Hope in the promise of yet another spring to come
is what keeps us from chopping down the firewood
of the apparently dead trees of winter.
I’ve said it before: if the Catholic Church had the vision to ordain women to the priesthood, Joan Chittister would be the Pope. Here’s her Christmas message that I got in today’s email. You can find more or sign up for her emails at benetvision.org.
Now and here bells everywhere are ringing again. The gift boxes are heaping up. Everybody’s saying it: “Christmas Blessings… God bless you at Christmas time… Christmas Peace to you and yours… Merry Christmas.” But is there any truth at all to any of this manufactured joy? Or is this, at best, nothing more than an exercise in auto-suggestion: Say it often enough and you’ll think it’s true, whatever the facts to the contrary.
Christians, after all, at least from one perspective, live a very schizophrenic life. As Paul puts it in one of his letters to the fragile communities of the early church, “Your standards should be different than those around you.” But at Christmas time, those standards can get terribly confusing. The Christian standard says that Christ, our Peace, has been born. But look around you. The other standard, the real public norm, the front page of our daily newspapers, says that there is no such thing as peace anywhere.
So, are we simply kidding ourselves when we put up manger scenes in our parks, and weigh our churches down with bark-covered, life-size crèches, and decorate the crib sets under our Christmas trees? Will the world ever really come to peace? In fact, is there really any such thing as peace? And, most of all, what do we have to do with it? What are we singing about? (It depends, I believe, on what you think “peace” means.)
One kind of peace is a state of life that is free from chaos and turbulence, from violence and institutionally legitimated death. That kind of peace happens often enough in history to show us that such a thing is possible. But don’t be fooled: that kind of peace can be achieved as easily through force as well as through justice. In the latter, little is gained by it.
But there is another kind of peace. This kind of peace does not come either from the denial of evil or the acceptance of oppression. This kind comes from the center of us and flows through us like a conduit to the world around us.
This kind of peace is the peace of those who know truth and proclaim it, who recognize oppression and refuse to accept it, who understand God’s will for the world and pursue it. This kind of peace comes with the realization that it is our obligation to birth it for the rest of the world so that what the mangers and crèches and crib sets of the world point to can become real in us—and because of us—in our own time.
The award-winning foreign film “Joyeux Noël” reminds us of another Christmas Eve. This one in Europe during the bloodiest period in WWI. Knee deep in wet snow and ice that jammed their weapons and froze their souls, two armies—one French and Scottish, one German—faced one another across a barbed-wired field. Hundreds of fallen soldiers had already died on both sides of the rough and blood-soaked land. Then suddenly, the Christmas truce began. The men put down their weapons, ceased for awhile to be soldiers, and bowed their heads while they listened to the other side sing Christmas carols.
That is the kind of peace—disarmed, foreign to hate, and receiving of the other—that was born in the manger we remember at Christmas time. That is the kind of Christmas peace we must ourselves seek to be. Then “Merry Christmas” will really mean something.
Dear Friends of Bill (and Mollie) Hopper,
We are sorry to have to tell you that our father died this past Monday, December 12th, nine days before his 86th birthday on December 21st.
Many of you know that he had been suffering from COPD for several years, and often his breathing was quite difficult. He contracted pneumonia after he had been taken to the hospital for an unrelated health problem a couple of weeks ago. Fortunately he had seen each of his three daughters very recently. Laura and Katie were with him on Thanksgiving, Jane was able to see him for a couple of days after he was moved from the hospital to a skilled nursing facility, and Mary Ann and Mark arrived to see him the day before he died.
Our parents had many friends and we know that their friendships with all of you gave them great joy and comfort. Bill and Mollie loved to keep in touch with all of you and to visit (and be visited) whenever they could.
There will be a memorial service for our dad on Saturday, January 21st at 3:00 p.m. at Westminster Gardens in Duarte, California. There will also be a second memorial service at Louisville Seminary in early February when his ashes are interred with our mom’s in the seminary’s memorial garden.
In lieu of flowers, we would appreciate memorial gifts to any of three organizations that our dad valued very highly – Louisville Seminary, the overseas mission of the Presbyterian Church, or Westminster Gardens, the wonderful community where Bill and Mollie lived for 15 years following their retirement.
The addresses are listed below.
Thank you all very much for your friendship with our parents. They were always very grateful for the part that you played in their lives. There is a recent photo of our mom and dad at the end of this email, with the photo file attached.
Mary Ann Kearns
Memorials may be sent to:
A dear friend of mine died this morning.
From San Gabriel Executive Presbyter Ruth Santana Grace:
It is with deep sadness that I share the news that the Rev. Bill Hopper has passed away. He died early this morning. As you know, Bill dedicated his life to the ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ as a missionary, executive, pastor, leader and much more. He will be deeply missed. I am confident that the heavens opened to receive him as he crossed over from this life to the next; I am equally confident that God’s voice was heard echoing, saying “This is my servant and son, in whom I am well pleased.” We will let you know of plans for his memorial service once we have them. Please pray for his family as they make this journey – may they experience the hope of the resurrection and the love of Christ through friends and family.
I got to know Bill a number of years ago when I was working at Westminster Gardens, a local retirement community which was then exclusively for those who had served the Presbyterian church as missionaries, ministers, or some other capacity under the denominational Board of Pensions. Bill was the president of the Residents’ Association then and I was serving as the Director of Communications, so we worked together on several projects. As we got to know each other, I shared with him that I am a lesbian; he shared with me that one of his and his wife Mollie’s three daughters is also a lesbian. Since then I have spent quite a lot of time with Bill. Despite the fact that Melinda and I are the age of Bill’s daughters, and Bill was of an unknown-to-me age at least as old as my own parents, I always felt that we were friends. Check that: I knew that we were friends.
When Melinda and I legally married in 2008, it was in our church, and Bill and Mollie (who preceded him in death) were among those who gathered to witness the occasion and to rejoice with us. This meant and still means a lot to us.
Always a gentleman, Bill was born and grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. His father was a Presbyterian minister who was an eloquent preacher. Bill was a PK–a preacher’s kid–so there were certain expectations of him, some by his family, others by his friends. Many PKs rebel in some way: Bill’s way was in a socially acceptable one; Bill loved baseball.
As a kid, Bill would listen to the Birmingham Barons on the radio. He was a big fan of his home team. The radio announcer for the Barons was Bull Connor–who would later become in many ways the face of the racist, segregationist, Jim Crow South. I don’t know what Bill’s father’s theology and politics were, but when Bill found out about Bull Connor and what he stood for he stopped listening to the broadcasts. (I’m no Dodgers fan, but I’ve listened to the voice of the Dodgers, Vin Scully, for much of my life. It would be hard to say, “No more,” and turn off that voice forever.) Bill’s love of baseball continued, however–something that he and I shared. But his love for justice and equality and all things progressive were far greater–something else we shared.
Bill served as a missionary in Iran and Pakistan. Although the political leaders of those countries have changed since then, much of what we read now was true then. The three daughters lived their formative years in Iran, with one of them having been born there–they express remorse that they can never return to the land of their childhood. Bill contracted a powerful form of malaria in Iran, which cut their service short in order for him to return to the United States for medical treatment. He served the church in other ways for a few years, but he and Mollie felt like they needed to return to the mission field, so they got and assignment in Pakistan; they served there until his malaria returned. As Ruth said above, he served the church at every possible level: from the mission field to the local church to presbytery, synod and General Assembly. For a number of years he led the commissioner training prior to each year’s GA–something vital to the success of our then-annual conventions.
Well into his retirement, Bill and former PC(USA) Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick–a colleague, neighbor, close friend and tennis partner–decided they would write a book together. I played a small part in creating that book, What Unites Presbyterians: Common Ground for Troubled Times, so I know that Bill did much of the heavy lifting, while Cliff read the chapters and made suggestions and corrections. It was a good collaboration, and one they enjoyed, so they wrote several other books together after that. Something special about Bill, though, was that he wasn’t one who only associated with people who held the same theological and/or political views. Bill was a friend to many people regardless. Bill was the embodiment of grace.
Bill was active in the Witherspoon Society (now part of Presbyterians for Justice), More Light Presbyterians, the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, and was a supporter of That All May Freely Serve. He encouraged me, prodded me, helped me, and occasionally gently guided and tempered me in my work with those groups and for those same causes. Bill was an ardent supporter of women’s ordination and service, of racial and ethnic civil rights, and of many other causes. I don’t know if anyone will ever know his full effect on the world though, because he was so modest about his own contributions.
At the same time, he had a great dry sense of humor, and was a wonderful conversationalist and story-teller. He had a deep, somewhat gravelly voice and that Alabama-Kentucky accent which was so easy to listen to. He delighted in sharing stories about his children and grandchildren in way that I loved to hear.
Even though I know that he’s now rejoined with his life and life-ever-after partner Mollie and other friends and family members in the presence of the Christ who he served and loved in life, I will miss him a lot. I am proud that he was both a friend and a mentor, and I am a better person for having known him. Thanks, and God bless you, Bill Hopper.
* * * * * * * * * *
I forgot to say something important! Bill was one of the few people I know who liked fruitcake. A long-time tea-totaller, he even liked the booze-soaked ones. Every year someone would likely give me a fruitcake for Christmas (or I’d rescue one from someone else), and I’d make sure that it went to Bill. He’d have a tiny sliver every day for months–and would enjoy it immensely. If someone gives me a fruitcake this year I’ll make sure to have a tiny slice and think of him.
Melinda and I were out running errands last Saturday afternoon. Because of traffic on the freeway, we took a route that we don’t usually take, and we drove past a church where a friend of ours serves as the pastor. Like at many churches, they have a sign, a marquee out front. This one had the sermon title and the hour of the service, as is typical–but we both noticed that the pastor’s name wasn’t included.
I think that Melinda was upset a little bit, but I was delighted. I told her why: so many churches proclaim the name of the pastor, but that’s not who it’s about. She immediately got it. Good for our friend!
Then this week I pulled out a book of little ditties called Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC by Frederick Buechner, an author and a Presbyterian minister. I love Fred Buechner, and this is one of those well-worn volumes in my library. Flipping through this book, I stopped to read what Buechner had to say about revelation. Right after that was the topic “Reverend.”
A title of respect to be used only in the third person, if then. Speak about the Reverend Samuel Smith if you have to, but never go up to him and say, “That’s telling them, Reverend!” any more than you’d go up to a Congressman and say, “How are things in Washington, Honorable?”
Reverend means to be revered. A minister is not to be revered for who he is in himself, but for who it is he represents, just as the British Ambassador is seated at the hostess’s right not because of his beaux yeux but because he represents the Queen.
(See also MINISTER)
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[Okay, so there’s that little problem of non-inclusive language. It grates at me, sure, but in the first place, Buechner was born in 1926; when he went to seminary and then was ordained, all ministers were male. In the second place, this book was published in 1973. And finally, Buechner is a tremendous advocate for inclusivity–for women, for LGBT folks, for everyone. He preached in 1997 at the PC(USA)’s General Assembly, the national church convention, in 1997, talking about how he had experienced God more at a lesbian wedding–a service officiated by a female minister) than he had in church for a long time.]
But I digress…
I live and am an elder in San Gabriel Presbytery. Southern California isn’t like the rest of the country in most ways, and our version of presbyterianism is no different. Teaching Elders (as ministers are now called) and Ruling Elders (elected congregational leaders) both serve as voting commissioners to the presbytery (regional governing body); historically they differ in function only, as they (along with Deacons) take the same ordination vows with the exception of one question having to do with responsibilities. But here the presbytery moderator (elected for one year as vice-moderator who then becomes the moderator of presbytery, and then the moderator of presbytery council) seems to be a job for male ministers, since we have just elected our fourth male minister in a row. At least this most recent one, unlike the previous three, is non-European American… And all of the committee chairs–the ones who have presentation roles at our presbytery meetings–are ministers. There are only three elders on the presbytery council: two at-large, and one the chair of a “minor” committee (ironically, the presbytery’s Committee on Representation). Worship at presbytery meetings almost always features a sermon or message from the pastor of the host church, and prayers and other parts of the service are almost always given by “Rev. So-and-So” as listed in the worship bulletin. We rarely see the names of nor hear the voices of ruling elders, either in the church’s work or it it’s worship.
Yep. Clergy-centric. This is sad. It’s certainly not the church of our founder John Calvin (who himself was probably not ordained). And it’s certainly not the church that professes to dislike the idea of having bishops or popes.
+ + + + +
And, in case you’re curious, here’s what Buechner says about “minister”–and remember: 1973… also that he also wrote a book called Son of Laughter:
There are three basic views:
1. A minister is a Nice Guy. He’ll take a drink if you offer him one, and when it comes to racy stories, he can tell a few right along with the best of them. He preaches a good sermon, but he’s not one of these religious fanatics who thinks he’s got to say a prayer every time he pays a call. When it comes to raising money, he’s nobody’s fool and has all the rich old ladies eating out of his hand. He has bridged the generation gap by introducing things like a rock group at the eleven o’clock service and what he calls rap sessions on subjects like drugs and sex instead of Sunday school. At the same time he admits privately that though the kids have a lot going for them, he wishes they’d cut their hair. He’s big on things like civil rights, peace, and encounter groups. He sends his children to private school. He makes people feel comfortable in his presence by showing them that he’s got his feet on the ground like everybody else. He reassures them that religion is something you should take seriously but not go overboard with.
2. A minister has his head in the clouds which is just where a man should have it whose mind is on higher things. His morals are unimpeachable, and if you should ever happen to use bad language in his presence, you apologize. He has a lovely sense of humor and gets a kick out of it every time you ask him if he can’t do something about this rainy weather we’ve been having. He keeps things like sex, politics, race and alcoholism out of his sermons. His specialty is religion, and he’s wise enough to leave other matters to people who know what they’re talking about.
3. A minister is as much an anachronism as an alchemist or a chimney sweep. Like Tiffany glass of the Queen of England, he is a camp figure whose function is primarily decorative. Although their various perspectives are admittedly limited, Maharishis, Communists, homosexuals, drug addicts, and the like are all to be listened to for their special insights. The perspective of ministers, on the other hand, is so hopelessly distorted and biased that there is no point in listening to them unless you happen to share it.
The first minsters were the twelve disciples. There is no evidence that Jesus chose them because they were brighter or nicer than other people. In fact the New Testament record suggests that they were continually missing the point, jockeying for position and, when the chips were down, interested in nothing so much as saving their own skins. Their sold qualification seems to have been their initial willingness to rise to their feet when Jesus said, “Follow me.” As St. Paul put it later, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” (1 Corinthians 1:27)
When Jesus sent the twelve out into the world, his instructions were simple. He told them to preach the kingdom of God and to heal (Luke 9:2) with the implication that to do either right was in effect to do both. (see HEALING) Fortunately for the world in general and the church in particular, the ability to do them is not dependent on either moral character or I.Q. To do them in the name of Christ is to be a minister. In the name of Christ not to do them is to be a bad joke.
(see also REVEREND)
And under VOCATION, Buechner say in part, “The place God calls us to is the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Amen.
Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC.
Copyright 1973 by Frederick Buechner.
Harper & Row.
We all have friends. Some, of course, are closer than others. Some are close enough that we call them our chosen family.
I had a friend named Greg who was like that.
Greg was transgender. More accurately, Greg was bi-gender–the only person I’ve ever known to use that terminology. Ze (a gender-neutral pronoun often preferred by transgender people) was also Delia (deh-LIE-a) but the personal expression that I knew best was Greg.
[I know this sounds weird. That's because I don't have the right words, not because of the person I knew and loved. Greg/Delia wasn't a multiple personality. Ze flowed freely back and forth, but was mostly integrated into one being. It's hard for me to explain, but I never had a problem with it because of the human being who ze was. But since I knew Greg best, I'll use Greg for this post.]
Greg lived in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. Ze had a great old apartment at Geary and Leavenworth. The Tenderloin is a very rough-edged place with its obvious homeless people, substance users and sellers, and sex workers, but it’s also very real, with many charms (even if they’re a bit frayed). From the street, the building looked run-down and funky, but as soon as you crossed through the solid wood door you were in a beautiful place built in the 1930s. To get to Greg’s apartment you walked up two sweeping round staircases with thick carpeting and polished wooden bannisters. It was a world unto itself. (Go here for a fascinating look at the Tenderloin.)
We spent many hours in hir (gender-neutral possessive pronoun) apartment. This was in the mid-1980s. I lived in the Castro, but Greg wasn’t as comfortable there–and Delia definitely was uncomfortable there. We cooked and ate together, we laughed and told stories. We went to the movies. We often went to a bar on the corner of hir block–the Hob Nob Lounge.
The Hob Nob was a mostly male-to-female transgender bar but there were some older gay men who hung out there too. This was the kind of place that opened at 6:00a.m. and stayed open until 2:00a.m. There was a little bar with about five barstools, and about four tables: the capacity of the place had to be around 20 patrons. This was the epitome of a Tenderloin dive bar. The bartenders were all very protective. I’m not petite by any measure, but the one who was there most often when I went in absolutely dwarfed me. I certainly wouldn’t mess with hir! It was best to walk in with someone who was a regular customer–someone like my friend. Unlike in the Castro, drinks were cheap and they were strong. I mostly knew the daytime clientele, since I didn’t often stay in the Tenderloin after dark unless Greg and I were having a slumber party. I was busy living my wild lesbian life in those days, but I probably averaged a trip to the Tenderloin once or twice a week.
Greg had come to San Francisco from Dallas. He (and I use that intentionally here) had grown up in a small West Texas town that a queer kid can’t wait to get away from. Ze had a strong Texas accent and a great laugh and a twinkle in zir eye that made you want to know the story behind it.
But, as with all of us, there was baggage. The worst part for Greg was being estranged from family of origin. It was “bad enough” for them when Greg came out as a gay man, but when ze came out to them as transgender/bi-gender, they just couldn’t listen any longer, so ze left and they never talked again. Greg wanted to be a happy-go-lucky person, so that was what ze projected, but there was so much more that wasn’t let out that it led to self-medication. Not just the alcohol consumed at the Hob Nob, but ze also got into drugs–marijuana, then both speed and heroin. And then Greg got AIDS and quickly died.
I miss Greg. I miss Delia. I’m only reminiscing. There’s no lesson here. Well, I guess there is: people are people, and you never know how wonderful someone is until you take a risk and get to know them. This is true no matter what their worldly condition is. I’m just glad that I once had Greg in my life.
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Transgender Day of Remembrance is on November 20. For more information go to http://www.transgenderdor.org/.
My friend Katie Mulligan pastors what she calls tinychurch in New Jersey. This morning, on the Sunday that the church calendar calls “Reign of Christ” Sunday (or the less inclusive language “Christ the King” Sunday), there was to be no sermon this morning. Instead they were going to read this poem, then go out and “do something” to make the world a better place… even if just for this moment.
Now that’s ushering in the Reign of Christ.
T H E N E W P O E T S
Hungry by “Street” from New Jersey, USA
Sometimes you do something you think you never would do
something like that happen to me today
first i was asking for change in front of a store
i was tired and hungry and feeling real sad
i look all around and went to the back
it something i really don’t understand
i hid in the back and look all around
i aint a bum and i aint crazy
The author’s name was only listed as “Street.” The poem can be found at http://www.viewzone.com/poet66.html.