Friday, June 3, 2016

Enduring Well

Throughout the Book of Acts and other lore left to us in the writings of early Christian theologians, preachers and church leaders, the early Church indeed inspires us, yet we must remember they too were just as human as you and me. The temptation to give up and run the other way crossed their minds as well and all too often. Sticking it out for the sake of the Cross asks much of us, which is why Christians have down throughout the centuries found it helpful and grounding to be together in worship and in ministry together.

In the midst of such times, the epistle of James speaks boldly of keeping the faith and trusting God. In the introductory section, the epistle says at the outset:

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)

The epistle refers to God as the One who “gives to all generously and ungrudgingly”. Such language reminds me of a hymn I used in worship planning for stewardship: “God Whose Giving Knows No Ending”. The epistle connects this giving with the Christian who will ask without letting doubt overcome them.

Keeping up one’s trust in God is hard work, yet it yields a long term dividend, with the full benefits of a wise life lived before the Lord and not just when emergency or our personal convenience needs it! In the main section of James before us this morning, you find a familiar refrain also echoed in the Sermon on the Mount. In short, we are told “let your ‘yes’ be your ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be your ‘no’.”

Whatever decision is before us, with the right level of focus on God and keeping trust in God alone, we are able to say wisely what the wiser choice is indeed and without any temptation to change our mind and go a different direction. I find in working with churches facing changes that this sort of thinking is needed. Change in churches can come in many forms. Sometimes, it can be a positive change, yet mostly change heightens our sense of anxiety and uncertainty. We operate more out of emotion than rationale, and sometimes, we spend twice the time reacting against change than learning how to adapt and move forward. We will find ourselves saying “Yes” or “No” willy-nilly, looking for whatever makes the change go away and leave us alone, but it is not quite the same as grounding yourself in God and the trust that comes with it.

Pastors have to learn this early on, as dealing with the complexities of pastoring a congregation and having appropriate time to do other things (i.e. at least catch a breath or two in between running different directions every day). A recent book on pastoral ministry (and staying sane at the same time) takes the wisdom of saying “Yes” and “No” well quite seriously. To fellow pastors, the authors say that it is important 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)

What is said of pastors here can also be said of congregations when dealing with change. The Region works with churches with varying issues, but often they are around change at hand and few willing to understand and process what that change means for the church. Often, churches tell stories about their ministry where they seem to run between crises, without much chance for a sense of “normal” to be felt and experienced.

 That’s one reason that I suggest when a church calls me in to talk about a big picture issue (mission, money, clergy transition, conflict, etc.), I ask for the gathering to take place around a meal. It’s helpful to sit down and do something very basic, common and indeed important to what it means to be human: eat a good meal and not be “all business”, which means that people can relax and then be invited to talk about issues that have gotten them concerned in a way that says, “Peace be still”.

I also find that the more church members encourage one another to take a steady view of the future being full of the unknown, the more the congregants can help put the puzzle pieces together and see the “big picture” of what is needed. Again, it is a form of saying that our “Yes” when said will count for something, because we have taken up the question before us and made a more solid answer than “I dunno” or acting like we got to find the “magic bullet” that will save the church in its time of crisis or concern.

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