Moving Forward

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This past Saturday morning, the bridge crossing over the Monongahela River in Masontown, Pennsylvania, my hometown, was imploded. A new four-lane bridge, half of which is complete and which is already carrying traffic across the river, is in the process of replacing it. The old bridge dated to the 1920s, and was always a part of my experience of living in, and after moving away, returning to, Masontown. After the drive in from Columbus, I always knew when I came around the bend in the road and the bridge came into sight that the trip was just minutes from being over; the familiar ka-chunk………ka-chunk………kachunk……… of driving over the expansion joints on the bridge assuring me that I’d arrived “home.”

I couldn’t go back to watch the implosion, and I was lurking online Saturday morning, waiting for the first videos to pop up on Facebook, youTube, and the local news outlets. If, like me, you’re into demolition porn, you can see what I think are the two best clips of it here and here.

The old bridge was narrow and rickety and long past its prime. The new one is going to be much nicer from a driving standpoint, even if visually unremarkable – it will never be the kind of local landmark that the old one was. And it will be a nice feeling as I drive over the new one to know that my Dad is actually helping to build it. Still, its demolition comes with mixed emotions. As a kid, the bridge was just always a part of my life. You couldn’t think of Masontown without simultaneously thinking about the bridge. From my home, I’d hike to the bridge. I walked across it, hung out underneath it. As a teenager, it was part of the route that I’d take as a student driver, driving my grandfather to Chessie’s Fruit Market, and then taking the long way home through Greene County, back over the bridge in Point Marion, and back to Masontown, just for the driving experience. Those times driving with him are some of my favorite memories, and I thought of those drives, and him, every time I crossed that bridge. When our girls were little and we’d make family trips back to¬† Masontown, they’d always want to know when we were getting close to “the Green Bridge,” partly because they were always a little creeped out by crossing over it, and also because they knew that grandparents were just moments away. So while the new bridge leads into the future, there’s no question that there was also a real sense of loss when the old one dropped into the river below.

Just less than 24 hours after it did, I opened the last worship service as pastor of the Frankfort Presbyterian Church. I was there for just over six years. I entered the ministry in a somewhat unorthodox (you might even say ass-backwards) way – first studying and becoming a non-ordained, half-time “Commissioned Lay Pastor;” and then, beginning seminary and the full-bore ordination process – which, if you aren’t familiar with the Presbyterian Church, is extremely rigorous. I completed those ordination requirements as of last January and have been actively, aggressively, seeking a full-time ordained call since just before then. So my departure in one way or another from Frankfort was, at least in Presbyterian-relative terms, imminent, and no surprise. Not just imminent, but a positive development. Still, just as with the demolished bridge, my departure comes with a lot of sadness. Yesterday’s service was deeply moving to me. I’m amazed I got through the day without crying; I only came close once. It was an interesting service. Beyond the basics, it included a regularly-scheduled “Service of Healing and Wholeness” – don’t get the wrong idea here; I’m not talking about televangelist-type theatrics, just a time for people who feel in particular spiritual need of prayer come forward to receive it. It means a lot to the members who come forward, and especially yesterday, it meant a lot to me as I called each one by name, anointing them with oil and praying for them one by one, knowing that this would likely be my last contact with them. And, after anointing and praying with the last person, handing her the oil and kneeling down in front of her, having her do the same for me was deeply moving. The service also included a “Litany of Farewell,” providing a form of closure for our pastoral relationship in which we officially recognize the end of our covenant together. We thanked each other for the love and care we showed each other throughout the mutual journey. We also asked each other’s forgiveness for the times we didn’t live up to the other’s expectations, and we granted that forgiveness to each other in return.

After the service, I was so moved by the outpouring of love and support that the congregation offered me; the long line of people waiting patiently to shake my hand, offer a hug and a tear and a kind word. Saying goodbye to each of these people, who have meant so much to me was extremely hard. We’ve been through a lot together; more than I could or would detail here. And just as much as those memories of driving my grandfather to the fruit market will always be a part of me long after the old bridge is gone, these wonderful people are going to remain a part of me for a long time after I leave Frankfort.

But I have said goodbye – goodbye to the old landmark bridge that had been such a significant part of my hometown, and goodbye to people and a pastorate that, together, have been such a significant part of my life for the past six years. Those roads behind me are closed. And I wonder what’s up ahead, around the bend.

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An interesting week

On Monday of this past week, I made a major decision. I’ve been part of an online forum for more than 13 years. The forum went through several formats and locations over those years; it was even discussed in a New York Times Best Seller – Grand Obsession, written by fellow forum member Perri Knize. During its history, it actually split into three “sister forums,” but the one I typically participated in was “The New Coffee Room” (yes, there was once and “old” Coffee Room). This was an amazing group of people from around the world. They were very diverse, and most of them were extremely accomplished. All were very intelligent. We were also all very opinionated, and the group – which originally consisted of piano enthusiasts, but we ended up talking about seemingly anything but pianos – had incredible, wonderful discussions about all sorts of topics. And we didn’t just chat online. There were many meetings in person, at get-togethers around the country, and even internationally – I enjoyed a great evening out with a fellow forum member, an oncology surgeon from Tel Aviv, while I was visiting Israel/Palestine this past January. I once even ran off to Central America with a woman I met on the forum (it sounds so much sexier when I put it that way; we actually traveled to Honduras together to work at Montana de Luz for a week). This was an amazing forum, and was a big part of my life for a long time. Unfortunately, the group started to decline in membership, and the conversations flattened out and become nastier and completely predictable. As hard as it was so finally admit it, the forum had lost its appeal to me, despite the fact that I still care deeply for many of its members. But on Monday, I finally pulled the plug on my participation there and said my final goodbye. Sigh.

The next day, Tuesday, I celebrated, or at least observed, my 53rd birthday. I didn’t really do anything special for it, and I wasn’t able to see the girls in person – one due to sheer distance; the other just due to schedule conflict – but I got to talk with both of them, which was nice. A few days later, I got a neat card from the elder daughter, who lives in New York. She currently lives in Queens, but she used to live in a shoebox apartment with two other roommates in Greenwich Village while she was doing an internship a year or so ago. The place was on Christopher street. Four doors down from their entry in one direction was the famous Stonewall Inn; one door away in the opposite direction was The Greenwich Letterpress, a cool, funky little card and stationery shop that prints its own cards for all occasions. She and I both liked the place, so now when she sends me cards, it’s always a “bitchin’ card,” as she puts it, from the shop. Thanks, honey.

But by far, Wednesday was the real show-stopper of the week. That evening, the Session (the governing body in a Presbyterian church) of the small congregation I’ve been pastoring for the past six years met and voted to “dissolve our pastoral relationship,” a slightly more polite way of saying they were firing me – not having anything to do with my actual pastoring, of which they’re highly complimentary, but everything to do with the fact that they just don’t have the money to pay me. So I’ve been cut loose, effective September 30th. The congregation has known since last November that I’m in the call process, seeking another pastorate on a full-time basis now that I’ve completed seminary and all other ordination requirements. So the leaving itself isn’t a huge thing. But them deciding to pull the plug on me right now, taking away half of my already very meager income and the healthcare benefits for me and my family, when I’m at this point in the process and virtually unhireable for piecework or obtaining replacement healthcare coverage, is devastating. If someone actually looked at the calendar and wanted to pick the absolute worst possible time to make such a decision, to do it at the point where it would create the most harm to me, they’d have been hard pressed to have picked a better time. So I pray that God will open up some pathway for me, and sooner rather than later. Seriously, God, faster please.

On the plus side, the remainder of the week I had several good lunches and other outings with pastoral associates and friends, trying to cheer me up or at least let me vent. This morning, Sunday, was pretty tough, though. During this morning’s church service, immediately following the sermon (which you can read below), the Session announced its decision to let me go to the rest of the congregation. I just stood there, staring straight ahead from the pulpit at a big stained glass window at the rear of the church while the Session members fielded some questions from the people. One member registered her dissatisfaction, giving the Session what-for, and saying that she wasn’t going to sit there and listen to any more of it, and she got up and walked out. This was not an easy morning.