politics, fat tuesday and ash wednesday...

We called-off our ministry teams last night because of snow - a good call -  as about 5" fell over
the course of the afternoon and evening. It is light and dry so won't be hard to clear away, but the roads were slick and troublesome. That means today I will need to play catch up with getting ready for Ash Wednesday: I have a midday Eucharist tomorrow as well as a role in the ecumenical gathering @ 7 pm. Two long standing concerns are continuing to mature in my heart as Lent arrives:

+ The first has to do with the very nature of pastoral ministry.  When I began, I embraced both the burden and the joy of caring for the people of a congregation. This meant cultivating a tolerance for church politics. I have always cherished celebrating the sacraments. And I am organically called into a contemplative way of being. So when I speak of church politics, I do not mean the partisan jockeying for power that takes place in elections. Rather I'm talking about the more nuanced task of listening, shepherding, managing and encouraging people in leadership to move beyond their comfort zones so that we might change the culture of a congregation. As much as this work has been wearisome over the years, I have always known that "organizing" is an essential ingredient of renewal. This fact has not changed, but I have. William Willimon put it like this in a recent article in the Christian Century entitled, "Why Leaders Are a Pain." He writes:  "This may be the first generation of pastors in centuries to whom God has given the intimidating assignment of not only loving but changing the church."


When the San Damiano crucifix spoke to Francis of Assisi, it didn’t say, “Love everybody, particularly the birds.” Christ told Francis, “Rebuild my church.” That’s the task. One may criticize pastors at times for seizing upon secular leadership and management books, but at least give them credit for realizing that they have a daunting leadership task ahead of them—a job made more formidable because of the traits most pastors bring to the work.


And the reason why this work is so complex has something to do with our culture's insistence that we can make profound changes without pain. This is dishonest, maybe even delusional, and it is widespread.  In my experience it also corrupts the inevitable "politics" of the church by erasing the centrality of the Cross in our shared lives. The only rubric for Jesus was "pick up your Cross and follow me." That is the core of the Lenten journey. It is the heart of our standard confession of faith. But it is what most of us hate to embrace - we want comfort not the pain of change. 


Speaking to the church of his day, G. K. Chesterton said that if you love how a fence post looks and want to preserve it, you must repaint it every year. A faithful church can’t be maintained without constant reformation. One of Heifetz’s insights is particularly memorable to me: a real leader, he says, induces pain—the pain the organization has been studiously avoiding. The pain is induced, he said, in the faith that the organization has the resources to shape its future.


Pastors ought to know this lesson; it often surfaces in counseling sessions. How many times have I had a parishioner seek my counsel on a problem, and after listening empathetically, I foolishly ask, “Have you considered doing X?” “I couldn’t do that,” comes the reply. “So and so would never allow me to do that.”I then put forth a few more scenarios and hear about more obstacles and objections. Finally I say, “I can’t think of a way forward that would not require pain for you or someone else.” “I’m disappointed in you, pastor,” grumbles the parishioner on the way out.

The promise of all bogus religion is the promise of a peaceful life without pain. That’s also the subtext of lots of sermons I hear and some of the ones I preach: pain is avoidable, and here’s my formula for living and loving without discomfort. To which Jesus might respond: What about the word cross do you not get?

Church politics without the Cross exhausts me. It is hard enough to work in the shadow of the Cross, but without it the work becomes shallow and selfish.


+ The second concern about my role as parish clergy in the 21st century is equally vexing: besides having no stomach or patience for church politics, I have a growing appetite for spiritual direction  Perhaps it is the perspective of time, perhaps it is because I am tired of being a pain bearer, but in  the years that I have left, being a mentor or spiritual guide has a whole lot more juice for me than church politics.  I am not saying that I want to retreat into a cave and only nourish my own soul. Not at all. I am saying that I need find a better balance between strengthening the faith of individuals and trying to move a slow changing institution into the 21st century.  Richard Rohr wrote about this tension in the life of St. Francis.


Early on, Francis found himself so attracted to contemplation, to living out in the caves
and in nature, that he was not sure if he should dedicate his life to prayer or to action. So he asked Sister Clare and Brother Sylvester to spend some time in prayer about it and then come back and tell him what they thought he should do. After a few weeks, they both came back. Francis knelt down and put his arms out, prepared to do whatever they told him. They both, in perfect agreement, without having talked to one another, said Francis should not be solely a contemplative; nor should he only be active in ministry. Francis was to go back and forth between the two (much as Jesus did). Francis jumped up with great excitement and immediately went on the road with this new permission and freedom.

When I returned from Montreal I was starting to think of myself as a friar - one who takes time with both the inward and outward journey - a clergy person who lives in the balance of prodding the comfortable into painful choices and encouraging them to trust in God's grace, too. When I find myself extra weary with church politics, it is a clue that I've slipped out of balance.  My reaction is a reminder that I have lost touch with the wisdom of the Cross, too. The late Henri Nouwen put it like this and his tenderness is just what the doctor ordered:

The great temptation is to use our obvious failures and disappointments in our lives to convince ourselves that we are really not worth being loved. Because what do we have to show for ourselves? But for a person of faith the opposite is true. The many failures may open that place in us where we have nothing to brag about but everything to be loved for. It is becoming a child again, a child who is loved simply for being, simply for smiling, simply for reaching out.


And so we move towards Ash Wednesday...


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