Tribute to Stephen Philbrick on the Occasion of Twenty Years in Ministry

this is the original version of the abbreviated tribute I gave this morning

West Cummington Church

November 30, 2014

These days I do not much write poems. Instead, I write blogposts and blessings, sermons and lists of assignments to complete by semester’s end.

In the time before I really knew Steve, after I had attended candlelight worships in this place, about eight years ago I wrote this poem:

Formidable, his voice booms

shoulders broad, jaw sturdy,

simple grey suit magnifies solid stature.


Yet his finger is bandaged

signaling translucent vulnerability,

his and our own.


He calls his compassion foolish &

invites us to join him.

Such gentle force straddling

earthly & godly realms.


In this church there is no scolding god

to fear, though Christ is everywhere.

No certainty in this message or

arrogance in the messenger.


He is of us, among us,

& his gift stands him apart

just enough

to ignite light.

Photo By Paul Shoul
Stephen Philbrick. Photo By Paul Shoul

Rather than call it the mediocre poem it is, let us call it the prequel of a relationship not yet born: a future relationship of teacher and student, of mentor and learner, of spirit guide and spirit wanderer, of officiant and bride, of colleagues, of friends.

As introduction to that poem, I wrote

The small village church and his unassuming ways move me.

Steve and I have been meeting for the past three or so years in an official – whatever that means – capacity as mentor, though he will say he is not quite sure who is mentoring whom. I am proud to claim him as mentor, to share with others in the wider world his ministry and the ministry of this church, which can never be fully separated or made distinct.

me & Steve at Chesterfield George during one of our official mentoring sessions
me & Steve at Chesterfield George during one of our official mentoring sessions

Just a few weeks ago, I “interviewed” Steve for a worship class at my seminary, Andover Newton Theological School. The assignment was to interview a minister about their approach to worship.

It was my dumb luck that Steve decided to be Buddhist that day, answering my questions with his own Hilltown style of koan. When I asked, “What is the balance between faithful planning and the presence of Holy Spirit,” Steve replied,

Who grows the potato?

A few things that Steve did say clearly is that his lectionary is not some fixed calendar of bible passages, but is the Outdoors, preferably near water. That it is also the Creamery, the folks at it, listening in (otherwise called eavesdropping if one is not clergy) and talking with them. He said, “you don’t find scripture; scripture finds you.”

He also told me that in the midst of sermon writing, he goes out to the woodpile. (Of all the interviews shared in class, he was the only minister who chops wood to be in the flow of sermon writing.)

So when this elegant print by Michael McCurdy came into my sphere of influence, I knew it belonged in the giving and receiving on this morning. For in it is Steve’s woodpile. In the background, one of the heroes we Unitarians, I think rightly, claim: Henry David Thoreau.

It is with great joy that I present it to you, with blessings and my deepest gratitude.

Artist: Michael McCurdy, Thoreau and the Woodpile
Artist: Michael McCurdy, Thoreau and the Woodpile

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