Such a Person is Good News

Last week I had the privilege of preaching at United Methodist-related Clark Retirement Community in Grand Rapids, where many of my early mentors in ministry currently live.  What follows is an adaption of that sermon.

I recently came across a little poster that a seminary friend named Hondi Brasco made for me over thirty years ago.  She’s also an artist, so she drew a picture of a woman playing a trumpet and kicking up one of her legs.  The quote on the poster comes from Gordon Cosby, founder of the Church of the Savior in Washington D.C., who died on March 20 at the age of 95.

Laurie Poster

The quote comes from a sermon by Gordon Cosby titled The Calling Forth of Charisma.  There’s one pertinent line that comes right before this quote.  “The charismatic person is one who, by her very being, will be God’s instrument in calling forth gifts.”  Now the rest of the paragraph.  “The person who is having the time of her life doing what she is doing has a way of calling forth the deeps of another.  Such a person is good news….  She is the embodiment of the freedom of the new humanity.”

Gordon Cosby was arguably the most influential Christian activist of the mid-twentieth century.  He called forth the deeps of a social conscience that pre-dated by decades the missional and emergent church movement today.  Based in Washington D.C., Cosby’s church initiated dozens of pioneering outreach ministries.  Cosby himself died at Christ House, a Church of the Savior ministry to Washington’s homeless men that was started in 1947.

I invite you to hold that image while we look at our scripture, Matthew 21:28-32.  I’ve never preached on the parable of the two sons and discovered that it’s not especially difficult to understand, but it’s almost impossible to live.  Matthew places this scripture during the last week of Jesus’ life as he spends his days teaching in the temple and challenging the chief priests and elders.

In this story, the religious authorities question Jesus as soon as he enters the temple, inquiring about the source of his authority.  “By what authority are you doing these things?  Who gave you this authority?”  Jesus toys with them by asking whether the baptism of John came from heaven or whether it was human authority.

They’re trapped.  The Jewish leaders huddle together, “If we say John’s authority is from heaven, Jesus will ask why we didn’t believe in him.  But if we say his authority is of human origin, the crowd will be angry because they regard John as a prophet.”  So they answer, “We don’t know.”  “Okay,” Jesus says.  “Then I’m not going to tell you by what authority I do these things.”

Then Jesus tells a story.  A man has two sons who are expected to work in their father’s vineyard.  He says to son #1, “It’s time for work.”  The son says, “Nope, I’m not going today.”  But later he changes his mind and goes.  The father then goes to son #2 and says, “It’s time for you to get to work, too.”  The second son says, “Sure, Dad,” but then he doesn’t go.

Jesus turns to the chief priests and elders and asks, “Which of the sons did the will of the father?”  “The first son.”  “You’re right,” Jesus says.  “Unfortunately, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going to enter the kingdom before you.  John the Baptist came to show you the way of righteousness, but you, who claim to have faith, didn’t respond to the new thing God was doing through John.  By contrast, the tax collectors and prostitutes, who were sinners and didn’t follow the law, did believe in John.  They heard John’s pronouncement of judgment, repented of their sins, and changed their lives.”

What ultimately matters?  It’s not what we believe about our faith, it’s what we do about our faith.  It’s all about discipleship.  What I want to say to you tonight is “Thank you.”  Almost every one of you here tonight is part of the generation that preceded me.  I am now around the age that you were when I first entered ministry here in the West Michigan Conference.  Whether you are lay or clergy, you modeled for me the truth that Christianity is much more than words.  Christianity is transformed lives in action.  Even though as United Methodists we believe that we are saved by God’s grace alone, God expects, even requires, us to put our faith in action.  Otherwise the faith means nothing.

For those of you who are retired clergy and clergy spouses, the bishop said more than once to you, “You’re appointed here,” and “You’re appointed there,” and you went.  You pastored every church to which you were appointed by following the way of righteousness with the very best ministry you could offer.  By your very being you became God’s instrument calling forth gifts.  I know that to be true because I was watching you.  I learned from you, and I modeled my ministry after yours.

You made disciples by sharing the good news and giving yourself away in sacrificial ministry.  You sometimes went where you didn’t want to be appointed, but you didn’t throw a fit about it.  You didn’t always like the parsonage, but you made do.  You didn’t earn a lot of money, but you earned the respect and love of your parishioners as well as people like me who followed in your footsteps.

As Gordon Cosby wrote, by having the time of your life doing what you were called to do, you called forth the deeps of me and many others.  You are all good news, for you are the embodiment of the freedom of a new humanity.  And what is that freedom?  It’s the freedom to give ourselves away.  It’s the freedom to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.  It’s the freedom to shine like stars in the world as you give off light and love and hope to all.

You are good news because good news is more than saying the right things or engaging in the proper rituals.  Good news is living the right reality.  Good news is embodied by the one who acts to bring in God’s kingdom.  Every time you call forth the deeps of another person, you are good news.  I do need to point out, however, that embodying good news and calling forth the deeps in others is a bit more challenging than it used to be.

  • Whether we like it or not, the church is no longer the center of most people’s lives.

Unlike fifty, forty, or thirty years ago, many Christians today who claim to be active come to church maybe once a month.  They can’t even imagine being in worship every single Sunday.  After all, there are kids’ sports, travel to visit parents or grandchildren, the coffee shop, or just relaxing at home.  In order to embody good news we have to think creatively about planting new faith communities in other locations, worshipping at times other than Sunday morning, and offering Bible studies and classes in places we never dreamed of before.

  • The church building is no longer our primary mission station.

In today’s world we have to go to where the people are.  We have to stop idolizing our buildings and move outside the church if we’re going to have any impact on our communities and do the will of God.  But when we reach out in mission beyond our walls, we must act out of a pure heart that embraces all people because non-Christians are always looking at us, checking to see if we’re son #1 or son #2.

  • We have to return to fundamentals because many of our congregations have become complacent and lazy. 

What does Jesus ask us to do?  Go and make disciples.  Tell the story.  Live the story.  Embody the good news and call out the divine in others.  The church is not a social club, and our purpose is not to spend all our time making pancakes, barbequing chicken, playing bridge, or going to movies together.  Prayer, Bible study, meaningful worship that connects people with God, empowering and equipping lay leadership, reaching out to our neighbors with grace and compassion, and seeking justice for all creation – that’s what will grow Christ’s church today.

  • We have to be flexible and savvy, adapting our ministry to our specific context.

There is no longer one-size-fits-all ministry.  What works in one place doesn’t always work in another.  If pastors try to come into a church with our own “dog and pony show” rather than listen to, walk beside, and work with our lay leaders, we won’t be able to call out the deeps of others.

  • Finally, to have the time of our life building the kingdom of God means that we are going to be different than the rest of the word. 

The percentage of the American population that self-identifies as Christian is getting smaller and smaller, and that trend will continue.  And among Christians, the truly faithful who say “yes” to the radical discipleship Jesus calls for will likely continue to shrink as well.

Jesus doesn’t just want part of us and our lives.  Jesus demands all of us.  Jesus needs us to be “all in.”  God can do immeasurably more than we can even imagine, so we need to expect and ask for more of others who follow Christ.  That’s why Gordon Cosby was such an influential Christian in our country for seventy years.

Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners magazine wrote a few weeks ago in a tribute, “Gordon Cosby never needed or wanted to be out front or become a famous public figure…  He instead decided that his own vocation was to stay with a relatively small group of people trying to ‘be the church’ in Washington, D.C.: the Church of the Savior, which has produced more missions and ministries, especially with the poor, than any church I know of anywhere in the country – even the huge mega-churches who capture all the fame.”

Wallis continued, “He never wrote a book, went on television, talked to presidents, planted more churches, built national movements, or traveled around the world.  He just inspired everybody else to do all those things and much more.  And the world came to him.”  As one person said to Wallis that night, “You knew Gordon loved like Christ, and he made you want to love like Christ too.”

My friend, Hondi, wrote on the back of this poster, “To Laurie, May God bless your ministry and fill the days to come with great joy.”

Because each one of you loved and still loves like Christ, you make me want to love like Christ, too.  You don’t just say the right words, you do the right things.  Your actions still call forth the deeps from others, including me, and give me great joy.  You are good news.  I can only hope that someday the next generation will say the same of me and my generation.  God bless you all.

Blessings,
Laurie

Papal Ponderings at the Sweet Sistine

If I were Pope Benedict XVI I might have just clicked the heels of those magical red shoes three times and wished for an extra dose of papal energy rather than resign.  After all, it has been 723 years since Pope Celestine V called it quits, the only other pope in history to voluntarily resign.

pope

Unfortunately, Celestine’s story, while precedent-setting, did not have a happy ending.  Pietro del Morrone, as Celestine V was called before he became pope, was an Italian hermit and monk who was known for sleeping on bare rock in a cave on a mountainside.  He practiced mortification of the flesh by wearing a horsehair shirt and an iron girdle which caused deep cuts and frequent bleeding.  Pietro attracted such a following that he started a new branch of the Benedictine order.

In 1292 Pope Nicholas IV died, and scheming cardinals became deadlocked over his successor.  They decided to elect the feeble 84-year-old Pietro, thinking that he could be easily manipulated for their own ends.  Evidently, Celestine was also heavily influenced by the King of Sicily, which led to the appointment of other cardinals who took advantage of the pope who didn’t want to be a pope.

Celestine V soon realized that he had no aptitude for popehood, and things went from bad to worse, prompting him to resign after just five months.  The day before he left office, Celestine signed a legal document that gave him the authority to resign.  The document was written by a cardinal who promptly became the next pope, Boniface VIII.

Celestine simply wanted to go back to his cave and live as a hermit.  Boniface, however, was a tad insecure and suspected that the people might rally around Celestine.  Boniface had Celestine arrested and imprisoned in a castle, where he died shortly thereafter.

For the next 721 years no popes voluntarily resigned until February 11, 2013 when Pope Benedict announced, “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise.  In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, …both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

Benedict’s resignation took most of the Catholic world by complete surprise.  Why would the most influential religious leader on this earth, presiding over 1.3 billion Catholics, freely give up his power?  After all, when popes are elected they are no longer human.  Or so they seem. Few are privy to the inner workings of the Curia, the episcopal administration at the Vatican, but there have been rumblings. Vatileaks, political intrigue, corruption, sexual misconduct, financial mismanagement: it’s no wonder Benedict had enough.  Would you want to deal with all of that at age 85?  There’s a reason why no cardinal over 80 years of age is permitted to vote for the next pope and why almost every corporation or business has a mandatory retirement age.  For United Methodist bishops it’s 72.

At last Wednesday’s final public address before 100,000 people packing St. Peter’s Square, Benedict made an uncharacteristic personal comment when he said, “The Lord seemed to sleep” at times during his eight-year tenure.  I applaud Benedict for his courage in admitting that the Catholic Church deserves stronger leadership than he is able to offer.  Benedict has given Catholics a gift: the opportunity to elect a new pope who has the energy and inspiration necessary to lead in the 21st century.

I love the Catholic Church and will be praying this week as the 115 elector cardinals begin their secret conclave to select the next pope.  If I could vote for pope, I’d click the heels of my red shoes three times (I wonder if his shoes are for sale?) and look for these qualities.

Leadership and management experience:

A 21st century pope must have the ability to set a vision for the future and inspire Catholics to share their faith with a world that yearns to know, love, and follow Jesus Christ.  Of necessity, the pope will need experience at many different levels in the Catholic Church and be willing to risk moving in different and daring directions for the sake of a God who is continually making all things new.

At the same time the pope must have the skills to build teams and delegate shrewdly, deal with a shortage of priests and a shrinking church, and manage a priestly hierarchy that in the past has tended to minimize or ignore misconduct that has caused unspeakable human sorrow.  To his great credit Benedict realized that he was not able to manage the complexity of his office.

A Global Understanding:

A 21st century pope must be familiar with technology, social media, and the impact of globalization on the church.  In electing the next pope the cardinals must acknowledge that 42% of Catholics live in Latin America.  The Catholic world no longer revolves around Italy and Europe, and the Pope must understand the hearts, minds, and spirits of people who live in the fastest growing Catholic countries.  In addition, the pope must lead in interfaith dialogue, seeking common ground with other religious traditions in order bring shalom to our world.

The ability to connect:

A 21st century pope is aware that the world ultimately changes because of the ministry of the laity, not that of the pope, cardinals, bishops, and priests.  By identifying with the hopes and dreams of ordinary people, the pope needs to be able to speak our language at same time as he interprets theology and doctrine on behalf of the Catholic Church.  The charisma of the pope is transferred to millions of disciples of Jesus Christ through teaching, equipping, making available the sacraments, identifying with the poor, leading as a servant, and unleashing passion.

Self-awareness:

A 21st century pope knows his own gifts as well as limitations.  Benedict had the courage to admit that he was no longer up to the task of being Pope.  In a system where popes “pope” until they die, Benedict said, “No.  I love the church too much to keep on.  It is in the best interest of the Catholic Church for a new pope to be elected.”

A Deep Spirituality:

A 21st century pope is, above all, the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church.  Catholics look to the Pope for prayer when they are struggling, strength when they are weak, hope when they are in distress, steadiness when they are in crisis, spiritual food when they are starving, theological depth when they are challenged by the secular world, and empowerment to fight injustice and poverty.

In short, we need a pope who both does and doesn’t want to be pope.  Whoever is elected pope this month must not accept the office in order to wield power over others or seek personal status.  Yet the pope also needs to have the necessary skill set to lead and is ready and willing to humbly say, “Here I am, Lord,” if called.

The election process that begins this week is short, but it can be nasty, brutal, and intensely political.  Special interest groups will make their voices heard, potential candidates will be vetted in the press, and some people will no doubt be victimized and hurt.  What is meant to be a holy process will seem at times unholy.

The deck is stacked against any pope exercising too much adaptive leadership because of the weight of ponderous traditions that seem immovable.  Therefore, the new pope will need enormous strength of character and depth of spirit to chart a bold course for the future.

I have no idea who the frontrunners are, but Irish bookmaker Paddy Power (http://www.paddypower.com/bet/novelty-betting/current-affairs/pope-betting) will gladly take your bet.  Sorry, it’s illegal to place bets on the pope in the USA.  Fortunately, you can play Religion News Service’s “Sweet Sistine” March Madness-style bracket tournament if you want to join the fun.

sweet sistine

Meanwhile, Benedict will no longer wear his red shoes and has chosen to wear brown shoes given to him as a gift from a trip to Mexico.  As Benedict begins the last part of his life as a pilgrim (his word), he will spend a few months in the papal summer home outside of Rome before returning to the Vatican to lead a life of prayer.

Thanks be to God for His Holiness Benedict XVI, Emeritus Pope, and thanks be to God for the new pope who will be elected in the Sweet Sistine Chapel.  United Methodists are praying for you!

Blessings,

Laurie

The Slow Work of God

January 28, 2013

It’s not a surprise.  After all, we are headed right into the depths of a lake-effect blizzard.  The I-94/I-196 corridor along Lake Michigan is known for intense snowstorms, but we have little choice.  Three colleagues and I are driving back from a North Central Jurisdiction Episcopacy Committee meeting in Chicago.  The skies are clear until we cross from Indiana into Michigan.  Then the heavens open, and all we can see is white.

winter

     We slow down with the traffic until both northbound lanes stop.  After sitting for ten minutes, we creep along for an hour, covering three miles.  We laugh and tell stories while the storm swirls around us.  I finished the last 30 pages of a novel.  We stop again.  This time there are no fits and starts.  We aren’t going anywhere for a while.

     As resignation sets in, Joy reminds us of our closing devotions that morning.  After our committee spent three days discussing the challenges and opportunities of episcopal leadership in The United Methodist Church, Joy quoted a poem by Teilhard de Chardin from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals,

Above all, trust in the slow work of God. 

We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.

We would like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability and that it may take a very long time.

     Ah, yes, the slow work of God.  Forgive our impatience, God.  Remind us that our insistence on always being in control does not apply to blizzards, icy roads, and zero visibility.    Jesus, you who never had the joy of driving in a snowstorm, help us to see you in the enforced slowness, empower us to relax into the experience, and open our eyes to the world of the Holy Spirit, which too often remains hidden from view because we are moving too fast through life.

Jackie and I call our spouses to say, “You’re on your own for dinner.”  Joy says, “I guess I won’t make it back for bell choir.”  Laurie D. says, “I should have prepared the guest rooms in case you don’t make it beyond Kalamazoo.”  We break out little packs of trail mix and commune together.

Entertainment abounds when I make a makeshift restroom by opening the front and back doors of the car to create a semblance of privacy.  We laugh some more and tell more stories.  We speculate about “what if’s.”  Could we have avoided this mess by taking the southern route on I-80/90 over to US-131?  But we also delight in the pure Michigan beauty of elegant snowflakes blanketing the pines and dancing around us.  We revel in the slow work of God, grateful that we are safe, and offer silent prayers for whoever was involved in the accident ahead.

     What is this slow work of God, anyway?  It’s unknown, new, mysterious, unstable, and even dangerous, so we’re reluctant to trust it.   In fact, we do not know the day or the hour of anything.  We have no idea what tomorrow will bring, which is why God insists that we live one day at a time and be fully present to the moment.  God invites us to embrace discomfort, anxiety, and even suffering as a necessary part of our life’s journey because wisdom and growth come from the bearing of infirmities.

Have you noticed?  Jesus said nothing during his life and ministry about the importance of becoming rich and successful, but he said a whole lot about how we have to lose our life in order to save it.  Jesus said nothing about becoming powerful, but he said a whole lot about denying ourselves, losing our ego, and letting go of selfish desires.  Jesus said nothing about being honored by others, but he spoke volumes about humbling ourselves and taking the last seat rather than the first.  In fact, the central metaphor of the human condition in the New Testament is the necessity and slow work of dying in order to experience new life.

And so I think it is with you.

Your ideas mature gradually.  Let them grow.

Let them shape themselves without undue haste.

Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time

–that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will–

                                                          will make you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit

gradually forming within you will be.

     What is this slow work of God?  It invites patience, vision, steadfastness, and quiet confidence.  But I, who am always in a hurry, want to see immediate results.  I, who can’t sit still, am forced to stay put, and my body is protesting.  The slow work of God is convicting me as I sit and wait.  I leave the car for a few minutes to walk in the snow and clear my mind.

God is molding and reshaping me on the potter’s wheel without undue haste, even as I wonder, “Why is it taking so long?  Why is growth so uncertain?  What do you mean it may take a very long time?  Can I skip that part?  Is it possible to trust that God is gradually forming a new spirit in me?”

     Patience releases the clenched hands of white knuckle driving and opens them to God’s movement in God’s time.  Yet the slow work of God won’t happen without us, either.  After Jesus finished his work on our earth, he commissioned the apostles and each one of us, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.”  But not after he spent three years insisting, “You are salt and light…  Go and do likewise…  Love your enemies…  I appointed you to go and bear fruit that will last…  Follow me…  Be reconciled to your brother or sister.”

Two hours after we stop for the first time, the long line of cars suddenly begins to move, we gather momentum, and we’re on our way.  We cheer, “Thank you, Jesus” and settle in for a quick trip home.  Not to be.  We occasionally reach 45 miles per hour, but the storm still rages, cars are sliding off the road, and the slow work of God continues.  It will take a very long time to make it home.

Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you,

 and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself

in suspense and incomplete.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God,
our loving vine-dresser.

     What is this slow work that causes God to chuckle, sigh, lament, comfort, and chide God’s people?  I wonder about our local churches and our denomination.  Could God be emboldening us, “United Methodist Church, you worry about too much.  You are too impatient to fix things without delay.  You are too uptight, too obsessed with your decline, and too concerned about a theological divide.  Take a deep breath.  Be yourself.

“Will you trust my slow work that is refining you so that you can focus on mission and ministry and kingdom-building?  Can you imagine that your divisions might be my way of slowing you down to build relationships and stop being too full of your opinionated self?

“Will you engage an active patience that celebrates small steps toward greater vitality at the same time as you risk everything in seeking justice for all of my people?  Will you act urgently but without undue haste?  Can you accept the anxiety that accompanies falling numbers yet blow the wad by starting new faith communities, developing strong leaders, and equipping clergy and local congregations for effective contextual ministry?

“Can you live with instability, relish incompleteness, and mature in my time?  Will you dare to consider any and all crazy ideas, experiment freely and smartly, create healthy systems that facilitate effective ministry, and lead your church folk outside the building?  Can you focus on teaching and nurturing the children and youth to be witnesses by knowing me, loving me, and serving me?

“Will you be a relentless optimist rather than a negative curmudgeon?  Have you ever considered living in hope rather than despair?  Can you dream even bigger and start marching in the light of my love?  Can you abide in the vine and covenant to bear luscious fruit for the sake of our loving vine-dresser?  Will you leave the safety and warmth of your car sitting in the middle of the interstate to play in the snow, build a snow person, lick the snowflakes, and make a snow angel?

     “Do you believe that I am working for good in the world through you all day long?  Will you trust in my slow work, no matter how long it takes?”

     We all arrived home – slowly, safely, and in God’s time.

Blessings,

Laurie