Grace Notes

 

I’ve chosen as a title for this piece, “Grace Notes.” It’s my way of recording God’s grace, God’s free gift of grace in my life.  It’s also my perverse way of saying that these moments or incidents of God’s grace are not just a flourish or “like savory spices” on my life, as Philip Yancey says in What’s So Amazing About Grace, but they are the main melody of my life. These are not the little musical notes that appear over the melodic line of my life, but the core melody itself.

 

I begin with the grace note of my baptism, which plays a key role in shaping the melody of my life. I was baptized at the age of ten at the Mormon Tabernacle on Beretania Street in Honolulu. The baptismal pool was in the back courtyard of the Tabernacle, a quiet, protected place, with large ornamental taro plants, ginger plants, and kukui and coconut trees. I don’t remember for sure who baptized me, though I think it was the branch president, a Hawaiian man who was a police officer in our then rural town of Kailua. There were a number of men there, some Caucasian.

 

I was dressed in white–white trousers, and white shirt. My hair was slick with pomade.  I was barefooted, my feet on the cold concrete. I was led down the cement steps into the cold pool. The water came up to my diaphragm, and it was cold! I was shaking. Somebody put his hand behind my neck, told me to hold my nose, and with his other hand on my forehead, he said, “I now baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” and plunged my head and my small body under the water. I came up sputtering. 

 

No voice spoke to me from heaven, but I could feel the elders around me, wrapping me in a towel, comforting me, blessing me. Around the courtyard, there were classrooms and restrooms. I was led into one of the restrooms, where my wet clothes were shucked off me, and I dressed in street clothes.  Then I was taken into one of the classrooms to have the Holy Ghost conferred upon me and to be set apart. I remember oil being rubbed into my scalp and many hands being laid on my head and a number of prayers being said.

 

Was it the next Sunday, or a Sunday soon after? I was filled with a great love that seemed to overflow my young body, like the waters of baptism, and I stood up in a roomful of mostly adults and bore my testimony. I said that I believed in Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith. I said I loved my mother and father, and I even loved my siblings. I said I loved everybody. I sat down, and after the meeting, certain adults gathered around me, ministering to me.

 

I progressed, as the Mormons like to say, through the Aaronic Priesthood–from deacon, at age 12, to teacher, at age 14, to priest, at age 16. I was very active in the ward. As a deacon, I passed the sacrament trays of bread and water down the pews. As a teacher, I helped set up the sacrament table (cubing the bread and filling the thimble-sized sacrament cups with water) and I accompanied elders on monthly visits to families in the ward. As a priest, I blessed the bread and water for the sacrament, taught Sunday School and assisted with baptism.

 

But then at age 18, as I graduated from high school and was on the verge of becoming an elder, I knew I was in trouble. I hated my life in the Islands, and I knew that I did not want to go on a mission, what every Mormon young man is asked to do sooner rather than later. When the call finally came, I was just finishing a very successful freshman year at the University of Hawaii. I said no to the mission. The irony of it all was that my father, who was now a Mormon, supported my decision. After years of saying no to joining the Mormon church, he had been baptized and had become quite active as an elder, just at the time that I, like the prophet Jonah, was beginning to flee from God’s call and the promises implicit in my baptism.

     

That summer of my nineteenth year, I won an engineering scholarship, and I used it as my ticket out of the Islands. But as I look back upon that time, I see that the scholarship was my ticket down the gullet of Jonah’s whale.  Ironically, the scholarship money got me as far as the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, the heart of Mormon country. It was a confusing and difficult time for me, to say the least. It’s hard to drop out of Mormonism, even when you are far away in Iowa or Vermont; and I was trying to drop out of Mormonism in Salt Lake City.

 

But thank God life goes on in the belly of the whale, and God’s grace continues to be available. I began taking more literature courses than engineering courses, lost my scholarship, found a job as a surgical technician, switched my major to English, learned to love writing, and finally graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English. I was still running from God, but I believe God’s grace was acting in my life and nudging me along. And so it was when I went to Iowa to study creative writing, I met and married Joan, the love of my life, and we began raising a family. I adopted her two children and we had two of our own. I had not turned back to God, but it was as if God’s grace had outpaced me and was waiting up ahead with gifts I did not have the sense to recognize as gifts. 

 

And so it was that after obtaining our master’s degrees, Joan and I headed for Hawaii, where I taught at the University of Hawaii and Joan taught in the lab school.  But Joan had asthma, and her asthma took a turn for the worse in beautiful Hawaii where pollen was year-round. Her allergist said to me, “If you don’t want a cripple for a wife, get her back to the mainland.” So we headed for semi-arid Montana, where I had been hired as an instructor in English at the University in Missoula and where eventually Joan graduated with a law degree.  We then climbed into our van and headed for the east coast. We had a brief sojourn in Columbia, Maryland, where Joan worked as an attorney for the Social Security Administration before we returned to Montana and settled in Helena, where we eventually stopped running from God.

 

We found ourselves surrounded by an abundance of God’s grace at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church.  I know for me it was as though the whale had spat me up on dry land for a new beginning.  It was a welcoming church, one that prides itself on radical hospitality, accepted me for who I was, made room for me, and encouraged my gifts. 

 

It was so important to me that the pastoral team at St. Paul’s accepted my Mormon baptism and did not rebaptize me.  A voice from heaven said as Jesus emerged from the waters of baptism, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Thus, through Jesus, God establishes a covenant with each of us.  Through my baptism I was declared God’s beloved at ten, and I was the same beloved at forty-six when I joined the United Methodist Church.  I did not have to jettison all my previous life experiences and was what I was.  God’s grace was with me even in my darkest moments.  I had only now to lean into my baptism to see more clearly how God’s gracious presence and support had been with me all along.  As Henri Nouwen says, “We are the Beloved of God but we have to grow into–become–the Beloved of God.”

 

My arrival at St. Paul’s, of course, led to my pursuing ordained ministry, because once called by God always called.  That call became louder as I leaned into my baptism.  All my no’s resulted in a deeper yes, once I was ready to say yes.  God surrounds us with grace, but allows us to say yes or no.  Through our baptism, we are God’s beloved, no matter what, and God waits on us to say yes.      

 

I applied for and received a substantial leadership scholarship at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. I resigned my position in state government, Joan closed her law practice, we sold our home on Humbolt Loop, and we headed down to Colorado with a U-haul truck. I was fifty years old, feeling thirty-six as God’s grace within me led me to the dry land of a new beginning. And it was the pure grace of God awaiting me in seminary. Though I had to study long hours and many of my prejudices were challenged, it was a joy to study the Bible as literature, to watch the good and the bad of Christianity as it spread across Europe and the Americas, to explore other religious traditions, to wrestle with ethical and philosophical questions, to test one’s pastoral care abilities in actual church settings. How did I, who had turned my back on God for so long, deserve all of this?

 

When I was a senior in seminary, I was appointed student pastor of a small church in northwest Denver, where an abundance of God’s grace awaited me. There’s nothing like the first faces of your first church to teach you what it means to be loved into the pastor you are. I remember Hazel, the Ad Board Chair, who began the first meeting I attended by proclaiming, “We are small but mighty!” I served communion to her husband Mel, who was homebound, once a week. They taught me that my first duty was not to organize or to teach, but to love them through a ministry of presence. Not everyone thought I was wonderful, but even those others taught me to love. As a retired pastor friend of mine said, “Lowell, God sent you that person for a reason.” The pure grace of God awaited me in each of the churches I was appointed to. Each taught me something more about being a pastor.

 

I served ten years in pastoral ministry in Colorado before joining Joan in retirement in 2003. Joan had retired from pastoral ministry in 2002 when her health worsened. I spent the next two enjoyable years finishing the basement of our house in the East Valley of Helena and landscaping our .77 acre lot.  Then, another grace note. I was asked to serve as interim pastor of Clancy United Methodist Church south of Helena. My interim status lasted for three years, when I decided to retire again. I had been so busy with full-time pastoral ministry that I had not taken the time to enjoy the wonderful home we had made for ourselves—our many trees that have taken hold, our gardens, our koi pond and Montana summer tea house, our pergola with sky swings. And Joan and I were beginning to see that the upkeep on our place was getting too much for us.

 

Which brings me to the next grace note in my life: I was invited by the district superintendent to supply the pulpit at Lincoln Community United Methodist Church on October 3, 2011. I had no inkling that God’s grace was again awaiting me in the mountain town of Lincoln, Montana. Before the month’s end I was under a year contract to preach twice a month, and during the upcoming special season, wonder of wonders and weather and snow permitting, I would be preaching and leading worship the four Sundays of Advent and Christmas Eve.

 

I am now fully retired, committed to my writing of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction and convinced that God’s grace in our lives is the main melody we are to hear and share with others. Through my baptism God freely claimed me as His beloved, and I have promised that I will always be his child and seek his image in myself and others. Ungrace, a term Phillip Yancey coined, may place barriers between me and the image of God, and ungrace, as we all know, happens. But I believe that God’s grace surrounds me, as it did the apostle Paul, even before his conversion on the road to Damascus when he so zealously persecuted the followers of the Way. It surrounds each of us–powerfully at all times, strengthening and calling us forth to raise our voices and sing out our songs of grace notes to the joy of God.  

Advertisements