A few weeks ago the First Parish Church School put on a special farewell service for their minister and his wife. The highlight of that service was 100 of the 270 children I had christened in my 31 years of ministry marching down the aisle and presenting us with a single white carnation. As the flowers piled up in my arms I handed them over to Ellie only to begin collecting them again and yet again. We were deeply touched by this demonstration of affection.
In addition the children of the church school classes made their own Happy Retirement cards and presented them to Ellie and me. To begin our final farewell service we would like to share a few of the thoughts and sentiments expressed to us in those cards:
And finally this wonderful little poem from all the church school teachers and children:
Our church is a fine building
With walls, windows and doors.
And many fun things happen
On each and every floor.
But what we will remember,
And, please, believe its true:
First Parish wont be quite
So super without YOU!
We love you, Reverend and Mrs. Fewkes.
I can tell you this. First Parish in Norwell is indeed a super church and all of you will hold a special place in our hearts for the rest of our lives. We love you and wish you the best and pray for your success with many years of happy ministry yet to come.
REFLECTION: INTERMINGLED LIVES
Scott Babcock caught my thoughts and sentiments precisely this past September, on the Sunday after Labor Day, when he said to me, as he came through the door into the church, "Well, Dick, this is the beginning of the end." Thats exactly what I was thinking and Scott put it into words. As soon as he said it, it triggered my recollection of the Norwell Pulpit Committee coming to hear me preach at my home church in Middleboro. They had already heard me preach once before at the UU Church in Brockton, although they came late that day, just in time for the Coffee Hour, so I invited them to come back into the sanctuary for a live reprise of the sermon I had just preached. I had hoped that would be enough to win them over, but they wanted to hear me one more time on my home turf before making up their minds. They weren't supposed to do this without the minister's permission. The night before, in the middle of writing my sermon, the Chair of the committee, Ernst Meyer, called me to let me know they were coming. They wanted to surprise me, but he was letting me know as a courtesy. There wasn't much I could do about my sermon at this point. So, I finished it up in a fit of nervous exhaustion. It was titled, would you believe, "The Beginning And The End".
I figured it would be either the beginning or end of my relationship with the folks from Norwell. It was a sermon about human wonderment and the infinitude of the creation. I can remember Bruce Hawthorne, who was a history professor at Mass. College of Art, and a member of the committee, commenting afterwards that the philosopher, William James, died of ontological wonder sickness, and that one had to be careful about not getting overwhelmed by the infinity of the cosmos. I just prayed that the Pulpit Committee hadn't got lost in my sermonic cosmos and that when they got back to earth they would ask me to be the candidate. A few days later they did. I was delighted and so was my wife and family. We candidated for two Sundays and a week of visits in January and moved to Norwell on April 1, 1969.
My ministry in Middleboro, though a short one in comparison to my 31 years in Norwell, was important for a number of reasonstwo of the most important being that it was the church in which I was ordained in 1964, and the place where I was married on the 17th of December 1967. The officiating minister was the Rev. John M. Kolbjornsen, minister of the First Parish in Norwell. Little did I know that a year and a quarter later I would become his successor and would still be minister here at the turn of a new century and millenium. And so here we are 31 years later at the end of the beginning.
It is hard to believe that my ministry has touched portions of five decades in that period of time. How swiftly the years roll. If I have learned anything in the course of that time, it is that the ministry is a mixture of luck and grace as well as work and talent, and that like a marriage, some last a long time, others a short time, the reasons for it are complex, but the important thing is not the length of the relationship, but the quality of the relationships formed, and the love and values shared by all. Ministry, even in its prophetic demands, is the work of compassion, the capacity to care about the joys and the sorrows of those around us, both locally and globally, and to respond out of that compassion.
I am reminded of a quote from a woman writer, Louise Price Bell, who wrote, "Lives have a strange way of being intermingled; we never know when we do something for someone what the far-reaching results may be." I like to think of the ministry as the art and exercise of intermingled lives. We never know what far-reaching results our words or actions may engender in others. "Cast your bread upon the waters and it shall return after many days." Often we don't see the results right away and we wonder if what we do or say matters at all. Sometimes we may feel like the cleric in Georges Bernanos' novel, The Diary of a Country Priest, when he wrote, "Oh miracle--thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands! Hope which was shrivelling in my heart flowered again in" another. The ministry is like that at times. We think ourselves powerless and ineffectual and "sweet miracle of our empty hands" the bread we cast upon the waters weeks, months, even years ago, returns to confirm us and the power of the ministry we thought so powerless.
The ministry is a strange and wonderful business, but I wouldn't be in any other. It is truly an exercise and lesson in "intermingled lives" and the surprise of connections made, people transformed, hopes rekindled. My first Sunday service in Norwell was on Easter, April the 6th,1969. At that service I Christened Jefferson Detwiler whose wedding I will be officiating at the Unitarian Church in Chatham this July. What goes around comes around. God knows how many Christenings, weddings or funerals Ive had since. They all flood the memory and remind me that they are indeed the most important tasks of personal ministry that we ministers are called upon to perform--they touch lives, bind hearts and minds together, and create bonds of affection and support that last a lifetime.
I know, because First Parish in Norwell has been important to my family in some significant rites of passage of our own. Our adopted daughter, Jennifer, was Dedicated here on May 30, 1971. Three of our four children were married in the Norwell church, and I had the pleasure of Christening our six grandchildren here. On our 25th wedding anniversary Elizabeth Tarbox led my wife and I in a service of recommitment before a cadre of family, friends and parishioners at a surprise party celebration at the church. My father died in August of 1990. In response to my personal loss the parish planted a Japanese red maple by the corner of the church sheds just outside my office window. The heights and depths of my own life, personal and professional, are planted deep in the soil of this church and congregation. I have been richly blessed by my ministry in Norwell. And I pray that whoever my successors may be they will be equally blessed.
At the end of this month we will be moving to our home in West Dennis on Cape Cod, marking a major transition in our lives and the life of this parish. Where did it all begin, this connection of intermingled lives between West Dennis and Norwell? I suppose it began in the summer of 1959 when I worked as a Beach Boy and extra cocktail waiter at the Light House Inn and Sandbar in West Dennis. I had just graduated from UMASS in Amherst and wanted to make some extra money before starting my theological education at Andover Newton. I unknowingly served my wife a drink at the Sandbar that summer. Seven years later we would meet when she worked as a secretary for the Ballou Channing District of UU Churches in Brockton. In the course of our courtship I discovered that she owned a cottage in West Dennis. I thought to myself, I better marry this woman if I want to retire to the Cape someday, and so I did. It was the smartest move I ever made. I know, because if the Norwell Search Committee had any doubts about my adequacy as a minister, those doubts were laid to rest the day they met my wife and helpmate. If I had shown such good judgment in choosing a mate then just maybe .Bruce Hawthorne later told me that meeting Ellie sealed the deal as far as he was concerned.
Ellie tells me that when she and the boys used to make the trek from Brockton to West Dennis there would inevitably be a fight about who was the first to spot the Sagamore bridge. "I saw it first!", "No, I did!", "No, no, I did!" Then she married that bachelor minister from Middleboro and he would be the first to see it, since the driver had the front end view. Now all our children are married and have homes of their own and it no longer matters who sees the bridge first. We now have a place to call our own on 41 Cygnet Dr. overlooking the Swan Pond River. And we will be living in it year round for the first time. A few years ago I looked up at the heavens on a clear summer night and was moved to write these words:
To see a heaven full of stars
On a clear summer night--
The Northern Cross above the door stoop
Of my house--Swan Pond River flowing by--
Pointing the way to the Milky Way
And back to the eye of this beholder--
Could there be any more heaven on earth
To be in my own place,
My beloved in the house,
And I standing in the yard,
Soul, full with the bowl of night above,
Mind, full to the brim with wonder,
Heart, full, cup overflowing with love,
Know at last I am at home in the universe--
A Cape Cod Heaven full of stars.
Blessed Spirit of Creation, we thank you for the opportunity to serve, for sacred places and spaces where we may be welcomed and transformed, accepted as we are and challenged to be the best that we can be. We are thankful for ministries past, present and yet to be. May this congregation come to know itself as a caring community and grow in its realization that the art and practice of ministry belongs to all the people. So may it be. Amen.