Thursday, February 18, 2016

Nourishment in the Desert (Luke 4:1-13)

This Lent, I commend to you heartily the work of Belden Lane, whose fine book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes offers some fine reflections on Christian spirituality, interspersing stories drawn from his own life.  At first glance, the two types of stories he shares seem a bit distant.  One strand of narrative involves the act of being on pilgrimage.  The other strand revolves around our mortality, particularly through Lane’s memories of sitting at his dying mother’s bedside.  Lane weaves these two strands together: pilgrimage and mortality, helping his reader with some sage thoughts about faith, life, and those things that often distract us from the way of following Christ.

At various points of the book, he shares reflections of persons traveling (himself included) to remote places in the world to experience some form of spiritual pilgrimage.  These journeys take you far from places visited by the average tourist, out into the places that most of us would term inhospitable or lonely.  Out into the desert or somewhere in the mountain range, Belden Lane observes one is confronted with the vastness of the wilderness.  Along the way, the pilgrim traveler encounters glimpses of the divine, often in ways difficult to predict or anticipate.  In such places, “the divine preference for self-disclosure in space is declared to be an austere, deserted, feral terrain” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, p. 47).

For centuries, various Christian individuals and religious orders withdraw intentionally away, seeking God in places less urbanized or developed.  In our Baptist traditions, we rarely speak of withdrawing away from things.  We tend to be a fairly noisy, “in the midst of the fray” kind of Protestant people.  Thus, the stories of monastic movements in the history of Christianity tend not to be history we rehearse and recall. Nonetheless, in reading of such history, I suspicion you and I might find something we have longed for and appreciate: a deepening sense of God’s presence in the world and our lives.  We yearn, even when unaware, for something more to our lives than the hectic, near chaotic pace of work, keeping up a household, raising children, tending elders, dealing with our bills, and wondering where the day has gone by the time we finally feel like it is “safe” to unwind, and the clock says “10 PM”.

Now that you mention it, a trip to somewhere where you can be alone sounds quite appealing….

Off in the lonely places, Jesus lived for forty days. One might think this a bit of a letdown after the great celebration just beforehand.  Read the gospel again, and the opening chapters of Luke are one big celebration of Jesus.  The Nativity story of Luke resounds with songs of praise.  At his baptism, Jesus is proclaimed as the one greater than John the Baptist.  The voice of God comes from heaven above, declaring Jesus the divine and beloved Son.  The Spirit descends upon him. And just for extra measure to establish Jesus’ credentials, Luke’s gospel inserts a genealogy after the baptism, showing Jesus’ worthy ancestors.  So why does the gospel writer tell this story of Jesus out in the wilderness?   Just as the story builds up steam, Luke has Jesus take forty days away.

Beyond the biblical narrative, why would a time of withdrawal make sense when everything’s pointing toward success?  A reader versed with the financial or political world would be confused by this story.  Why does Jesus go off far away?  He’s just been proclaimed to have the right pedigree, the best resume, and even the “Big Boss” giving a good word.  Jesus gets all of this glory, and what’s he do?  He heads out to….nowhere.

Out in the desert, Jesus spent time withdrawn from people and the basic comforts, if not needs, of life.  He endures out in the midst of a place not for the faint of heart, making John the Baptist’s frugal existence of hair shirts and locusts with honey look positively opulent.  Luke’s telling of the story has Jesus out there for forty days, echoing another era of the Bible as Israel wanders in the wilderness for forty years.  When the Devil shows up, this is the first time Jesus has encountered somebody else for forty days.  I imagine Jesus, quite weary from the relative lack of sleep, fluids, and food, wondering at first if he is hallucinating this figure standing before him.  The first temptation alone (turn stones into bread) would bend, if not break, many of us right off, after three plus weeks away from a decent meal.

The gospels tell this story as a way of demonstrating Jesus’ commitment and obedience to God.  Do not gloss over Luke’s especial emphasis to the forty-day period, for it evidences the sort of discipline Jesus undertakes.  The forty days are just as difficult as the temptations to follow.  Withdrawing to be alone, voluntarily taking leave of one’s comforts is a hard decision to keep, let alone make.  What happens out in those remote places in the desert or in the mountains might be unsettling, far more than losing the assurances of three meals a day and a decent bed at night.

In our day, Belden Lane observes, “Wild places are uncompanionable to the qualmish, to those compulsively anxious to please.” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, p. 43) A wilderness experience allows a person to see without distraction the things that keep us from living more fully or obscure our devotion to God.  Lane reminds us of Saint Jerome, a third-century Christian, who said, “The desert loves to strip bare” (p. 23).

Withdrawing allows one to focus, “strip[ping] bare” who we are and what we presume is most important or pressing in our lives.  After forty days and forty nights, Jesus is weak in his physical deprivations, yet as it is said, that which challenges strengthens.  He is offered three temptations that have increasing degrees of enticement:  food to eat, power over the world, and finally to challenge God for power.  Each temptation challenges Jesus to exercise his power, to take the easier path.  Jesus refuses each one, which again, by the general measure of the world, would be increasingly foolish.  “If you have power, use it!” the world would say.  Jesus could have done any of these three things, yet he did not.  Jesus not only refuses, he refutes the very thought of being tempted to stray from God’s ways.

In the forty-day period away, Jesus experienced the fruitfulness of the wilderness.  He claims his authority in its proper use and understanding.  Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is said to live and minister by an authority that is from God, not derived by his own devising or grasping.  Jesus will minister to those whom society and religion alike have deemed lesser people.  Jesus speaks truth to the powers of Empire and Temple.

The opposite of the Devil, the one who has fallen from the heavens above, Jesus remains grounded in his radical trust of God.  Jesus will derive his authority from God, not by any means necessary.  The desert has stripped him bare, just as surely as the desert would any of the rest of us.  In his sojourn among the fierce landscape, Jesus emerges resolved in his faithfulness and goes onward to live out this calling to proclaim the Kingdom of God at hand.  Rather than draining him, the desert experience nourishes him.

In turn, this story becomes a challenge and an invitation to the reader. For the gospel writers, the story of Jesus in the wilderness and the temptations that test him also serve as stories to challenge the disciple.  While we might never climb a mountain or travel far across a desert, the fierce landscapes still await us in the midst of our lives.  We need times away to be stripped down, to face our issues and to examine ourselves before God.  The “fierce landscape” may come in that day spent away from work, clearing your head while letting the noise of life drift off.  The “fierce landscape” may be the time as Belden Lane discovered, while sitting in an anti-septic smelling hospital room, keeping vigil and companionship with a loved one as they die.

The fierce landscape, whether desert or mountain, is that place where you feel pared down, made to take a hard look at who you really are and whether or not God is there in the midst of your life.  You will know these times for their fierceness, the way they make you feel apart or adrift.  Yet in that ferocity, the journey will be well worth it, strengthening you as surely as it challenges.  As Belden Lane reminds,

In early Christian tradition, the desert was perceived ambiguously, usually as an unfriendly, intimidating domain; but for those able to endure its purifying adversity, an image also of paradise.  If desert terrors can be sustained as the self is laid bare under its harsh scrutiny, dry land becomes an avenue of hope (Lane, p. 43)

Monday, February 8, 2016

Brueggemann on Ash Wednesday

During the season of Lent, we are encouraged to consider giving up something or taking up another.  We do so in the hope that this denial or this challenge will led us toward a change or awakening to something within us and deepening our journey with God.

As Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, I looked for a prayer that would help focus me on the day and I share it with you.  Dr. Walter Brueggemann is a retired seminary professor and greater preacher.  In more recent years, publishers have helped us find out what his classroom students already knew:  Walter writes incredible prayers for the classroom as well as the pulpit.  Below is a prayer he offered for Ash Wednesday:

Marked by Ashes
Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day . . .This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
     halfway back to committees and memos,
     halfway back to calls and appointments,
     halfway on to next Sunday,
     halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
     half turned toward you, half rather not.
This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
   but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
     we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
       of failed hope and broken promises,
       of forgotten children and frightened women,
     we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
     we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.
We are able to ponder our ashness with
   some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
   anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.
On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
   you Easter parade of newness.
   Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
     Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
     Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
   Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
     mercy and justice and peace and generosity.
We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon. 
SOURCE: Prayers for a Privileged People  (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008), pp. 27-28.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Sabbaticals: Developing a How to Resource (in progress)

Can we learn how to use the "pause" button on ministry?
Part of my Regional Ministry work is serving as a resource for church leaders and clergy.  Over the past few months, I have fielded requests from pastors and congregations about sabbaticals.  Some pastors call in the midst of a season of ministry, aware that they are in need of replenishment and reflection.  Others are starting to talk with churches about a new call and want some advice about how to set up a sabbatical.
For my home team (aka "the Baptists"), sabbaticals are a newer concept.  As we are not a tradition that provides standards that must be adhered to when setting up a pastoral call, the local church, especially its search committee and key lay leaders, often feel in unfamiliar territory considering such a request.

I am working on a resource based on the various conversations and my own reading of what's out there for "best practices".   Below is a summary of the rationale for a sabbatical as a healthy part of a minister's calling and its aiding of the longevity of a pastor/congregational relationship.  It is a work in progress, but I thought I would share a few thoughts for your comments.  You can leave your suggestions and queries in the "comment" box below.


Sabbath keeping is often the most difficult part of pastoral ministry, yet taking time away from ministry is modeled by Jesus who often withdrew for times of prayer even in the midst of the demands of his own preaching, healing and teaching.  Taking time away routinely on a weekly and annual basis helps deepen our ministry by allowing us to step away and spend time for rest, renewal and retooling ourselves as pastors and members of our own household.
The best “ABCUSA” related resource about sabbatical planning is offered by the ABCUSA Ministers Council.  You can read their policy framework suggestions via:
In terms of negotiating the sabbatical understanding with a candidate, some suggested talking points:

1)            All parties (including the congregation!) understand that sabbaticals are not frivolous or “extra vacation”.  Sabbaticals are a time of rest, renewal and professional development, hopefully with a project/outcome in mind to help hone and build the pastor’s skills while she or he is away from the rigors of ministry.
2)            Quantifying the number of years served until a sabbatical is earned is helpful to determine sooner than later.  Traditionally (if Baptists can ever be “traditional”), the sabbatical could come for a longer period of several months after six full years of service.  Some find it helpful to offer a sabbatical every few years (3-4 years) with the time being a little shorter due to more frequency.
3)            Determining the sabbatical’s details when you are one year out from the period of time to be given is helpful.  Working out what the church will do to relieve fully the minister from any official duties is just as important as ensuring the minister has some structured understanding of how to use the time wisely. 

4)            Some pastors and congregations apply for and access funding from various sources to help with doing a bigger type of sabbatical.  These may or may not be available, given when special incentives are offered by denominations or entities like the Lilly Foundation.  The church should be prepared to carry the pastor at full compensation, benefits, and suspend things that the pastor should not be needing to claim for ministry expenses (i.e. reimbursement for mileage, as they shouldn’t be doing pastoral care/travel related to parish needs).  Some grants are out there, if you are so lucky, to have funds additional to cover the time for a “sabbatical pastor” to tend to the preaching, care, etc. during the pastor’s time away.  Some churches may choose to have individuals take different aspects of this work (i.e. somebody to preach only with pastoral care handled by the congregants, etc., etc.).
5)            The other typical provision is the minister agrees to return from sabbatical and not have used the time to look for other calls.  The minister should be ready to stay one year at minimum beyond the end date of a sabbatical.
(NOTE:  The rest of the resource I am developing will look at the funding opportunities for ABC clergy and different venues, particularly of interest to pastors serving in upstate New York.)