On Sunday, April 14, 1996 my family and I were preparing to leave the mountain house in Little Switzerland, NC. After spending the weekend in that no-frills and beloved summer retreat built by my paternal grandparents in the late 1960’s, we cleaned the kitchen and the bathrooms. We swept and mopped the floors, tidied books and maps on the coffee table, and secured things like paper towels, toilet paper, and soap so the evidently fastidious mice wouldn’t get at them. We packed our little blue Toyota Corolla station wagon with all our luggage and still had room for Biscuit, our golden retriever. (I don’t remember how we managed that.)
Biscuit needed a walk before we made the 4-hour drive, so did our six- and four-year-old children. Marianne took all three of them and began to walk down the mountain road while I took care of the last few details and locked up. When all that remained was to close the door behind me, I sat down for a moment—in a familiar chair in that familiar house and thought about the fact that the next day I would be in a very unfamiliar chair in a very unfamiliar situation. I had a theological degree, but two months of supervised ministry was the extent of my pastoral experience. As I sat there, reality began to overwhelm me. I wept and prayed something like God, help me, for I know not what I do.
After that tearful prayer, it was time to go home.
Home. Physically speaking, home was a place we’d lived for less than a week before those two nights in the mountains. It was the manse of Cross Roads Presbyterian Church in Mebane, NC. (Pronounced meh´-bin). The next day, Monday, April 15, would be my very first day on the job as a pastor. So, home included my brand-new vocation.
That Sunday in April, twenty-four years ago, was the last day of the life I had known for 33 years. I had always been a Christian. From April 15 on, though, I would be The Reverend, or Preacher, or Pastor Allen. (That’s my preference if someone can’t just call me ‘Allen.’) While I would still be the same person in most ways, I would never be the same. For better and for worse, I was about to enter a new way of being in the world. And it terrified me.
Facing change, transformation, and virtually any other new circumstance or reality can upset and stress us. In and of itself, that’s not a weakness or a flaw. It’s just part of being human. However, when we resist it by violently projecting our fear and anxiety onto others, or by trying to force our way back to a past that feels comfortable and familiar, we can damage ourselves and others. We may also—and we almost certainly will—miss out on new things that God is doing in our lives or empowering us to do. That is where our human weaknesses and flaws tend to take over and derail us.
Maybe that’s why Peter “wept bitterly” after hearing that blasted rooster crow. He wept not only because he denied Jesus, but because he knew that he would not deny him again, and that following a crucified Messiah would mean living a very different life than he expected. And it terrified him. For that matter, Jesus himself wept by Lazarus’ tomb knowing that if he raised a man from death, the Powers-That-Be would decide that they had no choice but to kill him. Neither the Pharisees nor Caesar could compete with that kind of authority. To raise Lazarus was, even for Jesus, to choose a new life and new future.
It’s been just over 24 years since that April Sunday at the mountain house. And in that time, I have handled many changes, both professional and personal, more like denials than invitations from God. If given the chance, I hope that I would approach them quite differently now. To the extent that I have learned from my mistakes and errors, though, those mistakes have not been in vain. That’s what redemption is all about.
Isolation, online worship, and meetings by Zoom are both new and transformational for us. Many of us are grieving, and I’m right there with you. We’re also learning and growing. We’re learning that the world is a much smaller place than the “big ol’ world” of which we often speak. The earth is truly a neighborhood, and we’re far closer and more intimately connected to people on the other side of the planet than we ever thought possible. That’s a challenging lesson. We are one humanity, one Creation, and all of us beloved by God. Individuality is necessary and good. Individualism is another story. Behind the radical selfishness of individualism lie things like “invisible hand” theories which encourage everyone to seek their own self-interest. Societies based on selfishness don’t survive things like pandemics, though. They only fuel the contagion with fear.
Followers of Jesus are called to something new, something bigger, something greater, more gracious, and more just. We are called to proclaim and inhabit the kingdom of God in which we make decisions based on love, mercy, and the well-being of all people and all things, because (and I know this sounds cliché) we really are All in This Together.
Weep, Give Thanks, Live in Prayerful Hope,