As I begin my seventy-seventh year on this earth I am thinking about how I spend my days. I am an early riser. There is a good reason for this habit of life. Early morning is the hour when negative thoughts are most likely to appear for me. This morning my thoughts were again focused (blog for August 4, 2015) on my tendency to “cut and run” when events in life do not go as I want them.
Recently I severed my relationship with the National Museum of Industrial History because they did not show interest in my focus on the stories of workers in addition to the machines in the museum. Casting about for my next project I went back to the stacks of stories that live in the spare room. Some of these stories once had a life in performance, but many have never escaped the boundaries of paper, pen and one man’s imagination. One of those musings was entitled, “Tracing Shadows and Dreams into Stories”. This story purports to be in the form of a memoir, but as the title suggests it includes a bit of imagination. Despite these fanciful additions, I think there is truth in the tale. The story was written about fifteen years ago, but it tells a personal story from nearly fifty years ago. I have continued to explore its meaning in this new version.
January in western Pennsylvania can be Minnesota cold, but it is just as likely to be a mix of freezing rain, snow and back to rain. It was one of those nights that I drove into Zelienople. This Pennsylvania town was founded in the early nineteenth century by a wealthy German. He bought ten thousand acres in the Pennsylvania wilderness and founded a town that he named after his daughter, Zelie. We are left to surmise from the name of the town that he had visions of creating a new world Constantinople, a crossroads of world cultures in the new world. Zelienople had not reached this ideal by 1970; nevertheless, it was a prosperous, small town with a main street lined with red brick buildings. One end was anchored by the Presbyterian Church and at the other end by the First National Bank of Zelienople. I was headed to the bank, a gray granite structure with Doric columns across the front of its portico.
The Presbyterian Church in 1970 educated its future ministers in seminaries across America, but left the decision to ordain them as ministers in the hands of the churches that spawned them. I was raised in a church in the Beaver-Butler Presbytery in western Pennsylvania–the presbytery is the political institution of the Presbyterian Church above the local church. I was finishing my last semester at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey and looking forward to graduation and being ordained the following summer. I had one more meeting with the presbytery’s committee that guided candidates along the three year path to ordination. The meeting was being held in the bank.
The meeting room was on the second floor. You did not enter through the front of the building; there was a private entrance at the back. I remember the sound of the marble steps. The wet cold of the January night was matched by this place of cold stone steps, brass railings and gray-green walls. As I climbed the steps to the second floor I could hear the sound of voices; it was not the sound of good friends gathered to commune, more like bankers talking business.
The door to the boardroom was partly open. I announced my arrival with a knock and pushed the oak door open. The room was warmer and more inviting than the steps and hallway. Though the walls were the same color and the floor the same cold marble, the warmth was achieved by the yellow light of the living room style lamps in place of the florescent lighting in the hallway. The lamps were scattered on small side tables around the periphery of the room. There was one large rectangular, oak table with twelve chairs in the center of the room. The walls were decorated with oil paintings. Four paintings on one wall depicted the Pennsylvania countryside in the different seasons of the year. Another wall was dominated by a large painting of the main street of Zelienople with the First National Bank well positioned for appreciation. Behind the head of the table there were two portraits of distinguished men in dark, business suits. The art work was original and I took this as a hopeful sign.
I had done my homework. As I waited to be recognized, I surveyed the room. The head of the candidates-care committee of the Beaver-Butler Presbytery sat in a solid oak chair beneath the portraits at the far end of the table. Malcolm Fiennes was his name. Mr. Fiennes was a man who looked uncomfortable in a business suit. His weathered face and callused hands identified his profession. He was a farmer who was old enough to have sons who ran the everyday business of the family farm. He still worked every day, but Malcolm had time to serve as an elder in the Zelienople Presbyterian Church and head this committee of the presbytery. He was also on the board of the bank where we were meeting. The other six members of the committee appeared to be more comfortable in their suits. They were an assortment of ordained ministers and other professions. Finally the business of the moment was completed and Mr. Fiennes looked toward the door: “Come in, come in Mr. Gray, find yourself a seat”, said the head of the candidates-care committee.
I surveyed the options for my seating as I took off my coat. The six committee members were gathered at the far end of the table near Mr. Fiennes. I might have chosen a seat at the side of the table next to one of the committee members; instead I chose the seat alone at the opposite end of the table from the head of the committee.
“I hope you did not have a difficult time with the weather tonight”, said Mr. Fiennes.
“No sir”, I responded as I draped my coat over the seat and sat down, “my grandparents all live in Kittanning. We always pass through Zelienople when we go for a visit. I’ve made many snowy trips through your town.”
“Good, good Raymond, let’s get to our business with you. This is I believe your third meeting with the committee?”
“You are finishing your third year at Princeton”, said Mr. Fiennes as he read from his notes. “You are a member of the Four Mile Church. Good, we want to take a little of your time for some questions. I see that your grades are good, not great, but you have passed the course in Hebrew that was causing you problems.”
“You have taken your exams for ordination. You passed the difficult one in Bible, but you failed theology?”
“Yes, I did, but I have rescheduled that exam. You see I finish class work this month, but I won’t graduate until spring. I took a job working in a steel mill, but I can still find time to study for a retake of the theology.”
“You took a job in the mill? That seems a little strange”, said Mr. Fiennes.
“Well sir, I am married. I need the money to support my family until I find a job in the Church. Besides, I come from a family of steelworkers. I want to know what it is like to work with my hands not my head.”
“I can see the merit in that,” said Fiennes as he put his papers aside and looked directly at me for the first time. “Since you are having trouble with theology, Mr. Gray, let’s talk about it. The Bible, Mr. Gray, what is the role of the Bible in our Christian life?”
“I believe the New Testament, Sir, is the writing of the early followers of Jesus. The story is in part the biography of Jesus and the history of the early Church; all is told with a sense of myth and poetry. The Old Testament is the story of the Hebrew people, the ancestors of Jesus. Again, there is variety of writing styles: history, poetry and myth.”
I paused for a moment to think how I wanted to continue my answer. Mr. Fiennes took the opportunity to rephrase his question, “Then the Bible is literature, a book, a good book for everyone to read?
“Yes”, I said, “it is a good book, perhaps the greatest ever written. Its role in the Church has differed from time to time, from Christian Church to Christian Church. Our Reformed tradition has placed great importance on members of the community reading the Bible and not relying on the authority of the clergy. This is why the Presbyterian Church has always strongly supported education. Everyone should be able to read…”
Mr. Fiennes interrupted me, “Is it divinely inspired, Mr. Gray?”
“Well sir, I believe it is, in so much as any human writing is undertaken in a respectful, honest way. I don’t believe it was mystically presented on a holy mountain. These are stories humanly created to convey a divine, spiritual message.”
Like a pack of hound dogs picking up the scent of prey, I noticed the other members of the committee starting to shift about in their chairs uneasily. Only one man, about my age, was sitting perfectly still and staring at the floor.
The farmer, Mr. Fiennes, kept a steady position in his chair of authority; his eyes focused on me the candidate for ordination. “Raymond, then let us imagine that you are a pastor preaching the Word, a sermon on the virgin birth at Christmas time. How would you communicate the divine, spiritual message of our Savior’s birth?”
“Sir”, I said with equal authority, “I would not focus on the conception of the baby Jesus. For myself, I do not need to believe that Mary was impregnated divinely in order to believe in Jesus as my Savior. I would preach a sermon that focused on the human experience of Jesus. I would tell the story of a poor family forced by political necessity to be on the road at a difficult time. I would talk about how God chose to become human and to suffer as we all suffer…”
“Excuse me, Raymond, excuse me once more, then how would you approach a sermon on Christ’s rising from the grave on Easter morning?”
“The resurrection”, I paused as I considered how to express my understanding of another central element in the Christian story. I also paused because I knew I was building a wall between myself and the candidates-care committee of the Beaver-Butler Presbytery. Maybe I was enjoying the confrontation. I have never been able to resist an opportunity to express my ideas in a good conversation. I looked into the eyes of every member of committee and finally settled on Mr. Fiennes: “The resurrection is another part of the Christian myth, like the virgin birth, their truth is not measured in terms of historical facts; rather, their truth is measured in the words of a story. The divine, in the person of Jesus, came to earth, lived, suffered death and was brought back to life again. Through this story we have modeled for us the gift of grace; we can make mistakes, even do bad things and still be forgiven. This is the good news I will preach. This is the story, the gift of grace that I will tell from the Bible.”
Like the hangman handing the noose to the convicted to hang himself, Mr. Fiennes smiled and said, “And what do you have to say about heaven?”
I did not turn back: “What happens when we die? I truly do not know. I am young and still in wonder at the idea of grace. As St Paul says in the book of Acts something like, ‘I do not account my life of value nor as precious to myself… as long as I testify to the gospel of the grace of God.’ So like Paul I hold to the idea that I will preach the grace of God, the forgiveness of sins, the chance to be wrong, to do wrong and to be forgiven and start over again. That is the miracle of the Christian faith for me.” There was silence in the room. Mr. Fiennes had no more questions.
“Tell us about your involvement in the seminary, Mr. Gray”, the speaker was another member of the committee. I guessed that he was a pastor, but I did not know his name.
“Well sir, I am married and I have a small son. I am kept busy with class work and childcare. My wife works as a nurse several evenings a week, so I spend a lot of my time with my son when I am not in class or studying.”
“Have you participated in any anti-war protests?” asked the man.
Now I felt a different form of challenge. I looked directly at him and said, “I am against the war in Vietnam. I am not a pacifist. There are times when war is the only alternative, but I do not believe this is one of those wars. I have participated in marches on Washington organized by a group called, Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. I marched behind Martin Luther King one time.
“Have you participated in those southern boycotts?”
“No sir, my civil rights involvements have been more related to causes outside of the United States. Before starting seminary I spent two years in Latin America with the Peace Corps. Over the past few years I have spent time as an observer of elections in the Dominican Republic, part of group called, ‘Derechos Humanos’. I also spent a summer in Mexico participating in a workshop with others concerned with the human rights of poor people in Third World countries.”
“Excuse me one more time, Mr. Gray”, it was Mr. Fiennes again, “are you really interested in being ordained?”
This time I did not look him in the eyes. With my head down, I said, “I do want to serve the Church, but I don’t know how best to do it.”
There were no more questions. I was asked to step outside the room while the committee discussed my request to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church. Outside in the cold hallway I waited. I was still heated from my performance before the candidates-care committee. I walked back and forth as I thought of ways I might have better expressed myself. To tell the truth today, nearly fifty years later, I am still not sure that I did not go into that meeting with an unconscious intention to cut my ties to the Church.
Regardless of my unconscious intentions, I was not prepared for the results of the meeting. I started to feel the chill in the cold hallway and to become uncomfortable with the length of time the committee members needed to make their decision. I was looking at my watch–half an hour had passed–when the door opened. I was called back into the board room of the bank. Now I felt a heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I returned to my seat at the opposite end of the table from the farmer from Zelienople, Pennsylvania.
“Raymond, this committee has given serious consideration to your fitness for ordination”, said Mr. Fiennes. I felt the heavy feeling in my belly turn to real pain. I tried to look Mr. Fiennes in the eyes, but my head kept turning down to the floor. I imagine I looked like a boxer being pummeled with blows to the belly, his head bobbing up and down, trying to gain some balance. “Raymond this committee has decided that you are not prepared to take a position of leadership in the Presbyterian Church. At this time we will not recommend you for ordination. However, we want to offer to you the opportunity to think about your beliefs and your role as an ordained minister in the Church. We will be happy to meet with you again in one year, after you have had time to reconsider your ideas on Christian theology and the role the minister in the Church.
The cold rain on the car windshield made it difficult to see the road leading away from Zelienople, Pennsylvania. Tears rolled down my cheeks; I understand the pain I was carrying home to my mother and father’s house; they had so looked forward to talking about their son, Rev. Raymond Gray. I cried for my wife who was six months pregnant with our second child. She wanted a husband who would earn a steady income and provide a home for his family. For me, the tears were an ablution, a cleansing, a clearing of the path to find a new way to serve in this world. By the grace of God, I found Mr. Fiennes from Zelienople, Pennsylvania and he helped me change directions and become what I was meant to be, not what others wanted me to be!
So maybe it is not always a bad idea to “cut and run”. Maybe better said, “sometimes yes, sometimes no”. Life is full of decision and sometimes we get them right and sometimes we get them wrong. But here is the beauty of the idea of grace: we are allowed to make mistakes, be forgiven and begin over and over again. For me, I am sure of one thing, I was not meant to be a Presbyterian minister, I was meant to be a storyteller who searches the world over for stories that help us to make sense of the world we live in!