Welcome to the website of a retired United Methodist pastor! This corner of the Internet continues nearly fifty years of a weekly column in a church newsletter, on topics ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. The opinions expressed are the author's and represent no institution, although it is hoped that within these pages you will find a reflection of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who, in his own borrowed words, insists that we love God with, along with all the rest of what we are, our minds. "Critical" as used in the title does not mean being nasty or grumpy; it means using intellectual faculties in the service of God. Your reactions, rebuttals, comments, and questions can be addressed to: BobHow9846@comcast.net.
If you would like to be put on an "alert" list, the better to receive Email alerts to the posting of new material on this website, please indicate that intent with Email to BobHow9846@comcast.net.
September 3, 2015 - Essays: The Tribute of an Old Lover of the Local Church
Years ago while still in the pastoral leadership role I wrote
The Tribute of an Old Lover of the Local
Church, a Clear-eyed Assessment of Its Pretense and Reality
Years ago while still in the pastoral leadership role, I
wrote, with tongue slightly in cheek, that devoted worshipers, especially those
who could be described as habitual, should now and then take a Sunday off.
That it would be good for their souls.
I proposed this occasional lapse in piety from the perspective
of a functionary whose livelihood depended on those loyal people whose favorite
pew in the nave I can to this day locate with my mind's eye. My advice about
absenteeism from sacred duty derived less from magnanimity than from an attempt to excuse my own church-less Sundays of summer vacation.
But in these thirteen years since I was cashiered as pastor,
laying down my ordination and finding a seat beneath and not behind the pulpit,
that flippant remark, about not going to church every now and then, begins to
sound wiser than first imagined.
At this point, dear friends, you may want to go elsewhere on
the internet, and discount this essay as the sour grapes of one who can't get
used to the idea he is no longer important on Sunday mornings. You may
have a point. I'll grant you that, but I'd also like you to read on.
As I address and temper the reasons I, for fifty years (!), advanced as
arguments for regular Sunday worship.
First and foremost is the observation that Christians need one
another to be Christian. Solo pilots rarely fly in Jesus' orbit. We need
the correction and enthusiasm of like-devoted others. The world can be a
hostile place, sometimes reserving its bitterest vitriol for those trying to
counter it with compassion. When battered in such forays of kindness (and when
bruised incidentally by hard circumstance), we need to return to an
understanding nest to regroup and heal.
But the distinction between the church and the world is never
easily drawn. The saints may celebrate their infiltration of the world for
God's sake; but the sober truth is that the world is equally adept at
infiltrating the church. Witness the small-mindedness currently abroad in
the name of Jesus among those hell-bent (literally!) on vetoing inclusion for
those tradition has previously denied citizenship in the kingdom of God.
They choose righteousness over compassion and, to my way of thinking, lose Jesus
along the way. Pope Francis, God bless him (He has), obviously seeks to restore
the primacy of compassion... which is a whole 'nuther essay.
Secondly, the church for better or worse is the institution
charged with keeping alive the memory and the presence of the world's savior.
The cross of Calvary, with its many explanations, needs now as always those
who approach and promote it with reverence and wisdom. The Sermon on the
Mount, with its commands ever at odds with worldly wisdom, needs sympathetic
elucidation by those whose faith and experience witness to its eternal
truth. There's a sermonic cliché true if hackneyed that we are always just
one generation away from forgetting Jesus. The church exists to make sure
that does not happen.
But we do get diverted from this mission. Paul reminds
us that we have eternal treasures in earthen vessels. The church is
surely earthen. And I don't mostly mean made of bricks and mortar. I mean the
tendency to elevate priorities other than, among the most important things,
preparing the next generation. I have been sickened ad nauseam with
pulpits that measure their success and endlessly pronounce themselves "great" as
if institutional supremacy in numbers and finances pleased Jesus... who famously
brought a Sunday School child into the midst of the gathered disciples and told
his friends in so many words to do anything and everything to clear the little
one's way to the kingdom of heaven. He almost seems to be telling us, "Do
right by children, or get out of the way." Dietrich Bonhoeffer, about
whom you have heard in other contexts, including the plot to assassinate Hitler,
wrote from prison where he awaited his death by hanging, that the faithful
Christian is one who conducts his life as in the best interests of those who
come after him. The church can make no better bequest than a lively and faithful
presentation of Jesus and his Way to those who follow.
There are other ancillary uses for the church which have
little direct connection to Jesus. My first full-time assignment as pastor
was to an ethnic congregation (Norwegian-American) which served to acculturate
two generations in the patterns and expectations of the New World. In my
home church I learned more about conducting and participating in meetings,
practical democracy, than in schools' social studies classes. I acted in
plays and preached my first sermon. I became adept at three point set shots on
the church's basketball court, through the gaps in the wooden rafters in that
tower room in the parish house. I learned at endless ham dinners in the
social hall how to operate a commercial dishwasher. I perfected my ping pong game in
the rec room. I made pocket money setting up pins for the Men's Club in
the church's bowling alleys, before the floods of October 1955 ruined the lanes.
And, best of all, I found a life's partner there one Sunday morning, the
prettiest Methodist I had ever seen.
The church for me, then, and throughout the next fifty years
of my work as a pastor, was my primary community. Those ancillary uses
cannot claim Biblical mandate, but they certainly made life with other
Christians a whole lot easier, more enjoyable, and with the inevitable coffee
klatches with which ecclesiastical meetings end and sometimes begin, life was
made a lot tastier.
A non-canonical verse attributed to Jesus has him adding
another Beatitude: "Blessed are you if you know what you are doing." Which
I take as advice to approach the church, if as a holy institution, then
one entirely human, susceptible to seven deadly sins while purveying the seven
heavenly virtues. That ambivalence ought never to be forgotten.