His parting words were
The Congregational Church of New Canaan (CT), May 13, 2012
His parting words were, "Give us five halos." He was smiling, but I knew better than to think the jest wasn't in earnest, not from a preacher who once was a litigator for a D. C. law firm.
And I do give five halos, not for fear of lawyerly wrath or preacherly indignation. The halos this Mother's Day for The Congregational Church of New Canaan are presented for the the old-fashioned reason: the service earned it. But, as you will see if you read on, something else, maybe a little paternalistic affection, was helping to pull down the fifth golden ring.
Let me explain. Late last summer I received an Email from a woman in Oregon. She found Critical Christian on the internet. She wanted to know why I hadn't reviewed two particular churches in southern Connecticut. Joanne Swenson, child of Viking parents in the north Midwest, graduate of St. Olaf and Harvard Divinity School, was, I surmised, looking to move East as a pastor. I promised her I would visit and review the churches about which she was curious. In mid-September I kept half my promise, taking in the Second Congregational Church of Greenwich (see February visit to God's Acre). But for all my good intentions I did not find a suitable Sunday to visit the other church, this one in New Canaan. Weather, auto accident, birthdays, and lethargy kept me away until the first Sunday in February.
Following the 11:15 AM service that day I made sure I was the last one out the door. I introduced myself to the pastor, Harold ("Skip") Masback, as a spy. Intrigued, he wanted to know for whom. "For a Harvard Divinity School ThD in Oregon," I replied. The church had been searching for the previous eighteen months for a senior associate pastor, had applications from a hundred, interviewed ten, came up empty, and had just about concluded that the search was futile. Until the spy appeared. Joanne and Skip prefer to name me an "angel," but you and I know better. Cross country came Joanne's curriculum vitae. Cross country flew delegates of the Search Committee. Everyone was pleased. May 13th was set for the candidating sermon.
We arrived on the hill the New Canaan Church calls "God's Acre" at 8:50 AM in time for a few photos and read the Sunday order of worship and its inserts.
When Joanne stood near the pulpit in front of the choir loft, my imagination raced back fifty-six years to Sunset Park, Brooklyn. To that morning I first set my eyes on the congregation, Sunset Park Norwegian Methodist Church, where I would serve for seventeen plus years. Blond hair and blue eyes filled the pews. Joanne, five foot ten, slender, blond hair streaked with a hint of gray, Nordic coloring and features, could have been a soprano in the choir at the corner of 45th St. and 7th Ave. Brooklyn, except that she had not yet been born. I am not the nostalgic kind, but there they were, a big lump in my throat and a certain moistening of my eyes.
Call her my first appointment... as in what a Methodist bishop and district superintendent do. For forty-seven years, I steadfastly avoided administrative office in the larger church. Bishop Ralph Ward did ask me one evening in Rye NY if I would be a DS, which would have flattered me, but when I demurred he thought out loud, this dear guileless bishop, to this effect, "Well, I guess Dick [meaning Richard Parker then presently my DS] has other options." Other, that is, than the church I was presently serving, which would be open were I to strike for the DS bait being offered. Now ten years into retirement I finally get to make an appointment. Among Congregationalists I would be named a catalyst (or "angel," as Joanne and Skip insist), if not an episcopal agent. It felt pretty good.
Enough about me. Before the call to worship twenty adorable choristers, age three through six, sang to and about Mom. Two of them, no more than four years old, spontaneously and obliviously nuzzled one another like puppies, to the tittering of the congregation. A tenor soloist sang "Prayer for Mothers" to a full house downstairs and up, lots of generation Xers with their growing children, suits and ties tastefully coordinated, the women using a minimum of cosmetics to achieve the pert suburban look. Before the songs began a very tall fellow walked into an adjacent pew and asked me if I was Bob Howard. "None other," I replied. John Thorbeck, Joanne's husband picked me out from all the rest, which I thought remarkable until I realized I was probably the only octogenarian present. John, an MBA from Harvard (no, they met at St. Olaf), worked for shoe manufacturing companies and has recently co-authored a book on modern manufacturing (and how to do it the right way!). He and their two adolescent children, one in high school and the other at the University of Oregon, will join mom and dad when they trek east to begin Joanne's new pastorate on August 1st.
Pastor Masback seamlessly emceed the worship with a sense of humor and occasional self-deprecation. It was clear to this former pastor that Skip knows his congregation thoroughly and intimately, readily naming names in prayer, and, during the post-service congregational meeting, filling in information which temporarily evaded a Search Committee spokeswoman, sometimes anticipating such lapses. He also knows how to let others' light shine: during the Blessing of the Babies, an event I have seen or heard nowhere else, in which hands were laid on the brow of an infant who qualified for the honor by being less than a year old; the event preceded and explained by words of tenderness and wisdom by associate pastor Jonah.
We sang three hymns, two of which were modified for Mother's Day: "Faith of Our Mothers" to the same tune, St. Catherine, which will probably be sung again the third Sunday in June; and "How Can We Name a Love," to the tune Terra Beata, most often sung as "This Is My Father's World." But not this day!
The sermon was, of course, the piece de resistance. I think I was more nervous than Joanne or Skip. I shouldn't have been. Joanne stood comfortably behind and beside the pulpit. One could see she had been there before and knew what she was doing. The sermon title, "Spring Cleaning with Basic L," a message about getting our souls in order, was set up with reminiscences of Mom and Basic H. The latter, a cleaning solution which must be more popular in the heartland than on our coast (I had never heard of it before) has multiple uses, from "cleaning bug guts on the window" (not a quote from the sermon; from an ad on the product's website) to brushing teeth. Basic L, you guessed it, is love, not just any kind but that which is defined in John 15, the morning text, in which Jesus tells his disciples "to love one another as I have loved you." Basic L is also good for everything. Along the way in a three point sermon Joanne made reference to a troubled doubter in her Oregon Bible class, Henry Ward Beecher, and John Calvin.
Which prompts an observation I've made before, about the need in the present moment for pastors and preachers commensurate in education and experience with the congregations they lead. New Canaan is home to NYC executives, many of them with graduate degrees. The chairperson of the New Canaan Search Committee was born in France, educated at Cambridge as a lawyer, and now runs a company headquartered Westport CT. The hostess of the reception for Joanne and John following the service wanted to know, as I sat beside her, what books I was reading. I listed out the more recent purchases for my Kindle, including Hemingway and Mark Twain, with a trio of Stieg Larson thrown in. She nodded in recognition of these authors, liking a Larson-based movie but unwilling to read about the violence done to the girl with the dragon tattoo. My conversationalist will be sitting in front of Joanne every Sunday. And Joanne, with her ThD and her ability to translate intelligence about Scripture and people into engaging sermons on spiritual themes (as evident this Mother's Day) promotes her as the kind of ordained clergy a large and educationally-accomplished congregation needs.
Yeah, five halos. Credit Pastor Swenson with pulling down the fifth.