Our Reflective Question
Back in the Spring of this year, Rev. Mark Beeson, Senior Pastor at Granger Community Church, a non-denominational church in Granger, Indiana asked United Methodist pastors a question, and then he proceeded to invite us into dialogue on his blog.
He began his challenge to our motives for ministry with the following reflective question.
“Imagine you’re sitting at Starbucks when a leader you’ve known for years walks over. You have been expecting this conversation for some time and you feel the weight of responsibility on your shoulders. You know the recommendations you will make in the next hour will shape the future of this high-capacity influencer and everyone they guide for years to come.
After a few minutes of small talk, the remarkable Christian leader sitting next to you declares, “I have been following Christ for years and I believe God is calling me into the ministry. I have talked with friends at Exponential, the STORY Conference, at Innovate and at Catalyst; they have all encouraged me to do what God leads me to do. God gripped my heart when I was at Saddleback and Rick Warren prayed for me at the end of the conference. Then I went to The Leadership Summit and heard Bill Hybels say, ‘The local church is the hope of the world.’ That was it for me. I’m going to answer God’s call. I feel like I must give my life to this – no matter what the cost.”
You know the question is coming.
“I’ve got to do this. I’m just not sure which direction I should go. I know you're a United Methodist, so there must be some good reasons to be ordained in the United Methodist Church. But, if I just go plant a church I can go wherever I want to go and stay there as long as I want. I’m already good friends with a bunch of other pastors; we’re all over the country, but Facebook and Twitter keep us connected. So I don’t really feel like I’m needy and desperate to fit-in someplace. But I do want to help others know, and serve, Christ.”
“So, can you give me a few good reasons to be ordained in the United Methodist Church?
Napoleon Hill, a very successful insurance salesperson said in the first half of the last century, “Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve. Thoughts are things! And powerful things at that, when mixed with definiteness of purpose, and burning desire, can be translated into riches.”
Desire motivates. Rev. Beeson, challenges us to re-think why we do what we do, and are what we are, as United Methodist pastors. What is it that motivates us?
Why are you a United Methodist pastor? How do you respond to Mark’s challenge? What will you tell the next candidate for ministry that approaches you?
SUFFERING IS A PART OF THE MINISTERIAL CALL
Four to five years ago, about this time of the year, I was three months into a leave of absence and I could not have answered Mark’s challenge. I was very confused about who I was, what I believed about myself and what the desires of my heart were. I was not sure why I was still a United Methodist pastor.
The Apostle Paul shares in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9a “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death …”
Seventeen years into a second career as a United Methodist pastor, I felt like Paul did during his appointment to Asia. My spirit was “utterly, unbearably crushed,” and I was definitely in a deep and dark place. My life was devoid of humor and hope was hard to find.
It is a delight to be here today. It is an honor to have been asked to come and share with you some thoughts and reflections upon God’s sacred texts and the life of faith as a clergy person, and as part of your covenant family.
And yet I wonder this morning if any of you are or have been where I was 4-5 years ago. Have you had an appointment to Asia? Or, are you in one today?
Early in my ministry, I was engaged in a conversation with a lay member of a United Methodist congregation and the name of a former pastor came up. They proceeded to tell me about this former pastor who had once been assigned to their church. The lay person explained to me why this pastor was with them only one year. Now, I was young and naïve and this pastor seemed to me to be very competent, very professional, and very effective. However, I was hearing a different story that day about their incompetence and unprofessionalism. Sometimes in appointment changes there are multiple explanations for why it was necessary or happened at this particular moment in time. And human nature seems to be such that we are more apt to ascribe blame to the other than to accept our own piece of the relationship break.
A former District Superintendent told me once that because we have a closed appointment system, some times in the effort to place every pastor in the best possible place, you wind up with an extra pastor and an extra church, and you just put them together and hope for the best. Sometimes this has worked well, and other times it has not been a spectacular success.
Forcing square pegs into round holes can leave round-hole churches wanting something to fill the empty spaces and pastor’s in deep pain from having their corners worn off.
What happened to Paul in Asia? For the most part, we are unsure. John Wesley in his Notes on the New Testament connects this passage of 2 Corinthians 1 with Ephesians 19. Ephesians has Paul in Ephesus of Asia, preaching for two years, during which time, he was at the center of a riot. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible suggests that Paul suffered a time of imprisonment in Ephesus from which he wrote the Letter to the Philippians.
All we really know is that Paul refers to a time in his ministry when he despaired even of life itself.
If I were to ask all of you to bow your head, close your eyes, and then raise your hand if you have been where Paul was, gradually one by one, hands would rise across this sanctuary. Quite simply, suffering is a part of the nature of ministry!
The Apostle Paul suffered. Jesus’ disciples suffered. The prophets suffered. Elijah cries out in 1 Kings 19, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword, I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
Ministry has periods of doubt, disillusionment, and despair.
Suffering in Christ moves from Pain to Resurrection
During one of my units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at the VA Hospital, Dr. Daryl Tiller had us read and discuss a book entitled, God and Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross, by Douglas John Hall.
Douglass John Hall “… deals with the age-old question: “If God is a God of love, and at the same time all-powerful, why does he allow so much suffering in the world?” Some might even ponder and ask why should the clergy suffer so much?
Hall affirms two realities:
1. Suffering is real, the lot of “fallen” humanity;
2. Suffering is not the last word about the human condition and therefore not our ultimate preoccupation.
Hall says, "The cross of Jesus Christ is after all not a theological statement--not a soteriology! It is an event, a deed, and enactment”
A theology of the Cross is quite simple, that suffering is unavoidable. It is even unavoidable for United Methodist clergy. But, suffering is only the first movement of a two movement event. The yang for the yin is that suffering is not the final answer.
Paul goes on to write in 2 Corinthians 2:9-11
“Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely, not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead. He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again, as you also join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted to us through the prayers of many.”
Paul says that his suffering produced an awareness in him that God alone was to be his hope.
There are many in this world who are suffering. There are many in this room who are suffering. Suffering is not only a condition of ministry, but is also the condition of humanity – yea, even of creation itself.
But hope, as the Apostle Paul says, exists in the God “who raises the dead.” For a theology of the Cross includes both the suffering of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter morning.
Hear what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4a “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction,”
Our resurrection or restoration is to be shared
The apostle goes on in 2 Corinthians 1:4b-7
“so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.”
Henri Nouwen, a Catholic Priest wrote in 1979 what has become a classic in pastoral theology. His book was entitled “The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. His thesis is simple: “In our own woundedness [weakness!!] we can become a source of life for others.”
Our suffering can become the very vehicle through which we are able to provide effective pastoral care and ministry with others.
Empathy is both a gift and a training. All of us have various levels of empathy, and we can develop that empathy and become more effective in our care of others. If we listen carefully to both Nouwen and the Apostle Paul then we can see that one of the keys to pastoral care is to get in touch with our own woundedness. It is precisely through our awareness of our own pain and God’s Presence in that pain that we reach the level of authenticity and power to offer healing hope to others.
When their spirit connects with our spirit in that place of suffering and God’s presence is revealed, then healing and restoration can occur.
Back in the Spring when I first began to prepare this sermon I kept discovering that when I would get a draft manuscript together to print that as I proof read it I would discover that I was having great difficulty staying with one theme – winding up with two interwoven sermons, on several occasions.
The problem I was having lay in Mark Beeson’s challenge. “So, can you give me a few good reasons to be ordained in the United Methodist Church?” and my awareness of the place where I was just four or five years ago, when I would have been hard-pressed to give an answer.
Today, I believe I can! But first, you need to be aware of something. I was raised unchurched. I have no extended family connection to Methodism or for that matter anything, beyond nominal secular cultural Christianity. I was the guy all of us are trying to get in to the church today.
When I first experienced the call of God on my life, I ran like Jonah in the opposite direction! Finally God got my attention and said, “Go to Ninevah.” I did, and I didn’t like it! So, I pouted. When my first book comes out, the title will either be “The Reluctant Christian” or “The Reluctant Pastor.” I was the guy Mark Beeson was talking to in his column – a comptroller for a rapidly growing small business, with a financial backer who wanted me to start a new non-denominational church. They were even going to help me raise the funds for seminary.
Instead, I chose to become an itinerating United Methodist pastor. To do the exact opposite of what Mark Beeson is suggesting in his blog is the better path. Having been trained in college debate, and the logicians art of argumentation I wanted not only to preach, but to debate Rev. Beeson and give him a point by point refutation of his perceptions of Methodist pastor’s “lame excuses” for being a Methodist pastor.
This morning, I want to tell you my answer to the question, of “Why I am a United Methodist pastor” and what I would tell someone who came to me who was considering the call.
While I was participating in my four units of Clinical Pastoral Eduction (CPE) I was on-call in the hospital when my pager went off. I called in and a nurse asked me if I could come and be with a young couple whose baby was on a ventilator, and they were getting ready to remove it. They did not expect the child to live.
Arriving in the patient’s room shortly thereafter, I discovered that the young military service member and his wife were present. We talked for a few minutes and finally he looked at me and said, “What religion are you?” Chaplains of course are trained to work with people, regardless of their religious preferences, but some religions require certain members of their own religion to perform certain tasks. I told them I was a United Methodist.
A sense of peace came over them. I was a bit surprised, but we connected in that moment. They were United Methodist, from out of state, and they had been talking to their pastor back home about the situation with their baby. They asked me to baptize the child.
After arranging some practical details, I baptized their baby. Within twenty minutes their child died. We sat for a long time. We talked. We prayed. I walked them to the elevator. We rode down to the ground floor together. After walking with them to the exit we said our good-byes and they left.
Afterword, I sat and cried. I knew they were going back to a small apartment on base and they did not even know their neighbors next door. I knew how alone they felt. I knew how alone I felt when I was questioning my calling. I knew how the Apostle Paul felt during his appointment to Asia. There simply are deep and dark places in life.
But until that moment, I had not realized in a very deep and profound way that the way out of those deep and dark places is through the pain. You must go through in order to get to the other side. For our woundedness becomes the very point of contact, that opens the door to our being able to console others. It is precisely because Christ consoled us that we can console others. For we are all “wounded healers.”
Suffering is a part of the ministerial call
Suffering in Christ moves from pain to resurrection
Our resurrection or restoration is to be shared
This morning you may be in the appointment to Asia. You may have just left Asia. You may simply be remembering a time when you were in Asia and the pain still lingers.
Hear the Good News of the gospel of Jesus, the Christ. You will be healed. The rough edges that were cut off of the square peg will mend. The spaces left unfilled in the round holes will be filled. And through our pain and our suffering we will be made whole in our Lord and Savior, Jesus, the Chist.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Not for publication, footnotes and quotes are not adequately documented in this text.