Helping clean up the sacristy a few days after Christmas, I saw a couple notes on the writing desk. Probably shouldn’t have, but couldn’t help but read a few paragraphs. OK, OK, got a pretty good look. This is how I recall what I read:
It was a good service preacher, in fact, a wonderful Christmas season. You really know how to bring it home on Chrismas Eve; all the candles, and the choir was really on it this year! Kids in the nativity scene were just as cute as can be, as always.
I just wanted to mention some things that I think are really, really important to the church that I don’t hear you say enough, and it’s beginning to concern me. I know there’s a lot of division in our wider society, and I think it’s been creeping into the church itself, and it makes me grieve.
I think you need to take a stronger and more vocal leadership stance in making sure that the real Gospel of Jesus Christ is heard in our church. Too often it seems that in the interest of reaching out “across the aisle”, you equivocate on issues like the love and care for immigrants, LGBT persons, the personal study of Scripture, and the overall love and dedication for the least among us. It seems that you tiptoe around these issues; you seem afraid to confront them in an honest, Biblically authentic way for fear of offending the richer and more powerful members of our church. I guess the Faux News religious right set just scream too loud for some of us that don’t feel like arguing in church.
Preacher, surely you took an oath of some kind to maintain a faithful witness for our Lord, Jesus Christ? Surely your attention to the “other”, — the weak, the helpless, the poor, the outcast trumps making some wealthy, well connected church members happy? So many times when current events beg for a comment regarding the correct Christian response, you tiptoe around and act like doing the right thing is an option, not a witness.
Things like illegal immigration: our society takes advantage of abundant cheap labor, but refuses to care for and embrace foreign people that we exploit. How about DADT? Even the US Military concedes that LGBT persons are human beings worthy of equal treatment, willing to make sacrifices for all of us. Yet I never hear you talk about how the Methodist Church still regards our gay brothers and sisters as being unequal in the sight of God. And speaking of the military, our country is at war on two fronts, what would the Prince of Peace say about His church ignoring a few words on the folly (and sin!) of taking up the sword, often in His name!
I know your conscience, I know your heart hast to be in the right place, but where is your courage? Where are your words? I thought the cornerstone of ministry was a person’s recognition that we might one day be challenged to stand up in His name? We so desperately need you to lead this community, this church, these people.
There are many who feel this way. You know who we are, we sometimes whisper words of encouragement after your sermons. We recognize the subtle attempts that you try to make in the language of a socially just Gospel. But we desperately need more. We need you to lead us, ALL of us, away from the narrow minded few that would prefer to keep our church a private and exclusive club. We are desperate in this time. We need you to lead us all to the loving Grace of God.
Peace be with you.
I’d like to respond first of all, with an admission that I have not done enough to bring the Gospel to our congregation, our community. I have evidently fallen short in conveying what it means to be a true follower of Christ. I have not been the faithful and courageous servant that I wish to be, indeed, have wanted to be all of my life. I had fervently hoped that by presenting the Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed by the Word, and by bringing forth an honest and faithful witness, that I could easily form a congregation into committed Christian disciples.
I have failed.
And I will not place blame; however I would use you as an example of my failure, Anonymous. With love and respect, it’s just a little tough to accept critical judgment over my “courage” from someone who signs a letter “Anonymous”. You see, if we are going to accomplish any of the things you have requested of me in the service of Christ, Anonymous, I’m going to need folks at least willing to show their face in public. If I can’t preach to a few people willing to stand up and say “Amen” when they hear the Gospel, then let’s put the “closed” sign out on the steeple. And you wonder why I’m not up in the pulpit calling for amnesty for illegal aliens or the withdrawal of our troops from the Middle East, or preaching for available and affordable health care all people?
As for your “whispers of support”, I’m sure you feel that you’re being supportive and fighting the good fight; but while you’re whispering, the folks in our congregation whom you are theologically at odds with, are happy to scream, praise, sing, yell, and fight for what they believe in. To put it bluntly, your whispers are not enough. Your unwillingness to stand up for what you know to be a faithful witness and your tendency to see the political process within the church to be distasteful, enables and emboldens your right wing brethren to flourish. You are the source of their strength. In Sunday School, in choir practice, helping plan for youth activities – your silence is allowing your doctrinally difficult neighbors to become the one voice of the church. Your silence is giving them a free pass. And Anonymous, when I look out over the congregation, read my emails on Monday morning, and attend the countless committees and boards that run our church, (and yes fund our church), their faces are the faces that I see, their work is the work that can be measured, and their names are the names that I know, Anonymous.
But I should make a stand. The stand that Jesus would make – not just for the contentment of the loud and entitled – but for the poor, the oppressed, and the silent. Yes, that is how it should be, but can you tell me how that would work out? I can.
I’ll make a stand, an honest and righteous stand as a disciple, perhaps on an issue that I know that would be uncomfortable for some of your fellow congregants. I’ll preach about the spiritual vacuum of war; I’ll talk about how the poor woman gave all of her two copper coins, while the rich man’s generous gifts don’t seem as great; I’ll teach that God loves and honors all of us, even two persons of the same sex who want to bless their committed relationship in His church. Anonymous, I can pretty much tell you how that script will play out under any of those scenarios, and the script does not include a happy ending for me, or in my eyes, for this church. You see, Anonymous, those folks you’re talking about – those folks who do the work, give the gifts, and stand up for what they believe will make a few phone calls and ensure that I’m not around to be a part of their vision of Christianity, flawed though it may be. And so things will likely get worse for you and those who agree with you, and certainly the oppressed folks that you and I are concerned about. Those who disagree with us will quickly replace me with some pastor that preaches what they want to hear and who will parrot the simple and false ideas they rummage for on TV, the radio, and the internet.
Yes, Anonymous, it is that simple. I have clergy friends, many of them actually, who have been run off from their churches for delivering a sermon that was met with disapproval from some, for suggesting that God loves everyone equally, for reminding their congregations of the church’s position on war, for working to correct lingering racial prejudice, for supporting the Quadrilateral instead of teaching literalism, and even for simply being female. (I wish I were kidding about this, Anonymous). These clergy friends have found themselves bullied into silence or else find themelves suddenly moved to remote areas, or in churches as toxic as the one they are forced out of. Often they find themselves appointed to churches that pay significantly less salaries, setting their ministerial careers back several years if they feel they want to stay in the ministry at all.
And there are days I would risk it all and make the prophetic witness that you would like to hear. I promise you there are days that I am ready to make that witness. But not only would it probably be a futile gesture, I would be asking my family to take that risk with me. Sure, the itinerant system is what I signed up for and I still believe it can be effective, but creating a stable life is something that I desire as much as you. Sure, my spouse realized what he/she was marrying into, but why should my calling/career forever limit my family’s well being and growth? Am I so different than you in wishing to have some stability, a place in a community, the ability to help send my children to college, a little bit of security?
In addition to being an evangelist for Christ, I am called upon to be a shepherd for the entire flock. And so I must swallow my righteousness and be His servant. I’m the one that must visit the sick, preach to the faithful, and bury the dead, even for those people that I don’t see eye to eye with. On the way, I hope I can turn a few hearts around. I pray a ceaseless prayer that I set an example that would honor my understanding of our Savior.
So here’s the deal, Anonymous. I need you. I need you to join some committees and let your views be known. I need you to volunteer to help with the youth, and the children, and the confirmands. I need you to get on the administration board and the pastor parish relations committee. Lead an adult Sunday School class, heck, at least speak out in your Sunday School class when someone goes on a rant about some nonsense he heard on the AM radio! The church needs you to become a delegate to the annual and perhaps the General Conference, so that you can help us change the laws that govern how our church works. I need you to overcome your apprehension about participating in the governance of our local and general church; it isn’t just about ugly old politics, it’s about determining the course our church takes in the service of God – in the transformation of the world.
Look, I can’t quit, and if you quit on me, we’re both lost, perhaps me more than you.
Let’s you and me make a deal, Anonymous. I need you, and you need me. Both of us need to do more if we are to share the complete Gospel and save the church we love. I will look for you from now on. Will I be able to find you? How about others? Will you speak out with me? Will you stand up with me? If I promise you that I will be more courageous, will you show courage as well – publicly declare your name, pledge your faithfulness to witness for Christ? Or will we both fall asleep in the garden? If I’m to lead, I desperately need someone to lead. Won’t you let me lead you, Anonymous?
Grace and peace,