Saying yes and saying no...

About 10 years ago I started to reread and rethink the work of Dorothy Bass et al concerning "spiritual practices" that help us live into our faith.  (for more information go to: For a small congregation, Christine Pohl, suggests four practices that resonate with my heart and experience:

+ Expressing gratitude:  In worship and acts of service, in our private prayers and public commitments, gratitude guides our words, thoughts and deeds rather than complaint or obligation. What a huge difference this makes for both pastor and congregation. It is so easy to carp and whine about all that is not working - or not working well enough.  So I have taken to challenging my own inclination to piss and moan and those of my church leaders, too as a spiritual practice. 

Pohl puts it like this:

Small changes in practice can shift the culture of a community. One pastor I met decided to devote a major portion of a church's annual meeting to thanking everyone who had made a contribution to congregational life... Every meeting should have "far more positive affirmation than negative confrontation' and should include talk about how we see God working in one another.  As Jean Vanier observes: "Celebration is a sign of the resurrection which gives us strength to carry the cross each day."

And little by little we are growing together in love and acceptance.  What's more, those who can't seem to grasp the invitation of Christ in expressions of gratitude are finding themselves isolated and disempowered.  Nothing holds back a congregation from becoming its best self like a mean-spirit and gratitude gives us a way of moving towards the Spirit better than anything else.

+ Keeping promises:  Sometimes it seems as if the wider church has been mortally wounded by breaking faith and betraying fidelity.  No wonder trust in the Church is at an all time low throughout the Western world.  That means, I think, that we on the local level must own this abuse and find small, gentle and effective ways of rebuilding trust.  It will take generations, of course, but it can be done.  "Betrayal is devastating to our trust and sense of justice - and sometimes to our faith."

So we can, for example, manage our shared monies in a transparent way.  We can take appropriate and compassionate steps when leaders violate their vows.  We can hold clergy and laity accountable for their commitments.  We can refuse to shoot our wounded when we fail.  And we must stand up to congregational bullies of all varieties so that the local church is experienced as a safe and open place of refuge and hope.  

+Living truthfully:  This is one of the hardest practices to put into action because sometimes we don't always know what is true.  And sometimes being truthful in love causes people to leave the community.  I bumped up against this again this summer as we are working at finding new ways to strengthen Christian formation in our congregation. 

For the next three years we are going to resource parents and families so that they act as partners in the "domestic Church of Jesus Christ" and support and strengthen what takes place on Sunday morning.  This will mean that every week we prepare written resources for use in the home, include children in worship more than segregated Sunday School classrooms and expect parents to pray regularly at home with their children.  One of our new basic goals is to encourage families to eat at least one meal together each week and use some of our resources for a family discussion. 

Most parents are excited albeit apprehensive given their demanding and often over-extended schedules.  But some find themselves resistant because, of course, choices are going to have to be made.  Saying yes and saying no will have to be practiced.  And in a consumer culture driven by unbridled desires, I suspect we'll lose a few families.  That will be sad - and some leaders who are great bean-counters will complain - but not everyone who cries, "Lord, Lord" will enter the kingdom of God, yes?  In an era of making hard choices, living truthfully into Christ's grace is an essential spiritual practice.

+ Offering hospitality:  And I mean radical hospitality.  When I first started speaking of this practice some people thought that it meant "anything goes..." or that the leadership of the congregation should live like "a quivering mass of availability" (to paraphrase Hauerwas.)  But radical hospitality is NOT about being used up, but by welcoming and nourishing those who are wounded, forgotten and neglected.  Mostly I find that it is more about finding time to listen everyday or bring rest to one who is overwhelmed.

Often the best gift we can give another person is our time and attention. People come to life when they and their offerings are valued. This means that communities and the folk within them must be willing to receive.  Only as we recognize our own vulnerabilities and incompleteness are we open to what others can contribute.

Radical hospitality, of course, has led us to become and Open and Affirming congregation within the United Church of Christ.  But it has also called us to simply open the doors of the Sanctuary every noon and offer anyone a chance a chance to rest in the beauty of Christ's presence without qualification.  It has meant that our meetings and church dinners have moved from being stuffy to hyper-family friendly - same, too with refreshments after worship and even worship itself.  Radical hospitality has taken us into cleaning up the river, welcoming into worship musicians of all stripes and varieties and styles and  has even come to mean that our staff lives and acts as ambassadors of grace rather than just church professionals - our leadership teams have been invited do this, too.

Even when our theology hasn't caught up to our image of God, and that happens from time to time, we are committed to erring on the side of grace and gratitude. Pohl concludes with words that are both being made flesh in our ministry while constantly challenging us to go deeper:

When we offer welcome or live with gratitude, when we make and keep promises or live truthfully, we are responding to the practices of God. Our experiences of community grow out of the practices through which we echo the goodness, grace and truth we find in Jesus. We are not called to create ideal families, communities or congregations. Building faithful communities of truth and hospitality, however, is at the heart of our grateful response to the one who "became flesh and lived among us... full of grace and truth."


Black Pete said…
I would add--loving oneself, both individually and collectively. Without self-love and self-care, any one of the four "challenges" (my word) could conceivably burn the congregation (not to mention the individuals) out.
RJ said…
Hmmmm... let me ponder that, my man. I am totally down with both self-love/care - very Jesus-like - and wonder how it fits as a shared commitment. More soon...
Black Pete said…
Well, to actually do proper self care, you have to commit to it like you would any life change, and that would probably mean a regular prayer life, bodily care, self knowledge (i.e: commitment to know oneself), etc.

Where the shared part comes in is perhaps in sharing that commitment with others so that you have a mutual support group, as it were. Maybe even some of the tasks can be done at times in a group, such as prayer.

Just some off-the-cuff thoughts.

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