Rev. Chandler Stokes has announced his retirement from congregational ministry. Below is his letter to the congregation in mid-April sharing about his decision and next steps into retirement. For a PDF version of the letter, click here. Chandler's letter was also accompanied by a letter from Steve Baron, our elder for personnel,offering his best wishes and the next steps for us as a church family in this new season of growth.
Dear beloved members and friends of Westminster Presbyterian Church,
This letter will come as a surprise to most of you. After much discernment in prayer together with my family and longtime friends in ministry, I’m writing to announce my retirement. My last Sunday with you will be June 24, 2018.
I am deeply content with my time as your senior pastor. You are such a healthy church. When I tell people about you, I say, “They simply don’t know how to turn a molehill into a mountain.” You constantly look toward the future. You truly care about the world beyond the church. You show up. I cherish worship with you, surrounded by your singing. And I’ve personally experienced the grace and compassion you offer when, with great kindness, you saw me through the loss of my parents.
Although many of you have been through changes in pastoral leadership before, some of you have not. I remind you that the church is its people and not its pastors. There is no rogues’ gallery of former pastors on the walls of Westminster. This is a congregation who understands that pastors serve with their particular gifts, and then they move on. Jack Stewart, Bill Evertsberg, Riley Jensen—our most recent senior pastors—were great leaders of the church. They all moved on and Westminster has thrived. It will happen again.
I always wondered if I would know when to retire from congregational ministry. I know of preachers who died in the pulpit. That’s not me. Though quite recovered from my stroke in 2016, my brush with mortality inspired me to reflect on my next chapter of life. I’m curious and confident about a new pace and a new life. Karen and I plan to stay here in Grand Rapids near the kids, and I plan to do more singing and playing. I also look forward to continuing my work with CREDO, mentoring early- and mid-career pastors in intensives around the country.
I have loved serving as your senior pastor. I am deeply grateful for what you’ve invited me to be a part of here for ten years. Although I didn’t expect to feel such clarity at this point in my life, I feel a sense of closure and completeness about my ministry. I am, as ever, excited about Westminster’s future and feel clearly that it’s a good time, the right time, to invite new leadership to head this amazing team.
With special gratitude to the members of the Pastoral Nominating Committee who invited me to Westminster and to all of you for affirming my call to the most rewarding season of my 35 years in ordained ministry: Thank you.
And now, as the earliest of letters in the Church always concluded, I say, Grace and peace,
Rev. Chandler Stokes, Senior Pastor and Head of Staff
Rev. Chandler Stokes
And Paul doesn’t stop with this one weird metaphor. He continues, …that you may … comprehend . . . what is the breadth and length and height and depth…” the depth of what, exactly? These are building dimensions: “breadth, length, height, depth.” They are the dimensions of Christ’s living Body, the Church. Again, we have the rock building-like dimensions of something very organic, yet this time it’s a “people” reality. And Paul continues in this vein throughout. If he had done it once or twice, maybe it was just bad poetry, but he persists in making this point.
While we were talking about the fate of Judas this year, a colleague at the Moveable Feast said, “If Judas isn’t saved, then I’m not saved.” I have taken that word to heart, and I am grateful for the tradition that proclaims that Judas too, like Peter, like all the other disciples who denied, disowned or betrayed Jesus, are redeemed in God’s love. Join us Sunday.
A link to the live stream of our 10:00a service can be found by navigating to our Youtube feed, or by clicking here. The link will be labeled as 'Westminster Presbyterian Live Stream', and will become available approximately 5 minutes before the service begins. Instructions on how to subscribe to the channel are found here.
Rev. Chandler Stokes
The question about the resurrection is not “So what do you think happened? So much as is another question… maybe the real question is not “What happened, but “How good is God? If God is good enough to make the heavens and the earth, to give us all the fruits of the Creation…, if God can breathe into us the breath of life, and has the time to count all the hairs on our head, if God can intricately form our amazing youthful and amazingly aging bodies; push the blood through our veins… how good is God?”
“Paul’s Shipwreck,” a new musical for young people, will be presented by the Carol Choir (grades 3-5) and the Chapel Singers (grades 6-8) in both services this Sunday, March 25. The two choirs will also sing a Palm Sunday anthem, complete with Jesus riding in on a donkey!
Rev. Chandler Stokes
Our text this week is John’s version of Jesus in Gethsemane. It’s as if John were reading Mark’s Gospel, where it says, “They went to a place called Gethsemane; … And he said to [his disciples], “I am deeply grieved…” …he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. John read Mark’s story and said, “Why would Jesus waver? He knew what was coming.” And so, as John told this story, Jesus did not waver. When he told it, it came out this way, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” Last month I was in Gethsemane. It is where it has always been, at the foot of the hill that ascends to the Temple Mount. There is a rock on the floor. They say that that is where he broke down and wept, where he prayed not to have to die. Gethsemane is a real place. It’s at the foot of every mountain we know we must climb. Sometimes we waver and must pray and pray before we take the next step. Sometimes we simply know and go.
Rev. Chandler Stokes
My colleague Leanne Pearce Reed wrote: In the “dread-inducing age” our fear is heightened because there are those who profit from our fear. There are those who have a stake in keeping us afraid. Media outlets know that frightening headlines and scary stories sell, and so “if it bleeds, it leads.” Marketers tap into our fears so they can sell us a product to calm that fear, and so gun and ammunition sales spike after each mass shooting… Gary Wills sees the gun…as our Moloch. He notes that few crimes are more harshly forbidden in the Old Testament than sacrifice to the god Moloch in which living children were consumed in the offering fires. He wrote: “The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily—sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from out protected private killing machines… The gun is not a mere tool… it is an object of reverence. Adoration of Moloch permeates the country…” So, Sunday, maybe we can find a kind of courage and trust to live differently in this dread-inducing age.
Rev. Jen Porter
As the mission and vision team listened to the congregation, one of the things that emerged was a sense of our faith urging us not to be comfortable, but to also take risks. Voices spoke to an openness to do so at this time in the life of our congregation. What might we step into which isn't necessarily known? Part of the potential cost of doing so is the potential for shame, rejection, failure or pain. This week, we open ourselves to the cross as it speaks into our lives.
Rev. Chandler Stokes
This week’s text surely helps us see more clearly the lives of the faithful. Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” And Dr. King was assassinated in 1968. It seems he kept to Jesus’s path, as this text outlines. It is a word that calls for deep trust.
Rev. Chandler Stokes
This morning at dawn I saw the last finger-nail of the waning moon. Immediately, I was transported back to a time about 12 years ago, when I was visiting my mother on her 90th birthday. My mission in going to see her that weekend was to be who I was at 50, not who I was at 5 or 15--to give her that self and not juvenile one. You know how it is: when we go home we fall back into the roles we had growing up, and we abandon any growth we may have made in the interim. I found that role of my childhood and adolescence deeply fearful and confining, but that one weekend, at the age of 50, I finally found a deeper keel, a way to be who I had become in relation to my family—and not simply who I had always been. On my trip to Israel I learned this insight about humility from the Jewish tradition of Mussar: No more than my space, no less than my place.
We can become so trapped in the habits of our hearts. I was once told that people will gladly repeat the past again and again, even if it is the most miserable past, even agony, rather than step into a new future. And they repeat the past, because they know it. They are comfortable with it. It’s the only thing they have known. And the future… the future is unknown and frightening because they have never seen before…, even if that future holds out the promise of something beautiful and wonderful. Freedom, the potential freedom that the future offers is often terrifying.
Rev. Chandler Stokes
Last Tuesday, I was in Caesarea-Philippi in Israel at a waterfall that currently bears the name Banias Falls. It is near the spot where Jesus asked the question of the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Our guide, Uri, said, “If any steps could be kissed on our pilgrimage, here is where they would be. Anyone who walked through here would have come here to these falls. If someone were walking through this area, they would have come here. It’s the most beautiful spot along this stretch of the river. It really makes sense that Jesus, if he were in this area at all, would have come here, and maybe have gone swimming like I did when I came here when I lived near here." I admit, I felt a twinge of the sacred and thought: "As real as the place where Jesus walked is this question, asked to each of us: Who do you say that I am?" This is our question about our real lives.
I began thinking that this trip would be simply about our witness: Jews, Christians, and Muslims traveling together in peace. It was that. It will continue to be that, but traveling together is an opportunity truly to deepen relationships. So, it is really a whole lot more. In the short run, it seems to be about relationships. Maybe in the long run too.
Thanks be to God.
When we visited the site of the Dome of the Rock, our companion, Imam Sahibzada, was as animated and ebullient as ever. His joy throughout this journey was greater than anyone’s, it seems. And there was just a moment when he asked Rabbi Ellen to take his photograph in front of the Dome. She did it gladly. Their mutual smiles were genuine, heartfelt, and full of gratitude in the giving and receiving. It was just a moment among many, but emblematic of our journey.
The site of the Dome of the Rock is greatly contested among some: some Muslims claim that the Jewish Temple never stood there, and some Jews in Jerusalem have made sure that as many Jews as possible can live as close to the Temple Mount as possible, challenging the Muslim claim and putting facts on the ground to contradict it. Even how one names the place is a source of tension. And yet, among us, a devout Muslim and a devout Jew, supported one another in their pilgrimage. Our religious convictions were not a source of conflict, but a source of mutual support.
Thanks be to God.
A day or two later, Bob, my Lutheran colleague, and I were sitting at a rooftop restaurant for lunch—nothing fancy; it just happened to be in the Old City of Jerusalem with a great view of the city. We were slack-jawed at the view and at the truth that he and I… were in Jerusalem. We were reflecting on the significant moments of the trip. It was a long list; we didn’t finish, but one thing was clear. It was this. We had gone to worship at a Lutheran Church in the Old City that morning. The lectionary gospel text was the story of Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law in Capernaum. And that particular story had been the center point of our time in Capernaum just a few days before. So, when the preacher, a wonderfully gifted woman from the States, read the text, we laughed at the synchronicity of the reading with our experience. The one clear thing: we will never hear the text quite the same way again; we will share this deep connection to it and to one another, and we will never be strangers to one another again.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Chandler Stokes
Westminster Youth Group
"Since Fall, our liturgy has included the line, 'And so you may live connected to God, your neighbor, and your own truest life, may the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.'" In Sunday morning worship and Sunday evening youth group, we've been exploring our deep need for connection. It only made sense then that our Youth Sunday theme would be inspired by our year-long focus. Join us this Sunday for worship planned and led by our middle school and high school youth as we wonder together how we are being drawn deeper into relationship with God, our neighbor, and our truest self."
It’s so very difficult to keep up with my own daily life here in Israel, let alone find a way to put into a few words what any of the many experiences here have meant. Every day seems to have four to six components—and those are just the planned ones! Even though I know that we are nearing the end of our time here—and it has flown by—it feels like it has been at least a month since we left.
The following is just one day's experience:
Yesterday was a particularly long day. We left at 6:15 a.m. for Harem esh-Sharif (the site of Mohammed's ascension to heaven) and the Al-Aqsa Mosque; thus, the Dome of the Rock and the site of the ancient Jewish First and Second Temples, and we were first in line to go through the checkpoints leading up to this holy and contested site.
The day before, while we were in the huge complex of buildings, holy places, and archeological digs, we heard some of the history of the Jewish and Muslim claims on the places at the top of this rise in Jerusalem.
When we entered the entered the great plaza, our friend, Sahibzada, entered the mosque to pray while we walked around outside and took in more of the history and reflected for ourselves on the meaning of this place. There is so much more to say about my own experience there, but that was only the start to the day.
From there we went around outside to the Western Wall, where we were invited to pray. I was accompanied by one of the rabbis in our group to stand, touch, and pray at the 2,000-year-old supporting wall which was underneath the Second Temple. Then, we walked from there to the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, which included our visit to the Davidson Center and the Southern Wall Excavations. We were again under the insightful tutelage of our guide, Uri.
Then we met Rabbi Noa Sattath, Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, near the campus of Hebrew Union College, where she talked about the complexities of the religious pluralism in Israel, a country where there is no barrier between church and state. She was brilliant, incisive and committed to being a part of building a just Israel. Her work has a long trajectory and her commitment was palpable.
After a couple of stops in Jerusalem to look at and hear about some of the political background to the areas “behind the fence,” we went into Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity. It was moving and complex, as it is a site “hosted” by three different churches: The Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, and the Roman Catholic Church. As well as being the traditional site of the birth of Jesus, it is also the site where St. Jerome is said to have written his translation of the Bible.
While we were in Bethlehem, we also got to hear from Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Noor A'wad, who are central members of the Shorashim Project (also known as Roots) in that city. They are committed to peacemaking, reconciliation, respect, and communication between Jewish settlers and Palestinian Israelis—a very, very difficult (even seemingly impossible) prospect, toward which they are making inch-by-inch progress.
After a late dinner, we got back to our hotel at about 10:30 p.m.
That is just the surface of what we experienced in one day in Israel. The Temple Mount and the Church of the Nativity were sufficiently moving all on their own—for our own experiences, and the experiences of our co-travelers, but in between were profound conversations about contemporary issues of peace, justice and community transformation. There is deep conversation with other religious leaders over the theology of Incarnation, pilgrimage, holy places, and formation.
This is just the surface. It will be good to talk to you about it all when I get home. I thank you again for the privilege it is to be on this journey. Great blessings to you all!