Written by Don and Barb McCall and Reviewed by Doug Poland
I was not baptized, confirmed, or raised in a Presbyterian church, but came to the denomination in my late twenties. I would like to think that being raised in a church of a different Christian denomination has given me a perspective that allows me to more clearly see what distinguishes the Presbyterian church from other Protestant denominations. If I were to reduce to a single characteristic what I have experienced that makes the Presbyterian church unique is its connectional nature: the primacy of the relationships that we share with each other as a faith community.
Looking back on the 16 years I have been a member of Covenant, I have experienced a depth and breadth of connection to our church community, and to the broader Presbyterian church, greater than I ever could have conceived was possible at the outset of my journey on the path to discipleship in Jesus Christ. One of the great blessings of being a part of the Covenant community, in particular, has been the steady stream of retired pastors who have participated in the life of our community. They have been a source of wisdom, insight, and guidance to me on my faith journey. And one of the strongest connections, and most enriching relationships, that I have experienced through Covenant is my friendship with Don McCall.
Although Don stepped down from the pulpit many years ago, he remains a prolific author, and through both his writing and his participation in Adult Education programs at Covenant, a sage teacher. Soon after Don and his wife, Barbara, moved to Madison and became part of our faith community, I was drawn into friendship with Don through our shared experiences in Adult Education classes. After a while, I was fortunate enough to be included in monthly letters that Don wrote to Mi Habibis, his beloved children and grandchildren. Don’s letters were reflections on his life and lessons he had learned on the way, interwoven with scriptural references, intended to give the recipients a glimpse of Don’s many insights on a life lived in Christ, as well as to express his love for them.
Don’s latest book, Follow Your Heart, co-written with Barbara, is a deeply personal work, dedicated to their grandchildren, and seemingly intended to pass along a life’s worth of wisdom gained from lived experiences. It reads much like Don’s letters, or for those of us fortunate enough to have conversed with Don at length on Sunday mornings, like one of the stories he would tell during the many Adult Education classes we shared. The chapters are organized around specific life experiences that Don has had, mostly involving other members of his family — his father; his wife, Barbara; his children; and his grandchildren. Don searches for and distills lessons from these experiences, reflecting on how each has taught him something about how he has strayed from the path of discipleship (although that is a word that Don fastidiously refuses to use), how he came to that recognition (usually through the intervention of others), and how he corrected his course. He further connects these experiences with specific scriptural passages, anchoring these life lessons in words of spiritual wisdom written millennia ago; lessons that have, quite literally, stood the test of time, and have revealed themselves to generation after generation. Indeed, Don emphasizes one of the great mysteries of sacred text: no matter how often or for how many years the same passage of scripture is preached or read, it will reveal different truths each time, and different truths to each ear that hears it. As Don notes, the mediative power of God’s word through the Holy Spirit is a great mystery that is at the same time both so difficult to understand, yet so comforting.
Don’s stories and reflections are punctuated by what he and Barbara have chosen to call “Sidebars” written by Barbara. Barbara was a practicing lawyer for much of her life, and as they explain, a “sidebar” in the courtroom is a side conversation that the lawyers have with the judge that cannot (at least in theory) be overheard by the jury or witnesses. Barbara’s “Sidebars” in Follow Your Heart arose from side conversations that Don and Barbara had while Don was writing the book, as Barbara reminded him of shared family experiences and memories. But a deeper reading of both Don’s chapters and Barbara’s “Sidebars” shows that these Sidebars are more than that; they help to illuminate what is at the core of the message — the essential life lesson — that Don’s writing seeks to convey.
And that essential message brings me back to the point about the connectional nature of the Presbyterian church. As Don notes (and Barbara reminds him), the meaning of life lies not in what we (or others) might view as our accomplishments, such as the degrees we earn from prestigious universities, or the accolades, honors, or appointments we receive. Rather, it comes from our personal relationships with one another: with our spouses, our children, our grandchildren, and with Jesus Christ. It is God’s love for each of us that is the point of our creation, and the love for one another that each of us has in our heart that is the point of our living. Don has taught me and others at Covenant many lessons over the years, often through lively conversation about proper scriptural interpretation and meaning. But the greatest lesson I have learned from him, a generous gift of insight that he shares in Follow Your Heart, is this: “The meaning of life lies not in your accomplishments but in your relationships … Who you are and Whose you are.” Amen!
Check out Follow Your Heart, and many other books, from the Covenant Library!