For the love of the game

I’ve often thought that our trust issues in United Methodism would be helped with more public thinking by the men and women charged with leading our denomination.

This is why I have always valued Sky McCraken’s blog.

His latest post is a spot on example: A Pastor By Any Other Name — Revisited

The question that emerges for me after reading his post goes something like this: Would I be a pastor if there was no salary, no insurance, and no retirement plan? Would I do it because I was called and for no other reason?

If the answer is yes, then what would that look like?

The answer to my first two questions is “yes.” But I’m not sure what the answer to the third question would could be.

I wonder how you would answer.

Not a bad gig some days

“How do I get that?”

I had been talking to a woman about God. She was convinced that God could never look on her with love. She had done too much that in her own eyes was wrong and unworthy of God.

In all her talk, she had never uttered the word “Jesus,” even though she had talked over and over about her certainty that God “is there.”

So, I asked her about Jesus. She did not know what to say about him. She was not sure how God was Jesus and Jesus was God. It was all confusing. So, we talked about that for a little bit.

Then I talked to her about the fact that God loves us, loves her. I talked about the fact that all of us — me as much as any — fall short of the glory of God. We all are sinners. We all have a list of the ways we fall short of God’s dreams for our lives.

But the good news is this: While we were yet sinners, Jesus Christ died for us.

And I talked about the cross and forgiveness and new life.

I talked about the sense, the assurance, the knowledge that one can have that Jesus Christ loves me and died for me and forgives me, even me, for all sin.

“How can I get that?” she asked.

And so I talked about faith. I talked about trust in Jesus. I talked about it being something that we receive not something we do. I asked her if she would like to pray with me.

“I was going to ask you if we could,” she said.

And so we prayed. We confessed our sin. We asked to be forgiven. We named Jesus as Lord and Savior. We thanked him for all he has done and will do for us. One after the other. Voice after voice.

As she prayed, she cried.

We said “Amen.”

When I saw her the next day we talked about building on that foundation. We talked about finding a church where others could help her continue what had begun.

She said that before she had been seeking relationship with God. She thought she had it. But what she had was not real. It needed drugs and alcohol to keep her numb.

“I know what it means now. I know what it means to have a relationship with Jesus.”

She smiled.

Some days, being a pastor is not at all a bad way to get along in this world.

Seeking to be a good shepherd

Tom Oden in his book Pastoral Theology describes the vocation of a pastor this way:

to know the parish territory, its dangers, its green pastures, its steep precipices, its seasons and possibilities. The pastor leads the flock to spring water and safe vegetation.

This is not the only way he describes the pastoral vocation — and it is worth noting that I do not qualify as a pastor according to his book as I have not been ordained — but it is one that both resonates with me and highlights some of my struggles with our debates in the United Methodist Church.

I am vexed by questions over sexual behavior because I worry about my responsibility to help the people I serve remain safe and to be nourished. I worry about leading them to foul waters and feeding them poisonous herbs rather than life-giving food.

For the better part of 2,000 years, the shepherds who have gone before have pointed to certain inviting pools and warned us that they are not the waters of life, but of death. Now, we are told that the waters they avoided were safe and life-giving all along. The shepherds of the past were wrong. They misunderstood Jesus and the apostles. Drink and be filled.

My prayer is to be a good pastor one day. I seek to learn from the masters of the craft who have come before me. Mostly, I don’t want to lead the sheep to slaughter because I listened to the wrong voices. I want to serve them and help them live as Jesus would have them live.

It would be pastoral malpractice for me to tell the people something is not a sin that is, in fact, one. It would damaging as well to declare something sinful that is not. I am trying to avoid both errors.

Watching on the wall

But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood. (Ezekiel 33:6, NIV)

Here is what I worry about. I worry that God really means what he said to Ezekiel and that we pastors are bathing in the blood of those we do not warn.

I guess in question form to my readers, this worry goes something like this: What are the stakes of what we do as pastors?

I get the impression sometimes that the stakes are not very high. What we do might make people’s live a little easier or even help them cope with serious problems. But, in the end, God will sort it all out, and, hey, he’s a loving God so no worries.

And then I read John Wesley or Peter Cartwright or watch this video of Paul Washer — who despite being a Southern Baptists talks about repentance, justification, and assurance in exactly the ways Wesley did — and I hear men who take the warning of Ezekiel with deadly seriousness. It is interesting to note that all three men are/were itinerants.

I read Eugene Peterson’s wonderful books on being a pastor, and I struggle to find a place where he speaks about the gravity of the work. There is something winsome about everything he writes and, it seems, being a pastor is a winsome thing as well. No blood crying out against us that I can find.

I read Adam Hamilton’s books on how preaching the gospel is like selling shoes and I wonder how heavy he feels the burden of those who do not buy it all? I read his book on the Bible, and wish he had written about this passage in Ezekiel — or the others in Scripture. I wonder what he thinks about the warnings.

I read all these books and think of the pastors I have admired, and I wonder how heavily they feel the burden that God placed on Ezekiel or the admonishment of James that teachers will be judged more strictly.

I think of even casual encounters I have with people with spiritual questions. Do I take them too lightly? Do I let me desire to be likeable get in the way of my calling? Do I even know what to say — how to sound the proper warning?

These questions get to the nature of the pastoral vocation. And for me the starting question is this: What are the stakes in what we are doing as pastors?

Why are you a pastor? #LukeActs2014

We read Scripture from a place and with eyes shaped by our lives. While reading Luke 4 this week as part of Bishop Ken Carter’s year-long reading plan, I was also hearing news of appointment season starting in the United Methodist Church. News of pastors moving starts trickling out. Prayers and recriminations are offered. Eventually someone, somewhere starts up another conversation about the merits and virtue of our system of itinerancy.

So, it was that I read the last verses of Luke 4.

At daybreak, Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them. But he said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea. (Luke 4: 42-44, NIV)

I am not trying to suggest this as a proof-text for itinerancy. I would not argue against wiser and more experienced people who have a heart for the mission of the church who argue that the system has outlived its usefulness. Practical and pragmatic change would be in-keeping with our founding ethos.

But it does get me thinking about the why questions.

Why does the United Methodist Church exist? Why do we have clergy? Why do they preach? Why do they end up in particular places?

It is a particular vice of preachers that we often answer questions about ourselves by looking at Jesus, so reading this text and contemplating the why questions may be nothing more than an invitation to misplaced pride.

But, at the risk of that, I want to ask myself this very simple question: Why are you a pastor?

The pat answer I give and people I know give goes something like: Because God called me to it.

That feels like avoiding the question. It feels like a dodge or even a bit of pride.

Why am I a pastor?

If it feels like I’m avoiding writing my answer, you are correct. You are correct because the answer that forms on my soul as I ask this question undermines a lot of my pastoral practice.

The answer to the question in the Methodist tradition goes like this: Your business as a pastor is to save souls.

John Wesley told his preachers that was their primary task.

It is not your business to preach so many times, and to take care of this or that society; but to save as many souls as you can; to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance, and with all your power to build them up in that holiness without which they cannot see the Lord.

Recently, Bishop Scott Jones of the Great Plains Conference said the same the same thing:

We are a body of clergy—elders, deacons, associate members and local pastors—bound together in a covenant whose purpose is the saving of souls.

The problem with this answer is that a lot of what I do does not reflect that purpose very well.

A lot of what I do reflects institutional concerns. A lot of it reflects the needs of people for a chaplain. A lot has to do with fear of conflict and desire for harmony. (If I am more generous with myself than I am feeling at the moment, I notice that harmony, responding to needs, and even caring for the institution are not bad things in themselves. But I cannot deny I often feel this deep divide within myself over these questions.)

So, while I know the vast majority of Christians will not read Luke 4 with my eyes and questions, I do find Jesus putting me on the spot today.