Ministry in the Meantime and the Mean Time

This post originally appeared on the Center for Healthy Churches website on June 27, 2017.

Ministry happens in the meantime and in the mean time.

The meantime is a season of sometimes bewildering change and troubling transitions. It’s an interval between a past we know well and a future which isn’t yet clear and between a familiar way of doing things and an emerging way of doing them. One indication of this interval is a leadership gap which exists in many churches: an older generation of experienced leaders is passing from the scene, and younger generations have not yet developed the skills for, or shouldered the responsibilities of, constructive congregational leadership. We live and serve in the tension between what has been and what will be, and this meantime calls for discernment, perseverance, and courage.

Meantime also refers to the climate in which ministry happens these days: it’s a mean time. The tone of public debate is coarsening, and verbal violence is increasing. It’s common to reduce complex issues to bumper-sticker or tweet sized slogans aimed at the single goal of winning an argument, and it’s uncommon to engage in thoughtful listening and speaking with the purpose of mutual understanding. Concern for the common good is eroding. Political polarization and partisan wrangling are more intense than they have been since the late 1960s and early 1970s. These factors adversely affect ministry.

Conversations about a church’s challenges and opportunities too-frequently reflect the stridency of public debate.

Add to the corrosive tone of public debate other factors that make this a mean time:

  • Decades of worship wars have splintered some churches into factions organized around differences in musical taste, matters of style, and differing opinions about what attracts “young people.” Many congregations are a coalition of churches-within-a-church. In some places, the coalition is strong and based on a sense of common mission; but, in others, it’s fragile and reflects unresolved conflict. In churches where the coalition is fragile, ministry is difficult.
  • Uncertainty over the value of “institutional religion” continues to grow. Responding to people’s hunger for spirituality and recognizing their caution about institutions is a Catch-22 for ministry leaders. How do we place legitimate focus on the structures and processes which make it possible for a church to serve people’s genuine needs without over-focusing on institutional imperatives?
  • Related to uncertainty over the value of institutions is confusion about the relationship between tradition and innovation. There’s a difference between healthy tradition and deadly traditionalism. In the familiar words of historian Jaraslov Pelikan: “Tradition is the living faith of those now dead, while traditionalism is the dead faith of those yet alive.” Tradition is the foundation, not the whole structure. Without a secure foundation, the church is unstable, but without open windows to let in the refreshing winds of change, the church becomes a suffocating shell. How do we strike the right balance between “the old, old story” and new ways of telling it?

Here are a few suggestions for vital and effective ministry in the meantime and in the mean time:

  • Model civility: In public statements (remember that social media, whether one’s own outlets or the church’s, are all public) about hot-button issues, focus on issues far more than on personalities and on matters of justice, peace, and compassion which clearly flow from commitment to the rule and reign of God more than from the agenda of a political party. Ground what you say in solid biblical and theological reasoning.  Speak “the truth,” as you see it, “in love,” as Jesus has shown it.

 

  • Have conversations about difficult issues without the pressure of immediate decisions: It’s important to discuss hard things in settings which allow people to speak and listen with the simple but crucial goal of mutual understanding. If a decision impatiently waits in the wings, discussion quickly becomes debate and curiosity about another’s views becomes a campaign for one’s own. 
  • Pursue structures and processes that are lean and nimble: In many congregations, there’s a widespread but largely unspoken awareness that “the institution” is more complex than it needs to be and that “tradition” had a louder voice than the Spirit.  Some congregations are trying to take a journey to a destination for which they don’t have the right equipment, and the equipment they have is heavy. Maybe it’s time for a conversation (remember: not tied to an immediate decision) about how the church has organized its life together and to ask how effectively it serves God’s dreams for the church and world.
  • Nurture yourself: Tend to your physical and emotional healthy practicing Sabbath in ways fit your temperament and circumstances. Spend unhurried time with family and friends. Have fun. Pray. Trust that God’s Spirit is creatively at work and will bring life out of the chaos of the meantime and mean times.

Excavation

I recently spent a couple of days away from my cellphone, Facebook, email, and television. I can’t take complete credit for this media fast, since my cellphone wouldn’t work and there wasn’t a television where I stayed. The Sabbath from “Morning Joe” and “Hardball,” from texting and emailing, and from memes and rants was a gift.

I watched the sun rise over the mountains, listened to the birds sing their joy over the dawning, heard the dancing rhythm of a swiftly-flowing mountain stream, and felt my heart leap in the direction of hope.

I was in a secluded place near Bryson City, NC, a place where, over many years, I’ve often retreated with friends. It’s resonant with laughter, tears, discovery, difficulty, and delight. On that high hill, I’ve experienced the mutuality of kindred spirits, the faithful and sometimes painful hearing and speaking of truth-in-love, and the encouragement of fellow-pilgrims on a long journey.

This time, three of us had come to the mountain to write.

My writing was an excavation of a home-site where I once lived, a clearing away of waste and debris. My pen was a shovel; my journal was a wheelbarrow.

Some of the weeds had been growing for a long time; their roots were in shame. They were toxic—a poison ivy of the spirit. I had to be careful not to expose myself to reinfection as I removed them. It was slow and hard work.

There were discarded containers which had once held my vocation and some rotting clothes worn in former roles.

There were a few boxes of old sermons, yellowed by the years. I scanned a few of them and sensed how much more I thought I knew then than I know now. The mystery continues to deepen. 

Scattered across the site were recognitions, certificates, and diplomas. There were trophies from adolescent athletics and plaques from a career in the church. They had once served to confirm and bolster my shaky identity.

And, there were rusted regrets, shards of shattered dreams, and piles of moldy mistakes.

There were treasures, too: pictures of loved ones, encouraging notes from teachers, a few children’s books, and letters of gratitude from people who, if they only knew, gave me more than I ever gave them. 

My hope is to build a new dwelling on this old-new place, this remembered and anticipated terrain of the spirit. Whatever it was that T.S. Eliot meant in “Little Gidding,” I recognize something of my own journey in these words:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this
     Calling . . .

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

“The place” is my life. I’m excavating my experience; and, as I clear it, I am seeing it as if for the first time. 

On it and of it, I’m building a shelter in which to dwell for what remains of my one and only life.

Bodies and Ethics

The prologue to the Gospel of John provides a powerful metaphor for meaningful embodiment: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, a glory filled with grace and truth.”

This metaphor goes by the name “incarnation,” the kind of word which my grandfather would have called “high dollar.”  Incarnation comes from the Latin words in carne and means “in meat.” The claim is that in the meat and the muscle, the blood and the bones, of the human body of Jesus of Nazareth, we may perceive the grace and truth of God.

The incarnation isn’t something which happened once and exclusively in Jesus; instead, it keeps happening to everyone, everywhere, and “every-when.” Theologian Wendy Farley wrote, in The Wounding and Healing of Desire, “The incarnation manifests the power of the human body to bear the divine” (106).

Our bodies are holy gifts and what Barbara Brown Taylor calls our “souls’ address”:

Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, “Here I am.  This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped.  I live here.  This is my soul’s address.”  After you have taken a good look around, you may decide that there is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered.  Bodies take real beatings. That they heal from most things is an underrated miracle. That they give birth is beyond reckoning (An Altar in the World, 38)

Incarnation means that our identities have a flesh-and-blood address; and, among many other truths which the incarnation affirms, there is this: everything that happens to us—that is, to our bodies—matters to us and to God.

Because bodies matter, so does food.  Who has enough to eat and who doesn’t? Why are there food deserts in poor urban areas, places where there are more liquor stores, payday loan centers, and fast food restaurants than there are grocery stores?

The condition of the soil from which food grows matters, as do the welfare of the farmers who grow it and of the migrant workers who harvest it.

It matters that people struggle with food: some substitute it for love and can’t get enough of it, even when they’ve had far-too-much; others obsessively control how much food they consume because they feel consumed by emotions which they cannot control.

It matters when our bodies become broken by disease and injury, and it also matters that everyone has good and affordable healthcare (By the way, we all have a preexisting condition; it is called mortality).

It matters how the homeless are sheltered and that we work for decent and affordable permanent housing.

It matters that we create jobs which don’t demean human dignity and don’t treat the bodies of laborers as disposable cogs in a sweatshop machine.

It matters how police and prison officials treat all bodies, including black and brown bodies.

It also matters, and these are signs of grace: when we relax beside a warm fire on a cold night, when strong and tender hands massage away the knotted tension of stress from our shoulders, and when a welcoming embrace assures that we belong.

It matters that we find joy in a dancer’s flowing beauty, in a painter’s luminous canvas, in the three-point shot that ties a game at the buzzer and sends it into overtime, in the perfect spiral pass to a sprinting split-end, in the powerful strokes and swiftly gliding body of a swimmer, and in the bursting speed of a runner. I often think of the well-known words of Olympic runner Eric Liddell, “God made me fast and, when I run, I feel [God’s] pleasure.”

Bodies matter; they are where we meet glory, feel grace, and encounter truth.

In many ways, ethics is about how we treat bodies, our own and the bodies of others. Catholic priest and anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan was right to say: “It all comes down to this: Whose flesh are you touching and why? Whose flesh are you recoiling from and why?  Whose flesh are you burning and why?”