December 27, 2020

“It’s Your Story Now,” Susan and Bob Ryder

Praying, Mary Oliver


Susan – In the Spring of 1997, Bob and I were looking for a change. In Sioux City, Iowa, we’d been serving as clergy in various positions for 8 years, and by the time we’d reached our mid-30s we were yearning to find work with a progressive congregation – a church who would be welcoming of LGBT persons, appreciative of other faith traditions, and dedicated to social justice. We also hoped to move closer to my family – so we began looking for openings on the west coast – either as a couple or in separate positions. In April of that year, we found this advertisement in Presbyterians Today magazine.

Seeking a challenge? Ready to work with creative, committed lay leadership? Would you welcome immediate, open and honest congregational comment and discussion of your reflections during worship? Do you like to facilitate study groups? This opportunity in a new, growing, “More Light” Union Church (PCUSA, UCC, Disciples) in a Midwestern University community may be for you. We are seeking a leader whose qualities include flexibility, caring, effective listening skills, imagination, a sense of humor, a strong commitment to social justice, and a willingness to take risks. We are interested in candidates with at least five years’ experience since ordination and an interest in assisting the community in financial development and in increasing membership without losing our strong sense of church family. This is a full-time position, but we are open to discussing a flexible schedule, a clergy couple, a job share, or time off to write or study. If you have a strong desire to provide visionary leadership, can nurture a group who consistently seek spiritual growth, and have competency in developing lay leadership, send a resume or dossier to …

By the time Bob got home, I already had our dossiers in an envelope. After he read the ad himself, we drove together to the post office to drop them off with what we hoped would be our lucky cover letter. The rest, as they say, is history. The weekend before we came to Normal to interview with NCC’s search committee that June, I interviewed for the position of Associate Pastor at the Presbyterian Church of the Roses in Santa Rosa, California. A few weeks later when I called them to let them know I was dropping out of their search process to accept the position at New Covenant, the chair of the search committee asked where this wonderful progressive congregation was located, and I told him – Normal, Illinois. Taken aback, he said, “But I thought you wanted to come back to California?” I thought so, too, and let me tell you – wine country in Northern California would have been an amazing place to live! But the universe had other plans for us… thank goodness!

In the 23+ years since, we’ve been through a lot together. It would take a dozen reflections to revisit all the important things we’ve experienced with you, but here are a few highlights. We’ve lived through the trauma of 9/11 and its aftermath, and celebrated the election of our first African American President. We’ve hosted world class scholars from the Jesus Seminar as well as a brilliant Nun on a Bus. We enjoyed a sabbatical in the southwest, celebrated NCC’s 25th Anniversary, and survived the administration of the first (and hopefully last) reality TV president. You welcomed my mother as a beloved part of the NCC family after my father died, which meant the world to me, and mourned her passing with us. As a matter of fact, Bob and I lost all four of our parents and both of our brothers during our time with you, and faced various medical challenges – and each time you cared for and comforted us. We’ve been there for each other through weddings and funerals, births and baptisms, conflicts and congratulations. Now the time has come for us to go our separate ways after sharing this long, wonderful, challenging, enriching journey. So we will do as Mary Oliver suggests and patch a few words together. We won’t try to make them elaborate, because this isn’t a contest but a doorway into thanks.

Bob – One of the first things I expect Susan and I will notice as we retire is a change in our mental landscape now that we’re finished composing weekly reflections and worship services. When I started my career thirty years ago, getting up to speed with the rhythm of preaching – developing a constant radar for ideas and constantly working them over in my imagination – took some doing. Just under the surface I’ve always felt a fair amount of pressure to figure out what I’d be sharing “next Sunday.” It’s going to seem strange not having that perpetually recurring deadline coming at us anymore. So here it is, the very last reflection we’ll offer with NCC. It feels like an occasion!

Here are two short readings to frame the thoughts I’ll leave you with. One is that classic prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr, “God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” The other is a promise Jesus made to his disciples in John’s gospel, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)

The most important aspects of a contented life – maybe the only important aspects of a contented life – are the serenity, courage, wisdom and peace of the sacred mystery we sometimes call “God.” Like anything valuable, these blessings call for our participation, and cultivating such gifts is especially important now as we prepare to move on. Along with this being our last Sunday together with NCC, this week is the threshold of a new calendar year.  Just a few more days and we’ve all survived 2020. In a few weeks there’ll be a new presidential administration. As more and more of us are vaccinated, the pandemic will end and we’ll return to working and travel and school something like normal – though things will never be the same as before – indeed they never are. With the passage of time, inevitably, some old relationships and challenges and opportunities will recede into the past as others come along. T’was ever thus. “The only constant is change,” as the old proverb goes. Such will be the life of this congregation with your new pastor.

With that in mind, it occurs to me the most valuable thing I’ll take with me from our years together is the practice of mindfulness I’ve learned and tried to share while serving as your pastor. Cultivating serenity, courage, wisdom and peace is much more under our own control than we often realize. We’re not passive recipients of those gifts, but partners with the sacred mystery weaving them into the fabric of our being. As we all move on to the encounter new relationships and opportunities and challenges certain to meet us in the months and years to come, as we consider what must and should be left behind and what must and should be brought along, I invite you to take as much responsibility as you can for the terms of your own contentment. 

It may sound simple, obvious even, but we’re so often manipulated to suppose our well-being depends on obtaining the right possessions or income, the right spouse, the right political leaders, the right car or job or home. Certainly any of those can facilitate happiness to an extent, but the world cannot and will not give sacred gifts. How many people do you know who have much more than enough yet are unhappy? Serenity, courage, wisdom and peace are not dependent on the world’s cooperation, but on our own willingness to be deliberate with our attention and habits, practicing discipline in our appetites, generosity in our relationships and gratitude in our perspective. Particularly now at the threshold of some very significant endings and beginnings, we’ll all do well to practice those habits of mind and heart that cultivate such spiritual gifts.

Susan – There is a scene from a movie that has stuck with me for many years that seems fitting for this occasion, and frames my final thoughts to leave with you. In the storylines of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and its sequel, “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” the heart of the plot revolves around the relationship between the main characters – Maggie Smith as Muriel, the British retiree and Dev Patel as Sonny, the young Indian man who runs the Marigold Hotel. Muriel gives Sonny lessons in love and life, and by the end of the first movie ends up co-managing the hotel with him. As the second movie begins, the hotel has become such a success that there is only one vacancy, which sets the stage for Sonny to pursue his dream of opening a second hotel. He is also preparing to marry the love of his life, Sunaina. Muriel’s health is a question mark throughout the film as she visits doctors and appears to receive bad news, though she does not share it with anyone. At the end of the movie, after helping Sonny with his new hotel and advising him how to smooth things over with his bride-to-be, Muriel pens a letter to Sonny, which is voiced over the wedding reception in the final scene.

“I know you’ll understand me missing the reception, and I hope you’ll forgive me for not coming to say goodbye. Go and have the honeymoon you deserve. I’m sure there will be somebody there to see you off. There is no such thing as an ending, just a place where you leave the story. And it’s your story now.” I paused the movie and wrote down those lines – “There is no such thing as an ending, just a place where you leave the story. And it’s your story now.” 

Bob and I leaving NCC is – of course – not it’s ending, just the place where we leave the story. It’s your story now – as it always has been.

Bob: If you’d told Susan and I at the beginning of 1997 she’d be offered a position with a prestigious Presbyterian Church in Sonoma Valley California, but instead of going there we’d take a position with a small start-up congregation in central Illinois, I’m sure we’d have thought we were crazy. Looking back on it now it’s the best decision we could have made. Our happiness – our contentment – didn’t depend at all on taking a job with a big salary in an ideal location. Here we’ve met together around Jesus’ open table, practiced as best we could his open-hearted generosity and forgiveness and friendship, and found the serenity, courage and wisdom we’ve needed to make our way in an unpredictable and dangerous and beautiful world. As we leave the story, may God grant you serenity to accept things you cannot chance, courage to change the things you can, and wisdom to know the difference. May the love of God surround you everywhere you may go, and may the peace of Christ be with you always.

Susan – From the bottom of our hearts we thank you for your many years of kind attention – and bid you a very fond farewell. It’s your story now – amen.