The Long and Winding Road
My first sermon at each church I have served has been on the call of Abram (who becomes Abraham):
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. (Genesis 12:1)
Each time I found myself in a new community, a new place to work and serve, a new adventure. It is time for another such adventure in answering God’s call.
For much of this year I have been discerning the next steps in my middle-aged life. Late last year I had a health scare that turned out to be something minor. But the experience left me reflective on the trajectory of my life. And this November 29 I will turn 50. A time for thinking about the second half of life and work.
For several years I have been sure that I would not end my pastoral career at retirement age. The reasons are many… the journey has been a long and winding one. Some pain and struggle. But also a deeper understanding of how God has gifted me. What do I do well? What gifts and experiences has God given me? And is the best stewardship of them in professional ministry? I have many years of work remaining and plenty of time for another career.
In early May the call came as it did decades ago. As clearly as God called me to leave a great job and future, so God has called me again to leave what I know to journey to what God will yet show me. My personal ministry is not ending – just the professional one. I know God will continue to use the gifts I have received to serve others, to speak and to share, to honor Christ in a new way.
I thank God for a spouse and children who support me in following this path. It means a huge change in our lives and perhaps lifestyle in the near term. My children have no memory of living anywhere except in a church parsonage. Or of their dad as anything but a pastor. And Dana has sacrificed much over the years including professionally to follow me around Ohio. I am grateful that they understand and affirm my decision and are excited, too, about this call to a new season of life.
My last day of ministry at Aldersgate UMC and as a professional pastor will be October 31. What comes next I do not know. Like Abram I can see some paths ahead to follow, some of what might be. Like that adventurer long ago – not just Abram but the young man who in 1992 began a journey – I know God will show me a new land and life. I am looking forward to it.
These past six months have been a time of intense and expanding prayer for me. I have grown more in my prayer life than I have at any other time in my walk of faith. The biggest change has come in my seeking to hear God’s “yes” to my prayers.
To intercede for others… to seek God’s answers to pressing personal, community, and even world problems… to believe that God has the power to do what we ask is all a real and vital journey. And I would be the first to give witness to the reality that God has answered in specific ways quite specific things I have asked.
But there comes a moment in the journey of prayer when one realizes the “yes” that matters is not God saying “yes.” It is not some slippery slope of seeing prayer as successful or not, It is not in finding some pattern that one believes will force the divine hand. This last one vexes me the most. I catch myself thinking about prayer as technique – if I do X, God will answer. If I say Y, God will respond. Read a few books on prayer and you will understand the allurement.
No, the “yes” that sounds the sweetest is the one echoed in the Lord’s Prayer – “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
This is not resignation to fate (as it can easily be misconstrued). It is rather saying to God “I want this that I am saying… but what do you want for me? I want you to do this… but am I asking you for what you really want to give?”
The genuine divine “yes” comes when we say “yes” to God, to the divine will above all else. I don’t mean to suggest that I am there. I do mean to say that I have discovered a new freedom in seeking to say “yes” – to understand more clearly what God wants for me rather than to keep asking for what I want from God.
I have been praying for a long time for something very important to me. Early this year as I began this journey of prayer God showed me almost immediately that what I was asking God didn’t want to do. To answer me was to deny something better, something more wonderful that I could not imagine possible. Only in the last few weeks has this reality become clearer (more on this another time as it is still unfolding). I have said “yes” to something that I would have once thought was a repudiation of what God wants for me. Arriving at a moment of understanding that I project on God what I want far more than I genuinely want what God wants was a spiritual corner I had to turn.
It’s sobering to realize how many have died fighting wars in our United States military. A 2015 story by the PBS NewsHour reported that 1.1 million military personnel have died in warfare since our country’s founding.
Even more sobering is the fact that just shy of 500,000 died in the U.S. Civil War – almost half. This staggering number comes from the fact that – unlike our other wars – this one was fought on American territory by American soldiers on both sides. The bloodiest day in American history occurred during this war (the Battle of Antietam) and the largest land battle in North American history also (Battle of Gettysburg).
I don’t want to hijack this solemn weekend of remembering but I was struck that the worst and bloodiest fights often occur not between warring nations but nations and people warring with themselves.
And I thought about my beloved denomination which is, well, at war with itself over issues of sexuality. Bitter conflicts I have witnessed in local churches. Families torn apart and destroyed by strife and disagreement. Battles at home are the worst, the bloodiest, and leave the deepest scars.
As we remember the fallen who have purchased peace and freedom for us… I am led, too, to prayer for peace on those internal fields of battle where blood is being spilled and spirits wounded even as I write. May the peace of Christ rule there and the freedom from anger and hurt come to reign there too.
I had drafted something along the lines of what I am about to repost below… but then read these much better and more eloquent observations from someone on the spot and who has a broad and deep experience of General Conference and the general church at large.
Among the greatest indictments of the modern church (UM and others) is that we are far more influenced by the culture and politics of our age than we are by the age to come when Jesus reigns without a rival. He has a rival now – us and our being more left and right, conservative and progressive than grace-filled and humble.
I invite you to read Mike Slaughter’s blog in its entirety HERE. I hope his concluding words will entice you to read and reflect on his message as I have been this morning.
“I believe the following expression, sometimes attributed to John Wesley among others, is the best counsel I know in these difficult days.
Unity in the essentials
Liberty in the non-essentials
Charity in ALL things.
I love Jesus. I love Christ’s Church. Let’s learn how to love each another. ”
Or Maybe Not
I was raised to believe that I could do anything I wanted to do – and I am grateful for that! To approach life believing I could overcome obstacles… that I could face adversity…. that my abilities were enough. This was all good. (This may also be a lie too but that is for another day!).
But for me this came to be “I can fix anything.” A person is broken, wounded, dysfunctional, etc. – I can fix that! An organization is broken or failing or myopic? I can fix that! A system doesn’t work as it ought – I can tweak it, adjust it, repair it. I can fix that! Nearly fifty years of living and leading (and being led and coached) have helped me see the lie.
To believe I can fix “it” means taking responsibility that isn’t mine. Even as a leader, when all is said and done I can only take responsibility for me. I cannot make people do what they won’t. I cannot force what is not freely taken. My own sense of responsibility may even rob another – person or organizations – of its opportunity to take responsibility for the nest steps. And for life and health — and for the consequences.
And to assume a power that is beyond me. There are things that no human power can repair. There are things that are so broken that the best result is an end rather than a limping, gasping continuation. Even people – not that they should give up and die. But their brokenness is beyond my ability to help, heal or even bear.
There is so much more here to unpack but the lie “I can fix it” is a spiritual one. To believe I can fix things, systems, and people is to nudge God off the throne of the universe and, as people are wont to do, ease myself into the seat. Only God can create new life. Only God can heal in an ultimate way.
More painfully, the desire to fix others and other things is a way to avoid fixing me. To focus on the brokenness of others? Means I don’t have to look in the spiritual and psychological mirror. To bring my magic elixir to fix a system or structure? I don’t have to ask how I contribute to this system’s dysfunction. Or how I am blinded by things that are simply different from the things others in the organization cannot see.
I can do my part – I can offer what I know and have experienced. i can take responsibility for myself and my faults and my place in a system or group. I can even offer my “fix.” But I can’t do it all. And some things I cannot – and should not – do at all.
During the weeks following Easter, our church invited speakers to share their answers to the question “What does the resurrection mean to you?” This blog post is a written version of my answer last Sunday, May 1.
The Resurrection is a profoundly personal story. While Paul does record a large-scale appearance of Jesus, most are to individuals and small groups. Jesus appears to Mary in the garden. He speaks with Peter and restores him to relationship. A mysterious figure walks with two disciples but reveals himself to be the risen Jesus. Thomas’ doubts are answered when Jesus appears and invites him to believe.
Among the most personal stories of resurrection occurs before Jesus’ death – the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus, who is with his sisters among Jesus’ closest friends, dies. Jesus travels to the scene of his burial and asserts to Martha “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus speaks to the dead Lazarus in his tomb and tells him “Lazarus, come forth!”
May 2011 marked the end of the longest, most painful two-years of my life. Another year of challenge lay ahead. The three worst years of my life were in full swing. I felt, as people often do when life is challenging, that I could not take one more thing. One more burden would crush me. One more crisis would be one too many. And then, without warning, it came.
I was driving to the office after my once-a-month Bible study at the local nursing home. My phone had rung several times during the class but I had muted them until I could get to the office. Then one of my best friends and closest colleagues called. Something was not right. When I answered the phone he asked if I was driving – when I responded “yes” he told me to pull over. “Your dad just died.”
There are moments seared into our memories. Moments whose feeling and details come back in exquisite detail when we allow them to re-enter our consciousness. That phone call is one of them.
I can only describe that moment as a moment when I died in a way. My dad was the person who, in addition to my wife and children, had supported and encouraged me in the hell I was living. He was the human rock, the source of wisdom both practical and spiritual, in my life. And he was gone. And part of me with him.
What I thought was unimaginable grief would deepen. He was alone, at home. On the phone with the 9-1-1 operator, my dad died frightened, alone, and gasping for breath. I had imagined things in my life could not get worse… but they could.
In the days that followed I must confess I wanted to die myself at times. I didn’t sleep well. I was dying inside if not outside.
And then I heard it. My soul was heavy, full of death and pain from months of crisis climaxing in an awful moment of death. And still I heard it. Like dead Lazarus lying in his tomb – insensible to this life, to his friends and family, beyond all caring and hope – the voice of Jesus. “Randy, come forth.” The Resurrection and the Life spoke into my time of death and said “Randy live.” And by his grace and his power, by his presence and his invitation, I did.
“ But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites,in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Joshua 24:15 NIV
Last evening I posted this on Facebook:
I am, I must admit, prone to regret. But I have learned over the years that the one thing we have in our power, the one superpower every human has is choice. Many of us may feel powerless at times. And often our circumstances are beyond our control and our power to change.
But in every situation… in every challenge… we can make a choice. We can choose our reaction. We can choose to move. We can choose a different path.
In Joshua’s narrative, the people are ready to move into the land of promise. To realize God’s dream that carried them through two generations and finally was at its end. But not THE end. The end of the journey and the start of a new adventure. I think they were paralyzed by what faced them.
Right now there are choices within our power. Adventures waiting to begin. New life God wants to bring to birth. But it takes our choosing for it to be. Not even God can overcome our lack of choosing. So choose!
When I worked for The University of Cincinnati, I had a corporate American Express card. What I remember most about that card was the marketing line that came to be it signature – “membership has its privileges.”
Sadly this could also be the motto of some churches in my experience as a pastor and nearly life-long church member. Members have privileges for their membership: personal care and attention from the church’s pastor, provision of various services such as use of the church building for personal functions, the right to have the worship style he or she desires, personal attention from the church secretary who acts as a kind of concierge for member services.
In his book Power Surge, mainline Protestant pastor Michael W. Foss writes this about the “membership model” of church:
The changing cultural context, with its displacement of Christianity from the center of individual and community life to the periphery, has caused a mutation in the membership model of the church. In the Protestant explosion of the 1950s, membership implied obligation. In today’s cultural context, membership has come to imply prerogatives.
Mostly what this membership model creates in today’s context is dissatisfaction. No church, however well-staffed, can meet the expectations of even a homogeneous church membership. Someone will be unhappy. And pastors in these churches, who are little more than personal chaplains, are burned out and miserable. They either face conflict for their unwillingness to accept the model or they are exhausted from trying to keep such an unsustainable model going.
The challenge (as Foss and others observe) is that this model worked in the 1950’s and 1960’s in part because the sense of obligation was greater than the sense of entitlement. Yes, members had expectations of the staff and church community. But the sense of obligation (to give, to serve, to participate) was overwhelmingly greater. That balance has shifted.
Some churches, however, are filled with people who came to the church with this model in place. They see it as the right way to do church. And even those who give sacrificially to the church in terms of time, money, and energy will guard jealously the rightness of this model. I once had someone say to me “We know how to do church and you need to learn from us what that is” when I suggested we consider looking at a model for church vitality and evangelism. What this person meant was the membership model.
There is another way, a better way. One built on, centered on somethign other than privileges. But that’s for next time.
In the days after Jesus’ resurrection, he appears to various people including so-called Doubting Thomas. For reasons not explained, Thomas is absent when Jesus appears to the disciples in John 20 on Easter evening. When they share the good – perhaps too good? -news, he says he won’t believe until he sees with his eyes and touches with his hands.
“A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.”
(John 20:26 NRSV)
An entire week later Jesus appears once more. A week. Not as soon as Thomas lays down his challenge. Not the next day. Seven days later.
Why does God do this? Why wait to do what God plans to do? Why an entire week?
I have no idea. None. Oh I have read and even written about God’s seeming delayed response. I am sure most of what I have read and said has some value. But for the most part God neither explains nor apologizes. When the time is right – whatever that means – God speaks. God acts. God appears.
This is my deepest spiritual struggle right now. I live in the certainty that God wants me to do several things, make several changes. Some are dramatic – others matter to no one but me and to God. Why doesn’t God move things along for, well, God’s sake???? Why not show me the next step with clarity? Why not? Why not? Why not?
As noted I know the various reasons offered for this interminable waiting. But explanations don’t make the time move more quickly.. Logic and feeling are complementary but not interchangeable parts of our lives.
I don’t doubt… but I do wait.