In the past six years I have made periodic (a couple of times a year) contributions to the Religion Page of the local Helena, MT newspaper (the Helena Independent Record). This was my contribution for Saturday, June 26, 2021 – the day prior to my final sermon at Plymouth UCC before retiring.
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This will be my final contribution to this column. Effective July 1st I will be retiring after 40 years of pastoral ministry. As you might imagine, this experience has put me in a reflective mood. I find myself looking back not just over the last six years at Plymouth in Helena, but also over the last 40 years in nine different congregations spread across four states and two denominations. I’ve preached more than 1,600 sermons, officiated at countless weddings and funerals, attended more board and committee meetings than I care to think about, participated in more than 30 church camps, and led a whole lot of Bible studies and book discussion groups. And through all of that, what stands out the most for me are the people. A career in ministry has gifted me with the remarkable privilege of sharing in people’s lives in profoundly deep and intimate ways. I have sat with people in the hospital as they were dying, and witnessed overwhelming love radiating from the faces of couples who were committing themselves to marriage. I’ve been the person a family called when tragedy struck, and held babies as I introduced them to their new congregation. In the highs and the lows, the extraordinary and the mundane, I have experienced Sacred Presence shining through the lives of the people with whom I’ve had the privilege of sharing life. To be received with such openness and trust is a blessing for which I may never find words to adequately express my gratitude. The writer of the book of Hebrews used the phrase “so great a cloud of witnesses” and that is something like how I would describe the very long parade of people who have loved me and supported me and believed in me and trusted me down through the years in ways that shaped me and encouraged me to become more fully myself. I hope that I managed to touch their lives in some meaningful way, but I know that they touched mine.
This experience of sharing life with others in deep and profound ways is not limited to those of us who have been privileged to work as religious professionals. If you are a human being alive in this world then you are sharing life with other people. You have the potential to make a positive contribution in someone else’s life, and you have the opportunity to be positively impacted by those around you. It doesn’t matter who you are, how easy or challenging your life has been, or how much (or little) you believe in yourself. If you still have breath in your body then there is still time to experience the sacred gift of connection. Richard Bach put it this way in his book “Illusions,” – “Here’s a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t.”
As I stand at the edge of this transition point in my life, looking back over 40 years of ministry and looking ahead to the new chapter which is about to open up, I invite you to do some reflecting of your own. What has led you to this moment in your life? Where have you experienced Sacred Presence (by whatever name you might choose to call such an experience)? Who has touched your life in ways that shaped you? Whose life have you touched? And then, I would invite you to remember that no matter what such reflections reveal, you are not done yet. The rest of your story has not yet been written, and you are holding the pen with which to compose what happens next.
In these final days of my life as a pastor, as I prepare to step into the next adventure, I am filled with gratitude for all those who have shared themselves with me and allowed me to share myself with them. As I take my leave of the good people at Plymouth Congregational Church, and all of you here in Montana, I invite each of you to step forth into your own next adventure, surrounded by the awareness that whatever comes next you are never alone. God (Sacred Presence, Higher Power, the Universe, Great Mystery, Spirit, whatever names or descriptions you care to use) is always with you, and it is always possible to connect with the people with whom you share life. Vaya con Dios – Go with God!