A long time ago, our family was driving home at night following a dinner and grandma’s house. Our three elementary school age children were asleep in the back of the minivan. Jan and I were talking and enjoying the rolling drive over country roads south of Utica, NY. We were traveling down a road that itself followed the banks of the Chenango canal, a canal dug out to connect Binghamton with Utica, and thus with the Erie Canal, in about 1850. Most of the farms for which the canal was dug had since grown up to brush, in the ensuing 150 years. Not much has replaced them. Like much of the forgotten, rural Northeast the darkened farmhouses and little towns along our path were, and are, inhabited by people living on the margins of life: some milking 50 cows and hoping the bank will forgiving; some on one form or another of government support; some traveling good distances to work hard at hard, menial jobs; some crafting a simple existence out of limited incomes and limited needs.
Suddenly a large orange hit the side of the van. The kids awoke, the car lurched, the driver shouted in anger. We were driving through the little village of Deansboro. Once there was a musical museum there, now closed. Once there was a Methodist church there, now closed. Once there was a Boy Scout troop there, now disbanded. There is a bar, still open, as it was that night.
I do not like being hit with oranges. Or other missiles, or projectiles. There is something about that kind of unprovoked, preemptive attack that just seems wrong. Doesn’t it? When someone hits you and you haven’t hit them first, well, something about that just seems wrong. It makes you kind of angry.
I was still at an age of reactive temper and excitable temperament, the night the orange hit. I had redder hair. Well, I mean I had more hair. I had hair. So I pulled the van over
At Your Service (When the People Say No): Philippians 1:18
Have no anxiety about anything but in all things in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your needs be known to God, for our commonwealth is in heaven.
In the advent of Christ Jesus, anxiety is eclipsed by joy, fear is overcome in thanksgiving.
Thirty years ago James Dittes explored the ranges of redemptive reality in church conflict. A then veteran, now deceased, ever kindly minister had, I cleanly recall, recommended Dittes. But I only caught up to him this summer when my Dad flipped me his book, saying, ‘read the last page’. I read them all, including the last.
Dittes re-reads conflict. He reads conflict in churches with an historical critical eye, and with a sense of the grace that lies under and around honest disappointment. How can I be a minister if you will not be church? Dittes picks up the disappointment ministers know too well. Yet he does so with reverence for the meaning underlying rejection. He encourages you and me not to slay opposition but to join it, not to defeat it but to be submerged by it, and so to discover the potential, in no, of yes, in resistance, of ministry.
What are they saying? What are the people saying when they say no? What are they saying when they miss meetings, skip church, forget to give, refuse to tithe, oppose improvements, resist new liturgies, resist new ministries, resist new thoughts, resist new ideas, resist new moves? What are they truly saying?
They are saying something more than no. They are not saying yes. They are saying something about their experience and their hope.
It takes a big dose of courage to swallow rejection and to hunt around in resistance for what may happen when people meet in a real, shared partnership based on real, shared struggle.
It may be that this attitude lies behind Paul’s first salvo in Philippians. Paul notes the resistance that some have to his trip into the slammer. Not everyone finds his stay in calaboose uplifting. Some do. Some see the gospel advanced through imprisonment. Some do not. Some see Paul being Paul, always spoiling for a fight, always on the edge of conflict, always polemical Paul. They preach Christ, but denigrate Paul, or denigrate Paul in the way they preach Christ. What then?
To be a minister is to know the most searing grief and abandonment, daily and profoundly. 1. If the minister can let go and open up, then perhaps the people can too. 86. There is nurture and direction to be found in the wilderness, a message in the mess, manna in the mania. 40. You cannot make full commitment unless you risk the certain grief that lies within it. 150.
Paul hears the people say no. Elsewhere he indulges the highly satisfactory response, one we may admit we too would readily and lustily employ, of attack and battle. Beware the dogs, the evilworkers, the mutilators. But here, no, here Paul hears the no and subverts it by being subject to it. He finds the common interest—Christ. He sticks to the common interest—the advance of the gospel.
Let us imagine what may also have been in the air, though we cannot prove it. Let us imagine that Paul decides not, at this point, to parry. Imagine that rather, he listens, hard to this no. He listens to the shame people feel when their leader is in stir, up the river, in the joint, in the tank, doing time. People are people. Paul allows himself to feel this. Imagine that he further intuits some fear. Philippians is largely about joy that eclipses fear. He can readily see that some may expect that they too will end up in the calaboose, in the big house, in the grey bar hotel. They have children. They have spouses. They have responsibilities and vulnerabilities. They too are ‘in prison’. They have their own kinds of captors and leg irons. Maybe Paul, still testy, can appreciate this, and so grudgingly admits that they have a point, that they too are part of the struggle for lasting good.
I think most of us do not get this far down the ministry trail. I know I have my limits to affirming people who call me names, put false nametags on me, or resolutely resist what I know, I KNOW, is the right way forward. Maybe you do too. Hence, log jam. Hence, conflict. Hence, the opportunity, missed, to enter another’s real life, real pain, real soul.
No is hardly more articulate than ouch and often means much the same thing. No, like ouch, usually signals pain and fear. It is a genuine groan. It is so inarticulate, so lacking in clues as to what is painful and feared, that the only way to minister to it is through it. The minister enters into the experience of the groaning no, sharing it as a partner, rather than fighting it as the adversary into which it is tempting to be cast. The minister tries to feel what it is like to be this person. 28.
Ministers are appointed by Bishops or located by committees. But the real assignments and locations come daily in the places others put or want to put the minister. (I call this the name-tag syndrome). Visit me. Find me a job. Pray over the cannon on Memorial Day. Join Rotary. Come to my recital. Address our class. Give the grace at the father and son dinner, and please wear a clerical collar, and please keep it brief, and, oh, we will cover your dinner.
The noble traditions of the church, my own struggling to discern meaningful vocation, my long and anguished and continuing to fit myself to fulfill that vocation, the daily discipline I impose on myself to try to be responsive to the deepest rumblings and highest aspirations of life, the careful way I budget my time to try to be a faithful steward of the little time I have available in the light of the immense needs I see—in the face of this earnestness
about my ministry, you want me to give an evening so I can perform, like a trained dog, a short sacerdotal trick, after which you will throw me my supper and ask me to be still. I can’ t think of any more abrupt way of being shouldered off course.
But the ministry lies, neither in compliance or defiance. It lies in accepting the place offered at the table, and then engaging in conversation, perhaps, about why the invitation was the way it was and why it was so important, or so needed, or so meaningful, if it was.
It is from the locations that the people give you that you will give the people something healing. If they place you in a high pulpit, far off and up there, and 15 feet above contradiction, the ministry will have to begin there. It need not end there. If they place you in a rough parsonage with a leaky roof and long, sad history, the ministry will have to begin there, but should not end there. If they place you at the family table, as guest and as host and as minister, you can start where they are, there.
In 1982, one bitter cold Saturday night, we were invited to dinner. Saturday night always carries the proleptic anxiety over Sunday morning, especially, as in the case of this clear winter night, on the Canadian border, when the morning’s sermon was still in gestation, seven months at least from birth. The family dinner, it turned out, was an extended family dinner. Three generations, hosted by grandma and grandpa. After dinner, the dozen of us retired to the family room of the big farm house, when, over dessert, the purpose of the evening arrived. Grandpa wanted grandson to be Christian, to belief, to be confirmed, and to attend church, and wanted the new preacher, or his wife, to effect this, to explain faith, to defend belief, to convert the heathen, then and there. It needs emphasis that these, all were the ruddiest and handsomest and best of good people. They had a location into which they had appointed a minister, their minister. If ministry was to start, it would have to start there, which it did, over a couple of hours. The minister answered what questions he could. He did not complain about the ambush, but he did identify it. Then he also asked his questions, of the family and for the family, questions of histories and systems and silences and patients. By 11pm, the work was done, but not the sermon. It was a sneak attack, to be sure. But it was also an invitation to partnership. Leaving in huff, defiance, would have communicated boundaries but would not have been ministry. Answering questions but asking none, compliance, would have communicated sincerity but not authenticity, and would not have been ministry.
Exhausted and enervated, the minister and young family drove home through the crisp snow and well below at 20 below zero. You cannot leave the nametags on your shirt or back, as inevitable as their placement is. They need removal. But you also cannot predict where real, responsive ministry will emerge. People only hear you when they are moving toward you and they are moving toward you when you are located near them. I am believer in clergy housing allowances, and a fervent supporter of them. But one spiritual feature of parsonages deserves affirmation, too. The people locate their minister, and for some that location, that overture to partnership, finds expression in an historic mode of housing, for all its miseries. Removing the parsonage—I applaud its removal—does not remove, and cannot and should not, the ‘location’ the ‘placement’ the ‘appointment’ of the minister within the social and cultural geography available to the people.
When you are invited to become chaplain of the fire department, accept. When you are asked to pray at the blue and gold banquet, accept. When you are invited to Saturday dinner, accept. When you are called to come to the barn for a talk, accept. When you are asked to visit the family burial ground, accept. When you are invited to speak at Christmas for the service club, go. When you are encouraged, not so subtly, to visit Aunt Tillie, make the visit. These are overtures, questions and hopes, addressed to you and to who knows who.
To be a minister is to know the theological (and maybe even the sociological and psychological) significance of baptism—and to be right about that and able to communicate it meaningfully—yet still be willing, for the time being, to give all that up and to accept the misplacement of being called in merely and casually to baptize the new baby. Such misplacement is accepted in order to have A place in the life of the parents, the only place they have available for the minister now. Maybe it’s like having to be born in a stable because there is no room in the inn, or even like riding a donkey and fitting into people’s hosannahed expectations of messiah even when you know better. Once in place though misplaced, then ministry proceeds in the new place, which feels like no place, which is located, and momentarily bounded by, the parents’ urgent need to have the baby baptized…Ministry is to accept the misplacement so as to open it up, address it, and come to find it replaced. 147.
I thank my God…for your partnership in the Gospel.
Our commonwealth is in heaven.
Rejoice in the Lord always.
The Lord is at hand.
If there is any excellence…think about these things.
He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
Stand firm in spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.
Complete my joy by being of the same mind.
Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.
God is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Whatever gain I had I count as loss for the sake of Christ.
I count everything as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
One thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Have no anxiety about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.
I know how to be abased and I know how to abound.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Again I say rejoice.
Let all men know your forbearance.