Jesus had been nailed to the cross and now, as he hovered near death, he looked down upon the throng of weeping followers gathered beneath him. He spotted one of his most loyal apostles at the back of the crowd, and slowly, his body racked with pain, Jesus mouthed the word "Peter."
The Rev. Jim White retired on Sunday, bringing to an end his 16 years of leadership at the First Congregational Church in downtown Colorado Springs. In those years he never flinched when it came to telling stories of faith and tales from the Bible. As he stood at the altar on that Good Friday three years ago, a packed house of devoted followers listened intently as their pastor began telling the story of the crucifixion.
If they had looked a bit more closely, they might have noticed that the reverend had the most subtle hint of a grin on his face.
Peter saw Jesus calling his name and began moving through the crowd, trying desperately to get to the front to hear the final words of the savior who was whispering his name. "Peter. Peter."
In a city that often seems overwhelmed by the voices of the conservative and an ever-increasing volume of evangelical Christians, White, 67, was a beacon to Christians who dared to think differently.
Here is White's take, for example, on Focus on the Family:
"We disagree about what are the moral issues that face this country. Jim Dobson and Focus on the Family focus on what I call genital issues: same-sex marriage, pornography, premarital sex. That's what they stay focused on. And, well, you can't get that from Jesus. Jesus doesn't care about those issues. Jesus wants to know what you do with your power and prestige and possessions. Jesus is concerned about the poor. And those are the moral issues that I stay focused on, not on issues that have to do with the penis."
And yet White considers Dobson a friend. The Focus leader sent a touching letter to White recently, acknowledging their vast differences.
"While we've disagreed on things in the past," Dobson wrote, "there has never been any doubt about our friendship."
White didn't just talk about curing what he saw as social ills. He led with his actions. Under his unceasing prodding, First Congregational Church became the first mainstream church in Colorado Springs to approve same-sex unions.
Last Sunday's services at the magnificent 19th-century stone church marked the end not only of White's 16-year run as its senior pastor but also of his 43 years as a minister with the United Church of Christ.
An avid fly-fisherman, White said he would devote much of his time to the pursuit of trout. He leaves soon on a fishing trip to British Columbia.
As part of the standard agreement between the United Church of Christ and its retiring ministers, for the next 18 months White and his wife, Patti, will be allowed no real contact with the church that was so much of their lives.
"It's a bad deal," he said, flashing the grin that lit up his congregation since 1989.
"But it's the best deal for the church. They need to get acquainted with the new man or woman who will come. The church wants the new person to really get established. They can't rely on the old guy to come back and do the funeral or do the wedding.
"So now I'll visit other churches in town and see what they're doing on Sunday. And some Sundays, I may find out how things are going down on the Arkansas River."
As Peter battled valiantly through the crowd, he glanced up again at Jesus on the cross and saw to his amazement that Christ was again calling his name. "Peter. Peter." And the disciple moved faster now toward the cross that rested atop the hill to hear the final message from the Lord.
Retirement won't be all fly-fishing. White is putting the finishing touches on a book that he began writing 25 years ago. True to his character, it was not an easy undertaking. The book will cover 4,000 years of religion.
The new wave of evangelical, conservative Christianity will not, White said, be viewed kindly.
"Historical Christianity will say this is a very shallow representation of the faith. It's a mutation. The concreteness, the belief that there's only one way to interpret the Scriptures, instead of the multiple ways that the church has always taught, is a terrible mistake. History will look at those people and say, 'Boys, you didn't understand it.'"
Politics, as you might imagine, are not off limits to the outspoken White.
"So now we have a fascist president willing to use his religion to impose his will on the world in terrifying ways," White said. "And he says it's all justified, as if God wills it. That's the last thing God wants, for us to wage war on a Third World nation!"
On Sunday, White stood before his congregation one last time. In a voice heavy with emotion, he thanked them all for the past 16 years. It was a sad and tear-filled service.
Unlike the service he conducted in the same church on that Good Friday back in 2002.
Peter finally climbed the hill and made it to the foot of the cross and looked up, exhausted. The dying Jesus called his name for the last time and then delivered the message the apostle had fought so valiantly to hear.
"Peter," said the savior. "I can see your house from here!"
Associate minister Benjamin Broadbent was at that service.
"Oh, when he finished the story of the crucifixion and that 'Peter, I can see your house from here' line, not a single person in the church laughed," Broadbent said.
"Which just made it all the more funny.
"And all I could think at that moment was, 'Well, that's Jim White. A truly fearless man.'"
-- Rich Tosches
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