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Pastor's Monthly Newsletter Message

September 2012

~A Lasting Influence~


“We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses...”

Hebrews 12:1



Dear Members and Friends,

The Africa stories of Isak Dinesen are thinly veiled autobiography, masquerading as fiction.  In one tale—I can’t remember which—she talks about the death of a friend.  Dinesen compares him to a cat.  He could slip into a room, sink into a chair, and even if he never spoke a word, you felt secretly honored that he had chosen to be in your presence.  (I don’t hate cats, but Dinesen’s experience of them is clearly different from my own.)  His death, Dinesen said, was similar.  It was like a cat slipping out of the room to do whatever it is that cats do when people aren’t looking.  The exit was somehow graceful and timely, and the memory of his presence still cast a warm afterglow in the room he’d left behind.

            I’m interested in this notion that a particular personality can linger over a place long after the person himself or herself has moved on.  I’m not talking about ghosts or the paranormal.  I’m talking about the way one person’s words and ways can grip people’s hearts so profoundly that they create a group identity, or an “institutional culture.”  We’ve all known families (like my in-laws) where the personality of one great matriarch or patriarch has remained in power decades after the person’s death.  One person’s ethos still “calls the shots,” and appealing to that person’s memory is the best way to win any argument.  We’ve known whole nations whose cultures could not be understood apart from the personality of a single influential individual, like Nelson Mandela and South Africa.  I read a book recently—American Nations, by Colin Woodard—claiming that all the divisiveness in our country today is caused by the existence of eleven regional cultures, which can be traced back almost four hundred years to the personalities of formative leaders like William Penn and William Bradford.

            It’s as if, long ago, someone started a conversation in a crowded room.  That person insisted on some key principles and underscored some profoundly nonnegotiable truths.  And then the person who started the conversation slipped quietly away, leaving the others to talk.  Years later, the conversation is still going on.  New people have joined in the dialogue, while others have taken their leave.  Each person has added meaningfully.  And yet, it’s essentially the same conversation.

            As we draw near to Kickoff Sunday on September 9, and as we continue to expand our Sunday school programs, seeing ever-greater numbers of new faces, let’s stop to think about the conversation that’s been taking place at Bower Hill Church these past sixty-two years.  It’s been a dialogue about hands-on faith, a tolerant faith that strives for the well-being of the stranger.  It’s been a spirited exchange that marched its message of social justice from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.  It’s a conversation that traces its long history all the way back to the Galilean himself, and the poignant, poetic words that he spoke from a mountainside by the sea.  I hope that all churches draw their identity from the words of Jesus, but here at Bower Hill, our discussion has also been framed by the character of our founding pastor, Rev. William P. Barker.  Sixty-two years ago, he knocked on strangers’ doors in a burgeoning suburb.  And there on those front porches, he began a conversation about a new and different kind of church.  That conversation has become our congregation—with its unique passions and perspectives.

Sadly, Bill died of cancer this past summer.  His obituary is in the pages of this newsletter.  As we celebrate our particular kind of faith, and Bower Hill’s growth, and God’s presence in our lives, let’s also celebrate the many ways that Bill’s ethos still lingers over this place.  It’s a conversation worth having.                                        

                                                Christ’s peace,