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:: Tuesday, December 3, 2002 ::

The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeepers' concerns--how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street. ... Three pastoral acts are so basic, so critical, that they determine the shape of everything else. The acts are praying, reading Scripture, and giving spiritual direction. Besides being basic, these acts are quiet. They do not call attention to themselves and are not often attended to. In the clamorous world of pastoral work nobody yells at us to engage in these acts.

Everybody treats us so nicely. No one seems to think that we mean what we say. When we say "kingdom of God," no one gets apprehensive, as if we had just announced (which we thought we had) that a powerful army is poised on the border, ready to invade. When we say radical things like "Christ," "love," "believe," "peace," and "sin" -- words that in other times and cultures excited martyrdoms--the sounds enter the stream of conversation with no more splash than baseball scores and grocery prices.

Modern success models can't match the effectiveness and self-worth provided by Scripture.

Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. And if that weren't bad enough, each has a sinner for a pastor.

Community ... means people who have to learn how to care for each other.

Busyness is the enemy of spirituality. It is essentially laziness. It is doing the easy thing instead of the hard thing. It is filling our time with our own actions instead of paying attention to God's actions. It is taking charge.

Human need is always more apparent than God's presence for the same reason that the earth always looks flat. The human need is very visible in the sickness, the loneliness, the boredom, and the busyness, while all the signs and symbols of God's word and presence are several miles away in the church sanctuary. That is why so many of us perform more like psychological therapists than Christian priests when we are out of the pulpit. Our awareness of human need crowds out and then takes precedence over our attentiveness to God's presence. Among the apostles, the one absolutely stunning success was Judas, and the one thoroughly groveling failure was Peter. Judas was a success in the ways that most impress us: he was successful both financially and politically. He cleverly arranged to control the money of the apostolic band; he skillfully manipulated the political forces of the day to accomplish his goal. And Peter was a failure in ways that we most dread: he was impotent in a crisis and socially inept. At the arrest of Jesus he collapsed, a hapless, blustering coward; in the most critical situations of his life with Jesus, the confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi and the vision on the Mount of Transfiguration, he said the most embarrassingly inappropriate things. He was not the companion we would want with us in time of danger, and he was not the kind of person we would feel comfortable with at a social occasion. Time, of course, has reversed our judgments on the two men. Judas is now a byword for betrayal, and Peter is one of the most honored names in church and world. Judas is a villain; Peter is a saint. Yet the world continues to chase after the successes of Judas, financial wealth and political power, and to defend itself against the failures of Peter, impotence and ineptness.

Life is not something we manage to hammer together; it is an unfathomable gift.

I'm convinced that pastors don't give two cents about worship. They really don't. And there's a reason for it. True worship doesn't make anything happen. It is a losing of control, a weaning from manipulative language and entertainment. ... Pastors sense that if they really practice worship they are going to empty out the sanctuary pretty fast.

The biggest enemy of the Church is the development and proliferation of programs to meet people's needs. Everyone has a hunger for God, but our tastes (needs) are screwed up. We've been raised on junk food, so what we ask for is often wrong or twisted.

When you look at our history, it is no wonder that spirituality is so often treated with suspicion, and not infrequently with outright hostility. For in actual practice spirituality very often develops into neurosis, degenerates into selfishness, becomes pretentious, turns violent. How does this happen? The short answer is that it happens when we step outside the Gospel story and take ourselves as the basic and authoritative text for our spirituality; we begin exegeting ourselves as a sacred text ... True spirituality, Christian spirituality, takes attention off of ourselves and focuses it on another, on Jesus.

The culture conditions us to approach people and situations as journalists do: see the big, exploit the crisis, edit and abridge the commonplace, interview the glamorous. The Scriptures and our best pastoral traditions train us in a different approach: notice the small, persevere in the commonplace, appreciate the obscure.

The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called "pastor" and given a designated responsibility ... to keep the community attentive to God.

Jonah had a child-sized plan that did not pan out; God was enacting a huge destiny that surprised everyone.

The person who looks for quick results in the seed planting of well-doing will be disappointed. If I want potatoes for dinner tomorrow, it will do me little good to plant them in my garden tonight. There are long stretches of darkness and invisibility and silence that separate planting and reaping. During the stretches of waiting, there is cultivating and weeding and nurturing and planting still other seeds.

My will is my glory; it is also what gives me the most trouble.




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