Won’t You Be My Neighbor

When to Walk Away

When to Walk Away

Sermon text: John 18-33-37
Preached November 25, 2012 at Cullowhee Baptist Church

Rather than being Advent 1, this year the Sunday after thanksgiving fell on Christ the King Sunday. So I had some new texts on which to preach. Naturally, and contrary to the more consistent message of Cullowhee Baptist Church, I chose to preach about Pilate, and about Peter, and about us, rather than about Christ. It had been a long time since I felt quite the way I did about the sermon. I hit all the points I wanted to hit, and yet I felt that I did not do justice to the urgency of the message I was preaching–that we so often look at the past and wish we could have been there to commit some violent act to prevent an injustice, that we forget that we have the opportunity to insist on peaceful solutions every day. We find it so easy to tell a story and have no sympathy for the characters we recognize to be “bad,” that we get used to thinking about life in that way, rather than as the complicated, messy milieu we encounter every day. We are sometimes so focused on what we would have done that we sometimes miss out on opportunities to do now, in the way our Prince of Peace showed us.

Hope for the future

Working on my sermon for tomorrow’s services at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, I wonder how folks who consistently preach without notes deal with the waiting period between sermon prep and sermon delivery. When I was writing manuscripts, I would stop when I hit the right note and then do another two rounds of edits on Sunday morning (one at home and one in the pulpit before church). Now, when I find the right note and tone, I want to stop and have that be my last memory from prep. So I have my road map for tomorrow, but I can’t be sure I’ll be starting in the same place when I stand up to preach tomorrow. I imagine this is the skill I would have learned taking Peter Gomes’s preaching class instead of Charles Adams’s preaching class.

On the end of a ministry

This time last year, I was anxiously awaiting the final say on whether I’d be hired as a campus minister (I wasn’t really sure until late July, and even then there was some ambiguity as to the length of my service). Anxious partly because this seemed like the only ministry work that I seemed likely to find up in my part of the rural mountains.

That uncertainty has returned. Do I, as suggested by a friend’s father, try to break into higher ed administration (as is the natural state of things with my family), committing myself to some sort of novel bi-vocational ministry that would likely not entail ordination? I have been contemplating the future of liberal protestant ministry, and wondering whether it is a return to the bi-vocational ministry of our non-conformist forefathers. But facing the reality is something different, especially as I watch so many friends receive their stoles. The polity of the UCC requires ordination into a call. My committee did not immediately recognize serving as a campus minister for a group with whom we were not covenantally tied as ordainable, and for financial reasons I chose not to push back on that understanding. So here we are.

But before that, a realization about this past year:

One reason I have been hesitant to pursue hospital chaplaincy is that I need a balance and a big picture to grow, learn and be satisfied. I found during my clinical pastoral education that I would quickly grow bored exercising only one set of skills. The campus ministry I served this year came from a very democratic tradition, and so I was carried where the students led. And, this year, a year of transition for them and the ministry, that was a very safe place. As a result, I found myself again in something of a box. While I loved working with the students, the ministry’s activities were not diverse enough for me to fit in; my strength has always been connecting disparate parts to make a whole, but there were no disparate parts, so I was trying to mentor the group members on the same things all year. And neither of us benefitted from that arrangement. It’s hard to draw out themes and connect dots without some continuity and variety, and yet that’s the way that I teach. I tried to create a space with more variety for the first few months, and to reach out to other campus ministries, but that’s just not where we were. It’s also a reminder that the terms of interim ministry need to be settled amongst all stakeholders up front. For various reasons, that did not happen this year, and that affected our ability to use the unique opportunity of interim ministry effectively. Rather than planning out an orientational shift or addressing the specific concerns that were needed to get from point A to point B, we started in a steady state, carrying momentum from the previous year, and waited for that steam to expire before coming to terms with the necessary adjustments. Interim ministry can be such a wonderful chance to understand identity without the burden of history and offense when done right, that it was a disappointment to waste the chance.

For me, personally, too, it was a reminder that a double context-shift might be too much. I am not a Baptist. I am UCC. And I am not from a small town in North Carolina. I’m from Iowa, raised by New Englanders and trained in Boston and New Haven. I think a move to a more urban-dominated Baptist chaplaincy, or a more rural UCC chaplaincy, would have been an adjustment that was possible for me, jumping from an urban UCC setting to a rural Baptist setting was difficult for me and for the students. I have always believed that ministry has a setting, a time and a place, and this was a reminder that bringing God into different times and places requires a mental and attitudinal flexibility that takes time to achieve. If I am to stay in this place long-term, I will need to understand what God needs me to be here. And that’s still hard and unfamiliar.

More to come as I process this past year and reflect on more general lessons for the future.

Tribal identities

I have been continuing to reflect on the sermon I delivered for Thomas Sunday. That message, that the disciples of Jesus could not draw their status from their proximity to Jesus, has been resonating with me in the political season. It’s hard not to draw our identity from our proximity to people we perceive as successful or powerful, as a way of validating our own existence. It is natural that, as Christians, we seek to put our relationship (either in the modern protestant personal sense, or in the more traditional follower sense) to the front in our interactions with others. I think about the Christian merchants along the silk road, converted to Christianity by the desire to do business with Christian traders (who gave way to the Muslim merchants all around the spice routes when Islam became the religion of trade), and wonder about our own tribal identities.

So much of our Christian (and anti-Christian) discourse begins and ends with the identification with the power dynamics that come with being Christian in America, that I have to wonder about our understandings of our religion. There are no declared atheists in Congress. Would that be true if there were not major political downsides to declaring that one is without religion, and no upside? This is a very different world than the one Christ’s early followers found, and yet we cannot help but return to the themes of persecution in the Bible in reference to ourselves. I began a practice this year of saying, “if you are applying the Bible to your life, substitute ‘the Christians’ wherever you see ‘the Jews’ in the New Testament.” Because the similarity we have to Jesus now is that we are trying to figure out what our religion means in a context where the assumptions of that religion are the background to all our interactions. The challenge, for us, is to find ways to live Christ’s mission even if, especially if, that means stepping away from our comfortable power sources. Can we recognize when we are acting the part of the Pharisee?

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