
All because they had shared a feast together—a feast not so much of food, really, but of love.
At the heart of my vision of ministry, especially here in Stoughton for these past twenty years, has been my desire to feed and to nourish, body and mind and soul alike. In so far as I have succeeded, I owe it all to you, my faithful friends around the table. You have inspired me and uplifted me and have taught me so much more about human decency and courage and hard work than I could ever offer to you.
Maybe it hasn’t been a movie, this life we have shared together for the past twenty years. Maybe it’s been a song. A song that can still echo in our hearts, and can still sing in our ears, even when we have gone our separate ways.
I’m no expert on movies (which doesn’t stop me from enjoying them, and talking about them; not being an expert about something has never stopped me from talking about it.) But I suppose that, according to National Public Radio at least, and the Bio Channel, and various “Classic Rock” radio outlets around America, I do (somehow) rank as an expert on music—or, at least, the music of one contemporary artist in particular.
So, when I had finished cogitating on which movie best represented our ministry together, my mind (such as it is) turned to the question of “Which song”, or more particularly, “Which Springsteen song?” best sums up who and where we have been over the past two decades, and where we may be going.
A different set of file cards started flashing through my mind—a BIG set of all 269 songs recorded by Bruce in a career stretching back to when I was in high school (which gets to be a longer and longer time ago, even as we speak). My mind raced through “Lost in the Flood” and “Born to Run”, right up to more recent fare like “The Rising” or “Working on a Dream”. Some fit; some didn’t (“Cadillac Ranch”? Not around here.) And it always came back to “Thunder Road”.
Because “Thunder Road” has always been a song about change, about graduation, about moving from one stage of our lives to the next. Which is, when you boil it down, what life is all about.
Often, it is at those times of great transition that we might well feel most unsure of ourselves, uncertain that we have made the right choice. But once we are truly committed to change, deeply committed, then darkness breaks and morning with its immense possibilities finally arrives. Then the river of life delights to lift us free, if we but dare let go.
This is our story; this is our song. The story of decent men and women who have done their best over these twenty years to tend to the ties that bind past, present, and future generations (as only churches can) in a living garment of caring and love. Who have dared to offer this old world a youthful song of acceptance and affirmation and hope and courage.
It has been an honor for me to sit at this table with you over these years. It has been a joy, as well.
You have been so kind to me and to my family, and for this Elizabeth and I are so deeply grateful. You have worked so hard to keep this church going, and when I think back at those others who worked so hard, who are no longer among us, then my heart surges when I consider what a privilege it has been to have been your minister.
Beethoven once said that “Only the pure in heart can make a good soup.”
I don’t know how “pure” any of us are. But the soup has been good. And nourishing. And may we pray it will sustain us well for the next stage of the journeys that are ours to make.
Godspeed on your journey. God bless you all. Amen.