Pastoral patience

‘We thank you for raising up among us faithful servants for the ministry of your word and sacraments. We pray that N may be to us a godly example in word and action, in love and patience, and in holiness of life’. (Book of Alternative Services, ‘Ordination of a Priest’, prayer after communion, p.650).

I like that word ‘patience’.

When our family lived in Aklavik in the Northwest Territories in the mid-1980s, one summer we planted potatoes (not a common thing in the Arctic!). The local kids were very curious about it. Sometimes during the night (a relative term when there are 24 hours of daylight) they would dig up our potatoes to see if they were growing.

Pastors can be tempted to do that kind of thing too.

Pastoral work is slow work. You can’t rush it. It’s not unlike raising children. There are a few children who turn out to be prodigies; they’re the ones who enter university when they’re eleven. But they’re few and far between. Most kids grow and mature at a more measured pace.

Disciples are like that too. You can’t mass-produce them or place them in an accelerated growth track. The seeds of the Word of God are planted. They put down roots and begin to grow beneath the surface. After a while the tiny shoots break through the soil. As the weeks go by, the young plants grow, and eventually begin to bear fruit.

People put their faith in Christ and begin to grow. They develop habits of prayer and Bible reading. They begin to learn to put the teaching of Jesus into practice in their lives. Hard times come their way and they learn to follow Christ in the school of suffering. They learn the difficult way that they can’t rely on their own resources – they have to depend on the unseen presence of Christ. And so the process goes on.

Pastors can’t be in a rush. They have to be willing to walk beside people for a long time, and let God do his slow and patient work.

We’re not growth managers or assembly-line producers. We’re sowers of seeds, tending and watering the vulnerable young plants, protecting them from pests and weeds and inclement weather, patiently nurturing them and helping them bear fruit

May God save us from giving up too soon, from moving on too soon, from trying to rush what can’t be rushed. May God give us the gift of pastoral patience.

Advertisements

Random Lent Thought for Maundy Thursday: Humble Service

washing-feet-ghislaine howard

The word ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin word ‘maundatum’, which means ‘commandment’ (we get the word ‘mandatory’ from ‘maundatum).

In the Upper Room, at the Last Supper, after washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus said to them: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35, NIV 2011).

It has often been pointed out that ‘love one another’ was not a new command; something very like it appears several times in the Old Testament, and Jesus had previously given it to his disciples.

What is new is the description of the love: ‘As I have loved you’. The disciples are instructed to imitate Jesus in loving one another.

What specific acts of Jesus are in view here?

At the beginning of the chapter John says of Jesus, ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’ (John 13:1). This is clearly looking forward to the story of the cross. So we can say without hesitation that we’re called to imitate the love Jesus showed for us in the cross. This is sacrificial love, not ‘feeling’ love. Jesus doesn’t show the disciples his feeling of love by dying on the cross for them. The dying is the act of love. ‘Grater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15:13).

So we’re called to be ready and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for one another. Am I ready to do that? Probably not. Maybe I need to pray on that.

But I suspect there’s something more pressing for me to pray on. The other way Jesus loved his disciples was to wash their feet. This was the slave’s job, but for some reason no slave had done it that night. Consequently, after spending the day walking the dusty streets of Jerusalem in open sandals, Jesus and his disciples were now reclining on low couches around a table, their feet literally in each other’s faces. The omission would have been painfully obvious.

Apparently no one was willing to do the slave’s job, so Jesus got up and did it. When he was done, he said, “Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:12-15, NIV 2011).

Many churches (ours included) will remember this action of Jesus tonight by having foot washing services. I love this custom, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is real obedience to Jesus’ command. Foot washing today is unusual and exotic, but in the time of Jesus it was a mundane task of humble service.

What are the tasks like that today? The simple, humble tasks we do for others as ways of loving them? We make each other cups of tea and coffee. We prepare meals and clean up after them. We change smelly diapers. We clean up messy houses. We care for aged relatives as they lose control over their bodily functions. We support organizations working in refugee camps. We sit with difficult people and listen to their problems, for the forty-seventh time.

We used to have a saying in the college i attended: “I’ll die for you, but I won’t run up to the third floor to fetch your sweater for you”. It’s highly unlikely that I will be called on to die for my fellow Christians (though it may happen). But it’s absolutely certain that today and every day I will be called on to die to selfishness and self-centredness by performing humble acts of service for my sisters and brothers in Christ.

I am not very good at this. Lord, have mercy, and help me follow the footsteps of Christ.

(Painting by Ghislaine Howard. For more of her work see ghislainehoward.com)

(This will be my last RLT this year. Thanks to all who have read and commented, here and on Facebook!)

Wanted: Enthusiastic Christians

Mainline Christendom churches do many excellent things, but one thing we’re not good atjesus-is-the-way doing is making enthusiastic Christians. What I mean is, taking secular people and turning them into enthusiastic Christians (a process traditionally called ‘conversion’).

I know, I know, we don’t convert anyone, we don’t turn them into enthusiastic Christians  that’s the work of God the Holy Spirit. I sing from that song book too!

Nonetheless, church culture can be a help or a hindrance. And the church culture of mainline Christendom churches was formed by fifteen hundred years of the Christendom paradigm, which assumed that people were already Christian by virtue of being born into a Christian country where the Christian worldview was assumed by everyone. People just needed catechism and pastoral care; they didn’t need evangelizing.

The Christendom paradigm is now dead. And here’s the rub: the church needs enthusiastic Christians to be able to do the things Jesus is asking us to do. If you haven’t been captivated by the Gospel of grace – if you haven’t experienced the forgiving, loving, life-giving touch of the Holy Spirit – if your Christianity is just a low-temperature, pew-sitting kind of thing – you’re going to have great difficulty passing it on to others, either your children, or your friends and neighbours.

This, I think, is the big issue for mainline Christendom churches. How do we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in such a way as to reach out to people who aren’t really that interested in ‘religion’ and help them become enthusiastic Christians?

I do not believe that there is an effective answer to that question that leaves out the issue of evangelism. And this strikes terror into the heart of mainline Christians. Most lay and clergy leaders in mainline churches are desperately searching for the magic bullet – the infallible program that will turn things around, draw new people into the church, balance the budgets etc., without asking us to talk to our non-Christian friends about Jesus.

That program does not exist. You cannot turn disinterested secular people into enthusiastic Christians without (a) having a faith worth sharing, (b) having a friend worth sharing it with, and (c) opening your mouth to talk about what Jesus means to you.

This is why I believe that the crucial issue for the future of our Anglican church is helping people learn to relax and enjoy evangelism. But a prerequisite for that is that they must be enthusiastic Christians themselves first. Therefore, evangelism isn’t just important for people outside the Church. People inside the Church need it to. When we become lukewarm, what we need more than anything else is a fresh infusion of the joy of the Gospel. We don’t need browbeating into greater faithfulness. We need to hear and experience the love of Christ in a fresh and powerful way. We will not share it with others unless we are experiencing it ourselves.

When I attended a Cursillo weekend (or ‘made my cursillo’, as the jargon goes) in the late 1970s I was introduced to a wonderful prayer from the Roman Catholic tradition. It begins like this: ‘Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love’.

The fire of your love. Not the slowing dying ember. Not the little flickering pilot light. The fire.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Pastoral Evangelism

I was trained as an evangelist in the Church Army in Canada (now Threshold Ministries) and served in this role for twelve years before my ordination in 1990. As a Church Army officer I exercised my evangelistic ministry in a parish context, and I’ve continued to do that since then as a deacon and priest. My dad was a parish priest with a wonderful evangelistic ministry, and he gave me a great example of how the two vocations (pastor and evangelist) – often seen as distinct and indeed somewhat different from each other – can be brought together in a life-giving way.

So I was thrilled yesterday to read a very fine short sermon from Bishop David Chillingworth on this subject. Bishop David is bishop of St. Andrew’s, Dunkeld and Dunblane, and he is also Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. He blogs regularly about his ministry at Thinking Out Loud. The sermon below was preached at a service of the restoration of the commission of a Church Army evangelist who had resigned from the Church Army on his ordination (as used to be the requirement), but had since decided to take up the offer of the restoration of his commission. I have been present on similar occasions here in Canada and they are very moving for all concerned; the sense of healing can be very powerful indeed.

I love the way Bishop David expresses so succinctly what I have always tried to live out in my ministry, and more intentionally in the last few years: the refusal to accept the idea that the gifts of pastor and evangelist cannot co-exist in the same person. Of course they can! I saw it clearly in my dad, and I like to think it’s true for me too. I’m very grateful to Bishop David for giving me permission to reproduce this short sermon. Here it is.

Re-commissioning of Revd Nick Green

12.9.15

‘He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through  him’

Our Service this evening – the re-commissioning of Nick as a Church Army Officer – celebrates and affirms that work of evangelism.  It’s the great tradition of John the Baptist who came to bear witness to the one who would come after him – to proclaim the coming of Christ and to call people to repentance.  And St Paul declares the centrality of faith – but reminds us that faith needs to be proclaimed.  It needs those who are called to proclaim it and respond in obedience.

I was delighted when Nick told me that he had decided to accept the invitation to receive back his Church Army Commission.  I know that he thought and prayed deeply about that.  In these moments, the question is, ‘Is this something of the past which I have now left behind – or do I carry it forward as a guiding principle of my life wherever the call of God may lead me?’  And I think it is the latter.  So there is in our worship this evening more than a touch of the gospel of reconciliation – a reintegrating of Nick’s calling to be an evangelist with his ministry as Rector of St Mary’s, Dunblane.  And what is the gospel if it is not about reconciliation – the breaking down of the barriers between us and the breaking down of the barriers between God and his people.

But there is more to this.  There seems to have been a time in the life of the church when decisions tended to be presented in binary – or adversarial – or straightforward ‘yes and no’ terms.  I constantly meet the legacy of that in my own ministry.  And I think that the time when the Church Army said to its evangelists that if they sought ordination in the church they would have to give up their commission as evangelists.  It had to be one or the other – it couldn’t be both and.

I believe passionately that there are many circumstances in which both/and is just what we need and what the gospel requires.  And my experience is that much of the energy which we need comes when we bring things together rather than keeping them apart.  Wasn’t the ministry of Jesus like that – healing, teaching, feeding, caring – all wrapped up together?  As Nick goes about his ministry in Dunblane – caring, teaching, shaping worship, building relationships in the community – what could be more creative than that he brings to that the heart and passion of an evangelist?

So it’s going to be both/and for Nick.  And I think it’s going to be inside and outside the church.  The Priest and Pastor is at the heart of the community of God’s people.  The evangelist is with those without faith – the evangelist is often outside – like John the Baptist, the voice crying in the wilderness.

So Nick the Rector – and Nick the evangelist – bring together that inside/outside understanding of the church.  The tendency of the church to tame and domesticate is offset by the call of the evangelist to be with those who are not part of the church.

This is a really important moment.  I am delighted and honoured to be part of it.  I am delighted to be part of the growing partnership between the Church Army and the Scottish Episcopal Church.  I pray that God will bless us as Church and Church Army do both/and and inside/outside in his name.

**********

Note: For a good example of how the ministries of evangelism and pastoral care can be combined, it’s hard to beat David Hansen’s superb book The Art of Pastoring. David is a Baptist pastor, and his book gives many examples of how witness and evangelism can be built right into the daily work of pastoral care in an ordinary congregation (the book was written in the context of a multi-point charge in rural Montana). I highly recommend it.

A Word of Encouragement

Thursday is the day I prepare my Sunday sermon, but it begins at 7 a.m. with our weekly Men’s Bible Study group at the Bogani Café. I was driving one of the men home this morning after the study, and as I dropped him off he said, “I’m praying for your sermon preparation today”.

What an encouraging moment! I know that he values the preaching ministry, and he is joining me in prayer that God will help me with the preparation process today. Thank you God for a word of encouragement this morning.

Small and evangelistic

I think there has been an unhealthy influx of competitiveness into church life today. It seems that many Christians (and many pastors and priests) are obsessed with better statistics and better performance.

One area in which it appears is church size. There’s an assumption that a bigger church is a better church – whether the big church is an evangelical megachurch with a ‘campus’, multiple worship bands, big screens and a Starbucks in the foyer, or a gothic cathedral with glorious stained glass, a full-time choir producing world class cathedral music, and multitudes of visitors coming in during the week.

These organizations have their strengths, of course, but one weakness they have in common is that it’s easier for people to slip in and out anonymously. And of course, some people like to do that. The problem is, that’s not New Testament Christianity, and people whose entry point takes the form of anonymity will tend to assume something about Christianity that is not, in fact, true to the vision of Jesus and his apostles.

Read the things that Jesus and Paul say about relationships within the Body of Christ – especially Paul’s many ‘one another’ sayings (‘bear with one another’, ‘encourage one another’, ‘admonish one another’ etc.). They all assume that the members of a Christian church will know each other well, and in order for that to happen, a local church can’t be big. The early Christians never thought they needed to grow huge churches to be successful (although they were glad when lots of people came to faith in Christ). Rather, they assumed that the fundamental unit of church life would be a small group (useful when you don’t have any buildings!).

The other thing we see is a desire to have a crowded calendar and lots of programs, especially programs that are helpful and useful to the world around. ‘Being missional’ is what it’s called, and so churches get busy serving the poor and needy, advocating for justice, working to save the environment, and a host of other worthy activities. I mean that in all sincerity; I believe in most of those causes, and our church is involved in them.

It’s a little disconcerting, though, that the New Testament makes it clear that the central activity of Christian mission is evangelism and disciple-making. The world has a new king, Jesus the Messiah; it’s important that people know about it, and that they hear his summons to faith and discipleship. The church is commissioned (note the word ‘mission’ there) to carry out this task. Our central calling is to share the gospel, make new disciples for Jesus, and help form them into the likeness of Christ. Everything else is meant to be built around this.

These days it’s assumed that Sunday worship is the main business of the Church. We spend millions of dollars on facilities for it, on equipment for it, on liturgical texts and robes and the various accoutrements of a worship gathering. It’s interesting, then, that the Book of Acts rarely gives any attention to worship at all (although it assumes that Christians will do it). The preoccupation of the author of Acts is entirely with the spread of the Gospel and the making of new disciples – in other words, with evangelism. To him, this is the central task of the Church.

Small and flexible, outward looking and evangelistic – that’s the New Testament vision of a local Christian community. Every week, every day, of the many possible goals we can focus on, we get to choose the ones we think are most important. It’s probably wise to make sure we choose the right ones, and to make sure those choices are rooted in the New Testament vision of what a local church is all about.