moving into thanksgiving...

In two months I will retire from full-time ministry. Yes, I will still be serving part-time (in
some still to be negotiated fashion) with my congregation in Pittsfield. Yes, I will continue to lead and shape worship and pastoral care for 20 hours each week. And, yes I will be present for our various church emergencies, too. But for the first time in 35+ years, I will no longer be doing ministry full-time.  

The magnitude of this shift is enormous for me beginning with my self-identity but also how I intend to spend my days. Others regularly fail to grasp why this matters so much to me. So as I have noted in the past, it is long past the time when I think of myself primarily as a pastor. Not that pastoring is unimportant, but at this stage in my life it is too self-limiting and publicly too rigid. To paraphrase Barbara Brown Taylor: I can't take being treated like the holiest person in the room any more. (NOTE: You might read her brilliant spiritual memoir, Leaving Church, for other great insights) She continues: would have to say that at least one of the things that almost killed me was becoming a professional holy person. I am not sure that the deadliness was in the job as much as it was in the way I did it, but I now have higher regard than ever for clergy who are able to wear their mantles without mistaking the fabric for their own skin. As many years as I wanted to wear a clerical collar and as hard as I worked to get one, taking it off turned out to be as necessary for my salvation as putting it on. Let me explain more thoroughly using two other quotes from Leaving Church::

+ First, just as a person is truly called "into: ministry, I have discerned that I have now been called "out of" it, too. Taylor quotes the wise Walter Brueggemann in relationship to her own movement beyond serving God in the local church. "The world for which you have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from you,' he said, 'by the grace of God.'" This shift goes way beyond whim. It cuts deeper than the passing emotions many clergy feel given the ups and downs of our unique work. For me, it feels as if something has been taken away from my core - lifted out of my soul - but also off of my shoulders so that I no longer comprehend ministry the way I once did. It feels lighter - as if a burden has been lifted that I have struggled to carry for the past few years - but also emptier. Paradoxical, yes?  

What is currently vexing me most about this shift is how monstrously hard it is for me to give up nearly 40 years of thoughts, habits, practices, and perspectives that have nearly all been focused on helping a congregation stay on track. Incrementally I have been trying to "let go" since April given the various transitions taking place in our faith community. This fall, however, I found my leave-taking to be excruciating. For reasons both my own as well as those beyond my control, I must learn to let people make their own mistakes. I said to Dianne just the other day: "I like to quote Ecclesiastes 3 to people re: the cycle of dark and light, blessings and curses, hope and despair. But mostly when I say, "To everything there is a season..." what I really mean is that I only want the singing, dancing, laughter and celebration not the silence, mourning, tears, repentance and loss of control. I know it doesn't work that way, but that's what I really want!" So as I move from full-time ministry into retirement, I am finding that I must learn a whole new vocabulary and set of habits -all of which is more complicated than I ever imagine - not bad, mind you, but still hard.

+ Second, what I was once called to do in my ministries with the church no longer gives me joy or life: it has changed, too.  This is not simply because I've learned a few things along the way that work better than others; rather, it has something to do with sensing that my new call goes beyond what most traditional ministry requires. The Reverend Dr. Taylor puts it like this: 

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.

What I began to grasp on sabbatical in Montreal - and what has been confirmed over and again since our return - is that no matter how creative and committed we are to rebuilding our ministry, God has made certain that it must be done with more humility than ever before. I keep seeing the Taize liturgy we shared during our last week in Montreal as the paradigm:  there was lots of sung/chanted prayer and silence, incense and candles interspersed with icons, Psalms and Gospel, shared reflections and quiet departures - with a simple fellowship hour afterwards for those who wanted more connections - and a radical sense of simplicity. Hell, everyone sat on the floor (except those who couldn't and small seats were arranged for their comfort) so the whole experience was anti-hierarchy. Everyone's comments were welcomed, there was no planned "message," and everyone participated as the Spirit moved within and among us. No committees. No evaluations. No hoops to jump through: just Jesus and the silence in the midst of candles and beautiful music.  Taylor got it right when she wrote:

What if people were invited to come (to church) to tell what they already know of God
instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe? What if they were blessed for what they are doing in the world instead of chastened for not doing more at church? What if church felt more like a way station than a destination? What if the church’s job were to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in, by convincing them that God needed them more in the world than in the church?

I no longer have any abiding interest in church administration even as I struggle to let go of my old habits. I have no need to prove myself as a preacher or teacher either. I simply want to nourish the love of Christ within and among a simple and faithful - albeit human and humble - group of real people. More than I ever realized, it is complicated to know one truth and move into an emerging identity. That's why I have made certain that this week will be slow and quiet for me.  I have unplugged from every and all  institutional commitments. Tomorrow I will finalize my preparations for the first Sunday in Advent (Sunday, November 27th) so that Di and I can move into a quiet Thanksgiving holiday where we cherish gentle intimacy.  The snow has arrived. The cold and gray skies, too. I LOVE this time of year:  maranatha - come, Lord Jesus, come.


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