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Lord, I Love the Church and We Need Help
By Virginia O. Bassford
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
In the Beginning GOD: Relationships with God and God's People
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
—Genesis 1:1 RSV
Story Mediates Relationship
It did not seem out of the ordinary for us to have a group of four pastors standing at our dining room table after the meeting of General Conference in 2008. They were all from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa (DRC). Important life-events happen around the table. Prayer. Family meetings. Conversation. Breaking bread. Sharing in hospitality. Relationships are founded and grounded around table community. It just seemed normal to have them with us.
Our guests did not speak much English. I spoke no French or Congolese dialect. Somehow we managed. When I offered to take out my photo album of my trip to the DRC, they eagerly responded.
One or two turns of the pages later, one of the pastors exclaimed, "That's John!" "What?" said another.
They rapidly began speaking to one another in a language foreign to my table. Suddenly they were glued to every detail of every photo. They recognized pastors—not just John, but one after another after another. Several pages in, I turned the page and said, "Oh! Look! Here's MAMMA Pastor!" (Mamma is a word used for a female leader—it is a sign of respect.) The DS at the table—a female DS—was utterly astonished. "That's me!" she squealed in delight. "That's ME!"
Indeed it was. Her hair was different. She was impeccably dressed in an American suit instead of her native attire. But there was no mistaking it. The next page held a photo of her with her throng of children. With great pleasure I removed it from the page and handed it to her as a gift. The touch of her long, graceful fingers on the children's faces told me of her homesickness and that this photo was a rare item in her culture.
We turned the next page, and the next. Standing at my table were not one, but four United Methodist pastors from across the globe, three of whom I had pictures of in my photo album. Suddenly a sleepy afternoon was electric with possibility and friendship.
Ministry is about relationship. Whether it is from across the world, across the dining room table, or across the Communion table, ministry is relationship. All relationships require work of one degree or another. Some relationships require more work than we are willing or able to invest. They sap our energy. Other relationships are rich and deep. They take us to the thin places of God.
The gift of story mediates our relationships. One of the DISCIPLE Bible Study classes I taught laughed at me religiously for so often using the questions, "What does this passage tell us about God?" "What does this passage tell us about human beings?" and, "What does this passage tell us about the relationship between God and human beings?" Stories stand in the gap between theory and real life. Narrative conveys relationships.
Time and again, church people are willing to forgive a poorly crafted and even awful sermon or worship experience if the pastor is simply willing to be in relationship with them. It is the relationship that mediates the preaching experience. Congregational participants are willing to allow a strong relationship with their pastor to blot out and cover over all kinds of preaching and worship transgressions. We thank God for this, especially on Saturday nights.
Our call—to Christianity, to baptism, to ordination, to preach—begins with God's relationship with us, and our relationship with God. Through the grace of Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God extends to us a hand of relationship. We respond. The remainder of life is lived out receiving God's offer, responding to that offer, and through our response offering that same basis of relationship with others. God's relationship with us really is that simple.
Relationships Are Not Easy
The voice of the late Reverend Dick Murray still rings in my ears. Murray used to say that he regretted that the editors of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible didn't translate Genesis 1:1 precisely—they added the word when: "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth." Murray thought the when should have been left out so that it was crystal clear: "In the beginning GOD ..." There was nothing more important. Everything, absolutely everything, begins with God, and God begins all things.
Relationships are not easy. Anyone who has been in a covenantal relationship for more than five minutes knows this. Whether it is a covenantal relationship with God, with the church, with a spouse, or in a parental relationship with a child, we often start out excited, but then reality sets in. If it is a long-term relationship, our patience will be tested and our ability to be tenacious in commitment may be stretched to the limit.
Long ago I worked with a nurse anesthetist who loved to tell the story of her son. We'll call him "Billy." My friend was a single mom who worked long, long hours in the operating room. Billy was used to being a latchkey child who came home from school, turned on the television, and immediately transformed into a couch potato.
One afternoon when he was about ten, Billy decided that he wanted some marshmallow Rice Krispie treats. So he went into the kitchen and got out all the necessary ingredients: the measuring cups and bowls, box of cereal, and butter. Then he took out the jar of marshmallow cream and put it in the microwave. Only instead of putting it in for ten seconds, he put it in for ten minutes.
When the timer went off, he opened the microwave and out rolled the marshmallow. It went down the front of the cabinet, seeping into the silverware drawer, which was open just enough for the marshmallow to drool inside the drawer and all over the flatware. Then it continued on its molten journey down the front of the cabinets, sneaking onto the pots and pans below, and made a nice, large, gooey puddle on the floor.
Billy did what most ten-year-old boys would do. He promptly slammed the microwave door and went back to watching television.
My friend got home late that night. She had had a tedious, grueling day in the surgery suite. She needed a winch to get out of the car. As she walked in the back door—exhausted, hungry, completely spent—the first thing she saw was the marshmallow cream.
"BILLY! GET IN HERE!" she bellowed.
"Yes, Mom?" he replied in the voice of a cherub.
She raised her hands in the form of a horizontal O. (In former days it might have been said that she was preparing to wring his neck.) "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?"
Billy never missed a beat. "Now, Mom," he said as he put his hand up in a flat "stop" signal as if he were giving a command to his best friend.
"Now, Mom, remember—patience is a virgin!"
How can we help loving a child like that? Don't you just immediately want to scoop him up?
Can you imagine the ways our human relationships with God have put God to the test? God has certainly endured more than the ten-minute marshmallow test. Why would God continue to be in relationship with us? Because God loves us!
Likewise, relationships may test us in ways we never imagined. So why do we stick with them? Sometimes we stick with them because we love the person with whom we are in relationship. Perhaps we have made a covenant and are simply faithful. Maybe we stick with them because there is some mutual benefit—something good to be gained, even if something else is willingly sacrificed. Perhaps we stick with them because we know that there is more to life than just "my" little corner of the world.
These may also be the reasons we stick with ministry. Even when it is tough, even when it costs more than we ever imagined, ordination (in most cases) is a life-consuming, full-time, 24/7/365 commitment. It is not a coat we are at liberty to put on and take off if the time is convenient or inconvenient. Even when we are tested, we stay with it, because we believe in a higher commitment, a higher calling than our little corner of the world or piece of the story. Whether we work within the bounds of an organized religion or not, whether we are ordained or not, ministry is hard work. The excessive demands of vocational ministry require the ability to reach deep inside to build a relationship with ourselves that is founded in a relationship with God.
Relationship with Self
Many of us have turbulent teenage years. Mine were no exception—except they were mine, and I thought I was surely the only teenager to ever have experienced such chaos. I was not a bad girl, really. I just intentionally made bad choices. There was no peace to be found anywhere within me.
When my mother was angriest with me, she would say that she wished for me to have a daughter who was just like me. I lived into my late twenties fearing that it would be so. I entered my thirties knowing without a doubt that my mother's wish had come true.
Both of our children were intentionally given names that mean "God's gift." I never imagined what a great gift they would each be to us, and the opportunity for healing that parenting such great children could be. The greatest gift that our children have given to me is that their very presence has forced me to look at life and God in a bigger way. For example, the parable of the prodigal son will never be the same as it was before we had a headstrong child. My understanding of God's grace can never return to the naïveté it reflected prior to my reprimanding one of our children too severely, going back to apologize, and having him say, "It's OK, Mom. I love you. I forgive you."
Maybe it is in that context that I now read the eleventh chapter of Isaiah. You know the passage—the one about God's promise that a messiah will come to establish peace on earth. There will be a new order—predator and prey will live in harmony. A little child—a vulnerable, innocent, nonviolent child—will lead us. When you think about it, that's a pretty unrealistic picture. Not only that, it is also unnatural. It is deviant for a wolf and a lamb to lie down together. The relationship between the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M makes for a good illustration when it comes to talking about unnatural peace. (If nothing else, I'll commit it to writing, since the future of our school rivalry is presently in danger.)
Ken Bassford and I managed to have a child who is an anomaly. Headstrong like her mother, she decided at an early age—around six—that she was NOT going to be a UT fan. She was going to be, of all things, an Aggie! We hung our heads. An Aggie she has been. How could I have birthed and reared an Aggie child? It's almost unbearable!
Several years ago, before the great Texas versus Texas A&M football game, our daughter announced to me that she was switching sides—she would be rooting for UT in the game. I told her she couldn't do that. It isn't natural; it's just not done. One doesn't switch college teams like that! No matter how far down the chips may be, you just don't switch teams.
It's about as "natural" for a lamb and a lion to lie down together as it is for an Aggie and a Longhorn or a Sooner and a Red Raider to root for each other. It just isn't done! But Isaiah says it will be so. In the Peaceable Kingdom the unnatural will become natural. It is not normal for different categories of folk to trust one another— but it will be so.
Peace? A time when the wolf and the lamb will live together, the leopard and the kid goat will lie down together, the calf and the lion and the fatling together? My guts cry out, "Get real, Isaiah! I work in the church! I know that peace is often just a superficial calm between storms. There are money problems and personality conflicts and leadership issues. Then there are those basic theological and ideological differences that cause wedges and chasms between us. And you expect us to be at peace?"
I feel like Jeremiah. Several times he speaks for God, saying, "They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace." And we, just by virtue of being human, want to point our fingers and say, "They did it! It's their fault! Our world was getting along just fine until they messed it all up!" At least that's the story we hear in Genesis 2–3: "I didn't do it—it's her fault!" "Well, I certainly didn't do it—it's the snake's fault! He made me!" As a result, husbands will forever whine things such as "But I didn't hear you say that." And wives will eternally snap, "I told you so."
Then look at this: in Matthew 10:34 Jesus tells the disciples:
"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household."
There you have it. Biblical proof of our division. Division. There are many divisions. Jesus tells us that he has come not to bring peace but division. It is normal to be divided. I have a right to my grudge. I am justified for not wanting to associate with the likes of "them."
But then in Romans 12 and in Ephesians 4 we hear that we are "one body in Christ" (Rom. 12:5), that there is "one body and one Spirit, just as [we] were called to the one hope of [our] calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all" (Eph. 4:46).
Are we divided or are we united? Do we have peace or a sword? Which is it?
An answer erupts from my time of quiet: "Both!"
That passage in Matthew 10 goes on to say, "Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." There is something bigger at work than our personal desires, something greater than what I want.
It took three decades for me to realize that if I wanted to have peace in my soul, then I needed to find God there too. It was only when God was at the top of my priority list that everything else had the potential to fall into place. This decision often requires a division with the world. Sometimes, it can require a district superintendent (DS) to make decisions that alienate friends.
Before the bishop and cabinet of the Central Texas Annual Conference make appointments, we remind ourselves that our appointment priorities are to be based on what we perceive through prayer and discernment: "God, and the kingdom of God; the mission field; the church; and the pastor—in that order." Do we make mistakes? Yes, we do. At the same time, I believe we are working as hard as can be to truly listen to God and move forward with courage and a willingness to follow God's leading.
Perhaps the most significant division—perhaps the division that is most important—has little or nothing to do with divisions between us. Perhaps the most vital division is the division that takes place within each and every one of us. Where am I divided within myself? Where in me does God's Spirit meet my flesh? Do I recognize that it is for my sin that God has been made flesh; that it's for my wrongdoing that Christ suffered and died?
The question that Isaiah raises in my mind is, do I have the ability, do I have the discernment, will I allow Christ to cause a division within my very self, that I might see where I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God? Will I allow Christ to show me where even I have parted from the waters of my baptism? Margaret Wheatley says it this way, "It's not differences that divide us. It's our judgments about each other that do."
Remember when Jesus was an infant and Mary and Joseph took him to the temple? Simeon told Mary that the inner thoughts of many would be revealed, and that a sword would pierce her own soul too.
There are things in life far more important than figuring out who is right or who is wrong. The bigger question is, what can we learn from one another? If I use my judgment against others to judge my internal self, where will I land on the continuum? Do I have the courage to look at the outcome? Remember, it's that whole log and speck thing. Examination begins with self.
Self Divided No More
Teacher and author Parker Palmer says it this way, "Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be." He goes on to assert that "there is no selfhood outside of relationship." This deepest of callings allows us to make a critical decision, according to Palmer. The decision is to live "divided no more." He writes: "They decide no longer to act on the outside in a way that contradicts some truth about themselves that they hold deeply on the inside. They decide to claim authentic selfhood and act it out—and their decisions ripple out to transform the society in which they live, serving the selfhood of millions of others." Palmer calls this the "Rosa Parks decision," as Parks decided to "live divided no more." He asserts:
Rosa Parks sat down because she had reached a point where it was essential to embrace her true vocation—not as someone who would reshape our society but as someone who would live out her full self in the world. She decided, "I will no longer act on the outside in a way that contradicts the truth that I hold deeply on the inside. I will no longer act as if I were less than the whole person I know myself inwardly to be."
Excerpted from Lord, I Love the Church and We Need Help by Virginia O. Bassford. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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