Thursday, June 26, 2008

Prayer, Place and the Poor

In the newest Christian Century (July 1, 2008) there is a wonderful article by Sarah Coakley--a professor at Cambridge after having taught at Harvard, and an associate rector in Anglican parishes in Massachusetts and Littlemore, Oxfordshire--called "The Vicar at Prayer." It is directed primarily to English Anglican priests--"pastors to the nation"--but there is much ecumenical wisdom and urgency as regards "the disciplined long-haul life of prayer, of ongoing personal and often painful transformation."

Coakley contends that while prayer is the work of all God's people, the pastor must lead in this work, "the clergy putting this task first in their hierarchy of 'business.'" She quotes Evenlyn Underhill, a letter to Archbishop Lang on the eve of the 1930 Lambeth Conference, that "the greatest and most necessary work (Lambeth) could do at the present time for the spiritual renewal of the Anglican Church would be to call the clergy as a whole, solemnly and insistently, to a greater interiority and cultivation of the personal life of prayer...God is the interesting thing about religion and people are hungry for God. But only a priest whose life is soaked in prayer, sacrifice and love can, by his own spirit of adoring worship, help us to apprehend him."

Without the "daily public witness of a clergy engaged, manifestly and accountably, alongside their people" in this work, "the church at large runs the danger of losing its fundamental direction and meaning." In sum, "The loss of disciplined clerical prayer in a busy age is fatal: for the priest herself, for her people, for ecumenical relations and even for national life. Its absence is--quietly but corrosively--devastating."

It is in prayer, Coakley says, we truly discover who the poor are--and not as a theoretical discernment from the position of privilege. And through prayer we are invested--in that we invest ourselves and, I suppose, God invests us--in our various places of service. The North American penchant to mobility (evidenced not only in parishioners but also in clergy, either by self-promotion or as a result of systemic expectation) deadens our commitment to our places of service and the people who dwell there. There is a deep truth there I think that needs to be sounded: that only prayer unites us to a place. Only prayer unites us to a people. Not program, not stuff, but prayer, and that because prayer unites us to the One who is creator of every place and God of every heart.

These are dark days for me in many ways. But even this week I have seen the clouds part a little, by the grace of disciplined prayer. God's well is deep, but I have too much in my hands to take up my bucket and draw. For long months now I have been parched of spirit and have turned only to the dried and rusty taps of institution and old aggrievement. Prayer, manifest and accountable, is the uncorroded bucket which allows me to come again to the fountain of living water instead of to a mere memory of moisture in the broken cisterns of my own spirit.

God, grant me the grace, the zeal and faith, to pray with my people in this place. Nothing but this "greatest and most necessary work" has power to at the present time to renew the spirit of the United Methodist Church and its clergy, or at least let me say this United Methodist church and its clergy.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Memory and Hope

I forget who it was that said it--maybe Ken Callahan--that in a church memory and hope are both crucial, and the greater of the two is hope.

I can understand, I think, what he is saying. It is important to look back, to remember who and whose you are. It is paramount to recall "the rock from whence we are hewn" and to see ourselves as chips out of that old block. But all the more important to look ahead, to anticipate (without applying restrictions) who we are called to be and will be, by God, which is to say by God's grace and activity. Where there is no vision, the people perish, and vision is a by-product of hope.

I would assume that the same might be said for ministry. But what if one has lost hope? Or is losing hope?

Today I stood in a place thick with memory. Painful memory. The wounding was some thirty years ago and still it felt fresh today, a jagged knife to my heart, a spurt of anger and a flood of grief, a raw and irregular gash in my spirit. Tiger played with a double stress fracture over five days; over three decades I have been limping with double-breaks to my heart and torn ligaments in my spirit. I ache, still, I groan for old injury. Some days I can barely get off the couch.

The person I was with is privy to the story, said, "I keep hoping God will wipe your memory of those things..." I said, in words I have never used before, "All God seems to have wiped away is my hope." Which is not to say I am completely hopeless; just hopeless about many things and most of them related to the church. To my church. To my feckless and faltering ministry.

And what shape does ministry take if the minister has lost hope, despairs about whether sermons or lessons or buildings or activities have the power to effect transformation? What if nothing seems to matter, that all hearts remain hard and unresponsive, if all heads remain unconverted, and the preacher's least of all? What if preaching becomes a burden instead of a joy, the desire for new members a kind of artificial buttress against the inevitable.

Wesley said something to the effect that he never worried about whether the Methodist church would cease to exist, either in Europe or America, but he was very worried that Methodism would exist "only as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power." His fears may be founded, after all, and what's more: many Methodist ministers, I fear, have form and no power, which is to say they have memory and no real hope, no real conviction, nothing much other than despair.

Another friend says I seem to be more "serene" than I used to be. More resigned is more nearly the truth. Unwilling and, more to the point, less interested to kick against the goads of my situation.

Terry Holmes once observed the irony of current Christianity--that we want to be "winners," successful, etc (and just today I saw a sign for a new church, a church, whose motto proclaims, "Prepare to be a CHAMPION!"), when we follow one who was an abject failure, the symbol of whose failure graces the top of most every steeple. But we have taken the failure and turned it into strategy for success... idolatry is like that, I think.

On the cross Jesus lost hope. Right now I need to remember that crucial lesson.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Vow of Silence

I am thinking of taking one... a vow of silence, that is. This because I am told over and over again, in one way or the other, to keep my thoughts to myself.

My kids, of course, never want me to say anything to them other than, "Sure you can have some more money." The silence I am vowing in this instance has more to do with the fact that I have no more money than anything else.

My church members sometimes want me to speak only "smooth things," as it were, and if platitudes are all I might offer, moralisms masking as the gospel, little ditties on this and that, then I ought to take a vow of silence.

More to the point today however is this:

Various editors have rejected me enough now that I have to conclude that I have nothing very interesting to say. Which has left me to examine myself to see whether I write because I think I do have something to say or only because I like the idea of seeing my words and name in print. Maybe I should just shut up till those ambiguities are cleared up.

Recently, I wrote a piece that I rather liked. I sent it to about twenty of my "friends" in the "business," some of whom had in various times and ways commended my work, asking for their opinions and suggestions as I tried to ready the piece for submission to a journal I have written for once and perpetualy long to write for again. The only response I got--the only response I got--was from the most arrogant, self-important (and, damnably, successful) scholar I have ever had the duty to endure. Or maybe he is only that way to me. To others he is, apparently, a resource and a blessing. He neither likes nor respects me, however; I disappointed him both scholastically and morally, and for thirty years now I have been chilled by his Texas shoulder with most every chance meeting or conversation.

Note to my former professor: I am SORRY already. Can you in your Barthian sensibilities find it in your head or heart to forgive me? To treat me with a little hospitality?

So why did I even bother to send my stuff to this guy? Only, I guess, because I really do respect his knowledge, his expertise, his success, and like a starved child hoping for the least attentions of his distant father, I keep hoping that one of these days something I do or write will garner a blessing ("have you no blessing for me, Father?" I guess not). Ironically, his wife read one of my recent books and liked it. He has refused to read it. Excuse me, has not yet had time.

His email regarding the piece excoriated me, suggested that the "good editors" at this particular magazine would "laugh me to scorn" over such an offering--as much as he he had already done, I suppose. I prayed so hard over those next nervous weeks, unseemly prayers, I guess, for a measure of vindication, that the piece would be published just to give me a bit of satisfaction over my old foe.


But it was close. The rejection I got was a "good one," if you could call it that. The piece got a serious reading but the editors "finally passed." I forwarded a copy to the guy, swallowing one last gulp of bitter, humble pie, and I am sure he gloated at what amounted to a confession (no, that is too strong; he most probably did not smile gleefully but frowned, shook his head with a "how typical" kind of "duh," this being one more evidence to him of my fecklessness and culpable ignorance (could you not see that this was unworthy?!) and confirmed not only in his eyes either but also by both the email from the editor and, I guess, the silence of the others to whom I sent the piece).

So I am thinking of putting away my pencils and parchment. I do not need to do this to myself time after time. I already know I am a joke.

But every time in the past I have done so, made this same kind of vow, determined neither to write nor to submit anything ever again--and certainly not to share anything in advance--there comes after a while this urge, like an obsession, like a demand that I try it all again, put something down on paper, string together a couple of thoughts with a strand of metaphor and hope.

A fool for Christ? Just a fool? Who knows for sure.

How I wish I could inhabit in my own sensibilities that remarkable verse from Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians: "It is indeed the smallest of things to me to be judged by you or by any human court. Indeed I do not even judge myself."

Well, okay. Good for him. For my part, I am just the opposite.