Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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We Would See Jesus
The pulpit in the First Congregational Church of Burlington, Vermont has an inscription on the back, facing the preacher: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” It is a reminder, as if from the congregation, of what the church ought to be about – seeking and sharing the person and the ministry of Jesus in an often harsh and lonely world.
It’s easy for a busy minister, or a seminary teacher/administrator for that matter, to forget this. By mid-September the church school should be up and running, though there are still holes to fill in the nursery and one of the teachers just learned his wife is being transferred to another city. The budget was a struggle this year, but manageable, but now it’s time to crank up the fall stewardship campaign and the chair of the committee is proving to be difficult to pin down for meeting dates. Meanwhile, at the Seminary classes are off and running in fine form but each day brings an irritating detail related to the new building – problems with the tent, a donor plaque needing to be finalized, challenges navigating the online ticket purchases, proofing the program booklet, etc. None of this is terribly earth shattering, but the cumulative effect is, at the very least, distracting. Advent beckons with its familiar routine and rhythms that make most parishioners forget the organizational weight clergy carry around.
Then something happens which renders much of the worries and anxieties of institutional leadership insignificant. On Monday, the recently retired pastor of that Burlington, Vermont church came in from yard work, sat down, and died. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. Shockingly. His death leaves behind his wife, children, grandchildren, and countless friends. Former parishioners in Chicago, Long Island, and Vermont are remembering his pastoral gifts and prophetic courage. Those of us who worked with him during his years on the Executive Council in Cleveland remember a wise and thoughtful leader who could be blunt about the absurdities of some aspects of UCC life.
A thirty year friendship with the Southern Asia executive of the UCC’s and Disciples’ global mission work led to a deep commitment to a Christian hospital in southern India. Following the tsunami, Bob raised over $20,000 from Burlington residents to help the relief effort. After he learned that the U.S. dollars he delivered to the hospital couldn’t easily be converted to Indian money without causing local anxieties, I had the task of carrying it home with two colleagues on a trip a few weeks later. Imagine how much fun we had with wads of hundred and fifty dollar bills in our pockets for two weeks in India!
Aside from his annoying devotion to the New York Yankees, Bob was a wonderful guy. He and Donna welcomed me into their home. He was a source of constant encouragement during my years as General Minister and President. This summer, when he and Donna were in Chicago, he took us out to dinner, in part a normal thing friends do, in part a deeply appreciated and no doubt very intentional message that, after the personal challenges of the past months, he wanted to celebrate my new life. That wonderful evening is now a very poignant memory of a gift from a friend who in so many unique ways helped us all see Jesus.
Terrible things like Bob’s death happen all the time in the daily round of ministry. But they still catch us up short in days that tend to be filled with the minutiae of keeping organizations running smoothly or, at least, surviving. The details still need tending, of course. But we are reminded that they are, or should be, in the service of something larger. Today I’ll be talking to the tent contractor to figure out how to reconfigure the dedication service tent around newly installed lamp posts in the parking lot that weren’t noticed on drawings some months ago. Thousands of pastors will be doing similarly mind numbing tasks. But I’ll also be thinking about the Sunday a few years ago when Bob invited me to preach in Burlington and I was confronted with his congregation’s admonition: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” That, and the awful dilemma of whether, as a tribute to my friend, I’ll have to root for the hated Yankees in the World Series this year.
John H. Thomas