The Days After

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I was not raised to be a rebel.  In my family, I tended to be shoved into the role of peacemaker.  If someone was angry, I felt it was my job to appease them.  If people in the family were fighting, I needed to get them to love each other again.  When my parents would fight or when my brothers fought with my parents,  I got bad stomachaches.

It’s hard to completely shed those experiences.

After I got back to Aurora in the aftermath of Jimmy’s first church trial, I braced myself.  Mary had warned me that people were very, very angry.  They were also confused as to how I came to be a part of it.  I spent most of my office hours that following week explaining the way it was set up, how the jury pool was appointed, and the secrecy that was demanded of us all.  The rest of the time I spent listening to people rant and rave about the lunacy of Jimmy’s acquittal, and how they didn’t want to be a part of a denomination that didn’t punish “wrongdoers.”

Tom was more than happy to step aside and let the flow of angry people find their way into my office.

Many people told me they were leaving.  There were a plethora of more conservative churches in town for them to go to, and I didn’t have the energy or even the desire to beg them to stay.  I tried to explain to them that really the trial didn’t change anything.  The Discipline still forbade pastors to perform same-sex blessings.  But people had the idea that now the Conference was going to bring in busloads of homosexuals into the church for us to bless.  That they as congregations would be “forced” to accept the unions of gays.  Or that the Conference was going to “force” pastors to bless gay couples.  I tried to explain that it meant no such thing.

The others on the jury went home to the same fury, but their congregations wanted to know how they voted.  I didn’t blame them either way for not sharing their vote, but that refusal also intensified people’s anger.  It stopped everything.  It was the main thing on everybody’s mind.  It was everything they talked about.  It was hard to imagine that the rest of the world was still going about its business as usual.

The question that remained in a lot of peoples’ minds was, “Does the Discipline have no authority then?”  That actually was a huge fear, I think, of the administrative parts of the Conference.  They didn’t want to lose any authority.  If Jimmy was acquitted after admitting he did the thing he was forbidden by the Discipline to do, then why should anyone give authority to any of the rest of the book?  This was dangerous territory, as the Discipline has guidelines for all aspects of the Church and denomination and how it was to be run, how pastors were supposed to be in ministry and parts of it contained the covenantal promises we made at ordination.  Was it all null and void now?

At the time I was angry at Jimmy.  I supported the fact that as a pastor he felt called to minister to his congregants and bless their union.  I supported that.  I supported him standing up for what he believed was right and good.  What I was angry about was that he denied they were even lesbians– after he’d called the paper to alert them to what he was doing.  He seemed offended that he would face any consequences at all.  By comparing himself to Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. I would have thought he’d be willing to face the consequences of breaking the “rules” of the United Methodist Discipline.  Certainly MLK Jr. didn’t say, “you can’t arrest me!”

I was also angry that nothing else could get done.  The Church was paralyzed by this.  Pastors facing moves that spring had to face Staff-Parish Relations Committees who didn’t want to get to know them, didn’t ask them what their hopes and goals for ministry were among their new congregations, they had one question that burned on their minds.  Do you support Jimmy?  Do you support homosexuals?  

Larry’s senior pastor Ben called together some people at his church soon after the trial, to give them a place to vent.  Larry felt he had to go as the associate pastor, so I went with him.  People were yelling at each other, interrupting each other, and finally, one pastor who was a friend of Ben’s got up, threw his fist in the air and said, “I think we need to LYNCH Jimmy!”  Several people yelled out in agreement.

Larry and I were appalled and quickly found the back door.  I was horrified at the level of anger in that room, the level of hate that was being stoked and encouraged.

I got very depressed in the weeks and months after the trial.  I didn’t feel like there were a lot of colleagues that I could trust to have a reasonable discussion.  Longtime friends became estranged, father and son pastors, brother and brother pastors– many relationships were broken in the furor.  Families were split on the issue–and it affected family gatherings, we heard.  It was like a precursor to the 2016 election.

It was the only time I knew Tom to willingly take a back seat and let me drive.  Sometimes I actually thought he was enjoying watching me take so much heat just for being a part of the trial.

Not long after the trial, Larry, Sarah Gene and I had the gift of grace to be invited to Gene Lowry’s retirement celebration in Kansas City.  In fact, I was asked to be one of the three speakers at the worship service part of the celebration.  It was no secret among anyone who knew him that I had transferred to St. Paul specifically because of Gene.

I was absolutely terrified.  I was very worn down by the whole trial and aftermath, but in addition to that, people were coming from all over the country to celebrate Gene and I was so scared.  Kresge Chapel was packed on campus that day.  Thankfully, I found my place up front in the chapel, right next to Tex Sample.  He had a way of instantly putting me at ease.

“Hey, you doin’ alright?” He said, leaning in.  He knew I’d been on the jury and this was the first chance we had to talk.  We talked a bit about it, and he was very kind as always, and supportive.

Gene had always given me a hard time about using a manuscript when I preached, and pressured me a lot to get away from using it.  If I wasn’t nervous enough about the whole thing, I did decide not to use notes for that day.  I just had one small card with a few phrases to jog my memory.

That pulpit at St. Paul’s seemed very high that day.  My legs could hardly balance me I was so nervous.

But as I started to speak, people were engaged and when they burst out laughing, I was caught off guard.  What I said was amusing, thankfully, but I didn’t expect that response!  Immediately I gained confidence and spoke from the heart about the influence of this man on my ministry, yes, but more so on my life.  By the end, I must say I was heartened to see that Gene’s eyes were red and teary.

I slid into the pew next to Tex and let out a deep breath.  He bumped me with his shoulder and winked at me.  “You did real good.”

There was a party that night at Gene and Sarah’s house.  I’d purposely gotten a T-shirt made for Sarah Gene with her name on it for that occasion.  She was just four years old and wandered through the rooms as if this was her home.  People there were also talking about the trial, but I tried to steer away from those conversations.

While I was sitting with Larry in the living room, someone called for Gene to play the piano.  He sat down and played some of his jazz pieces, and then a very large and tall man with shockingly white hair approached the piano.  He had a deep, booming voice.  He requested a hymn, and as Gene obliged, this man started singing the first verse of “Amazing Grace.”  I instinctively moved toward the piano to be a part of this, and as he finished the first verse, this stranger looked at me and gestured to me to sing the next verse.

I did.

I belted it out.  I put heart and soul into it.  And it was all I could do not to break down and weep with a sense of gratitude and joy.  I was singing with Gene playing the piano.  It just seemed so familiar, so intimate.  He was no longer my professor.  I sensed then that now we were friends.  If I’d known how deep and how long that friendship would continue over the next couple of decades, I really would have wept.

As I finished my verse, Gene looked up at me and grinned.  I think he knew.

Tex came up to me later before he left the party and gave me a hug.  “I don’t know if he’ll say it, but I wanted to let you know that it meant a lot to Gene for you to be here.”

Grace.

Most everybody else had left when it was just me, Larry, Sarah Gene, Sarah L., Gene and this stranger with the floor-shaking bass voice.  His name was Judd.

“I absolutely LOVED your words today,” he said to me in that deep, authoritative voice.

I grinned.  “Thank you!”

He laughed heartily.  “When you said that the first time you heard Gene preach you wanted to throw up….!  That was priceless.”

I might have blushed.

“Was the letter really 10 pages single spaced?” he asked.

I laughed.  “Oh yeah, I reduced the font, too…”

Gene caught my eye.  “I still have that letter.”  He smiled.

I know I blushed.

“Hey listen,” Judd said. “I’m the pastor of a church in Arizona, just outside of Phoenix.  We need someone to lead a new Gen-X ministry.  Would you be interested in coming to interview for that?”

I laughed.  Yeah.  Right.  I shrugged.

“Here, let me get your number.  I’ll give you a call in a few days and we can set up a time for you to come down.  I think you’d be great!”

A couple of weeks later Larry and I flew down to Phoenix, Arizona.  We’d talked and talked and talked about the implications of me getting this job.  I’d have had to give up my ordination in the UMC and have it recognized by the UCC down there.  We’d have to buy a house, which, financially, we were unprepared to do.  Larry would have to apply to the UMC conference down there, which was known to be full.  There was a lot going against it, but the idea of being invited was overwhelming.

For three days we were literally wined and dined in Phoenix.  We stayed at a country club across from Judd’s church that was luxurious.  Judd drove us around town in his convertible and showed us the sights.  The interview itself was easy but disappointing.  The salary offered would in no way be enough for me to move and be able to get a house.  When they realized the salary and benefit package we had as UMs, they realized they couldn’t match it.  We had too many school debts as well.  It was not to be.

In the end, it was fine.  I didn’t feel like it was within my gifts to be charismatic leader in developing a ministry for young adults.  Also, in talking with Gene, Judd might have been a bit domineering.  He loved Judd, but Gene wasn’t convinced it would be a healthy match.

In the end, we enjoyed our three days in Phoenix and I enjoyed being wanted and appreciated for my gifts.  The experience clinched the idea, though, that our experiences in Nebraska had worn us down and we felt more than a little broken by all the chaos of the battle since the trial.

We decided we’d spend the coming year looking to move back East.  To go home.

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