50 Years On: A Journey in Faith

Yale Reunion Sermon
10:30 AM Battell Chapel
Trinity Sunday, June 3, 2012
Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8

“50 Years On: A Journey in Faith”

By the Rev. Rod Quainton

First of all let me thank Ian Oliver and the Battell Chapel Chaplain’s office for extending this invitation to preach this morning. Today is Trinity Sunday, I guess that’s why they ask a guest to preach. Even with a Yale education I can not explain it nor will I try, suffice it to say it is a faith mystery! I must confess this is only the second time I have never been in Battell Chapel the first being last Friday for the Class of ’62’s Memorial Service. At our class Friday entertainment we heard read a litany of all the luminaries who came to Yale during our residence; however notably missing were the names of theologians and preachers who have graced this Chapel so I want to set the record straight. I am greatly honored to share the pulpit graced during my tenure at Yale 1958-1962 by those leading theologians of the day. Little did I know! The names include theological giants such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Lesslie Newbigin, Bishop Paul Moore, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and dare I admit it Bishop James Pike. The list goes on but you get the idea. None of these shoes am I able to stand in. Alas I never heard any of them preach but am more than familiar with their writings. That may something about by religiosity, while at Yale. Actually I was a practicing Roman Catholic at the time and was nourished by the Chapel of St. Thomas More, however; once I became a member of Timothy Dwight College the walk was a bit much given the weekend festivities and the fact the college was closer to Paris than St. Thomas More at least philosophically.

My how the times have changed! These renowned names are excoriated in the book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, recently published by Ross Douthat, New York Times Op-Ed contributor. I must admit I resemble much of his heresy comments as would almost all the names I just cited who preached in this pulpit! A second book equally as provocative is James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. For those of us nurtured in an open and welcoming faith, the decline of our institutions is sad; yet, ever being the optimist, I think these principles will stand the test of time. As Hunter admonishes, it’s time for Christians to focus on the social and relational power, the power found in ordinary daily life not the acquiring of political power which by nature can be coercive. He calls for individuals as Christians and those institutions in Christ’s name to be less super PACS of the left or right and more of a “faithful presence”. Being of the Anglican via media stripe that notion is appealing to me.

This sermon is more like a valedictory, part reminiscence and lessons learned to be passed forward from the vantage point of 50 Years On! If I had to sum up my faith and ministry it would be “faithful presence.” My call did not come from God in the storms of life but rather unfolded after 4 years of Yale, 17 years of banking, 4 years in the US Navy and 2 years at a certain institution by a river that shall go nameless in these precincts. It was a gradual answer to the question we heard in today’s reading from Isaiah where God addresses us with the question “whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” After 45 years of life I was able to answer, “Here am I, send me!” and that is the rest of the story.

My journey began in Pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism and has traversed what I like to call the wilderness years before entering the Episcopal landscape and presently serving a Methodist Congregation before moving to the next stage as a clergy coach and mentor in “retirement”. I was formed in the 50s, annealed in the 60s, so I stand convicted of Bad Religion. Perhaps the origins of my theological belief of communitarian openness and inclusiveness which resides in the Methodists mantra “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” began in a class I had on Comparative Religions during my sophomore year, the professor’s name escapes but the breath of fresh air emanating from that classroom has remained with me ever since. In that spirit I salute the inter faith nature of the Yale Chaplain’s Office.

Like all journeys there are milestones and land mines but I would like to share some of the milestones. A ministry of “faithful presence” I believe calls us to be as Christians “something different, not defensive against, isolated from, or absorbed into the dominant culture, but to be faithfully present within it!” as James Hunter has written. (P.277)

The first example occurs during the Vietnam War when I was Aide and Flag Lieutenant, executive assistant in secular parlance to the Commander Service Group Three under Admiral Ward whose previous command was Senior Naval Advisor to General Westmoreland. Admiral Ward taught me the meaning of “faithful presence”. He was a devout Roman Catholic and highly decorated submarine captain during WWII.

The incident which comes to mind occurred on a hot sultry day when the admiral’s flagship, the USS Mars was anchored off the coast of Danang, South Vietnam. As a surprise I arranged for Admiral Ward’s number one son to visit him for lunch on the admirals’ birthday. His son was a marine Captain serving in the jungle near Danang. A helicopter was sent into the jungle to pick up his son. After a special birthday lunch on board we flew back into the countryside over dense jungle until we came upon a clearing. The helicopter dropped down fast to let off our special passenger who was in full camouflaged array with bandoliers of ammo and high powered weapons strapped to him. As he alights from the copter in proper military protocol he turns to his father gives a snappy salute and disappears off into the jungle. It was a poignant moment of father-son respect and bonding.

Several days later I had the duty of delivering the telex informing the admiral that his son had been killed in action leaving two children and a pregnant wife back in San Diego. All I could do was be present. I had witnessed the last intimate moment between a father and son, a moment of respect and love. I watched over the course of a year how Admiral Ward handled the situation including embracing his daughter-in-law and encouraging her to find a new mate who ultimately was incorporated into the Ward family along with the new ‘grand children”. Perhaps not exactly a Leverite response but certainly in that spirit.

A second Admiral Ward experience occurred in Sasebo, Japan was when he took command of Service Group Three. Part of the formal courtesies was to call on the Japanese Admiral in command of the Naval Base at Sasebo, where we were stationed. I have never forgotten this encounter which taught me the gift and power of forgiveness through “faithful presence”. After the usual pleasantries and copious cups of green tea, the conversation gravitated to and what did you do in the war, with both admirals facing each other with chests full of medals. As the conversation progressed it seems they had been direct adversaries during the war in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Admiral Ward had been in command of a submarine that was hunting and being hunted by a destroyer commanded by the Japanese admiral. In what could have been a tense conversation, it was very animated but not bitter one of professionalism and caring for the other. I saw Admiral Ward demonstrate the Christian virtues of faithful witness, healing and reconciliation in action.

Another major happening along the faith journey also occurred in Japan when I was assigned to be Deputy General Manager of First Chicago’s branch in Tokyo. That first Sunday after an 18 hour flight with a 2 1/2 year old and 9 month old we sought out the local Anglican English Church, St. Alban’s which was walking distance from our apartment in the shadow of the Tokyo Tower. That Sunday much like this Sunday, we had communion. The communion rail was horseshoe shaped and contained about 30 places. I am in the corner watching while the priest and the Eucharistic minister serve communion as they progressed around the rail then it hit me: at that rail were representatives of all the major racial and ethnic groups on the planet, blacks from Africa, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans from Asia, Indian’s from India, Latin Americans and Europeans. It seemed the only continent not represented was Antarctica. Then I heard a still small voice whisper to me this is a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, the world as it should be – different people breaking bread together. This image has stuck with me for over 30 years.

A practice of “faithful presence” again occurred in Japan when as Deputy General Manager of First Chicago’s branch, I had to attend the Buddhist funeral of a secretary who committed suicide by jumping in front of an on rushing subway train before coming to work. In the absence of the General Manager, who was out of the country I represented the bank. At the funeral I was sitting in the back and watching people come up at the end of the service to pay respects by lighting an incenses stick and then placing it in an urn before an image of the Buddha and a picture of the deceased. When it came time for my row to go up the question in my mind was what do I do?  Step aside politely since the people knew I was not Buddhist? Or do I just follow the crowd and light an incense stick like everyone else? Without thinking I merely made the sign of the cross at the point of reverence. Little did I know how significant this gesture would be until several days later when on a business call one of my Japanese customers said to me how he respected that I honored their tradition with a sign that was authentic from mine. Faithful presence!

Many people have been faithful presences to me, one of whom is a fellow Yale roommate, whose wife suffered a debilitating stroke many years ago while on a retirement cruise.  Several years later my wife and I were having dinner at a nice restaurant in Greektown Chicago with them. I knew both when they were dating back at Yale. In the course of an evening of reminiscences much like this weekend, I observed him transfer his wife into and out of her wheelchair, help her eat, interpret her speech and even escort her to the Ladies room. She was well groomed and dressed that night with the same style and flair she was known for before her stroke. This was all done with out pretense or self consciousness but with dignity and grace out of love and compassion. May we all be such a faithful presence to each other. Little did he know he was being a “faithful presence” to me not just his wife. Like the Admiral Ward story my roommate was able to move forward after his wife died and met a wonderful woman who is now his spouse.

The point of these stories is to be illustrative of the ways in which Christians can use the space they live in toward the flourishing of others. What are your stories? To whom have you been a “faithful presence” and who has been a “faithful presence” to you? In a word we are all called to a ministry of presence: presence to, presence with, presence for, presence by. It’s that simple and that hard!

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