Sunday notes for anniversary reflection: redux...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for this week.  They are, as some will notice, a further reflection on a posting I did last week about 30 years of ministry.  This Saturday my congregation will host a "gentle roast" in honor of my ordination; and on Sunday I will share this reflection in scripture, song and story.

I am a practicing Christian – that means I understand that even after all these years I still don’t have it right and need a LOT of practice – so truth be told, even though I’ve been practicing for 45 years I still feel like a total novice.  I made a conscious commitment to follow the way of Christ when I was 15 and sensed a call to ministry a year later.  And now that I’ve been ordained into Christian ministry for 30 years, it seems appropriate to take a little time to look backwards in reflection.  Not to be nostalgic or sentimental, mind you, but rather to see whether or not all this practicing has made any difference.

So what I’m going to do for about 25 minutes – and maybe a little longer (so be forewarned) – is share with you some of the things I think our still speaking God has made known to me during my time in ministry.  Using scripture, story and song I’m going to offer up a reflection on how I have been embraced and challenged by the God made flesh to me in Jesus Christ our Lord.  I know from the outset that not everyone will get what I’m trying to say.  I know that some will grumble that I took too much time doing it.  And I know that for a few – and I don’t know who you are – something will click and you’ll want to draw closer to God in Christ, too.  So today I want to speak to you.  

Frederick Buechner once wrote:  “There is no event so common place but that God is present within nit, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not… but all the more fascinatingly because of that… So if I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I have tried to say as a writer and preacher, it would be something like this:  listen to your life.  See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell you way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments and life itself is grace.”

St Paul said much the same thing in his admonition to the early church when he told them that if you haven’t been changed in your commitment to Christ over the course of your life time– if you haven’t matured in the Spirit – then something is wrong:  either you’re faking it or not paying attention to what the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus means in your generation or something. Eugene Peterson’s reworking of Ephesians 4 puts it like this:

Here’s what I want you to do…. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands. I don’t want anyone strolling off, down some path that goes nowhere. Mark that you do this with humility and discipline—not in fits and starts—but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences…No prolonged infancies among us, please. We’ll not tolerate babes in the woods, small children who are an easy mark for impostors. God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything… because we take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do.

So from my distinctly limited perspective, here’s what I’ve discerned, so far during my time in ministry, ok?

When I first entered Union Theological Seminary 33 years ago, I had two small children:  I had spent time working as an organizer with the United Farm Workers movement of Cesar Chavez, I had tried – and failed – to clean up the care provided to profoundly disabled children in a custodial care home, labored in a variety of gas stations and restaurants and believed myself to be fed up with both traditional politics and church.  While finishing my undergraduate degree in Political Science from San Francisco State University, I entered the heady realm of "sanitized Marxism" (a phrase I borrowed from Cornel West who later became my Seminary advisor.)

And by the time I arrived in NYC, I had studied the major texts of the New Left, read and re-read the essential Liberation Theologians of Latin America and was ready for the church to serve as the vanguard of social and spiritual change in America.

Like many young seminarians before me, Luke 4: 18-19 called out to me, when Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah to his home town neighbors: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  Over the years, let me add, I’ve mellowed a bit about this passage and have now come to understand that this text really belongs to Jesus.  I wasn’t called to be the Messiah – he was.  So these days, I’m more centered in Micah: 6:8 – a passage that is not messianic but essential for all of us – when it declares:  Look, you know what the Lord requires:  so do it!  God has told you, mortal ones, what is good; and God has told you what Lord requires of you:  do justice, love kindness and to walk with humbly with your God.

But back in seminary, however, life was simpler, more black and white, less nuanced and personal for me.  So when I got to NYC I jumped into liberation theology:  I was their first exchange student to study Latin American liberation theology in Costa Rica, I travelled to Nicaragua to celebrate the first year of that country’s revolution and took classes in Marxist economics at Columbia along with my Bible work.

·       I served as co-chair of the student body, organized bus trips to DC to protest US policies in Central America, raised money in the Chapel to help arm the Sandinistas against the contras and helped bring Maggie Kuhn, head of the Grey Panthers, to speak at our commencement.

·       I had the privilege to serve as the last intern for the Rev. Ray Swartzback in Jamaica, Queens NY – an inter-racial, inter-cultural church that gave me a taste for what heaven must be like – who filled me with a fervor for preach what he called the gospel of confrontation and social justice.  And I was pumped up to make a mark on the world.

But things didn’t work out the way I expected because rather than being a time for social revolution, the United States went and elected Ronald Reagan.  Now for some this President was a hero, but for me he was a total zero who pandered to our lowest instincts.  And when it came time to leave seminary and serve my first church, I figured now maybe things would shake out in the real world.

My first call was as the Associate Pastor to First Church in Saginaw, MI - home of steel foundries and a major division of General Motors – and I was ready to engage the upside down kingdom of Jesus in radical and profound ways in that hard place.  I was certain that the challenging gospel of Jesus would be as revolutionary and energizing to others as it was to me.

·       But what I found were ordinary people in the Midwest struggling to keep food on the table in the midst of a recession, young teens obsessed and seduced by fashion and money and most folk with too little time left for challenging the status quo at the end of every hard earned day.

·       I was amazed - and often overwhelmed - at the weight of the pain and emptiness people carried with them every day.  

And as I listened to their burdens and shared their pain, I began to get in touch with my own demons, too.  Until I started ministry, I hadn’t really owned the depth of human pain that is always and everywhere just below the surface – and that sometimes comes screaming to the surface.

·       I once had to preach the funeral service for five small children who had burned to death because they had been trapped in the third floor of a broken down old house – and their parents had been too drunk to do anything except stumble out themselves. 

·        Let me tell you, nothing had prepared me for that kind of agony – or anger – and emptiness:  not liberation theology, not the gospel of confrontation, not intro to the New Testament 101 – nothing.

So in those early days of ministry I found I had to spend a lot of time waiting – and listening to both the pain of others and my own emptiness for something that resembled God’s still small voice from within the whirlwind – and what I discovered was that more than anything else I was being called into a ministry of presence.  I couldn’t fix or change most things – I could barely keep myself together – but I could be present with those who were hurting – and share a little compassion, a quiet embrace and sometimes a word of encouragement.

It was in Saginaw that I came to cherish the shortest sentence in the New Testament:  Jesus wept.  And it was there that I started to embrace what the prophet Isaiah once told his beloved own walking wounded: Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.  

In those days, Bruce Springsteen's "Reason to Believe" became a hymn for me…

In Saginaw, I took 50 young teens – and their parents – to Russia as part of our people-to-people peace ministry; I changed my preaching style to more story-telling and less finger-waving; redirected our outreach money towards unemployed workers hit hard by the recession of the early 80s and tried to share a little bit of compassion with those who were not the elite.  And because during those days it was still possible to deepen our ecumenical relations with the Roman Catholics, I became a colleague with the Bishop, Ken Untner, hung out with the priests of the cathedral and even lived and raised my family in a former Catholic convent that needed occupants when the nuns had to give it up.  It was a challenging, but beautiful season to be doing ministry and Saginaw changed me.

I knew I wasn’t going to stay an Associate Minister forever.  So three years later, I was called to be the sole pastor for a small, inner city congregation on the West Side of Cleveland:  once an Irish and German neighborhood that had moved hillbillies from Appalachia through it before becoming home to a new generation of Puerto Ricanoes, I was in heaven. "This is where things are going to happen," I kept telling myself - and I stayed for 13 years trying to make it so.

·      On my first day at church, while unpacking my books, two completely dissolute and trashed men startled me by knocking on my office window and demanding to see the pastor…

·       In that congregation, I travelled to the former Soviet Union two more times to deepen our peace-making ministry, was elected twice to the Board of Education as part of an inter-racial reform team – serving as the Vice-President – experienced the slow disintegration of my first marriage, came to love and marry Dianne and rediscovered the importance of intimacy with Christ.

In time we integrated that small, tough church - developed some important ministries to the children of the hood, too – only to have the county hospital buy up all the land surrounding the church and level everything in a mile radius bringing to a sad close 10 years of neighborhood ministry.  Now you have to understand that I loved everything about Cleveland - it is a peasant town in the best sense of the word - filled with salty saints, dill pickles and pumpernickel bread. There are great pierogies, too along with collard greens, pico de gallo, the Cleveland Indians and some of the best microbreweries on the planet. 

·       During that era I had the privilege of helping a few folks begin their journey to sobriety.

·        I entered a small Roman Catholic prayer movement as the only Protestant during those days – celebrated the Eucharist in the projects with a priest and a nun – and made regular, silent prayer retreats as part of my inner renewal grounded in the way of Charles de Foucault. 

And once again, I heard God’s still speaking voice say to me very clearly:  now is the time to learn how to face your own failures – develop a passion for laughing at yourself with love and humility not shame – and trust that the Lord your God's grace is bigger than anything else in all creation.   It was in Cleveland that I was born again – and found myself singing a new secular hymn right along with Paul Simon:  a man walks down the street; he says "why am I soft in the middle now, why am I so soft in the middle now when the rest of my life is so hard?"

It was here, too that I discovered Psalm 131: O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.  It was a sacred time – and Cleveland changed me inside and out.

After 13 years, it became clear that I needed a change:  by this time Dianne and were married and were called to Tucson, AZ – a place as different from Cleveland as night is from day.  It is a wild and laid back community close to the Mexican border – a place of new beginnings - and I was certain that now I was finally going to prove myself as a pastor. No more fussing with the body politic here because this congregation had been through an internecine battle of epic proportions. So I began working 12-14 hours a day trying to bring healing and hope back into the place.  It was in Tucson that I started to see a pattern in my ministry:  rather than serving God as the social activist I thought I was, I realized that I had actually been called to a ministry of encouragement, healing and the renewal of broken hearts.  Who’da thunk it?

After five years in Tucson, there were visible signs of life and numerical growth among us. We had a ball doing creative ministry in this sweet and unique place:  we built strong youth groups, intense adult formation gatherings, brilliant and innovative music and I had the chance to mature and ripen as a spontaneous, story-telling preacher.  It was a blessing...

... and also a curse.  The intensity of my striving - my need to be successful and the demands of the congregation - almost killed me and nearly destroyed my second marriage.  You see, I am an addict – addicted to work – and because I am a very slow learner I didn’t realize what was happening within me and all around me.  And I almost destroyed my life in every way you can imagine.  So as my spiritual advisor cautioned, "Brother, the time has come for you to discover the right reason for staying in ministry. You've already unearthed all the wrong reasons for doing this work; now let's find the ones that bring real life."

So we began: I rediscovered the spirituality of music and went on to write my doctoral dissertation on how living into a musical spirituality could be soul food as well as prayerful. We put together a rockin' fun band, Stranger, and found ways to welcome in people from the fringe of society. The songs of U2 became essential to my ministry and I even got a chance to regularly play a few tunes at the Chicago Bar with our local favorite band, The Rowdies, notably: "Keep Your Hands to Yourself," "You Shook Me All Night Long” and “After Midnight.”

During those 10 years, our connection with the GLBTQ community was solidified and we became the spiritual home for some transgendered folk, too. We were straight and gay, young and old, rich and poor, women and men and children.

I developed deep and loving friendships in Tucson that I will treasure forever.  For it was here that the words of John 1 – God became one of us in the flesh and dwelt among us in truth and grace became my guide – along with this song:  play “One of Us.”

In time I realized that I was getting a little long in the tooth as my father used to say:  I was approaching 55 and knew that I could either stay in Tucson till I retired or do something else – but it had to be soon.  I’d seen what happens when ministers stay too long just waiting for retirement – everyone grows stale – and I loved Tucson and God and even myself too much to just coast.  So, in time the Spirit brought us here to Pittsfield. 

It was agony saying good bye – even though we knew it was right.  When we were trying to discern where God might want us to go next, Dianne didn’t even want me to look at this place:  we DON’T want to move to a dump like Pittsfield she kept saying.  (You see, she had worked in the area after GE left and saw how depressed it had become.)  But because the Spirit is bigger than us both – and in time we all realized it – five years ago we came to Pittsfield with joy.

And no sooner had we arrived than the stock market began to crash and the hopes of renewal in town and in church became even more daunting.  But there were three commitments Dianne and I made before leaving Tucson:

·      First, we agreed that we would not do ANYTHING in this ministry unless it was fun – and that really should be refined to say unless it led to joy – that was essential.

·      Second, we promised that we wouldn’t carp about the cold weather for the first year – and that was tough – really, really tough but we kept that promise, too – most of the time.

·      And third we said that we would trust the Spirit even when the evidence wasn’t clear, because God had brought us here for a reason – and it wasn’t to die.

So little by little, we looked for joyful ways to deal with the challenges:  we had prayer-filled dinners to discuss our financial crunch and build trust rather that fret and carp.  We brought a playful spirit to worship – remember the first joke I told you about the three clergy and bear?  We explored new and gentle songs while retaining the beauty of the past.  We wept together when Vicki Forfa died a death too, too early.  We honored and celebrated the legacy of Lou Stiegler, beloved minister of music for over 50 years, when it was time to finally retire – and we discovered that contrary to what many believed, the world and the church didn’t end with his departure.  Time and again we had to open our heart to the Lord in prayer and ask:  can these bones live?

And five years later – even though we’re still not entirely out of the woods yet – and some people don’t like everything that has happened – we can honestly say:  Yes, Lord, these bones can live. And they can sing – and serve – and celebrate – and laugh and cry. Because today we are not afraid.  Today there is a deep and vibrant faith community at First Church that is joyful and gentle and creative and open and affirming together.

Can somebody say AMEN – I mean that – it has been a real pilgrimage of faith for me – and you – over these past five years.  And I think it’s ok to say we don’t have it all together – because we don’t – and we get it wrong just as many times as we get it right – because we do – but we trust that God is in charge and act like God’s amazing grace is bigger than our failures or sin… and God is faithful.

More and more, you see, slowly to be sure – after all, this IS New England – we are learning to rest in the unforced rhythms of grace.  And as you can probably guessed, that is the passage from scripture that informs this phase of my ministry: Peterson’s retelling of Matthew 11: 28-30.

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

Time and again  I have learned - and relearned with you - that resting in the unforced rhythms of God’s grace isn't about fixing what isn't ours to fix, it isn't about healing somebody else’s wounds and it isn't about trying to do and be everything all at once. No, the unforced rhythms of grace are about changing what we can, being present to God and one another in honest ways and entrusting all the rest to the Lord.  As the Serenity Prayer teaches:  to be at peace means distinguishing the difference between what we can do and what we cannot and surrendering it all to God – because we can’t do it all – we aren’t God – but we can practice letting go and trusting – trusting the unforced rhythms of grace – and that brings us rest.

In retrospect my ministry has been humbling.  It has been a gas, but filled with lots of brokenness, too.  I’ve been blessed to be loved by some of the best people in the world.  I’ve had the privilege to travel all over the world and enter into the intimacy of people’s homes and carry their trust.  I’ve been allowed to play music with some incredible people and have my faith in God restored.  So here are the three things I’ve learned in 30 years:

First, I still have to practice resting firmly in God's grace.  It doesn’t happen automatically for me.  I’ve seen everything fall apart - and I mean everything – when I try to make things happen just on my own effort.  So I know that resting in God’s grace is the way, truth and the life for me – but I have to still practice letting go – and think I will until I die.  God’s grace is truly greater than all my strength and all my sins and I God gives me rest when I live into this blessing.

Second, I need people of encouragement and joy to help me trust the Lord.  I really don’t need self-appointed critics or crab apples – no what I need are people who want to go deeper into Christ’s joy – and will do so with humility and patience.  Over the years I've realized this in the music I played – I used to be a solo performer – but over time I discovered that I wanted and needed to play songs together with others – and what is true in the band is true in my soul, too.  I need companions in joy.

And third, I’ve come to see that God never gives up on us.  Never – we may want to quit, we may shudder in fear and run away in confusion – but God does not give up – on us, on love on anything.

And here’s a song that expresses my sense about all of this as we enter a new season of ministry together in Pittsfield:  it is another secular hymn that embodies and expresses resting in God’s grace in community in the conviction that the Lord never gives up…


Anonymous said…
Congratulations on 30 years! My dad would have been so happy to read this column, James. I think he became quite discouraged with "the church" at the end of his life. I am going to share the link with Bill Stark, a dear friend of his who was one of his Detroit interns and also followed him in the pulpit at First Church in Jamaica. Have a wonderful celebration!
From Ray's daughter, Linda

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