The Wager: A Re-Frame That Mattered

July 31, 2017

Religion is what people do with their wonder.  — Abraham Heschel

From my perch in aging, now a distant eighteen years from retirement, I am amazed. I am astounded by the wager we make. You and I have this in common: we have bet our lives on a reality we cannot measure or control or prove or name precisely. This reality, in the words of Rudolph Otto, is mysterium tremendum et fascinans: mystery that makes us tremble with awe, shakes us up, yet ever lures us forward with fascination. Furthermore, you and I wager that this mystery, most clear in Jesus of Nazareth, is a Love from which nothing in life or death, now or later can separate us. In other words, you wager that reality in its essence is relational, inter-connective, oneness, love-energy, shalom. And, as if that is not wonder enough, this gracious mystery wants to be incarnated or embodied in us.

So strong was this fascination that you staked your vocational life on this invisible Spirit that, like the wind, blows where it wills. Daily you gamble with what you have, your life energy. Daily you place your bet with the coins of your time — 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 hours a week; 20, 30 even for some 50, 60, 70 years of your life — declaring a wager that can look foolish in a world that distrusts what’s not explainable. You surrender. You doubt. You adore. You wonder. You stammer. You accept being “fingers pointing to the Moon” — so you point. You witness. This fact remains: Without the existence and our experience of this mysterious Spirit our vocation collapses into folly.

Will Campbell was a maverick Baptist in my time. Once I was in a group of pastors where Will was present. The conversation turned toward an “ain’t it awful” direction. Will, it seems, weary of the clergy complaining, proceeded to stop the bitching session in its tracks. “Well, as I see it,” speaking in his drawn out Southern drawl, “life is a horse race. And I’m bettin’ on Jesus.” While the mystery remains with multiple interpretations of Jesus, nevertheless you and I keep looking to Jesus as our way, our truth-full witness and our clue to abundant living. In short: you keep bettin’ on Jesus, so much so, you serve the church that called you to be his body in the world. Amazing. Absolutely amazing.

This re-frame, a full-of-mystery wager, stoked by radical amazement, surfaced with clarity for me against the backdrop of its opposite — my denomination’s ideological turn toward “certainty.” For this re-frame it’s important to understand this context. In the 1980s and 90’s a fundamentalist arm of Southern Baptists gradually, deliberately seized control by establishing doctrinal norms, the primary one being the infallibility of Scripture. Denominational agencies, including seminaries, were required to affirm a doctrinal statement of faith. This set of beliefs served as a knife that divided those “in” from those “out,” the faithful from unfaithful, truth from error. I felt the sharp edge of this knife, so much so, the congregation I served was cut from its denomination’s ties in 1992. I was also dismissed as an adjunct professor at a near-by seminary. I, and those like me, were deemed cancer to the body and must be cut out.

This was my learning: up close I saw the danger of religion that hardens its arteries in the form of set beliefs. Mystery is forfeited. Wonder is silenced. “Right” beliefs thrive on certainty, fueled by binary thinking with its either/or, right/wrong, in/out, true/false ways of seeing. And, this as well, belief systems require opposition to stay alive. Advocates for their own belief system enter the battle for “truth” with self-sacrificial allegiance.

During that fundamentalist takeover a gift dropped into my lap. In 1983 I was introduced to the life and thought of Rabbi Abraham Heschel through his book, Man Is Not Alone, loaned to me by a member of the congregation. That book and his other writings re-awakened in me what was being depreciated by my family of faith — the awesome wonder of faith, hope and love that had summoned me in the first place. We hear Heschel’s voice in these few quotes.

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement . . . get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

“The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin. Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature.”

“Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great.”

A personal story captures the heart of his witness. Heschel, from a long line of hasidic rabbis, spent most of his years as teacher and writer at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. When he was coming toward the end of his life his rabbi friend, Samuel Dresner, visits him. Dresner writes: “Heschel spoke slowly and with effort . . . ‘I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You [Yahweh] gave it to me.’” Religion, as he noted, is what we do with that wonder.

In retirement I came across James P. Carse’s book, The Religious Case Against Belief. Carse illuminates some important nuances of wonder in his distinguishing three types of ignorance.

  • Ordinary ignorance is simply not knowing. We don’t know who will be the next President or who will win the World Series next year or when we will die.
  • Willful ignorance is choosing not to know. We may choose not to hear the news of a bad diagnosis or see the contradictions in Scripture or admit the verification of global warming. We can close our eyes or refuse to listen to what we don’t want to see or hear.
  • Higher ignorance, Carse suggests, is learned curiosity about what we don’t know. It’s the “wondering about” that fuels scientists, philosophers, and yes, theologians and preachers. This perspective invites us to lead with inquisitive questions, not answers. Only from “not knowing” can we reach for the understanding we don’t possess. Higher ignorance exchanges the certainty of right-believing for paradox, curiosity and mystery. The risks of faith, Carse insists, do not guarantee safe, conclusive conclusions. Rather, they assure the exhilaration of creativity and new learning.

With the witness of Heschel and Carse highlighting the wager we keep making, how then might this re-frame translate into ministry? I suggest two opposite postures. You can either lean in or step back.

Leaning in means leading from curious questions, admitting, even valuing the stance of not-knowing. In preaching you publicly, and with a playful curiosity, lean into the connection between the storied, biblical text and the storied life of congregants. In pastoral care you lean in with curious questions, probing with the parishioner into what new territory their crisis may be taking them. In committee meetings you lean in from a not-knowing position with curious questions that invite creative solutions. In pastoral conversations you lean in, asking open-ended queries, experiencing the wonder of where the vulnerable exchanges take you, the other, and your relationship. Or coming up close, very close to a flower, butterfly, weed or any one aspect of nature, you and I cannot help but marvel at its beauty and complexity.

Or, you can step back allowing the radical amazement of any situation to sink in. Have you ever stepped back from glancing through the church directory or from scanning the congregation on a Sunday morning and felt the wonder of it all — all these people choosing to volunteer their time, money, love energy in common cause, making church possible? Have you ever paused for even a moment in the pulpit with Bible before a congregation and pondered the miracle of this 2,000 year old narrative in your hand or the miracle of your worship space bequeathed by those not present? And if we step way, way back we can’t suppress the awe over being a very recent species, arriving the last 30 minutes if we imagine evolution as a 12-month calendar. Have you ever walked away from a family, whether profoundly grieving or celebrating, asking yourself, “How can people love so deeply and be loved so profoundly? Where does such capacity come from?” What mystery! What grace, what gift!

This practice you can do any time and from any place: stepping back, pausing, focusing and noticing the breath-taking gift of what or who is before you. Immediately you go to that place of wonder, radical amazement. You may even hear yourself saying, “This wonders me — this thing, this person, these persons wonder me!”

You and I are in the mystery business. We work with realities — love, life, faith, trust, community, grace, forgiveness, hope — that we cannot measure or prove or name with certainty. In the spirit of Rabbi Heschel, we could say, “I asked for wonder and God gave it to me in a vocation.”

But we cannot live and serve from wonder and mystery alone. We must risk words and Word becoming flesh, only to fall short every time. This is what we do. We wager. We wager on the mystery with our lives. We wonder at the mystery, yes, but also wager on its Truth. We lean into life with curiosity and occasionally step back in awe. Over time this posture became a new way of framing the complex ministry we offer.

 


The Congregation’s Angel: A Re-Frame That Mattered

September 7, 2016

You remember the hand gesture — locking your fingers inward and saying, “This is the church, this is the steeple,” and then, as you open your hands, “open the door, here’s all the people.”

That’s the way church looks — an aggregate of individuals. When you look out over the congregation on a Sunday morning, what do you see? You see individuals separated in rows, each with a distinct appearance, each with a different personality, each with a different history with you. Or, looking through the church pictorial directory you notice individual faces, most of whom are shown within families, each with different names. Or, in your imagination when your congregation comes to mind you likely think of individuals to call or families to visit.

But on some level we know there’s more. Intuitively we know church to be more than separate individuals and family units. We just know it. There’s an invisible reality that will never show up in a church directory. Consider two fictitious individuals reflecting on their first visits to a particular congregation:

“I walked down the aisle, found a seat, looked around, breathed in the ambiance of the space, glanced through the worship bulletin, and took a deep breath. I don’t know why but I just felt at home. This fits. I could be a member here.”

“The people seemed nice enough. The sermon was okay. Nothing wrong with the music. But, somehow, I didn’t feel engaged. I’m not sure what I am looking for, but this is not the congregation for me.”

This felt, invisible force that each of these church visitors experienced we call by a number of names: “culture,” “spirit,” “corporate personality,” or “gravitas” of a congregation. Walter Wink calls this reality the “angel” of a congregation. Wink’s interpretation of angel, new to me, immediately became a re-frame that mattered.

Angel? Angel of a congregation? Who believes in angels these days? Aren’t angels disembodied figments of a non-enlightened mind? What possible meaning could this ethereal construct have for us?

Walker Wink is convincing. He opened my eyes to an added dimension of congregational life. This New Testament scholar wrote a trilogy that shook the theological world, including my theological worldview: Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), and Engaging the Powers (1992). In Unmasking the Powers Wink notices that in the Book of Revelation, in chapters two and three, seven letters are sent to the seven churches in Asia Minor. But they are addressed to the angel of each congregation, e.g. “To the angel of the church of Ephesus,” “To the angel of the church of Sardis,” etc. In contrast, Paul addresses his letters to an entire congregation, like the church at Ephesus or the church at Philippi. Until Wink’s observation I had never noticed this before. Frankly, up to this point angels had no place in my understanding of life. They were contrary to my way of thinking. Never had I taken them seriously — until Wink came along.

For Wink the angel of each congregation represents its totality. The angel is not something separate or moralistic or airy. Rather, the congregation is the angel’s incarnation. The spirit or angel of a church is embodied in the people and place. The angel represents the spirituality of a congregation, its corporate personality, its interiority, its felt sense of the whole. Angel (aggelos) in this context means “messenger.” The angel of a church conveys its true unvarnished message. It tells it like it is, the good and not so good. In the above illustration of fictitious visitors, these individuals encountered the angel of the same congregation. They engaged its spirit or culture. For one visitor the experience felt uninviting; for the other it was a coming-home feeling.

The angel or spirit in each of the seven churches in Revelation reveals a mixture of mature and immature characteristics. These letters picture Christ’s spirit addressing the angels of these congregations with both affirmation and challenging critique. For example, to the angel of Ephesus: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance … [but] you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (Revelation 2:2) To the angel of Laodicea, the message begins with a scathing indictment, “…because you are neither cold or hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth,” but ends with, “Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Revelation 3:16, 20) In fact each letter ends with the same challenge: “Let everyone who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

Although Wink, and this reflection, focus on congregations, it is important to note that every collective entity with continuity through time has an angel. A family or a business has it own unique spirit, as does a school. We even speak of “school spirit.” Wink provides a way to name the invisible spirituality within any visible institution. Wink reclaims a biblical image — granted an unfamiliar one — for naming this invisible reality.

This is the picture: In these seven letters in the Book of Revelation, Christ is imaged as walking among the congregations, engaging the angel of each, sometimes critically, sometimes affirmatively — all in the service of transforming the angel into Christ-likeness. The living Christ is at work not only in the lives of persons in all their relationships. The Spirit is also at work loving, confronting, healing, and transforming the spirit-angel of each congregation.

Now, let’s turn to the significance of this re-frame during my last stint as pastor. This awareness I received from Wink dove-tailed so perfectly with family systems theory. As the new pastor I set before me two tasks: one, come to know the people; and two, come to know the system, the corporate spirit that I later learned from Wink to be the angel of the church.

The second task felt like detective work. I saw clues. I noted the architecture, the placement of pulpit, choir, and other symbols. What’s the message they tell about our spirit-angel? I kept asking questions: what’s the glue that holds us together? I continued to listen for favorite stories about past events, past crises, and past pastors. What former rituals continue to be life giving? And what are people in the community saying about us? One observation began to clarify as a characteristic of our long history: our angel had two strong wings — attention to worship and attention to social justice. Of course, there was more to learn about the angel, but this awareness jumped out with clarity and became a reference point for the rest of my leadership.

This was my assumption: The angel, if I allowed it, was introducing itself to me. I was being invited, less to analyze the angel than to learn to love the angel. In what may appear strange, I was forming a pastoral relationship with the angel, as well as with the people. It’s not unlike learning to care for another person. I was being invited to love this particular congregation with all its complexities, gifts, failures, inconsistencies, and richness.

Perhaps some specific examples will help you understand the value of this double vision seeing individual persons and paradoxically seeing the invisible corporate spirit, the angel.

I first experienced the angel of this congregation as cool, reluctant to extend a warm welcome to visitors. The church had been through some stressful years that absorbed the energy required for getting through a significant transition. So when the congregation gathered for worship members wanted to be together, to reassure each other, to enjoy each other. Wink gave me language for what I was intuiting, namely a wound in our angel that needed healing. For the next decade a priority for our leaders was to recover the church’s former generosity and eagerness to welcome the stranger.

This angel was severely tested in my ninth year. The congregation was discerning whether or not to add a ritual to our ministry — the blessing of a same-sex union. At the time there was not a more contentious, divisive issue in the larger church. This was the surprise. During this extended process of decision-making, we experienced more conflict outside the congregation than within it. We splintered, but we did not split.

I wondered then and now — what kept us steady in the water during this whirlwind of controversy? I believe it was the angel. During those stressful months, often a member would say something like, “Yes, we will lose some members. Yes, we will lose some money. Just like we did when we elected women deacons in the ’40s and when we racially integrated in the late ’50s and when our pastor was speaking out against the Vietnam War in the late ’60s. We made it through then. We’ll make it through now.” The angel with its passion for social justice, rooted in favorite passages such as Micah 6:8 and Jesus’ mission statement in Luke 4, provided the keel that kept our ship from overturning in turbulent waters. When enough members said, “This is who we are,” they were referring to our angel.

This imaginative metaphor of a congregation’s spirit inspired my occasional sermon that addressed the angel of our congregation. In a 1990 sermon, drawing on Wink’s interpretation of these verses in the Book of Revelation, I imaged Christ walking among us, engaging our angel. I spoke of Christ’s affirmation of our angel’s heart for community matters arising from and supported by our core practice of worshiping God. I gave some specific examples of this rhythm between worship and service, being at our best when not taking ourselves too seriously. But I also imagined Christ confronting our angel for our sometimes pride in feeling special, “progressive,” and yes, superior. I also envisioned our angel being chastised for being, at times, so open and inclusive that such grace could be morphed into cheap grace with little sacrifice or commitment.

And I ended the sermon, “So, these are some reflections on our angel. More importantly, I want you to take home this picture — the image of the spirit of Christ encountering our collective spirit, walking among us with the desire to transform our angel into his likeness.”

I conclude this reflection by noting a peculiar characteristic of our work. Like few vocations, pastoral ministry is all about seeing the un-seeable. The realities of trust, hope, and love — indeed, the Mystery we name God — are all invisible Spirit, like the wind, an uncontrollable force experienced but not seen. Even inter-personal relationships, the very heart of our work, cannot be seen or precisely measured. In these words I am underscoring another invisible reality on the list: the angel. Discerning and loving the angel of the congregation in the service of further transformation became for me a re-frame that mattered.

 


Symbolic Exemplar: A Re-Frame That Mattered

July 25, 2016

I didn’t know what I was getting into. I thought being a pastor was similar to being a teacher or social worker or father. These roles give you a position from which you can contribute. That’s the way I saw it.

I went to seminary with the excitement of a seeker who had just discovered a new map of unexplored terrain. This joy of a larger purpose freed me from an earlier vocational direction assumed by my family. I knew no one at the seminary when I arrived. Being Baptist had little substance. Church experience was limited. My knowledge of clergy was almost nil. To be “called” felt strange and remote. But the idea of some kind of paid work that allowed further exploration into the realm or kingdom of God was promising.

Surprise happened in an introductory class on pastoral care. The professor had recorded on tape his pastoral conversation with a grieving widow. I heard his gift of empathic listening and skillful questions that helped her find a measure of release and hope. On that day, in that moment, sitting on the fourth row of a large class in the “Map” room at Southern Baptist Seminary, I whispered to myself, “I want to do that!” And I have for forty-eight years.

What I felt then, and never lost, is this: the role gave me a way into those holy places of people’s lives, where I could offer a presence with a caring curiosity about their pursuit of meaning. A reporter once asked me, “What do you like most about your job?” I heard myself say, “I love having a ringside seat on how people make sense of their lives.” This was the constant joy—the role unlocking doors to these sacred places of presence and conversation.

You can anticipate my shock at running into the full complexity of this vocation. Immediately I protested the “difference,” the “set-apartness” that came with the role. I resisted the various titles—Brother Mahan, Preacher, Reverend, Pastor Siler, Doctor Siler. “Just call me Mahan,” I sometimes said. “I’m just a regular guy with a huge curiosity about life and faith in God.”

My ordination, with its language of “being set apart” to serve the church, declared more about my future than I could absorb at the time. I was wonderfully challenged by the vows yet felt broadsided by the loneliness and projections that came in their wake. The new role changed how people perceived me, including my neighbors and larger family. Even my pre-ordination friends didn’t quite know what to do with my new identity. I felt placed into a separate category I didn’t understand.

Eventually a re-frame came to me, in the form of a gift from a rabbi friend, which described with clarity the role I was assuming. The gift was a book from another rabbi, Jack Bloom, in which Bloom describes the tension: as rabbis (or pastors) we are both living symbols of More than we are and ordinary human beings. We are both. Both at the same time.

A symbol points beyond itself to some other reality from which it draws power. Take our national flag, for instance. We know it’s not simply a colored piece of cloth. It draws our attention powerfully to the “republic for which it stands.” Or, even more familiar to us, we regularly participate in the transforming symbolic power of water (baptism) and bread and wine/grape juice (Eucharist).

But acknowledging our symbolic power is another matter. Imagine the scene: rabbis, priests, or pastors in the pulpit beneath a robe and stole (or dark suit) with Scripture in hand. Note the symbols. Note the symbol we are. Yes, we remain very human under the robe, with all our peculiar human traits. But we are so much more. We feel it. We know it. We are symbols of More than we are, signs of a narrative and worldview we call Gospel. Or to say it boldly: You and I are symbols pointing to God, the ultimate Mystery. By just being a clergy person you announce a huge wager. You and I dare to wager that God is real, a loving presence in us, with us, and through us, active in the world making love, making justice, making shalom. And furthermore our symbolic identity deepens with each passing funeral, wedding, worship service, and pastoral visit. We are walking, talking representatives of More than ourselves. The projections abound. The symbolic role opens doors; it closes doors. We are different. Not better, but different.

And, if that is not enough to carry, as pastors we are not just symbols, we are symbolic exemplars. Certain ethical behaviors are expected of us. As the ordination of Episcopal clergy words it, we vow to be “wholesome examples” of the gospel. Leaders in other fields are also symbols of more than they are, but few leaders carry such additional moral pressure. Pastors, and in some sense their families, are expected to show, as well as tell, what loving God and neighbor looks like.

Bloom puts the two together: The pastor or rabbi as symbol and as exemplar. Then he mixes in the third reality: we are symbolic exemplars and ordinary human beings. It’s a re-frame that has mattered.

Let’s place these truths on a continuum — symbolic exemplar on one end and human being on the other end. The extremes are easy to see. On the symbolic exemplar end we have observed pastors and priests overly identified with their symbolic role. Behind the role so much of their humanity is hidden. Their sense of self is fused, it seems, with their pastoral identity. “He must sleep in his collar,” I recall hearing about a Lutheran pastor in my neighborhood. At retirement these ministers have the toughest work of discovering who they are apart from the role that has identified them for so long. I admit, when I retired this inner work was necessary for me as well.

The other extreme is protecting our humanness, so much so that we discount the authority and appropriate power invested in the role. To insist, “I’m just me, a person like everyone else,” is folly. I found, as you have, that there were times when this transcending power was undeniable. You know it when, on occasion, while preaching, the message comes more through you than from you. Or standing by the bed of a very ill parishioner, or sitting across from a person in crisis, you palpably experience being a symbol of More than yourself. When they see you they see the faith community you represent. When they see you they “see” the un-seeable you represent, namely, an invisible Reality. In those times it’s so clear—the person is relating to you but also to so much More than you.

There are times when we consciously, intentionally call on the full authority of the role. I am reminding you of those times when you are face-to-face with persons, usually in the safety of your office, who pour out their sense of “not being enough,” who are feeling particularly victim to relentless, self-condemning voices rising from their depths. In those times we deliberately wrap the role around us like a robe. Our voice is up against the self-despising voices we are hearing. In those moments you too would claim your pastoral authority and say something like, “What you tell yourself is not true. Your deepest truth is this: You are a child of God, loved and loving, totally forgiven and full of worth just as you are.” By claiming this authority we hope that the Power we symbolize undermines and eventually replaces the power of these self-condemning voices.

Or, the best example is the obvious one. Every time you and I rise to stand behind the pulpit to lead in worship, we intentionally wrap ourselves around the privilege and courage of being both our authentic selves and More than our authentic selves.

We know multiple examples of those in our vocation who have abused this symbolic power to the great harm to others, to themselves, and to their congregation. The examples are legion. But the longer I was a pastor the more I understood and appreciated this power to bless and speak in the name of God. But it always felt uncomfortable. The audacity never left me. Each deliberate attempt was not without a good measure of “fear and trembling.” I was flirting with danger, and I knew it. Speaking from ego, for ego, or speaking from God, for God—which was it? No doubt it was a mixture of both. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Precisely; that’s the point! When we embrace this tension of being both symbolic exemplar and the very human person we are, you and I are reduced to prayer. We are driven to our knees. The chutzpah demands mercy; the mercy makes possible the chutzpah.

Naming the un-nameable Mystery … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Putting on, like a robe, the privilege, ambiguities, set-apartness, projections, and loneliness of this work … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Embracing the tension of being both living symbol of More than I am and a human being not more than I am … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Being a flawed leader of an imperfect institution that frequently contradicts the compassion it espouses … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Bearing the symbols of God, even being a symbol of God, at the perilous risk of playing God … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

I leave you with a paradox — being both fully, uniquely human and fully, uniquely a symbolic exemplar. Embracing, not resolving, this paradox became for me a re-frame that mattered.

Reference: The Rabbi As Symbolic Exemplar: By the Power Vested in Me, Jack H. Bloom

 


Dis-establishment: A Re-frame That Mattered

May 24, 2016

The frame church as established and dominant began to crack and then disintegrate early in my ministry. For so long I didn’t have a frame to replace it. I couldn’t find the clarity I needed to lead a congregation.

In the early 80’s the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall appeared on my life stage, soon assuming a major role. His bold insight became a re-frame that mattered. With convincing lucidity he announced: Christendom is over! The 1,500 years of church prominence in Western civilization is at the end of its ending. Rejoice! Be glad! Claim the freedom in shaping a new future of Christianity!

Perhaps my journey toward this clarity might sufficiently parallel your experience, enough so to make sense of this new perspective.

Born in 1934, a Knoxville, Tennessee native, growing up during “pre” to “post” World War II years, I experienced the church as established. Like other standing institutions (governmental, legal, educational, medical) the church in its varied forms was visible and prominent, its permanence assumed. It was a dependable trellis, a trustworthy frame that seemed to uphold the moral structure of the community. In those days religious identity was generally inherited, much like skin color or last name.

Gestures of this establishment were conspicuous: church and state arm and arm in the “war effort”; opening prayer at civic occasions, even football games; attendance at church services more the norm than not; “ministerial discounts” for pastors; church property as tax free; Jews in their ghettos, Muslims non-existent. After all, we were a Christian nation.

During my university years I came alive with a sense of larger purpose. Defining myself within the Jesus story took me to seminary to learn more. Serving the church vocationally was not my motivator at the time. During my seminary years the church was still firmly established, with Protestant Christianity presumed to be the dominant religion nationally and the superior religion globally. Foreign missionaries bore the badge of supreme devotion.

But gaping cracks were appearing in the established church. The Secular City by Harvey Cox announced the growing assumption of secularism. As graduate students we pondered the meaning of Bonhoeffer’s inscrutable phrase, “religion-less” faith; the “death of God” theologians were even more mystifying. Various religious and non-religious worldviews surfaced as the norm in our neighborhoods and workplace. All the while, loyalty to congregation and denomination was eroding. Even the renewal movements of the time felt like efforts to recover something important that was lost and needed recapturing.

Yet churches were growing, or were expected to, when I assumed my first position as pastor in 1967. Still fueled by the optimism of post-war years, the American economy, American global power, and suburban congregations were growing. Once a pastor accepted the role, it was assumed that, given effective leadership, the congregation would surely grow larger. Anything less would be failure.

But an uncertainty persisted. Something was changing that I couldn’t see, name, or measure. It seemed that deep underground plates were shifting — “foundations were shaking,” to borrow Tillich’s phrase. I just couldn’t settle the questions: What is the church for? What is a pastor for? No longer could I embrace without question the church’s mission to “save” people, win souls, convert the world to Christ. Equally dissatisfying was defining the church as another social agency that served the world in its need for mercy, healing, and justice. After all, weren’t we still called to share the hope within us? And wasn’t this a hope in God, from God?

Along came Douglas John Hall just when I needed him. He offered a clear frame that gave borders to my confusion. Hall invited me to step back . . . way, way back to see the larger picture. I heard him saying: “Open your eyes. See it! See the evidence all around us. Christianity in Western civilization is winding down from its privileged status that began in the 4th century. Face it. We are experiencing the end of Christendom’s fifteen hundred years of church prominence.”

Hall’s framing differentiates a beginning and ending. The beginning was Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the empire in the 4th century; the ending, after fifteen hundred years, was a gradual decline of the church’s established and dominant positions. These two great social transitions mark the history of the western church. During those centuries empires, kings, philosophers, and political systems came and went. But through it all the church in the West maintained its superiority as the official religion. While it’s true that during these centuries there had always been small alternative faith communities, the larger church always maintained its established status. Hall convincingly names the bit-by-bit ending of Christendom, noting its few remaining vestiges in places like the southern states in our country.

Then Hall, once he makes his compelling case, responds with a surprising challenge: “Welcome dis-establishment! Don’t fret it. Embrace it! Claim the gift of it for the church in our time!”

I remember thinking that it was no wonder I had been confused. It’s appropriate to be confused when the church we serve is experiencing the end of a fifteen-hundred-year period of dominance. Of course the future is uncertain with no clear path forward. How could this awkward moment in history be otherwise?

The gift from this new frame was this: as pastor, I felt invited to sit down before a new set of questions.

The old establishment questions are familiar: How can we attract members? How can we raise the budget? How can we keep our building repaired? These are worthy questions, ones that I dutifully asked as a leader of an established congregation that was just beginning to feel the angst of this vast transition. But these inquiries are secondary questions.

With dis-establishment confirmed, I felt the excitement of different questions, more basic and future oriented:

  • What does following Jesus look like in our time?
  • What is the church for?
  • What is the pastor for?
  • What new metaphors, forms, and directions are trying to be born within us?
  • What are we being asked to let go of that is no longer life-giving?
  • How do we respond respectfully to those among us grieving the loss of what was?
  • Being increasingly dis-established, side-lined, and alternative, how can we learn from other Christian communities throughout church history whose witness was anti-establishment, marginal, and alternative? (See Bass, A People’s History of Christianity)
  • How can we respond to the particular longings of our time? (Hall, in The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity, mentions four such longings, or quests: the quests for moral authenticity, meaningful community, transcendence and mystery, and meaning.)

To reiterate a former point, in our nation and particularly in the South, ample vestiges of Establishment are still present, so much so that some deny that such a major social and religious shift is occurring. Any pastor can identify those members who believe that “if we could just do ‘this’ or try ‘that’ then our church could return to its ‘better’ days.” The denial of death, so strong and deep within each of us, is an equally powerful drive in us institutionally. In another Re-frame I express an overlapping observation with this Re-frame today: pastors are both hospice chaplains and mid-wives. We stand in the breach between what is ending and what is being born.

This too I appreciate from Hall: he pictures the church of today and tomorrow as coming alongside the church in the first centuries before Constantine. Those first followers of Jesus, not inhibited by being a minority, even at times a persecuted minority, claimed the transforming power of the small. In parallel, we too can be small, feisty communities of our day. The favorite metaphors of Jesus can be ours to manifest in fresh ways by self-identifying as salt, yeast, and seeds — as a small “light shining before others.” (Matthew 5: 16)

Thanks to you, Douglas John Hall, for your location of the contemporary western church. Your frame, when I allowed it, gave me new questions to live as I went about my leading, preaching, teaching, and pastoral caring. You invited a lightness, curiosity, and trust in the Spirit at work in our dying and in our rising. You gave me a re-frame that mattered.

 


Having Fun Yet?

July 1, 2014

It was the strangest of benedictions. One of my favorite professors, Henlee Barnett, gave me a curious blessing. At seminary graduation, upon hearing of my first opportunity to be a full-time pastor, he responded: “Oh, you will have fun there!” He didn’t say the expected: “Oh, that will be a good fit for you or a good opportunity or a worthy challenge for you.” No, he spoke of having fun doing pastoral ministry. Frankly, I had never put those two ideas together. The sound of his words echo still. What did he mean, “having fun?”

I’m pondering, now out loud with you, why should that blessing seem so strange then or now? The question unmasks the Puritan streak in me: play is a waste of time; play is what you do when the work is done; every minute playing takes us away from the seriousness of our work. I assume all of us have internalized to some degree our culture’s basic dualism’s: work and play; work and art; work and leisure.

I am not talking about play as recreation or play as time off from work, as in our “day off.” No, I am referring to work as play, to playing around with our work, to having fun in ministry.

You know this experience from time to time. I’ll bet your best preaching comes from “playing around” with ideas. Your imagination runs free. You hold a space for surprising possibilities to surface. You muse about the Muse: “What is the Spirit trying to say in this passage?” Then what flows—yes, with discipline—includes the fun of creativity.

Or, similarly as pastor you find yourself in the midst of some personal or interpersonal crisis. You have no clue what to say and can detect no redemptive end in sight. Yet, you are as present as possible, listening intently, praying silently for some guidance. Occasionally, some insight, some way through, some new possibility emerges and you feel the Creator’s pleasure: “Now, that was good, very good!” It’s the pleasure and playfulness of an artist, a creator. Or, even if there is not resolution or some hoped for outcome, there remains a joy in the creative effort.

From the Industrial Revolution we have inherited a machine-like view of work. Work is made up of units—units of time, units of productivity, units of money. We can feel that pressure in ministry, namely, to produce something measurable, to live by the clock, to number the “family-giving” units in our congregation. Yes, that’s a part of our work. But before we know it, we can feel in our core like another cog in a machine.

Could it be that we are more artists, than mechanics? We have some freedoms that most congregants don’t in their work settings. Considerable freedom in the use of our time comes with our job. We can play with our time with an artist eye—looking for co-creative possibilities, leading imaginatively from the congregation’s past, helping shape loving relationships from the clay of peoples lives. I know, these words feel a bit romantic, maybe unrealistic. Yet, I don’t want to give up the joyful possibility in defining our vocation as being artisans, poets, and mid-wives assisting in new life birthing. But there is a cost in playing around with this identity. There is a price to pay. As with most creative leaders, expect considerable criticism, disapproval, and misunderstanding.

Perhaps this is an issue of spiritual formation. I know that my own seriousness is usually a sign of ego forcing some particular outcome. Missing, at such times, is lightness and non-attachment required in creativity. And conversely, playfulness, humor, laughter, having fun are signs of self-transcendence. You can’t be playful and anxious at the same time. You can’t laugh and be fearful at the same time. You can’t be artful and controlling at the same time.

I must admit. I am drawn to pastors who laugh a lot, especially at their futility in keeping up and accomplishing their goals. They have a knack of two responses: delighting in their efforts to keep up and accomplish goals; and delighting in the larger life/love that transcends their efforts to keep up and accomplish goals. It’s a funny paradox we live.

I wonder, is this even close to what Henlee had in mind?


Locating God

March 24, 2014

Where is God? Where do we look for God in our secular age?

I was asking these questions out loud while driving home from a recent discussion group. In the group one person was telling the Jonah story, treating it like a myth or parable. The presenter was asking: where is the Jonah in us? What are the ways, like Jonah, we flee from a God so radically loving of “the enemy,” Nineveh in this case?

A few in the circle quickly self-identified themselves as “secularists.” They interpreted the story literally, dismissing as fanciful any God who stages an ocean storm, including a large fish to swallow fleeing Jonah, later regurgitated on the land. “We can’t relate to this story. We don’t believe in God, especially that kind of God,” they all said in various ways.

Later in the conversation, a member of the circle (let’s call her Kelly), one of the “secularists,” spoke movingly of her long history with an elder in a remote Mexican village. Once a researcher in this village, she remained his friend through the years. When she heard of his dying, she made the long trip to be at his side. It seemed that he was staying alive to have his last moments with her.

By the time of her arrival, the elder has slipped into a coma. “Too late,” she lamented. But Kelly stays, remaining at his bedside, holding his hand in hers. She spoke of a profound, palatable presence of love that pervaded the room. Even the animals seem aware of this difference. Hours pass until the unexpected happens. Her mentor opens his eyes, fully and clearly, smiles, squeezes her hand and the hand of his son, then closes his eyelids, and stops breathing. It was a brief moment, so full, so unexpected, so unexplainable.

I blurted out, “Why God was all over that!” She smiled with a puzzled acknowledgment that neither of us pursued.

While driving home, I imagine saying more to Kelly. I wanted to add: “Kelly, in my way of seeing, what you experienced was God. The invisible, loving presence, so palatable to you, I name Spirit. The name is not so important to me, but naming the experience is. Your love for and from this Mexican elder, culminating in that sacred moment, is a Reality more than just you and him, more like a magnetic field, a Mystery that pulled you beyond explanation into awe.”

I assume most people have such profound moments igniting similar responses: “Wow! What a gift. And surprise. A presence, too deep for words!” Every one, from time to time, gets knocked off their feet with unexpected goodness. But I’m sad when these life-shaking experiences are left without symbols, story and metaphor, without rejoicing in community. Naming, I think, gives these spiritual experiences a marker, a container, an anticipation for more.

Isn’t this what church, at its best, does? Church, as corporate worship and caring relationships, can provide the context where such experiences are named, appreciated and expected. Of course, we cannot make these extra-ordinary events happen, but within community we do offer liturgy, story, and silence where openings to gracious/terrifying Mystery are invited and celebrated — the very fuel for acting compassionately in our worlds.

This is my assumption: Kelly, and many “secularists” like her, do have spiritual experiences. She strikes me as a person open to wonder over breakthroughs of kindness, beauty and self-giving acts of compassion. But with her image of God so tied to an other-worldly figure removed from our humanity, she may miss the connection so obvious to me.

I am thinking of the preachers among you. Probably you have a congregation full of those who still worship a God separated from this world who intervenes from time to time according to whim. I keep being surprised about how imprinted in our psyche is a deity “up there, out there,” not in here, the invisible, in-between part, the love energy in relationships.

I suppose I am a literalist at this point. I take this truth at face value: “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God, for God is love.” (I John 4:7). There’s where I look for God.


A Spiral Upward

March 5, 2014

I experienced, and I have noticed this paradox in pastoral ministry. It was about me and up to me; yet it was not about me, nor up to me. A strong ego on one hand; a transcended ego on the other.

Maybe this dynamic is more of a spiral movement, round and round from one side of the paradox to the other. The hoped for direction of the spiral is this:  ministry happens more and more through us, not just from us, more letting it happen than making it happen.

In one sense, ministry is about you, and its up to you. That’s the way it begins. During the season of pastoral formation, the seminary and early years as a pastor, you need to be self-focused. After all, you are preparing for a particular vocation. There is so much to learn, so much knowledge to take in, chew and digest. You are busy ingesting church history, systematic theology, biblical studies, Christian ethics, liturgy, and church polity. It’s all foundational to the work looming before you. In addition, there is the “practical” side of the curriculum, the skill-set of pastoral care and congregational management required. Hopefully, all this adds up to a strong sense of self.

And, upon assuming leadership in a congregation, it’s all the more about you and up to you — your preaching, your leadership, your personality, your pastoral visits or lack of them. On the surface, that is the way it looks, about you and up to you. You are visible, up-front, public, employed, hence a convenient, obvious rack on which to hang unending judgments.

But occasionally, and increasingly so, we experience pastoral ministry as impossible. For all our heroic efforts to meet expectations, both ours and others, we come to the end of the day whispering to ourselves, “I can’t keep doing this. I don’t have what it takes.” How often, it seems, what worked doesn’t work any longer. Or those insights we glean from this book or that conversation are insufficient for long-term travel. Even the conference we attend or lectures we download grant short-term benefits that dissolve like cotton candy.

I remind you what you know. These times of “impossible” can be times we trust the More than we are. Likely, we ask our will power and personal acumen to take us as far at they can. But it’s never far enough. Our finest efforts break down, in small and, for some of us, in big ways. It’s the heart of 12-Step wisdom: only at the point of admitted powerlessness can we experience the Higher Power, God, that is.

Recall those “impossible” moments when you fell into a wisdom not your own. It could be in the midst of a sermon or counseling session or interpersonal conflict or contentious committee meeting, when the “possible” surprisingly emerges from the “impossible.” You know this experience. I imagine it as being a violin making music you didn’t compose.

I am suggesting that maturity in ministry, as in life generally, is yielding to this spiral upward — from our ministry being about me and up to me to it being not about me or up to me. It seems, if we allow it, that increasingly we experience creativity and strength coming more through us than from us.

Think of the mature among us. They speak less about striving, controlling and trying so hard, and more about allowing, being carried, graced as an agent of intentions much larger and wondrous.

This spiraling movement from self to transcending self calls for poetry, not prose. Rainer Rilke names it beautifully.

The Swan
This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.
And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.

I’m left with a question. I’m asking myself, and now you, what helps us die, to let go of clinging, allowing the giving of our selves to the Water that receives us gaily and flows joyfully under us, granting us pleasure in being carried? What helps us do that?


A Story to Steward

January 2, 2013

Evidently mystical, spiritual experiences are common. I am referring to those times when you seem lifted out of your limited self-preoccupations and feel a part of Something larger. You experience, even if for a moment, the extraordinary in the ordinary. That experience seems widespread.

I am thinking of times like these: in a crisis – feeling held together by love you can’t generate, a strength given you cannot explain; or, a typical day in the garden feeling suddenly a part of growth beyond your control or understanding; or the poignant awareness of loving someone as an extension of yourself; or, those moments of “wow,” when you feel the wonder of what is before you.

 These common experiences are sometimes transformative, that is, they change the way you see the world. A shift in perspective occurs, however slight or major. We walk away from these experiences never to be quite the same.

 This is what I am wondering: How many of these self-transcendent moments go unrecognized? And do they go unrecognized because there is no story or worldview to name them? Is a transforming change from these mystical moments undermined because there is no container, no narrative, no worldview to hold and sustain them?

Actually, these are statements, not questions. I think what we have as Christians, along with holders of every other religious narratives, is a framing story, that, like a string, can tread these spiritual experiences. It’s being a part of a larger Story that grants them definition, continuity and context. Otherwise, these potentially transforming moments will fall to the ground, like separate beads, left behind.

We have a Story that connects, that names, that incorporates. To the ones experiencing the sense of loving another as an extension of themselves, I think of Jesus’ saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself (not as you love yourself).” To the ones enthralled in gardening, I think of creation spirituality as in Jeremiah’s vision, “Their life will be like a watered garden.” To the one’s held by love in some devastating crisis, I think of the biblical refrain, “I am with you . . . with you . . . with you as Love from which no-thing in life or death, now or later can separate you.”

We live within a historical context of competing Stories or worldviews to live in and from. Defining narratives plead for our allegiance, such as, the myth of redemptive violence (violence saves, solves problems), or the story of progress (we are getting better and better, bigger and bigger, or should be); or reality is limited to what you can see, touch, feel, taste or hear (secular materialism); then our Story of God as force of Love, most clearly embodied in Jesus, ever seeking connection, healing, reconciliation, justice, mercy — in other words, Shalom. And, being human and inconsistent, we live within all of these stories. We claim no purity. Yet, I have the desire, likely you do as well, for the Jesus story to define our way, hold and motivates us.

Once I pridefully thought that it was my job to help people have transforming experiences. Now I assume that these openings happen, though often unacknowledged. As steward of a Story, I feel the privilege to look for these spiritual openings, to recognize them, to expect them, to name them, and assist their sustenance in community.


Carol and Kenosis

June 12, 2012

Not many Carols have crossed my path over my lifetime. She is empty of religion, no church background whatsoever, yet hungry, relishing each morsel of bread now extended.

Here’s the story. I met my new neighbor, Carol some months ago while walking my dog, Katie. I discovered that she moved to Asheville to work at Mission Hospital as a nurse in the trauma unit. But soon after her move, she broke her leg which, in turn, precipitated early retirement. Without family close by and no mobility, she was left to herself throughout a long winter recovery.

Alone and lonely she accepted the invitation by another neighbor to attend their church. As she was telling the story about attending, her eyes lit up with excitement. She spoke with delight about what she had found at that church — the Jesus “take” on God’s love within a community that fully accepted her beginner’s questions.

I thought to myself — here is a person full of professional competence in her medical field, plus parenting three children into adulthood, yet speaking of a “hole” being filled with a joy she didn’t know she was missing. I was surprised over her surprise as she stood before me with such childlike wonder over a church and its message.

I added, “I know that church well and the pastor, Guy Sayles, is a close friend. Have you come to know him?” “Oh, no,” she quickly responded. “Why, I wouldn’t know what to say. Besides he might ask me a question. You see, I know nothing, absolutely nothing about God or Jesus or the bible. Nothing! I couldn’t approach him. I wouldn’t know what to say?” “Well, how about me going with you?” I offered. “Oh, yes, yes,” she said. “Would you do that?”

So I arranged the appointment. A few days ago Carol and I had our time with Guy.

I wanted you to meet Carol. For those of us too full of religion, she can be our teacher. Carol is  eager. Open. Questioning. Curious. Not knowing. Awed over the Mystery of faith.

For most of my ministry I have come alongside those sorting out their faith, deciding what to keep from their religious upbringing, what to cast aside and what to incorporate in new life-giving ways. That’s been my inner work as well. I am full of knowledge and, with each new book, I attempt to “shoe-horn” some more insight. And I am richer for it as in rich food.

But I also want to be more like Carol — hungry, curious, not-knowing, amazed, with a large hole to be filled. “Kenosis” is the fancy Greek work for “self-emptying,” used in Paul’s Philippian poem about Jesus emptying himself of status, opening himself up to life as it came to him, surrendering himself, even in death, to the surprising, rising movement of Spirit.

In a manner, I am too full. I know it. I live among people very full of themselves, mostly full of exciting ideas, creative insights, and seasoned convictions. But Carol — in her excitement about good news — paradoxically has become for me some good news. She reminds me of the goodness in un-fulfillment. She points me to kenosis, self-emptying. Her hunger calls out and blesses my hunger.

She laughed with denial when I told her that her emptiness was a gift to us. It was another amazement to her. Radical amazement all around.