Back during my first sabbatical I made study of Samuel Longfellow. You should check him out...
“A Spiritual and Working Church”
Before I say goodbye to the collection of Samuel Longfellow's sermons that has given me much food for thought over the past two weeks, I wanted to pick out one more sermon in which he described the church that he hoped to build in Brooklyn. The date is October 30, 1853, the day he officially "assumed the pastorate" in the words of his editor. The topic for the day was his vision of the church, how it should function, and what its role should be in the rapidly growing city they were a part of.
Like many sermons of its era, it is one with a clear structure. It was meant to convey fairly complicated and important concepts to his listeners and to do it efficiently by the standards of the time. It is short on stories and humor, but it still reads well and it isn't all that hard to imagine it being spoken. He begins by reminding us that the word "church" "implies some common idea or purpose. It represents something more than a mere aggregate of persons such as individual and separate errands may bring together at any hour in the crowded streets of a city...we limit, however, the word church to that unity whose central idea is a religious one--the idea of God." he goes on to list a variety of "churches". There are Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Christians at least, and he leaves room for others as well. Not too bad for the 19th Century pastor (though he really does use the term "church" for each of them, which was rather jarring to my modern ears).
Then, after waxing poetic for a while about the virtues of faith communities, he gets down to his first set of "three points" (preachers know what I mean) by defining church as "a society of men and women and children, associated by a religious spirit, and for religious work". The first word he picks out of his definition is the word "religious". "A church must justify its existence by this, that it holds as its special thought--not its exclusive possession, but its special thought--the idea of God." Today we might argue about what his (or our) definition of that "special thought" might be. After all, there are plenty of devoted church-goers in my congregation and not all of them are sure what they think or believe about God. However, the idea if God is an obvious--if sometimes ambiguous--one.
He then also chooses to emphasize the word "spirit". There are many folks who like to say that they are "spiritual but not religious". For Longfellow, however, the term is rooted deeply in the life of faith communities. In fact, in the liberal church the religious spirit is essential as these bonds may tie us more closely than the those of belief. "I do not deny that similarity of opinion is a bond of union. We are drawn to those who think like ourselves. But it is not the strongest or deepest bond. It is easily overridden by spiritual sympathy, or annulled by the want of that." There are few ministers who have served for any period of time that could disagree with this. Many, many congregations come together over shared ideas, but if the the connections between individuals aren't also felt then there is no real community. Some congregations find this spirit quickly. For some it takes longer. It also ebbs and flows. When the spirit is lost (or at least not present) the congregation is dead--whether they continue to meet or not--and something else must rise to replace it.
Finally, he addresses the word "work". The church is not a private debating society or health club, or therapy session. It is meant to be out in the world. " It seems to me as if, whenever a new church is formed, earth's suffering, sinning, wronged, and perishing ones should lift up their heads and a new hope light up their eyes, as they cried, "You will help us, you will save us". Churches should work together to support each other and work beyond their doors to alleviate suffering and follow the teachings of Jesus. It is a tall order. However, work is needed to balance out the otherwise navel-gazy nature of religious communities.
Finding this balance is the challenge that faces our churches today. Sometimes we lean one way. At other times we tilt in another direction. It is our way as people. Sabbatical, perhaps not surprisingly, is designed to help the pastor to find that balance. The religious work of the church is the job of the minister. It is the job of others as well, but usually part-time. Pastors are paid to think about the church and its members full-time. Often to the detriment of the her or his own religious spirit. Hence the extended sabbath.
Longfellow has three more "points" to his sermon. They are the kinds of work that the church does. First he lists the Culture of the Religious Spirit by which he means those things that spring most quickly to mind when we think of church. Worship, rites of passage, and communion are examples of this first type of work. The second is Religious Education, the deepening and growing of the faith for both young and old. Finally (and he cheats here by including two things as one) there is the category of Religious Benefice and Philanthropic Action. Here he is thinking of what we more often call "social service" and "social justice." It is clear that he does mean both. Again there is the question of balance. We have limited time and resources. Where do we put them?
It seems to me that finding balance between both sets of "points" comes down to our capacity for thoughtful discernment. How do we, as people and as congregations, find ways to consider issues of importance with as little anxiety as possible? How do we remember the spirit that flows through us and between us, while also nurturing that spirit? How do we become religious? How do we make our communities of faith this way as well?
The answers to these questions vary. We are a diverse species and our faith reflects that. However, I think these are questions that we all must consider both for ourselves and for the congregations we love.
This is an old post from when I wrote on Blogger. It seemed worth reviving, given the massive amount of football water that has flowed under the bridge since then. Did I quit watching football entirely? Well, not really. I quit watching everything but the Super Bowl as I have a longstanding tradition of inviting friends over. Otherwise yes, I have. I do not watch regular season or pre-season games. No following Brady, Belichik, no "Mr. Kraft". Of course, the reactionary and un-reflective politics of those guys have made it easy to step away. Now I am thinking I may just drop the Super Bowl as well and just have a party, instead.
The video above is about a boycott in honor of Colin Kaepernick that is gathering steam. I may join them. The statement below is only slightly dated, as it turns out.
Regular readers of Burbania Posts will know that there was a time when I watched a whole lot of football. I even religiously tuned in to the 24-hour infomercial that is the NFL Network. I wrote about it online. I made predictions. The first Sunday of our church year is called "Kickoff Sunday" partly because we are kicking off the new year...and partly because the new season begins that afternoon. The point is, I was almost a super fan. The only thing keeping me back was that I couldn't bring myself to engage in the frightening debates at the bottom of the "comments" section on NFL.com.
I got into it in a roundabout way. I live in a place where baseball remained king for longer than anywhere else (Go Red Sox!). It was as a youngish adult that I turned to the fandom of professional football. It began by hanging out with the Phys. Ed. majors in my dorm. I embraced it with the zeal of a convert. That is coming to an end now.
In fact, the end began a few years ago with the slow erosion of my trust in the institution of the NFL. I don't think I have to go into details, do I? There were a number of ill-conceived labor disputes culminating in the absolutely ridiculous lock-out of the referees. I took a break then, because I don't cross picket lines, even TV ones. Then there were the revelations around concussions. Perhaps most importantly, I (and others) had the creeping suspicion that the league and it's owners didn't particularly care about the health of players and former players as much as they cared about message control. About a third of the way through last year's season, I turned off the TV and didn't return until the Super Bowl.
"Protect the Shield" is the unofficial slogan of Commissioner Roger Goodell and it has made him very popular among his employers. The league does its best to project an image that is as pure and wholesome as eating apple pie at a church social, but reality keeps sneaking in. Do I need to mention that racial slur used as a "mascot" in our nation's capitol? The league keeps saying that it is respectful--even an honorific--to Native Americans even though pretty much everyone they aren't paying says it isn't. This week we get to hear that there are new rules around players committing acts of domestic violence. Why? Because the league just discovered that most fans view it as more heinous a crime than smoking pot. The two-game suspension of Ray Rice seems a bit too much like the punishment parents give out to kids when they secretly think their child can do no wrong. What world do they live in? Protect the shield. Always make sure the money keeps rolling in. That is their world.
Here is what I saw before I turned off the TV. In earlier times I had seen a pleasant diversion, an interesting metaphor for the struggle of life, even a certain regional pride as I watched my home team. In the last time I watched I saw something different. I saw a wealthy old billionaire high-fiving his billionaire friends while his employees permanently damaged their heads, spines, legs and backs in pursuit of...something. On the sideline was a coach. Theoretically he is worthy of respect. In reality he was the caricature of the sort of horrible, screaming, obscene middle-aged suburban dad most of us try not to become at youth sporting events. I asked myself if I wanted to be the sort of person who condones this. The answer, it turned out, was "no".
Look, I am not anti-football per se. You will see me at the annual high school Thanksgiving game and maybe at a couple more. What I am is anti-NFL, at least in its current incarnation. The game has problems. It has really, really big problems that trickle down to that high school field and need to be addressed in an open, honest, forthright manner. They need to be dealt with by the folks at the top. They need to be dealt with by the people who build (and profit from) the dream.
No pretending. No fakes. Deal with the issues and I will come back. Don't and I won't. I can go outdoors and spend time with my family on Sunday afternoons. I am quitting the NFL.
Here as promised is the "Flashback" post from last year about long-term ministries. I mentioned it in yesterday's post. Enjoy!
One of my greatest weaknesses as a pastor is--quite simply--that I am not the most organized person to ever wear a Geneva gown. It is a problem that members of my church are rather familiar with. Over the 11-plus years we have been together we have learned to adapt and adjust. Like any long-term relationship, we have found ways to bring out the best in each other...most of the time.
However, one of the problems that this creates is that I am suddenly feeling the need to learn more about long-term ministry. Being in such a ministry will do that to you. I have changed since I arrived in September of 2003. My congregation has changed. The landscape we now are moving through has also changed. We are doing just fine, thank you, but I feel that I need to reflect a bit to be on my game.
The best way would be an ongoing group or a workshop. That is the problem. I am not good at planning. However, I am good at thinking so I thought I would share with you some of the topics that I think such a workshop or group would have to address if someone more gifted in this way were willing and able to work with me on such a thing.
1) Big Famous Keynote: Yes, we can have one of these. I am affiliated with both the UUA and the UCC. So is my church. It isn't hard to think of a few former pastors of big churches who fit into this category and who love to talk. However, what I am looking for from him or her is something very specific. I want theological and spiritual reinforcement for the value of long-term pastorates. This is important stuff and plays right to the strength of "Reverend Biggs". For applied and practical elements, I want to hear from other people who have experience in congregations that are a bit more typical.
2) How Do You Advance Your Career?: ...and what constitutes a successful career if you have stepped away from a system where bigger is always better?
We know why Reverend Biggs stayed at the big steeple right? The pay was good. Important people had heard of the good reverend's church and wanted to invite the pastor onto committees and such. There was time off (thank you Associate Pastors!) to write that meditation manual. This is all fine. Rev. Biggs worked hard, spoke well, and got the brass ring young enough to also serve in one place for a while.
Most of the long-term pastors I know, however, do not serve "big pulpits". We labor in relative anonymity. It is an easy thing to get noticed in that one big congregation in your association. What do the rest of us do to influence the direction of our various denominations? How do you get your voice heard when you have stepped off the career ladder for something you find more fulfilling?
3) How Do You Grow Spiritually Together?: Or, if you prefer, "How do you keep from getting bored or being boring"? A long-term pastorate, like any long-term relationship, can get dull if you don't work on it. My wife and I go to a lot of concerts, date nights, couples nights, and so on. We go for long walks to chat. We have been together for twice as long as I have been at the church.
Now I am not one of those "ministry is like a marriage" people because, well, it isn't like a marriage at all. That said, it is still a relationship that needs work. What are the equivalents to these sorts of experiences in a long-term ministry? I will say that I have had two rather distinct ministries at Eliot. There was the one before my sabbatical and the one after it. Both were quality ministries but they were different. I wonder if some sabbatical planning would make a good workshop.
4) How Do You Grow On Your Own?: Again, the same people all the time. The same patterns. What do you do away from the church to keep yourself sharp?
5) What About New People?: Some long-term ministers are pretty good about integrating new people. Others not so much. We have leaders we are comfortable with. Often we have known them for what feels like FOREVER. What sort of tricks and techniques would help facilitate lay-leadership growth?
6) How Do You Not Mess It Up For the Next Person (and here I mean Parson)?: This. Is. Important. A Church isn't after all, about us. In a long-term ministry it is inevitable (particularly in small and mid-sized churches) that the pastor becomes part of the architecture in some sense. The church building...the old communion silver...the ancient pastor who baptized both you and your kids...all are permanent and timeless after a while. What happens to the new person when they show up? How hard have we made it for them if we have over a decade of service in one place? I would like to hear from a really good Interim and find out what drives them crazy about us. I even have someone in mind.
7) God: This is the most important question. Where is God in our ministries? Are we in the same place because we don't want to (or cannot) move? Is there still life and spirit in the pastoring? These are important questions. Certainly there are always practical considerations that make us choose to stay. At the same time we are ministers. If God says "go" we go. If God says "stay" we stay. Perhaps this is where we end with small group discussion inspired by Reverend Biggs' sermon. We cannot let our relationship with God get old.
Anyway, this is my non-exhaustive list. Can anyone think of other items? My years at Eliot easily rest among the very best things that have ever happened to me. I know that every long-term minister would agree about their settlements. That is why we are still around. That is why we do the work we do. The challenge is to keep doing that work and to do it well...
I have been going through my old material from the previous Burbania Posts weblog. Every once in a while I will take something from their and re-post it on the new page here. This piece is from January 2011. It addresses a situation that occurred during "Championship Weekend" in the NFL. Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler injured himself and was taken out of the game. His manhood was questioned. This is what I had to say.
Obviously much of this is dated material. I still watched football then. Also the situation with Lance Armstrong was still unresolved at that time...
On Sunday I watched the NFC Championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears. Jay Cutler, the Bears starting Quarterback was pulled out early in the second half in favor of first, Tod Collins and next, Caleb Hanie. This did not surprise me. Cutler was clearly injured. Blood from his throwing arm was staining his uniform, after all. It turned out, however, that the bigger issue was his knee. He tore his right MCL and could no longer plant his leg effectively to throw.
You would have thought, to hear the commentators and fans (and later current and former players), that instead of being injured in a football game, he had committed an unforgivable sin. He had "quit" on his team. He had failed to show "leadership" by not playing until he was "carted off the field". More sports cliches were used to similar effect. Poor confused Brett Favre was brough up repeatedly...as someone worthy of emulation (!). I, for one, cannot see what the big deal is.
Look, I watch a lot of football. I like a good game, but I, at least, don't see how it helps anyone to permanently injure a player merely to prove that that person has "toughness". Professional sports--honestly--were they to disappear tomorrow would have absolutely no effect on the rest of the world. It is entertainment, we would find other things to do. The response from the players was particularly disturbing in light of the their union's current and much publicized concerns about injury. Football is a dangerous game. The union--representing the interests of the players who put themselves at risk--is trying to create a safer work environment. Why generate gallons of peer pressure to make it more dangerous? Why make the goal of safety harder to attain?
The real culprit here is the myth of toughness. As kids we are trained by our parents to value this aspect of ourselves. I don't have to tell you the social hierarchy of America's school system. We all, dear reader, had a place in it at some point or other. The "tough" varsity athletes reside at or near the top to the unending pride of parents and teachers. The less "tough" make a place for themselves on the science and theater clubs or the debate team. So given this culture and background, why, in that moment of manufactured drama known as "NFL Championship Sunday" wouldn't we seek out a villain?
Incidentally, now people are blaming Cutler's personality for the situation. Turns out he doesn't "let people (meaning the press) in". Hmmm...I wonder why? Is "letting people in" part of his contract?
I see two conflicting desires on the part of the media and the fans here. On the one hand, we want these sports figures to be "role models". We worry about this a lot. We don't ask this from our artists, of course. I was big fan of Metallica and the Who as a kid and no one thought I would follow their lifestyles. We do not (though we reall, really, should) even consistently ask it of ourselves as parents. We assign that task, apparently, to physically gifted strangers.
We get all upset about steroids and other drugs (and yes, we should). However, have we really considered the reason they are a constant issue in sports? We tell the pros that they must be held to a "higher standard" than we hold ourselves to. Yet we also perpetuate the "toughness" myth that makes it so hard for them to succeed. Did Lance Armstrong "dope" during his remarkable run of Tour De France victories? Honestly I would be surprised if he didn't. The Tour--like a lot of other competative venues--is an OSHA violation in progress all because we want to see the "toughest Tour yet". Lance was told to be "tough". He was told to be a role model. The requirement for role models in our world is simple...winning.
This is what we teach our children when we let them to play hurt--and many of us do. It is what we tell them when we fill their free time with parent-run competitive pursuits--and many, many of us do. This is what we tell ourselves when we push ourselves too far and wind up on crutches.
This myth pervades our culture, not just in sports but everywhere. We want to appear tough, we want to be seen as competitive at work and among our friends, with our neighbors at home and with Iraq and Afganistan abroad. We swagger as much as we walk in our relationships. We don't want to collaborate or solve problems, we want to win. How is that workin' for ya?
Perhaps we could try something out as a society. Instead of raising up toughness as a great an necessary attribute, why don't we replace it with empathy? What if our role models were people who could listen to others and make sound decisions? Why don't we encourage each other to care? Perhaps we should be in touch with each other and with our own needs and feelings. What if we praised Jay Cutler for knowing that his injury wouldn't make him the best option for the game? Maybe the world would be just a bit nicer to live in. Perhaps we could do with a little less toughness.