Thursday, August 30, 2007
Life in Lowville
(Welcome to Conversations with Bob! Soon to be a major motion picture!)
In July of 1992, Lovely Spouse, Girl, Boy, and Sister packed up our things and moved from Princeton, New Jersey to Lowville, New York to begin my first call as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Lowville. (Lowville rhymes with Cowville--cows outnumber Lewis County homo sapiens three to one!)
It is a beautiful, historic church in a village of about 3,500 folks.
I was ordained and installed in the church in September of that year. Before the presbytery and the congregation I affirmed my ordination vows. I affirm and uphold them with sincerity and in good conscience to this very day.
My ministry there was one of involvement in the local community. I headed a task force to build a Habitat for Humanity house in Lowville, which we completed just before I left. We participated in ecumenical ministries with other congregations. I worked with the students at the Lowville Academy in helping them put together a Baccalaureate service with the graduating seniors for several years. I was called on nearly every year to participate in the Memorial Day services and offered prayers for that. I did many weddings and funerals for those within the church and without. A few of us got together to provide over 300 Christmas dinners for the community every year. I served on the Mental Health board in the community and various task forces to improve lives in Lewis County.
Our church grew, not only in adding members but as well as personal growth. We started a Stephen Ministry program, read the Bible cover to cover, (which we shall be doing again in Elizabethton in 2008). I held a number of classes for folks regarding theology, Bible studies, and awareness regarding social issues.
And of course I participated in a great number of funeral services for members of my congregation and for those in the community who didn't have a church. One in particular was for a homeless man. At the graveside in the county cemetery (the potter's field), the social worker, the funeral director, the gravedigger, and myself honored this man's life. We didn't even know his name. The four of us gave thanks for his life and witnessed to the Resurrection.
I also did a fair number of weddings, mostly for those who were not in our congregation. I provided counseling (communication, conflict management, those kinds of things) and through that reached out to people who had rarely or never participated in church life.
We built up the Sunday school and youth group. We would take the youth on mission and educational trips to New York City, Washington D.C., and to the Delaware work camp which I led for a couple of years. Some of Bob's youth from Oneida participated in that. I also worked with the Utica Presbytery, serving on the Education and Nurture committee for six years, working mostly with the youth of the presbytery at overnights, leading 18 of them to the Presbyterian Triennium in 1995, and many other programs.
Through the presbytery, I met and worked with many of my colleagues on a number of projects. Rev. Dennis Dewey became a good friend. He introduced me to the art of biblical storytelling. I would lead worship through the use of storytelling and Dennis and I even went to one of the state penitentiaries to tell stories to the inmates!
The reason I offer this long list is because I have felt that ministry is when the church goes out into the world with the love of Christ. I continued to challenge myself with biblical studies and theology and was impressed with a couple of books in the mid-90s, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography by John Dominic Crossan and Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg. I discovered these works through parishioners who were hungry and searching for a way to understand Christian faith in the modern (postmodern) time.
I often found myself ministering to people who had been "burned by church" or who had struggles with their inherited beliefs. My sermons were generally considered thought-provoking and challenging and not everyone liked them. I like to think that they were and still are testimonies to the grace, love, and mystery of God.
For about three years in a row, after the General Assembly would meet, and its controversies would be in the news (usually regarding lgbt people and ordination), I would give my yearly "sex sermon" which was about opening our hearts and minds. I think back on it now with a little embarrassed amusement. It was still theoretical, and I constantly referred to gay and lesbian folks in the third person, as if you weren't really there! After my yearly sex sermon, I would leave the next day on vacation! Even still, the congregation was very receptive, and through those sermons, people began to trust me with their own stories.
Lowville was and is a great congregation. It is served currently by Sarah Sanderson-Doughty (who recently served on the Theological Task Force for the denomination). She is doing a magnificent job. I like to think I helped the congregation increase their awareness regarding women in ministry. However, I know that Sarah demonstrated expertise and confidence without my help.
Lovely Spouse finished her music education degree at SUNY Potsdam and ended up teaching k-3 music at Lowville Academy. She went on to get her master's at Ithaca College. She is one talented hard worker. Lowville is a snowy place, nestled between Lake Ontario and the Adirondacks. We received 200 inches of snow per year. Many times after big storms, school would be called, and even church was a couple of times. I even had the sacrificial ministry of ski chaplain for the Snow Ridge Ski Run.
Sister graduated from Lowville Academy in 1996 and went on to graduate from Syracuse University in 2000 in musical theatre. She is in NYC producing plays and teaching. In the summer of 2000, as we visited my parents in Montana, my father asked me if I was ever going to return to Montana. I said, "I doubt it." But that summer, I discovered that the First Presbyterian Church of Billings was open. On a lark I updated my Personal Information Form and sent it to them. I wasn't looking to move, but thought I couldn't pass up an opportunity to return to Montana and serve a much larger congregation.
LS and I really struggled with this decision. She had a great position as did I. What would the move do to the kids? But we felt a desire to get closer to my folks and felt the Spirit's leading.
I was called to the position, and just after Christmas, we said tearful goodbyes to our friends in Lowville. Girl, now a Sophomore in high school, and Boy, an eighth-grader, were not the happiest of campers to move across the country in the middle of the school year, leaving all their friends. Merry Christmas, kids!
We spent eight wonderful years in Lowville. I look upon that time with great fondness and will always think of that congregation as my first love.
On to the Big Sky Country next time...