Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"Poppy Cox"

After forty years of ordained service to the United Methodist Church, the past thirty-one as Pastor of the Hawley United Methodist Church, The Rev. Martin Luther Cox, Jr., retired this past weekend. I was asked to share some thoughts at the celebration to mark this momentous occasion.

I grew up at the Hawley United Methodist Church, leaving for college in the fall of 1981. After college I ended up at Drew Theological School. As a few of you here know, I worked during my middler year at Drew for a guy named Doug Miller in Demarest, New Jersey. This experience drove me to the Episcopal Church—where I was ordained to the priesthood in 1993. 

I know that most of the people here, even most of my family, have known Marty as their pastor. But the pastor I knew growing up here was Gail Wintermute, who retired the summer before my senior year of high school. A guy named Edgar Singer came to Hawley for a year to do a kind of interim—rare in United Methodist circles, but essentially that is what it was. And then I headed off to college. So Marty arrived in Hawley right as I was leaving, thirty-one years ago. 

So I have just one story for you about Marty as my pastor. When I came home from college for Christmas break in December 1981, I was invited along with a half dozen or so other college students to come up to the parsonage to meet the new pastor. I remember that Marty was playing a Billy Joel album—I think it was The Stranger but I wouldn’t swear to that. An album with a needle and everything in those days, and I thought he was pretty cool…for a minister. 

Notice that qualifier: cool, for a minister, which is not in the same as, say, cool for a firefighter or Major League ballplayer. Even so, I did think that Martin seemed “cool, for a minister.”  That was my first impression.

I could not know at the time that Marty would soon become part of my family. Four months later, in April 1982, my father died very suddenly. And a year and a half after that—just as I was getting ready to head off to St. Andrews, Scotland for my junior year of college—Peg and Marty were married.But Marty was wise enough to know, especially early on, that a twenty-one year old kid who has just lost his father is not really looking for anyone to replace their dad. And I think my siblings would have said the same thing thirty years ago. We all love Marty dearly, and we all loved our dad. We have never confused the two. 

What I think we would all add, however, is this: we have always known that Marty loved Peg, and he has treated her well. He is not a handyman and he doesn’t mow the lawn. He is a decent cook and his soups are “alright”—if you add a little salt. But he has always treated our mother with love and respect and kindness and the truth is that is all any kid can ask of the man who marries your mother.

Marty never forced himself on any of us, as stepparents are sometimes tempted to do. He gave us space and that proved to be very wise. What happened, over time, as we each in turn married and became parents, is something I had not foreseen. He became the grandfather to our children.

It still makes me sad that my kids never met my dad. Early on, I might have even said that they never met their “real” grandfather. But it didn’t take very long to realize that was not the right way to put it. When Graham was born in 1990, it changed who Marty was in our family. He became “Poppy.” (More specificially, Poppy Cox.) And for sure he became, and has always been, a very real grandfather to the whole Simpson clan, even giving those whose parents would allow it their own nicknames. He has been everything and more than we could have asked for in a grandfather: attending our kids’ concerts, plays, madrigal dinners, sporting events, and graduations along the way. 
For this I know that my siblings and I—and our spouses and our children— are profoundly grateful. 
The best part of Marty retiring, then, is that we—the Simpsons—don’t lose that. In fact we get more of him.  For those of us who live a bit further afield from Hawley—in Highbridge or Holden—we hope that Marty will be able to drag Peg on a few more road trips and wander a bit further away from Hawley. I realize that for Jim and Susie and their families it’s more complex, because they are also losing a pastor, but speaking for the Holden crew, this is pretty much all gain.

Obviously this is a sad day (or at least a bittersweet day for members of the Hawley United Methodist Church) and as a pastor myself I get that. Literally this is the end of an era and in true Methodist fashion, a new chapter begins next weekend. But it will take some time for the congregation to adjust to a new leadership style and preaching style. I just want to say that since this will always be my “home congregation” you will be in my prayers as that unfolds.

On a more personal note:  Marty has been a mentor and a friend to me over the past 25 years since I have been ordained. Marty has always been there as someone I could turn to. And even when I decided that I felt called to return to the tradition of the Wesley boys and become an Episcopalian, Marty was there as someone to help with that discernment, even though he did try to talk me into staying in the United Methodist Church.

When I went off to seminary, some people assumed that Marty was a big influence on my call to ordained ministry. He wasn’t, mainly for the reasons I began with: he was not really my pastor as I was sorting all of that out, and only very recently my stepfather. But what I can say is this: over the past 25 years, he has been a huge influence in my formation as a pastor. He has helped to shape my understanding of ministry and of who I am as a parish priest in ways that I cannot even begin to enumerate. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then I can truly say that as I have embraced my own call to a long term ministry in the parish—something I never imagined I would be doing—I have continued to look at how he has led the Hawley United Methodist Church by always staying engaged and adapting to a changing world while remaining true to his core values.

This is always a dance, of course. The Christian Century has run a series over the years entitled “How My Mind Has Changed,” written by various theologians. I’d love to see Marty write for that series. Sometimes you meet clergy who have not had a single thought since graduating seminary and you can pretty much narrow down which seminary they went to and what decade it was by listening to a few sermons or watching them lead worship. In contrast, sometimes you meet clergy who are always chasing the latest fad; clergy who have no core theology at all and always think the next thing is right around the corner. What is harder and more authentic, is to keep open, to keep journeying, to know that theological truth is always at some level autobiographical and always evolving: because it is shaped by our continuing relationship with God and God’s people. Marty has embodied this truth, I think and his mind has changed over the years—and I think this is a very good thing.

A couple of years ago, Marty and I travelled with a friend of ours, a UCC pastor, to the Holy Land. We three pastors journeyed east, like the magi—three wise guys in search of the Christ. It was quite an adventure.

I realized on that trip that Marty really is a rare bird. Now I knew this before, but I mean—halfway around the world, I got even clearer about that. On free time he’d be up on the roof in our lodgings in Jerusalem smoking his pipe and reading a book…just being himself. Or sitting out looking at the Sea of Galilee, on a chair, smoking his pipe. And here is the thing: we could have been anywhere in the world:  in Chicago or on the back porch at “832”—or in Duck, or on the back decks in Holden or Highbridge.

He’s one of a kind. It’s hard to describe. I mean, we all are who we are, wherever we go. But there is very little “veneer” to Marty. Maybe none. He is the real deal. What you see is truly what you get. He is authentic.

Part of what I saw, with deep appreciation, was how he related to the seminarians on that trip; there were a half dozen of them from Virginia Seminary. And so Chris and Marty and I were the seasoned veterans, the longtime pastors. Without a touch of condescension, I saw Marty encouraging, engaging, teaching—in ways that I have pretty much taken for granted for three decades. And yet like all great teachers, an inquisitive and curious learner himself. I saw him mentoring others as he has mentored me, in his own unique way. And then it dawned on me, he was actually kind of cool in the way he did this. At least for a minister.

Those here who are pastors will especially appreciate what I am trying to say, knowing that this is not always how older clergy behave with younger ones. Burnout is more normal, I think, and sometimes even resentment—or a know-it-all attempt at mentoring which is not helpful. Marty is a pastor—and a pastor’s pastor. In fact, while I know he never aspired to it, he would have been a very good D.S. I think, at least to the extent that that is part of the job. Or a seminary professor. He’s a fine Biblical scholar and theologian, for sure. But parish ministry has suited him because all of those gifts are all directed toward the goal of helping to form disciples, both lay and ordained. Marty doesn’t wear that mentoring role on his sleeve, but it goes to the core of who he is with other pastors—as I witnessed in Israel and as I have experienced firsthand.

Under Marty’s leadership, the Hawley United Methodist Church has gone from one third of a three-point charge to one of the thriving congregations in the Conference. He’s done that not by chasing after fads on the one hand, or being a rigid traditionalist on the other: but by finding that balance—that “middle way” as we Episcopalians like to say—of being a leader and a pastor who is open to Spirit-led change. He’s done that with a great deal of integrity. He’s not done that alone, because ministry is never a lone-ranger thing. It doesn’t work that way. But clergy certainly can help mess things up. So Marty does deserve credit for having led the Hawley United Methodist Church to this new place in its life in Christ.

When Marty and I are together in Hawley or Holden or the Holy Land, we tend to more often be talking about the grandchildren or politics or our shared love of cooking at least as often as we talk theology. But when we do talk theology, it is never ethereal: it is always grounded in the life and mission and witness of God’s people, gathered together to hear the Word proclaimed and to break the bread and share the cup. It is always ultimately about what it means to be the Church, which is about what it means to form more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. As I continue to grow in this work, it seems to me, that is what it is all about.

I began with Billy Joel; let me end with Springsteen, and then I’ll sit down. I was listening to my I-Pod a couple of weeks ago, on shuffle. (Even on shuffle a lot of Bruce Springsteen comes up on my I-Pod!) In this case, it was an extra track on the Magic album, probably not familiar to most of you unless you are a real hardcore fan: a bonus track called “Terry’s Song.” The song was added after the death of Springsteen’s longtime assistant, Terry Macgovern, as a tribute to his life. As a side note, it was first sung by Bruce at Terry’s memorial service on August 2, 2007, at the United Methodist Church in Red Bank, New Jersey.  

That song could easily have been written to describe “Poppy.” And so I’ll close with these words by a great American poet:
Well they built the Titanic to be one of a kind, but many ships have ruled the seas
They built the Eiffel Tower to stand alone, but they could build another if they please
Taj Mahal, the pyramids of Egypt, are unique I suppose
But when they built you, brother, they broke the mold

Now the world is filled with many wonders under the passing sun
And sometimes something comes along and you know it's for sure the only one
The Mona Lisa, the David, the Sistine Chapel, Jesus, Mary, and Joe
And when they built you, brother, they broke the mold
When they built you, brother, they turned dust into gold
When they built you, brother, they broke the mold

1 comment:

  1. That was great Rich. I'm sure Marty and your mom were so pleased. Love you much, Aunt Lou