Rev. Hamilton Throckmorton Interview Transcription 20130129, Tuesday, January 29, 2013, Chagrin Falls, Ohio
Hi, I’m Hamilton Throckmorton. I am a pastor of a church in Chagrin Falls, Ohio and being a pastor is one of the most wonderful things I can imagine. It’s an opportunity to be present with people in all sorts of places in their lives - in their births, their deaths, marriages, baptisms and it’s a privilege to be able to be present in that.
One of the things that means most to me in my life is connecting to people, it’s what enriches my life in ways that are immeasurable. I have this opportunity all the time to be present with people in a variety of situations in their lives and one of the great gifts is to hear the stories they tell me of who they are, where they were born, who they were as children, what they grew into, the struggles they’ve had, the immense triumphs they’ve had, the grace that’s come to them, the things that have broken them. To be able to hear those stories and connect over those stories is really the greatest gift for me. Stories are for me this wonderful way of connecting us. There are a lot of things I could say to you that might be deeply true but that might not connect us. I could tell you, oh, that forgiveness is a great and wonderful virtue and it is true to say that, but you don’t know really know anything about forgiveness until we talk about it in terms of our lives. So, that if I tell you instead I once deeply hurt a friend of mine and that it was hard for me years later to face him and we talk and I tell you the story of that, then we know each other in a way we can’t if I just say “forgiveness is a great virtue” because it’s in that connection that you see I have done something you likely have done as well and that together we have gotten through these kinds of things, there may be other challenges we haven’t gotten through but by telling those stories, that’s how we can connect. Connection is such a rich and vibrant part of our lives. Without that connection, we’re solo, we’re alone in many ways. So, it’s the stories that bring us together. When I can see in you things that I’ve experienced and you can see in me things I’ve experienced, and we can know ourselves as commonly challenged and graced, then together we have this rich connection we wouldn’t have otherwise. I consider my role in the large part to both hear those stories, and then as one who preaches every week, to tell those stories. To tell the stories that help people to see connections to each other and to a power greater than any one of us, that we, in our tradition, call God. Those stories then become paramount in helping to develop a sense of who we are and where we’re going and what’s most crucial in life.
When I think about what I’m most passionate about it is in hearing these stories that people tell. Stories that encompass the whole range of life. When I was growing up I remember my parents talking about my own birth. They could have just said, dryly, “You were born at Eastern Maine General Hospital, in Bangor, Maine on January 15, 1955”. And that’s all true, but it’s a little bit dry and what they would say instead, when I was very young, was, “On a clear, cold night in January, Hammy was born, and Mommy was glad and Daddy was glad and everybody was glad.” And then they would tell the story that my Father who taught at a seminary in Maine, went to the seminary chapel at 2 o’clock in the morning and rang the bells in the chapel so that everybody in the seminary community would know that something had happened. That conveyed to me, something about my birth that was special to them and it conveyed that I mattered to them in a way that the simple recitation of the facts wouldn’t. So, there’s this sense in telling stories that we can convey deep truths, loves, and all the rich dimensions of our lives in those stories. We depend on those stories. I think about the stories we tell in our lives, and not just interpersonal, but how important they are in the wider culture.
We’ve been watching in our house, Downton Abbey in the last several weeks. We’re behind, season three is going but we’re just watching season one now to get caught up. I’m just so struck by the interplay of the characters, the Sybil's and the Mary’s and Edith’s and Mr. Bates. All the variety of characters who are there, they are living out all the issues that were so prevalent in the early twentieth century, about women’s place in society, what the meaning of war was going to be for British culture and the whole class struggle that was there and we could talk about those and we do in history books or in just reciting the facts, but it’s not the same as in the stories. Hearing those stories, seeing them played out, what happens in drama, television, movies, you get to see and learn at a gut level in a way that you can’t when you’re just talking about the facts. So the stories, about my birth, about society in Great Britain in the early twentieth century, all those stories bring to life what is most central in life. My passion, then, is to be part of those stories, telling those stories and hearing those stories, because I have the sense that telling those stories that for other people is freeing, so when I can create a space so that they can tell the story about their own struggles as a child, the fact that they’ve been raped earlier, or that they struggled in a marriage, or that they had a difficult time with a child, all those things, when they have a chance to talk about them, can be freeing and can lift burdens and can connect us in ways that nothing else can. Alot of the burdens that just weigh us down can be freed, sort of the top can come off and a new energy a new spirit can come in and that’s what we try to do as part of a church, provide a space for where people can do that.
We also, in a very different vein, tie those stories, in a church, to a larger story. It’s one thing for you and me to tell each other stories of our own lives, its another thing and it’s a deeper thing for us to connect those stories to a larger narrative. One of the difficulties in the times in which we live, sometimes called by scholars “post-modernity” is, that there is no, what scholars would call, a “metanarrative” - no big narrative that ties us together. There’s no one big story that we all see ourselves as part of, so, we end up telling the smaller stories, and I don’t mean to diminish the stories at all but the stories of our own particular lives rather than the bigger story and the storytelling we do to each other is crucial. I would say, as a person of faith, that there’s also another story that we need to connect to because this story that God tells in our lives, this story of people enslaved and then made free, of people dead then made alive, of people struggling and finding resolution. All the struggles that are articulated in the story that Jews and Christians tell, those stories are the stories of our lives. We too, have been trapped by things from which we’ve needed to be freed, we too have died in ways from which we need to recover and find new life. I can tell you my story and it’s really important but also important for me to know that it’s connected to a larger story. While post-modernity may not want to tell that meta narrative, we as Christians still do tell a story that encompasses us all. We don’t tell the story as a way of saying, this is the way you need to feel or have to feel or have to experience, we tell it as, “this is the way the universe works and there is something grand and wonderful going on of which our stories are a part”. When we can see ourselves in connection with that great story, that that also frees us and gives us a new look at life and look at the world.
One of the things that matters so much in what I think of as a genuine faith, is exploring questions that are the deepest kind of questions in our lives. Where people in religious communities get caught up and they argue immensely about the what and the how, and we do that in all kinds of dimensions of our lives, the really important question is not those questions but the who and the why. So for example, people will talk about the creation stories in the Book of Genesis and argue if it happened that way and it’s such a secondary question. The questions that those stories answer are not about what happened or when they happened but it’s about who we are. They’re declaring in some way that we’re a blessed children of a Creator who made us and there’s something fundamental about that relationship. So, it’s this who and who’s we are, that’s what that story tells and that’s the important thing about any story that you and I connect on, is, who are we? We can’t argue about that. If you tell me something about you and who you are and why that matters to you - there’s no arguing about that, we’re simply declaring who we understand ourselves to be. And it’s that that really matters and it’s that that connects us. And so in the big story, what we might call the meta narrative, that’s what we connect with is the who we are and the why we are, not how and what happened. So that’s what’s really important to me in my sense of living out the Christian faith that I have.
I was recently studying with a teacher who teaches preaching and she was having us look very intently at one particular Biblical passage and she said, “what happens is that people tend to focus on the nouns, and the nouns get in the way, it says something about the shekels or Hittites and you don’t connect with that at all. She said focus instead on the verbs because with the verbs, that’s where you connect. She had us list verbs that had to do with snails, they were all verbs that we would also engage in, they eat, they move, and it’s those verbs is what connects us, that we do and feel and think. That’s what makes us part of this one body of the earth’s people. So focusing on the why and the who and looking at the verbs of our lives in addition to all those things that we feel, that’s where we connect and that’s what we do when we tell stories to each other.
I have two sons who are in their early twenties. I am acutely aware that they and their friends are not church goers. My whole life has been centered in the church and I wonder daily why the church does not reach people who are younger. I don’t have any answers for that but I have a sense for what people are searching for is that deep sense of connection, so developing this sense that we tell stories to each other and that we can connect over the simplest, most basic dimensions of our lives to find ways of encouraging and developing settings so that people can talk together about those things is really crucial and fundamental if we are to survive another generation. We say in our business that the church is always one generation from extinction, and what is it that will allow the church to continue to thrive? It’s not that the church needs to thrive for its own sake, my own deep belief is that the church should thrive because it offers a way for people to sense something deep and holy and precious about their lives.
When I think about what I would want people to know about the church, I want people to know what Jesus heard at his baptism, is that the clouds open up and a voice from the heavens says, “You are my child, you are the beloved, and in you I take delight.” I want my sons, I want your children, I want everybody to know that there’s a holy power in the universe that takes delight in you, in your children, in your grandchildren. That is the fundamental building block of our lives, to know that in some sense the universe and the One who created the universe takes delight in who we are. If we know that then it allows for all sorts of possibilities, if we don’t, if we just feel alone, isolated, just by ourselves in the universe, then there is little that will prompt us to be living a life that is joyful, generous and giving. So, it’s really important and its the thing I would want people to know and to tell stories about the times in their lives when they really felt as though they were accepted and when they were loved. One of my favorite religious expressions is from a sermon from the middle of the last century by a theologian by the name of Paul Tillich in which he said, “You are accepted, you are accepted by a power greater than that which you know”, and your sole job in life, your most important job in life is to accept your acceptance. And when you can accept that acceptance, it is a freeing thing that can allow you to go on to live in the fullest way possible.
One of the things that’s a difficult part of our lives is the things that we think. We all think different things, an awful lot of the things that have divided us have been related to the things we think. One of the things that occupies my imagination is how to think in such a way that it’s not divisive, it doesn’t throw barriers in people’s ways, but it somehow deepens the life that we have together. The church that I’ve grown up in has often divided the world by insistence on a certain kind of dogma or doctrine and that has been a problem in the world because there is this kind of sense that I’m conveying to you that you need to think the same that I do. I don’t want to be doing that. In my work, because I focus on storytelling, I want people to be not focused on those doctrines and the things that divide us but on the things that connect us. So, we tend to talk in our work, about witness, meaning talking about my own life, this is what I have discovered rather that this is what I think you need to believe. So that whole sense of witnessing, my connecting with you by telling you what I have sensed and known, that that’s more important than us determining some kind of doctrinal wholeness that everybody has to believe whether they really want to or not. So, it’s really important to me to be focused on that sense of my own experience of things.
At the same time, we’ve been given these remarkable organs, called the brain that are full of thinking both overt and tacit ways of thinking, and to use those brains in a healthy way is really important. When I was in my early twenties, I had no idea of what I was doing with my life. I felt just lost and alone and I wandered one day into a church in Boston, Massachusetts, where a preacher, the main preacher there, where he articulated things I had no idea were even going on in me. He asked questions that I didn’t know I was asking and those questions were more important to me than the answers that he would offer. Because somehow all these things were swirling around in me and to be able to ask the questions about who I am, what I’m doing and why I’m alive, and why all of us are alive and what’s our purpose on earth, what kind of ways can we be caring for each other, all of those things related to how our brains are working, are really important and for me to have that engaged was a really crucial part of my growth into some better understandings about who I am and what I am about in life. Engaging the mind is really important.
As a preacher I think of engaging both heart and mind in what I do. I also don’t want to be just telling stories about life because then there’s no sense of overarching meaning to those stories. And I also don’t want to just dryly tell you facts about faith or life because then there’s no real connection. There’s some combination of both that’s really important. So I can say that love is really important, a dry truth, and then I can tell you a story about a way in which my wife really loves me and the story connects to that truth I uttered about love and both are important. What the mind says, that love is important, and what the heart says, as I tell you about how that love has made a difference in my life.
The most powerful part of my life, is, thoughts, yes, but it’s also my feelings. Those are what occupy a good deal of the time I spend alone in private. What am I feeling about the day? the weather? the way somebody just treated me? said to me? some offer that somebody made to me? I may feel real elation at that or desolation when I feel as if I’ve been left out of somebody’s company. And all those things are kind of at the root of my life. It’s really vital to me to be connecting on the basis of feelings. I think one of the things that happened in the church is that they lost a sense of feeling in many ways and so people who needed to talk about feelings went instead to therapists and counselors because they needed a place to talk about that reality in their lives. Twelve step programs and other things that were outside of the mode of the church and what the church I think has to do is recover that sense that we are connected by our feelings, more so even than our thoughts. To be able to find that connection, and to create space for that.
One of things I’ve done in my ministry is to offer Spiritual Biography class in which I just limit it to six or eight people. We take the time, each of us, to tell the story of our lives as we would tell it through a spiritual standpoint. That doesn’t mean we have to give this false overlay to something we don’t really believe, it is to say that the deepest experiences in our lives, are, in some deep wonderful way, holy. So, as we talk about those, as we make space for them, as we convey them to each other, then we have this connection on the basis of those feelings which unite us and which deeply need to be told, they’re just in there aching to be released and to offer space for those seems to be a really important part of what the church is about.
To have a really full life, we all have to do something more than just feel. Just to feel is in a way, incomplete. It feels like a first step to me. So, to move beyond that feeling stage, is to find a place where we all can act in some way that shows the same sort of love that we have been shown. If I, indeed, am treasured by God, than my role in life is to spread that feeling of being treasured to the people with whom I come in contact. It means, in a way, devoting myself on a daily basis. It might be worth just thinking, “What today, can I do to show that treasured feeling to somebody who needs it? Maybe it’s a phone call to somebody who’s really depressed, maybe it’s a visit to somebody who just had surgery, maybe it’s a regular commitment to be part of a community that is changing lives. One of the things we find most important at Federated Church where I serve, is a sense that changing lives is fundamental to who we are. We have what we call a ministry, a way of serving, a way of caring, a way of making a difference in the world that is crucial for the fullness of a life. Life, then, becomes my sharing, my feelings, but it also becomes my doing something that matters, that makes the world a better place. I know I can’t save the world, but I also know that each little step on that way is a good step. Being part of a community that is involved in healing and justice and caring for the earth and caring for each other, being involved in a community like that, is crucial and fundamental.
When I think about the future, it is of course impossible to know. I struggle with the whole sense of what the future holds and I’m aware of a number of people who think that life is gradually and slowly getting better. I don’t think I count myself in that number because I am acutely aware of the holocausts and the huge betrayals of trust and love that have happened in my lifetime, in the last century or so. I am not a wildly optimistic person as though the world is getting better and better all the time, but I am a deeplyhopeful person. I distinguish between optimism and hope. Hope is a kind of investment in a future that I care about and that matters to me and that I think is the best way for us to live. So, whether I think today is going to be better than yesterday, or whether I think tomorrow’s going to be better than today, it doesn’t really matter. What I can do is invest myself in the day I want to have come tomorrow and when I do that then I am part of this larger force for good, this wholeness, this force that I know as God, and I am acting in concert with that way of being. I am being true to the principles that matter to me and that is a hopeful way to live, we need to all be living toward what we hope is the culmination of our lives and of history.
One of the things we contemporaries forget about Jesus a lot of the time, was that he was deeply focused on an end time. He thought it was coming right away, as did the Apostle Paul who wrote a good deal of the New Testament, but we know now that that was not going to come right away. The truth that underlies that, is there’s a future toward which we’re heading and God is aware of and encompasses all of this and my deep belief is that a God who made the earth good will also culminate the earth in a good way. It likely won’t happen until after I die but I can invest in that future that I see God as being involved in and when I do that then I’m part of this larger force for good. When we do that together in community, we can do that in ways that I can’t do anything alone and there’s a much greater force for good when we join together to do that, when we join all of our hopes and dreams and live the way we assume and trust that God is leading us toward.
I’m thinking about the process that I go through when I prepare to do a sermon, to what we call preach and in our tradition what we do is begin with a passage of Scripture, long ago stories that were written and in some ways they are so foreign, so odd in a way, and the question comes, “Well, why would you pay attention to a story like this? Why would you retell it?” What happens is, if you pay attention to the story, if you read it through, you will find something in that story that connects with you. I’ve talked some about the difference of focusing on the nouns and focusing on the verbs. If you focus on the verbs in the story you have a way of connecting to whatever that story was about. If it was Jesus’ baptism, of Jesus healing somebody or something that a long ago prophet is talking about, what are the verbs there? Is it about eating and drinking? Is it about sharing and caring? Is it about falling away? Whatever it is that’s there. So, I find that as I begin to prepare to preach I read through what the Scripture passages are and I say, “What do I notice?” Then, after I’m aware of what I’ve noticed, then, why am I noticing that? There is some reason that came into my mind and heart, some reason that is tickling a fancy in me and I have to identify what that is. Maybe it’s a passage about somebody being untrue to somebody else. Is there some word in there that stimulates my own reflections on that? I had a colleague once, who, when we would read through a passage of scripture, he would find the most interesting words that he connected to. When he did that we would all identify with what it was. Sometimes it was just the word “the” and we would wonder why he would notice that but he would have this interpretation for it. What I find that what I need to do is to identify what I’m noticing in a passage and then I figure that if I’m noticing something in that passage then others are noticing it too. Whatever the reason I’m noticing it, then there’s something there that’s important about it. Then I reflect on that, so, what is it about these words I’m noticing, if it says, “In you I take delight” God is speaking to Jesus baptism. Why am I noticing that? Maybe that day I didn’t feel much sense of God’s delight in me, maybe I just feel I’m letting God down. So, I need to look at that and maybe this is the occasion for me to be reminded I am one in whom God takes delight. Maybe I rejoice in the fact that this day I really am thrilled that I remember that. And maybe this is an occasion for me to talk about my gratitude for that. Whatever the reason that I’ve noticed, “in you I take delight”, then that’s something for me to address in a sermon and then I’m looking for stories and feelings and occasions that manifest that delight or the absence of that delight that somebody is feeling. To find ways so that people can be reminded of the truth that lies beyond their experience and to be reminded that God is present and active and cares for them even in the most desolate of times in their lives. I try to find the story that will articulate that, that will make that clear, that will open that up like a flower blooming.
I’m aware of how difficult it is in this day and age for our church and for the church in the larger sense to speak to a new generation of people. And yet, I’m deeply convinced that at the heart of everyone is a need and a desire to connect with something wholly beyond who we are. So, how do we get people to see that? For me, there’s the matter of paying attention to what we see that is holy and beyond the mundane parts of our lives. When we can perceive the beauty in a sunset or the sound of some cardinals that make their way past us or the sight of an eagle, but it’s more than just a natural world thing too. When we can see in our interactions with each other a holy dimension to it. There are times when I will talk with one of my sons on the phone and realize that something is happening that just kind of has a deep beauty to it, I can’t explain it, but I perceive in that something that is holy. Some interactions with my wife Mary, a time that I’ll have at the bedside of somebody who’s dying, to be present with a little five year-old who’s running around the house and I’m chasing him and we’re laughing and screaming and there’s something so richly beautiful and joyful about it that it’s more than just an ordinary moment. It’s the sign of something holy and there’s a spiritual dimension to it. So, my job is to look for that and to find those moments and to articulate and identify them. As a pastor, my role is to help people in the church find those moments and identify them as holy, these sacred moments and to see something spiritual in them.
I was aware recently of the basketball coach, Brad Stevens, who coaches at Butler (Editor's note: 2013-present: Head Coach, Boston Celtics), and he talks about the ‘mundanity of excellence’. He practices things again and again and again and then lets go of the results. Because it’s in the doing of that daily discipline and the daily habit that the excellence emerges. To practice our faith in the same way, with the mundanity of excellence meaning that on a daily basis, “mundane” coming from the word ‘earth”, that in this earthly way, in the daily habits of our lives, to see an excellence, in this case I call it a spiritual beauty, to see this presence of God, that that’s what we’re about. Training our eyes and hearts to see what’s there around us all the time but that we lose sight of in our daily grind of living. Can we pause? Can we just look at the world in a new way? Can I look at you in a way so that I just don’t see another person, one of seven billion people, but to see another heart and life with whom I can connect and between the two of us there can be this love that expresses that love of God? Our work is to look for those signs of God’s presence in the middle of our lives.
-Betsey Merkel, Editor and Publisher
The Reverend Hamilton Coe Throckmorton, Senior Pastor
The Federated Church, United Church of Christ-
An Open and Affirming Congregation
76 Bell St, Chagrin Falls, OH 44022
Ph: (440) 247-6490
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