November 20, 2017

Limping to the Pulpit

Tired from Walking. Photo by Shinichi Sugiyama

Tired from Walking. Photo by Shinichi Sugiyama

This coming Sunday, I will be preaching in the congregation where I last served as a pastor. They are in good hands now, under the ministry of Pastor Dan, and I enjoy going back now and then to see folks. I love the people there, and it is always hard to find time to see everyone when I do.

But there is an inward struggle in my return as well. A lingering melancholy. A hint of hesitation. A wisp of wariness.

When I climb up on the platform to preach Sunday, I will do so limping.

You see, this church represents for me my transition out of congregational ministry.

Twelve years ago at this time I was in the midst of hanging on for dear life, as a congregation which had been through turmoil for several years was failing before my very eyes. People were leaving left and right. Finances were dwindling. At the same time, as I was approaching age 50, our family was dealing with its own problems and challenges, some of them nearly all-consuming. My wife was preparing to start her own business, and our own finances were in trouble too. It felt like my world was spinning out of control on almost every level. I had no idea what to do, nor to whom I should turn. And I was scared spitless. If I were to leave the church (or be asked to leave), I had few options for employment.

I needed some pastoral counsel, some spiritual direction. But where does a pastor in a group that expects their pastors to be entrepreneurial leader-types go for that? There was no denominational structure, no oversight, no one “over” me to call. I had some experienced pastor friends, some of whom were in the same group of churches, but they were much too preoccupied with their own congregations to offer anything more than an occasional breakfast or lunch meeting.

I was losing my balance high up on a tightrope, and there was no net.

And that was the last ecclesiastical straw for me in evangelical free-style churches.

I give thanks to God for his presence and help during those days. Despite resigning from the pastorate, several events and experiences (which I won’t detail here) provided me with strength and stamina to keep going. An answer to a Christmas letter we sent out that winter led to me being hired as a hospice chaplain, and so began a new chapter in life for my family and me.

It’s not as though the thought of pastoral ministry and the local church let go of me easily, however. Over the next couple of years I tried to get involved in leadership and teaching in a couple of congregations while working as a chaplain, but the results were pretty laughable, disastrous almost. I cringe when I look back on them.

Then we started going to the Lutheran church. The Church Year, the simple liturgy, singing in the choir, being freed from the “wretched urgency” and rugged individualism of evangelicalism, and most especially going to the Table each Sunday and being fed with Christ’s body and blood brought a sense of peace.

One of the teachings in the Lutheran tradition that I came to relish was that of vocation. Every person has a role to play in bringing God’s love and goodness to the world. Through our daily work, no matter what it is, we are part of a “wondrous web” through which the hidden God works his will out in the world. I began to embrace my chaplain role more and more and to appreciate the ordinary dailiness of life and work in a way I never had before, as I walked among people from all walks of life, hearing their stories and learning to appreciate their contribution to tikkun olam, repairing the world. And my opportunity to share in that.

When I decided to test the waters regarding ordination and a possible return to congregational ministry in the Lutheran tradition, I did so with a much different perspective, though I still felt a measure of hesitation and a much greater measure of self-doubt. Ultimately, that path led me to a place where I discerned that God’s call for me was to continue in my chaplain role.

A year ago I wrote:

The world that now shapes me most, spiritually and religiously, is my vocation as a chaplain — a thoroughly ecumenical, missional, community-based ministry. That’s where I feel most comfortable: with my neighbors. That’s my world now, and as I said in an earlier post, I guess I’m not much of a “churchman” anymore. I view myself as a composite of all my experiences and journeys, and the chaplaincy allows me to bring them all to bear as I seek to serve others. I don’t have to fit an ecclesiastical mold to do my job. It’s better, in fact, if I don’t.

However, even though I am thoroughly comfortable in my vocational role, when I’m asked to preach in a church, particularly an evangelical church, the culture of evangelicalism, pastoral ministry, nearly thirty years within a world of free church congregational life and ministry — it all comes rushing back.

And there I find myself limping toward the pulpit like Jacob. Once wounded in a crisis moment of his life, for the rest of his days a painful injury affected the patriarch’s gait. The book of Hebrews pictures him at the end of his life leaning on his staff, blessing others while bearing the mark of a divine skirmish.

Sunday, I imagine I’ll lean on the pulpit as I preach.

• • •

Photo by Shinichi Sugiyama at Flickr. Creative Commons License.

Comments

  1. Your limp will keep you from turning into Father Mapple; that’s a good thing. Be sure not to pull up the ladder behind you when you ascend the pulpit. That way you’ll avoid the temptation to preach from above, rather than within, the congregation, unlike the well-intentioned but misguided Father.

    • On the other hand, it may be salutary to remember that Captain Ahab also walked with a limp….

      • Burro [Mule] says:

        As did Jacob

        • Mike Jones says:

          I agree and Jacob was a better man for that limb. But, there are some cultural influences in the Church at times that affirm the opposite. The the robotic man or women, perfect on the surface, is the better man or woman. but for me . . . I want a pastor who limps.

        • Princess of Equustria says:

          And Bruce Wayne from “Batman Beyond.”

        • Well, of course. The post refers to Jacob, and means for us to have him in mind as we read it. You could hardly not have in mind, if familiar with the Biblical story.

          But if the wound is received wrongly, Captain Ahab may be the result rather than Jacob. That’s my point. Both limp from transcendent injuries: in one the wound is a sign blessing, and even wisdom; in the other the wound has been transformed into maniacal enmity and vendetta. Yet you probably would not be able to tell them apart if you saw each of them limping away from you.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Both limp from transcendent injuries: in one the wound is a sign blessing, and even wisdom; in the other the wound has been transformed into maniacal enmity and vendetta.

            I wonder if the Culture War and Christians For TRUMP are the result of a lot of Captain Ahab transcendent injuries instead of Jacob transcendent injuries.

  2. Chaplain

    Thank you for sharing this story. It resonates deeply. I went to a wedding for my niece last weekend, and saw several members of the church where I served (not on staff but as a ministry leader for about 11 years) – in the non denominational evangelical tradition – and left about 5 years ago. In answer to what am I doing now, I got some odd looks and hmmms when I mentioned seeking ordination in the Lutheran tradition (next year). Your description of the Lutheran tradition was a deep echo for me 5 years ago. Blessings.

  3. The limp is what you have to offer. The limp is what you bring. They know who you are and they are asking for who you are now. That’s what you have to give,

    • Thx Chris

    • +1. I was about to write something very similar.

    • +1. If you didn’t have a limp, you wouldn’t have nearly as much to offer.

      • Amen, yes, Stuart.

        In the adult Sunday school class I lead, we just read Luke 18:9-14, where Jesus gives a parable about the prayers of a Pharisee and a Tax Collector. It seems that it’s better to recognize your hurts and faults than be “confident of our own righteousness” and look down upon others. “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” is MUCH better than “Lord, thank you that I’m not like THEM!”

        So, oddly perhaps, limping to the pulpit might just be a good thing.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Walking Wounded, like the rest of us.

      I had it up to here with “Perfect Spiritual Giants” by 1980.

      • I’m with HUG. Human is good.

        The limp means:

        1. If I try hard, I might actually catch you up

        2. It might be possible to convince you to sit down for 5 minutes

        Thanks for sharing bits of your journey with us, CM.

  4. Mike,
    Your opening paragraphs resonate with me. However, I am in a denominational structure where there is, supposedly, support. But I’ll be damned if I can find it. In this episcopal appointment system, I’ve given the last 11 years of my life to serving small, dying churches with all that I have, for the most part, the people love me and my family and we love them. There have been the occasional asshats who have made my life difficult, and thankfully, my District Superintendent and Bishop took care of that. But I’m worn out, burned out. I preach the Gospel, but I wonder if it matters. I’m ready to throw in the towel. But at 57, with a background in computer programming that I haven’t touched in 20 years (talk about being a dinosaur), I’m frozen in fear for what the future holds. I know that we are told to “fear not,” but that doesn’t mean a hell of a lot when the mortgage is due and the debts need to be paid.

    • Thanks for sharing your current angst, Wayne.

      –> “I know that we are told to ‘fear not,’ but that doesn’t mean a hell of a lot when the mortgage is due and the debts need to be paid.”

      It’s like I often tell the adult Sunday school class that I lead: “This Bible stuff is all easier said than done.”

      Here’s a prayer to God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit that They bless you with peace as you figure out what to do next. And keep preaching the Gospel as long as you’re up-front doing the preaching.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        It’s like I often tell the adult Sunday school class that I lead: “This Bible stuff is all easier said than done.”

        There are problems in life that are NOT solved by “Reciting SCRIPTURE”, “Spending Thirty Minutes With The LOOORD Every Morning”, and/or “Five Fast Praise-the-LOOOORDs”. And those Uber-Christians who act like it does have NEVER been there themselves.

    • You’d probably make a great account or program manager, with your background in understanding the concepts of computer programming as well as leadership experience. Look at some local digital agencies.

      And thank you for preaching the gospel. That’s rare and needed.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        +1 project or team leader. Technical, leadership, and public speaking background… Please apply! 🙂

    • Wayne, thanks for giving us a glimpse inside the pastor’s fears. You have cast your bread upon the waters faithfully; I pray it will start coming back to you soon.

  5. I’m not sure I could live with all things Lutheran, but I’ll admit there’s a budding appeal to the things you mention here, Mike: “The Church Year, the simple liturgy, singing in the choir, being freed from the “wretched urgency” and rugged individualism of evangelicalism, and most especially going to the Table each Sunday and being fed with Christ’s body and blood brought a sense of peace.”

    We have a couple of new associate type pastors in my church and I cringe when I hear some of the new lingo being bandied about, like, “I’m hoping to take men’s group to the next level.”

    Please, Jesus…help me…

    • It appeals to my sense of not wanting to think and not wanting to get involved…by consciously being involved, if that makes sense. It’s like going to the gym now…I choose to go and interact, but the programming dictates what I do and gives me results, no need to figure it out on my own. The gym has become the only place in my life where I truly feel like I can rest, if momentarily. I imagine an ancient liturgical Lutheraneque church could accomplish much the same thing. A day of rest.

      • And I wonder if that should permeate all aspects of church, not just Sundays. For instance, the men’s fellowship group I lead on Saturday morning is a very humble thing. We have coffee and donuts, have a fun warm-up question, study a chunk of text for about 45 minutes, then pray. On any given Saturday, it’s 10-15 guys, all sharing thoughts and experiences and jokes.

        I’d hate to be asked, “When are you going to ramp this up to something more, Rick?”

        • I’m thinking jalapeno poppers for the next men’s fellowship.

          With a side order of making everyone feel uncomfortable and trying to drag up stuff to convict and talk about them to.

          …sorry, bad memories of men’s fellowships. I’m 110% happier being the support for one of those meetings. My ministry is cooking breakfast for 300 guys….and doing the dishes while the speaker talks and the praying happens.

          • –> “With a side order of making everyone feel uncomfortable and trying to drag up stuff to convict and talk about them to.”

            I hear ya. Here’s how I currently run the Saturday men’s group. Open with a warm-up question, like “If you could live anywhere, where would it be?” Dig a little into scripture. We’re currently looking at “All the Questions Jesus was Asked and How He Answered Them” (I put this together myself). There is absolutely NO agenda in it; we simply read the lead-up to the question, read the question and answer, and talk about it. The only prompts I tend to use (if any) are, “What’s Jesus telling you about Himself here” and “What does it appear Jesus is unafraid of?” (I think the answers to both those question can be very healthy for a believer and our walk. ) Then we close with prayer time. Oh, and the aforementioned coffee and donuts.

            So I’m “hoping” that this is unlike “unhealthy” men’s fellowship times.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            I’m thinking jalapeno poppers for the next men’s fellowship.

            Two words: CAROLINA REAPER.

        • Ronald Avra says:

          I was participating in a very effective men’s study group, until it was decided to ramp it up. In a small group it was easier to remember each individual daily, to pray for the specific issues they were dealing with, and to just savor each person as an individual. Ramping up the group just destroyed it. I’m sure that type of thing could easily evolve to a clique, but it was an incredible time in my Christian experience.

          • I will resist the notion of ramping it up as long as I can. While an optimist, I’m also a cynic and a skeptic, and certain lingo and “pushes” give me the shivers.

        • Rick, please don’t let them ramp up the men’s group into “something more.” In the wrong hands, the something more could split your church.

      • One of the pastors I’m working with now told me he discovered new value in these things when his life was in crisis. In addition to some relatively intense vocational tension and multiple severe health issues in his immediate family, he found the repetition of the liturgy every week, despite being the same dull thing over and over, began to become something in which he took great comfort when everything else seemed like it was falling apart.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Because it’s a consistent routine. When everything is falling apart, you need some constant to cling to, something steady to act as an anchor.

        • This fits with my recent epiphany regarding Daniel and his response to hearing that his rivals had gotten King Darius to sign a decree which would do Daniel in:

          Daniel 6:10 “Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.”

          Daniel had an already-established routine which he just continued when the crisis hit. Nothing new, nothing “ramped up,” just a repeat of “as he had done before.”

          Ii see this as a good aspect of the Lutheran angle on things.

          • It’s actually not a Lutheran angle at all. It’s catholic. At their best, we share this attribute with the Cathodox, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and others. You’ll even find striking similarity between the traditions of them all, if you look closely. The hard part is, especially in Protestantism, finding congregations that are faithful practitioners and stewards of this tradition, resisting the societal pressure to “sell out” and adopt more trendy and transient methods of spirituality.

    • ““I’m hoping to take men’s group to the next level.”

      That moment when the person speaking is getting really, really excited, and you remember that all you ever wanted was some hot cocoa.

    • Next level??

      Gag

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      We have a couple of new associate type pastors in my church and I cringe when I hear some of the new lingo being bandied about, like, “I’m hoping to take men’s group to the next level.”

      “Next Level” as in “Join Bo & Peep behind Hale-Bopp”?

      Because Heaven’s Gate was trying to Ascend to the Next Level.

      • Maybe the “next level” achieved is actually Hell.

        Matthew 23:15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”

        • Well, yes. That’s what I meant in my comment above. That very verse.

          In the wrong hands, the “next level” in a men’s group can mean a complementarian takeover, with all the legalism and authoritarianism that that verse exposes.

          Someone may tell you that your interpretation of it “misses the mark.” Be warned.

          • I hear ya, Ted (and in your comment above). Thanks for your thoughts/warning/encouragement. My radar is always going.

    • So what do you think they mean by going to the next level? Did you ask?

      I would hope that means lattes instead of drip coffee. maybe even some jam filled donuts instead of those cinnamon ones

  6. >> . . . tikkun olam, repairing the world.

    Didn’t retain that concept the first time around, but it sums up what I more and more feel is my vocation in my last years. And not so much directly, as helping those on the front lines of what seems to me a mostly unnoticed, epic battle going on for control of the kingdom of this world. I find myself less and less concerned with those matters that occupy headlines in the mass media, and more and more studying to understand the alternate reality glimpsed between the lines. I’ve been interested in alternate realities for most of my life, but I feel like I’m having to reeducate myself all over again, with time growing shorter by the day. I’m too old for direct combat any more, but I can pray for those so engaged, and I believe that one person’s prayer might conceivably tip the balance.

    For the most part I find people oblivious to this huge drama going on all around us. We are trained to regard such as crazy talk and it is way outside our comfort zones. Much better to make a big bowl of popcorn and watch the Punch and Judy show, or follow the latest on whichever version of TMZ that strikes our fancy, including church squabbles and culture wars. Increasingly I find most of what comes out of the pulpit as irrelevant and stultifying, with some notable exceptions, as in these pages.

    I would say that CM’s journey has been not only significant for his own life development, but acts as a template for the life development of the world, or a significant part, and especially the world of the western church. It’s not like the Evangelical branch is going to go away, any more than the Roman church went away with the Reformation, but it no longer dominates attention. And while the Liturgical church has provided a lifeboat for many, it no longer is on the front lines either. We can’t all become hospice chaplains, but that job has changed in my view over the past dozen years from being an “auxiliary” under “real” ministry, on to being part of the cutting edge of this massive change we are going thru. Time to grow up. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

  7. Ronald Avra says:

    It did me a world of good today to hear this aspect of your life experience, Chaplain. Very grateful to hear it.

  8. Chaplain Mike – thanks for sharing your story.

    I sense a greater peace, that you are more comfortable with who you are. I think one of the deepest things in the Christian journey is to discover a sense of vocation – it really is exploring who we are in Christ. I am still groping my way in that direction. Watching your journey has greatly encouraged me.

    My wife found a little booklet by Herbert Alphonso called Discovering your Vocation. It has helped me to even see the concept, as I always thought that it is what I do for Christ that defines me rather than who I am in Christ.

    Thanks for today’s thoughts!

  9. I needed this today, so I am glad you shared your story. In my late 50s, I’m finally trying to just embrace uncertainty and fall into the chaos. I am learning that when I do, I never know what door might open or what I may find on the other side. But it is hard to do!

  10. Christiane says:

    Beautifully written, Chaplain MIKE, thank you for sharing this with us

    THIS !
    “Then we started going to the Lutheran church. The Church Year, the simple liturgy, singing in the choir, being freed from the “wretched urgency” and rugged individualism of evangelicalism, and most especially going to the Table each Sunday and being fed with Christ’s body and blood brought a sense of peace.”

  11. I still want some jalapeno poppers tho. Preferably some with a kick.

  12. …love…