Saturday, April 22, 2017

The struggle is real | What is my role?

"He is risen is also He is not here. I think sometimes we experience the absence of Jesus in the Resurrection as much as we experience the joy of unexpected, too ambiguous glimpses. Too little attention is paid in our theology to that period of time in which he appears and vanishes while we are grieving, angry, and struggling to understand. The Easter season is a time of liminality. The Holy Spirit with its gifts of liturgy and comprehension and preaching is still a ways down the road. Maybe, just maybe, this Sunday [the Sunday after Easter] really is about being in a locked room having PTSD from witnessing the torture and execution of someone we really love, and knowing there's probably more torture and execution to come." (Kristen Mebust)
A meditation on passionate preaching in a critical moment, offered here with as much vulnerability as I can muster, because I have been agonizing and sweating and exhilarating and weeping over a sermon I had to preach two weeks ago (against the death penalty, interweaving sermon commentary into a dramatic reading of the Passion narrative, Matthew 26-27).

Like a shout in the mountains, the echoes of that sermon are still reverberating, both in my own heart, and in the life of our congregation.

After the sermon, multiple members of my congregation set up coffee meetings or walks with me, because they wanted to process their reaction to the sermon (and really, process their reactions to preaching and messages from much of 2017).

Here are some of the reactions:
1) I agree with you that the gospel speaks strongly to our moment, but I just don't know if I can participate in all the public advocacy it seems to call for. I'm focused more on inner spiritual work right now, and I wonder if that's okay? 
2) Your vocation as a pastor gives you time and space to get out and do public church a lot. I just can't, my daily work takes all my time, and is my primary calling. Is it okay if I'm contributing by doing that work well, with integrity and love? 
3) I just feel a lot of guilt, and I wonder if there is hope, and I want to hear more of that. 
4) I often agree with you, but even I feel like some of what you've said or are communicating in your sermons is too strong, too activist. Others have said: You're wrong and you shouldn't have preached that way.  
5) Thank you for speaking out. I appreciate that you try to do what you say even when it's not popular. Most of my disgust for religious institutions is based on the hypocrisy I saw growing up. I have few problems with Jesus, but churches are another story. Thank you for your persistent forthright integrity.
Stress and anxiety are definitely up post-election. It's not a surprise then that many people in our congregations, many folks in my parish, are looking for resources to deal with that stress. As a pastor, I have to consider: Am I offering Christian resources that help people appropriately deal with their stress and anxiety, or am I contributing to their distress?

To be honest, I don't know if I'm doing this well. I'm certain I'm contributing to my hearer's and reader's stress, because I'm of the opinion that we are in a moment of crisis, requiring a response from us appropriate to such crisis. Thing is, I'm designed psychologically to kind of like a crisis. It gives me a sense of purpose. Not everyone responds that way, so as a pastor I have to be careful to not preach and teach in such a way as to assume that everyone's response is like my response. It's hard work, but pastors are called to provide different kinds of resources for different folks.

I think one contribution is likely a better and greater focus on the stages of the spiritual life, and the relationship between inner spirituality and public advocacy. It's worth remembering that some of the greatest voices in Christian history spent as much or more time in prayer as they did out active in the world.

The many vocations of the baptized. It really is true that my vocation as pastor, and my role as a public church faith leader, offers unique opportunities to participate in activist, public ministry. I need to make sure I'm not throwing off, either directly or by implication, the message that everyone in my congregation has to imitate this same kind of public messaging. 

So to be clear: Not everyone has to go to protests, not everyone has to write letters to their politicians, not everyone has to or should re-share concerning news articles on Facebook. There are many ways to live out the Christian vocation of love and service, even resistance and protest. My way is just one way. I invite others to such public advocacy, because it does make a difference, but I fully understand that only some will feel called, and only some will have the capacity and opportunity.

That's fine. Remember that Paul argued that the Christian church is like a body with many members--head, heart, hands, feet (1 Corinthians 12). We need all the parts of the body to make a fully functioning organism. Discern your place in the body, then play your role. Maybe you pray. Maybe you sing. Maybe you work behind the scenes arranging the chairs, creating the art, giving back-rubs, washing feet. All these are essential the body.

As just one example, I tend to go to protests by myself. My family stays home. It's not that they don't support the groups protesting. I'm thankful to them for their support and love, and I fully understand that their responsibilities are different than mine right now, and am so thankful for their love and support while we go play our part. 

Real disagreement. But what if you genuinely disagree with a sermon I preach? This one is hard. I am just one pastor, just one voice. I believe it's my responsibility to proclaim the gospel as clearly as possible, which frequently includes lifting up the challenge Scripture (and Jesus) presents. I try not to let my personal opinions trump the clear proclamation of the gospel. Sometimes I fail. 

But frankly if I don't preach as honestly as I know how, if I temper what I say, moderate what I post, then I feel a lack of integrity. And if I preach honestly, forthrightly, even if you disagree with me, it creates a space for all our mutual discernment. Hard sermons result in the best conversations, they open up space for dialogue. So if you've been challenged by a sermon I preach, if it makes you angry, if it bothers, I really wish you'd bother me back. We'll both grow.

Lately, I'm really taken with this insight from Brené Brown, that we should in congregations create a "simple and honest process of letting people how that discomfort is normal, it's going to happen, why it happens, and why it's important, reduces anxiety, fear, and shame."

Brown calls leaders to get their heads and hearts "around the fact that we need to cultivate the courage to be uncomfortable and so teach the people around us how to accept discomfort as a part of growth."

In a culture that assumes it is a Christian, among a vast people all of whom believe their Jesus is the real Jesus, it takes much, a kind of shock and awe, real risk, to dig deeply enough to encounter the rising Christ. As Kristen Mebust writes above, in some moments the basic challenge requires us to remember that "he is risen means he isn't there." 

In other words, Jesus is not where we expected him to be. This means he is risen, sure, but it also means there will continue this real feeling of absence as we wait for Christ and expect him, and in the meantime live like him as his body in the world.

I guess this is a very long way of saying I love you, my reader, and I love my parishioners. I'm trying to love everyone enough, myself included, in authentic ways, which means being my true self in the face of the Scriptures, and in the face of Jesus, in ways that help us push away some of the shadows and bring greater light.

I'm sure I'm guilty of throwing off a good bit of heat in the process. My feelings get the best of me, and I'm nothing if not tenacious and strong-willed. That's the preacher you have, warts and all. 

But I keep hoping God can use even those attributes for the building up of the kingdom, and then thank God, our congregation has been gifted with diverse people, many spirits, so that together we can be a non-fragile presence that indicates God really is showing up in and through us as an outpost of the kingdom.

1 comment:

  1. I want to type this long Rilke quote to you but will have to do that tomorrow when I can get to a computer. You and your other readers and commenters have been a lifeline for me on two occasions at thank u. Also Our PTSD isnt from you, its from what is happening to our country. You do not need to take responsibility for aaking us to look at that. Although I am not in the pews I do admire the passion and although I am at heart a contemplative I've been very active over the years because of what Jesus asks of me. Viva la resistance