Stained Glass at Circular Congregational Church

So here’s how life meanders and loops back around in dizzying, mystifying circles:

I first came to Circular Congregational Church in 1993 because I’d heard of Susan Hull, or rather, I’d read about her. Susan was the associate minister at this 370 year-old church in the heart of historic Charleston, and I “met” her when I worked at Harvard Divinity School, putting my own theological education to good use raising money for the Div School and writing for the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. I edited the Alumni/ae News section, and Susan would write in, giving former classmates updates about her ministry at Circular. Susan Hull was one of the few names I knew when I moved to Charleston, and I only knew the 45 words she submitted to the Bulletin.

Seventeen years later, and fourteen years after Susan left the formal church ministry, I now share this blog with her, writing about living toward loss, and today I write about loss as it relates to Circular. Specifically about the fast approaching retirement of Bert Keller, Susan’s former colleague and our senior minister of 37 years. They used to alternate Sundays in the pulpit, and I would typically only go when Susan preached. Bert’s sermons could be heady and a bit dry, but Susan’s soared. Her spiritual insights and poetic range, as on her posts now, was fire and food for the soul.

And now. Now I ache at the thought of the church without Bert. Without his wise and courageous teachings. Without his humble, dressed down theology that’s thin on pomp and righteousness and thick with authenticity. Without his basic yet radical sense of justice, his irreverent humor, and yes, his occasionally dry but always challenging headiness. I mourned when Susan left the church, but then found myself, over time, in spiritual thrall with Bert’s ministry. And now, after 37 years, our church will be Bertless. This Sunday is his last. On Memorial Day, his much-deserved retirement begins, a lengthy Sabbath to travel, read, rest and savor.

This is real grief. The kind that leaves you vulnerable, hollowed out, stricken. The kind where the solid ground I’ve counted on crumbles to sand and bit by bit washes out to sea. I’m losing my mother to ALS, my father to Alzheimer’s, and now I’m doing this practice round with Bert, my spiritual mentor,  surrogate parent and dear friend.

I’m full of gratitude for all he means to me and to so many others, and yet I grieve. I am raw, teary, happy for him, ready, and yet…not ready at all. But I know Circular’s circles, and God’s grace, will continue to loop around in my life, connecting dots that I now can’t begin to see, not with these tears.

~ by Stephanie on 05/27/2010.

4 Responses to “A.Lengthy.Sabbath”

  1. oh Stephanie, I am right there with you all over this page. The beginning, which I remember well, and the long in-between, each of us in our different ways, working alongside Bert, and now this Bertlessness. But having, still, each other, this life still. You put a name on our many losses along the way, and our gladness, too – I can feel it underneath – for this circular thread of life. I’m moved to my toes.

  2. Beautiful stuff, Stephanie. It’s nice to see the added dimension that this blog is summoning from your depths. Life is birth and life is death. And your writing proffers meaning for both.

  3. A beautiful post, Stephanie. Losses so often seem to come in clusters, and your experiences with your parents and Circular “parent” is evidence of that. I know that Bert has played the part of a nurturing father at critical moments in my own life, whether he realizes it or not. There is no one to take his place.

  4. A poignant expression of departure, but along with it will be new growth. My love to you dear friend- thanks for sharing it.

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