Violence and ‘biblical manhood’

The horrific tragedy of Eurydice Dixon’s rape and murder in Princes Park in June was close to home. I live in Parkville just across the road from where Eurydice died. The park is where my partner and I walk every morning. Even more, my daughter Ali lives in a share house in Carlton just blocks away. The route Eurydice took that night is one she walks. Though shaken by the tragedy of this woman’s death, I was more deeply impacted by Ali’s response. She is 23. Standing with thousands of others at a candle lit vigil in the park, Ali’s tears were more than momentary. Her feelings of vulnerability, fear and rage were sustained, confronting, and mirrored in the countless young women who surrounded her. As I stood in this crowd myself, the intensity of these feelings was overwhelming.

In Ali’s case, her despair is heightened by her studies in social work. In her recent placement at a women’s prison, she confronted the fact that every woman she connected with was the victim of domestic violence or childhood sexual abuse, most commonly at the hands of husbands, fathers, brothers, and uncles. As they are elsewhere, the statistics around domestic and sexual violence in this city are shocking, the overwhelming majority of cases in which men are the perpetrators. As today’s paper reminds us, though Eurydice’s story may have gripped our community in a particular way, there are countless other stories, equally appalling, we do not hear.

I have felt many things since that night. Most deeply I have felt inadequate. I have struggled to know what to do or how to respond. While I may be able to say ‘I am not violent’ or ‘I am not an abuser,’ I cannot say ‘this is not my problem.’ Standing with my daughter, I understand afresh that this is my dilemma as much as it is hers. This is so because I am her father, of course, but there is more to it than that. It is mine because I am a citizen, a neighbour, a church leader and, most significantly, a male. The stark realities of male violence and their underlying causes are mine as much as they are anyone else’s. But what to do with that reality, that’s where I stumble. And I am not alone.

There is much talk today of a “crisis of confidence” among men. The goal posts have shifted, we are told, as traditional roles have been up-ended; the image of the male as provider, protector, leader and defender is no longer assumed. Apart from the fact that we have proved ourselves atrociously poor stewards of such roles, the underlying assumption that they are ours for the claiming is now vigorously questioned. And rightly so.

As a member of the church, I am part of a community that struggles with this “crisis” in a particular way.  It is often argued by Christian men that the answer to our predicament is to reassert our authority, to retake our God-given roles as leaders and protectors. According to this view, the “radical feminisation” of society has led to the emasculation of men and the disorder that has followed. Conversely, it is only by reclaiming what’s called our “biblical manhood” that Divine order will be restored and society healed. What this order includes, of course, is the “complimentary” role of women to comply, to submit and to go back to their kitchens. Such is the passion behind this view of things that the call to re-embrace manhood becomes a call to arms. We are urged, in the words of Brad Stein’s anthem of Christian manhood, to “grab a sword, don’t be scared; be a man, grow a pair.”

To be honest, any talk of “biblical manhood” makes me nervous. I have a sense that, in truth, this coupling of leadership with testicles has little to do with Christian virtue and more to do with a base need for men to reassert their dominance.  Type the word “masculinity” into Google and countless images come up of shirtless men flexing their biceps. Traditional views of manhood are equated with power. Thus when we men feel powerless, vulnerable, emotional, afraid or uncertain, we have learned to identify such feelings with weakness and emasculation. Consequently, we lash out at the shifting of traditional roles and want desperately to reinstate them. But to whose benefit? Rather than finding a way to hold our vulnerability, to name our emotions, or to own our fears and responsibilities as human beings, we grasp again for power.

The fact is, this idea of “biblical manhood” is challenging. While images of masculinity abound in the bible, they are so tenuous and various as to be, at best, illustrative but rarely prescriptive. Think of David and Jonathan: David the warrior and slayer of giants, a philanderer who can’t keep his pants zipped; his dearest friend Jonathan, a man of letters and poetry, moderate, wise and politically manipulative. Take brothers Jacob and Esau: one a hairy outdoorsman and the other a mother’s boy, hairless and soft of skin; one given to underhanded deception and the other to bouts of uncontrollable anger. Think of disciples Peter and John: gregarious Peter, fickle and full of bravado, a risk taker who wears his heart on his sleeve, and Jonathan, quiet, unassuming, leaning against the breast of Jesus with deep affection. The truth is, while the bible is full of ‘manly’ stories, none provide stellar models of manhood. From beginning to end, these men are as broken and fragile as they are heroic.

Personally, as I think of those young women, my daughter included, gathered at the memorial for Eurydice Dixon, I struggle to see how the benevolent re-application of male authority could be an answer to their despair. Indeed, I cannot imagine how the call to reclaim the balls of a “biblical manhood” has anything to say to this tragedy that is not deeply offensive.

If I find anything in my faith relevant to this issue, it is not a call to Christian manhood, but the persistent call of Jesus to be human, fully human. Foundational to the Christian faith is the belief that we are made in the image of God. In this is our common call to personhood, and it is ours no matter what our gender, race, religion, sexuality or the colour of our skin. This shared identity, affirmed and reclaimed in Christ, is what binds and obligates us to each other.  If the God-given roles of leadership, providence and protection are ours — and I believe they are — they are not the exclusive rights of office or gender. Rather, they are responsibilities that we share as those made in God’s image.

 

 

 

The farmer and the pastor

1484163717072I’ve just finished reading a collection of letters written to young farmers. Surprisingly, they are captivating, even to me. The contributors are mostly seasoned agriculturalists, though commonly they have other roles as well. Writing is one of them. Their shared concern is to encourage those who are new to the profession, calling them to a deeper and more considered commitment to their work.

Granted, it’s an odd book for the pastor of a city church to read. My daily work is about as far removed from the land as one could imagine. My interest in food, however, is strong. Connections of dependence upon those who work to provide food for my table and others are genuine and daily. I could claim other connections: my father was a farmer; I was born onto a dairy farm in the Gippsland; I own a small part in a some acres in central Victoria. But none of that makes me any more a farmer than I am an astronaut. The farm is not my world.

That said, I can see in the exhortations of these mentor-farmers applications to the work I do as a pastor. It makes me wonder if the distance between our worlds is really as wide as I imagine. Some of the observations that struck me are these:

The farmer is a professional

There’s an affirming spirit to these letters, a reminder from seasoned to budding farmers that their work is important, no matter how it is regarded, or disregarded, more broadly. The words “I am just a farmer” have no place here. “However calloused your hands,” Barbara Kingsolver writes, “however grimy the uniform, however your back may sometimes ache, you are a professional. Your vocation is creative, necessary, and intellectually demanding.”

As with many professions, only those who know farming from the inside can appreciate its demands. Amidst the complexities of environment, climate and the global market, successful farming today requires significant levels of competence, risk and skill. The encouragement is clear: take your work, your competence and your importance seriously, even if others don’t.

There is wisdom here for pastors too. While there is no place for an inflated sense of ourselves, we do need to take ourselves seriously as professionals. Though we may not often feel the esteem of the surrounding culture, we know well what our work demands and the potential contribution it makes. As with all professions, we submit to systems of accreditation, rites of ordination, the needs for academic qualifications and professional competencies earned through time. While these are not everything, they ain’t nothin’ either. Whatever assessment others make of us, our work is important. We do well to remember it.

To farm is a vocation

This second observation follows on from the first. At the same time, it provides a counter to it. Routinely these writers speak of farming as a spiritual calling. More than a profession, a skill-set or work to be done, farming is a vocation that says as much about identity as it does about the work itself. Farming is not only the work a farmer does; it is who the farmer is. It’s this that can hold a farmer to the land when nothing else can make sense of it.

This is a point the Franciscan farmer Gary Paul Nabhan makes well. “As best I can figure, becoming a farmer is not that much different from becoming a monk,” he writes, “because it is ultimately about adhering to a spiritual path. You have to have faith that it is your calling because undertaking it does not make much economic, social, or political sense at all. Very few of you will get rich, get famous and powerful, or get laid simply because you are a farmer.”

We pastors get this. Our work is more than the work we do. It flows from our identity as men and women of faith. Pastoral leadership is more than qualifications, degrees or contracts; it is who we are. So when our work doesn’t make sense, when it’s hard beyond anyone’s knowing, and when its rewards are slim, we keep showing up. To do otherwise would be to walk away from something deeply part of us.

To farm well is to work from your strengths

This third theme I noticed is one that took me by surprise. I have commonly assumed farming as a long line of responsibilities that simply have to be met. Surely from one dairy farm to the next, from one field of grain to another, the tasks are much the same. How little I know. It’s clear from these letters that farming takes a great deal of creativity and will look different from one context to the next and from one farmer to another. It’s here the uniqueness of the individual comes into play.

In an especially energetic letter, Joel Salatin presses young farmers, “What are you good at? What do you know? What do you enjoy?” he asks. “Where those three universes intersect is the sweet spot for your success. Many times, we fritter away most of our time struggling with things we don’t like or aren’t good at and fail to capitalize on areas of passion and proficiency. Life’s too short to be squandered that way.”

Clearly it’s a good point for farmers, and pastors too. Just as there is more than one way to farm a piece of land, so there are multiple ways to pastor a church. Thank God for that. We are not all cut from the same cloth or made for the same expressions of ministry. At our best, we do what we do as an expression of who we are, not who we would like to be or who others wish we were. How much energy I have squandered over the years trying desperately to compensate for my inadequacies, peddling ever faster in areas of ministry in which I’ll only ever be mediocre. My “passions and proficiencies” are the best of me. If I do not operate as much as possible out of these, I short change myself and the church.

Sustainable farming requires a sustainable farmer

Some of the most impassioned advice for young farmers relates to their sustainability. There is a consistent call to ‘balance’ in these letters, a balance of time and energy that enable the farmer to flourish over the long haul.

“Farming can be all-consuming,” writes Mary-Howell Martens, “especially at certain times of the year, and without a plan to protect an acceptable level of personal balance, you may find the farm takes all. Farming will invariably define your family, your self-esteem, your financial choices, your self-image, your priorities, and your time. It will profoundly shape how you interpret life and death, weather, money, time, food, community, exercise, and faith.”

It’s this all-consuming nature of farming, fed by a deep sense of vocation, that is the farmer’s greatest strength and potential downfall. Richard Wiswall underlines the danger: “When the financial numbers don’t line up, farmers … can be famously guilty of self-exploitation. Like many entrepreneurs, farmers believe in what they do so much that they will do what it takes to succeed: work longer and longer hours, sacrifice family and leisure time, balance the books at night so as not to waste precious daylight hours. Deep meaning derived from their work is one of the fuels that keep farmers going despite increasing hardships. But there is no limit to this.”

I can only imagine how this danger plays out for the farmer. I know first hand it’s impact in pastoral ministry. Our sense of vocation is both enabling and compelling. It’s the compelling part that can lead us into all kinds of dysfunction. The price paid by relentlessly driven pastors — not to mention their spouses, families and churches — is commonly too large a cost to bear.

Farming within communities

The final observation is the reminder to young farmers that they farm within communities … always. No successful farmer flys solo. Given the hours that farmers work, often alone and hidden from public view, it is easy to see farming as a work of solitude. According to these writers, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Farming is a work of connections and relationships. Farming is a community sustained through time, a relationship to land, place and story that only has meaning when those connections are named and nurtured. This is so at the most local level — in towns and communities where land, place and work are shared — as well as in a broader sense: the provider of food, the preparer of food and the consumer of food are all connected. It is as though the farmer has a place at my table every night.

The American conservationist of the early twentieth century Aldo Leopold once said that land is “not a commodity belonging to us” but “a community to which we belong.” There is profound truth in this for the farmer, and truth for the pastor as well. As the farmer does not own the land, so the pastor does not own the church and its mission. We belong to it, sustained by it as we work to strengthen it. The church is a reality so much larger than we are, and in the context of a world held in God’s sustaining hands. We play just a small part in a much grander work.

Here’s the book

Martha Hodgkins, ed. Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming, and Our Future. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2017.

And a great related video too

The need to be relevant

I sit routinely with Harry, a good and gracious man who has lived his faith and served his church for more than eighty years. Now, with failing eye sight and a body that creaks, he is not able to be at church as often as he would like, nor volunteer time in the way he once did. There were days when his church could count on him to do things, to run things, to make things happen. But those days are gone. Though Harry understands why, the disappointment is real. As we sit together over a pot of tea, he speaks regretfully of his body’s limitations and the losses that have followed. With equal parts grief and hope, he leans in: “I still need to be feel relevant, Simon,” he says.

It’s a common cry among older adults. Though rarely communicated with such precision, I hear this need repeated often, alongside fears for its absence—irrelevance: those feelings of being ‘put out to pasture’; of being marginal to a community and inconsequential to its future. These fears are tangible for the aged and can manifest in particular ways: bemoaning change; holding tenaciously to traditions; responding like ‘sticks in the mud’ when it comes to innovation. Sadly, the deeper cries that sit beneath these responses go unnamed.

Of course, this need for relevance is not unique to those who are older. We all feel it. It’s human—the need to be needed; the longing to be acknowledged at life’s centre rather than linger unnoticed at its edges. It’s equally true for institutions as it is for individuals. There is much talk in today’s church about the need for relevance: a ‘fading institution’ that once had a central place at the tables of culture and politics, desperate to be a player still. Trouble is, the sort of relevance the church reaches for has more to do with appearance than substance: music, cutting edge multi-media, a youthful congregation, and a pastor in jeans.

I wonder, though, if the real essence of relevance is misunderstood, its worth misplaced by surface estimates of fashionability: we’re up-to-date; we’re cutting-edge and popular. Perhaps the real worth of our presence is found in the signs of our irrelevance. In a society that judges age as the movement to marginality, we esteem it as the gift that enriches our communities. In an age enamoured with veneers of material success and physical beauty, we prioritise character and integrity. In a culture where speed, efficiency and profit win the day, we invest in values of slowness, depth and generosity. In a milieu that prioritises self-interest and tightly drawn borders, we strive for communities of inclusion and hospitality.

No doubt, Harry’s longing for relevance is real. We do people a great disservice when we fail to take their felt needs seriously, no matter what their age. That said, the great gift that Harry gives at this stage of his life, often unconsciously, is his presence. His relevance is not in what value-adding activity he contributes, but in who he is. As Harry sits in his pew each Sunday morning waiting for the service to begin, he holds the bulletin in his hands, reading of the church’s pastoral concerns and praying. As he moves about the congregation after the service, he lingers in conversation with numerous people, listening and encouraging, especially the students from overseas who struggle with English. Harry is no respecter of skin colour, language, sexuality or age. He cares indiscriminately with care that’s neither hurried nor forced. He prays consistent and believing prayers that hold us all. And he embodies grace, demonstrable and practical grace without reserve.

To be honest, it is hard for me to imagine a more relevant presence in the church than Harry’s. Or, to put it differently, perhaps it is Harry’s glorious irrelevance that renders his presence an enduring gift to the church.

An Honoured Name

A month or so ago I had the privilege of reviewing Ken Manley’s most recent book, a biography of one of my predecessors here at Collins Street. The review is published in Our Yesterdays, a journal of history among Victorian Baptists.

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As the 16th pastor of the historic Collins Street Baptist Church, I work each day surrounded by portraits of those who preceded me. Though most inhabited a different age to my own and faced challenges unique to their time, I find an odd sense of comfort knowing that I minister under their gaze. Each of these predecessors brought a distinct mix of gifts and passions to the role. Some of their stories resonate more immediately than others. One of those is Samuel Pearce Carey, pastor of Collins Street from 1900 to 1908.

Though a gifted man of impeccable Baptist heritage – great-grandson to the pioneer Baptist missionary William Carey – Pearce Carey arrived at Collins Street in a period of incredible change.  The twenty-three year tenure of the great Samuel Chapman had come to an end; and so, too, the period of the church’s most sustained growth. The turn of the century saw the burgeoning of the suburbs with new churches flourishing beyond the city centre. Collins Street’s membership suffered. Regardless, Pearce Carey arrived with a strong sense of vocation and led the church with great energy. In the face of ample challenge and more than his share of opposition, Pearce Carey was a pastor and preacher of considerable impact. He is a man I’ve long admired.

2611d76c0998456b8e226c869eddbabdUp until this point, all I have known of Pearce Carey is related to his years at Collins Street. I have written about them here. Now, through Ken Manley’s biography, I have a broader appreciation of the man; and my admiration is deeper still. Manley, a significant Baptist scholar and leader in his own right, has done us a tremendous service in telling Pearce Carey’s story in full, from his Baptist roots and English childhood to his ministry as pastor, writer, social activist, missionary ambassador and denominational leader. There is so much in Manley’s telling of this story that is fascinating, but it is two challenges to the nature of pastoral ministry that I found most rewarding.

First, it is clear that Pearce Carey understood his ministry as both particular and broad. In each pastoral appointment he gave himself with energy to the wellbeing of the congregation. He was an effective pastor, a fine preacher, and a man who invested intentionally in strengthening and uniting the church’s leadership. At the same time, Pearce Carey reached beyond the church to the denomination, the city, political and cultural arenas and issues facing society as a whole. What’s more, his love of literature and his commitments to scholarship found room to flourish. Pearce Carey’s identity as a minister of the gospel was not one that narrowed his interests but broadened them.

Second, Pearce Carey managed to hold together a deeply evangelical allegiance to Christ with a progressive and open theology. It was a mark of this ministry from beginning to end. It seems there was never a tension in his mind between a spirituality shaped by his love of the Gospel and a critical evaluation of the scriptures and theological thought.  Mind you, this was not an easy path for Pearce Carey to follow and one that drew criticism from within his churches and his denomination. Regardless, he would not be swayed. There is an integrity in the man I cannot help but admire.

Of course, there is much more to Manley’s biography than this, but if such stories of the past can play a role in critiquing and shaping our ministry today, then we are well served by books of this calibre. I commend to it to you.

Ken Manley, ‘An Honoured Name’: Samuel Peace Carey (1862-1953), Oxford: Regent’s Park College, 2016.

Some thoughts on Whitley and the role of theological education

When a church faces a change of leadership, it is prodded to ask important questions about its identity and mission. To determine the pastor it needs, it needs first to know the sort of church it is and the church it wants to be into the future. In times of change the local church is reminded just how key leadership is to its mission.

Institutions of theological education are no different. When a seminary or college faces a change of leadership, it’s time again to ask the hard questions: What is the purpose of theological education within the wider community of churches? What is God calling this institution to do and be into the future? These are questions my own denominational college is facing right now. As the retirement of Whitley College’s current principal looms, the prospect of new leadership prods all those with a vested interest in its mission to voice their hopes and express their concerns. And so they should.

Addressing these questions is a complicated business. A college’s constituencies are as diverse as the expectations they bring. There’s the denominational structure in which the college sits and was founded to serve. There are the local churches that demand well-trained pastors. There are the agencies of the denomination and the wider community that require people skilled for a diversity of cross cultural and intercultural work. There is the academy of higher education to which the college belongs and is dependent for its ability to provide reputable degrees and quality research programs. And there are the lay people in churches looking for a place to discern their vocation, work out their discipleship, or wrestle with persistent questions of faith.

In all of this, theological colleges face their share of criticism. Whitley certainly has, and with a particular intensity this past year. There’s nothing new in that. I have been a student in three denominational colleges here in Australia and in one of the largest evangelical seminaries in the US. What’s more, over the past two decades I have taught in and been associated with many more. And in all of these, no matter where they sit on the theological spectrum, the criticisms are much the same: the perception that these institutions are removed from the hands-on mission of the church, of professors disengaged from the needs of practitioners in the field, allegations of theological compromise, and of a creeping disregard for the orthodox teachings of the Christian faith.

In my experience, criticisms like these often hold a kernel of truth mixed with a good dose of ignorance and hyperbole. Too often such criticisms are leveled by those who have never sat in a class, never pursued a sustained conversation with a teacher, and never read anything of substance written by those they deride. Sadly though, when mud is thrown it sticks, deserved or not. That said, theological colleges deserve critique — intelligent critique. In fact, they need it, especially from those sympathetic to their mission. As pastor of a church, I know too well that theological teachers can be their own worst enemy in communicating with churches and in addressing the needs felt most deeply by those who lead them. Though I want to be stretched in my thinking and practice, I, for one, and sick to death of having theological ‘experts’ list everything that is wrong with ‘the church’ without ever asking an intelligent question about the neighbourhood I inhabit or the particular challenges my congregation and I face.

In my view, theological colleges are at their best when they embrace their ministry as two fold: priestly and prophetic. As a priestly community, the theological college is one that nurtures and enables the local church. It is concerned for the church’s wellbeing and for the enrichment of its people. As a priestly community, the college speaks directly into the deepest needs of the churches and their leaders – those felt and those unnamed. By listening to and engaging with the churches, it determines the best forms of training: training that nurtures leaders who understand the faith of the church; who rightly handle the scriptures as the revelation of the truth of God; who administer the church’s rites and rituals with excellence; who lead with competence and preach with conviction; who draw deeply on the spiritual resources of the faith; and who are able to provide the best possible expressions of pastoral care. If the theological college is failing in its priestly role, the churches have every right to call it to account.

That said, the best theological college is more than a priestly community; it is a prophetic community. In my view, it is here that the more poorly understood responsibility of theological education lies. Theological educators must be prepared to stand on the sidelines of the church and call it to account. Like those pesky prophets of old, courageous theologians call the church to be different than what it is, a challenge to a radical transformation and a critique of the status quo. If the theological college is simply made in the image of the churches it is called to serve, it has failed to embrace its vocation. Even more, it has failed its churches. Prophets smell bad. They say things we do not want to hear and they press us to see things we struggle to see. If the theological college is not drawing criticism from denominational leaders and the churches of its tradition, chances are it stands on shallow ground.

As we Baptists of Victoria launch into this period of discernment about our college’s future, I want to say publicly how very grateful I am for Whitley College. Though my beginning with Whitley as a reluctant undergraduate in theology was six shades of awkward, my thirty years of study, teaching and association with the college have been one of the most formative influences of my life. It is through Whitley that I discovered that Jesus’ call to discipleship is more far-reaching and all-embracing than I could ever have imagined. It is through Whitley that I learned to read the Bible as the life changing Word of God and to wrestle with its truth. It is through Whitley that I was invited to breathe again as a person of faith, open to a theology that’s alive, obligating, and wonderfully relevant to the world I inhabit. And it is largely because of Whitley that I remain a Baptist, actively engaged with and committed to our particular way of being the church and embodying the good news of Jesus.

Whatever lies ahead for us, I pray that Whitley will remain a life-giving, life-interpreting and life-challenging community within our Baptist family.

 

The Making of a Minister

This piece, written by the Lutheran Walter Wangerin, was first published in the American journal Christianity Today back in 1982. As a young man preparing for the possibility of ordination, I was moved by Wangerin’s words but with scant appreciation for their real meaning. Regardless, I copied the words into my journal. Some thirty years later they still resonate, but now with a far greater depth.

Though longer than a usual blog post, for those engaged in the practice of pastoral ministry this is a story worth revisiting.

 The Making of a Minister

Arthur lived in a shotgun house, so-called because it was three rooms in a dead straight line, built narrowly on half a city lot. More properly, Arthur lived in the front room of his house. Or rather, to speak the cold, disturbing truth, Arthur lived in a rotting stuffed chair in that room, from which he seldom stirred the last year of his life.

No one mourned his absence from church. I think most people were grateful that he turned reclusive, for the man had a walk and a manner like the toad, a high-backed slouch, and a burping contempt for his fellow parishioners. Arthur’s mind, though mostly uneducated, was excellent. He had written poetry in his day, both serious and sly, but now he used words to shiv Christians in their pews. Neither time nor circumstance protected the people, but their dress and their holiness caught on the hooks of his observations, and pain could spread across their countenance even in the middle of an Easter melody, while Arthur sat lumpish beside them, triumphant. No: none felt moved to visit the man when he became housebound.

Except me.

I was the minister, so sweetly young and dutiful. It was my job. And Arthur had phoned to remind me of that.

But to visit Arthur was grimly sacrificial.

After several months of chair sitting, both Arthur and his room were filthy. I do not exaggerate: roaches flowed from my step like puddles stomped in; they dropped casually from the walls. I stood very still. The TV flickered constantly. There were newspapers strewn all over the floor. There lay a damp film on every solid object in the room, from which arose a close, mouldy odour as though it were alive and sweating. But the dampness was a blessing because Arthur smoked.

He had a bottom lip like a shelf. Upon that shelf he placed lit cigarettes, and then he did not remove them until they had burned quite down, at which moment he blew them toward the television set. Burning, they hit the newspapers on the floor. But it’s impossible to ignite a fine, moist mildew. Blessedly, they went out.

Then the old man would increase the sacrifice of my visit. Motioning toward a foul and oily sofa, winking as though he knew what mortal damage it could do to my linens and dignity, he said in hostly tones: “Have a seat, why don’t you, Reverend?”

From the beginning, I did not like to visit Arthur Forte. Nor did he make my job (My ministry, you cry. My service! My discipleship! No – just my job) any easier. He did not wish a quick psalm, a professional prayer, devotions. Rather, he wanted to sharply dispute a young clergyman’s faith; he tested my mettle, my character. Seventy years a churchgoer, the old man narrowed his eye at me and debated the goodness of God. With incontrovertible proofs, he delivered shattering damnations of hospitals (at which he had worked), and doctors (for whom he had worked over the years): “Twenty dollars a strolling visit when they come to patient’s room,” he said, “for what? Two minutes’ time is what, and no particular news to the patient. A squeeze, a punch, a scribble on their charts, and they leave the sucker feeling low and worthless.” Wuhthless, he said, hollowing the word at its center. “God-in-a-smock had listened to their heart, and didn’t even tell them what he heard! Ho, ho!” said Arthur, “I’ll never go to a hospital.” “That cock-a-roach is more truthful of what he’s about. Ho, ho!” said Arthur, “I’ll never lie in a hospital bed, ho, ho.” And then, somehow, the failure of doctors he wove into his intense argument against the goodness of the Deity, and he slammed me with facts, and I was a fumbling, lubberly sort to be defending the Almighty.

When I left him, I was empty in my soul and close to tears, and testy, my own faith in God seeming most stale, flat, unprofitable at the moment. I didn’t like to visit Arthur.

Then came the days when he asked for prayer, scripture, and the Lord’s Supper, all three. The man, by late summer, was failing. He did not remove himself from the chair to let me in (I entered an unlocked door), now even to pass urine (which entered a chair impossibly foul). The August heat was unbearable. I had argued that Arthur go to the hospital. He had a better idea. He took of his clothes. Naked, Arthur greeted me. Naked, finally, the old man asked my prayers. Naked, he opened his mouth to receive communion. Naked. He’d raised the level of sacrifice to anguish. I was mortified. And still he was not finished with me.

For in those latter days, the naked Arthur Forte asked me, his minister, to come forward and put his slippers on, his undershorts, and his pants. And I did. His feet had begun to swell, so it caused both him and me unutterable pain in those private moments when I took his hard heal in my hands and worked a splitbacked slipper round it; when he stood groaning aloud, taking the clothing one leg at a time; when I bent groaning so deeply in my soul. I dressed him. He leaned on me, I touched his nakedness to dress him, we hurt, and his was sacrifice beyond my telling it. But in those moments I came to know a certain wordless affection for Arthur Forte.

(Now read me your words, “ministry,” and “service,” and “discipleship,” for then I began to understand them, then, at touching Arthur’s feet, when that and nothing else was what Arthur yearned for, one human being to touch him, physically to touch his old flesh, and not to judge. In the most dramatic terms available, the old man had said, “Love me.”)

The last week of August, on a weekly visit, I found Arthur prone on the floor. He’d fallen out of his chair during the night, but his legs were too swollen and his arms too weak for climbing in again. I said, “This is it, Arthur. You’re going to the hospital.” He was tired. He didn’t argue any more, but let me call two other members of the congregation. While they came, I dressed him – and he groaned profoundly. He groaned when we carried him to the car. He groaned even during the transfer from the car to wheelchair: we’d brought him to emergency. But there his groaning took on new meaning.

“I’m thirsty,” he said.

“He’s thirsty,” I said to the nurse, “Would you get him a drink of water?”

“No,” she said. “What?” “No. He can ingest nothing until his doctor is contacted. No.”

“But, water — ?”

“Nothing.”

“Would you contact his doctor, then?”

“That will be done by the unit nurse when he’s in his room.”

Arthur slumped in his chair and hurting, said, “I’m thirsty.”

I said, “Well, then, can I wheel him to his room?”

“I’m sorry, no,” she said.

“Please,” I said. “I’m his minister. I’ll take responsibility for him.”

“In this place he is our responsibility, not yours,” she said. “Be patient. An aide will get him up in good time.”

Oh Arthur, forgive me for not getting you a drink of water at home. Forgive us 20 minutes wait without a drink. Forgive us our rules, our rules, our irresponsibility.

Even in his room they took the time to wash him long before they brought him a drink.

“Why?” I pleaded.

“We are about to change shifts. The next nurse will call his doctor. All in good time.”

So Arthur, whose smell had triggered much discussion in the halls, finally did not stink. But Arthur still was thirsty. He said two things before I left.

He mumbled, “Bloody but unbowed.” Poetry!

“Good Arthur!” I praised him with all my might. Even malicious wit was better than lethargy; perhaps I could get him to cut, slice up a nurse or two. But he rolled an eye toward me for the first time since entering the place.

“Bloody,” he said, “and bowed.”

He slept an hour. Then, suddenly, he startled awake and stared about himself. “Where am I? Where am I?” he called. I answered, and he groaned painfully, “Why am I?” I have wept uncontrollably at the death of only one parishioner.

Since the hospital knew no relative for Arthur Forte, at 11 o’clock that same night they called me. Then I laid the telephone aside, and cried as though it was my own father. Anguish, failure, the want of a simple glass of water; I sat in the kitchen and cried.

But that failure has since nurtured a certain calm success. I do not suppose that Arthur consciously gave me the last year of his life, nor that he chose to teach me. Yet, by his mere being; by forcing me to take that life, real, unsweetened, bare-naked, hurting, and critical; by demanding that I serve him altogether unrewarded; by wringing from me first mere gestures of loving, and then love itself – but sacrificial love for one so indisputably unlovable – he did prepare me for my work and for life itself.

My tears were my diploma, his death my benediction, and my failure my ordination. For the Lord did not say, “Blessed are you if you know” or “teach” or “preach these things.” He said, rather, “Blessed are you if you do them.”

When, on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet, he sat and said, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things,” said Jesus, “blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:14-17). Again and again the Lord expanded on this theme: “Drink to the stinking is drink to me!”

One might have learned by reading it . . . but it is a theme made real in experience alone, by doing it. At first flush this experience is, generally, a sense of failure, for this sort of work severely diminishes the worker, makes them insignificant, makes them the merest servant, the very least in the transaction! To feel so small is to feel somehow failing, unable.

But there, right there, begins true servanthood, the disciple who has, despite himself, denied himself. And then, for perhaps the first time, one is loving not out of his own bowels, merit, ability, superiority, but out of Christ: for he has discovered himself to be nothing and Christ everything. In the terrible, terrible doing of this work is the minister born. And curiously, the best teachers of the nascent, immature minister are sometimes the neediest people, foul to touch, unworthy, ungiving, unlovely, yet haughty in demanding [and sometimes then miraculously receiving] love.

Arthur, my father, my father! So seeming empty your death, it was not empty at all. There is no monument above your pauper’s grave – but here: it is here in me and in my ministry. However could I make little of this godly wonder, that I love you?

 

2006_wangerinWalter Wangerin, Jr., “The Making of a Minister” in Christianity Today, September 17, 1982.

 

 

City church

Not long ago, I agreed to meet a church leader with a vision. Her passion was a new church plant here in the city centre. As an established pastor in the neighbourhood, and with a community that’s been around since 1843, I was clearly a person of interest.

I have to confess, I’ve come to approach conversations like this with a dose of skepticism. Though a naturally trusting soul, I’ve learned caution these past few years. The fact is, calls from large church franchises are reasonably common — those who want to use our sanctuary as their newest place to meet. It’s understandable: venues in the city centre are rare and the challenge for newcomers daunting. What troubles me, though, is that these enterprising leaders never want to talk.

Whether on the phone or in person, the standard approach of prospective ‘tenants’ is to sell me on their ‘kingdom vision’ and the numerical growth of their movement. But so rarely do they want to know about us: who we are, what we do or what we’ve learned. It’s as though they have the formula for church success, and all that’s required is an empty space to make it happen. The underlying message is barely veiled — If only you old, irrelevant city churches with property would get out of the way and let us at it, we’ll show you how it’s done.

Honestly, it feels like terra nullius all over again. There is scant regard for what’s already here and for the rich story of faith and struggle that fills this place. Even worse, it’s as though our neighbourhood is nothing more than a cool new venue for the latest brand of hipster church. Cue pictures of graffitied laneways, apartment towers and sidewalk cafes. The slick invitation is to come into the city and do church like you do a shopping mall or a Saturday night bar. Then afterwards you can head back to your suburbs, until next time.

Frankly, the city doesn’t need any more big-box franchises that drag people in for worship and fair-trade coffee only to see them leave again. If there’s no real investment in this city as a flesh-and-blood neighbourhood, then what’s the point? The challenges of the CBD are complex and layered. Inner-city clichés abound, but the reality is so much more demanding.

No doubt, old city churches like mine come with baggage galore. Believe me, we know that. Our history and property are tremendous gifts. And at the same time they are weights that hang around our necks. But take time to look beyond our organs and stained glass windows, and you’ll see faith communities with a longstanding commitment to this city and its people. And with some rungs on the board too. If you judge us only by what you see in a Sunday service, you’ll likely miss the bulk of what we do and who we are and how we struggle. But press in and you could be surprised.

This plea is not about protecting territory. I am delighted when new churches flourish in our patch. I really am. Our neighbourhood is growing and changing like you wouldn’t believe and the possibilities for new initiatives are extraordinary. As it happens, the pastor I met with this time around was really interested in us and in what’s already happening in the city centre. Her vision is for a model of church that is genuinely organic in form and focus. I left the conversation deeply encouraged, affirmed in my own ministry, and ready to cheer this pastor on as a potential colleague in the gospel. My concern here is only that we all do a better job — those who are here already and those who want to join us — at real engagement with the neighbourhood God has called us to.

Anything less is ecclesial froth without substance.

Preaching from the heart

Most Sundays I stand in a pulpit. It’s an imposing old thing, central to the internal architecture of its 19th century home. Though I can’t say I relish the sermon, I understand it as a valued part of my tradition. In fact, for Baptists like me preaching is central to the worship event. Really, I have no choice but to give it my best.

That said, doing so is fraught. There are at least two dangers for the regular preacher – dangers that sit at either end of a spectrum. At one end, there’s the preacher who chooses ‘professional distance’ from the subjects she speaks on, ensuring nothing of herself is ever a part of what she says. From this perspective, the preacher’s task is to get out of the way and let the Word speak for itself. At the other end, there’s the preacher who makes his own experience central to every sermon he preaches. At worst, his sermon becomes a weekly act of self-indulgence: ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ I have long understood these two dangers as equally hazardous.

Frankly, I’m in danger of the second more than the first. Professional distance has never been my thing. At my best, I like to imagine it as a choice for vulnerability. I have always believed that if the preacher is not prepared to be fully present in her preaching, then she has no right to stand in a pulpit. Where there is no honesty, the possibility of truth that transforms is minimal. What’s more, my experience tells me that when a preacher leaves his own experience out of the sermon, it is almost guaranteed that his listeners will do the same. Still, the hazards are real.

First, we have to be honest enough to say that while personal engagement and self-indulgence are two different things, they lie perilously close to each other. Tread carefully! Second, it’s a rare preacher whose own life and experience is so interesting as to be an riviting source of weekly inspiration. A broader canvas please! Third, the practice of constantly giving oneself away in the sermon can take an emotional toll on the most resourceful preacher. Go gently!

One of the most important things I have learned in preaching is that bringing oneself to the task, fully and honestly, does not equate with every sermon being confessional. Sometimes it is more about the vulnerability of one’s spirit than it is about what one reveals in detail. In recent weeks I have lost my mother. She died just short of her 82nd birthday. The sadness I have felt since her death has been like a grey cloud hovering overhead, or a heavy rock in the heart that simply wont budge. The feelings of loss and disorientation are constant and disarming. Honestly, I would rather do anything than stand in a pulpit. What’s more, to name those feelings in the context of preaching is more than I can do.

This morning I sat alone in a café contemplating the day of sermon writing that lay ahead. In between the feelings of ‘overwhelmed’, it was as though God said, gently and graciously, ‘Be present to the task, Simon. That’s all of you that I require today.’

Saints with winter colds

I visited the saints today. Not haloed ones from long ago, but sniffly ones with winter colds — older saints with thinning hair and woollen socks. One was in her hospital bed recuperating from a fall, and another in his armchair at home. It was balm for the soul.

The past few days have been tough — lots of big-picture wrestling with public issues of ‘truth’ and ‘justice’; a weekend of impassioned debate and stirring convictions. All important stuff, but wearing too. Big pictures demand an energy all their own and I come away wrung out and wanting to hide. But sitting with older saints brings me back. It reminds me that life is more than big pictures; that ministry is just as much about sitting with loneliness as struggling for truth.

For me, there’s something about being with older people that brings perspective. It focusses attention and brings my wandering mind to the most immediate things. These dear people are often as concerned for me as I am for them. We talk about hearing aids, bung hips and blood pressure. From there we take the small step to family — its joys and sadnesses — and sometimes share treasured memories of yesterday.

As for the future, these older saints don’t go there much. Oh, there are concerns about tomorrow’s appointments and, occasionally, some pensive thoughts about the mystery of whatever lies beyond. But underneath there is faith. There is always faith. It’s that bedrock that sits just below the surface. Rarely complicated, it’s often as full of mystery as it is of certainty. Yet it is there, deep and reassuring. It’s faith for today, for now and for here. It’s a wisdom all its own and it holds us in the moment together … and I can breathe again.

Ordination: a pathway to uniformity?

Routinely I meet with men and women, mostly young, who aspire to pastoral leadership. They sense a calling to the church. The most common professional pathway to this end is ordination, a rite of commissioning for pastors and priests. In every tradition it’s done differently. For some there’s a high ceremonial ritual along with a uniform and a title. For others it’s less grand yet equally specific in intent. The purpose of ordination is to set particular people apart to lead and care for the church.

I’ve been done. It happened for me a long time ago. In fact, next year it’ll be twenty-five years since my ordination to ‘the ministry of word and sacrament’ in the Baptist tradition. I have a certificate on my wall to prove it! The preparation took a while; years in fact. There were those arduous programs of study, panels of interrogation, psychological testing, intense processes of formation, and apprenticeship with seasoned practitioners. The high moment of ordination itself was memorable and profoundly significant to my continuing sense of vocation.

A common critique of the process toward ordination is that it’s too much like a one-size-fits-all funnel that ignores the diversity of those who present. What’s more, it is said, the intent is to nurture a conformity of style in leadership. There may well be some truth in this, and I have no doubt those who lead such processes wrestle with the limitations of their systems. That said, uniformity has never been my experience of those who make it through. Quite the opposite.

I am often mystified by just how different we pastors are from one another. There are the gentle and caring types, the incisive minds, the charismatic leaders, the blusterers and pot stirrers, the gregarious and the introverts. There are the fine preachers, the poets, the liberals and conservatives, the thoughtful strategists, the bookish types and the ones who act more like coaches for the local football team. How they all got through the one funnel I have no idea. But I am glad for it.

The encouragement to me in this is that just as there are numerous types who get into this business, the business itself is broad and so very different from one context to another. Sure, the comparisons are inevitable: her church is bigger than mine; his sermons could do with some work; her way with people is extraordinary; I wish my leadership was a strong as his. Truth be told, in the midst of such comparisons I often wonder just how I scraped through. But if I have learned anything over the years, it’s this: I am who I am, and being who I am is as central to my calling as anything else.

UnknownA couple of years back, I had the pleasure of reading Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor. It’s a very particular story of ministry and open to critique for good reasons. But what was so very refreshing was Peterson’s refusal to offer anything formulaic to his readers. There are no five steps, seven habits or twelve secrets to successful pastoring. Only this:

‘There is no blueprint on file for becoming a pastor. In becoming one, I have found that it is a most context-specific way of life: the pastor’s emotional life, family life, experience in the faith, and aptitudes worked out in the actual congregation in the neighborhood in which she or he lives – these people just as they are, in this place. No copying. No trying to be successful. The ways in which the vocation of pastor is conceived, develops, and comes to birth is unique to each pastor.’

I like that.