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A new suit and an act of contrition

Tom Long says a famous busboy can teach us about forgiveness

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Tom Long

GALVESTON, Texas — The Rev. Dr. Tom Long proposes a different narrative to one of mainline church decline.

“The one I want us to hear is that I believe God is tearing down what we have in order to build up something new and more faithful,” the Bandy Professor of Preaching Emeritus at Candler School of Theology at Emory University told about 700 people attending the annual event last week of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators. “We are experiencing right now as a church the judgment of God,” a reality to which not every Presbyterian can cozy up.

“The reason we don’t want to talk about it is we misunderstand it theologically,” he said. “It’s not punishment and shame. It’s a righteous judge who comes to set things right.”

Theologian Karl Barth said it’s not the wrath of God we should fear, but rather the love of God, Long said, because “the love of God will strip away everything that stands between us and God.”

Though most Presbyterians aren’t comfortable talking about their need for repentance, they do believe in the need for a highly-educated laity. That’s a good thing, in the eyes of John Calvin, who once, Long said, uttered words to this effect: “How can you know you’re being victimized by bad preaching if you’re not educated?”

One of the most famous busboys in American history, Juan Romero – the man who cradled Robert Kennedy’s head moments after Kennedy was fatally shot in a Los Angeles hotel in 1968 – has something to teach us about forgiveness, Long said. Romero, who died in October at age 68, had for years been told Kennedy’s death was in part Romero’s fault because the senator had paused a moment to acknowledge Romero moments before the shooting.

“It took root in his heart, and he had a burden he needed to confess,” Long said. Weeks before he himself died, Romero purchased a suit, flew to the District of Columbia, went to Arlington National Cemetery, stood at Kennedy’s grave and begged for forgiveness.

Most Sundays, Long said, “I breeze through the prayer of confession. Have I ever metaphorically put on a suit out of respect and begged God for forgiveness?”

Long told the story of a Washington, D.C.-area ballerina who after years came to see the Holy Spirit at work in her home church.

Long was preaching one Sunday at this church, which was in the habit of encouraging members to come forward during worship to tell their faith story. The ballerina told a story her father had been telling her since she was a girl – the story of the day she was baptized. “Oh, honey,” the man told her, “the Holy Spirit was in the church that day.”

“As a girl, I wondered where was the Holy Spirit in this church,” the ballerina told the congregation. “Many of you know I lost both parents in one terrible week last winter. I stopped by the church and it was dark. I sat in the back and wept, prayed and wept. A woman named Sarah saw me, took off her apron, came and sat next to me, and wept and prayed with me. It was then that I knew where the Holy Spirit was in this church.”

“It was the best sermon preached that day, I can assure you,” Long said.

Out of “repentance and humility, we might stop telling this story of up and great and more and better and let the language of lament into our services,” he suggested. “We are in a time when God is judging us. The Spirit is teaching us to be able to tell the difference between what matters and what seems to matter.”


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