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Exodus 2.15a-22

John 17.11-21

Trading Places

(Five to Seven for Good Behavior – II)

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

In the late 1980s, Debbie’s parents, Bick and Gladys Lang, were touring the United Kingdom when, on a Sunday morning, they decided to attend worship at a small church called St Columba Parish in Scottish village of Boat of Garten.  Debbie’s dad was a Presbyterian minister, and the church, the Kirk of Scotland, is Europe’s primary presbyterian body.  On discovering that his Sunday visitor was a colleague, St Columba’s minister, Matthew Stewart, and his wife Christine, invited Bick and Gladys to tea that afternoon.  While they were getting acquainted, Matthew mentioned his desire to one day do a pulpit swap with a minister somewhere in the states, to get a taste of American church life and do a bit of touring;  Bickford smiled and said something along the lines of, “I think I have just the person in mind.”  That person, of course, was his son in law, and so it was that a few years later, in June of 1992, Debbie and I, nine year old Clare and two year old Blythe, found ourselves flying to the highlands of Scotland for a two-month pulpit exchange.  Matthew would serve my congregation in Bridgewater for July and August, and I would serve Matthew’s congregation at Boat of Garten – and his congregation at nearby Carr Bridge – and his part time congregation at Kincardine.  Thus during the summer of 1992 I led worship in Boat of Garten at 10:00, then in Carr Bridge at 11:30, and just for good measure, the church in Kincardine at 2 in the afternoon on the third Sunday of both months.  You tell me who received the better deal that summer of my first sabbatical.

This summer I’m sharing with you stories of the sabbaticals I’ve taken during the course of my ministry as a way of leading up to my next one in 2024.  The one to Scotland was my first, although it is different from all the others in that it wasn’t so much an opportunity to study any particular topic, although one did raise itself during the trip, as much as it was an immersion in a different church and culture.  Even though they are separated by only a few kilometers, the churches in Boat and Carr Bridge were quite different.  St Columba’s was a friendly, responsive and sociable congregation.  They stopped by with welcome gifts – on our first day in the manse a retired minister who was part of the congregation dropped a trout that he had just caught in the River Spey that I cleaned and served for dinner that night.  We had multiple invitations to dinner and, more important, to tea, and some families invited our girls over to play with their children.  Carr Bridge, on the other hand, personified the famed dour Scot demeanor.  Their faces betrayed little emotion or engagement when I preached – and by the way, I preached the same sermon for them at 11:30 as I had just done at 10 at Boat of Garten. It was as if they kept their figurative arms crossed during the service just daring me to get through, and it was not until my last Sunday with them that they held any kind of reception to mark our presence.  I’m sure they were lovely folks, but they just didn’t show much evidence of that on a Sunday morning.  The Kincardine church, on the other hand, were just happy to have someone come by once a month and lead the service, and it included a few folks from Boat who just wanted to worship again, which meant I needed to come up with a wholly different service and sermon for them, which I really didn’t mind doing.My two months in Scotland though did afford the opportunity to study the life of John Knox, the leader of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, and founder of the Kirk of Scotland.  Knox was an acquaintance of John Calvin – he’ll make a cameo in my sabbatical to France and Switzerland in two weeks.  He began his career as an Anglican priest, but found the rigid character of the Anglican church, as well as its theology, to be too hierarchical and too distant from the person in the pew; he also had multiple arguments with Anglican theology, and after meeting with Calvin in Geneva, returned to Scotland and applied his reformed principles to the new church he founded.  He was particularly fond of this morning’s New Testament lesson from John 17 as a starting point for his preaching, notable because the passage, Jesus’ great pastoral prayer shortly before his crucifixion, includes the UCC’s motto, “That they may all be one.”  So this UCC preacher felt right at home in Knox country.  In Edinburgh, Knox became associated with the historic St Giles church, and on his death was interred in its cemetery.  According to legend though, the section of the cemetery in which Knox was interred was sold to local merchants who, in true Joni Mitchell style, paved it over and turned it into a parking lot, where for a while some supposed Knox lay in infamy.  But it turns out it was just that, a legend, and you can still visit Knox’s grave in the churchyard.  When we visited Edinburgh, we visited both the cemetery and the parking lot, just to be sure.

Living in the Scottish highlands was a cultural education in itself.  It seems the further north you go, the thicker the Scottish tongue becomes, with its own distinctive burr.  While I could understand most of what was spoken to me, in the Queen’s English, there were times I would have appreciated a translator.  While south in Glasgow and Edinburgh I had no difficulty, the northern regions of Inverness and Loch Ness possessed a linguistic all its own.  Even though I felt at times like a stranger in a strange land, I found if I just smiled and nodded enough I could eventually make out what was being said to me.  And as an American, so much in Scotland seemed smaller – we called it “The Land of the Wee.”  And Matthew and Christine, on their return home, remarked about how large everything in America seemed, and both are true.  The Scottish cars are smaller, as are the roads – many back roads in the U.K. are pocked with move-overs, meaning when your vehicle is traveling in one direction on a single lane road and you encounter another coming from the opposite direction, you pull into the nearest move over and let the other pass.  Some household appliances struck me as undersized as well, none so much as the refrigerators, which is actually fine because you go to the market daily for that day’s meals.  Oddly though, the beers sold in the markets came primarily in pint cans, which don’t easily fit into the wee fridge, which explains why they drink at cellar temperature.  Or at least that was my theory.

Fortunately, the churches gave me a week off while I was there, and we had the opportunity to travel both Scotland and England, from where my Dad’s family hailed.  We were able to visit the village of Holmfirth, where my grandfather’s family lived, and though I no longer have family there, we did visit the Wesleyan church in Holmfirth where the Froggatt family worshiped, and where a few of my grandfather’s extended family served as local church pastors.    And while we didn’t have time to visit my grandmother’s home village Yorkshire, we did make it to the southern edge of Derbyshire, where the small village of Froggatt sits on the Derwent River.  As I’ve mentioned before, the village is about the size of our sanctuary, or so it seemed, and its claim to fame is that it is located at the southernmost point of England’s Peak District; Froggatt Edge, a cliff walk high above Froggatt, is a popular hiking spot and a place with fabulous vistas.  We also spent time in Stratford-upon-Avon, in the Lake District where Beatrix Potter lived and wrote; in fact while feeding the ducks at one of the lakes, Blythe offered some bread to a duck, which nipped her finger in the exchange, leading to the family lore that she was bitten by Jemima Puddleduck.  We visited a cousin in London, went south to Brighton on the Channel, then slowly made our way back.  And living in the highlands gave us easy access to Loch Ness; the day we sailed the Lake, daughter Clare spent the entire journey clutching the boat railing and peering down into the lake, hoping to catch a glimpse of Nessie.

So yes, it was a working sabbatical - sermons to write and services to lead and parishioners to visit and colleagues to meet.  It was also a wonderful family getaway – Clare still remembers our visit to Stratford-on-Avon, and reports that eleven years later, while spending her junior year in England at University of East Anglia in Norwich, attended a play at the Globe Theater.  It provided the opportunity to do some genealogical work – just last March Blythe, who was two on our first trip, returned to Froggatt and the Edge and hiked the peaks with husband Adam.  We made enduring friendships with Matthew and Christine and a couple church families:  Janice and John, a church couple who also operated the shop down the street where we got our morning paper, and Tim and Helen, whose daughters Kirstin and Tana befriended our own girls.  And I was gratified at the welcome my Connecticut congregation gave the Stewarts during those two months as well as the welcome we received on our return:  they had erected four roadside signs leading down Main Street into our driveway, ala the Burma Shave signs of the fifties, each with a serial message welcoming us home at the end of the sabbatical.

So yes, I did learn a little about John Knox, our daughters had their first taste of travel and a different culture, we made some lasting friendships, and the memories and experiences have shaped all of us, not least of which is my own ministry.  When I return from vacation in two weeks, I’ll take you with me to Paris and Geneva to meet John Calvin.



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United Church of Chester, 29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412. (860) 526-2697


From the North: Take CT Route 9 South to Exit 8 (old exit 6) (CT 148). Turn left; we are 1 mile on the right.


From the South: Take CT Route 9 North to Exit 8 (old exit 6) (CT 148). Turn Right; we are .8 miles on the right.

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