Paul Jackson, Sunday, August 18, 2013
“…What happens is of little significance compared with the stories we tell ourselves about what happens. Events matter little, only stories of events affect us.”
― Rabih Alameddine, The Hakawati
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself, and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
–Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Story telling is as old as humanity and older than written words. It predates history itself and intuitively we know it be an incredibly useful tool. I don’t remember all the details of a lecture, but if the professor used a story to convey her idea, you can bet I’d repeat the story and find the nugget of her teaching therein. There’s a reason Jesus of Nazareth used the story form known as parable to teach his followers—they are pithy, easy to remember and impart information with an emotional component that engages us in deeper understanding—most of us can tell the story of The Good Samaritan or The Prodigal Son. Our stories are familiar and comforting. Who here doesn’t have a favorite family story that they love to share. Or a story that takes a special place of importance at family events. I recall with great fondness Christmas Eves in my childhood. After we had eaten and before we could open any packages, my Grandfather would be called upon to read the Lukan Christmas Story–you know the one; it begins “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” (Interesting that taxes form the beginning of this great story, but that’s a topic for another day.) Granddad, an ordained minister in the American Baptist tradition, would take his worn bible in hand and in that powerful voice of his, tell us this world-changing story. Well, we were kids, and it was Christmas Eve, so at the time all we could think about was, “Hurry up! Skip to the end! Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know, we know– blah blah blah”. Thinking about it now, what I wouldn’t give to be able to hear him tell me that story once again. But, through the hazy fog of memory, I can recall this event and retell it to you. It’s part of my story. It’s part of who I am and who I’ve grown to be and how I now find myself as your new Director of Christian Life.
So just how did I get here? I’ll spare you all of the details, but I thought it might be useful for you to know some of my story and how you, this congregation and church and choir, have played a part in my story. And how my story is part of our story and how our story continues.
My path to faith has been rocky, circuitous and fraught with pitfalls, hubris, certainty, doubt, passion, boredom, and I am sure similar to many of your paths to faith. We don’t come to this place easily. We have many more questions than we will ever have answers; and uncertainty and doubt threaten to undermine us every step of the way. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Would you? That’s part of our story—how we got here.
I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition at Pleasantview Baptist Church in Derby, Kansas….America. I remember going to Sunday school and memorizing scripture and singing a song about all of the books of the bible. I recall Vacation Bible School and grape Kool-aid. Forever, the taste or smell of that particular chemical in grape Kool-aid transports me to the hot courtyard of that Baptist Church down there on Buckner Street.
I also remember the particular dread I always felt during the alter call. I tried to make myself as invisible as possible, so that no one would notice that, once again, this week, Paul Jackson DIDN’T go forward. He didn’t dedicate his life to Christ. He didn’t agree to accept Jesus as his personal-lord-and-savior and be born again. Some of you are squirming right now because you remember those moments all-too-well. If you’ve never experienced this particular brand of “worship” let me assure you that you are missing nothing. Well, nothing but lots and lots of guilt and plenty of faith traditions serve that up on a weekly, if not daily, basis—so, you get the idea.
Eventually I did go forward and complete the expected rite of passage of being “born again”. I was baptized by Brother Berry in the full immersion style peculiar to Southern Baptists—there was a huge painting of the River Jordan behind the baptismal pool and I wore white and it was cold and wet and, finally, done. My family was extremely proud of me—but nothing really changed. I still went to Sunday School and I still had grape Kool-aid in the courtyard. But I don’t recall looking at the world any differently other than being grateful that I didn’t have to endure the guilt during the alter call any more. It was someone else’s turn to squirm.
My parents divorced when I was 11 or 12—I know I’ve been told the date, but it was more of a season in my life—the separation and dissolution of the family I had always known. I remember that mom went to Brother Berry and specifically asked him if there was a place for her and her children at his church. I remember mom telling us that Bother Berry assured her that, indeed, the church would care for us as if nothing had happened. And I remember the next Sunday, when Brother Berry preached on how a divorced person could not be seen as worthy in the sight of God. And I remember my mother gathering up her children, in the middle of the sermon, and marching all of us out of that church—never to return. I’m still incredibly proud of mom for this powerful act of defiance.
Thus began my years of wandering. Someday I might write down the entire journey, but because I don’t want to wear out my new welcome just yet, I’ll skip to the important part. Let’s just say that I eventually found my way to Woodlawn United Methodist Church in Derby and was embraced by the youth, the congregation and the ministers. In fact, it was this relationship with the good Methodists that allowed me to attend Southwestern College in Winfield where I founded a series of important friendships that last to this day. I will always remember and honor the good people of Woodlawn United Methodist—their love for me was evident not only in words, but in their selfless acts of kindness shown to me and my family. I can still feel their residual embrace and it is only now, with the focus that time gives us, that I recognize the blessing and benefit that being involved with that congregation gave me. I am forever indebted to them–one of the best chapters in my story.
But I still wandered—I went to Lawrence and attended KU for a period of time and while there, as many young people do, I fell away from church. I would only attend during friends’ weddings or at other expected times, but I never really gave it much thought. It wasn’t important to me.
When the circumstances of my life brought me back to Wichita in the early 1990’s, I found myself attending, once again, a Methodist church. College Hill United Methodist Church, to be exact—and once again I found myself blessed by what seemed an insignificant choice. Because of chance, Providence, Fate or God, I landed at College Hill at the height of George Gardner’s ministry. If you don’t know the man of whom I speak, suffice it say that his was a voice of Progressive Christianity in the wilderness that spoke to me, and many others, with its passionate embrace of all people and all faiths and all social classes. Now, George had his faults, we all do, but his theology sparked a fire in me that has smoldered for years. I sang in the choir at College Hill and enjoyed being a member of this progressive congregation. I worked with the youth and was a sponsor on one of their trips to Chicago. I loved the work I did with this church.
In the summer of 1995 I sang at a friend’s wedding here at UCC. I met Pat Jones, he was the accompanist, and after the first time I sang for him, he asked me if I had a church job. I said I never had, that I had only volunteered at College Hill. He explained to me how the music staff system worked here at UCC and how that level of professionalism allowed Bob Scott and others to offer a music program of consistency and strength that an all-volunteer choir finds difficult to achieve. I was intrigued and said yes when Pat asked me to audition for Bob Scott that next Sunday for your tenor soloist position.
I showed up for the service and sat right back there (second row from the back, left side, near the aisle) and went up after the service to be introduced to Bob Scott and to sing for him. I was scared to death. Pat was encouraging and we launched into a verse of “Be Thou My Vision”, one of my favorite hymns. Bob smiled that big smile of his and hired me on the spot.
Singing in this choir and being a part of this congregation has changed me in profound ways. The exposure to thoughtful theological inquiry has made my faith more meaningful to me. Singing with these talented musicians on a regular basis has allowed my gifts to reach a skill level I doubt I would have achieved otherwise.
As a member of this church and of this choir I have shared in your lives. I have sung at your weddings and mourned at your funerals and weekly I sit right up there in the tenor section and look at your lovely faces as we worship together. And that’s not going to change; I will still lift up my voice in celebration with Bob and the choir and continue to wear a musical hat, as it were, for this church. Serving you in this capacity has given me a clearer vision of what Jesus meant by serving one another—it has given me a glimpse of what is meant by living in “right relationship”.
Now I am stepping into a new role: Director of Christian Life. Wow—that’s quite a title. But I think it captures all we want this position to be striving towards: comprehensive educational programs that cover the life-span of our entire congregation, a focal point for all of our growth efforts and someone to assist Robin with the care of this dynamic congregation. To that end, with the Deacons’ approval and support and Robin’s mentorship, I have applied for the Lay Ministry Program offered through our affiliation with the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. Check the newsletter for more information about this exciting chapter in our lives together. We’ve recently announced the upcoming fall season educational programs and there are numerous ways for you to engage with your theology, our congregation and this community.
Walt Whitman writes in A Song of Myself: “I sing myself, and celebrate myself, and what I assume you shall assume for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”. I’ve been singing myself and telling a bit of my story and I hope it helps you understand a little better what has brought me to this point in my life. In our lives together. I think it’s a pretty good story and I look forward to the next chapters and plot twists and wonderful complications that make our lives richer and more meaningful.
So, what’s your story? How did you get here—to this place—in your life? I want to know and I will be asking in the coming months. It’s important that we reflect upon where we all have been—it may give us a clearer direction of where we want to go. We might have a gut-feeling or intuit our direction, but careful reflection upon our past faith journeys can provide us with important insight–because your story matters. It matters to all of us.
I look forward to serving you in this new capacity. Thank you for the opportunity and may our creator God bless us all as we continue our story.