Friday, June 19, 2020

Pandemic Ministry

It has been nearly four years since I retired from fulltime pastoral ministry. At the time I wondered how the transition was going to change my ministry, which I have always considered to be a lifelong calling and never dependent on a church paycheck – although the salary certainly helped pay the bills.

For the most part I have declined opportunities to do traditional ministry. I have declined all requests to be an interim pastor at churches in surrounding towns. I declined most invitations to be the guest preacher in other pulpits. I needed time away from the pulpit to recover my land legs. Like sailors needing time to adjust to land life after an extended time at sea, I needed time to see what it was like to walk the Christian life without leaning on a pulpit.

Strangely enough, in recent months the coronavirus pandemic has aided my ministry.  Enjoying the slower pace that the pandemic brought, I used the time to start a podcast and a video YouTube Channel. I don’t preach online. I talk about spiritual matters in an informal manner.

What I say has changed as much as how I say it. When I was a church pastor I had the responsibility referred to as “care of souls.” I ministered to people at all different stages of the spiritual journey. Whenever I crafted a sermon, I was very aware that it would be heard by a wide variety of people at different stages in their physical and spiritual lives. That determined what I said.

Now without the responsibility for other’s souls, I find myself looking more carefully at my own soul. I write and speak to clarify my thoughts about what I am experiencing spiritually. I speak from where I am, out of where I am – not to where other people are. I “speak forth” rather than “speak to.” If people happen to be where I am spiritually, then they will tune in. If not, they will tune out. Either way is fine. It turns out that I reach more people now than I ever did when I was a pulpit jockey.

This new ministry has deepened my spiritual life. One of the reasons I chose Christian ministry as a profession was so I could spend time developing my own spiritual life. I admit, it was selfish. But it worked … to a degree. Pastoral ministry was more time-consuming than I ever imagined, but I also focused on what I love the most – spiritual matters. Now that I am retired I have even more time to devote to the spiritual adventure.

In classical Indian philosophy of life, there are four stages of life known as ashramas. The first is the Student. The second is the Householder. The third is Retirement. In ancient times, people withdrew from society and retired into the forest to devote themselves fulltime to spiritual practice. In reality most people did not do this, but it remained the Hindu ideal. (The fourth stage is renunciation, a life of monastic-style vows, taking on voluntary poverty. Something I am not yet ready for - although I am striving for simplicity.)

Most Americans today, who can afford to retire, use retirement to catch up on all the things they wanted to do earlier in life, but did not have the time or the money. “Eat, drink, and be merry” as the retired preacher of Ecclesiastes advises.  Those who cannot afford to retire must continue in the householder phase. Many people, who can afford to retire, choose not to. Instead they continue in the second stage of life until the end. Very few use retirement as a time to devote themselves to spiritual pursuits. I have embraced this stage in my life gladly and wholeheartedly!

When I look inward at who I am and who God is, it puts outward matters in perspective. My inner vision is sharper, even while my physical vision and hearing is dimmer. What I see astounds me, and I share it with others. I have no choice. This is who I am. Through the responses I receive regularly from listeners around the world, I have discovered there are a lot of people who see what I see. They are where I am. We are one.

In my ministry I share what I see, which is what Jesus saw. He called it the Kingdom of God. My teaching is more like the message of Jesus and less like the church’s message about Jesus. It is more focused and unequivocal. I am less concerned about offending those who are afraid of the light and more concerned about bearing witness to the Light.

A pastor friend of mine who is still in the pulpit is worried that his bold and prophetic preaching will get him fired by his congregation, with the attendant financial hardship that would involve. I empathize with him, but I have no such fears myself.

I still get the occasional sniper taking shots at me from the dark corners of the Church. Those attacks still wound me, but I am learning how to let them move through me with less resistance. As Jesus wisely practiced and taught us, “Resist not evil.” My ministry is still the joy it has always been, but now the joy is fuller and deeper, and it shows no signs of diminishing. I am eternally grateful for this blessing of the ministry of retirement.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Wrestling with Racism

As a pastor I have always been expected to have wisdom to share on any occasion. I must honestly say that when it comes to racism in America I have no wisdom. I feel like I am part of the problem. No, I am not a white supremacist or Christian nationalist. In fact I have always considered myself progressive when it comes to matters of race. But I confess that I have not been part of the solution to the persistent and systemic racism that has survived for four hundred years in our land.

I have had friends of other races and religions throughout my life. When I was a pastor in the Pittsburgh area I used to exchange pulpits with an African-American pastor friend regularly. I preached in his church and he in mine. That was quite an experience for this white guy raised in an all-white New England Congregational Church. On that first Sunday in the pulpit of the Second Baptist Church, I was taken off guard by the congregation talking back to me during the sermon! But I got used to it quickly and came to enjoy it. Now I miss the real-time interjections of encouragement and affirmation.

I have never considered myself racist, and that is exactly the problem. Very few white people do. Most of us adamantly insist that we are not racist. People like us are blind to the fact that we are part of the problem. I am the beneficiary of white privilege. I grew up in a middle class white family in a middle class white neighborhood. I attended a private, all-male, preparatory, boarding school during my high school years. That makes me REALLY privileged. There were a handful of non-white kids there at the time, but they tended to be from wealthy families.

Because of my excellent secondary education I got into a good liberal arts college, and my parents footed the tuition bill. That was before a college education required parents to take out a second mortgage or students to mortgage their future. For graduate school – another predominately white experience – I attended the oldest Southern Baptist seminary in the country, founded by slaveholders. There I learned firsthand about the racism that is an integral part of Southern culture and religion.

In short, as a white middle class male, I am privileged. I don’t know what it means to be female or poor or gay or a racial minority in our country at this time. For that reason I am uncomfortable with the self-righteous rhetoric that I am hearing from my fellow white Americans – on both the right and left – when it comes to the protesters. Throughout my life I have always advocated nonviolence, a la Martin Luther King. But nonviolence is easy for a white male to espouse when I have not been a victim of violence.

Part of me understands why some people resort to violence. People feel frustrated with the lack of progress in racial justice and equality. If I were in their shoes I might do the same thing. If I was an urban black male today I could easily see myself as one of those whom our president calls “thugs” and threatens with shooting and domination. That is the type of white attitude that led to the murder of George Floyd in the first place.

The socially acceptable paths available to black people have not worked, and whites seem content to leave it that way. So what are people to do? What am I to do? As I write this, my wife and I plan to stand with the protesters in Hesky Park in Meredith on Sunday, although I am concerned about the weather. Thunderstorms are forecast. 

Even that caveat betrays my entrenched self-interest. I will stand up for my fellow Americans’ basic human rights … as long as it is convenient and not uncomfortable for me. How hypocritical is that?! I am clearly part of the problem. Until white folk like me see ourselves as the problem, our nation will never find a solution. God help us all.