I was walking as the sun set watching the leaves fall. Each has a season like us. Some fall quickly and some fall later, but each has a time to fall and gather with the others in the drifting ruach of the breeze.
The Calling and a Personal Journey
There’s a long gap in my blog between the events of the past and the events of the present. A lot happened between those last poems from a while back and the poems of today. I have been on a journey of discovery as my wife separated from me as I came to grips with the fact that my marriage was at an end.
There were a lot of missing poems that were shared between shed tears. Like sand mandalas, those poems were here for a moment and then gone. In many ways those poems blurred the lines between prayer and poetry even more than usual. There were moments of grief, anxiety, and loss.
Over those months of quiet self-reflection and work I came to a point where I finally publicly admitted that I am in recovery from alcoholism which did not begin in the last year or during that silence. I have been open about my family’s history with alcoholism, but had never shared the stories with anyone of how I used alcohol to supplement pain medication during a lengthy period of severe pain and physical therapy where I could barely walk or even sit still from the pain. I didn’t have the life wisdom to realize that I should have gone to a doctor instead of self-medicate on top of prescription medication. That decision was dangerous and doubly-dangerous as my family has a history of addiction. It was foolish.
I have had to come to grips with what part of my life had been shredded by alcoholism, realized that there were problems that had had nothing to do with alcoholism in my relationship, and I have realized that I kept medicating pain of a different kind even after my back healed. I have come to understand that this is a season where I need to be faithful to my identity as a single man who still wants to be a good father, wants a respectful relationship with his former partner, and who wants to find a way forward while choosing both life and the high road through some very dark passes in spite of the choices of others.
One of the most difficult conversations I had during that dark period was a long conversation with my District Superintendent where I shared openly and honestly about the journey I have been on. I shared that I still felt called to the ministry, still felt the Holy Spirit at work, and shared about the journey of recovery which has included working with professionals and a particular anonymous organization to connect all the aspects of my journey into one way forward. I have put in a lot of work medically, psychologically, and spiritually over a period of years to come to this place where I am beginning to see the light of freedom in recovery. I have put in hundreds if not thousands of hours into seeking freedom from the consequences of my biology, choices, and a disease that is not infectious certainly seems communicable.
I share this now as I was just blown away by a passage I read while preparing for my sermon this Sunday. I was working through the commentary of Ronald Clements in the Jeremiah entry to the “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching” Series published by John Knox Press. On page 16, Clements writes of Jeremiah:
“The sense of call, with all that this meant by way of reliance upon God and the stripping away of all other social and personal supports, was something that was taking shape over a long and difficult period of time. It had begun for Jeremiah at a specific moment in his personal life and had continued. The experience of inner self-discovery had not ceased since that first day. The sense of call belong too to his private inner world as a part of his personal understanding of God. Yet it had to be a public and openly declared part of his self-understanding, since it alone could explain his declarations and his personal authority to declare them. No one could confirm or deny that he possessed this calling; it was between himself and God.”Clements, Ronald E. Jeremiah. John Knox Press, 2012.
I was blown away by this passage. While reading this commentary, I connected deeply and intimately with Jeremiah in a way that I have never connected before this moment. Certainly, I am not the first pastor to sigh over the direction of American Christianity. I can connect the dots between the political and social forces of Judah in Jeremiah’s day and the the political and social forces in modern American religion. I am not the first pastor to wonder if the rhetoric and posturing of many modern church leaders on television is not the gasp of a system that is about to go into exile. This is not where I felt a connection.
I felt a connection as I remember my past. I remember being a teenager who felt called away from a suicidal grief into the love of God. I remember talking with a youth leader about how I wanted to go into ministry because it was tugging at a deep part of me. I remember being a youth leader and a church intern who just kept feeling the compulsion to go deeper. I remember studying and taking the first steps into ministry. I remember the interviews, the affirmations, and the ordination. I remember all of those moments.
I also remember praying with trusted friends in Malvern, PA, at the Academy of Spiritual Formation as I admitted that I was occasionally mixing drugs and alcohol to get through the pain. I remember talking with close friends about how it felt less and less like a choice. I remember asking them to pray for me as I started trying to get free of that compulsion to drink. I remember being dry and miserable on my own without a single supportive voice. I remember the first time I said: “Hi, my name is Rob and I’m an alcoholic.” I also remember that it took a few attempts to find the courage to say those words. I remember meeting with a sponsor for the first time and sharing stories. I remember the anxiety and fear. I remember the first time I worked through my fear and clearly stated aloud why I always note that we serve non-alcoholic juice when serving communion: I say it because of people in recovery like me.
I remember talking with Pastor Parish Relations Members at my church about the fact that my wife and I were separating and how it partially related back to my own journey of recovery. I remember sharing that I had a relapse and that I had climbed back on the wagon quickly because I was afraid. I remember crying with fear about being honest. I remember how freeing it was to tell people that I attend meetings daily via Zoom to continue to seek freedom. I also know that I have both amends and living amends to make with people I have harmed along the way. I remember almost every conversation with someone I have known for a long time where I have said something along the lines of: “I’ve had to come to grips with something.”
Through all of these things I have never felt my call to leadership ebb. In fact, I have had many people open up about their own struggles and the struggles of others. I have talked with wandering folks who come to my church each time they are in the area because the pastor not only understands the journey towards sobriety but is walking down that same road. I share a cup of coffee with them after church not out of sympathy but out of true camraderie as a sojourner down a similar road. I have even performed funerals for people who have and have not found a way to freedom on that same road. I feel like I am a better minister since I have found the courage to be honest about my alcoholism. Honestly, I feel more hampered by the pain of marital and parental separation than the daily journey of recovery.
At some point I hope I will get to the point where I share with others in those meetings that I’m not only an alcoholic but a pastor. Honestly, that’s almost more scary than sharing with the church that I have a struggle with addiction. According to one study published last year, the national average of drinks consumed in the United States was 17 per week (Survey: Americans consumed 17 alcoholic drinks per week in 2020). It seems less strange to admit that I am just another person struggling with the disease of alcoholism that has been on the rise over the course of the pandemic than to admit to other people that I have a very very close relationship with “the God of my understanding,” especially if that means they might share less freely about their own journey and struggles.
In the meantime, I do feel called to continue in ministry quite strongly. Clements indicates of Jeremiah, the calling that Jeremiah experiences was one that nobody could confirm or deny from the outside. I identify with that description of the calling deeply. The calling is first and foremost internal.
Surely, I could be reappointed or even stripped of a title, but that’s different from having the authority to confirm or deny a calling. As the Bishop said at my ordination, ordination was a recognition of what God has done and what God is doing in my life. Ordination was an affirmation of what God was doing and recognition that God was at work in a special way. That journey has not changed and that calling has never ceased. It still burns deeply within me.
I wish I could put into words how strange it is to be called to leadership and authority while daily admitting that I am powerless to straighten things out on my own. The power was never mine, but it often feels easy to assume I am more powerful than I am, which many of my colleagues likely understand. I personally have come to believe it makes me a better leader as I am quite clear on the fact that the power I hold and wield as a minister does comes from God and not from my own strength.
So that’s the story of the long absence between posts. Yes, I am in recovery. No, I’m not ashamed of admitting my need for God to work in my life every day through the process. Yes, I am allergic to alcohol and I have a disease. No, having a disease is not the end of the world. This disease is a disease and not some moral failing or mark of worthlessness. Good people that I have come to trust tell me that there is a solution and I believe that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Truly, I live each day with hope and courage that comes from being on my knees and asking for help each time I wake up in the morning to the snuffling sounds of a dog and each night that I go to sleep alone. God is with me on this journey and that journey will continue 24 hours at a time for the rest of my life. I am okay with that journey and I will keep walking.
Open to Discomfort
Be still.“Be Still” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019
As scents fill you,
As odd sights confound you,
And as you want to run away:
I recently spent time with someone who was ill in a care facility. I wrote this post a while back to help preserve the person’s identity, but this post is not about their story. This post is about my story and my experience.
The situation on my end was that I was waiting in a care facility which is filled with people facing challenges. The staff was present and diligent, but it is a facility full of people with differing needs. I found myself waiting impatiently as the sounds, scents, and distractions which come in such a place filled my senses.
I ordinarily do not spend time waiting in such facilities. I enter, I head straight where I need to go, focus on the individual, visit with family, pray, and head out the door. I generally do not have time to sit, to think, or to read in such places. I do not have time for my mind to wander. This day was different, so I opened my Kindle to read as I waited.
I spent some time reading through “Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings–Annotated & Explained” by Christine Valters Paintner. I restlessly flipped through the chapter headings until I found the chapter entitled “Solitude, Silence, and Hesychia.”
The chapter is not a long chapter. Abbess Paintner referred to three quotations in that section. As much as I respect the Abbess’ selection of ancient sources, her wisdom shines forth in her annotations. She writes:
“Sitting in our cell requires patience to not run from ourselves or flee back into the world of distraction and numbness. It means being fully present to our inner life without anxiety. Interior peace comes through sitting in silence, through attentiveness and watchfulness.”Abbess Paintner in the second footnote for chapter ten
I found myself reflecting on the concepts of patience and stillness as my senses picked up on less than pleasant smells. In that moment, the place I was called to spend my time was that room with everything in the air. My cell was a chair in the midst of this person’s life. I found myself trying to be attentive, watchful, and present even as some part of me tried not to breathe too deeply. The scents, the sights, and the sounds made me more than a little anxious.
I found myself struggling in those moments after reading the Abbess’ thoughts. Was I letting those scents keeping me from being present with the individual sleeping in the bed? Was I letting my dislike of the scents keep me from being present with someone whose every breath contains the aromas that were filling my nostrils? There was some part of me that struggled with shame for focusing on the distractions and another part that wondered if the distractions might not be the blessing in disguise.
I was filled with questions, but the one that stuck with me was the loudest question that filled my mind. Was I open to knowing this was someone’s experience? Was I open to walking with someone as their body struggled? Was I open to being God’s hands and feet in such a place? Was I willing to see God in that place?
It would be easy to numb myself to the situation. I could run to my car and refill my diffuser with peppermint. I could rush home, put on the aromatic earl gray tea to settle my senses, and I could rush home to hug my toddler who seems to always smell of lavender when you smell her hair. It would be easy to flee back to distraction and numbness, but would I find true peace in distraction?
I find myself casting my mind to Matthew 25. In Matthew 25, the Son of Man comes in glory to bring judgment to an imperfect world. The Son of Man separates folks and says to one group that they are blessed because they gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirst, welcome to the stranger, clothes to the naked, care to the sick, and visited the imprisoned. The people did not understand when they had done these things. The Son of Man replies (in the NRSV) “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
We who are engaged in helping care for others often look on this passage and find comfort. We have given a dollar at the Red Kettle at Christmas, have donated a can of food to the food pantry, and gave a little extra when we could. We have helped the least of these. I could rush home and say “I visited one of the least of these! I’m good!”
Would Christ ask “Did you really visit the least of these or did you do the least you could for these?” Are we open to realize we may be called to radical love that sits through the dirt of life? Are we open to realize that loving God’s children may mean sitting in smelly places? Are we open to realize that God may call us to a deeper fellowship with those in need than the bare minimum?
I do not write such challenging words from a place of judgment. If anything, I feel convicted by my own words. What does this look like in our lives? If we are to live into God’s kingdom, do we all need to live radically transformed lives? Perhaps we are not all called to a care facility, but perhaps we are all called somewhere beyond what is comfortable for us. It is worth contemplating.
Open, Nurturing, Empowering…
This past weekend I was challenged with a question. The question revolved around my vision of ministry. What evolved from the question was the realization that I am often not clear about my own particular vision for ministry. What do I seek to embody in my ministry? Could I express my vision for ministry in the time it takes to ride an elevator?
I have been thinking consistently about that question since it came into my mind. I have been asking myself how to express my view of ministry. Side questions arose from this contemplation. Could others remember it? Could they see it in my actions? Do I have a phrase that helps me stay focused on my purposes?
What’s the phrase? “I believe that the church should seek to be ONE.” I want my vision to be Open, Nurturing, and Empowering.
Let me break those buzzwords down into something more succinct. Buzzwords are nice but they do not always serve the purposes which they need to serve for others. These lists are meant to be examples and not a complete or restrictive compilation of ideas.
I believe the church should be Open to new people, Open to new expressions, Open to people who are differently abled, Open to hear/converse with our neighbors, Open to taking God’s love out of the church building, and Open to hear God’s voice.
I believe the church should be Nurturing to people who want to know God more, Nurturing to those who have had few advantages and many obstacles, Nurturing to those who are wounded or in need, and Nurturing with/towards other communities and people in our neighborhood.
I believe the church should be Empowering to people who need God’s freedom in their daily life, Empowering to those who have been oppressed, Empowering to folks who believe their voice does not matter, Empowering to those who need to borrow our strength to break free from their shackles, and Empowering to people who want to seek to enter into life changing discipleship.
What do those things look like? I believe that is the subject of a lot of posts to come, but here’s a few snippets of what I’m proposing to lead about more openly:
- You cannot be truly Open to the community if your building or community has significant barriers for differently abled folks.
- You cannot be truly Open to the community if you don’t welcome folks who are different than you in culture, race, ethnicity, or viewpoint.
- You cannot be fully Nurturing to the community if you immediately dismiss people when they find the courage to talk about real life problems that make you feel uncomfortable.
- You cannot be fully Nurturing to new leadership if you respond to every request to try something new with an immediate “No way. We’ve never done that before.”
- You cannot be wholly Empowering if you look down your nose at folks who haven’t had the same advantages as you.
- You cannot be wholly Empowering of other people’s ministries within the church if you rely on authority for leadership in the church instead of relationship, vision, and calling.
What are the words of the communion liturgy? Because there is ONE loaf, we who are many are ONE body. May we all be ONE in the love and care of Jesus.
A Yearning Tanka
I stood in the rain
Searching sky for a rainbow.
A symbol of hope
Was all that I sought above
A wet hospital crosswalk.
This poem was inspired when I exited a hospital today after a lengthy visit with a family. It was dark, rainy, and the sun poured in despite my mood. If you have a pastor who regularly cares for you or your loved ones, I encourage you to offer them a bit of love.
There are probably moments where they too stand in the rain, looking for the hope that others need them to express. Indeed, I found my rainbow, but I will admit that I threw a temper tantrum and stood on the sidewalk until it showed up.
Wisdom and Practicality
Today I spent my afternoon with colored pencils and my copy of “Mandalas, Candles, and Prayers” by Sharon Seyfarth Garner. I am in the second week of working my way through Rev. Garner’s book. The second week of the study centers on the concept of intercessory prayer.
Today I focused on “praying for the shepherds in my life.” The timing was exceptional as I know from chatting with my District Superintendent last week that the Cabinet is meeting for their first appointive meeting this week before the gathering of the Order of Elders in Syracuse on Thursday.
As an Elder in the United Methodist Church my appointment in ministry is set by the Bishop of my Annual Conference. As I type this, my colleagues and I are being prayed over by the cabinet, so it is fitting that I would pray over them at the same moment.
My prayer was deep and centered for a good long while. I used liturgical colors of purple and red for the center of the work. In the United Methodist tradition I follow red is the color of the Holy Spirit, and it was encircled by the purple color reserved by tradition for our bishops. Planters in the shapes of hearts edged the encircling red border, again representing the Holy Spirit. Perhaps in a poor choice of colors, brown heart planters sat surrounded by golden ground with a drop of blue to water what rested within each planter.
I prayed the Cabinet would be filled with wisdom, grace, and love. I prayed the Cabinet would be practical, brave, faithful, life-giving, and protect both churches and pastors in need. It was a deep prayer experience, but I wanted to blog about it for one reason.
I was in the middle of coloring the first of my planters when my daughter came over. She was playing on the floor and was acting weird. I picked her up and suddenly the floodgates opened. She went from dry and cuddly to an utter disaster in seconds.
I was praying for wisdom. It was the first thing I hoped would fill the Cabinet with as they worked. The next thing I prayed for was that the Cabinet would be practical. It’s wise to pray. It’s wise to change a messy baby. Practicality says one needs to take priority over the other.
A quick bath for the baby delayed my prayer time. My prayer was still heartfelt. Sometimes a person needs practicality as much as they need wisdom. I pray the church has moments where it remembers the world needs more than one gifting of the Spirit. I pray that those reminders will be a bit less messy.
Let us Ramble: Approaching Ten Years
Friends, I am approaching a milestone this summer. On July 1, 2008, I entered into pastoral ministry in a small town called Canisteo, NY. I was in the midst of life within seminary and was working towards ordination within the United Methodist Church. I was full of words.
Between July 1, 2008 and July 1, 2018, I will have been a pastor for 521 Sundays. I have helped to bury many people, been invited to preach in multiple places outside Sunday mornings, and have probably held an extra 40 special services for religious holidays. I have been asked to pray in public more times than I can count, have blessed countless meals and events, and have even offered prayer at a snowmobile race track in weather so cold that my eyeballs began to freeze! I have shared a lot of words over the years.
Do you know what I find most strange as I approach this very odd anniversary? Besides the realization that I have survived a decade in pastoral ministry, I find myself coming to value the moments when I am not called to speak to other people. I have come to appreciate moments when I am allowed to embrace silence.
I am reminded of the words of Thomas Merton from his book “Contemplative Prayer.” First published in 1969, the monastic Thomas Merton wrote the following:
“Many are avidly seeking but they alone find who remain in continual silence… Every man who delights in a multitude of words, even though he says admirable things, is empty within. If you love truth, be a lover of silence. Silence like the sunlight will illuminate you in God and will deliver you from the phantoms of ignorance. Silence will unite you to God…”
I have had a multitude of words come out of my mouth, but as I age into ministry, I find myself becoming a person who no longer delights in having a multitude of words to share. Where once I felt the need to teach everything I learned in seminary, I find myself drawn to share fewer things more deeply. Most of my sermons have grown shorter over the years, most of my words simpler, and most of the concepts I preach more fundamentally simple, although not easy.
Let me try to explain. The other day a good friend and I were discussing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s understanding of grace. If you don’t know Bonhoeffer’s classic statement about grace it can be summed up in the line from “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church.” In his book on Discipleship, Bonhoeffer speaks about how he believed the church had been giving away grace so easily that people found it cheap and tawdry. True grace had a cost that was very dear. From this viewpoint, grace should never be seen as cheap as it is of inestimable value.
I found myself getting frustrated quickly while trying to express myself. I was not frustrated at my friend or at Bonhoeffer, but at the very limitation of my own language. God’s love and grace is of inestimable value, but there is something to be said about the challenge of saying “You are offering grace too cheaply” to another preacher, another person, another child of God. There are inherent challenges to even beginning to broach such a subject.
If I had a loaf of bread and there was a starving person in front of me, how could I stop to explain to the starving person that they might be treating the food as tawdry or cheap? The person is starving for food which we can neither produce or share without the grace of God. By the very grace of God, we have food to share with the starving.
That food exists because God has provided it through the love of Jesus, and as the Word of God made flesh, that raises more questions. Does not Isaiah 55:10-11 say: (NRSV)
“As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
If the grace we share comes from God through the Word made flesh, how can we look at that Word as being shared cheaply? Do we believe our method in sharing the word somehow breaks the divine purpose for which it is sent? Are we accusing each other of being false prophets when we do our best to faithfully provide for the hungry children of God? I am not expressing this idea well. Language failed me and still fails me in describing why this troubles me.
The closest I come to describing this challenge comes from a prayer from Gabriella Mistral, as translated by Langston Hughes. Gabriella Mistral was a Chilean poet who lived from the 19th into the 20th century.
“Like those jars that women put out to catch the dew of night,
I place my breasts before God. I give Him a new name.
I call Him the Filler, and I beg of Him the abundant liquid of life.
Thirstily looking for it, will come my son.”
We who serve in ministry bring words from God as found in scripture. I am not speaking simply of pastors. Sunday School teachers, prayer warriors, parents teaching children, children teaching parents, friends who love others, and all who share the gospel with others come to share something that comes from beyond ourselves. We come to the “Filler” and ask God for the liquid of life. It swells up within us and we share it with others. I’ve never breastfed a child as a male, but I can tell you as a partner and as a parent I have witnessed the challenges that come from teething children with sharp teeth. I have watched as my wife wondered if she would be able to create enough and have myself sometimes wondered if there’s enough milk in the world to fill that hungry mouth.
The world is thirsty and somewhere over the years, I have come to understand that what I can offer to the people of God does not come through a plethora of words. What I can offer that brings life, fullness, and goodness is born of my own dependency on God, on my relationship with the Holy Spirit, and upon what people are willing to drink without spitting up all over the place. Paul may invite us to move past spiritual milk into the bread of life with Jesus, but often I find myself able to share deeply only what is found in the “bread” that Christ invites me to break and share.
To call that grace which is offered to others who are starving as cheap… It sits wrongly in my soul and yet Bonhoeffer is right as well. The grace we offer is not cheap. It comes with a cost and is precious. There’s no perfect balance in these moments. I could write a soliloquy on how the needs, wants, and capacity of ourselves and others creates an almost impossible situation. I could fill the world with more words, but in truth, I would rather call on the Filler and wait in silence to see how God will provide for the needs of the children of God.
Allow me to continue the Merton quote found above:
“More than all things love silence: it brings you a fruit that tongue cannot describe. In the beginning we have to force ourselves to be silent. But then there is born something that draws us to silence. May God give you an experience of this ‘something’ that is born of silence.”
Approaching a decade into ministry, with literally thousands of prayers, sermons, and blessings underneath my belt as a minister, I sometimes long to simply share with people a powerful word that is simple, straightforward, complicated, and as deep as necessary. I have come through using hundreds of thousands of words publicly to value the power of silence as a teacher, a friend, a lover, and a comforter.
In many ways, I find comfort in the story found in 1 Kings 19:9-13. In that passage, Elijah is in the midst of a season of turmoil and challenge. Elijah is fleeing for his life from an angry queen who was married to the king of Israel. As he fled with the help of God he came upon Mount Horeb. The story goes:
“At [Mount Horeb] he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’
He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’”
Where was God but in the “sheer silence?” When God is with Elijah in the silence, Elijah is asked a “what” question, but I hear other questions in between the texts. Why were you there Elijah? What are you seeking? Where is your heart?
There is a lot of value to silence and the more time I spend preaching and teaching, the more I come to value moments where we seek the one that is found beyond the rushing, the shaking, and the fury. I seek the One found in the silence.
Let us Ramble: On being willing to fail
It has not happened often, but I have been asked a few times over my career as a minister for the best advice I have for people entering the ministry. I credit the scarcity of the question on the fact that I am completing my first decade of pastoral ministry on July 1st of this year. I have been asked a variant of this question a lot more often. How do you keep going in ministry?
I think this second question is prevalent as a result of a number of challenges faced by people entering into the ministry during this time. Our churches are tending to skew towards the higher age brackets, anxiety is rising, and often pastors are held accountable for the overall health of a congregation, even if they’ve been in an appointment for such a short period of time that there has been an inability for trust to be built, for change to occur, or for grief over the loss of a previous pastor to fully develop and be expressed within the hearts of congregants. Pastors are being placed in difficult situations which lead to poor health, poor moods, and unhealthy dynamics in personal and professional lives.
How do you keep going when a new church needs your attention but your daughter is grieving over the loss of her previous community? How do you decide between going to your daughter’s sports practice which you’ve missed two weeks in a row and helping set tables for a church fundraiser, especially when you know church meetings will make you miss her first three games in the upcoming weeks? How do you keep going through the thick and thin of a challenging time in ministry, especially if you don’t have a decade of relationships and trust to work with in your setting?
I give the same answer to both questions. You have to be willing to fail. I often hear the words of advice “Do you really want to die on that hill?” To survive on ministry, you have to be willing to die on some hills. I know that sounds crazy, but to survive over the long haul I believe that you have to be willing to sacrifice the easy path to seek after the life-giving death that comes with seeking after your ideals. I also do not believe this advice is for ministers alone. I think we all need to be willing to live out who we actually are in a very challenging world.
Let me give you a great example. I believe the best food is homemade. I know that there are great restaurants out there with wonderful food that I’ll never be able to make, but in reality, on a regular basis, the most consistent good food you can share with a family can come from your own kitchen.
Why? You know how your ingredients have been treated, you know how they were cooked, and if something goes wrong, you can adjust until you learn how to avoid that problem. You don’t need to rely on a cook that is paid an unfair wage, you don’t need to rely on a server that might be in a bad mood, and you don’t need to worry about the conditions of the kitchen. You can adjust the cooking to allergy needs or personal preferences. You know what is good and what is bad, and frankly, at least in our area, good ingredients like a nice roast and trimmings cost far less than a dinner for four at a restaurant.
How do you get to the point where that can be a reality? To bring the best to the table, you have to be willing to fail. You have to be willing to set an achievable goal and then seek after it heart and soul. You have to find a purpose that is worth your time and go after it, even if you’ll likely fail, because people cannot live on fast food alone. People need depth. People need macaroni and cheese made with carrots snuck in to get veggies into picky kids. People need a good marinated chicken breast that hasn’t sat in a refrigerator for weeks past when it should have been cooked. People need good food in their bodies.
Let’s take this example as a good start. On Friday, my Sabbath (or as I like to refer to it my ”bread day”) I made my first attempt at making flatbread with gluten-free flour. To be fair, it is actually based on a recipe for Indian flatbread called roti. I substituted some Gluten-Free flour, tried to make the recipe as indicated, realized the dough was wrong, and began to adjust through the addition of things like binding agents and additional moisture.
The first attempt is gone. I rolled it too thin, decided to see how it tasted without eating breakfast, and then had a breakfast of far too thin roti which was both piping hot and delicious. I noted my problems, tried to roll it thicker, realized there was still a problem, added moisture to the edges, and tried again. All it all, I made six “loaves” of gluten-free bread, all of which probably won’t cut the mustard for use in church. It tastes great and a great tasting mistake is okay in my book, but it won’t do what it needs to do for my purposes.
Now, let’s say it will take three more attempts before I get this right. Maybe I’ll need to try something different a time or two. Perhaps chia seeds won’t be gelatinous enough to bind the bread together without eggwhite. Perhaps adding more xantham gum will make it taste awful. Let’s say I get to communion Sunday, bring something that is made to the best of my ability, and receive nothing but criticism. What will I do?
I can tell you what I will do. I will hold my head up high, take the criticism, and go back to the kitchen to keep working. Why? Why not take the easy path? Why not try another loaf of gluten-free bread that has been sitting on the shelf in the store? Why not buy the dough frozen? Why not quit while I am ahead?
The plain and simple reason why is that I do not want to quit. I keep going in ministry because I decide there are times when I am willing to die on a hill for the sake of that person who won’t come to communion because they’re embarrassed. Who am I to walk away when I know there is a concrete need in front of me? I am willing to die on a hill for the sake of making sure the means of grace is available to those person while we are all sharing from one loaf as one body of Christ. I am willing to die on that hill because it is better to die with integrity to my spirit than to live with a broken heart.
If you are going to be in ministry you are going to face difficult times. Ministers are many things. We stand up front talking about God and so people will take out their anger with God on us. We talk about inclusion in the body of Christ, so we will bear the brunt of criticism when a member of our church does something exclusive to hurt others. We are the person up front helping put together worship in a way that honors God and that might mean leaving out a favorite hymn of someone for a period that they feel is too long. We will face criticism for that as well. Doing your job as a shepherd means not everyone will be happy.
Spoiler alert: Those words apply to more than just ministers. Teachers, parents will complain. Nurses, patients will continue to buck the advice of the doctor despite your best efforts. Bus drivers, “the wheels on the bus” sung fifty times in a row might be a far better way to spend a given day than to hear cranky kids, wet from the rain, bicker all the way to school. All of us will be challenged and all of us will face situations that demand we make a choice of how we want to live our lives. Sometimes that will lead to us facing hardship, challenge, and occasionally persecution.
We will all face difficult times. The question as you face your difficult times is whether or not you can find things you are passionate about and be happy to die on the hill for that passion and for the sake of your own soul. To be fair, I have found that most people will understand why you are doing what you are doing if you explain it to them. Is gluten-free communion important to you? Explain it with passion, explain your willingness to keep trying, and express that this is one of those places where you have to maintain integrity with your own spirit and most mature people will try to work with you.
Actually, sometimes following your passion frees others to follow their passions. You might die on that hill, but when that resurrection love of God brings life back into your broken bones, you may just open your eyes to see people living into their own personhood all the more powerfully as a result of your example. People can be inspired by sacrifice as much as by success, and that’s important to remember as well.
In the meantime, if you are going through a hard time, whether in ministry or not, I want to encourage you to find a hill that you’re willing to die upon. Stand up for your heart and soul and sacrifice. Jesus taught us that “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Sometimes we need to stand up against that which we hate and be willing to find ourselves on the other side of our resurrection with life everlasting.
Let us Ramble: Ministry within a Culture
I was reading through my coursework for the Academy for Spiritual Formation this morning when a quote from another book caught my eye. I was reading through “Thirsty for God” by Bradley Holt when he quoted Eugene Peterson. I have never really read a lot of Eugene Peterson’s work, especially as my first reaction was a knee-jerk reaction to “The Message.” I happen to like the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible and my first impression of Peterson’s translation was a bit biassed. Nonetheless, I was caught by the quotation from “Take and Read: Spiritual Reading” by Peterson. The excerpt went as follows: (Holt, 143)
“My conviction is that the pastor must refuse to be shaped by the culture, whether secular or ecclesiastical, and insist on becoming a person of prayer in the community of worship. This is our assigned task; anything less or other is malpractice.”
Now, as someone who spent a few years working through academic settings in college and seminary, I must first admit that I do not like having the context of Peterson’s quote. I am working on remedying that situation through a copy of Peterson’s work. Regardless, the quote is striking.
What does it mean that a pastor should not be shaped by either secular or ecclesiastical culture? I can understand the request that a pastor set a special concern in their ministry for prayer, but does that call fundamentally change our approach to ministry? Should it reshape our approach to culture?
For context, consider the earlier histories which Professor Holt shared about the early church. Two groups of monastics entered into their approaches to the monastic life in roughly the same age. The Coptic Antony entered into ministry in the desert as an offensive against the devil in the devil’s own territory much like his master Jesus Christ entered into the devil’s territory during his temptation (Holt, 52). His ministry was (by nature) isolated from both ecclesiastical and secular culture. Amma Theodora, Blessed Syncletica, Athanasius, Pachomius, and other Desert Mothers and Fathers entered into ministry in a similar fashion (Holt, 52-53).
In contrast, Columba established a ministry in Iona after being influenced by his own actions in 632 CE (Holt, 68). Brigid of Kildare lived among the people of Ireland until 523 and Patrick in the early to mid 400s CE (Holt, 67). These individuals knew the work of the earlier Desert Mothers and Fathers but continued to engage their ministries in locations where they could interact with the world around them on a regular basis. Their influence on modern Celtic art is one example of a place where they certainly had interaction with the culture around them. A person could argue that they influenced the culture, but time spent reading through the Carmina Gadelica seems to imply a lot more of the interactions were mutual in nature.
The earlier Desert Mothers and Fathers withdrew in an attempt to be faithful from both culture and their former lives. The Irish monastics seemed to attempt to be faithful while withdrawing from their former lives but not necessarily from the culture where they lived and ministered. They exist down two different paths from a fork on the road of their journeys.
The current life of the church seems to be a similar crossroads. Some churches believe that the church should withdraw from the world around us into fidelity without using cultural tools of current times. I serve a church which worships to an organ with hymnals in a building without air conditioning. They seem comfortable worshiping in this way. Other churches withdraw from the world into a place of fidelity while using modern tools such as guitars, projectors, movie clips, and a host of other tools from the world. Worship in both places is affected and shaped by culture. The former churches are usually shaped by the culture of the past century and the latter churches are shaped by the tools of this age.
Worship has been clearly shaped by the culture around us. Church structure has been clearly shaped by the culture around us. What does it mean that Eugene Peterson believes that the pastor must remain in a place where the cultures of the world and the church are refused on principle? Can one become a person of prayer while allowing the world to alter one’s identity as a pastor?
Was it not righteous and just for the pastors of ages past to allow their lives to be shaped by the communities where they served? Does anyone believe that the pastors who were beaten and arrested while seeking justice during the struggle for civil rights were less faithful for allowing the culture of the world to change them and their practices? Does anyone believe that the pastors who have allowed their prayers and thoughts to be bent to the suffering of indigenous peoples are somehow being less than faithful?
More importantly, what is the context of that quote! I guess that I will have to wait until the book arrives, I find time to digest it, and can follow up upon this post. In the meantime, I hope that this post has inspired some thoughts and conversations. Blessings today.
Let us Reflect: Life between denominations
Today is a day of transition for me. Last week I attended the 54th Annual Meeting of the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ. After celebrating the Ascension of Jesus Christ and Memorial Day in my town, I am preparing to head out to Syracuse for the 8th Session of the Upper New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. As a pastor at a Federated congregation I am authorized to serve as a minister within the United Church of Christ even as I serve within my ordained capacity as an Elder within the United Methodist Church. I serve within the one church and have my membership and service within the other.
A relative of mine once said that it must feel like I am being constantly torn in two. I often get asked questions about the local church’s way of being, questions about how I balance responsibilities, and questions about how I manage to make all of the meetings. To be fair, I often ask that last question. Yes, it can be challenging when you have twice as many denominational meetings as many of your colleagues.
This time of year is often difficult for me professionally. I go to one denominational meeting. I celebrate the successes, embraces the challenges, and mourn the losses of colleagues and friends. I proceed to then go to the other denomination’s meeting. I am again called to celebrate the successes, embrace challenges, and mourn losses. I often share ideas that are working within the other church with friends from the others. Sometimes that is accepted as a good thing. Occasionally, I am told to keep what I am saying to myself. For the record, people are not necessarily being mean—tradition has a very bad habit of enshrining itself as unchangeable.
I was pondering this strange place between congregations the other day at the meeting of the UCC. In the middle of a prayer for the ministry of the UCC I was drawn to think about that balance between denominations, Here’s the excerpt that caught my attention.
As I thought through this prayer I was drawn to the beauty and simplicity of the words. The Spirit of God is indeed shown in each person. The blessing of the Spirit is not just for our own life, but for the good of all. Each person is blessed and called to be a part of God’s ongoing work in the world.
I am a blessed man. I am blessed while going about my service with the community of saints that span two denomination. I am blessed to be able to see the connections and relationships between the two churches. I am blessed to Christ’s body in each of the lives of the saints. Some are United Methodists, some are members of the United Church of Christ, and all are a blessed part of God’s body.
Yes, balancing two denominations is somewhat challenging. Yes, the number of meetings can get a bit long. Yes, some days I am just plain lucky that my head is firmly attached to my neck. I am blessed to be in this strange place. This place is more beautiful than most people know.