Friday, May 29, 2015

Blessings, Benedictions and Baptists Learning Weal over Woe: Trinity Sunday 2015

        On some level, when churches go through their seasons of ministry and mission, as times and circumstances change and challenge within the congregation and in the community around them, the gathering of believers have the same opportunity as the early churches of the New Testament times. While churches are filled with people (which means the whole range of what it means to be human is on display, sometimes with gentleness and other times with ferocity), we are also gifted with the benediction Paul granted for Christians, then and now and yet to come.

        The last word of 2 Corinthians is a blessing: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

        What a great benediction! What a great “last word” from Paul, who spent much of the Corinthian correspondence dealing with more issues than most church consultants would want to handle!

       Despite the “last word” before the service ends and the “rest of your day” begins, benedictions are powerful. Sometimes, I find myself wondering what the best “last word” should be to end the service on the right note. Indeed, I may change from what I had planned to say as something (dare I say, the Spirit?) compels me to offer another word instead. The hope is to give, pronounce or impart the word that sends us out on a good note about God, our faith and the “rest of the week” we are about to enter into as we depart worship.

       The English word “benediction” itself does not come directly from Greek or Hebrew. Instead, the word is from the Latin “benedictio”, which morphed into our English word over the passage of time. “Benedictio” honors the biblical concept of blessing or sending forth on a good note, but I found the meaning of “benedictio” in Latin to be quite interesting. It means “a pronouncement of weal”.

        “Weal” is another word we do not use commonly. Hailing from the Middle English period, the word means “for the common good, or the benefit of all”. In other words, to pronounce weal is to grant a word of blessing that goes on and on, meaning that the intent of the blessing is to work equally its way out into the midst of the people. For the Corinthians, they knew woes, as they had afflicted one another with many. After slogging through the tangled knot of their issues (mountains and mole hills alike), Paul gives a good word that shapes Christian community down through the centuries, offering the Trinity’s blessings upon the faithful (yes, even those who would rather toss chairs than hold hands in fellowship!).

       I recall with gladness the experience I had with this benediction in worship while studying in England back in the Spring of 2001. Most British Baptists would end the service with gathering into a circle, joining hands together, and the minister would say, “Let us have the Baptist blessing”.  
       The words, of course, are not solely for Baptists, nor our own intellectual property. The words are from Paul, and somehow took on a liveliness that I missed when folks grabbed their coats and worried about the pot roast at home. The words from 2 Corinthians 13 were recited together, not just by rote or habit. People looked around the fellowship, making eye contact with one another, and together they offered the grace, love, and fellowship of the Trinity around the circle.

        Indeed, it was a pronouncement of weal to one another.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Pentecost Sunday: A Gathering of the Faithful Few or A Time to Receive the Holy Spirit?

This Pentecost Sunday, as I speak to those hardy souls who worship this weekend in the midst of the clamor of options for things "to do", I offer a word on the Spirit, who sees all of the planning and aspirations, confusion and certainties among the faithful followers of Jesus and lights a whole different kind of fire under the church. It's a day when the poor lector has to read all of those tongue twisting names of the nations and languages being suddenly spoken when the mighty Winds of the Spirit reminds them that Jesus wasn't just wanting his gospel to be preached and lived out close to home. 

This is a word for the entire world to hear, and the Spirit ensures that well above the Babel of the languages, everyone hears this good word at the same time, the same place and even in their own dialect! (Honestly, it's a reminder that the UN or even Google Translate has yet to catch up with what the Spirit did two millennia ago!)

From Acts 2 onwards, those who believe in Jesus are never the same. The Day of Pentecost is our day to remember the coming of the Holy Spirit who fills the Church with power to live in and testify to the fullness of the gospel. The Spirit descends to help the believers, still a bit dazed and confused from the events of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and subsequent ascension. From this small gathering shall come forth a movement of people, summoned for ministry and mission, aiming for the fulfillment of Christ’s parting words: “to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The Day of Pentecost serves as a witness to the Church, now two thousand years later, to remember that the winds of the Spirit have yet to quiet down. To understand Pentecost, you must not speak of it as a day long ago, or of the Spirit in a manner that presumes the “work” of the Spirit is done. The Spirit summons the whole people of God to the ministry and mission of the Church, gifting each Christian and calling the many to be “Church”. With the Spirit, Pentecost is the beginning and the winds of the Spirit have yet to die down.

Recently, I read a recent spiritual memoir by Episcopal writer Sara Miles, who coordinates a major food pantry ministry out of her home congregation in San Francisco. Miles is the grand-child of American Baptist missionaries, yet in her own upbringing, she had no connection to Christianity. She shares, “I came late to Christianity, knocked upside down by a midlife conversion centered around a literal chunk of bread.” 

Her previous memoir Take This Bread is a remarkable celebration of how the Eucharist became such a transforming experience for her. She became involved in a food pantry ministry distributing hundreds of pounds of food each week, using the very sanctuary of the Church as the distribution site. The Food Pantry has become a parable for what happens when the Spirit works in the midst of the gathered people. Miles writes, “The immediacy of my conversion experience left me perhaps freakily convinced of the presence of Jesus around me. I hadn’t figured out a neat set of ‘beliefs’, but discovered a force blowing uncontrollably through the world” (Jesus Freak, HarperOne, p. xi.) 

Sara Miles’ books celebrate this unshakable belief that the Spirit is moving in the world. Unfortunately, Miles has discovered in her encounters with churches around the United States, the feeling is not readily shared. When Miles serves as a guest speaker, she notes how many clergy and laity will praise her work with the Food Pantry ministry project or the creative energy that her home congregation is known for, all while claiming that such things are not possible elsewhere, especially in their own parishes. Miles finds the claims of insufficiency disappointing to hear. “What more permission do they need?” she asks her priest. “‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ isn’t enough?” (Jesus Freak, p. 42)

“Receiving the Holy Spirit” runs throughout the Bible, imaged as seemingly “tame” concepts. Trace the presence of the Spirit in the sacred texts, and you will see the Spirit as “dove” empowers Jesus for his ministry, the Spirit as flame ignites the Church for a worldwide mission, and the Spirit as wind can be a gale force wind, bringing new life and renewal to the people of God.

In the history of the faith, Celtic Christianity has an image of the Holy Spirit quite unlike any other. The Celts described the Spirit to be like “a wild goose”: a bird that is unpredictable, chaotic, and really could shake up the fellowship if turned loose in their midst. The Spirit as “wild goose” is a good image as we sometimes talk of the Church needing change or improvement, yet we are unprepared when the Spirit works in a manner that is unpredictable, chaotic, and really shakes up the fellowship. 

I shared this “Spirit as wild goose” image awhile back with a friend, who was just about to start a new ministry position. The other day he received a “welcoming” gift from one of his new congregants. The gift was a “goose call”, sort of a wooden whistle that mimics the sound of a goose. My friend remembered our conversation about the Spirit as wild goose and started laughing. What better sign of a new ministry about to begin, in my friend’s life as well as the life of the congregation he’s about to serve as their new minister?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Book Review: How Do Clergy Learn to Say No and Live to Tell About It

From my book reviewing work with the journal "Sharing the Practice", published quarterly by the Academy of Parish Clergy:  To learn more:


Olsen, David C. and Nancy G. Devor.  Saying No to Say Yes:  Everyday Boundaries and Pastoral Excellence.   Lanham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.  ISBN #978-1-56699-728-7. 
Books abound on clergy professional boundaries, clergy self-care and burn-out awareness and church leadership texts.  The co-authors of Saying No to Say Yes contend that many approaches take at best a partial, though well-meaning look at the challenges of pastoral ministry. 
What is missing often is the fuller exploration of the less publicized yet everyday depletion of a pastor’s energy and wherewithal.  The pastor’s fall from professional integrity could come after years of unhealthy, poorly maintained understandings of the self.  In turn, the complex systems within even a small membership congregation can be the undoing of a minister unable to navigate and lead objectively within a church membership, which in itself is rarely a non-anxious and functional organization.  The authors emphasize “how the minister defines himself or herself within the congregational system and how the system responds” (p. 63).  
The book is organized into five short chapters.  In the opening chapter “The Problem with Boundaries”, the co-authors guide you through the development of clergy boundary literature and methods, highlighting the timely and “products of their time” insights of the last forty years of how the issues were understood and addressed.  Suggesting greater results and long-term health will be found by setting limits in anxious systems (i.e. churches), Olsen and Devor encourage clergy to “say ‘no’ to what depletes their health and the health of their congregation in order to say ‘yes’ to the attitudes, knowledge and skills that promote pastoral excellence and contribute to the overall health of the pastor, the pastor’s family and the congregation” (p. 20).
The second chapter addresses the need for “healthy selves and boundaries”.  Introducing the self-psychology work of Heinz Kohut, the authors examine what happens when we lose or blur our sense of self through over- and under-compensating for the demands on our time and energy as well as the multiple ways a congregant expects a minister to fulfill some need or role.  The authors ground ministry and the clergy with the admonition
to temper our sense of call with reality:  knowing ourselves well enough to know where our selves falter, where we need shoring up, where we are vulnerable.  Without such tempering, our calls can collude with our grandiosity.   We may see ourselves as special, as being above rules, not requiring the self-care and boundaries to protect us. (p. 34)
Conversely, some clergy find themselves at the ebb of low self-esteem, leading to other likely opportunities for depletion and a weakened sense of self (p. 35).
The next three chapters build on these insights, exploring issues of boundaries in anxious systems, especially when systems collide inevitably with even the most resilient, well maintained boundaries we put in place.  Anxiety in congregations often turns to scapegoating, and as I like to joke, “Clergy should shop at Target instead of being one.”  
The authors emphasize the importance of congregations maintaining their own equilibrium in the form of pastoral relations committees and other ways of promoting congregational communication and self-reflection.  Often, in my judicatory work, the church lay leaders can be unaware of the toxicity they themselves are taking on in the midst of a conflict or unsettled, anxious time.  Keeping a better balance between “pastor and people” will require this book to be less reading “just for pastors” and shared with more leadership.  Anxiety and how to handle it is a life skill sorely needed well beyond the sometimes pedantic, inward turned issues of a congregation. 
Skills to identify and regulate one’s immersion in the anxiety of a congregation is explored through brief antidotal insights from clergy dealing with cantankerous leaders and uncertain times that spring up when we seem to be at our lowest ebb.  (How many times does it seem that Advent or even Holy Week is suddenly when the unanticipated demands escalate on a pastor?)  The benefits of a robust level of emotional intelligence are recommended, though I wish there could have been more time spent on this by the authors.  (Perhaps a future text on the subject waits.)
Later chapters address the pastoral excellence movement fostered by the Lilly Foundation over a decade ago.   Clergy collegiality groups, special emphasis programs at leading divinity schools and seminaries and a bevy of books on related subjects have flowered out of such concern.  Yet, for many clergy and churches, these learnings are still being discovered, let alone integrated into the life of the church.   For example, a few years ago, I shared a few pages of one such book with my former church’s pastoral relations committee.  None of the committee members had read the short excerpt, which was quite demoralizing for me at the time.  Looking back, I realize now that cultivating pastoral excellence is indeed like gardening in that I had not really grasped some of the learnings yet and made them my own practice and habits.  In my naiveté, I had not understood the longer conversation and process that needed to be developed for anything approaching what that book’s authors or even this book’s authors recommended.
Each chapter ends with excellent reflection questions that I recommend are slowly considered, especially in private and group reflection.  Also, two appendices are offered to suggest ways for a workshop to be presented around the book’s findings and tips for organizing a clergy collegiality group. Olsen and Devor recommend that an ecumenically diverse group with a gifted facilitator inform the model for such an undertaking.  Certainly, working with colleagues who also do not have similar polity or judicatory connections with one another may invite deeper reflection as your sense of true “peerage” with one another is not complicated by working alongside pastors from your own fold. The bibliography is likewise a helpful guide to future reading and growth in understanding elements of Olsen/Devor’s engagement of varied sources.
Olsen and Devor explore these issues with long careers in service to churches and pastors as therapists and clergy themselves.  They write with a profound understanding of what it’s like “in the trenches” while engaging in an exploration of the findings of psychology, systems theory and recent writings on pastoral excellence.  Olsen serves as Executive Director of the Samaritan Counseling Center of the Capital Region (Schenectady, New York) and Devor is senior staff psychologist at the Danielsen Institute at Boston University.  Both are frequent presenters on these issues for clergy groups and judicatories.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Tall Order

In the midst of John's gospel we read these words of Jesus (John 15:9-17):

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.

I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.


In the history of Christianity, one could suggest such a gospel teaching as noted above helps us understand when the Church was about following Jesus and when it got off track following itself.  

I read this text from John 15 and marvel at its beauty, a wonderful example of John's Gospel waxing eloquent.  As I work with pastors and church leaders and recall my own upbringing and pastoral ministry within congregations, I also realize how this commandment to "love one another as I have loved you" really lays bare the memories of church meetings where "passive aggressive behavior" was more the watch word.   Heavens, I remember coming home from denominational meetings years ago, and it would take me a few days to feel sufficiently recovered from some of the agendas vying for attention while the official agenda gamely tried to keep us about the ministry and mission of the gathered people.  

Such experiences remind me to be in the midst of the people, yet to try as best as I can, to be the one calling us back to the gentler voice of Jesus, whose mercy is far greater, whose justice far fairer, and whose patience certainly outlasts my--and our--own.  To love one another is hard enough.  To love one another as Christ loves us....that's a tall order!

"You did not choose me, but I chose you.  And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last...."    As I hear these words, again with the fullness of John's gospel, celebrating the abundance of Christ, the Bread of Life, the Vine making branches out of our otherwise bramble, I also remember that in the midst of the church's day to day struggle with bills and anxieties, tempest in a teapot moments and sometimes mystifying agility in making mole hills seem far more like mountains, Jesus did call each of us, gently by our name as a shepherd knows his sheep.  

John's gospel is often considered ethereal, up in the heavens in its lofty language rather than earthy and plainspoken like the other three Gospels.  Yet I find myself back in John's pages as I grow deeper in my faith, finding certain treasure in its languid passages and turns of phrase.  While John's gospel has a negative history of interpretation justifying anti-Semitic practices (i.e. I still cringe even with the NRSV's unexplained, without caveat use of the phrase "the Jews"), I take great stock in the words of Jesus as told herein, a reminder that in the midst of the world and its complexities, Jesus became flesh, dwelled among us and taught us (if we'd only listen) to the just, abundant and lively way of the Gospel.