I will weep when you are weeping...

Yesterday I spent a little time listening to a colleague in ministry who
was feeling frustrated, hurt and hassled by some of the crazy bullshit that goes on in the life of the church.It can zap your soul of both humor and hope when out of the blue some reasonably good person asks you to do something stupid or compromising. It is equally invasive and unsettling when people who should know better act in punitive and petty ways.

I remember back in my first church when I was serving as an Associate Minister in Michigan and naively asked if the church office was closed on the day after Thanksgiving? Like many young academics I was used to spending the days after our feast with my family getting ready for the fullness of Advent. I can still see the face of my Senior Minister - who, truth be told, hired me by lying to me about the congregation's interest in authentic urban ministry - when he turned and said to me in a smug and patronizing voice: "Well, I am off on the Friday after Thanksgiving but I expect everyone else to be in the office because we are NOT closed. We need to be ready to serve God's people." 

It felt like a deliberate slap in my face. So after letting this degrading attack register, I said with utter contempt:  "That's bullshit. I'm going to bring this to the Personnel Committee. You are no different or better than anyone else on this staff." What followed was my first shouting match at a staff meeting. And it continued full voice for about three minutes until my Senior Minister announced, "Sure, whatever, BRING it to the Personnel Committee and we'll see what happens." I was too green to realize this was simply his way of telling me that he called all the shots and the committee was stacked to rule in his favor. Which, of course, it did - and they ruled that all staff except the Senior Minister had to report for work on Friday.

And damn if that bastard didn't call my church office at 9:05 am on Friday morning after Thanksgiving to make certain I was present and accounted for. It was in that moment that I learned the beauty of passive aggression!  So I took his call and assured him that we were all ready for action. Then I went out to the local grocery store and bought a wild lunch for everyone on the staff, came back to set an elaborate table and insisted that we all take 3 hours to enjoy it! The secretaries, Sunday School director and janitor were a little nervous at first but I said if there was any issue, they should send the complaint to me. And when word got out about our party, let's just say that my relationship with my Senior Minister went steadily down hill from there.

Nevertheless, I learned two things about how I wanted to do things in ministry from that unexpected slap in the face. First, I made a commitment that on my watch the church office would ALWAYS be closed the day after Thanksgiving. And that has been true for nearly 30 years. My staff and I will work our butts off throughout Advent and Christmas Eve. One grace day is the least we can offer.  

Second, I asked God to help me always remember how shitty it feels to be on the bottom of the barrel. Not only is it important to me to feel that empty aching in the gut that grabs you when church politics or dysfunctional behavior reaches up and smacks you without warning; but I want to try to work in ways that never give me benefits that arent' shared by the rest of the staff. If I get time off, so do they. I get it that there are different requirements and different expectations for our different positions, but everyone deserves dignity, respect, fairness and solidarity. Once, in my early days in this church, I told a disbelieving staff that even with the stock market crash, if the officers were going to give me a cost of living raise, it would have to be an across the board raise. No one believed that they would go for it, but I insisted that this was the only fair way to go forward as part of the Body of Christ. It wasn't much money, to be sure; but it was the same percentage for each and all of us. 

And EVERYONE was off for the day after Thanksgiving, too.  We still have crazy bullshit to deal with - and I guess we always will until this life is over.  I came across this extended quote from Buechner that speaks to living by faith.

Christ is our employer as surely as the general contractor is the carpenter's employer, only the chances are that this side of Paradise we will never see his face except mirrored darkly in dreams and shadows, if we're lucky, and in each other's faces... We are, all of us, Mary Magdalene, who reached out to him at the end only to embrace the empty air. We are the ones who stopped for a bit to eat that evening at Emmaus and, as soon as they saw who it was that was sitting there at the table with them, found him vanished from their sight.

Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Rahab, Sarah are our brothers and sisters because, like them, we all must live in faith, as the great chapter puts it with a staggering honesty that should be a lesson to us all, "not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar," and only from afar. And yet the country we seek and do not truly find, at least not here, not now, the heavenly country and homeland, is there somewhere as surely as our yearning for it is there; and I think that our yearning for it is itself as much a part of the truth of it as your yearning for love or beauty or peace is a part of those truths.  And Christ is there with us on our way as surely as the way itself is there that has brought us to this place. It has brought us. We are here. He is with us - that is our faith - but only in unseen ways, as subtle and pervasive as the air.

And so we listen - and pray - and laugh and cry together as best we are able.  Like the hymn puts it:  I will laugh when you are laughing, when you weep, I'll weep with you; I will share your joys and sorrows till we've seen this journey through.


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