more on the humbling way of the cross...

Recently I had the privilege to preach the ordination sermon of a young colleague and
friend who just entered full time, Christian ministry. It was sobering to prayerfully consider the challenges he will face in the ever-shifting landscaping of contemporary ministry. I noted in this sermon:

So many of us who do this work today are befuddled – not about our calling – but about what ministry is going to look like in your generation because it will be unlike anything we have ever known.  Some here today heard God’s call in the 50s when you could stick a cross in the ground anywhere in post-WW II suburban America and 100 people would show up for worship.  Others came of age during the 60s and 70s when social justice, civil rights and care for Mother Earth were the mandate.  In the 80s, the challenge of the Religious Right reared its mean-spirited head alongside the spiritual lethargy of the mainstream and thousands ran away from our congregations into retreat centers, meditation zendos and the so-called charismatic renewal movement.The 90s were rocked by sexual predators in all our Sanctuaries (most notably in the Roman Catholic realm) and we finally started to take seriously both boundary awareness training and  the demands of radical inclusivity. 

From there we moved into the various God is STILL Speaking campaigns, a deeper dedication to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, a growing understanding that we may have burned the earth beyond viable repair AND… and I say this with a mixture of grief, humility, fear and foreboding… and the gnawing sense that as hard as we have tried to be on the cutting edge of social justice and radical hospitality, we have sometimes forsaken our appreciation of that sweet scent of Mary’s sacramental fragrance that can fill the whole house with hope and forgiveness while anointing the body of Christ for ministry, too. In a word, sometimes we have gotten the politics right but ruined the poetry, forgetting that our calling is to do something beautiful for the Lord. Not utilitarian, not cutting edge, not even relevant, but beautiful. Do you recall T.S. Eliot’s warning?

The endless cycle of idea and action, 
endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness; 
knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word. 
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
Nearness to death but no nearer to God. 
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? 
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of heaven in twenty centuries brings us farther from God 
and nearer to the Dust.

And now we’re in a quandary because while we affirm the old words and stratagems concerning the essence of ordained ministry – an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ has been called out of one way of living into another in order to preach the good news of Jesus Christ, administer the sacraments of the Church and exercise pastoral leadership in a covenantal relationship that includes the Lord our God, the ordinand, a local church and an Association – very few of us know what that ordained ministry should look like any more.. 

It was equally revealing for me to look backwards at my own 35 years and own the ups and the downs as well as the trajectory of how I have changed. Buechner once wrote:

Life itself can be thought of as an alphabet by which God graciously makes known his presence and purpose and power among us. Like the Hebrew alphabet, the alphabet of grace has no vowels, and in that sense God's words to us are always veiled, subtle, cryptic, so that it is left to us to delve their meaning, to fill in the vowels, for ourselves by means of all the faith and imagination we can muster. God speaks to us in such a way, presumably, not because he chooses to be obscure, but because, unlike a dictionary word whose meaning is fixed, the meaning of an incarnate word is the meaning it has for the one it is spoken to, the meaning that becomes clear and effective in our lives only when we ferret it out for ourselves.

So as I have attempted to apply Brother Frederick Buechner's methodology of the alphabet of grace to my own experience of ministry, two things become increasingly obvious:

+ I have been on a journey shaped and guided by the Cross.  In a message I will share with the community on Sunday, I recall a seminary conversation with the great Rev. Dr. James Forbes who called me into his office one day and asked:  “Lumsden, why are you so busy?” 

At first I didn’t know what to say, so Dr. Forbes continued: “You are a father of two small children, a husband, an assistant pastor, a student and president of the student body – and now they tell me you are organizing a bus to go to a demonstration in Washington, DC to protest aid to the contras in Nicaragua, is that right?” “Yes, sir” was all I could say. To which he replied with clarity and compassion, “Son, there’s plenty of time after you leave seminary to get yourself killed if that’s what you want. Why not use this time to slow down, savor your studies and learn something you don’t already know. Even Gandhi took a break in his battle against the Brits to get some perspective and soul food. Why don’t you do likewise?”  I didn’t have an adequate response then – and after wards for decades I was haunted by his words – because they were so prophetic.

I didn’t change my activity much in seminary and kept at it after graduation, too. In Saginaw, I threw myself into anti-nuke activities and participated in two different peace vigils to the former Soviet Union – one of which involved taking 50 high school teens and their parents from our church to Russian in the middle of the winter. In Cleveland, beyond our ministry to street kids, I got elected to the Board of Education in an inter-racial reform team and took two more groups to the Soviet Union as well.  When we went to Tucson, I served a large church with 250 people attending two very different worship services – and took on the job of Moderator of the South-west Conference of the United Church of Christ, too.

And, truth be told, when we came here, even though I was moving away from my obsessions with doing something BIG and BOLD for God (and trying to kill myself with busyness), I still believed that we could beat the demographics of the Berkshires, beef up our worship and stewardship numbers in significant ways and rebrand First Church as THE place to be on Sunday mornings. But that hasn’t really happened, right?  Yes, we’ve become Open and Affirming – to be sure we’ve been on the cutting edge of bringing to birth the first grassroots community organization for social justice in the Berkshires – and we’ve created a well-respected new ministry of music and solidarity in the region. But we haven’t been able to overcome the demographics or trends that drive people away from religion in our culture. 
And for a few years, our more humble successes started to drive me crazy because I felt like a failure.

Richard Rohr reminds us (especially men) that being humbled is essential to our maturation in
faith, but it is often humiliating before it is liberating.  All spiritual traditions honor the downward movement of the soul :

We have to be led to this place through our own failure and experience of death. Men call it the Great Defeat. Franciscans call it poverty. The Carmelites call it nothingness. The Buddhists call it emptiness. The Jews call it the desert. Jesus calls it the sign of Jonah. The New Testament calls it the Way of the Cross, but they’re all talking about the same necessary step.

Whatever we call it, dying to the self before rising to the Lord definitely messes with your mind and ego before it sets you free.

+ That is why I continue to find meaning in ministry only through a spirituality of the Cross.  Since returning from Montreal I have intentionally and often unknowingly been going deeper into just such a spirituality. I tease out the wisdom of the way of the Cross in the weekly readings for Sunday worship. I pray into my own anxieties knowing that just like the Cross of the Lord, the emptiness is not the end of the story. I don't take the resurrection for granted, but I know God isn't finished with me yet. And I look back into even the Hebrew scriptures for clues about how to do this with honesty.  In Sunday's psalter:

Psalm 32 opens with a small Hebrew word, asher, that is often translated “happy” or even “blessed.”  But asher cuts deeper than feelings – it literally means to take a straight path in life – and path that turns away from selfishness and stupidity, and lives into God’s grace.  The blessings suggested by asher are not emotions, but the result of being guided and disciplined by the unforced rhythms of grace.

Psalm One amplifies this using the same word to kick things off:  Blessed are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; their delight is in the law of the Lord, the practice of God’s way, and they meditate on God’s guidance both day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season and their leaves do not wither.

Jesus says much the same thing when he begins the Sermon on the Mount:  blessed are those… who know that they’re at the end of their rope; with less of you there’s more room for God.  And blessed are those who can show others how to cooperate instead of compete and fight – that’s when you all discover that you are a part of God’s family.

To be blessed s to know God’s grace and love inside you and then practice sharing that grace by the way you live. Blessing is a commitment to gratitude, the practice of spreading the beauty of God’s grace by how you choose to live.  St. Paul speaks of this as living as God’s new creation – people who can rejoice in the Lord always – because their lives are moving in God’s guidance.

Today, as a cool, sunny morning embraces our small corner of the Berkshires and we plan to do yard work, I hear my heart singing the old Blind Faith tune...and that's part of the blessing.

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