Our church made a fuss on Sunday last. A fuss over me!
Back in August I posted a sad little tale about the apparent end of my pastoral vocation. A Golden Watch recounted the grief I felt when my final departure from the church office went unnoticed. It was a glum story, told only from my perspective of loss. Today, in this post, I want to apportion blame squarely where it belongs. I will write about it here not in complaint, certainly not to wallow, but only because I consider it to be a story worth telling; a story for our time and our ears; a story that might shed some light on paths that others tread.
Until last August a highlight of my week had been the meeting of the leadership team of our church. On Tuesdays I would leave our home at about 9am and catch three connecting busses to arrive at church in time for our 11am meeting. Tuesdays in the office were exhilarating days of conversation, productive work, good banter and fresh brews from the coffee machine. But winter brought physical challenges last year and, as I wrote in ‘Golden Watch’, on one particular Tuesday I knew that my season was over.
Back then I wasn’t speaking much at all (Little Blue Pills had not been discovered!). I had given up the trusty voice amplifier that had served so well, and mostly just typed onto a screen for others to read. I felt unable to discuss my growing challenges with my colleagues or friends. Even considering the difficulty of transposing deep thoughts onto the keyboard, I can’t excuse my lack of communication. I had allowed a bubble of separation to grow around myself, which I compounded further by communicating my resignation by email. At the time I thought it was reasonable, that no other avenue of communication was available. But at some months distance I now see it as shirking my responsibility to my fellows; I owed them more than that. Worse, it smacks somehow of self pity: a feeble admission inadequately announced.
What happened next was nothing. A week passed, and there was no reply, no acknowledgment at all. Weeks went past, and no one said a word. As the passage of time lengthened it seemed ever harder to broach the subject, and the pain remained. Tuesdays went on without me, but I would see everyone each Sunday. Nothing was said, not by me, and not by anyone else. It was not my fault. It was not their fault either.
I have a theory, which is why I am telling this story: I think that both sides failed to speak because there were no ‘right’ words to say. If I had been moving onwards and upwards the words would have sprung easily to all our lips; we are very practiced in wishing each other well. But slowly disappearing with an unknown, unnamed medical condition does not fit the paradigm at all. The hardest pastoral hours I have spent have been with those who grieve. The pressure to say something is intense; you urgently want to console, or encourage, or reassure; and yet it is often far better to listen in compassionate, attentive silence.
People of faith have hope, and our hopes take concrete form. We hope for the best, we hope for the things we value most, and we express our hopes for one another in habitual ways. We develop hope-filled customs: we wish each other good morning and sweet dreams; we post get well cards; we sing happy birthday; we pray each other for health and strength, opportunity and success; when we sneeze we say “God bless you”!
But we sometimes lack elasticity and struggle in uncharted territory. A great deal of what we say to one another is terribly predictable; scarcely departing from the rule of polite cheerfulness. We learn a set of responses that govern our relationships, and to a large degree we stay within those bounds. We are like politicians reading from an auto-cue; we say what we’ve been told to say.
Last Sunday’s ‘fuss’ was a healing gift. My former role was acknowledged and (embarrassingly) applauded well beyond its actual merit. It was a welcome meeting of hearts.
Finally, to the blame! Where does it belong? It belongs with us, we Christians. We have been given Grace, covering our shortfalls, and yet we prefer to make our own Rules. Rather than being led by the Spirit of God, we school ourselves religiously in our notions of blessing and success and what we imagine God’s plans should look like. Consider:
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.1
No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him — but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.2
In these lines I hear of other paths, new words, different hopes. How often, I wonder, do insensitivity and isolation come as a result of spiritual deafness? There is a path of love that can unite us all, but not while our conceptions speak above the whisper of His voice.
Footnote: The context of a passage is all important:
1 Corinthians 2 6 We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 However, as it is written:
“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”— 10 but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.
The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11 For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.
John 3 5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”