CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith from a place of winter For the Years of Winter…
I think Helen still has not forgiven me. Not for taking her to Cape Cod; she liked that. But we got there because I was the “outside” theologian at a New England theological gathering of the United Church of Christ. [UCC], “outside” meaning I was Methodist, Midwestern, and theologically “narrative” rather than “systematic.” There have always been story-tellers in Christianity, starting with Jesus, but as a theological approach, narrative was in the 1970s new, exotic, and of questionable repute. [It wasn’t “rigorous,” and you didn’t need a Harvard doctorate to do it.]
[The UCC was formed in 1957 by the merger of The Evangelical and Reformed & Congregational Christian denominations.]
I had a pretty good time. We were in a long-time UCC campground, with nice cottages and a big tabernacle and a spacious eating hall. I got to walk around the beautiful grounds and drink coffee and teach a workshop and bop into the tabernacle once in a while to “address” the plenary assembly.
Also my first theological mentor, D.J. Bowden, my professor of The History of Christian Thought at IU, was a Congregational Christian from the Northeast who got his PhD at Yale. I could well imagine him as a boy singing camp songs in the tabernacle, or later being a presenter himself at such a conference. It was quite inspiring to think that I was following in his footsteps.
Since Helen was a “participant” instead of a presenter, she was required to be a member of a theology work group. She was assigned to the bunch that was writing a new faith statement for the UCC. It was composed mostly of academic theologians and preachers, who argued endlessly about whether “of” should go before or after “parousia.” Or maybe it was “from” instead of “of.” She wasn’t keen on the details. Her participation was mostly rolling her eyes, making snoring sounds, voting “No” on everything, and hitting me on the head, hard, when we were alone.
Sometimes the presenters hung out together, but I didn’t hang if I knew Dr. Austere would be there. [That wasn’t his real name, although it should have been.] I stayed as far away from him as I could, for several reasons. For one thing, he was a professor of systematic theology in a UCC seminary, and I was running the Gospel through Marshall McLuhan and Hans Frei instead of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. For a second, I had a wife who was doing her best to sabotage the entire belief system of the UCC.
More importantly, before my plenary presentation each day, he gave a theology lecture, austerely, with footnotes and bibliography. Next to him, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Soren Kierkegaard looked like simpletons. His lectures were like the marching band in a parade, every line in step, each instrument playing its own part, only its part, and playing in tune. My presentation was like the clown in the parade, sitting in the back of a pickup throwing candies by the handful and hoping someone caught a peppermint, hoping a root barrel didn’t take out somebody’s eye. During my presentation, Dr. Austere would stand--never sit--in back, with his arms folded over his chest, looking stern. I was intimidated and embarrassed. He was so scholastic, and I was so… well, just a story-teller.
One night, though, the director of this theological institute took the presenters and their wives out to a seafood place. I was trying to avoid both Helen and Dr. Austere, so naturally the director seated me between them, where she could reach across me and tell him what she thought of UCC theology, and he could reach across me and tell her what he thought of MY theology.
I had a mouth-full of crab when he turned to me and said, “How do you DO that?”
“Do what?” I mumbled, thinking that now I had further embarrassed myself by eating crab like a Hoosier hillbilly gnawing a pork-chop.
“Tell those stories,” he said. “I work and work to try to get people to understand, and then you just tell a story that pulls the veil off all my words and makes people see what I was trying to say. I’d love to be able to do that.”
All I could think to do was grab his hand and put it into Helen’s and say, “You two should talk.”
JRMcF [John Robert McFarland]
It’s tempting to pull a “moral” out of this story, such as “Don’t assume you know what a person with crossed arms is thinking,” but grandson Joe [then 13] says the problem with the kid lit stories that win prizes is that “…they have morals. Kids just want good stories.” As Jesus said, “If you want to enter the Kingdom, be like a kid who just wants a good story.”
The “place of winter” was Iron Mountain, in MI’s Upper Peninsula.