It’s Like . . .

10888952_811306665578420_2852904291022551664_n (1)I am not sure . . . pastoral life is difficult to describe. If congregational life is like a marriage then you might be tempted to think of a pastor as spouse (no!), parent (no!), older sibling (no!). Again, it’s complicated.

Although in United Methodist circles we speak of it often our pastoral calling is truly grounded in our baptism. To me this means that it is rooted in my own encounter with the Risen Lord and my own grafting into the body called the church. So it is rooted in my belonging to this body and my discernment around what role I will play–what part of the body I am–and how is that role beneficial to our call from God.

So pastors are part of the laos (λαός), the people of God. From within that body we are indeed set apart by that body, by God’s people called the church, not to be something other than God’s people, but instead “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”(Ephesians 4:12, NRSV)

Among God’s people some are ordered to the set apart role of leading the Christian community into God’s call for God’s people. The reason for establishing a set apart, ordered, and anointed group of people whose discipleship role in the community of believers is the gathering of the body around the story of faith (worship), nurturing the soul of the body (sacrament & sacramental acts), and making sure that the body is functioning in a healthy and fruitful way (ad-ministration) so that they can be God’s people in the world.

“The focus of pastoral leadership is on the people because all Christians, not church leaders as such, are the primary ministers of the gospel. It is the church as a whole that is God’s “chosen race, royal priesthood, and holy nation” (2 Pet. 2:9). Pastoral leaders serve to build up the body of Christ, so that the entire church can bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to a very broken world.”

Christopher A. Beeley
in Leading God’s People: Wisdom from the Early Church for Today

Just like any leadership role, leading a faith community is messy work. Often pastors find themselves in the midst of the multitude of expectations found in any gathered body. Expectations that at times have little if anything to do with God, God’s kingdom, and our identity as the body of Christ in the world.

These competing expectations give us clues about the need for pastoral leadership. For even when difficult it is our task to gather the community to be reminded of our common story of salvation, to receive the medicine for our continued growth in holiness through sacraments and other means of grace, and to being persistent in ordering the shared life of the body beyond itself into kingdom activity.

In order to remain rooted in the work of equipping the saints, the pastor must be diligent in their own sanctification. We must model the rhythms of life in baptized community, as we live every day renouncing, rejecting, repenting, accepting, resisting, and confessing.*

Rootedness in our equipping work is hard and everyday I am more convinced that this is why the Holy Spirit was called upon us again at our ordination. The Holy Spirit does not just connect us to the community of the ordered, but also provides us with a double portion of the Spirit so that we can indeed guide the body into holiness of heart and life. It is in the difficult moments of pastoral life that I look at the picture of my ordination and I’m thankful for the hands that were placed upon me, for their heaviness, for the yoke placed, for the passing on of the charisms (gifts) needed to live into this role and identity in the community of the baptized, in the body of Christ.

“Listen. Dear pastor, this too is for you. Your baptism has joined you to Christ, gathered your death and your little deaths into his, raised you up with him and surrounded you with the mercy and the presence of this triune God. The Holy Supper feeds you with the bread of life and the cup of salvation. And the words of absolution–the ‘keys’ given to Peter and to all of the Christians as they speak to one another–announce forgiveness to you. Let someone speak them to you.”

Gordon Lathrop
in The Pastor: A Spirituality

Pastoral life it’s like nothing else and like everything else. It is deeply communal, yet deeply personal. It is filled with joy and filled with heartbreak. It is simple yet deeply complex. It is a calling from God but the more I live this life the more convinced I am that it better be a calling from the community of the baptized, from the body, that has discerned from God that they need someone(s) in the midst to lead them into their calling as yeast, salt, bread, and light of God’s reconciling, forgiving, and redemptive work for all of creation.

How do I know if I am fruitful in equipping the saints? Well, I ask, are we the body of Christ or is there another?

“Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.'”

Luke 7:21-22 (NRSV)

I’m sure there is more to come . . . I’m still thinking, still allowing the Holy Spirit called at my baptism, again at my marriage, then again at my ordination, to help me become that which I am unable to become, to grow deeper in my relationship to Jesus, to live faithfully in my covenant relationships, and to lead God’s people into a deeper life, a communal life, a transformative and transformed life.

* These are the words that root our baptismal vows as found in The United Methodist Hymnal.

It’s Like a Marriage

All Saint's Episcopal Church, Ft. Worth, TX. by Greg  Westfall CC BY 2.0

All Saint’s Episcopal Church, Ft. Worth, TX. by Greg Westfall CC BY 2.0

Church . . . it’s complicated!

It only takes a few moments in the inner conversations about leaky roofs, staff issues, and an upset congregant to make even the most devout become doubter. It almost seems like those of us who have made a decision to live in the body have entered it in total denial of reality, or in hopefulness?

So recently I’ve been pondering life together . . . yes in a congregation. I’ve been thinking about all the dynamics and relationships at play when we gather together and when we live life in between gatherings. It came to me recently that in some real ways the dynamics should not surprise most of us, in fact it should not surprise any of us. The church, really the local congregation, is like a family! Our life together with its covenant to live our discipleship among this particular body of people, with its call upon the Holy Spirit to make us one, to unite us around the body and blood of Christ instead of kinship circles, is truly an intimate human institution.

Just like marriage and family it requires commitment, fidelity, and shared life. Just like marriage and family it can get messy!

I think the disappointment comes because for some reason we expect it to be neat. Like an engaged couple or a family welcoming children we tend to idealized life together. In the congregation is even more complicated by the fact that often we think of our spiritual lives as individualized experiences in a collective vs. a communal experience with a personal dimension. All of this humanity and human condition manifests itself in unhealthy ways as it should when you live life together.

Here is when the promise of the Holy Spirit to make us “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world” comes in.

In spite of our differences, disappointments, and difficulties the Holy Spirit is continually shaping our souls into God’s own image, into a re-membered body, into a people with a common call. The Holy Spirit is sanctifying our assembly! Even before we recognize it and especially when God seems absent the work of God is there among us and the promise that the “the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18b, NRSV).

It is my prayer that we call one another to our identity as a body. To our shared identity, shared covenant, and shared call. That we encourage one another to mature in our common life, in our life with God, and that when it gets messy that we are reminded of our common need for divine grace.

So like marriage and family life we must be persistent in our love for one another, we must forgive one another as Christ has forgiven us, we must be patient with one another–especially when things are difficult–and we must put our whole trust in Christ who has called us by name and given us new life by water and the Spirit.

As I have said before in this space I too have a tendency to want to walk away. This has been the case in every congregation that I have lived life with since my teenage years. But time and time again God’s Spirit calls me back to my covenant of fidelity, of obedience, of life lived in community. Time and time again I am reminded that in the midst of life, of every day life, God makes us one, God sets us apart for God’s purposes, God calls us across time, space, culture, language, difference, God sends us empowered by the Spirit as agents of God’s kingdom . . . for the life of the world!

I would not want to live my life any other way!

Bringers of Justice & Peace

by Alison McKellar CC BY 2.0

by Alison McKellar CC BY 2.0

The saints inspire us to new life, to a renewed life, to a reorientation of our lives. At first their witness seems other worldly. As if we are seeing the lives of some lesser deity instead of the lives of people like you and me who heard the call of Jesus and responded.

In my own life I have been deeply shaped by the life of Monseñor Romero. His constant conversion and his martyrdom on behalf of his people inspire me to be a more careful listener and a courageous preacher. It is also a humbling reminder of the cost of discipleship in our world and how comfortable many of us are in the safety of our lives. What would it look like if we began paying attention?

I think Monseñor would tell us that it would fill us with joy! Living our lives alongside those who are easily forgotten, those who are pushed aside, and those who like us, are broken engenders in us hope. Hope then begins to open up pathways for healing, which turns our mourning into dancing!

Often in the church we find ourselves caught up in the many things that are not going as we would like. We might talk of decline, of lack of resources, and lack of leadership. At other times we wonder if what we are doing makes any difference in the lives of those who come in contact with us?

I want to ask: What do we carry with us? What do we bring?

“The holy Mass, now, this Eucharist, is just such an act of faith. To Christian faith at this moment the voice of diatribe appears changed for the body of the Lord, who offered himself for the redemption of the world, and in this chalice the wine is transformed into the blood that was the price of salvation. May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we may give our body and our blood to suffering and to pain — like Christ, not for self, but to bring about justice and peace for our people.”

Archbishop Oscar Romero
from his last homily moments before his martyrdom by an assassin’s bullet on this day in 1980.

Winter into Spring: A Sense of Wonder

IMG_0402It’s another wintry day here in Shreveport, LA. I woke up early and spent some time in silence, reflecting, journaling. I was supposed to fly to Atlanta early this morning but do to the weather the flight was cancelled. At the time it was just rainy and wet, I thought “what a waste, I could have made it to Houston by now.”

“Spring cannot get here fast enough”, I thought.

Then the kids wake up . . . soon the rain turns to snow!

Now, I am not a fan of snow. I had enough of it from my 18 months in the beautiful Village of Saranac Lake, New York. I lived there in high school and remember well the daily grind of winter life. So I welcomed the snow with boredom and apprehension. My previous experience weighs heavy on my present one.

Soon as the snowflakes turn larger I see a little boy across the street all bundled up with wide eyes looking at the sky. He could not believe his eyes . . . snow!! He was filled with awe, wonder, and a sense of joy.

So often our previous experiences of life and faith keep us from experiencing wonder at the ways that God is present in our lives. We become hardened, set in our ways, fearful of anything that is not familiar or that we have not connected with before. Our experience becoming normative, the past keeping us hostage from experiencing God in new and renewed ways.

This week we’ll gather around Psalm 147. The people exclaim praise at the freedom of being home again. Their history of exile no longer defining them, no longer keeping them from seeing God anew, from being awed at God’s deeds, and from experiencing wonder again in the everyday of life.

Today I pray that you spend time looking out your window. Pay attention to your sense of wonder . . . let God speak to you and renew your desolate and wintry soul. Know that God is still at work, still calling, still creating, still speaking. Spring is coming yet God is to be found where awe, wonder, and joy meet.

May we as a faith community continue to find wonder in our shared life, continue to nurture awe, and continue to invite others to come out of their “safe places” to see what God is doing! We would not want to miss it, as we continue becoming a generation of missionaries.

Winter into Spring: Psalm 147

IMG_0395Today we are getting a winter blast here in Shreveport. The streets are slushy, slick, and dirty; the sidewalks and roofs are white. Just a week or so ago it seemed like spring was here, like soon all of our surroundings would burst into new life.

The same happens in our life of faith. Just when we seem to be moving forward, when we seem to “get it,” and when we seem to finally be getting ahead, the winter returns with a vengeance. It would be easy to get discouraged, to not even try to connect anymore to stick to the postures that we know will bring renewed life, to no longer stick to our lenten disciplines.

The Psalm for this coming weekend might help us here:

He throws down hail like stones falling from a mountain.
    Can any withstand His wintry blast?
But He dispatches His word, and the thaw begins;
    at His command, the spring winds blow, gently stirring the waters back to life.

Psalm 147:17-18 (The Voice Bible)

It turns our that the psalmist knows all too well our struggle. In the midst of praise the winter returns and there is the temptation to give up, to walk away, to convince ourselves that new life is impossible to attain.

I invite you on this wintry day to spend some time looking out your window and meditating on Psalm 147. Take it all in, pause as words, phrases, and something in the view get your attention. Ask God to help you become aware of the places in your soul that are filling up with hail, icing up, and becoming desolate again.

Lift those places up to God and let the “thawing” of our souls begin . . .

Today I lift the people called Grace Community in my prayers. May God help us pay attention to the thawing happening around us, may we not get distracted by the blast of winter nor be discouraged, for the promise of new life is coming!

Cannot wait to gather with all of you this weekend!!