Thoughts about the next three years...

In the quiet of this Memorial Day - after tea and the NY Times - I find myself thinking about the next three years of ministry.  When they close, I will be 62 - old enough for so-called "early retirement" - but still profoundly committed to the cause of Christ and his Church.  And while I don't fully know what that might mean in three years, a few insights are becoming clear:

+ After our trip to Istanbul, it feels to me like "part one" of our renewal work in the Berkshires will be complete.  We have journeyed together from fear to hope, from anxiety about closing our doors to both modest numerical and spiritual growth and from randomness in mission to focus and connection.  We are partners with the Berkshire Environmental Action Team throughout the year in eco-justice work and hands-on healing of the Housatonic River.  (Just two weeks ago, one of our young men brought the movie, "Carbon Nation," to a local theatre and organized nearly 200 people's participation.)  Our work in Habitat for Humanity is strong and maturing.  And our peace-making commitments are increasingly creative whether that involves our support for the Jazz Ambassador's trip to Istanbul or the work we've done to support Greg Mortenson in Afghanistan (no matter what the jury eventually finds, his work for educating girls in this part of the world is still heroic.)

+ In these first three years of "renewal" work, we have also begun to trust God and one another in deeper ways.  Not that we've got it all together - that would be arrogant and just plain stupid to claim - but we have discerned a way of being together that is respectful while being challenging.  We don't look backwards as much any more; we don't begin with fear about the future either:  we trust that God has called this faith community together for a reason. 

And that reason is found in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus - NOT  being the first church in town, NOT existing simply to mark the life transitions of the city's elites and NOT as a burial society - but as a faith community born of the Cross.  We still have a ways to go, but like Jeremiah Wright once said about Trinity Church, Chicago:  we are unabashedly Christian (and unashamedly Black!)  We are becoming more unabashedly Christian in our identity - for that's the only way renewal happens. Techniques and gimmicks come and go but the presence of the Living God as made flesh by Christ is where we draw strength, inspiration and hope.    

So now that "phase one" of our renewal work is coming to a close, what will the next three years bring?  As much as I don't try to "read the tea leaves" or make predictions when it comes to what the Spirit will bring - folksinger Bob Franke likes to quote the gospel, "The Spirit blows where she will" and then adds: so beware the man selling tickets!" - I have a few clues.  And three books have been shaping these emerging insights:  The Pastor as Minor Poet by M. Craig Barnes, The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson and Love Wins by Rob Bell.  Each in its unique way suggest that the next three years in this ministry will include some of the following:
+ Poetic leadership:  Peterson speaks of the pastor as an apocalyptic poet who is called to use words in such a way that "the revelation of God to us in Jesus" is shown to be so "large and full of energy - and our capacities to believe and love and hope are so atrophied - that we need help to hear the Word made flesh" and claim their power and energy.  He also notes that because most pastoral work today is so focused on results and doing that it erodes the poetry of God's love - "people are not comfortable with the uncertainties and risks and travail of creativity" - we confuse "knowing" with "wisdom."

Not all words create. Some merely communicate. They explain, report, describe, manage, inform, regulate. We live in an age obsessed with communication. Communication is good, but a minor good. Knowing about things never has seemed to improve our lives a great deal. So the pastoral task with words is not communication but communion - the healing and restoration and creation of love relationships between God and God's fighting children and our fought-over creation.  Poetry uses words in and for communion.

Clearly, this is an invitation to go more deeply into the arts, yes?  Music and poetry, drama and dance, the visual arts and more are key to both our on-going spiritual renewal as well as our role in the wider community.  Barnes speaks to this when he writes:

What would the world be like if it were run by sacred poets? That is exactly the question answered by the biblical notion of the Kingdom of God. It would be a world in which enemies are loved, the poor inherit the earth and no one hurts another out of anxiety about what tomorrow may bring. These words depict the wisdom of heaven, but they appear foolish and naive when spoken anywhere on earth. So the poet stands in the midst of a world that has grown jaded with reality and speaks in such a way as to open the doors into the Kingdom of Truth. The poet's lifelong apprenticeship is to move others, stir them from their sleep reality and awaken them to the presence of the Kingdom in their midst.

The faith community as a parable of what the world should look like, yes?  That means we move forward with our Open and Affirming commitment that says to the world that ALL of God's children are cherished among us, but that we reclaim this blessing in the Spirit and presence of Christ who says to everyone:  come unto me, all ye who are tired and heavy laden, and I will give ye rest.  (Or a la Peterson:  if your are burned out on religion, come to me and learn the unforced rhythms of grace!)

That means we will push ourselves to discover the new/old ways of unlocking our imagination and creativity for worship and mission.  And, of course, it means deepening our commitment to spiritual and liturgical literacy so that we start to become more saturated in Christ's vision of grace than the mundane and deadening aspects of popular culture.  As Barnes writes, we are called to show an alternative to the status quo - an alternative from our obsession with being relevant - "and the alternative to being relevant is to be confessional."
... to be confessional is to refuse to accept the agenda as it is self-described and to insist on interpreting all human needs from a biblical perspective... for our calling is NOT about making the Gospel relevant to the individual, but about making the individual relevant to the Gospel.  It's not about you - You are about it.

+ Patient leadership:  after almost 30 years of ordained ministry I have discovered - often in frustration - that what I think should happen always takes twice as long to mature in the church.  Twice as long - as slow as dial-up on the information highway - agonizingly poky when compared to Microsoft and Apple.  And, of course, that is the blessing, too.  How did Niebuhr put it? “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.” 

In addition to nourishing the creativity of God's poetry within and among us, another part of this ministry over the next three years will involve cultivating a passionate patience: 

Bastard apocalyptic - apocalyptic that has no parentage in biblical sources or gospel commitments - promotes a progeny of irresponsibility... but the real thing, the conceived-in-holy-wedlock apocalyptic develops communities that are passionately patient, courageously committed to witness and work in the kingdom of God no matter how long it takes or how much it costs.

I sense that such revolutionary patience is going to mean we stop looking at membership numbers - and counting pledging units (is that ever a great insult to the Body of Christ or what?) - and start trusting people's participation in WORSHIP.  When I started there were 43 people in worship; today we average 75-90.  Not all are members - most are very regular - with a growing sense of commitment.  So one of the deaths that must happen over the next three years is trying to find security by counting the things we control - like the annual accounting of who is in and who is out - which is a bottom line worldview shaped more by the marketplace than the kingdom.  If we patiently trust that God is not going to go away, then we can give God's people space and time to build trust and relationships and hope, yes?

Rob Bell put it like this:

Millions have been taught that if they don't believe (like we do), if they don't accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell.  God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormentor who would ensure that they had no escape form an endless future of agony.

If we are to go out and teach and baptize in God's name, we must be passionately patient about immersing others in God's grace - not judgment.  We must show in our worship and mission that God's kingdom - not our fears for security - are at the core of all we do.  Like Bell likes to say:  the gospel is better than most of what people have been told - much, much better.

+ Prayerful leadership:  that is, leading from an intentional and honest communion with God. It takes time to be prayerful - and to study and reflect on the scripture - you can't do it running around trying to be helpful.  Peterson tells a story about churches that thrive during an interim ministry (not always the case to be sure) when a LOT of the things pastors are expected to do are left undone.  Why?

People would rather talk to the pastor than to God... so instead of practicing prayer, which brings us into the presence of God, pastors enter into the practice of messiahship: we will do the work of God for God, fix people up, tell them what to do, conspire in finding shortcuts by which the long journey to the Cross can be bypassed since we all have such crowded schedules right now. People love us when we do this. It is flattering to be put in the place of God. It feels wonderful to be treated in this godlike way. And it is work that we are generally good at.

But we aren't called to be God - God is God - and we need to honor that truth in ourselves.  We need to be unhurried and prayer-filled.  Less time answering email and more time in quiet reflection, less time in meetings that don't need us and more time sitting with the dying, less time trying to fix things and more time "paying attention to God so that we might lead others to pay attention to God.  It hardly matters that so many people would rather pay attention to their standards of living, or their self-image or their zeal to make a mark on the world."  Our goal is to be saturated in the grace of God and lead others into this intimacy, too.
In the next three years I sense being called to work harder on my weekly biblical reflections.  I sense I am being asked to spend more time walking quietly with those with questions, too, in addition to church administration.  And I sense that I will be spending even more time in new and secular places like coffee shops and pubs rather than my church study.  I'll be there, too, but out in the wider community more as a presence - listening and learning from those at the diner - than waiting to be useful to insiders. There are hard questions ordinary people are asking - when they take a break from the grind - and if it is true that love wins, then listening to their questions - and being a presence for grace - is critical.

And then, after another three years we'll all take a long and loving look at what the Spirit has beendoing within and among us - and see what's going on.

(credits: the art work comes from the late Mark Rothko who suggests to me the essence of this next phase of ministry.  I continue to be grateful to his pursuit of beauty amidst the pain.)


Black Pete said…
Traveling mercies, James.
RJ said…
Thanks, brother.

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