These last few days, I have been giving into the social media temptation of sticking my nose in places that it has no business being in, and is not going to make any difference by being there. Between halftime shows, shambolic political processes, failed electoral counts, ongoing denominational trouble in the #UMC, disappointing speeches, disappointing reactions to speeches, and the undeniable evidence of deep-rooted division in so many areas of society, I have felt burdened, wearied, and entirely mentally, spiritually, and emotionally exhausted.
Part of my exasperation with it all is that is it so hard to know how to make a difference. It is hard to know what the place of a rather ordinary preacher like me actually is in it all. Is the preacher to be passively silent? Is he or she to be more activist in response to the world around his or herself? How does the preacher, a disciple of Jesus Christ, live out his or her call in these days?
This morning, I was sat at the local coffee shop waiting on a parishioner that did not manage to make our arranged get-together. Another parishioner was in the coffee shop at the same time and so I said hello. He asked me what I would be preaching on this week at church. “Prayer.” I said. “Three weeks talking about mental health is probably enough.” (referencing the fact that last Sunday we finished a three-week series on the theme of faith and mental health). His face told me that three weeks had maybe not been enough on that topic for him. He confirmed my suspicion when he spoke: “I wanted to come and talk to you about some of that.” We kept talking and he shared some of his experience with me. I told him I would love to take time to listen some more if that would be helpful for him. He agreed it would. I assured him that I cannot fix him in any way, but that I am more than willing to “sit in the hole” with him and listen for a while inasmuch as that is helpful for him.
In being present with my parishioner in that moment, I was reminded of what it is that a rather ordinary preacher like me is to do in this screwed up age we are living in. You see, I could try to change minds with clever, fact-based argument and debate. Or I could retweet the words of that person that I agree with on a matter, as a means of using their words to express my own angst. Or I could try and shout down the loud voices of the other side. I could protest in some kind of appropriate way at the right moment in the right place in an attempt to make my voice heard. I could do all those things and they might well make some subtle difference here and there, or they might encourage someone, somewhere, in some way. But is that what is that really what the rather ordinary preacher has been called and ordained to do? As I ask that question, my thoughts race back to June 2012 and the words of my ordination service.
The following are the words used that day from liturgy used in the Irish Methodist Church ordination service each year:
“Beloved in Christ, the Church is God’s holy people, the Body of Christ, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.
All who are received into the Church by Baptism are called to proclaim the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ our Saviour, and to serve him in the Church and the world.
God has called you into the Order of Presbyters among his people.
In His name you are
to preach by word and deed the Gospel of God’s grace;
to declare God’s forgiveness of sins to all who are penitent;
to baptize, confirm, and to preside at the celebration of the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood;
to lead God’s people in worship, prayer, and service;
to minister Christ’s love and compassion;
to serve others, in whom you serve the Lord himself.
These things are your common duty and delight. In them you are to watch over one another in love.
In all things, give counsel and encouragement to those whom Christ entrusts to your care. Pray without ceasing. Work with joy in the Lord’s service. Let no-one suffer hurt through your neglect.
This ministry will make great demands upon you and those close to you, yet in all this, the Holy Spirit will sustain you by his grace.”
Today, I woke up discouraged, exhausted, and exasperated by what I am seeing and hearing in the world. I felt helpless to do anything that would make a difference. But then, in that rather chance encounter, I was reminded of what I am called and ordained to in this world – a life of being present with others, being willing to enter the pain and darkness that exists in their lives, and to listen. A life of embodying the good news of God’s great love, boundless grace, and imperishable hope for all people.
You see, a big part of my frustration and exasperation with the world these last few weeks has been the inability of people to see the world the way I see it. I have let myself fall into the trap of thinking that my way alone is the right way for all people in all times and in all places. How arrogant! And how limiting in terms of my ability to answer the call on my life! Something has to change in me with regard to this, so here is what I will be seeking to make my reality in the days ahead during what could be a very rough year.
- As I encounter people, I will do so from a starting point that understands that they are doing their best with the tools they have been given. We have all inherited and subsequently developed the world views we operate within. Some worldview I love, and some I loathe. But I have yet to meet a person who is not truly doing their best to operate well from the standpoint of their world view. So, I will do my best to understand they are doing their best
- I will remember that those whose worldviews are different to my own are not bad people, and that their worldviews, as much as I might disagree with them, have been considered and arrived at with as much integrity as my own. The powerful of the world continue to stoke fear and suspicion of ‘the other’ – those who see the world in a different way – and many of us get duped and play right into that game with the result that we demonize the other and end up being so frustrated by the other that relationships break down and we cease communication. I will refuse to do that. I know many people who view the world differently from me, and I still love them. Many of my friends think differently on social issues, on theology, philosophy. They think differently, but they are not bad people. In fact, they are good people offering so much to the world by living their lives well, and I still love to spend time with them because they are my friends. I refuse to demonize my friends simply because they are seeing and interpreting the world through the tint of a different lens.
- I will move towards ‘the other.’ The way of our world in recent years seems to encourage staying firmly in one’s own camp; to retreat to the company of those who see the world the same way one sees it. The negative impact of doing so is two-fold:
- We end up never talking to anyone, about these things, who might hold a different view to the one we hold ourselves. This means that we end up never having our own worldview challenged and tested. We never have to defend it. That’s unhealthy.
- We create enemies of those who are not in our camp for no other reason than that they think differently than we do. This is remarkably unhealthy for us as individuals, and even more so for our society
So I will move towards those who exist in a different camp from my own. I will refuse to wait in the middle for them to come meet me, and choose instead to step over the invisible line that has been drawn in the sand to meet with them. Why? Because that’s what God did for me. In Jesus, God moved towards me. In Jesus, God stepped over the line. In Jesus, God refused to wait for me to come to Him. It follows that if I am to be a disciple of Jesus it will involve me stepping over the line and following him in moving to the other. As Rep. John Lewis said at the National Prayer Breakfast this week “We must believe in one another, we must never give up on our fellow human beings.” I refuse to give up on my fellow human beings.
In America, and other parts of the western world, we are speeding down to the road to ruin because we continue to give into the temptation of demonizing others. Continuing down this road will leave us irreparably divided, and as Jesus said himself, “If a house is divided against itself, it cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25). I refuse to be a part of the continued division of our communities, nation and world, and I will double down on my personal efforts to be a relationship builder and reconciler in my world.