Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Name:
Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.

5/19/2005

Ministry and Suffering -- a sermon preached at a License to Preach School

Since we have asked you to share sermons on selected texts this week as a way of helping each other with our preaching, and since this has required that you become vulnerable to one another and to me, I thought it would be only fair that I take the risk of sharing a sermon with you on the same texts we assigned to you.

We have been basing our sermons on the lectionary readings for the seventh Sunday of Pentecost or Ascension Sunday: Acts 1: 6-14; I Peter 4: 12-14; 5:6-11; and John 17:1-11. Let's listen again to the lesson from the First Epistle of Peter:

1Pe 4:12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.
13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.
14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.
1Pe 5:6 Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time.
7 Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.
8 Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.
9 Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.
10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.
11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen. (NRSV)

Peter (or a successor) wrote these words to the Christians of Asia Minor during the time of the Dispersion (I Pe 1:1): "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you." (I Pe 4:12)

And, of course, the reason he had to write this is because they were surprised at the fiery ordeal they were experiencing, and they did think it strange. Otherwise Peter wouldn't have had to write them to tell them not to be surprised, not to think it strange.

They were surprised by the fiery ordeal, as we all --I think-- are surprised by it when it comes to us. They did think something strange was happening to them as we all think it strange when trouble and suffering happen to us.

This is not the deal we cut with God. The deal we thought we cut was that we would serve God and that God would bless us. Fiery ordeals were not the blessings we had in mind.

This is no less true for those of us who are in ministry than for anybody -- maybe more so for us. We have committed even more than most. What have we done to deserve fiery ordeals? But, beloved, ministry always includes trouble and suffering.

I love ministry -- not everyday but many days, overall. The joys and satisfactions of ministry are abundant. I would do it all again! Nonetheless, it is also true that ministry always includes trouble and suffering, and even a fiery ordeal or two or three.

And when they come I am always surprised. Always. And it always feels as though something strange is happening to me. Always. No matter how often I experience it, I am always surprised. It always feels strange.

Some bishops are now saying that seven years will be the minimum expected length of a ministerial appointment. They are saying that it will have to be a very unusual circumstance for a change to happen before the pastor and church have lived with each other for at least seven years. They say the second and third years, or the third and fourth years, sooner or later, are going to be tough years almost always. But, they say, if we can get through the tough years, the fourth or fifth years and beyond are likely to be productive years of ministry.

Some bishops are saying that if clergy and congregations are not willing to stick it out through the tough years, we will never get to the productive years of ministry. It is normal and perhaps necessary that the cycle of an appointment include times of trouble and suffering.

There are, I suppose, lots of reasons we experience trouble and suffering in ministry. For one thing, there is a lot of pain in our pews. If we have more than 50 people in our pews, there are almost surely going to be unrecovering alcoholics, untreated survivors of childhood abuse, untreated sufferers of bi-polar or borderline illnesses or depression, couples living in loveless marriages without any help, closeted gay men and lesbians, individuals filled with a sense of powerlessness and rage, and more.

And this is not even to mention the "ordinary" pains of living. A friend who is a hospital chaplain tells me that the dominant experience of the second half of life is loss -- loss of loved ones, loss of strength, loss of work, loss of health, loss of status, loss of power, loss of security, and finally the loss of life itself. We do almost nothing, he says, to prepare ourselves for this painful experience -- this fiery ordeal. We do almost nothing to help each other through it.

Our faith can offer us hope and healing for all this pain, but our religious practices are also part of our pain management system. Marx was not all wrong; we do use religion as an opiate. (William Sloane Coffin was once asked if religion isn't a crutch. He answered: "Yes, but who isn't limping?" Religion is an opiate, but who isn't in intolerable pain?)

When we get to our appointments with all the insights and tools we have learned at License to Preach School, if we do the ministry God has called us to do, we will sooner or later interfere with folks' pain management systems. Human beings do one of two things with unhealed pain: we either get healed or we try to find a way for others to carry the pain and feel it for us.

Hello, pastor!

There is a lot of pain in our pews, and if we are ministering in the name and spirit of Christ, some of that pain will make its way into our hearts and mind. For me, no matter how often it happens, it is still a surprise. I am surprised. It does feel as though something strange is happening to me.

Another reason we will inevitably sooner or later experience trouble and suffering in ministry is because ministry is mostly about ministering in the face of resistance, and most of us are not prepared for this. Other than Rabbi Edwin Friedman, the writer who has helped me most to try to figure out how to do ministry in the real world is James Dittes, a professor of psychology of religion at Yale Divinity School who wrote books with titles like When the People Say No, Minister on the Spot, and Church in the Way.

The thesis of Church in the Way is that it often feels to us as though our congregations get in the way of our ability to do ministry. He uses the psychotherapeutic concept of resistance to help us understand that our people's resistance is the very place ministry happens rather than the place where our ministries are blocked.

Dittes writes about the obstacles that persistently confront us and seem to block our ministries: "Such obstacles are not merely evidence of a general 'sinfulness,' requiring a blanket denunciation and a general summons to renewed fidelity to the church and its gospel. They are not merely instrumental problems, requiring instrumental and administrative solutions -- rearranging situations, recruiting, organizing, training people more effectively. They are not deliberate attacks or frustrations for the sake of attack and frustration, requiring angry counterattack. Rather, they are occasions of specific response by particular persons to particular presentations of the church's message, mission and ministry. They are meaningful events, disclosing to those with eyes to see how that portion of message, mission and ministry is having impact on these particular persons, and inviting further ministry." (p. 17)

Ministry is all about leading congregations to the place of their resistance, and then ministering through the resistance to the next place of spiritual growth to the next place of resistance. This is a work full of trouble, suffering and fiery ordeals.

I've read Dittes and I know this intellectually, but I am still always surprised. I still always feel as though something strange is happening to me.

So I really have very little that I can say about how to understand all this, but I Peter says three things that I find helpful.

First, Peter says that when we suffer we are sharing Christ's suffering: "Rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's suffering." (I Pe 4:13)

We need to be careful here. Rita Nakashima and Rebecca Ann Parker have made a telling and powerful argument in their book Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering and the Search for What Saves Us that Christian teachings about suffering have often been used to oppress suffering people, especially women. (Read a Christian Century review of the book, as well as other books that raise concerns about traditional understandings of the meaning of the cross and suffering, here.) Since reading their book I have been pondering and worrying about the way our glorification of suffering has sometimes kept people in oppressive and violent situations because they thought it was their "cross to bear."

Yet, I think it is safe to say that the trouble, suffering and fiery ordeals of ministry can, if we are faithful, be a sharing in the suffering of Christ. If we remain determined to move through the pain and resistance to the place of growth and new life, rather than to stay stuck in the trouble and suffering, and if we take care of ourselves -- drink eight glasses of water a day, exercise, get enough sleep, take our days off, avoid excessive consumption of alcohol, practice our spiritual disciplines, stay healthy -- then the fiery ordeals of ministry can be an expression of the suffering of Christ that will lead to healing and resurrection.

Remaining vulnerable in the presence of pain is the way God in Jesus Christ does God's work, and it is the way we must do our work of ministry if we are followers of Christ.

In Minister on the Spot, Jim Dittes talks about the temptation to try to avoid the painful aspects of ministry and how the consequence can be that we miss ministry altogether while dreaming of some more fulfilling appointment. He writes: "The trivialities, the banalities, the meaninglessnesses, the groping inarticulateness, the complacencies, the blind and mechanical conventionalities, the lamp to be tended, the money to be counted and invested, the inconveniently fallen stranger ... . Surely each of these trivial occasions and encounters of the present -- those phone calls and committee meetings, that insufferable Council of Churches' president, those unruly kids and the scripturally illiterate congregation, the woman threatening suicide, the man threatening divorce, and the deacon threatening resignation, and all the other harassments against which one feels helpless -- surely these unlikely occasions are not to be taken seriously, for their own sake, as though genuine ministry can take place in them? Yet it may be so." (p. 18-19) It may be so. These may be for us a sharing in the suffering of Christ from which resurrection will be born.

The real point of Luke's account in the Book of Act of Jesus' accession, it seems to me, is not that Jesus ascended but that his disciples didn't. Why, disciples, do you stand looking up toward heaven? (Acts 1:11) The ministry of Jesus' disciples is in the broken world full of pain and resistance, trouble and suffering.

Secondly, Peter seems to suggest that suffering can be a means of creating community. "You know your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering," he writes. (I Pe 5:9) Trouble, suffering and fiery ordeals can isolate us or they can bring us out of our ministerial loneliness into community.

The late James Glasse used to say that when ministers get together we usually spend our time either complaining or bragging. In either mode, we are mostly competing with each other and not really connecting. Sharing our trouble and suffering in honest and vulnerable ways --admitting we've got problems we don't know how to solve, feelings we don't know how to live with, and fears we don't know how to overcome-- has within it the possibility for new community among us.

After spending seven years in conference staff positions, when I again became the pastor of a local church, before my first Lent back in the parish, I called a pastor whose ability to think theologically I respected and asked him to lunch. I want to talk about what to preach on Easter, I warned him. After sitting in pews and listening to Easter sermons these past years, I found myself unsure about what to preach on Easter, I said. I want to talk with you about what you think really happened in Jesus' resurrection that makes a difference for the world our parishioners live in today, I told him. He wrestled with his own theology of the resurrection openly as I shared my questions. After our lunch, he told me it was the first time in his many years of ministry that another clergyperson had ever asked to meet to talk about theology with him.

Trouble, suffering, fiery ordeals have the capacity to create community, if we are willing to take the risk of honesty and vulnerability with one another.

The third thing Peter says about suffering is --this is the most important one for me-- that trouble, suffering and fiery ordeals help by humbling us. He writes: "Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that God may exalt you in due time." (I Pe 5:6) Suffering helps by humbling us.

It is so easy to suppose that our ministries will go well and be effective because we are good at it and work hard. Or else, because we are so spiritual or so loving or so wise or so learned.

Not so, if Peter is right. Our ministries will go well because of the presence and power of Christ in our midst, not so much because of us. "To Christ be the power forever and ever," Peter says (I Pe 5:11)

Twice in my life I have had unusual spiritual experiences --if they were spiritual. Once was when I decided to pray three hours a day. I had invited Dr. Benjamin Smith, pastor of Evangelistic Deliverance Church with 10,000 members, to preach for a Lenten midweek service. We were chatting and I asked him how he managed to administer a church with 10,000 members when I could hardly keep up with a church of a few hundred members. He told me that if he prayed an hour a day, his church was impossible to administer. If he prayed two hours a day, it was easier. If he prayed three hours a day it ran itself and, on top of that, just seemed to grow on its own.

I was feeling frustrated and defeated by my inability to grow my church much. Then and there, I resolved to spend three hours a day in prayer for the rest of Lent. The first day I prayed everything I could think of to pray, checked my watch. I had two hours and 45 minutes left to go. I don't recommend that anyone try this without working up to it gradually.

It was in my third week of praying three hours a day that I had an unusual spiritual experience -- if it was spiritual. The week before I had started having strange and vivid dreams. One morning that third week, Tuesday morning actually, I had been sitting in my study praying for a couple of hours, when I fell to my knees as though I had been pushed. I thought I heard a voice in my head say: Don't you try to use me! I know Ben Smith! Ben Smith and I spend time together. Ben Smith and I are friends. But you are trying to use me! Don't try to use me!

After that I stopped praying three hours a day. I was too scared to pray at all for a time. I felt as spiritually disconnected as I have ever felt. I felt as though I had been spiritually told to sit facing the corner of the room wearing a spiritual dunce cap. It was that way for several months, until one summer night my son and I were camping on the banks of the Juniata River and late at night I thought I heard a voice in my head say, Now, if you've learned a lesson, perhaps we can do some interesting things together.

Since then I have found myself ministering in ways and places I would have never imagined. I am convinced Peter is right. Trouble, suffering, fiery ordeals can humble us, and prepare us for ministry in which the power and the glory is not ours but Christ's.

"And after you have suffered for a little while," Peter writes, "the God of all grace, who has called you to [God's] eternal glory in Christ, will ... restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To Christ ...to Christ... be the power forever and ever. Amen." (I Pe 5:10-11)



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