Presbyterians, occasionally, get a few things right!
With all the hammering and yammering about this or that amendment or form of government it’s easy to get frustrated with the general state of affairs in our stoic denomination. As a small example, in the recent few days I’ve been reading emails from colleagues as we continue a conversation started over dinner a week ago as we share our impressions, hopes, and dreams for this brand of the church.
One of the younger pastors in our group expressed that he hoped for a more “missional” church, one with “organic” relationships, and claimed that he and his generation are less loyal to the denominational structure as his predecessors and wonders, in fact, if there’s room for him and his ilk in the calcified system of the PCUSA.
Another colleague, this one closer to my age, referenced his struggle to be ordained into a system that openly and loudly didn’t want him and his ilk and how they have striven to remain part of a church that up until a couple of months ago, made no bones about shoving him as close to the door as it could get.
If one were to form an opinion of the Presbyterian Church based solely on news reports of internal bickering and threatened schism, the PCUSA would appear to be one of Ezekiel’s bleached, desert, skeletons – but alas, there is flesh and sinew and muscle and skin on this expression of the Body of Christ – and with God’s spirit it lives in vibrant and vital ways – almost in spite of itself!
Presbyterians get a few things right – things like...
Our “connectional” system – churches aren’t free-standing MacDonald’s-like franchises open to doing whatever we want whenever we want; nor are we “company stores” exact clones of each other with a hierarchal corporate structure. We have freedom within a system, a linkage that holds us together allowing for variance and conscience.
Our constitution – we write down what we believe and take the time and energy to argue about it. Change in our system is hard to accomplish because it requires deep and wide buy-in. In theory – that makes is more permanent. Our core beliefs are published and have withstood controversy.
Our disaster relief system – the PDA is often the first group on the ground when disaster strikes anywhere in the world and usually the last to leave. FEMA could learn a few things about responsiveness, training, relationship, efficiency, and compassion. We do, on a regular basis, “a heck of a job.”
Our training and education of clergy – clearly we are among the most over-educated bunch in robes anywhere. From the beginning of Presbyterianism in America, public education, from cradle to grave, has been a proud hallmark of our denomination.
Our insistence on the use and employment of interim ministers and the whole transition process that churches are required to undergo when pastors depart. It’s probably one of the most despised requirements among congregations, who are mired in the call process, but it works and we should continue to require it.
Congregations, like the stock market, don’t like uncertainty. We protect and preserve stability even to the point of stagnation. When change is inflicted on a church through the resignation of a pastor, the most visible symbol of consistency is gone. Our knee-jerk reaction is to want things back the way they were and so let’s elect the pastor nominating committee and have them get us a replacement quickly!
Not so fast, says the nagging and insistent Committee on Ministry – first you have to undergo a mission study, the equivalent of an ecclesiastical colonoscopy, and you have to hire an interim minister and put up with them for at least 18 months.
Now, an interim minister is not merely a substitute teacher or a retired pastor double-dipping. An interim minister is one who is specially trained and has a very specific task that’s not always loved and appreciated by a congregation feeling somewhat awash. They encourage, even cajole, a congregation to do things like…
- Coming to Terms with History
- Discovering a New Identity
- Recognize Shifts of Power/ Encourage Leadership Changes
- Rethinking Denominational Linkages
- And eventually, and hopefully, with the result of Committing to New Leadership and to a New Future
In a word, kenosis! Emptying out, making room, purging.
At Interim Ministry training a decade ago, our class was asked to think up a “symbol” for the task of an interim. Folks thought of things like a bridge, others a shepherd’s crook and still others thought of a variety of tools – for building up or rebuilding the church. Mine came to me instantly and easily – a huge, heavy-duty, black trash bag.
How many of us really need to spend a day, or week, or month, cleaning out our basement, attic, garage, or a even just a few closets? Places where we stash stuff or store treasures or put things we don’t know what else to do with or hide the flotsam of our lives that we don’t want to deal with? Being crammed full not only make the areas unusable and inaccessible, it’s paralyzing and energy depleting.
Churches are depositories for all kinds of useless stuff – tangible and otherwise – where junk becomes “sacred artifact” nearly instantaneously. The task of that in-between time is to clear out the clutter with a ruthless, objective attitude, and make room for a new beginning.
Sorting, cleaning, purging – kenosis.
That’s what a good interim minister will help a congregation do while they’re in-between called pastors. Frankly, it’s also what good pastors should do in-between interims, and it’s what Paul is calling the congregation in Philippi to do. The odd thing is that that church is brand new and just getting started!
One theologian notices two remarkable aspects about the early church in the New Testament
- That it’s clearly God’s chosen instrument for accomplishing God’s mission on earth.
- It’s equally clear that from the outset, something has gone terribly wrong with that instrument!
If God values perfection as much as we say, especially here at First & Central, surely God would have found some other way to get stuff done then using the likes of us.
For the record, God does not seek or expect perfection from human beings. God knows better!
God does, however, expect human beings to strive toward loving each other and loving God. Kenotic living. Emptying ourselves of our own junk, worries, problems, concerns, accomplishments, wants, and prejudices – dumping all of that into a huge heave-duty black trash-bag and setting it on the curb.
You know what happens next.
Assume that you have spent a day cleaning that basement, attic, garage, or closet – and when finished you admired and beamed over your tidy workmanship – wiping sweat from a very satisfied brow.
A week, month, year later…and? Still cleared out, pristine, airy, and organized?
Holds true with us as well.
Kinotic living isn’t only the emptying out – it’s the filling up as well.
Kinotic living is when we are emptied of our selves to the degree that we are overcome by the needs, pains, hopes, and desires of others; when concern for others takes us utterly beyond self-interest.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
Gandhi is quoted as saying, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ – be imitators of Christ – live in a way that allows others to see Christ in us, which, may indeed be something different than folks might expect from Christians.
To be a reflection of Christ? The first thing that means is not to be honest with ourselves and understand that God is doing something unique and special in us and in others.
Kinotic living – clearing away our own stuff and then being filled with the needs, hopes, and dreams of others. Kenotic living is when concern for others’ well-being takes us utterly beyond self-interest.
Kintoic living – letting go of that which stifles and frustrates and instead recognize the gifts and graces in our lives, in the lives of others, even in this imperfect instrument of God’s transformation we call the Presbyterian Church.
Kinotic living – a trash bag of prejudice, preservation, and pride purged and emptied –– imperfect and flawed though we may be – yet loved by God, empowered by the Spirit, and filled with the love of Christ – who shows us how to serve the neighbors we have from him.