Irrelevancy redux....

One of the truths I was hovering around yesterday but never quite landed on,
is the double-edged sword of pastoral irrelevancy. Yes, I spoke of it as a blessing and a curse - and that still rings true - but there is something deeper going on, too: it is also the slow crucifixion of pride. I am not saying that pride has died within me; far from it. Rather, what I have discerned is how authentic ministry first invites us to pick up our Cross and follow Jesus and then compels us to do so if we are to continue and mature. 

There is a sense of heroic commitment in honoring God's call in the early years and I suspect such a consolation is necessary to get us off the dime. It was for me. But the warm glow quickly dissipates if we stick with this work because authentic ministry always brings us into experiences and encounters that are devoid of glory. These are the times when we must consciously reclaim the Cross and die a little more to self in just the ways we need. To say that we will hate these deaths too is not an overstatement. For such is "the foolishness of the Cross" that Paul speaks of in I Corinthians. It is the inverted wisdom he summarizes in Romans 5: we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

This morning, Fr. Richard Rohr wrote about the early written gospels and his insights brought a measure of clarity to my ramblings from yesterday:

Mark likely wrote his gospel around 65 to 70 AD, much closer to the time of Jesus than the other evangelists. He gave us a picture of Jesus which was very close to the preaching of the apostles, but in a different context and with a very definite emphasis and intention. Mark began writing shortly after the great persecution in Rome (64 AD) in which both Peter and Paul had been martyred. They began to see where Jesus' message finally led people. Until then, the gentile converts in Rome had experienced largely the glory of Christ, it seemsThe purpose of Mark's gospel was therefore to remind Christians, who acknowledged Jesus as the messiah, that Jesus walked a path of "suffering servanthood." We Christians say glibly that we are "saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus" but seem to understand this as some kind of heavenly transaction on his part, instead of an earthly transformation on his and our part. We need to deeply trust and allow both our own dyings and our own certain resurrections, just as Jesus did! This is the full pattern of transformation. If we trust both, we are indestructible. That is how Jesus "saves" us from meaninglessness, cynicism, hatred, and violence--which is indeed death.
When I first started ministry I know I was attracted and informed by the glory, yes? Who isn't? Perhaps that's the fundamental reason why so many clergy flee their calling during the first five years. It is not simply that the church can be a cruel master (it can be mean-spirited and viscous!) But rather that life in the church presents us all with precisely the experiences we need if we are ever to learn how to die to our selves. In my case, I had to deal with the fact that I loved the freedom of ministry but hated being accountable to my senior minister. His supervision style felt degrading and stifling to me, partly because he was a serf master, but also because I was a cocky, young smart ass who needed to die to myself. Damn if I didn't hate parts of those first three years. But I learned a bit about shutting up - and suffering - and reaching out to Jesus when nothing else would work.

And in different ways, this has happened to me over and over again - it still does - because that is the only way I can mature in Christ. I had to come to know in my heart that most of the blessings of this work are private and intimate. No one else will ever know about them so they had better become blessing enough. And whenever I find that they are not, whenever I find myself (like yesterday) wanting some public recognition (especially around church administration and the care of the soul), it is time to step back a claim some quiet time with Jesus. Rohr writes:

God is Light, yet this full light is hidden in darkness so only the sincere seeker finds it. It seems we all must go into darkness to see the light, which is counter-intuitive for the ego. Our age and culture resists this language of "descent." We made Christianity, instead, into a religion of "ascent," where Jesus became a self-help guru instead of a profound wisdom-guide who really transformed our mind and heart. Reason, medicine, wealth, technology, and speed (all good in themselves) have allowed us to avoid the quite normal and ordinary "path of the fall" as the way to transform the separate and superior self into a much larger identity that we call God.

Such is the "wisdom of our wounds" as Fr. Ed Hays notes: when I find myself testy and in need of some public affirmation, it isn't the Church that is to blame. Nor is it the Church that can heal me because no amount of praise will ever fill the hole in my soul caused by pride and greed. No, what I need it those moments (and apparently need now) is rest, quiet and a little bit of time in the healing presence of the Lord. I know the church isn't going to change. It hasn't since the day St. Paul bumped up against the bullies in Corinth. I know that business people are never going to "get" the way of the Cross when it comes to church finances. And I know that people addicted to busyness and drama are never going to quit jumping through their old, self-destructive hoops until they are ready - and the Spirit calls them into new life. And all my carping doesn't matter - nor does it change a thing in me or the church - it just wastes every one's time.

And that is the other irony of this irrelevance: the way back into blessing is to
go into the closet and spend time in private with God's love. Last night, we were talking about frustration - we haven't had the time or the resources to take our usual 6-8 week retreat since Christmas - so we're both edgy and cranky. When I get into this state it is easy for me to call into question the whole enchilada so I wasn't surprised when I asked out loud: "You know, after 35 years I wonder what all this ministry stuff really means?" I went on to say that my mentor back in seminary had trained me in the ways of urban ministry but most of my efforts have been with sophisticated, well-educated semi-suburban congregations - and they are tough nuts to crack. They have more defenses than most urban churches. They have more distractions and resources, too. 

So I was wondering if maybe I'd taken a wrong turn? Dianne said, "Not likely, man. These are the places where you have needed to be. Remember the movie, "It's a Wonderful Life?" Take a moment and think back to all the lives you've touched - and been touched by - all of that mattered." And just so that I couldn't escape the wisdom of her insight, when I checked my email there was a note from an old, old friend from Cleveland. I haven't heard from him in years, but he'd written to say that he'd just reread Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - and wanted to thank me for turning him on to that little gem. Ok, Lord, I get it! Another small, private moment that made a difference for him - and for me.

Like I said, I hate these little deaths - but I need them and give thanks for them today, too.




Peter said…
I have learned that such times as you speak of are times when God is paying attention to you, but this does not always feel like a blessing. You have indeed touched lives in important ways, James, mine included. May you soon come to the resurrection part of the journey.
RJ said…
You are a constant source of joy, blessing, hope and reality for me, my man. Lots of love and many thanks.

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