During the summer when I am on vacation I like to attend churches with preachers who stretch my understanding of the Gospel. Of course there needs to be some sense that the end game shares the same landscape as my notion of what Jesus referred to as kin-dom”, or the Lord’s Prayer refers to it “on earth as it is in heaven.” The specifics don’t need to be the same but the larger narrative needs to include justice for all, particularly those who have been left out. So I will go to an evangelical church, a Roman Catholic Mass, a Unitarian service, a Quaker meeting, or a traditional Presbyterian liturgy. And before my righteous liberal friends will ask, yes I do attend Buddhist, Jewish and Muslim gatherings as well. But given that my daily walk to the kin-dom has included a deep connection to the life and teachings of Jesus I tend to lean on Christian worship as my primary language of devotion and discipleship. Progressives need to get over the constant need to pick at folks who choose one path, however imperfect, and focus instead on the fruit of the spirit. “Esperanto spirituality” as I like to call it, has never worked.
I’ve thought about what the churches I choose to attend in the summer have in common. They are not all liberal. They are not all focused on social justice. It’s not that the preacher is the most skilled I can find in the city. It’s not the music either. So what is it? When people ask me for my philosophy of preaching I quote the late Reinhold Niebuhr, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I look for preachers and churches that offer something that points in the same direction as where I am headed but use a different path to get there. I do that intentionally, I want to stretch, I need to grow, and I don’t want to be one of those preachers who ends up in retirement staying home each Sunday because “no one else does it the way I did.”
“Preaching to the choir” is not only tired and predictable it also feeds into the tone of the preacher, s/he becomes inherently self-righteous, rigid and the experience lacks not only humility but also any trace of humour or compassion. Why would anyone get out of bed to drive/walk to a church, sit in an uncomfortable pew, listen to someone talk for 20 minutes, sing hymns with language that sounds like a British museum, if the take away is always “more of the same”, opinions that are exactly the ones I already hold? But given the answers I get when I ask people, “why are you here?” I think I may be in the minority.
Maybe it comes with knowing all my life that I did not know much, that others were smarter and more competent than me. But as much as I have my own opinions, and I do I have lots and lots of opinions, I thirst for inspiration to help me with limitations to my own spirituality. If I have not found this on my own in 52 years chances are I need another voice to get me there. With the exception of fundamentalists I am willing to give any and all spiritual voices a chance. That one exception has everything to do with the biggest turnoff for me as a listener and advice seeker, certainty. Too much certainty is usually a sign of someone over compensating for some insecurity and the advice is almost always suspect.
At this stage in my life I have a sense of what I lack, the weaknesses I need to address. Two areas where I am searching, finding a connection to the Spirit that is not always found in ideas or action and being a part of community as an organic participant, not just the one who takes responsibility for leadership. I have realized some time ago that ideas and action are my go-to impulse but that the human experience also has a deep emotional component. I doubt I will ever get there in relationship to other persons but I have discovered a connection I can access to the natural order. I can and do access an emotional connection to the landscape around me, and this discovery has been a source of wonder and deep joy. Further, lay people feed this contradiction in we clergy, on one hand they call us the “boss”, “the CEO”, “the Leader” and on the other they express shock when we move on to another church and are no longer connected to their community. This putting us on a pedestal breeds the feeling that we are not of the community and when we leave we put our leadership skills to use in another context. I am trying as much as possible to escape this pressure and see how I can live into community as a participant, not only as servant-leader. In nine years when I retire I want to transition into a place where I am an organic participant in a community and I will need to work on that now if I hope to get there.
How about you? What areas do you need to stretch into? How are you planning to get there? The familiar is a comforting presence. But the unfamiliar can take us to places we might never travel on our own. Let the Spirit do its work.