Friday, October 16, 2015

grateful for the christian century...

Just when I think, "I'm done with my subscription to the Christian Century..." along come two
articles that knock me on my ass with their clarity, relevance and wisdom. Like Rumi says, "I should be suspicious of what I want!"

The first hails from M. Craig Barnes, current president of Princeton Theological Seminary and author of one of my favorite books: The Pastor as Minor Poet, in CC's "Faith Matters" column. It is a tender reflection on the conversations he now hears among the pastors he visits with during various professional conferences. These table talks over breakfast rarely have anything to do with the event but everything to do with "a common lament."

"I want to get back to being a pastor," said the person across the table... "I'm so tired of trying to navigate our church through the debates about divestment and gay marriage. These issues (and others on a denominational level) are sucking up all the air in the congregation." ... None of the pastors would say that issues such as justice for LGBT people or Palestinians are unimportant. They feel called to speak about these issues as much as they do about racial justice, the environment or economic concerns. The problem is that the pastors cannot engage the conversation on the congregation's own terms. Their denominations have determined the nature of the debates that take up an extraordinary amount of their energy.

I know that I have been wrestling with this challenge since the early days of my ordination. Over half of my denomination left the United Church of Christ between the late 1960's and the early 80's NOT because they were uniquely homophobic, racist or sexist. We ALL are - that wasn't the issue - as St. Paul said: we all have fallen short of the glory of God - everyone of us. No, the issues of the day were not the fundamental reason thousands and thousands of people left our congregations. Part of it had to do with nostalgia and the appeal of both fundamentalism and charismatic renewal. But a far larger part of this exodus had to do with a rejection of an imposed elitism that rarely was able to practice what it preached. Few of the folk in our local churches knew or trusted those in the superstructure and received the sundry social justice pronouncements handed down from on hight with resentment and confusion. Barnes continues:

For a very long time mainline Protestantism has congratulated itself on being prophetic because it is so good at voting for progressive agendas. But what our society really needs from the church are agents of change. And that has never come from a denominational vote. Change comes from congregations that decide to live by the ethics of Jesus Christ... No one in the pews is holding their breath to read the next position paper from their denomination. But if their pastor climbs into the pulpit, wearing a gown tattered by the nibbling of sheep, and says, "hear the word of the Lord," they will follow that shepherd anywhere. So it is time for the denominations to get off the backs of their own pastors.

My seminary mentor, the late Rev. Ray Swartzback,  put it to me simply: "You have to earn your street cred, man. It isn't portable and comes about only by putting in a lot of time, blood, sweat and tears. When the people know you love them - and you deliver - then you can ask them to go to uncomfortable places for the gospel. Until that happens, however, you have not earned the right so don't waste your time." His words of wisdom have been a guideline for me over the past 35 years: if you are there for real people in their times of need, you start to earn trust. As Barnes goes on to say: " It is all too easy (for people at national events) in some distant city to delude themselves into thinking that voting, voting, voting without congregational  accountability will bring about the kingdom of God. It doesn't." This is not to cast aspirations on those working in our various ecclesiastical bureaucracies. Like Barnes, I know them and know that they are good people. "They are not the problem..."

The problem is the inability of a modernist superstructure like a denomination to handle postmodern affections. In the 1950s the church could speak with one voice because people trusted big institutions. Then it made sense to speak about the Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal or Methodist position on the issues. Now we have to humble remind ourselves that there is a myriad of position on every issue within the church. If people trust any religious body (and that is up for debate) it is the local church. They prefer their issues to have names, faces and stories. (read Barnes' whole commentary @

From my perspective, this one article is worth the price of a subscription. But wait, as the TV infomericals say, "there's more!"

The second article was written by Samuel Wells:  "The power of being with" (@ https://www. As I am discerning in my emerging "spirituality of tenderness," Wells contrasts four ways of being engaged with the wounds of the world and the people who are suffering:  1) working for people; 2) working with them ; 3) being with folk; and 4) being for them.  He writes:

Working for is the default position setting for most engagements with poverty. The homeless person is regarded as a problem and as a symptom of a deeper problem.. so the working for approach seeks to fix that problem with a range of resources... Being for is somewhat similar except that it tends to assume the problem is someone else's to address and adopts a position that's more in solidarity (but) in a general way. Note that working for and being for have a word in common: that little word FOR. Neither working for nor being for requires you to have any significant kind of conversation or interaction with a homeless person.

Such is the typical, professional liberal Christian approach to social issues: let's fix it - and move on. There is abstract compassion in these two approaches and they continue to have their adherents. Wells goes on to suggest that there are two other ways of interacting with the suffering of real people: working with and being with. I like his nuanced thinking when he writes:

Working with seeks to attract a whole range of stakeholders and sees the homeless person as having a crucial contribution alongside service providers and concerned organisations. It is a much more dynamic model that working for - and sensitive to a much wider range of contributions than simply professional expertise. Where working with differs from being with, however, is that working with still sees a problem - even if it is a problem shared by a range of different people... being with, by contrast, doesn't start with a problem... it begins with a real person.

It is clear that the influence of Richard Rohr, Jean Vanier, Barbara Brown Taylor, Henri Nouwen and Frederick Buechner have been at work deep within me because I once lived and breathed in the first two camps. But now I resonate only with the later: being with makes all the difference in the world. It honors the dignity of real people, it is all about relationslhip and it engages the wounds of the world as God did in Christ Jesus. Wells sums it up profoundly like this:

Let's recast this configuration in theological perspective. Does God see the world as a problem to be solved or a gift to be enjoyed? Does Christ become incarnate because there's a job of redemption to be done and only he can do it, or, because the whole point of creation was that God would dwell with us terrestrially in Jesus and eternally in heaven?... The Gospel don't show us a God who in Christ is merely for us. They show us a Christ who is fundamentally with us.

Today is the first day I haven't felt deathly ill with the stomach flu that is making its way around the region. So as I read these old copies of The Christian Century and sipped my morning tea, I found myself saying out loud, "I can't bail on these guys... I need them to much." So sent off my check for yet another year's subscription and rejoice in their work of being with me in ministry.


The Christian Century said...

We're grateful for you as a reader and member of the CCblogs network!

RJ said...

Thanks CC very much

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