I still have the last church bulletin from the last Sunday of my college career in Seattle. It was 1979 and I was graduating from Seattle Pacific and heading back to my California roots, not because I wanted to, but because that was where there was work. My fiancé was also from California, but the last thing we wanted to do was leave Seattle, and a big part of that resistance was tied up in our love of a church and its pastor. That bulletin is from Bethany Community Church, by Greenlake, led by Pastor John McCullough. It was a life changing place for me, and that was because of Pastor John.
My friends and I would speed across Lake Washington every Sunday morning to attend a Sunday school class taught by one of our fellow students, but we’d always leave there early in order get back in time to find a seat in the overflow section of the chapel at Bethany. It was there, in those back rows, as an anonymous student, that I learned some important lessons from the first pastor I actually listened to, the first church I actually enjoyed attending:
I learned that laughter and Christianity aren’t mutually exclusive. Having grown up in a church where smiles were in short supply during worship, and never visible from the pulpit, I was delighted to meet a pastor who gave me permission to laugh. I’ll never forget the Sunday during basketball season, back when Seattle won it’s only championship, when somebody got up to give announcements and right in the midst of all the details about meetings and Bible studies, said, “mature Christian really should know what’s going on. And another way to say that is to say that Christians should know the score. And the score is…. And then he proceeded to tell us the score of the Sonic game” And there was laughter and cheering. Real life, a bit of levity, and church life were all bleeding together for the first time in my spiritual history. Pastor John was off to the side laughing. If I’d have told a joke in the church of my youth, I’d have feared excommunication, because church, like God, was serious business. I’m grateful for PJ’s laughter, ever present in his preaching and leadership.
I learned that sharing emotions can be a good thing. I’d often said to people that the only sermon I ever remember, in spite of hearing hundreds of them through my years of growing up in the church, was the sermon PJ preached right after he’d returned from India. I still, to this day, remember how impacted he was by the poverty and the love, and the children he encountered. I’d never seen a pastor weep from the pulpit, but this one did. Not often, but often enough that you knew he cared, and loved, and felt deeply.
I learned that vision comes from language. It’s not like I was deeply involved at Bethany. I was back row material, in the overflow room, attending often, but surely not every Sunday. Still, his vision for church fell on me like rain, and my soul soaked it up, a vision which would shape my understanding of church for the rest of my life. And it fell on me in nothing more than phrases: “the army of the anonymous” taught me that it was the less visible folks in the church who were most vital to its ongoing health. “Tangling our heartstrings together” meant that the church isn’t a school, where people come to gain information, but a community where people tie their lives together in community. And “in essential unity – in non-essentials liberty – in all things charity” taught me to not sweat the little stuff, that shared life in Christ is more important than all the noise in denominational arguments. PJ lived this, too, bringing in all kinds of speakers, from a wide swath of Christian cloth. It was amazing.
Finally, and most important, perhaps, I learned about grace by seeing a community that took it seriously. The concept was important enough that when a UW professor had written a book entitled “Free for the Taking” about the need for the church to move away from the moralism, and legalism, and judgmentalism of religion by basking in the grace of God’s unconditional love and acceptance, PJ had the author come and speak at Bethany. He pushed the book. I read it, and remember thinking, “this is what I’ve been looking for all my life”. Growing up in a performance oriented world, this grace was the key for me, unlocking the doors to joy, healing, affirmation, meaning, and the capacity for service, that had been closed for so long.
My last Sunday in Seattle after college graduation was sad, not only because I was leaving Seattle, but because I was leaving Bethany. I didn’t know if I’d ever find another church like it. Thanks be to God, I didn’t have to. I was privileged to replace Pastor John as senior pastor of Bethany 16 years later, a role I’ve maintained for the past 17 years. His faithful service as leader, teacher, shepherd, not only shaped me as a student, but laid the foundation for all God has continued to do through Bethany Community Church, both in Seattle and around the world. Though he’s gone, his voice still speaks every Sunday through a new generation of leaders who are living by grace, tangling heart strings, focusing on essentials, and laughing a lot.
Thanks PJ. You’ve blessed and transformed more lives than anyone can count. And on behalf of the army of the anonymous college students who came and sat in the back row, know that the seeds of faith you sowed are still bearing fruit, and will for decades to come.