Bill Long 12/06/04
Reflecting on a Weekend
Sometime in September 2004 I called my mother in Menlo Park, CA to see if she could make some connections for me at her church so that I could go down and introduce my new book on Job: A Hard-Fought Hope: Journeying with Job Through Mystery(Upper Room Books, 2004). It isn't just any old church, however, and it isn't just her church. When our familiy moved to Atherton CA from Darien CT in 1967, we joined the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (MPPC). In those tumultuous California days, MPPC was under the leadership of The Rev. Dr. Cary Weisiger III and the Rev. Clifford Smith.
Both were shaped by the Presbyterian controversies of the 1920s and 1930s (which I will probably write about on other occasions), and both identified with the more conservative "wing" of the controversies. Dr. Weisiger was instrumental in beginning the National Association of Evangelicals in 1943, a movement which in my judgment has been behind the huge growth of that expression of Protestantism in the 1970s to today. He also was behind the various crusades of Billy Graham to the Bay Area, especially in the summer of 1971. Under the ministry of these two men MPPC took on a distinctively Evangelical flavor, but it was an Evangelical tone that was steeped in the Reformed theological tradition of serious study, deep piety, dignified worship and vigorous support of the worldwide mission of the church.
Thus when our family (four boys and mom and dad) moved from liberal, but stodgy, New England Congregationalism to California Evangelical Presbyterianism in the Summer of Love, I experienced culture shock. However, by 1969 I had bought into the new movement, warming up to the personal God of Evangelicalism and responding to the "claim of God" on my life through their preaching. I wanted to emulate my dual mentors: I wanted to imitate the quiet study, eloquent preaching and dignified manner of Dr. Weisiger and the warmth and pastoral care of the Rev. Smith. Two the four boys seemed to have the "God gene" for this new Evangelicalism (me, born in 1952 and Chris, born in 1960) and two did not (Rick, born in 1950 and Bob, born in 1955).
When I went off to Brown University as a freshman in 1970, I wanted to bring my Evangelical faith with me, and I believe I did. But, even more, I brought my experience at MPPC with me. It was not until I returned to MPPC over the weekend to promote my latest book that I realized just how deeply the dye of that place had worked its way into my soul.
So, my mother got me in touch with one of the about 10 or so pastors of the congregation, the Rev. Frank VanderZwan, in charge of the ministry to the 50+ group since 1987. I knew that Frank must have a special ministry since all of us are aspiring to reach the age that he serves! I attained it in 2002. In any case, I got in touch with Frank, who graciously set up three speaking occasions at the church over the weekend. In addition, he mentioned me to one of other pastor, who invited me to give a 3-minute "plug" for my book in his class. I was stunned and overwhelmed by the graciousness of the response. In the three speaking occasions, which I will describe below, where total attendance was probably around 300 people, I sold more than 150 copies of my book. After accounting for a few gifts of the book to some special individuals or the church library, I left behind with my mother only 12 books out of the 175 that I ordered for the weekend. If authors speak to an audience and have a "yield" ratio of about 1:10 (one book for every ten listeners), you are doing well 1:5 is fantastic. My ratio was about 1:2. How do I explain it?
Some of the sales, I am sure, were "sympathy" sales. I grew up at MPPC (even though I left 30 years ago), my mother is still a member of the church, she knows some of the older folks, they bought it out of their feelings to her. Some people even remembered me and decided to buy a copy. But I also think that in the brief times that I had (about 25 minutes on each of the three occasions), I was able to make a connection between myself, the Book of Job and the people who were present in such a way that by the end of the time I felt fully welcomed and comfortable.
The next essay describes the three opportunities I had.
A Concluding Personal Note
Besides being a time of great personal affirmation for me at MPPC, it was an occasion to reconnect with each of my brothers and my mother. I ate dinner with Bob and Lorna on Thursday night, with Chris and Sandy on Saturday night and then talked to my (Southern California) brother Rick on Monday morning. I thought the last conversation was a signal triumph in that Rick and I spoke on the phone for 5 minutes and my mother said that Rick never talks to anyone about anything but business in the mornings. Each time I revisit my familiy I fill in more details about them; about us as a family; and about the secret ways in which our individuality is so evident but our family shaping so similar. It was, to borrow and twist a phrase from Tom Wolfe, a "trip in full."
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long