Eighteen Years of Blessings

“Thank God for Jesus! He keeps me going. When I retires, I’m going to have me no regrets, because I done worked sufficient.” In 1952 my father was working at his desk when “Classie,” our cleaning lady, burst out with “Thank God for Jesus! He keeps me going. When I retires . . . I done worked sufficient.” To that I say “Amen.”

Thank you St. John’s for the best eighteen years of my life. Thank you, Faye, for supporting me for the last 47 years. Thank you Mike and Chris, and Ben, for being the foils of my homilies.

In order to show the importance of St. John’s, I want to begin by talking about myself and from that I hope you will see that this is a church of salvation, where second chances and small miracles happen every day. Not too long ago I was reading a novel by Andrew Greeley, and I realized that a recurring theme in his books is that “Christianity is a religion of second chances.” I firmly believe that, because that has been my experience. Much of my life before I came to St. John’s was summed up in two phrases: “We are just not quite sure,” and “You just never know.” The first quote came from many sources. The later quote came from my mother-in-law, Mary, a.k.a “Gladys.” “You just never know.”

To set the scene for how blessed I have been by St. John’s, permit me to give you a little biography. (I admit that it sounds like a cross between Rodney Dangerfield and Jackie Mason.) Around 1952 I realized that I wanted to become a minister. I was a Methodist, so I was interviewed by my minister in order to be given a license to preach (the first step toward ordination). The minister looked at me and said, “Do you know your parents like your brother better than you?” “Well, I tend to be an introvert and my brother is an extrovert. He is a talented musician, artist and actor and is successful as a salesman. What’s not to like?” But “what a strange thing to say to someone,” I thought.

My next interview when I was sixteen/seventeen was with the Boy Scout Commissioner. I had completed all of the requirements for the rank of Eagle Scout. He looked at me and in front of a review committee of six said, “Basically we don’t like you. We are just not quite sure about you. But we are going to give you the Eagle anyway.” “What a dumb thing to say to someone,” I mused.

Affirmation came at age 18 when the drama coach asked me to take the role of the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” The play is about life at the turn of the twentieth century in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. It is a profoundly insightful story that is deceptively simple. Donald Wolfe in the NYT, 12/1/02 notes, “Told with great simplicity and truth, “Our Town” draws from the finite and places Grover’s Corners in the cosmos of the human experience.” Wilder, himself, said, “I have set a small village against the largest dimensions of time and place.” The Stage Manager role is that of observer and narrator. I guess I did okay with it, because they didn’t close the play.

Off I went to Yale College. It was grueling. There were one thousand men in my class and the university chose one hundred and put us in a Carnegie Foundation curriculum called “Directed Studies.” “Here is Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Have it read by the end of the week and give us a seven-page critique. Also read five of Shakespeare’s historical plays this week and give us a ten-page paper comparing and contrasting the roles of the protagonists and the antagonists.” I felt perpetually stupid. My senior year I took my comprehensives in English literature. After they were done, I was eating in the dining hall when one of my professors came by and said, “Congratulations. You did remarkably well. I didn’t think you would do very well at all.” In other words, “We just aren’t quite sure.” “Why would anyone say that to someone,” I wondered.

Off I went to Yale Divinity School. At the end of the first year I received a check in the mail for several hundred dollars. It was annotated “Tew Prize for Excellence in Church History.” No one had told me I had won. “This place is weird,” I thought. I took an extra year at the Divinity School in order to strengthen my Greek and Hebrew. I got A’s and B’s throughout the total four years. During the last three years I worked as a chaplain’s assistant and lived on the Old Campus and worked with undergraduates. Bill Coffin was Chaplain and Burton MacLean was Associate Chaplain. Burt was low-keyed and reflective. There was also a Disciples of Christ chaplain, Harry Baker Adams, who was so low-keyed I didn’t think he had a pulse. (Harry had been a fighter pilot in WWII, so after that I guess nothing fazed him.) Harry ended up with a forty-year career at Yale, was Chaplain, Dean of the Divinity School, Dean of the Forestry school, etc. He was a utility infielder.

I decided I wanted to teach and be a university chaplain and that I wanted a PhD in New Testament. So I asked for a letter of recommendation from my New Testament professor who said, “I see no indication that you are capable of doing graduate work.” That was a little harder than “We just aren’t quite sure.” I was accepted at the University of Chicago and given a ton of scholarship money.

So I married Faye, over the objections of her parents and mine, and off we went to Chicago, where for seven years I studied the Bible and religion in general. I translated all the Old Testament from Hebrew and all of the New Testament from Greek and became proficient in seven languages. I wrote book reviews for The Journal of Religion and assisted at two Episcopal Churches, St. George’s on the Southside of Chicago and Christ Church, Winnetka. At the time I was a candidate for holy orders under Bishop Anson Phelps Stokes in Massachusetts. In 1968 my father had a heart attack and asked me to come back and take over the family business, Helen Gage Personnel and Gage Technical Agency. I figured that I could never get in a pulpit and preach if I turned my back on my parents in their time of need.

From 1968 to 1988 I owned an operated the business. I never did figure out how to do it, but I lasted twenty years. I buried my father in 1977 and my mother in 1978. For twenty years I went to conferences of employment agencies in which a presenter would say, “This is how you do personnel work.” Two years later he would be out of business and someone else would be saying the same thing and then go out of business. During those twenty years I went over to St. Andrew’s at noon and sat in the chapel for twenty minutes. I had tried St. John’s but the doors were locked. Mark DeWolf was the rector at St. Andrews at the time. In 1987 I was driving to work, reflecting on how futile and hopeless my life was, and I crossed the RR track in Glenbrook. There were two signs on the side of the road. One said “Straight ahead for Stamford House Wrecking” and the other said, “Turn for St. Maurice Church.” I thought, “I have got to make a turn.” If I keep going ahead I am going to be a “house wreck.” At noon I said to Mark, “I never should dropped out of the PhD program and come here.” He said, “Go talk to the bishop and get back in the process.” So I met with the bishop and he said I could be admitted and it would probably only take a year. I could read for my canonical exams. I read for the canonicals in my basement and went through the ordination process, which was a continuous process of committees saying, “We just aren’t quite sure.”

I went to Stamford Hospital and enrolled in the Clergy Pastoral Education program (a requirement). From September to January I could not communicate with the executive director. After January we got along fine. I asked Rick Alton, who is now the priest at St. Andrew’s, what happened. He said, “You put the director back into psychoanalysis. You reminded him of his father.” Shortly thereafter I went up to St. Mark’s in New Canaan and worked for the rector. He told me that he was “just not quite sure.” “Sir,” I said. “I am over fifty, have three degrees, have run a highly successful business and have two well adjusted sons. You hired me because you thought you could trust my judgment. Either do that or I am out of here.” There was a long pause. “Okay,” he said.

When I was ordained deacon, my brother, a vice president of True Value Hardware Stores, flew out from Chicago for my ordination. He went up to my bishop and said, “I am Bart’s brother.” The bishop looked at him and said, “Bart’s a nice guy, but I don’t have a clue what to do with him.” He turned and walked away. “Who is that?” my brother asked. “That’s my bishop.” I replied.

For eighteen months I looked for a job as a priest. Everyone in my ordinands’ training class was placed sooner and had better jobs. But I wasn’t worried. I knew how personnel placement worked. On my third application to St. John’s Leander Harding hired me in February of 1990. It was the beginning of a whole new life. God had given me a second chance.

My first day at St. John’s I walked in and met a parishioner in the hall. “Hi, I’m Bart.” “We have no money. Everyone thinks we have money.” The parishioner turned and walked away. I went up stairs and walked down to the business office where Art Avery, George Holmes and Dick Vezina were counting the Sunday collection. “Hi. I’m Bart,” I said. They greeted me warmly and the office manager came in and said, “You are not allowed in here. They are busy. You have no business in here.” “I was simply introducing myself,” I replied. “We are busy. You don’t belong here. Leave.” She said. Later, I asked for a print out of the pledges, who gave and how much. “You can’t have that. The clergy have no business knowing that or about the finances of the church.” “I am in charge of pastoral care. That information tells me something about the individuals and families. I don’t evaluate people on how much they give, but knowing that information, and whether or not they give, is helpful in understanding the parishioners.” “You can’t have it. It is none of the clergy’s business.” Three days later the information was on my desk.

The first vestry meeting I went to I said that I would like to call on everyone in the parish. “You’re not calling on me!” The vestry replied. At a later vestry meeting a young woman complained that we always spent all of our time on money and never talked about mission or vision or religion. “Don’t pay any attention to her,” someone said. “She is absolutely right,” I thought.

In working out my role in the church I decided I wanted to be a priest. I wanted to celebrate the sacraments and do the offices of the Church. I was not talented as an organizer or organizational development guru. Nor was I a social worker, counsellor or minister in the Protestant sense. I felt called to hold up the desires and pain of the parishioners before God and to give to them the body and blood of Christ, of one who took all of the sorrow and longings and joy up into Himself. Unconsciously, my patterns for role model were that of a chaplain and that of the stage manager, who observed and was invited into the vignettes of the lives of others. My role was to receive epiphanies, moments of insight, to bless them and to offer them up to God. Burton MacLean and Harry Baker Adams were my subconscious models.

Because of my business background I served on the stewardship, budget, and finance committees. After the first year I was at a budget committee in which the budget for the upcoming year was to be put together. When I got to the meeting I discovered the budget had already been put together and I had been cut from the budget. The chairman told me not to take it personally. “But I do,” I replied. “You have just bankrupted me.” We went around the table and everyone made comments. I was last. “There is no money,” I was told. “You have plenty of money,” I replied. “It is just how you allocate it. You are giving away way too much money. You are funding the Council of Churches five different ways. Sit down. Figure out how much money you want to give them and that’s it. You are giving free rent, twenty thousand in cash and also funding five of their programs. Also get a long-term lease on 8 Woodland because as of now you have no control over your expenses there.” “You are a piece of work,” the chairman said. “Yes I am.” I replied. “Well, this is all confidential and we meet tomorrow night and give the budget to the finance committee.” So I went home. Faye was on the phone talking to a woman who sang in the choir and whose children Faye had in school. I dropped the budget in Faye’s lap and went to wash up. “Holy Cow!” Faye exclaimed. “They cut Bart out of the budget!” “I was not supposed to tell anyone,” I said. “You didn’t. I did,” replied Faye.

When the finance committee met the next night, the chairman said, “Well, Bart’s back in the budget. My phone rang all night. Did you say anything?” “Not me.” I replied.

The movement to get rid of Fr. Harding as the rector had begun. It had started by trying to take away his help. The irony was that from the time of that finance committee meeting I was an untouchable neutral person, accessible to both sides and ministering to everyone. The fight went on for two years. During that time I took parish development courses with the diocese and wrote papers about the fight here. I said it was all about power, about who calls the shots. For two years I was told, “No. It is about communication. It is about vision. You just don’t understand.” At the end of two years they said, “It is simply about power.” Well, duh.

At a vestry meeting Fr. Harding was getting beaten up about program. I said, “This is our two hundred and fiftieth anniversary, why don’t we have the diocesan convention here?” Fr. Harding caught the pass and said, “Bart and I have been planning that.” We celebrated two hundred and fifty years and brought back parishioners from all over. It was grand. We had an art exhibition and I did a weekend forum on What Color Is Your Parachute?

A speaker was brought in and we had an attendance of one hundred.

After several years the bishop came down and dissolved the vestry, told the staff to hand in their resignations and for us to reconstitute a new vestry. We did. Fr. Harding went on vacation and then on sabbatical. Things were wonderful. Everyone got along. I served on the board of the Council of Churches, Family and Children Services, The Center for Hope, and did some stuff with St. Luke’s Life Works.

The Council of Churches and Synagogues occupied two of the rooms on the second floor of Hemsley House. One day the executive director came into my office and said, “We need space. Why can’t we have your office? You don’t do anything.” Later at a dinner meeting in our dining room I was asked to give the invocation. First I was taken aside and asked not to mention God, lest I make someone uncomfortable. At the Xerox machine I found a list of contributors by churches. We were the highest (around ten or twenty thousand). Number two on the list gave three thousand dollars. I served on the board for about six years and was head of the personnel committee until I realized that the board members refused to follow their own personnel procedures. They did a search for an executive director and an interim came in and said, “Why can’t we have your office? You don’t do anything.” “So I’ve been told,” I replied. At a board meeting a staff member shouted me down. I resolved then and there to quit the board. Two years later The Council was gone. The Stage Manager rearranged things. Later the Council imploded for a number of reasons.

I wrote ads for the Christmas Show and other events. I lobbied for the playing of the various Masses (Hayden, Mozart, etc.) as part of the service and finally we had them celebrated with orchestra. I sat in my clergy stall and wept. My wife, Julie Zietlow, Julie Chelminski, and Bunny Zwart were angels in the balcony in the Christmas Shows. I directed traffic in the garage for sixteen years. Faye and I cooked and served Thanksgiving dinner at the church until the number of street people and mentally ill made it impossible. One Chinese American lady claimed she was an Episcopal Priest and started celebrating at the altar, having lit candles all over the church. Father Harding stated Family Fun Night and it went well until several people took advantage of it. For eighteen years Faye and I hosted the annual parish picnic at our house.

When I came to St. John’s we had a sexton who had come here from Poland before the revolution. He decided to strip the floors right before Easter Eve. He created a sea of mud. Nellie Guernsey and Richard Harding came in and worked all night. The floors were fine on Easter. The sexton had taken to his bed twelve hours earlier. One day Don Shaver and I cleaned out a room in the basement of Hemsley House and there was a black iron pipe running across the floor. In the midst of it was brass valve. “Sexton, I think that is a gas pipe.” The sexton took out his Zippo lighter, lit it, and bent over the pipe. “Oh, no, Father. If that gas, big boom!” Later I asked him to take some trash out from the gym. He did and then asked to use the Xerox. After he was done he handed me his job description and said, “That is what I’m paid to do. Nothing else.” Time to play the Stage Manager again.

Nearly every day I went to the hospital. My model was Father Ruffin. He was a Roman Catholic priest who patrolled the hospital and was a “cookie popper.” He would come in, give communion, and leave. He was disparaged by those in CPE. We were supposed to enable the patient to articulate how he/she felt about being ill and in the hospital. What I discovered was that the CPE types would have one meaningful conversation and then disappear. “Fr. Ruffin has it right,” I thought. “He comes everyday.” So I tried to come everyday and chat just a little. That is how I found Al Atherton (our former Sr. Warden and now our treasurer). He had had an auto accident and broke everything from the neck down. I never thought Al would walk again. He left at the end of six weeks. According to him, he had to get out of the hospital in order to get away from my bad jokes. I watched a parishioner private duty her mother for weeks. It was one of the most beautiful and tender things I ever saw. One day I came in and the mother was like always, lying there with her mouth open. I prayed, read some psalms, and then realized she wasn’t breathing. I went to the nurse and said, “I don’t think that woman is breathing.” “Oh no. She’s dead.” The nurse pivoted and left. “You just never know,” I thought to myself. Later, this parishioner went through the same thing with her aunt.

And now for THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS. Year in and year out I did funerals. Every one broke your heart and some were unbelievably funny. (Like the time they left grandma on a FedEx truck.) There were Art Avery, Dell Barden, Bill Burnett, Keith Canning, Arthur Cassell, Betty Conwell, Gladys Debathe, Ted Furlong, Alvin Goebel, George Homes, Ann Homes, Theodore Howard, Mrs. Jevene, Stephen Kaye, Stewart Lang, Henri Ottinger, Roxie Otterbein, Jack and Blanch Pacnda, Eric Ram, Walt and Fran Reynolds, Ralph Scalero, Elva Shuttleworth, Jane Staples, Doris Taylor, Stan Twardy, Anne Wagstaff, Gladys Weaver, Sylvester Wolf, and Julie Zietlow, to name only a few out of about five hundred.

I remember the “Seven Elves” coming to the altar rail. They didn’t know I called them that, but they were adorable. None of them was over four-feet-ten. They were elderly ladies, Frances Dobbs, Frances Reynolds, Anne Holmes, Blanche Pacanda, Doris Taylor, Mildred Poole, Agnes Mayes, and Arvilla Pleasec. They used to sit together and they would come down the center aisle Indian file. Each one more precious than gold. They are all gone. I remember sitting in the lobby of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and sobbing when Julie Zietlow died. I broke down giving last rites to Betty Conwell. Later, when I told Rick Alton that I sat in my car and cried, he replied, “That is what a priest is supposed to do.” Some time ago, my son Chris wrote a poem about me. I didn’t know it at the time. A line in it read “My father is the one who stands at your grave and weeps.”

There is a prayer in the Book of Common Prayer that I recite amost daily, “Help us, we pray, in the midst of things we cannot understand, to believe and trust in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection to life everlasting. Amen.” (p. 481)

Of course there are moments of joy, such as THE CELEBRATION AND BLESSING OF MARRIAGE. Some of the funniest things that happened occured in weddings, such as the maid of honor who had the logo of the New York Yankees tattooed on her shoulder and the portrait of Jason Geambi tatooed on her back! There was the groom’s mother, who lined everyone up before the wedding to make sure no one was stoned. Then there was the groom and best man who called their bookie and placed a bet one minute before the start of the processional. There was also the best man who kept taking shots from his flask. Some of the weddings I remember are Frank and Susan Bolognina, Doug and Dorte Cassell, Connee and Michael Dawson, Vincent and Ramonde Gilmore, David and Heather Lang, Chris and Laurene Racette, Dar and Jer Rowland, David and Jodi Russell, Bob and Viv Sullivan, Paul and Mary Jo Vincent, plus dozens and dozens more out of seventy.

What is rewarding is that many of them took literally the admonition to be fruitful and multiply. The joy of baptizing the children of those whom you have married is surprisingly glorious.

There have been goofy things as well, such as the time right before the Christmas Show I yelled at Canterbury Green to put lights on the tree. “Trim the tree!” Each day I got more irrate. On Friday a truck showed up and five guys got out with chain saw and trimmed the trees!

For eighteen years I have done prayers for healing following every service. Over and over I have seen lives changed. X came here barely able to talk. Five years later X walked out totally changed. Y was brought here by the most unlikely person. Y was devestated by defeats in Y’s life. Five years later Y’s life was healed and whole. Z came here alcohol dependent. Z is now clean and sober. M, N, O, and P were in jail. They are now decent citizens. All of that was made possible by the liturgy, the prayers, the worship and the sacraments of this parish. Small miracles indeed. Big mracles in the lives of the redeemed and in my own life.

It is now time for a change. You need new programs, work in group dynamics and greater lay involvement in pastoral care. I have relied on Bunny Zwart as parish nurse, Sandie Libbey for her observations, Barbara Cook for phone ministry, Polly Vanderwart for history, the flower deliverers, Kedley and Owen and the Jamaicans, and the Bible Ladies to keep an eye on things and let me know when I am needed. They have been my informal group of pastoral care advisors. It is time for the chaplain, the stage manager, who sees the finite in human experience manifesting God’s cosmic love, to step aside. It is time to follow the books and have Stephen Ministers, Alpha and Pastoral Care Associates and Christian Yoga. It is time to put away stories and jokes and singing in the center aisle.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Ecclesiastes 3:1. It is now time for me to go. “Bart’s a good guy, but I just don’t know what to do with him.” Yes, but God knew what to do. “We are just not quite sure.” God was sure. God was steadfast. “Thank God for Jesus! He kept me going.” Have “I done work sufficient?” No. I don’t think so. What will I do during the next eighteen years? “You just never know.” But I wouldn’t exchange your life and my life at St. John’s for anything in the world. I have been incredibly blessed. May the Lord bless you and keep you — always. Amen. 2/27/08.