Friday, June 26, 2009

Invitations or Insults

I think I have determined a quick and easy litmus test for spiritual maturity: when the challenge is issued--to prayer, to stewardship, to retreat, to service--the question is this: do we hear the challenge as an invitation or an insult? If the latter, our pride says, "What? You think I don't already pray enough? Give enough? Serve enough? You think I am less of a Christian because I don't go on retreat?"

If the former, our humility says, "How blessed to hear a call to more depth and devotion. How wonderful to be given the opportunity to give. How sweet to spend more time with Jesus, to be the flesh of God's Word among others."

Of course, the spiritually immature will hear even this assessment as an insult.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

endings and beginnings

I remember that Seneca said something to the effect that "every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." I am not waxing philosophical, exactly, but here on the Saturday evening before my last preaching Sunday at FUMC, I am experiencing a deep place, a tranquil and at the same time restless moment.

I wonder what it is about me that I make such a "difference," and by that I mean that people to whom I minister for the most part either love me or hate me, or if not love then really, really appreciate and if not hate, then really, really resent. I would like, vaingloriously, to imagine that in the latter case it is because my teaching and preaching unearth the unclean spirits resting comfortably in a place (ala Jesus in the synagogue in Capernaum), but I am not at all sure that is true. Maybe a little, or some.

I would take some comfort in that "if they have hated me they will hate you" text, if I had any sense at all that it is on account of the gospel that I experience people's irritation and dismission (if not outright animosity). The word of God may indeed be a two-edged sword, but who's to say, finally, that I am not grinding my own axe and that the gospel is ill-served by my little attempts at prophetic critique.

At the same time, people who don't know me up close find me entirely forgetable... my name being difficult and my face being average, and my charisma being set to low. My cynicism, too, plays a part in all of that.

I am 54. I am moving again. Yes, I have had some notable successes,even here, but there is a good chance the Family Life Center will be mostly empty tomorrow. This last week the UMW did not invite me to their annual picnic, when it would have been a natural time to say farewell. The minutes of the last Church Council meeting did not, except in my own report, say ANYTHING about my leaving, or the church's thanks, or anyone's sadness at my departing. I have gotten all of TWO cards from folk. It is a really strange feeling. I really do think the most of the people here have appreciated, as much as they have experienced, my work. But the only real "vibe" I am getting is negative. So, so strange.

And yes, this is a perfectly dysfunctional congregation.

Still, it is odd... I wonder how Jesus views my ministry. Maybe I do not have enough joy; that is, the news is good, but not good enough in my mind to make me cheerful. That melancholy and dysthemia comes across as condescension and anger... people feel I am never satisfied with them. And perhaps that is true.

In any case, I am on my way to dinner. My sermon, such as it is, is finished. One to go.

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.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Trinity, Up and the Sacraments

Jo and I were worn out from preparing for our Yard Sale. We needed a little break, too, from packing and loading boxes, from cleaning the parsonage and making ready for Annual Conference. Jo and I love movies, and so one afternoon this week we just dropped everything and went to Franklin Square to see “Up!” the new movie by Pixar and Disney.

A retired balloon salesman, a curmudgeonly old man—and he was cranky because he was old and broken-hearted, alone really--rigs thousands of helium balloons to his house and floats away, trying to leave his heartbreak behind. By a series of accidents he is joined in his adventure by a little boy who is just as sad as the old man, and just as alone. The boy’s father had left the family, had gotten himself a new girlfriend, had promised the boy over and over he would take him fishing or to the game, whatever, but he never did.

The absent father kept promising the little boy big things, big trips, big adventures—but what the little boy remembered best from when his dad was still home, and what he longed for most in his father’s absence, was the other stuff, the “boring” stuff, he called it. Sitting on the curb with his dad in front of the ice cream store, him eating a cone of vanilla while his dad ate butter brickle, counting the red cars one of them and the blue cars the other of them, and who would count the most cars before the ice cream was gone. That’s what he missed: the little stuff.

The boring stuff. The routine stuff, which is not really little at all, or boring at all, or even routine as much as it is the threads of our living, sacred moments woven together in love to make a family, to make life.

I think of that today, this Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate a big message but do it in these little ways. Here we are again at the font, at the Table. We do this stuff all the time, thank God—I sometime think about those lonely and broken-hearted folk, young and old, who would give anything, not just to have communion, at home, wherever they count home, but to be in communion, here at this place, at the curb of Jesus’ gracious promise, to know again the love he has lavished upon us when we gather here.

We can see it if we have eyes enough, can feel it if we have heart enough—that when we come together in faith at the water, when we come with receptive hearts to the bread and cup, Jesus gives his grace to us anew in the memory and presence and peace.

This is our daily bread. This is our customary bath and remembrance. Little stuff, maybe, to some eyes. Boring to others. Routine even to us.

Ordinary—that is what Wesley called the Sacraments: the ordinary means of grace, and by ordinary he did not mean mediocre or characterless; he just meant “customary.” God can come to us anytime, in any way, but God has promised to be here in this way, every time we come to the Font and Table—customarily, ordinarily, routinely God comes to us in these Sacraments.

They are the churches abiding witnesses. Preachers come and go. Congregations are born and die. Traditions grow up and wither away. Experiences fade with time and age into the shadow of forgetfulness. But these witnesses abide. They remain. They alone can heal broken hearts and help us find our true spiritual family.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Holidays and Holy Days

We are in the middle of the Hallmark Cycle, when clich├ęs are accounted as testimony and smarmy marketing passes for a summons to doxology. It is deeply ironic, and not a little troubling, when traditions and congregations that eschew the Temporal or Sanctoral Cycle nonetheless bedeck their sanctuary furniture and walls in red, white and blue; or recognize the congregations youngest mother (a dicey exercise these days), or use the third Sunday in June to score points for certain kinds of theological language.

Do you remember how Scrooge skewered Christmas as a “false and commercial festival, devoutly to be avoided”? He hadn’t seen Mother’s Day yet.

My prejudice against the Hallmark Cycle is based on the observation that, for the most part, these occasions are valentines to ourselves. We pat each other on the back and sing, “For we are jolly good…” whatever it is we happen to be celebrating that particular feast day. Our praise is offered in the “reflexive mood,” as it were, for are we not the Greatest Generation? The best mothers and fathers ever in all the world? The creators and protectors and guarantors both of our world and way of life?

Okay, so maybe I am a curmudgeon, theological, liturgical and otherwise. And, truth to tell, my feelings on this matter have sometimes made for difficult pastoral conversations—if only because otherwise devout church members fail to discern the danger of self-congratulations in the guise of worship. I will not burden you with the true story of a parishioner who came to me with the request that I observe Submarine Day (the ship, not the sandwich) and hope that the choir might learn the Navy Hymn for the offertory? “Want me to preach on Jonah?” I asked. He was not amused.

Or the lady who was livid, furious, apoplectic that I did not give the morning service over to the Boy Scouts on “their nationally recognized” day. Nationally recognized or not, I countered, the second Sunday in February belongs to no one save God and the Christ; we do not give our worship or worship time to institutions and organizations.

The Prayer of Confession at the heart of most liturgies tells a truth far deeper than the pentameters of greeting card poets, but I try to remember that, as Fr. John Shea has written, all humans are wired with the need to celebrate special people, visit special places and celebrate special times. All of us transcribe our individual stories in terms of ancestors, locations and determinative occasions.

Saints, sites, seasons: all humans need them, and in fact the faith we proclaim is full of all of those special, sacred things. What is at issue for the church, however, is the power of lesser narratives to shear believers away from the distinctive Story that constitutes us as a people. If, by our worship, we “exchange the glory of the immortal God for images resembling human beings,” if we trade “the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator,” then that is of more than passing concern. To have “no other Gods before God” is a command both constitutive and prophetic.

That is what I tried to tell the woman who was upset that I did not observe the National Day of Prayer. “We pray three times a week already,” I told her. “We do not need Caesar to remind us about such things. Does the name Nebuchadnezzar ring a bell?”

She huffed, “Well, I think it is the most important day there is.”