The flight into Knoxville is low and lovely. There are the ridges of the mountains. There are the lakes of the Tennessee Valley, formed by the damming of the river in the 1930's by the Tennessee Valley Authority, an immense project that powered the South. It is still green in spots here, and the gold and red leaves have yet to fall.
Sunday evening is a tired time for clergy; they are eager for some unstructured time. Sunday evening is also the usual start time for the annual clergy conference every diocese has, a time when they all go off somewhere else together to enjoy each other and study and pray together.
I love these gatherings, and am privileged to speak at many of them. From place to place, they are similar: good people trying hard to be faithful, doing their best more often than not, lower on resources than they would like. There is a sense in which only they know what it's like, and most of them value the chance to be together.
You'll want to come up with something on Sunday evening to break the ice, the bishop said, but there seemed to be little ice left by the time our first meal was over. The weight of their parishes had slid off most of their shoulders sometime during the main course, and they were laughing and chatting, joking.
It seemed almost a pity to bring up the evening's topic: the war, and what pastoring is like right now. They made thoughtful comments, and I solicited memories of what it was like from those who had pastored during the Vietnam War. A flood of stories, many vigorous nods: those were terrible times. Anybody serve a church during Korea? I asked, and a couple of grey heads nodded, and a couple old men told of the terrible inconclusiveness at the war's end.
Who remembers Pearl Harbor? I asked, and many hands went up. Many stories: I was eleven, I was six, I was sixteen, We had just gotten engaged. We talked of war and the pain of war, of broken families and broken lives, of the permanent loss of innocence.
I think I'm the only person here who doesn't remember Vietnam, a young priest said, This one right now is the only war I've known. Something like a sigh came up from the others. So much water under the bridge since they were that age, and yet it seems so recent.
Something that can only be called love filled the room, love of everyone in it, everyone with a different story, everyone there that night and everyone for whom we have ever cared. All the decades of our service hovered above our heads. The great stream of history flows over and around the large and small rocks of us; we do not stop it, but we each see its flow from within it. It would not be as it is without us.