Wednesday, July 20, 2011

specific ways of meeting jesus in the local church...

It is a hot, hazy day in the Berkshires - and most of my time today has been spent in church administration.  William Willimon once wrote that NOBODY he knows decided to go into the work of pastoring a local congregation because they LOVED administration.  It was the love of God, the presence of Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that called us into ministry - not balancing budgets, organizing committees, wrestling with the needs of repairing an ancient building while also resourcing our mission to the poor with integrity - and yet that is what a lot of us in local church ministry do, right? 

Not that God's presence can't be found in the details of administration - in fact, I would argue that they must - but this isn't where our call began.  My call, for example, started when I would argue with my Unitarian grandmother about "wanting to see the face of God" when I was in the fourth grade. (really!) And ripened throughout my teen years until I "heard" the Lord speak to me while sitting in The Potter's House in Washington, DC just two months after Dr. King had been gunned down.  "You could do this," the voice of God seemed to be saying; that is, you could be engaged in an arts ministry that is edgy and beyond the confines of the status quo.  You love music, you love artists and you love me.  You could be doing this... and so it came to pass that for nearly 15 more years I tried to evade that call. And then, to paraphrase Niebuhr, after I tried to do everything else BUT ministry, I surrendered.

And what is ironic is that I felt I had to do this edgy, left-of-center ministry grounded in the arts in the local church.  Not on a campus, not is a specialized setting but in the local, ordinary church where wise and foolish, young and old, rich and poor and in-between people come seeking something of Christ's love and God's grace.  I remember the then president of the United Church of Christ, Paul Sherry, telling me, "You might want to consider NOT going into local church ministry, man."  He was teaching my polity class at Union Theological Seminary in NYC and became a friend and mentor.  He was afraid I wouldn't fit in - and in many ways he was right.  But as my day-to-day mentor in urban ministry, Ray Swartzaback, used to say:  "If we can't figure out how to make the way of Jesus real and valuable here in the local church, we might as well look for other work because THIS is where the rubber meets the road."  I still think he was right.

So I spent the day in administration:  working out the details of hiring a new music director, ferreting out the records of Sunday School classes so I can visit families during their summertime break, writing letters, touching base with leaders about budget concerns and all the rest.  And here are three places where I have come to see ordinary people meeting Jesus in the local church:

+ Worship:  there is nothing utilitarian about worship - and this is the front door for most folk - so it has to be honest, beautiful and faithful.  Because, you see, Jesus is the only thing we have to offer the world in the local church.  I know the mega-churches offer lattes and nail salons and all the rest.  But we can't do entertainment better than Disney - and we can't do food better than specialty restaurants - and we can't do coffee better than Starbucks.  And we shouldn't try - all we have to offer people is Jesus - his life, death and resurrection.  And we can do this with prayer, music, silence as well as aesthetics, hospitality and clear and compassionate preaching and teaching.

And that's one of the reasons why I work so hard at administration:  if we aren't offering people our best encounter with the Living Christ in worship we SHOULD look for other work. It matters how well our musicians play, it matters that people know how to truly welcome one another as the Lord, it matters that our worship space touches the head and the heart and that we embrace beauty as much as spiritual truth.  People most often look for something of the Lord in worship, so we need to pay attention.

+ Sunday School:  this is almost an anachronism but what we do with our children and families matters.  How we help families deepen their children's spiritual formation matters. Nobody knows how to pray any more; nobody knows how to live into the seasons of faith; nobodies has a biblical language to describe the ups and downs of human existence. So creating a safe, engaging and faithful Sunday School is another place I believe people can meet Jesus on Sunday morning.  And this means our leaders must pay attention - and learn names - and keep good records so that we can follow up and help strangers become part of the community. 

Because community life is also where we meet Jesus.  I don't remember who taught me this but she said, "There are two parts to the cross: the vertical connection between you and the Lord; and the horizontal connection between you and the people.  You meet God in BOTH places."  Especially in the Reformed tradition - so the administrative work of record keep is part of my commitment to radical hospitality - and it matters.

+ Eucharist:  John Calvin argued with his church elders 500 years ago that every time the community gathered on Sunday they should celebrate the Lord's Supper.  The elders won saying that given the broken Roman tradition of keeping the cup from the people for so long needed time before they were ready for weekly communion.  But don't you think 500 years is enough of a wait?

So, whether my leaders get it or not - and thank God they always have - I have found a way to celebrate weekly Eucharist for nearly 30 years.  Henri Nouwen was my mentor in this who found a way to navigate around the limitations of Rome when he was at Yale; he welcomed EVERYONE to the Lord's Table just as Christ Jesus would whether they were Catholic, baptized or whatever.  He was humble about it, he wasn't secretive either; because he knew that in Eucharist we meet Jesus in mysterious and healing ways that cannot happen any other way.

I am willing to put the time into administration because I know it pays off in worship, Sunday School and Eucharist.  It also pays off in another way of meeting Jesus, too: building trust with my lay leaders.  This isn't automatic and doesn't come with the office.  I wish it did - sometimes - but it doesn't and pastors need to earn trust and respect.  Being faithful about adminstration helps.  Hiring to address your blindspots and weakness is another good strategy.  And being honest when you just don't know something is essential, too. 

Once, an African American Pentecostal pastor friend said, "How come you liberal white guys don't ever act on the words of Jesus when he told his disciples to 'become friends with unrighteous mammon?'"  I had to admit I didn't recall that passage in scripture and he just laughed saying, "I thought so.  Look man, it is simple:  learn from your business people. They KNOW how to get things done if they're any good. You should know how to get things done, too.  You don't have to buy into their ethics, but let's at least be as effective as business when it comes to God's love, ok?"

Building trust with leaders, taking time to listen and pray with them, visiting their homes and asking for their wisdom in matters I don't understand is another place I have met Jesus with my lay leadership. One wise, old pastor, M. Craig Barnes, who runs the Doctor of Ministry program and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary put it like this:

Most parishioners, for example, are not unaware that we are justified before God by grace through faith. They have heard these favorite words of the church from the time they were children squirming in the pews. Few would deny the "reality" of this doctrine. But without a parish "poet" who can invite them into their own conflicted souls, where they encounter their serious doubts that this could possible be "true" given the judmental nature of life, they will never be amazed by amazing grace...

He closes that chapter with these words that ring so true for me:  What if pastors... were free to work hard simply at being better poets? And is it possible that the call to parish ministry can come not at the expense of our souls, but at their delight - the joy known only by those who can behod mystery and truth at work just beneath the surface of all the belief and all the reality of parish life?

And finally there is the power of meeting Jesus in the written words of scripture - and sharing its power and wisdom with those you love and serve.  Twice in the last two days as I have been wrestling with the complexites of administration - namely finding the money to hire the right person for our music ministry - two scriptures have knocked me on my ass with grace.

+ In writing Sunday's message about Matthew 13: 44-46 I came across these words from Pastor Brian Stoffregen that I literally sent out to my leadership team in awe: I wonder, have we (myself included) become so comfortable in our congregations that we no longer risk doing new, joyful and costly things because of the kingdom?” At how many council meetings has something like this been said, "We don't have the money to do that."? In contrast, I heard of a family who was so committed to a project at their congregation that they took out a second mortgage on their house to pay for half of it. YES!!! The good news, as one old timer put it, is that we have all the money we need for ministry; the bad news is that it is in our pockets!

+ And then at today's midday Eucharist, the gospel reading for the daily lectionary spoke of Jesus sleeping in the stern of a boat while the disciples flipped out in fear and worry. After a quiet time for Lectio Divino one of my leaders said, "Seems as if God's quiet assurance is always present in the midst of our storms, don't you thin, if we just look to Jesus?"

Well, I could go on and on - and have probably written waaaaaaay too much - but there are five specific ways of meeting Jesus in the local church.  And I have been blessed by them all. The Saint of Vermont, Frederick Buechner, put it like this:

Grace is something you can never get but only be given. The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It's for you. I created the universe. I love you. There's only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too. Wishful Thinking


Black Pete said...

I was calling out the jokes to Joyce as we were eating breakfast: the groans and laughs were an even split!

RJ said...

I can imagine they were - same when Di took a look last night - glad to have shared them both!

summertime is half over...

A gentle rain is falling in the Berkshire hills this morning. Already it feels like a day of contemplation and quiet rest. There was a Fac...