Saturday, July 29, 2023

How I Survived Ministry: Clarity

By the age of 60, I had been working full time for 37 years. Sometimes it helps to take a look at the mileage not just chronological age. (1)  

About that time, there was an episode that has become a benchmark. I was sharing Holy Communion with a parishioner, a resident of an Assisted Living home, and a hospice patient.

As I greeted the patient, there was the remains of a meal that surely had been served hours before. The meal tray was covered with ants. I couldn't miss it as I prepared the Sacrament. I also saw ants on the patient's bedding and tee shirt. Where was the Nursing Staff, Meal Service, the Director? (2)   

Soon after, I contacted the Hospice Chaplain. I also called the facility's manager/director, who was out when I visited. The Assisted Living Manager said that the room would be fumigated soon, and thanked me for letting them know. (How could fumigation be done with the hospice patient in the room.?! I was assured that it could be done safely). 

Amidst the shock, sadness, and disillusionment, I sensed that something was ending. The idea that I was making a difference seemed far fetched, an illusion. The notion that I had the right to know the impact of my work seemed more about my hubris and  entitlement.  

A new clarity had been forming for awhile. From the beginning of the ordination process and well into full time ministry, the most important measurables in ministry were external: budgets, buildings, and bodies in pews. But what was the measurable for the inner person, the spirit? Institutionally, it's a secondary question. But it should matter. The practice of Christian ministry should, one would think, bring one closer, not farther from, the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. 

Of course it's not a bad thing to take care of your spirit and to care for your soul while caring for others. But all the personal sabbaths, journaling, devotions, and fasts will not change the system to value the measurements less. sure, everyone needs skills that are useful. But this is not the argument for more and better effectiveness, economy, and efficiency.  All the technique in the world does not lead to sustainability and creativity, and transformation. To do that, one needs to love deeply and often. And, drilling down, one needs to be known and loved.   

Under the long testing of full time ministry, my hopes and ideals of pleasing others were disintegrating. Was gratifying others a worth my best self anyway? I began to let go of the notion that I could fulfill the expectations of myself, others, the church, and the exhaustive pastoral role. In grief and wonder, part of my life's journey was ending.and a new season was calling. 

(1) In the UMC, the clergy pension program is based on years of service- not age.
(2) After serving as Chaplain in a continuing care facility, I was trained as a volunteer Ombudsman (advocate) in Long term Care by the State of Texas. At the time, there was stringent State oversight of Long Term Care facilities, but not so with Assisted Living.

Friday, July 28, 2023

The Gospel Reading and Reflection for Sunday, July 30

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

13:31 He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field;

13:32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."

13:33 He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."

13:44 "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

13:45 "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls;

13:46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

13:47 "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind;

13:48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.

13:49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous

13:50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

13:51 "Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes."

13:52 And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

Unbridled Hope, Joy, and...Gnashing of Teeth?!* 
What I Learn from this Lesson

1. The nature of God's work is hard to see or notice amidst inner and outer noise
I want the silver bullet of spirituality (and of life). Who doesn't? But so much of what is offered is the clanging bell, the noise of the sizzling, crashing cymbal.* Big Box church has its way of offering excitement, spectacle and escape. But does it facilitate listening to God, who speaks in whispers and sheer silence? Not for me.

In contrast, these parables lead me to noticing something in the common things that speak of God. There is simple hope and joy in witnessing a tiny seed grow into a tree, hunting down and finding the lost coin. There's the way of yeast popping its way into the dough, a simple happening, but transformational. If you want to know more about God's kingdom, be ready to find the star- power of enduring hope, joy and transformation through these understated and accessible metaphors.

I once consulted with a Spiritual Director, a Sister, who asked me to explore what moved me to pray. For example, what was I doing and thinking and feeling immediately before I was moved to pray.  So many little things to name, things that led me to a deeper communion with God. 

It was a formidable, analytical assignment, because my default is to overlook the micro- mustard seeds or the small measure of yeast, transforming its way to something new and different. My temptation is lethargy, it seems. What's yours? Also called the "noonday devil," it's not always at noon that I encounter it.** It hinders the movement of hope and wonderment and joy. Lethargy blocks the inbreaking movement of God's love in and through me.

2. I learn that God's love is overwhelming and priceless.
What moves me to joy but the over-abundant love of God? Christian faith tells me that I am created out of love in order to love my neighbor as myself.  I am, and everyone who shares this earth, created as a result of God's love. We are God's, made in God's likeness. Bet the house on that!  Sell the house for that treasure. Sell the office for that pearl. All springing from joy, the fruit of being loved.

Throughout my journey I have been forced to look at my intentions. Why am I on the Christian journey? What, in the lost coin, do I really need to rediscover? How can any joy, service and kindness not be sustained by the One whose nature and name is Love. *** Without Love, there is no lasting hope or joy or service. When I am driven by guilt, shame, and a persecution complex , I create my own kind of hell (for me and others). 

3. I learn what to keep and what to throw away. 
In the readings for this Sunday and last, Jesus teaches that a furnace of fire, weeping, and gnashing of teeth will be the fate of evil and evildoers. These verses from Matthew are a stumbling block to many and rightly so. Even if metaphors of judgement, having the angels sorting out the harvest or separating the good from bad fish is without subtlety or grace. For today, I have a just thought or two.

I believe that part of our life review in this life and perhaps in the world to come, offers me a chance to review my life, choices, actions, and intentions in the light of God's love. In essence such an inventory is the final harvest, the separation of the good and bad fish. But, it's about me and only me, not about judging anyone else. I have come to believe that the real gnashing of teeth is here- on earth- in my refusal to live in love and clinging to what does not last and what cannot guarantee happiness. ****

*Drummers, wear earplugs early on when drumming. Take it from me, cymbals cause hearing loss. 
**The term "noonday devil" appears in Macrina Wederkehr's Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully through the Hours of the Day, Ave Maria Press, 2010.
***Come, Thou Traveler Unknown, hymn by Charles Wesley, Hymn #386, The United Methodist Hymnal, 1990.
****I only speak for myself; a life review is akin to the 4th and 5th Steps in Recovery. In my recovery, these Steps cover what was done to me by others as well as what I have done to others. Step 5 is telling that story, in compassion, to another human being, as well as my Higher Power. 

Friday, July 21, 2023

Gospel Reading and Reflection for July 23

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
13:24 He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;

13:25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.

13:26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.

13:27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?'

13:28 He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?'

13:29 But he replied, 'No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.

13:30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"

13:36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field."

13:37 He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man;

13:38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one,

13:39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.

13:40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.

13:41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers,

13:42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

13:43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

The Story
In God's kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, God rules. God's realm is everywhere and there is no place where God is not present.* 

The brilliant metaphor in this reading is the wheat field invaded with a pernatious weed that has become a threat to the harvest. The interloper cannot be distinguished from the wheat plants. How do the workers make sure that the wheat is not choked out?

The default is to try to fix the situation by weeding the field. In South Texas, the time to weed lawns is in the spring. If you don't do it when the weeds first appear, you will have missed your chance to stop them. If you wait until summer, you will end up pulling up the lawn, or the weed killer will burn the grass. The weeds can overtake the lawn very quickly. 

The harvest in Jesus' time was the process of separating wheat from chaff. The crop was collected and pitched onto the threshing floor. Here the gatherings were cut under the weight  of a sledge. Once thrashed, the mixture was winnowed, a process that separated the grain from other debris. This process was repeated as needed.**   

The explanation of the parable is a brief but clear commentary on the nature of moral evil and the threat it poses to God's rule and reign on earth, which includes all humankind. Consider this working definition of moral evil: doing harm, intentionally. With that as a given, here some points to consider.
  1. Evil is a Liar What better image than the story of the weeds looking just like the wheat? For evil to progress, lies are told as truth. We can tell lies to ourselves and each other. I often believe what I want to believe, hear what I want to hear, and I prefer whatever casts me in a positive light. 
  2. Evil is an Escape Artist Through finger pointing, blaming, accusing, or shaming, I can project evil on another person, race, or religion. "They" are cast as non-persons, undeserving of kindness or respect. Scapegoating causes great harm and is another way evil thrives. 
  3. Evil Multiplies. Unfortunately, evil can have a field day in people and institutions whose official mission statements provide cover for the harm they may cause, even in the name of religious faith. The hypocrisy can be covered by more and more lies. 
  4. Evil Hides Out. The weeds are planted under cover of the night. The destructive weeds hide in the wheat. Because evil intentions exist in the mind, no one can know the true motivations of another human being. The hiddenness of evil is suggested in the word "den" in Scripture, as in a "a den of thieves, a den of iniquity," etc.
  5. Evil Can Be Outlasted. Because the weeds threaten the crop, we are tempted to multiply the harm. When I try to fix the troublemakers, I end up being like them. In what world does Christ call me to judge others without mercy just because I happen to attend church or pray more often?***  
  6. Evil is Judged. Evil will not only be exposed for what it is, but once unmasked, the truth will be shouted from the rooftops. At the end of the harvest, the angels serve God best by doing the hard work. My job is to resist evil without becoming evil and to do no harm. My calling is to wait for God's deliverance in God's time in God's way. 
  7. Our Decisions are Made in Gray Areas. Our lives are lived amidst good and evil. We live in the gray areas, that sphere where we decide the way that leads to greater evil or greater good. That's why our sense of wisdom and discernment of spirits is so important. We make our ethical decisions among the wheat and weeds. 
* See Psalm 139: 7-12
**See Ferrell Jenkins, "Grinding Grain in Biblical Times," April 30, 2012. 
***My friend and mentor, Jim Jackson, has often said that God has given us the ministry of promotion, not quality control.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

The Gospel Reading and Reflection for Sunday, July 16

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

13:1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.

13:2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.

13:3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: "Listen! A sower went out to sow.

13:4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.

13:5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.

13:6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.

13:7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.

13:8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

13:9 Let anyone with ears listen!"

13:18 "Hear then the parable of the sower.

13:19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.

13:20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy;

13:21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.

13:22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.

13:23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.

I love gardening. There's nothing more encouraging than to see seeds make it to maturity. It's also full of surprizes: seeds from a throwaway plant sprout and flower a year later. Who knows where these seeds will end up?! 

While the beginning of the reading tells of a sower throwing seed which lands everywhere, the parable comes in the explanation. The responses to the seed of the word are realistic, varied, and memorable.* The responses that Jesus describes could be considered valid for everyone who has ever heard the good news of the inbreaking kingdom of God. 

Available also in Mark and Luke, the story and its parable must have been very useful as well as popular among the earliest believers. Due to the crowds pressing in, Jesus delivers his message from a boat, away from the beach.

Maybe another, "this is the one" is in order, that of a mixture of all four responses. Each one can challenge the maturation of the word to fruition and completion. I can report seasons, weeks, even days, when I was all four of the seeds. As I write this today, one seems to dominate, that of lacking understanding because what was planted in the heart was lost or stolen.**

What robs your spirit of fruition and maturity? For me, the evil comes in my thoughts, ruminations, fears, terrors, and catastrophizing. The panic demands my attention. The long recovery lies in relearning how to think, pray, and breath again. I learn to focus my mind on taming the panicky thoughts, to pray the Examen, and to engage the practice of relaxing breaths. The outcome is that I am freer to respond to the Gospel, in all of its fullness. I have choices. 

A life-giving theology which teaches God's unconditional love in all circumstances not only promotes hearing with understanding, but also, to revel and wonder at the miracle of life sustaining life, to enjoy the outrageous generosity of the sower, who throws the seed with little regard for success. I learn to enjoy growing in love and charity with God and others in m y life. I Learn to celebrate small but real progress. I don't get weighted-down in hopelessness.

No, the parable does not allow me to pretend that wrong, injustice, and harm do not exist, but rather, to see things, myself, others, God, with a greater sense of hope, clarity, and insight. That hope is the implanted word of the coming rule and reign of God.

Where do you find yourself?

*"Understanding" has 163 appearances in Scripture and Apocrypha. See Oremus Bible Browser. Understanding comes from God but is also the fruit of study, meditation, and a gift of God. The way of understanding is the way of wisdom and wonder in God's world. "Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom." James 3:13
**The evil one is not capitalized in the text. Satan is translated also as Accuser. See Job 1-2, Zechariah 3:1-2. Self-hate, self-doubt, self-accusation, and hopelessness thwart our flourishing?   

Thursday, July 6, 2023

The Gospel Reading and Reflection for Sunday, July 9

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

16 "But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

11:17 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'

11:18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon';

11:19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds."

11:25 At that time Jesus said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants;

11:26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.

11:27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

11:28 "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

11:30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

The subheading for vv. 16-19 could read "The Story of the Petulant Children." The children refuse to play the game of sadness or gladness. Here, Jesus likens his generation to unhappy children who are impossible to please. Parents can be very creative in cajoling a child, but a temper tantrum  is sometimes hard to avoid. 

Matthew's theme has jumped from the proclamation and works of the Kingdom of God to commentary on its reception. The focus is now on providing explanation-- why have the majority of the people- "the wise and intelligent ones" - why have they rejected the proclamation of the Kingdom? Jesus will continue to offer explanations throughout the remaining chapters of Matthew.  The children in story comprise the generation who refuse to see and acknowledge God's Kingdom, whether in John's monasticism or in Jesus' wide open, come as you are, table fellowship. The message is revealed to "infants" (not children). 

What then is the third way, the way of wisdom, vindicated by her children? It's the way of receiving with "understanding." Matthew 13: 23. Gratitude and trust sustain the ministry of proclamation and its reception. To contrast with the ingratitude of the children in the story, the way of wisdom is marked with gratitude for being apart of what God is doing in our midst. The way of  wisdom is also the way of trusting God, who is immediately accessible. Those who take up the ministry of teaching and proclaiming the Gospel learn to trust the results to God. 

The whole point of the oft quoted passage of 11:28-30 is that the invitation and gift to live in response to God's kingdom is here and now, always. God can be trusted as the One who created me in love, and I'm capable of trusting God as one created in God's likeness and image.

Oldies but Goodies