continuing thoughts about being back from sabbatical...

"The world for which you have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from
you," said Walter Brueggemann to Barbara Brown Taylor before wryly adding, 'by the grace of God." That is quite an insight from Taylor's spiritual autobiography, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith. Last week I shared lunch with a colleague who wondered aloud with me, "How do I maintain a sense of just 'being' in the world - a sense of living without a role or any artificial expectations - like I felt and experienced while on sabbatical?"  I wish I knew... 

One of the ambiguities of my sabbatical funded by a generous Lily Foundation grant has to do with what is called re-entry. How do we - clergy and congregation - incorporate the sacred wisdom we encountered into our new lives together? How do we create new forums for story-telling and renegotiation of tasks? How do we get on with the holy work of being the body of Christ in new ways? How do we accomplish the important work we've been called to do without being overwhelmed or burned out? How, indeed, do we maintain balance and our humanity while living beyond the narrow role of pastor?  Not only is there very little advice written about this stage of the event, but in retrospect, I see that we spent precious little time planning for it, too. Perhaps this is part of the hard and creative effort we must make together now? Curiously, at least for those of us attracted to nourishing a sense of equilibrium between the inward and outward journey of faith - the true essence of contemplation - differences in age, denomination, race and gender are relatively insignificant when it comes to figuring this out. Nobody seems to know very well how to strike this balance. Again, Dr. Taylor is instructive:

I have learned to prize holy ignorance more highly than religious certainty and to seek companions who have arrived at the same place. We are a motley crew, distinguished not only by our inability to explain ourselves to those who are more certain of their beliefs than we are but in many cases by our distance from the centers of our faith communities as well.

This does not mean that we have given up on Christianity - or ministry - or a particular congregation. It does mean, however.  that we acknowledge a tension that includes faith, personal integrity, changing social expectations, outdated roles and the near irrelevancy of the church to most people's lives. Chaplain Emeritus of McGill University, Douglas John Hall, observed that once the break between church and state took place in Montreal, that society became boldly and thoroughly secular in just two generations. It was a rapid casting off of religious language, habits and ideas. Much the same is true for New England and the Pacific Northwest in the United States. As another Canadian writer, Ralph Heintzman, has discussed in Rediscovering Reverence, this means that most of our culture no longer connects ethics with action, the common good with the economy or awe and beauty with every day life. There is a disconnect between real needs and social greed to paraphrase Pope Francis in his recent encyclical about climate change and income inequality. Consequently, clergy who are interested in both transcendence and ethics - awe, prayer and living a fully human life - often find themselves starving for understanding in their churches. Ours is a spiritually impoverished culture that labors under a paucity of metaphors for reverence. Barbara Brown Taylor summarized it like this: The call to serve God is first and last the call to be fully human.  

To be sure, there is an upside to my decidedly First World problem: Clergy like myself now
have a chance to reclaim the heart of the gospel in a simple, clear and exciting way for those burned out by the rat race. At the same time, the uncertainties that my colleagues and I are wrestling with are complex. No one seems to know how to do church in a new way that respects both our renewal of soul within a rapidly changing social context? Two clues are starting to take shape: honoring a tender and humble sense of "church" and embracing a very clearly defined set of professional boundaries.

+ First, a tender and humble understanding of the church. It should be small, simple, contemplative and profoundly aware that more than anything else, it is the broken body of Christ in the world. It is NOT a social service agency. It is NOT a sacred shopping mall. It is NOT the engine of social change. Nor is it a place of magic solutions for all of our problems. It IS a place to pause in the craziness of life and listen for the still, small voice of the Lord. It is a place of safety and forgiveness. And it is a place that can model the integration  of ethics and economics in a way that could empower social transformation - but probably won't.  It is a community of saints and sinners. It is a place where reality is accepted and even expected, rather than perfection. 

It is also a place that should be EMPTY most of the week. Christian people are not called to gather inside most of the time, but rather to go out and live Christ's love in the real world.  Older clergy - and established church members - often speak of wanting the church to be bustling 7 days a week. Not me. If we meet for worship and essential conversations, I have come to believe that the rest of the week should be the church embodied in mission and action.. The church at city council. The church in the factory and board room. The church in our schools and families and shops and parks. The church should be dark and quiet most of the week because it is living out the gospel in real ways rather than preaching to the choir in the safety of our gated community. 

+ Second, a very clearly defined sense of boundaries. The New Testament teaching about the role of the pastor is clear: we are to teach and train disciples to go into the world and share Christ's love. We are NOT to be professional and public Christians who show up at every 
demonstration, every social gathering and every meeting. Jesus trained the apostles and THEY went into the world two by two to love and heal and preach and teach. He usually went away to pray and study. St. Paul was explicit in Ephesians 4:.

The gifts God gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.  We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

This is the same thing Paul taught and wrote in I Corinthians when he told us of one body and many gifts - not everyone does the same thing - nor is every person expected to do everything in the same way - pastors included. Pastors were given gifts to train and equip the saints - church members - for the work of ministry. They are NOT to do it all themselves. One old friend said: the church is NOT a place where only the minister ministers and the congregation congregates. We have clear tasks but unless we are vigorous about these boundaries they will become blurred and confused - and that is death for a pastor who wants to be fully alive and not confined to a role. Again, Dr. Taylor:

In a quip that makes the rounds, Jesus preached the coming of the kingdom, but it was the church that came. All these years later, the way many of us are doing church is broken and we know it, even if we do not know what to do about it. We proclaim the priesthood of all believers while we continue with hierarchical clergy, liturgy, and architecture. We follow a Lord who challenged the religious and political institutions of his time while we fund and defend our own. We speak and sing of divine transformation while we do everything in our power to maintain our equilibrium. If redeeming things continue to happen to us in spite of these deep contradictions in our life together, then I think that is because God is faithful even when we are not.

This is going to be a year of listening, discerning, questioning, renegotiating, praying, strengthening boundaries and even re imagining the church.


RJ said…
More to come... wish I could be there for your installation. Lots of love and prayers.
James D. Findlay said…
Absolutely great! Right on target with your thoughts and expressions. Keep well and keep on.

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