Sunday, June 25, 2017

One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

Numbers 27:15-23                                                                                                                   Philippians 4:6-9                                                                                                                                       John 3:25-30

“Better is the end of a thing than its beginning …” Ecclesiastes 7:8a

I’ve tried to take stock of the last four / nine years to hopefully share some brilliant insight or profound perspective.  I remember thinking when I got here that I should probably begin keeping a daily journal.  Now I wish I had!  Through it all, however, one thing has kept coming to mind: even on some of my very worst days, I could only think, “I got exactly what I asked for.  I just never knew what it looked like or felt like”.

To share only a glimpse of what I have observed, I offer the following:

First - Church Ministry is Full Time.  For the pastor and for the congregation.  There are few moments completely free from thoughts of the church and what the church could or should be doing.  Even while doing something as mundane as mowing the parsonage lawn, raking pine straw, or washing dishes, there are always thoughts and prayers and hopes and laughs and even some tears for the church as well as thoughts and ideas for sermons and Bible lessons – always trying to figure out how it all connects to “real life”.

Though being the pastor is the job for one person, the burdens must be shared as willfully as the joys.  Do you really pay a pastor to do for you what you would rather not be bothered with?  If so, can it biblically justified?  OR – as covenant people who are The Church – can we not rather appreciate our true strength when we share the burden of duty and responsibility as well as the joys?

Secondly - Church Ministry Never Was About Me.  At one time I was on the elder track pursuing full ordination, but I finally came to realize this may not be the track The Lord has set for me.  This decision to stop the pursuit struck at the heart and soul of who I once was – or thought I was.  And I was compelled to ask such questions as, Could I more faithfully serve the church as an elder as opposed to being a local pastor?  Would it make me more effective?  Would it make you more devoted to the missional life of the church if I were?  Would it make me, in the eyes of some, a “real” pastor?

To be sure, elders are more educated and education is always a good thing, something I will always pursue, but are elders more diligent only by virtue of their education and ordination?  Does the laying on of hands by the bishop make anyone more dutiful and mindful of the Great Commission?  Or are they only aware of their ordination?  Not to impugn the Order of the Elders, but I finally had to be serious about what The Lord would ask of me.  I also had to decide how elders’ orders would better equip me to do as I am called to do, or if those orders would change anything at all.

Over time it became less about “me” and my personal ambition – and more about the vocation which can in no way be confused with a job.  I discovered it never was about “me” nor is it about “you”.  No one of us should ever expect or demand to get “my way”.  We have no “rights”, no “personal privilege” to claim as members or as Christians. 

As the Body of Christ, we have only responsibilities which will always bring opportunities if we would just be willing to take a chance and drop “I / me” from the equation (“I” don’t feel like it; “I” don’t have time; it ain’t “my” thing”, etc).  It is always about The Lord and our place in Him which is the Church, the Body of Christ, the congregation, the community of saints and what we are all called to be in Christ.  It isn’t what we do or choose to do – it is (or should be) who we are.  And we can never stop being who we are.

Third - Church Ministry Is Covenant.  Among the many unique attributes of Wesleyan Methodism, we are a covenant people accountable to and for one another.  We do embrace a personal component of our spiritual journey such as in prayer and fasting, but on the whole and in the common Covenant by virtue of our baptism, we are a people – not persons.  We are never so strong as when we stand together in common purpose and help one another rather than try to hurt or keep out a few.

A covenant is more than a promise or a contract.  Covenants cannot be revoked any more than our being who we are can be revoked.  Covenants can be violated (and often are).  They can be ignored or denied, even defied – but never can a covenant be revoked.  It is why Jesus demands we “count the cost” of discipleship (Luke 14:28) before we enter into covenant with Him and with one another.  Going back to doing only what we feel like doing as opposed to being true to who we really are”, and a personal desire to be ‘saved’ only for one’s own sake as opposed to a collective desire to live ‘justified’ in covenant accountability for the sake of spiritual perfection, this means someone should always be in your business!  No one should ever fall through the cracks and be lost or forgotten.  Our fellow disciples should be diligent not to “meddle” but to support and encourage.   

This means, of course, that one cannot simply join the church on the spur of an emotional moment.  A covenant relationship must be established, developed, and nurtured.  Covenant standards of doctrine and community expectations of behavior must be faithfully conveyed.  After “counting the cost” of what it means to be a United Methodist Christian, the covenant is to be embraced with the vows of membership.  Respect and honor and integrity within the one single mission of the Church: to make disciples who are equipped to make disciples themselves.  It is never about burdens of “membership”; it is always about the sacred privilege of “discipleship” – loving and serving The Lord by loving and serving one another … even our enemies.

Finally - The Itinerant System of Pastoral Ministry is a lot like the old joke about Arkansas weather; if you don’t like the weather (or the pastor), just give it a minute and it will change.  For better or worse, it is always for the appointed season and the purpose for which the seasons or circumstances dictate.  Like the weather, however, we cannot wish it would change and stop being who we are and what we are called to do until it does change to suit us. 

The bishop and the appointive Cabinet work and pray diligently to ascertain the needs of every local church, and they do their best to match pastors equipped to meet those needs.  They may not always get it right (according to any church or individual), but they always do it faithfully and with the best of intentions for the sole purpose of “making disciples”.  Always.

Never is a pastor appointed to a church to do alone what the church must determine to do for itself and for the community it serves as a matter of principle, as a matter of calling, and as a matter of mission.  The role of the pastor is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12) … not to do the ministry for them, but with them.

This Body of Christ is the living, breathing, loving Presence of Christ The Word Himself in the community, but it can be no stronger than its weakest member and no more loving than its most hate-filled member.  It is not only about how much you care for, like, and look after one another; it is entirely about how much you are willing to care for and look after the community.  YOU are the Presence of Christ in McNeil / Magnolia.  With the pastor, regardless of who that pastor is, YOU are always the Gospel of The Lord. 

The Lord knows I’ve made my share of mistakes, and I know there are some who will not let those mistakes and misjudgments go.  It grieves me deeply that these will not let them go.  Like you and them, I will continue making mistakes and, hopefully, learning from them.  I pray, however, that you will not hold my mistakes against my successor or the DS or the Conference.  I also pray you will one day find it in your heart to forgive me as I have forgiven you and as The Lord offers forgiveness to us all.  For just as Jesus taught us, only when we forgive will we ever find forgiveness and peace of mind, heart, and soul.  Only then can we live fully as the Redeemed of The Lord set free from bondage to hate, spitefulness, vindictiveness, sin, and death.  Only then can we finally become who we are created to be. 

We are the Body of Christ in the world today.  Apart from who we are and what we are called to faithfully do, there is no hope for the community we are called to serve.  It's who we are.  It is who we must become.  To the Glory of the Almighty and Everlasting Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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