Thursday, June 18, 2009

Quarters, Minnows and Little Embers

Craddock's story is about the $1000 bill that is the life of everyone going into ministry, the $1000 each is called called to pay and, of a truth, is willing to pay, and all at once, right now, for the joy of following after Christ's summons and example. Christ bids us come and die, as Bonhoeffer said, and we most of us, at least at the start, are ready to lay our life down, give the $1000, for Christ's sake.

Problem is, Craddock says, the reality of ministry is far different than that romantic image. We wind up giving ourselves a quarter at the time. Little pieces of self dying in service to Christ, little pieces of personal dignity and self-esteem paid-out in ministry to and among our people.

Sometimes, being a pastor means eating shrimp cocktail and bar-b-q (usually not at the same meal, though in North Carolina it has been known to happen). Sometimes, being a pastor means eating a plate full of...well...other stuff.

William Self had an image much like Craddock's, only he put it this way: he did not mind the call to be eaten by sharks; to give one's life in such a way was ennobling, after all, like Jesus dying on the cross. But what he actually experienced, in years of pastoral ministry, was more on the lines of being nibbled to death by minnows. That kind of struggle slowly eviscerates, withers a minister and the ministry.

I find myself today thinking about the "burning coals on their heads" Paul mentioned: how loving those who hate us and doing good to those who despise us, accomplishes that humanly satisfying if, on the face of it, spiritually suspect end. Why do I help you? Long-term, To damage you!

Initial motives aside, however, such behavior at least has forensic support in scripture--and the point may be that by loving your enemies in such real ways they eventually can start to cease to be real enemies. Perhaps such a gesture, beginning as it does for spite, can by grace open a door to reconciliation, may even prove to be mutually ennobling in the End.

Withholding a gesture is more like heaping cooling embers, small indignities, on the heart. An invitation to the annual picnic not sent to the pastor, for most recent instance, though the picnickers are a church organization and the pastor is moving in two weeks. After four years of faithful (not to mention, though less importantly, quantitatively and architecturally successful) service, the pastor is despised by the leader of the organization. She feels the pastor has tried to rob her of her power and role; he feels her need for power is at the heart of the congregation's pathology. Such estrangement might seem all the more reason for the organization, a "mission society" no less, to obey Paul's dictum: make nice and heap coals on his head! For him to accept the invitation, likewise!

As it turns out the leader and her group eschewed such eschatological strategy, did not evidence so much as common courtesy, much less Christian charity. What may have been a gracious and ultimately (at least partially) reconciling gesture was withheld--and all the more appalling as the departing pastor's wife wife used to be a member of the organization and the pastor himself has done many things over the years to help the group raise money. The pastor had no opportunity to respond in kind.

Everybody loses in such a moment, even if everyone does not realize it. Every spirit is chilled.

With burning coals there remains at least a chance of folks eventually warming up.

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