Monday Brief: Consequences

The Monday Brief is a weekly blog series in which I reflect on my experience of the liturgy and pastoral ministry over the weekend. While it is primarily oriented toward pastors and lay congregational leaders, there will likely be something for everyone in it. I do draw on my past experience and occasionally reference my current pastoral assignment for case studies and examples; however, no names are used for the sake of confidentiality and respect.

A majority of the readings for the Narrative Lectionary this year have an historical context in or around the exile of the Israelites into Babylonian captivity. I’ve spent a significant portion of this fall preaching from texts that are asking the question, “What happens now?” The Israelites believed God had abandoned them, and they saw little hope. Through priests and prophets, they (and we) are given some wondrous compilations of stories and words of promise that remind all of us that God has not left anyone alone. Restoration will eventually come.

As I went through this weekend in pastoral ministry, preaching in the liturgy and engaging in a number of other important tasks, I found myself thinking about consequences. The Israelites’ position as an exiled people was the direct result of their poor behavior choices. They stole from the poor, they committed gross injustices against the needy, they made unwise political alliances with neighboring nations, and they ignored the words of Torah to be a people of peace, mercy, and hospitality.

What were their intentions, though? Did they believe their actions were wrong or immoral as they committed them? I was reminded while I was preaching on Sunday of a scene from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine when a character, Jake, a young aspiring writer, follows around Quark, a businessman who engages in shady and under-the-table dealings. Jake tells Quark that he is having a hard time creating a nefarious character who is believable. Quark responds with, “Lesson number one. No one involved in an extralegal activity thinks of themselves as nefarious.”

The Israelites likely believed they were doing what was good, honorable, in the best interest of themselves and others, and that which was pleasing and honoring to God. And we, like the Israelites, almost always believe that, if our intentions are good, God will be on our side. And for all the times I’ve heard in various congregations that God looks at the heart, we are almost always confronted with the result of our choices, whether positive or negative. Regardless of their intentions, and whether you believe that the punishment of exile came from God’s parental hand or from the poor political and social decisions the leadership made over centuries, the Israelites’ exile was a consequence of choice.

When Advent is observed as a mirror season to Lent and approached as a time of confession and lamentation, we are provided an opportunity to liturgically recognize that our actions may have unintended consequences that hurt others and ourselves. We hear the Word proclaimed to us and we confess our sin. These confessions may be deeply personal, or focus on broad societal wrongs in which we are complicit, or be worded generously to provide open space for us to come to terms with what we’ve done and said in the recesses of our existence. In the end, though, our response to these stories of a people grappling with the consequences of poor choices should be one of introspection and humility. And, as we discover in those Old Testament texts, the exile was necessary for Israel to come to terms with the choices they made.

On Friday I shared with you that I went into this weekend hopeful, knowing that Christ waits longingly for us to arrive in worship. Today’s reflection does not negate that great hope because we are not left alone when we are confronted with the results of choices. The words of the prophets always end with promises of restoration and hope, just as our confessions of sin in the liturgy should always end with assurances of God’s great and wondrous grace. An admittance of failure is never a death sentence; it is an honest self-assessment and the beginning of a journey toward healing. The Israelites emerged from exile and went home. We can, too.

As pastors and worship leaders, as humans, we make many choices that impact our own lives and the lives of people around us. While our intentions may never be nefarious or selfish, we must own and accept how our actions ripple beyond us and often return to us. It’s part of following Jesus and it’s part of being human.

Friday Forward: Hope

The Friday Forward are my reflections on the week in ministry that will propel me into pastoral care through the liturgy on Sunday. While it is primarily oriented toward pastors and lay congregational leaders, there will likely be something for everyone in it. I do draw on my past experience and occasionally reference my current pastoral assignment for case studies and examples; however, no names are used for the sake of confidentiality and respect.

Church leadership is a difficult task. There are times when, as a pastor or congregational leader, you are given the opportunity to walk with persons in great joy and excitement over a new job, a new baby, a marriage, a season of fruitfulness in their life. You are also given the responsibility of helping those entrusted to you carry heavy burdens of loss, grief, sorrow, and pain. You know and experience the full range of human emotions and speak into those moments the spirituality of grace and hope. As congregational leaders we offer very little tangible assistance to those in need; our role is one of listening.

The liturgy is a place for that listening. The liturgy, when formed in its biblical spirituality of word and table, call and response, mystery and wonder, becomes a holy time and a holy space for the word of our human existence to encounter the word of God’s divine and surprising hope. This is the liturgy’s cruciformity: it is the place where Jesus is found.

For many years I bristled at the notion of worship as therapy. I served a large evangelical congregation in suburban Philadelphia as the pastor of worship and arts, overseeing four weekly services and a music and arts program with over 100 volunteers. That congregation’s model for worship, its philosophy for what happened when its people gathered, was that the world was a deeply painful and hurting place, so worship needed to be a place of hope. But I was rarely afforded the opportunity to lead that congregation in confession or lament, to name the difficulties of life that plagued so many. Worship was an escape, a temporary way of relieving the symptoms of a decaying and debilitating life.

In the years since my service to that congregation I have come to view their philosophy as partially true: worship is a place of hope. But in order for worship to be a place of hope, we must be willing to accept the space to name the reason for our hopelessness and listen for God’s response. Lament and confession are necessary and crucial parts of our liturgical existence. Joy without an acknowledgement of pain is Easter without Good Friday; it is a denial of our very humanity. We need both.

During this Advent season, my current congregation is following a pattern with other congregations around the world in observing an extended 7-week Advent to mirror the 7 weeks of Lent. We are using it as a time of confession, lament, and preparation for the celebration of Christ’s becoming one of us. This week in my ministry among my elder team I experienced the “liturgy beyond the liturgy,” as our Eastern siblings say. We dealt with a very difficult subject which we lamented. In our own ways of conversation and being present with each other, I could see a common confession raised from us. And in those moments of recognition of the difficult work we do, I knew we were finding hope. We listened, deeply, to each other and heard the Spirit speaking. There was promise that the goodness of God will, in the end, prevail.

I go into this weekend’s work in the liturgy hopeful. I am hopeful because I know that the liturgy is a space where my longings and hurts are met with the soothing balm of Word and Table. I will join with brothers and sisters in naming my brokenness, my fears, my anxieties, but I will not escape them. With the help of the congregation that gathers, the church leaders that support, the communion of saints that surrounds, and the sweet song of Christ who sings over us, I will find my place in the everlasting hope of the world-to-come that is healing the world-of-the-now.

We cannot do this without the liturgy. We need this resurrection morning and its time-honored rituals to name, to listen, to long, to hope, and to receive. It is not something we can ever fully do by ourselves. So let us, dear friends, enter this Advent Sunday ready to be transformed by the Christ who waits in holy longing for us even as we wait for him. And may our mutual waiting inspire in us the hope of peace.

Monday Brief: The Bottom Line

The Monday Brief is a weekly blog series in which I reflect on my experience of the liturgy and pastoral ministry over the weekend. While it is primarily oriented toward pastors and lay congregational leaders, there will likely be something for everyone in it. I do draw on my past experience and occasionally reference my current pastoral assignment for case studies and examples; however, no names are used for the sake of confidentiality and respect.

I have served in some form of a pastoral capacity since 2003, though I was not officially licensed into ministry until August 2004. I have served in congregations ranging in size from 10 to 1,000 members, with a variety of theological and denominational backgrounds – Baptist, non-denominational evangelical, Church of the Brethren, and now progressive Mennonite. There are many good and fruitful similarities in practice between each of the parishes I’ve served that have shaped me into the pastoral leader I am today. One of the ugly things about nearly every congregation I’ve served, however, is the focus on “the bottom line.”

Most churches in the United States function in an organizational capacity, incorporated in their state as a non-profit entity. This affords the congregation a certain legal and financial standing, such as the ability to receive donations that are tax-deductible for the giver and not taxed as profit by the church. There are some real benefits to this type of organizational function for the church, but there are also some very damaging drawbacks, the most significant of which is the focus by some on whether the church is growing. Growth, here, is not identified by the number of people who are being reached by the good news of God’s shalom, who then participate in worship and common life because of the transformation and love they are experiencing. Growth in this context is the ability to grow the baseline of the church’s profit margin. If we bring in more than we spend, it’s a good year. If we bring in less than we spend, it’s a bad year. The bottom line, and by extension the most important message conveyed, is that the church is about money.

I have served only one congregation that didn’t operate this way. My very first work in pastoral ministry was as the pastor’s associate focusing on college students and youth with a congregation of 30-40 persons in rural Arkansas. I was paid $50 a week for the 10-12 hours of work I invested. It was hard work, but very rewarding. As one of the church’s leaders, I participated in the monthly leadership meetings where pastoral care, worship, and other items were addressed. As part of the meeting we also went over the financial state of the church. I will never forget an older gentleman, a stalwart in the congregation for decades, who always said the same thing to us each meeting in his thick southern accent as he went over the church’s bills he had paid that month: “Since God gave us this money, we should spend it. It ain’t ours to keep.” That congregation never kept a reserve for savings; they gave what needed to be given and spent whatever was given on the ministry of the church. Each month they started fresh with virtually nothing in their bank account. At the time I thought it foolish; now, 14 years later, I’m realizing it to be remarkable in its adherence to faith in God’s provision. I never witnessed that church fight about money. They talked about worship, the bible, and spent so much of their business meetings in prayer and song that you wouldn’t have thought it was a business meeting at all. They taught me more about the true nature of church than perhaps any other congregation.

I thought about them this weekend as I presided over Holy Eucharist in my progressive Mennonite congregation, chuckling on the inside of how my life has changed and how these two congregations could not be more different. For some reason, as I raised the bread and broke it, then looked down at the cup, the flickering candles, and the baptismal font, I was drawn back to that congregation for a brief moment. They would sing an old setting of Psalm 23, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” They acted as though they genuinely believed God would provide for every need, because in that poor rural congregation, God did. They didn’t really have the money to pay me, but every week enough came in to the offering plate to make it all work out. They invested in me because it was important to them. And I am forever grateful for all they taught me.

While I am not the same person I was 14 years ago when I served them, I will always be reminded of their understanding of the bottom line: faith. And as I celebrated the Holy Eucharist, and we sang our hymns so different from their southern gospel hymns, and I preached to a group of urbanites far from the dusty roads of rural Arkansas, I was carried into a place of hope. The bottom line for a congregation should always be faith, a hope of remembrance that God has provided and that God will continue to provide. That, after all, is the message of the Eucharist. We get our daily bread, enough for the day, and like the ancient Israelites, perhaps we are best off if we don’t keep the leftover manna out of fear of what will happen tomorrow. God has provided, and God will continue to provide.

Maybe, then, the Eucharist and the story of manna and the faith of rural Arkansas baptists could shape the church’s approach to all areas of ministry. God gives; will we trust God to give again? For whether it’s money or love or compassion or presence, it is a gift. And, dear friends, it ain’t ours to keep.

Friday Forward: Confidence

Similar to the new “Monday Brief” series which will reflect upon my thinking throughout the course of pastoral care in the liturgy, I hope to offer the pastors and worship leaders who read this blog a bit of encouragement each Friday as you look forward to your work. As always, this blog reaches an audience of around 500 from a variety of traditions, so take what is appropriate to you and feel free to discard the rest.

I spent time this week with four different pastors in various settings, and the tenor of our conversations centered around confidence. In my previous post, I reflected upon an article in The Mennonite in which the authors talk about toxicity in congregations, particularly from chronic negative behavior that is unaddressed. The article discussed the high cost of such negativity on the mental health, emotional stability, and self-esteem of pastors in their work.

As I listened to these various pastors talk, and I thought about my own journey and my current spiritual state, I was disheartened by the lack of self-confidence in so many pastors (myself included). We have been targeted, destructively criticized, publicly shamed, and carry the weight of deep emotional hurt from so many in our congregations, all the while feeling constrained to stand up for ourselves against those who bully us and others. While this demonstrates the need for strong support from strong lay leaders, and for healthy boundaries and self-care when dealing with parishioners and personal growth, it reveals the undercurrent of our lack of self-confidence in carrying out our God-appointed task: fear.

I look ahead toward many Sundays with fear, and my dear pastor and worship leader friends, I know you do, too. We are afraid that, in the doing of the work God has called us to do – comforting, correcting, proclaiming, unsettling, challenging – we lay ourselves open to more attacks, more destruction, more hurt. And, for some of you, I know that you lay yourselves open to the possibility of being forcibly terminated. The fear of a loss of income, loss of credibility, loss of your home oftentimes determine whether you say what needs to be said. These are real and legitimate fears. And sometimes, you are simply afraid of being hurt one more time by persons who never change their behavior. So we guard ourselves and shrink from our work as spiritual fathers and mothers to our people.

The most commonly repeated sentiment in the Bible is some variation of “do not be afraid.” I personally preach on this often in our current political and cultural climate, both with the ongoing military conflicts and the violence and vitriol in our civil discourse. Fear is a powerful emotion, perhaps the most powerful we have. It is evolutionary; it is sometimes impossible for us to not be afraid of someone or something that holds the potential to wound or destroy us.

The narrative lectionary text for this Sunday from which I will be preaching is the story of the three men in the book of Daniel who are cast into the fiery furnace for refusing to pay homage to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue. Their response in the face of real physical threat is remarkable: if our God can save us, we will be saved; if not, we will still not bow down. I do not doubt they were afraid. But in the midst of their potential fear, they stood up and said what needed to be said. They were confident in the face of fear.

Pastors and worship leaders, I know your anxiety and I stand in solidarity with you in your fear. But be empowered. Be bold. Do not hold back from the work to which you have been called out of fear. Comfort those who need comforting, discipline those who need to be disciplined, and proclaim the good news that challenges and uproots every part of our lives. It is not ego or arrogance for you to be confident in your work. It is following the example of Jesus.

So, I will do my best to be confident in my work this weekend, no matter how scary it may feel or how hot the flames from the furnace feel against my face. Will you try, too? We may get hurt, but at least we will have been faithful. And in the end, that’s what matters most.