Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Because It's Hard

Michigan Area Annual Conference                                                                       June 4, 2017
Recognition, Commissioning, and Ordination Worship                                                                                  
Texts: Mark 6:7-13; 9:14-29

            Greetings in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the peace and power of the Holy Spirit.  What an absolute joy and privilege it is to be standing here today as your bishop, to celebrate, recognize, commission and ordain.  Every time I have thought about today, it has given me a bit of a chill.  For any of us who have been where these women and men are today, we recall those moments with joy and awe.
            I have been around long enough to know that the process for getting here has changed over time.  General Conference has had this tendency to add questions or requirements whenever it seemed that something might be missing somewhere in some candidate.  Courses on evangelism and mission have been added.  Questions about theology have changed some.  One of the questions to which I had to respond in writing when coming for my probationary membership was this: Mismanagement of personal finances may detract from your effectiveness as a minister.  Are you presently in debt so as to interfere with your work, or have you obligations to others which will make it difficult for you to live on the salary you may receive?
            Here’s an idea to add to our examination of candidates.  A rather well-known author once said in an interview: Find out the movies a man saw between ten and fifteen, which ones he liked, disliked, and you would have a pretty good idea of what sort of mind and temperament he has (Gore Vidal).  Why hadn’t some ingenious delegate to General Conference thought of that before – let’s add a question about movies to our examination of candidates for licensed and ordained ministry!
            So, how many of you have seen Hidden Figures?  It is a moving story of bright African-American women working for NASA in the early 1960s, helping our space program overcome significant hurdles, all the while having to navigate the significant hurdles of racism and sexism.  At one point in the movie we see a clip of a speech by then President John Kennedy.  We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard (John F. Kennedy, Rice University, September 12, 1962; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g25G1M4EXrQ ).  It is a beautiful moment in the film for its irony.  Getting to space would be hard, but harder still, overcoming racism and sexism.
            The irony reverberates to our day.  We got to the moon in that decade, but we still struggle with racism and sexism.  How many of our hearts were broken yet again just a couple of weeks ago when we heard the story of a young African-American man being stabbed to death at a bus stop in Maryland for no other apparent reason than that he was black.  Getting to the moon was a scientific, technical and fiscal challenge.  Racism and sexism, are in the poignant words of the novelist William Faulkner from his Noble Prize speech, “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself” (1950).  Deep matters of the human heart point beyond themselves.  To use my Reinhold Niebuhr quote for the week: The human story is too grand and awful to be told without reverence for the mystery and majesty that transcend all human knowledge (Faith and Politics, 13)
            You who are being recognized, commissioned and ordained have answered the call to serve and to lead.  You’ve answered the call to share bread, to share Word, to offer grace, to call us all to do justice, to order our shared life, to continue the apostolic work begun when Jesus sent out his first disciples to preach and teach and heal and struggle against all that is harmful and demonic (Mark 6:7-13).  As leaders, an important part of our call is to help all followers of Jesus find their ministry in sharing good news, healing and struggling against that which harms.  Something touched you, tugged at you, cajoled you, would not let you go – or rather Someone.  You responded, not because it was easy, but because it was hard.  You are being called to work with matters of the human heart, with the deepest mysteries of human existence – its height and depth.  After Niebuhr wrote about the human story being too grand and awful to be told without reverence for mystery and majesty, he went on: Only humble [persons] who recognize this mystery and majesty are able to face both the beauty and terror of life without exulting over its beauty or becoming crushed by its terror.  Faith in Jesus Christ, the faith which has grabbed hold of you, and in which you have heard the voice of God calling you into ministry, that faith is meant to help us navigate the beauty and terror of life without becoming too enamored with human capabilities or crushed by human failings, and that is hard work.
            The poet Mary Oliver, in a recent essay, provides a different set of images for thinking about the work to which we are called.  In creative work – creative work of all kinds – those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward.  Which is something altogether different from the ordinary.  Such work does not refute the ordinary.  It is, simply, something else.  Its labor requires a different outlook – a different set of priorities.  She goes on to say that in order to do such work well we need to cultivate that part of ourselves that is “out of love with the ordinary,” that has a “hunger for eternity.”  Of the artistic and spiritual work that seeks to cultivate this self in hunger for eternity she writes: Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life.  Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come – for his adventures are all unknown.  In truth, the work itself is the adventure.  (Upstream, 26-27).  This sounds like leading in liminal times.
            Navigating and helping others navigate the terrain of the human heart in its relationships to itself, to others, to the community, and to the God who is at the center of the mystery and majesty of life, navigating the beauty and terror of life without becoming too enamored with human capabilities or crushed by human failings, sharing bread and Word, offering  grace, calling us all to do justice, ordering our shared life – this is an adventure and it is hard work.  You have answered the call not because it is easy, but because it is hard.  It has always been hard.  Take the story in Mark 9.  The same disciples who had just a few chapters before reported to Jesus the successes of their mission, all they had done and taught, are unable to help a man whose son is suffering, possessed by a spirt that has taken away the boy’s speech and that convulses him, casting him into fire and water.  The exact nature of the disciple’s inability is rather mysterious.  Is it a lack of faith on the part of the father that Jesus is finally able to evoke?  Is it some lack of prayer?  We don’t know.  All we know is that finally this ministry work can be hard.
            While it has always been hard, now seems a particularly challenging time.  So many trends are convulsing our world, many of which make ministry for and in the name of Jesus Christ acutely difficult.  The place of religion generally in our society has declined.  No longer is religious affiliation a necessary element in social acceptance.  There is more acceptance of a scornful attitude toward religion, and if we are honest, some of it is well-deserved.  Religious traditions have sometimes been embraced badly – embraced with violence and acrimony, the most horrific examples are those who kill innocents in the name of religion.  Yet if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that the racism and sexism which still plague our society have for many years been justified religiously.
            The United Methodist Church finds itself in a tough and tender time.  We find ourselves in the midst of deep disagreements about the inclusion of LGBT persons.  These disagreements are connected to disagreements about how we read the Bible, and how God reveals Godself in Scripture.  We share with most long-standing Christian denominations a declining trend, and as you take on leadership in the UMC, you are becoming part of the group that is often blamed for such decline.  Just a few years ago a United Methodist economist in a presentation on the state of church leadership quoted an unnamed retired UM bishop who told him, “We have not been recruiting the brightest and the best.”  Another bishop wrote: How few are not either ignorant, or injudicious, or imprudent, or dull and lifeless, or dry and barren, or of stammering speech, in our ministerial work.  That was Francis Asbury in 1792, so I guess we found a way forward!
            Yet there is no question that the church needs to continue to change if it is to grow, and in the words of church consultant Alice Mann, we often suffer under the illusions that growth can occur without change, and that change can occur without conflict.  Yet we live in a world where the human ability to work with conflict does not seem our most developed skill.  And the adaptive work needed in our churches is work that needs to be able to acknowledge that with change comes loss and with loss, grief.  As leaders, we must hold in our hands visions of moving forward along with compassion for the grief that change brings.
            As leaders you will be asked to lead, but here’s a catch.  Sometimes when someone asks you to lead, what they are really asking you to do is agree with them, and not only agree with them, but agree with them in just the way they want you to agree with them.
            In the face of all this, you are saying “yes,” not because it is easy, but because it is hard, and there is something important about that.  In his speech in 1962, John Kennedy, after telling his listeners that we choose to go the moon because it is hard, went on to say:  because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.  We say “yes” to hard challenges because we know that in them we are able to discover our best gifts and skills, because in doing hard work, we have the opportunity to develop our best selves and deepen our souls and spirits.  We say “yes” because there is profound joy in deepening our souls and spirits.  Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journals, “that aim in life is highest which requires the highest and finest discipline” (Walden and Other Writings, 430).
            Hard work, profound challenges are exhilarating and joyful, but can also be exhausting.  In Mark 6, in reporting on the successes of their mission, Jesus invited the disciples for a time away, though it quickly turned into another bit of hard work leading to the feeding of the 5,000.  The God who calls us into ministry can use us just as we are, scared and scarred, but in calling us to the work of ministry, God also calls us to continue to grow and learn and develop.  I think of a couple of lines from Minnesota poet Robert Bly (“A Home in Dark Grass - revised):
We did not come to remain whole.                  {It is not our job to remain unbroken}
We came to lose our leaves like the trees,     {Our task is to lose our leaves}
Trees that start again,                                        {And be born again, as trees}
Drawing up from the great roots.                    {Draw up from the great roots.}

            When God calls us, God calls us as we are, but not to remain as we are, so just a few brief words about following that part of God’s call to the hard work of ministry, a few words about staying more exhilarated and joyful that exhausted.
            Take care of yourself.  Michigan-born and educated poet, Jane Kenyon shared advice to poetry writers that is not bad advice for clergy.  Be good stewards of your gifts.  Protect your time.  Feed your inner life.  Avoid too much noise.  Read good books, have good sentences in your ears.  Be by yourself as often as you can.  Walk.  Take the phone off the hook.  Work regular hours. (A Hundred White Daffodils, 141)   It needs some adjustment for clergy – we are in the people business, after all, but we all, in different proportions, need time to tend to our inner lives and to just be.
            Know you are not alone.  Just look around.  You are not alone.  Beyond acquaintances, find good friends, friends who will laugh with you, cry with you, and be gently honest with you.
            Never forget your calling – the heart work, the life-transforming, world-transforming work to which God has called you.  This is how we earn our living, and that matters, but if your work ever becomes just your job, something is amiss.  This work matters.  Never forget your calling, and never forget the One who called you.  In tending to your inner life, tend to that relationship with God which is the only reason we are doing what we are doing.
            I’ve gone back and forth between addressing you who are being recognized, commissioned and ordained, and saying something to all of us.  This is a particularly special day for you being celebrated, but I would invite us all to reconnect with our calling.  I hope this time is a time of renewal for us all, clergy and lay alike, all called in different ways to the transforming work of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ in a challenging time.
            I want to end with words from Paul, words that I have held particularly close these past months as a new bishop.  Quite some time ago, I committed to memory I Corinthians 16:14: Let all that you do be done in love.  I confess that I paid insufficient attention to the verse before, but since my consecration as a bishop, this entire thought has taken up residence in my soul.  May these words feed and challenge you as you continue to say “yes” because its hard.
Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.  Let all that you do be done in love.


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