It's not my style to compare the present moment with the past, usually, with old fogies like me, to the disparagement of the way things are now. Major Hoople, the cartoon figure for whom the legend (as I remember it, but could not confirm) was "born thirty years too late," is not one of my heroes. Nor are those who fancy themselves on the growing edge of history, celebrating every twist and turn of events, no matter their consequences, as part of the relentless human march toward utopia. This Christian, you will recall, is critical; and I'd like to think I treat the present moment as fairly as the past.
That being said, I confess to a conclusion recently reached as I have surveyed my experience with the Christian church in these parts over the past seventy years of intense participation in it. And that conclusion, not so much a criticism as a lamentation, is that the church today does not provide, nor very often consciously consider, the aspirational ministry with which my soul was nurtured, and I, in my turn as pastor, sought to provide those in my care.
The text that became my virtual theme song when describing what I thought I was doing in the pulpit and parish was taken from John 10, Jesus speaking, "I came that they may have life and have it abundantly."
Let me try to explain what I mean by aspirational.
My mother immigrated to the U. S. at age eleven and apparently never attended the public school just half a block north on the same street where she and her older sister tatted lace and tended their aunt's boarding house. My father left school after the eighth grade to work and provide income for his mother and five siblings. Their educational poverty was not unusual for the time and place, Stamford CT, in the teens and twenties of the 20th Century; nor was their determination that their son, Bobby, would go to college. They installed room-length bookshelves in the sunparlor (built by a carpenter named Valentine, who also had a son named Bobby) and filled it with The Book of Knowledge and sundry tomes, most of which I never read.
My Mom and Dad took me to the local Methodist Church, a mile away, walked every Sunday during the Great Depression when we couldn't afford a car, and during the Second World War when there was no gasoline for a car. John Wesley's unintended achievement in 18th Century England was being reenacted a hundred and fifty years later in my hometown church: taking common and uneducated people and making them middle class. The pastor's wife, with the fine Biblical name of Beulah, taught my high school Sunday School class, and taught it with intellectual effectiveness. Her husband, a crusading social liberal, was among the smartest leaders in town.
I aspired to be like them... from whom I got the distinct impression that if you were smart and talented, then you should spend your life serving and leading others.
In Brooklyn and slightly to the east on Long Island, for nearly fifty years, I sought quite consciously to replicate for two more generations the kind of church I experienced in my growing years, an aspirational community, through which souls, especially young ones, get and cherish the message about the abundant life God intends for each of us. It's not for me to judge whether or not I was successful in this mission, but readers of this website already know my evaluation from the many anecdotes about "my Junior Highs," some of whom are now contemplating retirement (!). At any rate, I'd like to think the world is a better place for the six hundred or more confirmands who took their lessons about God and Jesus from me.
But I do not see that the aspirational torch has been passed along to the ecclesiastical leadership whom I now listen to and watch from the distance of the pew. Part of the reason is sociological, that just about everybody now goes to college, and that aspiration is a foregone necessity. Another part of the reason, I unhappily report, is that ecclesiastical leadership no longer represents or fosters excellence, intellectual or otherwise. They have other axes to grind, not mine... like spirituality or social justice or fighting whatever "ism" is presently anathema in seminaries. I just do not hear much emphasis being made on "being all that you can be," except by the U. S. Army.
Maybe what we need is a latter day T. S. Eliot to write a contemporary version of "The Cocktail Party," with its implication that those who seem to have everything but still feel an inner emptiness need to find a mission (abundant life?) in serving others.
Having been there and done that, I caution those who, hallelujah, might seek to replicate it. The demands on time and attention are enormous. Especially with young souls. I have spent more sleepless nights on "retreats" than I care to remember although remembering them seems to fill the attendees with a wonderful nostalgia. Entering others' lives (only when invited, of course) requires patience and grace. And a suspension of expectations of immediate effectiveness. But what buoys this old pastor and makes him think maybe what he did for fifty years was, everything considered, more worthwhile than anything else of which he might have been capable, is the return flow of love and respect from those now considering, as I am here, the abundance of life I advocated and with which they are now blessed.
Aspirational ministry is a mission the church would do well to resume.