INTERIM PASTOR’S PONDERINGS October 2018
It has been a little over two weeks since the sudden death of our oldest son in a head-on collision. My brian is still often on “Pause,” and at times I find myself unable to concentrate or focus. I know all about grief and grieving intellectually and from a pastoral perspective. And I’ve been through it on the other side as well. But everyone grieves differently, and no two losses are experienced the same. So it’s a strange, unsettled time in many ways. But I’m trying to be open to learning something through this experience. I think there is always something to be learned if you are open to new insights. So I am trying to stay open and listen to that whisper of the Spirit to my heart. The process cannot be cut short. It must be lived through because that is the only way to the other side. We’ve just begun that dark journey, but we believe we will eventually emerge into the light again. Pray for us and for our children and grandchildren and other family members.
We also want thank you for the many ways you have already ministered to us during this difficult time. The many messages in many forms (texts, Facebook posts, cards, phone calls) have reminded us that you were with us in our journey. Your prayers and expressions of loss and grief and concern were sources of comfort on more levels than you can know and held us up. The flowers from the church were a reminder of your love even though we were hundreds of miles away. Ruth and Trish checked in with me almost every day, just to see how we were doing and to offer prayers and any assistance they could. When we arrived back home, drained and weary, several of you brought an evening meal for us to get us through those first days without having to worry about preparing a meal that we often didn’t even want to eat, but needed. And the face-to-face comments and hugs in recent days have continued to comfort us. For all of this, and more, we are grateful to God for you and all these expressions of love and support. We will not forget them, or you.
We are on another journey together. The journey through this Intentional Interim period. Unlike my journey through the process of grieving the loss of our son, our journey is now nearing the final the final destination. Whether that is a matter of weeks or months, it is on the near horizon. I find it particularly appropriate that our texts for the month of October are
all from Mark 10, Mark’s description of Jesus and his followers leaving Galilee and beginning that journey to Judea and to the climactic ending of Jesus’ ministry. Along the way, Jesus wanted his disciples to understand more fully and become committed more completely to life in the Kingdom of God that was breaking through around and in them. This would come to be known simply as “the Way” by those earlier followers. Jesus’ way of living and loving and serving. The Way to which he called each of them to live. So it was a critical time of preparation and teaching. I hope we can focus on those same things during October as we hare that journey with Jesus and his disciples. I hope you will be with us for this journey. As I’ve been painfully reminded, we need one another to walk life’s journey and remain faithful to the Way of Jesus.
My wife joins me in expressing our gratitude:
Dear Friends at Calvary Hill,
Just a note to thank you for your kindness in the death of our son. The cards, messages, food and words of condolence meant so very much to us. The flowers were beautiful. The comfort from friends means so very much. We appreciate all your acts of comfort.
Jerry and Gerry Sue
In the August Update, I called for CHBC to enter into a season of prayer for the process of identifying God’s person for your next Pastor. I also said that we would kick that off on September 2, but other things filled up the service and that was overlooked as a result. So let me ask you to commit to being a part of this process that is so critical to successful completion of your search. I would encourage you to partner with someone else to hold one another accountable, to share prayer thoughts and concerns, and if possible to actually prayer together at least occasionally. The process is now in the critical stage of trying to discern God’s leading, which is not an easy process. Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts; our ways are not God’s ways. Too often we assume that God is very much like us, at least as far as the kind of person desired to be the next Pastor. So here are the specific steps I encourage you to follow daily until your new Pastor arrives to bring new leadership to CHBC and your mission.
PRAY SPECIFICALLY FOR UNDERSTANDING GOD’S LEADING, NOT FOR THE FULFILLMENT OF YOUR DESIRES.
I find that my sense of God’s leadership almost always follows pretty closely upon my own desires. This is human nature. So the starting place for these prayers must be asking God to help us know where these “blind spots” are in our lives and thinking. Only then can you be intentional about not allowing these desires to affect your hearing God’s speaking. This is not a one time prayer. It must be daily, continuous.
LISTEN MORE THAN SPEAK.
Ask God to break though any obstacles of your mind, heart, or spirit and help you understand the leading of the Spirit to the next Pastor. Discernment is also a process, and it takes time, and practice, and the desire to achieve discernment of God’s leading and not just coming to a conclusion. Sit in silence and listen for the whisper of the God who abides within you. In your thoughts and your feelings. In those mysterious and intuitive moments when you sense something is being shared with you but can’t explain where it comes from. If God is within you, and God is, then the place to look and listen is within.
PRAY SPECIFICALLY FOR THE PASTOR SEARCH TEAM.
By name. Daily. Every time they come to your mind. Just lift them up and pray that God’s Spirit will help them to come to a consensus of the person to whom God is leading them. Pray for their families as well, for they also bear a heavy load during this process. Trust them and the Spirit that guides them, and when you have a chance tell them of your prayers and your support.
PRAY FOR THE CANDIDATES WHO ARE UNDER CONSIDERATION.
The candidates and their families are engaged in the same kind of process of discernment as the Pastor Search Team. And the question is the same for them as it is for the Search Team. Where is God leading us to work together in God’s great Kingdom mission? Continue to pray for them until the work is complete and the mission is accomplished.
PRAY FOR THE PROCESS ITSELF.
To say that discernment is a process means that it doesn’t happen in one insightful moment. There may be some “Aha!” moments along the way, but they will come as part of the larger process that has laid the groundwork where those moments can be understood and appreciated. Be patient and allow this process to nurture discernment and consensus. It will happen if the focus remains on hearing and following the leadership of God’s Spirit. To cut the process short is to derail the opportunity to achieve discernment and to arrive at consensus.
Be committed, consistent, and constant in your prayers. God wants you to know and is committed, consistent, and constant through the Spirit to make himself, the mission, and the new leader known to you. It’s not being hidden from you, but proclaimed to you. You will hear if you will listen. The end of the process is getting closer, but God is already here and already deeply involved in the process. Please help the successful conclusion of this process come into full bloom by being a part of this season of prayer!
INTERIM PASTOR’S PONDERINGS - August Update 2018
While we were away for our annual trip to visit family in Missouri earlier this month, my wife and I attended a gathering of multiple classes of the high school from which we both (along with our siblings) graduated. My graduation was more than 56 years ago and some of the people who were at the gathering were classmates I had probably not seen since our graduation. It was great to look back and remember those times so long ago. The world has changed greatly, but so have we. In ways both great and small. Ways easily noticed (and often involving waistlines and/or the amount/color of hair covering our heads) and ways that only become apparent through listening to one another’s stories. We had dreams, some of which have been fulfilled and some of which have been lost. We often discovered that much of what we had learned during our school years together has been forgotten, become irrelevant to our lives, or is simply no longer true (if it ever was). Time does that.
I’ve had some similar experiences this summer as we have followed the journey of God’s chosen people from the call of Samuel through the anointing of Saul, David, and Solomon as the first kings of Israel. I found I had forgotten many of the details of that story in the 50+ years since I first studied it in seminary. So much of the story seems ripped out of a morning newspaper or newly posted blog. Lies. Cheating. Threats. Deception. Self-centeredness. Privilege. Fear. I found it raising many questions for me about the nature of leadership, even (or maybe, especially) leadership within the community of God’s people. Even Saul, David, and Solomon, each of whom was chosen by God to rule the people, were complex, complicated, and broken in many ways. There were things about their lives and their relationship with God to admire and to try to emulate. But there were also things about their lives that led God to withdraw the blessing from two of them, and by the time the reign of the third had ended the united kingdom they had created could not be sustained and broke apart. I’m aware of how that is still true today. Yet God managed to work in spite of all of that. It’s not an easy thing to maintain that which is holy and dedicated to the purposes of God when all we have to work with are clay vessels with cracks and flaws.
And now, at this very time, you are approaching a time of having to make decisions about how Calvary Hill fits into the continuing purposes of God during the Twenty-First Century. That has been the reason for the time spent during this Intentional Interim period, and now it is moving toward the critical moment of acting on what has been learned. But as was true in Israel long ago, it is not easy to discern how God is leading, even though we are required to make that determination. Israel wanted a king because other people around them had kings. Despite God’s warning that they already had a king and having one like everyone else’s would mean they would pay the price of such a king. They didn’t care. They wanted what they wanted. And so do we. All of us. It’s part of our brokenness. If we will acknowledge that and take it into account, we can compensate for it. By ignoring it’s existence, we give it more power to work secretly in our decisions.
So I am calling our whole faith community to another season of prayer during the month of September. I’m asking each of you to spend at least fifteen minutes daily praying for the Pastor Search Team. They are in the process of narrowing the candidates for your next pastor. They and you will have your favorites. The person whom you think would be ideal. The one you want to become your next pastor. Understandable. But as lovingly and pastorally as I know how to say this, what you want doesn’t matter in this decision. Okay, it does matter. It matters because you and all the other “yous” that are a part of CHBC are going to be the ones who cast votes to determine the one person to whom a call will be issued to become your next pastor. But it’s not about who can get the most votes, or whose side “wins,” or who gets their way. This decision can only be successful in accomplishing the goal of this interim if it accurately reflects who God wants to be the next pastor. So it’s community prayer time in order for the congregation to discern the answer to that question. Phrase the whole question, within your own mind and in your conversation with one another, in that way. To whom is God leading us? Pray for the candidates as the process works itself out over whatever time it takes. Discernment doesn’t come immediately or even on the same schedule for every participant. And there is nothing more important than the success of this process of discerning God’s leadership. More details will follow, and we will launch on Sunday, September 2, even as we bring to a close our summer journey of Israel’s leadership transition.
INTERIM PASTOR’S PONDERINGS - August 2018
I came across a passage of Scripture in my devotional reading this week that I had not specifically reflected on in a long time. Since coming across it again, I have found it difficult to put it out of my mind. It seems to me a message that is desperately needed in our time. The passage is from the letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to his favorite church – the church at Philippi. These people had always been Paul’s staunchest supporters, and he knew that he could always count on them. Toward the end of the letter, Paul wrote, Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil. 4:8, NRSV).
Paul encouraged the Philippians (and us) to think about things that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. Our tendency is to dwell instead on things that are sordid, titillating, controversial, disgusting, and worthy of condemnation. That is the news that sells newspapers and tabloids (that no one reads – wink, wink), and produces newscasts and talk radio shows that win the ratings wars. We love it! We can’t seem to get enough of “The World’s Most Gruesome and Bloody Car Wrecks in Which Bodies Were Decapitated!” And if you aren’t sufficiently sickened by the television show, there is a “completely uncensored” version available for your viewing pleasure at the local video outlet. If you pulled the drain plug on the mind of our typical citizen, out would pour a most hideous concoction consisting of all the vile things that have entered our minds along with their further fouling by their interaction with one another. A truly vile and repugnant stew.
But we are to be different, those of us who are followers of Jesus. It is not enough that we avoid (as best we can) thinking about what the rest of the culture thinks about. We are called upon to fill our minds with that which is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. You’ve probably heard the following story, but it bears repeating as an illustration of this truth.
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life:
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
”It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil–he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Where can you find such things? Certainly not in “all the usual places” that our world is looking. You will, however, find those qualities wherever Jesus is present. You will find them (admittedly, in varying degrees) in His disciples. You will find them, if you search for them. What a witness to the world we would be if our lives over-flowed with the true, honorable, just, etc. Imagine how we would stand out in a world that is much quicker to see that which is deserving of criticism rather than that which is worthy of praise. If we fill our minds with such things, we will find ourselves commending and praising. Our world – and His church – could use a lot of that!
July 2018 INTERIM PASTOR’S PONDERINGS
In their book entitled, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon begin with the following provocative sentence. Sometime between 1960 and 1980, an old inadequately conceived world ended, and a fresh, new world began. My guess is that most of you reading this are not at all pleased with this new world and would like to have that old world back again. Before that we lived in a world that propped up and supported our view of what it meant to be Christian and to do church. Do you remember when the church was the only thing open on Sunday? We assumed that people went to church. We assumed that people knew the biblical stories and that meant they shared our faith. My seminary training in the Sixties was all about developing an intellectual understanding of the faith and learning how to manage a church. It was assumed that if you got those two things right you would succeed in ministry. But even then, the world for which I was being trained was dying. The cultural revolution was on, and the church was losing.
Can you imagine the churches of Fairfax County going to the Board of Supervisors today and asking that businesses not be permitted to open on Sunday because it is the Christian “sabbath”? How far would we get? Not in this world! Or ask them not to schedule any school activities on Wednesday evenings so as not to interfere with our midweek services, as was the case in that old world. We make a huge mistake if we assume that this new world is “Christian” in any sense. Culture never was – never could be – but at least in that old world the appearances allowed us to convince ourselves that it was. No more. Then it was comfortable to be a Christian. Now it is odd. We are in fact “resident aliens” in our own land. I suspect that has a lot to do with our view of those other aliens (you know who “they” are) by many.
So what shall we do about this? We can sit around and reminisce about those “good old days,” although there is much we have to ignore to call them “good.” Or we can accept that it has fallen to us to be the people of God in this difficult time and place. I tried to teach my children and grandchildren that old axiom that life is not fair and that when they experience that unfairness in their lives they are allowed 15 minutes to whine and cry about how unfair that is. But that’s all. Then it’s time to get to work dealing with whatever has impacted us. That means we must learn to ask the right questions. That has been at the heart of the Intentional Interim process. This is why I find what I believe Calvary Hill is about to be so exciting. We say that Our Mission is to increasingly reflect Christ’s attitudes and behaviors, sharing God’s love and encouraging and welcoming all to join us. That is, our mission is nothing less than to be the Presence of Christ – an “alien” presence to be sure – at this time and in this place. That is the “resident” part. We live and serve – reside – in this time and place. But we are aliens in this time and place. Furthermore, we are this alien presence whether any of the resident culture joins us or not. We are called to live as Christ’s Presence so others might come to experience what that means. We are called to be someone, not do some things. I was trained to do. Now I’m trying to learn to be. I can only do that in community with others who are also resident aliens trying to be the presence of Christ. And what an exciting community that will be!
June 2018 INTERIM PASTOR’S PONDERINGS
I had been on the road for the better part of two days. The first day had been terrible. I was more than ready to reach my destination and get the one day of rest I had earned before having to turn around and drive two days back home. But the end was in sight. Only a couple of more hours. I was driving along in the left lane of the Interstate, part of a long line of cars that were passing our slower traveling companions in the right lane. Then our progress noticeably slowed. There was someone in the left lane (otherwise known as the passing or fast lane!) who was driving less than the speed limit and refused to move into the right lane. One by one, we were left with no alternative than to pass him using the right lane. As my turn came, we were approaching some more cars in the right lane, but I thought I could make it around him and get back into the left lane. So I pulled out and sped up. So did he. It quickly became obvious that he didn’t want to let me complete my pass. But I had the momentum and managed to get around him and back in the left lane. I thought it was over and proceeded on my way. Eventually, I got back in the right lane and was minding my own business. Along came this same guy. He passed me and then remained a little ahead of me in the left lane. For many miles, he stayed there and I watched as he did to others the same thing he had done to me. He slowed down to try to make them pass him on the right, and then he would speed up. At one point, he slowed down until I was almost on his bumper inviting me to try to pass him again. At this point, however, I knew that he was just playing a game. I should have known that earlier because when I passed him the first time I saw in the mirror that he acknowledged I was “Number 1” (although the finger he used was not the one normally used for the #1 sign).
Now, I can be a very competitive person, but I made the conscious decision not to play his game. I even wished I could communicate with him, and just say, Congratulations. You win. You da man. I would have surrendered earlier, but I didn’t realize we were playing a game. And I’m not going to play anymore. I’ve been thinking that I probably need to say that same kind of thing in many more areas of life. What does it mean to “win”? Do I win if I allow someone else to define the game and make all the rules, and then beat them at their own game, but become just like them in the process? I hate to lose at almost anything. And winning sure feels good. But I’ve learned that the cost of winning can be too steep if it requires me to act in ways that I know are destructive or cruel or simply stupid. Or very unchristlike. There is an old Quaker proverb that says, If in order to defeat the beast, I must become a beast, then bestiality has won the day. True on the roads, and in life. The Christian life is not a game. It is a lifelong journey to live like Jesus did. How are you doing?
May 2018 INTERIM PASTOR’S PONDERINGS
Last Sunday I shared with you the amazing way the message came together in my mind, seemingly taking shape apart from any conscious effort on my part. It was incredible to me how perfectly those three texts supported the Vision Statement that Calvary Hill has adopted as your expression of who you believe God is calling you to be and what that means God is calling you to do in this place and time. A similar experience in sermon preparation this week brought me to a profoundly deeper understanding of what living as Easter people actually means. I’ll hold the rest of the story until Sunday morning, but here is a little teaser to get you thinking.
A scene in Fiddler on the Roof has Tevyev and his wife, Golda, being forced to move from their home in Russia. One day, Tevyev comes into the house and asks his wife,
“Golda, do you love me?”
“Do I what?”
“Do you love me?”
Golda looks at him and then responds: “Do I love you? With our daughters getting married and this trouble in the town, you’re upset, you’re worn out, go inside, go lie down, maybe it’s indigestion.”
Tevyev interrupts and asks the question: “Golda, do you love me?”
Golda sighs as she looked at him and says, “Do I love you? For 25 years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cows. After 25 years, why talk of love right now?”
Tevyev answers by saying, “Golda, the first time I met you was on our wedding day. I was scared, I was shy, I was nervous.”
“So was I,” said Golda.
“But my father and my mother said we’d learn to love each other, and now I’m asking, ‘Golda, do you love me?’”
“Do I love him?” Golda sighs. “For 25 years I’ve lived with him, fought with him, 25 years my bed is his! If that’s not love, what is?”
“Then you love me?” Tevyev asks.
“I suppose I do!” she says.
“And I suppose I love you too!” he says. “It doesn’t change a thing, but after 25 years it’s nice to know.”
Golda said that her actions were proof of her love. Jesus asked Peter the same question, “Do you love Me?” But Peter could not point to his actions as proof of his love. Quite the contrary. His actions would lead to a very different conclusion, for Peter had denied even knowing Jesus out of fear of the consequences of so identifying himself. Peter could only respond that he did indeed love Jesus – is actions to the contrary notwithstanding – and ultimately simply had to trust that this One who knew everything did indeed know that Peter loved Him.
What about us? What about you? When Jesus asks you, “Do you love me?” how do you respond? I wish I could be like Golda and point to 25 years of love-confirming behavior in my life. But I’m afraid I would be more like Peter and have to trust that He who knows my heart knows that I love Him – in spite of the evidence to the contrary. The Gospel message is that He who knows our hearts and souls loves us in spite of our fear and self-centeredness.
I hope to see you in worship this Sunday as we move through closing Sundays of the Easter Season and prepare for Pentecost on May 20.
April Update 2018 INTERIM PASTOR’S PONDERINGS
The Pastor Search Committee has begun the active process of searching for the next Pastor for Calvary Hill. That makes this an exciting time, with expectations affected by the realities of issues with the building and other costs issues. The easiest way to deal with this problem is to convince yourselves that the arrival of a new pastor will be the catalyst that result in being able to address and overcome the problems facing your right now. I would never minimize the possibilities when people fully open themselves to God’s presence and call. But if such a turnaround were to occur, it will most likely be because you who are Calvary Hill Baptist Church have begun to live out the vision to which God has called you. New pastors do not arrive with a briefcase full of new members or more sacrificial giving. Both of those will come from you or they won’t come at all. They will come as you reach out into the community and build relationships, authentic connections, with people and through those relationships help them to experience the love of God. They will come as you realize that growing in Christ-like living will of necessity result in more sacrificial giving. Your new pastor will encourage and equip you to live these changes, but the changes will be yours. And if you are serious about making this work, there is no reason to wait for that new pastor. There is not one thing you can do differently at that time, that you cannot begin to do today.
So whatever changes you believe need to be made for Calvary Hill to be effective in impacting this community for God’s Kingdom, make those changes beginning today. By the time your new pastor arrives, you will have months of practice and months of results. I guarantee that will be a joyful realization for that pastor!
April 2018 INTERIM PASTOR’S PONDERINGS
I want to thank you all for the recognition of the 50th anniversary of my ordination to the Gospel Ministry one week ago last Sunday, on March 17. I appreciated the gift card for Flemings, and I assure you it will be used and enjoyed. But even more I appreciate the comments you shared on the accompanying card. Occasions such as this are mile markers along the journey. I’ve been reflecting back over those fifty years. And being amazed at how quickly they have passed. Most of you remember the ‘60s (unless of course, as the saying goes, you really were there). They were a turbulent time. And 1968 was probably the single most eventful year of my lifetime – both nationally and personally. Indeed, eighteen days after my ordination Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Such was the year 1968 for me.
The world has changed in these fifty years, but not in the way I wanted fifty years ago. I was about half way through my basic seminary degree work with plans to go forth from seminary and change the world for the better. Now it feels more like I watched it change in spite of me and my largely futile efforts. I thought I would go out and grow large churches. Size was everything at that point. Nickels and noses, as we not so jokingly said. Things easily counted so we could have good reports to make at the Monday minister’s conference of the local association. That was the definition of success in the ministry. As the years have come and gone, my idea of success has changed as much or more than the world has changed. I feel privileged to have journeyed with some very special people, many of whom are still part of the adventure. Some who even worship and serve at Calvary Hill. But I began my journey thinking that it was all about “saving souls” and growing churches (as institutions, that is). Along the way, I’ve come to believe that it is – or should be – about making disciples and participating in the advance of a Kingdom. Back then, I naively thought that culture would welcome what I wanted to invest my life doing, but I discovered I was wrong. The culture didn’t care, because “saving souls” and building churches had little or no impact on the culture. To most of the culture in which I live now, the church is not opposed; it is largely regarded as irrelevant. In this Holy Week, it’s hard not to notice that Jesus was called many things in his life, but irrelevant was never one of them!
As retirement approached three years ago, I ask myself how I wanted to invest whatever remaining time I might still have. It didn’t take me long after seminary to realize that I had been trained to manage a church that no longer existed. Over the years, I grew increasingly weary of trying to manage a church, an institution. I don’t want to finish a lifetime of ministry and have it judged by me and others as largely irrelevant. I don’t want it to be about the number of people I baptized or what kind of buildings I left behind. And not because those are bad things. I love being able to baptize people, but not to add one more to the count we get to report. I love to participate in that ancient symbol of one dying to an old life centered in oneself and beginning a new life centered in Jesus Christ.
The work of Interim Ministry seemed to afford me precisely what I wanted to do with my life at this point. I want to be remembered first and foremost as a true Christ-follower. A disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. And I want to leave behind people who have been challenged to become lifelong disciples. People who understand that they are Christ’s presence in this world. God is certainly present in all of creation. But even God had to put on flesh and a face and walk around with us in order for us to get the message. God was most fully revealed in Jesus of Nazareth who would tell his disciples, if you have seen me you have seen the Father. And then Jesus placed His Spirit in the hearts and minds of his followers so that his presence would be forever with them. Forever with you. Forever in you. Forever at work through you. So week after week, I try to reinforce that recognition within you. Don’t ever forget that you are the son or daughter of the living God. The living presence of Jesus in this place and time. And I encourage you every chance I have (like now) to have the mind in you that was in Christ Jesus. Willing to pay the price, to actually try to live as Christ’s presence in our time and space. To care about the people Jesus cared about and to non-violently confront evil. To trust that love really is stronger than hate, and demonstrate it in our actions. Not perfect any more than I am perfect. But pilgrims on their way. Culture regards such people as threats, and I want to be a part of cell of subversive Christ-followers. That’s where I’ve come over the last fifty years. It’s been an adventure. I hope there is more to come. Thank you for allowing me the privilege for whatever time we have to walk alongside you as we encourage and challenge one another to live up to our creation and our calling.
March 2018 INTERIM PASTOR’S PONDERINGS
At every level of our lives together, we are facing some very necessary and difficult discussions about significant but divisive topics. Nationally, we face hot topics such as what we should do in order to reduce and hopefully eliminate the mass shootings we are experiencing much too often and the difficult challenges of immigration reform. Those and other cultural issues also impact the spiritual lives of our faith communities, but those communities also face issues of theology and polity that are equally divisive. Local congregations, including Calvary Hill, face important difficult discussions about the direction of future ministry that also reveal differing understandings of who God is calling us to be and indeed the very nature of the God who is doing the calling. Needless to say, but critical to acknowledge, is the fact that these are discussions that we do not do very well. In most cases, we don't want to experience the pain or the challenge so we stick our haloed heads into the sand of denial. But the issues cannot and will not solve themselves. Instead, without our active involvement in working for solutions and reconciliation, the issues grow more powerful and more destructive. So what are we to do?
The Scripture offers us a way forward if we are courageous enough and persistent enough to actually put it into practice. Ephesians 4:15 says that in order to grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ (I'm sure you hear your own Mission Statement in those words), we are to be speaking the truth in love. How about that for a model for addressing these issues? Speak the truth, but speak it in love. Sounds simple, doesn't it? Looking a little closer at the two key words might help understand both the difficulties and how we might go about overcoming them.
The Truth is to be the content of our speech. Of course, what else would be the content! But as Mr. Pilate asked Jesus, What is truth? What I believe, is not the truth. It is just what I believe to be the truth. There was a time in my life that I believed that a jolly old fat guy came down the chimney of our house (a chimney that led directly into the furnace!) on Christmas Eve and left toys and goodies for all of us. That wasn't true in spite of the sincerity of my belief. There was time when I believed that there was only one expression of worship that was acceptable to God, and that was the form as we practiced it at the First Baptist Church of St. Johns, Missouri. That wasn't true either. I once believed that God was far away and very mean. That one lingers with me, but I no longer believe it is true. There is a difference. What I feel is not the truth. It is just what I feel. When we talk to one another about the Truth, we should always phrase our statements as, "At this point in my journey, I believe ...." A healthy dose of humility is always appropriate when discussing Truth. My perception comes from where I stand and what I have experienced thus far on my journey. But my journey is not yet complete. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, now we see only a reflection as in a mirror,...now I know in part (1 Corinthians 13:12, NRSV). So our understandings of Truth cannot be complete until the journey is complete.
None of this is to say that Truth has no standard at all. Jesus said that he was the Truth, the Way, the Life. By that he meant that his life and teachings revealed the Truth of who God is and how we can follow a Way that offers us Life now and at the end of our journey. It has been wisely said that before sharing something about someone else, we ought to ask ourselves three things about the information we are about to share. Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? If the answer to any of those questions is NO, then we ought to keep the information to ourselves. I would add that if we are seeking Truth we should ask ourselves does it reflect the mind, life, and teaching of Jesus? If it does not, it is not Truth.
A big problem is that each of us thinks we they know the truth. And our brains are not easily convinced that what we already believe is not reality, not true. So we can actually experience things that contradict what we hold to be "true," but refuse to allow that experience to change what we believe. This means that we all need to do two things. We need to expose ourselves to as many understandings of Truth that differ from our own as we can. We ought to seek them out. We out to listen to them and respect them. And secondly, we need to consciously and intentionally challenge the things we "know" to be true. In the movie, Men in Black, Tommy Lee Jones' character tells Will Smith's character, Fifteen hundred years ago everyone knew the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everyone knew the earth was flat. What will we know tomorrow? Most of us only read things that reinforce what we already believe, only engage in conversations with those with whom we know we agree. Unless, of course, you read the Comments on Facebook! I actually try to make it a point to expose myself to ideas of perspectives that challenge my own. (Just not the Comments section on Facebook! That's pointless and painful.) I know how hard it is to change my own belief system, even if it wrong. Humility. One of the good things.
Paul's point earlier in 1 Corinthians that I quoted above (vv. 1-3) is that no matter how pious or holy an action might be, if it is not done in love it is worthless. In Ephesians that same thing is said of speaking truth. If we do not enter these difficult but important conversations acting out of love that is genuine compassion and concern for the others engaged in the conversations, we are not growing into the mature body of Him who is the head, Christ. Social media has allowed us to hide in electronic devices where we don't have to confront the pain and hurt we cause with hateful words and arrogant claims to the sole grasp of Truth. Speaking the truth in love is to making yourself vulnerable out of respect for the other person(s) engaged in the conversation. It is always true that the Head, that is Christ, loves all participants and wants to help each one come to have the mind that is His mind. I promise you, that mind is not your mind. Nor is it my mind. But becoming vulnerable in the presence of the Spirit and facing these polarizing issue by sharing the truth as we see it, listening to the truth as others see it, and doing it all in love is the only way we grow and mature in Christ-like living. If these kinds of discussions cannot happen within communities called into being by the God who is Love for the very purpose of being the human expression of the Way, the Truth, and the Life then we are without hope for resolving them.
February 2018 - INTERIM PASTOR’S PONDERINGS
She showed me a text she had received and asked me to read it. After I read it, she asked me what I thought about it. I asked her what she wanted to know and she replied that she “didn’t like the tone” and wanted to know what I thought of the tone. That’s when I got myself in trouble. I said, “The text itself has no tone. It’s just words on a computer screen. Any tone you get from those words is tone you bring to the text yourself.” I think that is very true. Even if the author of the text wrote some kind of “tone” underlying his words, that tone isn’t part of the text.
This incident reminded me of an article I had read recently. An article from Inc. by Minda Zetlin entitled You Should Never, Ever Argue with Anyone on Facebook, According to Science states:
We respond very differently to what people write than to what they say--even if those things are exactly the same. That's the result of a fascinating new experiment by UC Berkeley and University of Chicago researchers. In the study, 300 subjects read, watched video of, or listened to arguments about such hot-button topics as war, abortion, and country or rap music. Afterward, subjects were interviewed about their reactions to the opinions with which they disagreed.
Their general response was probably very familiar to anyone who's ever discussed politics: a broad belief that people who don't agree with you are either too stupid or too uncaring to know better. But there was a distinct difference between those who had watched or listened to someone speak the words out loud and those who had read the identical words as text. Those who had listened or watched someone say the words were less likely to dismiss the speaker as uninformed or heartless than they were if they were just reading the commenter's words.
In other words, the only “tone” in the printed word is that the reader brings to reading it and through which the meaning of the writing is interpreted. That’s not a real problem if the purpose of the writing is didactic, that is, teaching content or is responding to a direct question or a similar purpose that is largely focused on the exchange of factual information. If, on the other hand, the purpose is personal or relational rather than informational, it can be a large problem! The point of this is that if you want to build relationships, you best do your communicating face-to-face (actually or electronically) as much as possible. Tone and nuance and the ability to immediately check on what you are hearing are all critical to building healthy relationships. During the “Baptist wars” there was no shortage of name-calling and denigrating of the other side. The other side, the enemy, is a faceless “them” who embodies and practices everything that is evil and destructive. During those years, a group of four of us met every Friday for lunch. One of us was on each polar end of the Baptist continuum and two were in the middle, one leaning ever so slightly to opposite poles. The issues that divided us were discussed in these face-to-face lunch sessions, but absent was the name-calling and the demonizing. Why? Because around the table we were all “us.” Real human beings with names and families and feelings and ministries.
This reality has many implications. Theologically, even God could not communicate relationally with us without putting on a face and becoming one of us so we could share at the deepest level. So the Word became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and lived among us. He taught and lived that by entering into relationship with him we could know what God was like and experience relationship with God. To see him (to know him), Jesus said, was to see and know God. It also has implications for how we relate to one another, especially when we are confronted with difficult issues of significance over which we have sincere differences. Dealing with those issues in a way that can strengthen the relationship, that is face-to-face and with respect and a desire to truly understand one another, and will keep us from being able to just dismiss one another as uninformed or uncaring. Make no mistake, that’s tough work! But so was emptying himself and taking on the form of a slave and being obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross (Philippians 2:7-11)! But then, as now, that is the way to the narrow gate and hard road that leads to life. A way that, according to Jesus, few find (Matthew 7:13-14). May we be willing to do this hard work so that we can be persons through whom others can experience the love and grace of God in relationship with us.
January 2018 - INTERIM PASTOR’S PONDERINGS
A new day is clearly marked by the rising of the sun. A new month can easily be noted by the beginning of a new lunar cycle – the appearance of a new moon, as did the ancient Hebrews (among many other peoples). The solar calendar is more concerned with the marking of a new year, especially so as to identify agricultural seasons. All of these divisions of time are related to the observed phenomena of the created order. Unlike the new day and the new month, however, it is less clear when the new year should begin. Why not in the spring, with the new life that becomes apparent? We have, of course, come to accept January 1 as the beginning of the new year – stretching all the way back to the Babylonians – in the celebration of the new year. They noticed that it was this time of the year when the days began to get longer, rather than shorter. They concluded that the sun was not dying but coming back to life. A cause for celebration!
We continue the celebration, although we have long since lost the mystery (and the awe that accompanies mystery) of the causes for the phenomena we observe. Even scientific ages, however, find it difficult to resist the temptation to use the occasion of a new year to encourage changes in our lives. We could use the “first day” of every week as such an occurrence. Or even the first light of every day as an opportunity for improvement. God is even willing to give us opportunities for repentance and life-changing commitments on a moment-to-moment basis. But it seems that the “year thing” works better for us, thus our New Year’s Resolutions.
And I’m ready for a new year. On a personal level, 2017 was an improvement on recent years and ended in a rather encouraging state. But it also included some pretty painful and unpleasant times. I’m also reminded of the truth of the definition of insanity as doing things the same way and expecting a different result. That means if I want things to be different in 2018, I need to do some things differently. I need to think differently. To act differently. That’s not how I want it, of course. I want to remain comfortably in my view of the way things are. I want to be able to behave in all the ways in which I’ve become comfortable. And then I want everything in my life to change and become like I want it to be. That’s insanity, according to the definition above, and it is also not going to happen. The truth is that it is hard to change. That’s why most of our new year’s resolutions never work. But in order for me to make the changes that I need to make, I need only convince one person – myself. That also happens to be the one person on the planet that I can control, which makes the whole thing at least possible. Now, to think about changing an institution (i.e., a church) requires so much more. And I’ve already got my hands full with me. Anybody out there willing to take on that challenge? I see that hand ... don’t I?
December 2017 INTERIM PASTOR’S PONDERINGS
Here we go again. The annual “War on Christmas.” I’m not sure exactly when or by whom there was a declaration of war, and I find myself increasingly disturbed by the use of the term “war” to describe what is happening in our culture. Real wars, with real casualties, abound in our world this Christmas season. Refugees in the millions. Starvation. Hatred abounding and destruction everywhere. Suffering and hopelessness. That’s real war. The so-called War on Christmas in this country is not even an inconvenience. As a people, we are very good at fighting shooting, bombing, killing wars. Not so good with wars fought in some other way. Consider, we declared War on Poverty. Poverty has won. We declared War on Drugs. Drugs have won. We just don’t seem to do very good in a war that’s fought with ideas and relationships and won by enhancing life rather than by dropping bombs and firing missiles. Just consider the battlefields of the so-called War on Christmas. It’s primarily words. Do we say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays? To say the latter is to launch a battle in the war against Christmas. Christmas tree or Holiday tree? Do these really deserve to be called battles in a war?
The reality is that there are two Christmases celebrated in our culture every year. There is the secular Christmas of Santa and winter wonderlands and exchanging cards and gifts and family gatherings. These are not evil things and bring great joy to many people. Then there is the Christmas that is a spiritual remembrance of God’s entry into his world. And a reminder that he comes into our lives and our world over and over and over again for those who are looking for his appearing. We really need to keep the distinction clear in our minds. The secular Christmas is part of our culture, and it is celebrated by many people who are not Jesus followers. Many of us who are Jesus followers also participate in and enjoy this secular Christmas. That’s not a problem, unless we also try to insist that the secular Christmas celebrations also affirm the values of the spiritual Christmas. That is the boundary along which the war clouds quickly gather.
It is not possible for anyone to win a war against Christmas. The reality of Christmas as a spiritual celebration exists in us totally apart from anything those who celebrate only the secular Christmas can say or do. No one has the power stop you from saying all the “Merry Christmases” you want to share. An employer, however, does have the right to instruct employees who are representing the business to greet shoppers with a “Happy Holidays” in order to include all the business’ customers in the secular celebration of Christmas.
While no one has the power to rob us of our spiritual Christmas, it is possible for those of us for whom Christmas is a truly spiritual journey to surrender its significance. We do that when we allow ourselves to be drawn into behaving in ways that reflect the culture and not the Christ. That would include the concession that someone, anyone, can somehow steal or destroy our spiritual Christmas. We can always find – or be – God appearing once again! So if you really want to make this a spiritual Christmas, thus keeping Christ in Christmas, the only person who has the power to stop you from doing so is yourself. Feed the hungry. Comfort the grieving. Soothe the hurting. Welcome the stranger. And support those who are doing that in ways and places where you as an individual are not able to do so. Even if they don’t claim to do it in Jesus’ name sometimes. As our text last Sunday from Matthew 25 made clear, when you do those things, you are doing the work of Jesus even if you don’t realize it. So have it! Make this the most spiritual, Jesus-like Christmas of your whole life. Merry Christmas! And Happy Holidays!
November 2017 INTERIM PASTOR’S PONDERINGS
Next week I will be attending an Intentional Interim Ministers Workshop sponsored by the Center for Congregational Health in North Carolina. It will give me the opportunity to be with others who are also actively involved in Intentional Interim Ministry. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to pick some brains and to ask some questions.
I’ve been looking forward at where we are going in our journey together. I’m asking myself what do I need to do that I’m not doing now or not doing well enough. We all want to get to the same place. That time when your new pastor joins you to begin your journey together. And we all want it to happen as soon as possible. But even more than that, we want that new relationship be a long and successful one. And that, in turn, means continuing to work through the IIM process in a way that will confront the issues that might keep that from happening. And we will.
But that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do now toward the end we all want. There are several things that will be required if that new relationship is as successful as all of us want it to be. So here are some things that you can begin doing TODAY to make preparation for that day.
Accept the fact that change will be required. Change is the one constant with which we have to deal. It is literally true that not to change is to die. But most of us prefer to be able stay just like we are. After all, we are here because we like what’s here. We are living and ministering in a time of transition, and the change is coming faster than ever. To try to hold on to what has been in such a time is an invitation to disaster. Accept this and be ready to move forward and explore what will make tomorrow better than today. You don’t have to wait. You can begin today.
There are fewer of you now than there have been. That means that you are going to have to accept more responsibility for what happens. If you care about Calvary Hill’s ministry and future in this community, you will be called on to be a bigger part of making that successful. Each one of you. You will need to give more of all those things that are required of followers of Jesus. More of your gifts. More of your time. More of your resources. Yes, one of the needs is for a stronger financial base to deal with the expenses facing you with building issues that need attention. God’s abundance is shared through people and will only meet the needs when God’s people are good stewards of the gifts and are sacrificial in their giving. This is also something that you can begin to do today.
Everybody wants more people to be part of Calvary Hill, and the Mission statement adopted includes welcoming all to join the journey. But you cannot welcome others by seeing them as in some sense those who will help pay the bills. They are people with whom you need to build relationships and help them see and experience what you see and experience in Calvary Hill. You can begin to do that today.
And the best thing you can do is to reach out in love to your community by growing together in Christ-like love, sharing God’s love with the community and the world, along with welcoming all to join you in this journey. I believe that to the degree you actually make this your mission in your life, you will begin to impact the community in ways even greater than what you are doing today. If you want to do the best thing you can do to strengthen Calvary Hill and increase the odds for a successful result in the search for a new pastor, then begin to live out this mission. And you don’t have to wait another day. You can begin today.
Yes, there is still work to be done. But even out here in the wilderness, these are things that you can begin to do right now. Things that will make an impact on you personally, on Calvary Hill as a community, and on those who experience Christ in you and your ministry among them. You can do it. God will bless it. Will you start now?
October 2017 PASTOR’S PONDERINGS
What is happening here? “Blood moons.” Earthquakes. Heat waves and wild fires. Major hurricane after major hurricane. Blood running in our streets. Fifty-nine peope dead from a gunman in Las Vegas. What does it mean? Some say it’s God judgment on us for … well, for something. That “something” depends upon the perspective of the speaker. Most recently, Pat Robertson opined that the Las Vegas shooting was the result of the total lack of respect for President Trump. Others say these judgments are for having elected President Trump. Is God responsible for everything that happens? Nothing that happens? Some things that happen? Each of us has to wrestle with that question. And I’ve heard it asked in several forms over the last couple of weeks. There is nothing new about this question.
I’ve wrestled with it on a personal level. Do I blame God for deafness of my sons? Do I blame God for the death of my 3-month-old grandson? I recently heard someone say of a young father who died tragically, “God needed him more than we did.” Really? More than his wife? More than his young son? God took this young father in order to fulfill His own needs at the expense of a young wife and their son? What kind of God is that? At the least, a very needy God! I fully understand that there are some people who find comfort in believing that everything that happens is part of some master plan of God – a plan which we are not supposed to question. I am not one of those who believe that. If I believed that God “took” the life of my grandson, or that young father, or that God caused the death and suffering in Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, and Mexico by sending hurricanes and earthquakes, or was somehow responsible for the shooting of the people in Las Vegas, then I would walk away from what I do and from any association with that kind of God. That is not the God enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth.
Here is what I do believe. God has shared the gift of life with us. He offers to join us in that journey, but will not force His presence upon us. And life can be messy. And painful. And sometimes very random and cruel. Where is God in all of that? Right there with us. But that’s not what we want. What we want is for Him to make it all go away, to fix it. Cure the cancer. Raise the dead. Right the wrongs. Punish the evil doers. Instead, the cancer often metastasizes. And the dead are still dead. And evil seems to flourish. And we are told not to ask any questions. Instead, accept it all as God’s will, because we really want to believe that there is some meaning to it all. I find myself unable to do that. Instead, I ask the “Why?” question. And I stand next to Job and shake my fist at God and struggle to understand what is beyond my comprehension. I weep. And God weeps with me. I search for God’s face amidst the pain and suffering, and I find it in the tears of those who share my suffering. Those who are there with me, even if they can do nothing to change the circumstances. They are for me exactly what God promised to be – with me. Some say that’s not enough. In my experience it’s all I’ve got – and, somehow, mysteriously it’s enough.
September 2017 PASTOR’S PONDERINGS
We’ve talked a lot during the last month about the power of silence as we have tried to hear God’s whisper in that silence. I have found it to be a meaningful experience and hope you have, too. I plan to make it an ongoing part of my life.
Silence. Sometimes it is a pleasant respite from the usual noise of contemporary life. Sometimes it is so loud that it drowns out all the normal sounds of living. It can be renewing and refreshing. It can also be depressing and even devastating. For me, it really isn’t about the physical sounds -- the sound waves that move through the air and stimulate our ear drums, which in turn sends electronic signals to the area of the brain designed to and charged with interpreting the meaning of such signals. God (and my wife) know I have enough trouble with those sounds. That’s why I wear hearing aids, which do help but which also cannot take the place of the kind of natural hearing I’m losing. Many, but by no means all, of those sounds aren’t worth hearing.
The sounds I do miss when they grow silent are those internal voices of mind and spirit. Sunday morning is coming and I will step into the pulpit and must have something to say. But what? Where are the voices when I need them? Could it be that the voice is actually in the silence and not in words? In such cases, I usually start thinking, talking, writing and see where the process takes me. Like now, in this space. I begin without knowing where I’m going or where I will end up or whether the journey will even be worthwhile. We’ll see.
There is a kind of silence, however, that is actually painful. Noise can be physically painful when it is loud enough, but silence can be emotionally, spiritually painful when it seems to be complete in the face of life’s challenges. When a hurricane devastates an area, taking lives and leaving chaos in its wake. Why did God make hurricanes? Silence. A parent is abusive toward a child and there is no one there to prevent it. Why not? Where is God? Silence. Jesus said that the meek shall inherit the earth, but it seems to me the earth is already firmly in the hands of the greedy and powerful. Who will stop them? Silence. I’m asked by people I love and care about why people treat others so mean and with such cruelty. I know the theological answer, but that’s not enough. I don’t know an answer that can still the Silence. Cancer. Alzheimer’s. HIV/Aids. Malnutrition. People suffer. Good people. Praying people. People who make the world a better place. Why? Silence.
There are plenty of folks out there who seem to have their answer. Just in the last 24 hours I’ve learned that Hurricane Harvey was God’s judgment against the State of Texas and its elected representatives. And that it was God’s judgment against Houston for having elected a gay mayor. I’ve heard many such pronouncements made in the aftermath of such disasters and I have noticed that the judgment is always aimed at someone who the speaker already doesn’t like. Additionally, a lot of seemingly innocent people always seem to have to pay a terrible price by sharing in that judgment. I’ve never heard anyone proclaim that such a disaster is God’s judgment on me or my side. Never! Isn’t it interesting how God works to punish my enemies?
Here is where my journey brings me. In silence is mystery. In mystery is God. Or not. Does that help? Of course not. But it’s true. Those times when the silence overwhelms and challenges us can be times when we are thrust deeply into the Mystery that just might give us more than answers. If we can learn to trust the goodness and grace of what we cannot understand – but have seen in Jesus – maybe we will have heard much more than we ever thought possible. A holy presence for our entire journey. Just maybe. Or not.