The Basin and Towel

with Indispensable Churches and Tending the Light

The Least of These

Here’s a portion of Mark 10:13-16 NIV

13 People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.

A familiar story, no doubt.  Loving parents want Jesus to bless their children.  Disciples (protective? businesslike? efficient?) try to stop them.  Jesus intervenes – “The Kingdom of God belongs to ‘such as these’” and proceeds to bless them.

So what might Jesus mean by “such as these””?  Such individuals?  Such innocents?  Such curiosity-seekers?  Such trusters?  Such little ones?  People with small physical stature?  People with limited education?  I don’t know that there’s one answer.  Perhaps He means some of all of these, and perhaps He means even more.

But as I read this Gospel today I wondered to what extent, if any, it might be possible to apply the words of Jesus to congregations.  After all, some congregations are quite small in terms of membership or attendance, and sometimes this means that they seem to get pushed to the side by their judicatories, publishing houses, or others.  Not, of course, if they are mission plants where they are expected to start small and grow (lots of time and effort and attention is devoted to them); but certainly with congregations that have remained at a “small” size for some time or that have once been larger but have grown smaller over time.

So in what ways are these congregations like the children in this Gospel lesson?  In what ways are they treated like the disciples treat the children – and who takes on the “role” of the disciples for these churches?  And how are they among the “such as these” children that Jesus speaks of?

I’m not sure I have all the answers to these – maybe some of you do – but I’m pretty sure that this needs to be said:  the Kingdom of God would be incomplete and unfinished without children, and the Kingdom of God would be incomplete and unfinished without these Indispensable Churches.

Multiple Mindedness and Ministerial Resilience

Here’s an article from “Faith and Leadership” over at Duke University Divinity School on “Multiple Mindedness and Ministerial Resilience”

The Church is a Love Story

I’m always gritting my teeth when I’m reading and hearing people talking about the Church as “an organization” or suggesting that we need to “run it like a business.”  I have a hard time seeing that model in Scripture.  We’re so fascinated by the “success” models of American business that we think we have to see them in the Church, too – everything from “the pursuit of excellence” to “best practices” and beyond.

But the model of the Church that I see time and again in Scripture is the Church as the Bride of Christ.  I’ve written on this before, and probably will do so again.  But here it is from a different source.  Bearing in mind that of course the Pope is going to understand / equate the Church with the Roman Catholic Church, he is still right on target in reminding us that there is more to the Church than spreadsheets and bottom lines.

Pope Francis: The Church is a Love Story.


Retirement? Really?

I’m a member of a group of Lutheran pastors that meets regularly to discuss all kinds of ministry-related issues.  This morning as we were discussing “bullying in the church” we were on a side note along the question of when manipulation becomes bullying.  The subject of pastors’ behavior in retirement came up  (three of us are retired, three of us are active).


(Note to my non-Lutheran readers:  in our denomination, pastors are not “assigned” to congregations after their first assignment out of the seminary.  We have a “call” system and for the most part it is the decision of the pastor and – presumably – the Holy Spirit as to when and under what circumstances he leaves that call and that congregation.)


So one of the scenarios that we have observed in our system is that it is possible for a pastor of long tenure in a congregation to retire from the office of the pastor of that congregation yet not leave the geographic area.  Often the congregation grants him the title of “Pastor Emeritus” to honor his tenure and ministry among them.  But what is his role there after he retires?


Some pastors make it a practice to disappear from the congregation for as much as a year – worshiping elsewhere, taking no funerals or weddings, being out of communication almost entirely with the congregation for such a long time.  This is hard to contemplate perhaps, but it has the effect of saying to everyone “This era is at an end.  Everyone (congregation and retired pastor and incoming pastor) now needs to deal with it and move on well.”


Some other pastors stay in the area and participate in congregational life, but as a layman.  This is harder to do – to turn down requests for wedding or funerals for people you’ve served in love for years, but it has a similar effect as above.  It’s also hard because the people you’ve served and loved for years keep calling you “pastor” and coming up to you for advice or complaints.  Sometimes it’s just easier to take up membership in a nearby congregation (we have one man who has done this in my church, where he serves as a trusted and gentle Elder) where everyone knows he is a retired pastor but he has never been our pastor.


The problems arise when the retiring pastor tries to manipulate congregational life after his ministry ends.  Some pastors do that by staying around and listening to the complaints and concerns of people rather than setting boundaries and directing them to the interim/vacancy or succeeding pastor.  Some pastors try to manipulate the future with elaborate plans and schedules involving the date of their retirement relative to the date of the installation of the new pastor.  We even heard a story of a pastor who talked his congregation into calling a man to be his associate for a few years; then they switched roles and the older man became the associate and the newer one became the senior pastor; finally the older man retired but hung around acting like the Senior Pastor until the newer man left years later and continued that way several years into the ministry of the next man!


Having heard all these stories, here are several observations we made:


As with many retiring people who form their identity based on their job, the pastor whose identity is based on his role as pastor will often be depressed or discouraged and have a hard time letting go in retirement.  The best recommendation here is, as I have heard Dr. Terry Wardle of Ashland Thelogical Seminary say numerous times, “don’t base your identity on something that can be taken away.”


We’re often afraid to confront manipulative / bullying people in the church (including pastors) because (a) we’re afraid they may get angry and leave or (b) we think that we must suffer because Jesus suffered -and “the servant is not above the master.”  Yet although Jesus was not afraid of His own suffering, neither was He afraid to set boundaries against some folks so that they would not cause others to suffer (e.g., the little children parents brought for His blessing, the prostitute being criticized for pouring perfume on His feet).


Toward the end of Moses’ ministry God took him up to the mountaintop and handed the reins over to Joshua, then removed Moses from the picture by taking his life (He did the same to Elijah).  For both Joshua and Elisha, for the people of Israel as well, the ministries of the great predecessors had definite ending points that all had to deal with together – with neither Moses nor Elisha in sight to oversee the transition.


Samuel, on the other hand, was “voted out of office” when the people decided they wanted a king.  While God told him that they were acting against God and not Samuel, I guess Samuel had to live with that.  But since they had rejected his leadership he couldn’t very well pretend to keep leading them, could he?  So perhaps he lived the rest of his life as a sort of pundit / prophet, commenting but not leading.  Yet I’m pretty sure that this is not the most healthy role for a retired pastor, either, as there can be a mighty fine line between “prophet” and “grump.”


Finally, David had in mind to build a temple for the Lord but was told “not you, but your son will build the temple.”  David was satisfied with this, though, and spent considerable effort gathering resources and materials so that Solomon wouldn’t have to waste time doing that himself.  Perhaps it is wise to make appropriate preparations for retirement, to prepare the congregation and the people for the need to face the event and the issues; but like David to understand that though you can assemble the materials, it really is the successor to whom it falls to build them into the next ministry.


Anna and Augustus

36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four.  She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.  Luke 2:36-38

At the beginning of this chapter Luke noted the census declared by Caesar Augustus, the first one when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  Here he mentions Anna the prophetess, an 84-year-old widow who apparently never left the Temple in Jerusalem from time her husband had died decades earlier.

Apparently Luke felt that both were worth mentioning in this Gospel.  Each, it seems, had a part in God’s plan and in Jesus’ story.  Augustus, world-maker and ruler, set history itself in motion with his census decree, causing Mary and Joseph to go down to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus and thus, unbeknownst to Caesar, to fulfill ancient prophecies.  Anna, widow of the Temple, spoke to this same Mary and Joseph and to others around them of this Jesus, of the ancient prophecies and of the current ones given to her by God about this child.  Both Anna and Augustus each in their own way helping to establish the climate in which the Christ was making His appearance.  But both so different!

Augustus on the one hand – world ruler, world influencer, with his multitude of projects and plans, governors and prefects, armies and navies at his command.  A word from him, and entire nations would be moved.  Anna on the other hand – a longtime widow of little consequence, never leaving the Temple, never travelling outside Jerusalem to see Nazareth or Joppa or even perhaps Bethlehem, most people doubtless ignoring her or taking her for granted, spending her days simply in prayer, fasting and worship.  Both so different – but both indispensable to the Gospel of Jesus according to Luke!

And thus it is with churches, too.  It’s easy to be enthralled by the churches that are world influencers, the ones with multitudes of projects and plans, with huge staffs and multiple pastors and groups.  It’s easy to take as wisdom the books written and seminars promoted by those who come from those churches, because we know they wouldn’t be in those positions if they didn’t know something.  And it’s also easy to ignore those churches whose ministry seems to be plain and simple – prayer, fasting and worship – never leaving the sanctuary to venture out beyond their own community, always staying put for decades until they seem so elderly and inconsequential.

But perhaps both are indispensable, just like Anna and Augustus are both indispensable to Luke.  The church at large needs the influencers, and it needs the stay-at-homes.  It needs the Caesars, and it needs the Annas.  We need churches that are huge or tiny, influential or unknown, young or old, vigorous or weak, wise or foolish, spiritually mature or spiritually silly.  But those are just the outward things that the world sees.  Here’s the true difference between Anna and Augustus, and the reason why ALL churches need to be like Anna and not at all like Augustus:

As far as we know, Christ and Caesar never met.  They were never in the same place at the same time.  Augustus in all his glory and power never laid eyes on the Carpenter from Nazareth.

But Anna – simple, plain, old, praying-fasting-worshiping Anna – was in the right place (the Temple) when Jesus showed up because she never left it, and she met Him that day.

May the Holy Spirit work in us the determination to remain in the presence of Jesus all the time, regardless of who we are, what we are doing, what are plans are, or what we look like to the world, so that it may always be said of us “we never left Him.”

God bless us everyone!



Jesus was There; Jesus is Here, too

Over at Public Catholic a terrific sister in Christ, Rebecca Hamilton, posted this wonderful reflection about the Christmas Eve Mass she attended:  Jesus was There.

It’s a beautiful piece, one worth reading (if you haven’t done so yet).  And here’s what I noticed about that piece, and about the comments that followed it (mine included, I must say) –

The author tries to look through the fog and haze of criticism, legalism, pickiness, and the general pettiness of “good Christian people” to see the ones who came that Christmas Eve night to find the Savior, the Healer, the Companion, the Comforter, the Burden-Bearer, the Child in whom the hopes and fears of all the years are met on Christmas Eve.  And she succeeds wonderfully as she looks around in the sanctuary of her congregation, and her eyes and heart drink in a crowd of folks that would doubtless have warmed Jesus’ heart and caused Him to cry out with compassion for them.  But in that crowd, as in the crowds around Jesus, there were also the Pharisaic types, the ones who just can’t seem to see beyond their own insecurities and need for control.

And so what happens?  As in the Gospels, so in this piece and the comments that followed we have paid more attention to the Pharisees than to the man with HIV, the prostitute, the homeless family, the dirty ones, the children, the elderly.  Certainly it’s more tempting for those of us who work mostly with words to turn those words against the Pharisees, the “liturgical cops” and the “church Nazis” and engage them in long debates.  And indeed the history of the church is replete with such debates, and those have often been necessary to sort things out for the rest of the believers.

But as Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees of His day, even in King David’s day the question of whether it was “right” for his soldiers to eat the showbread from the tabernacle took the backseat to whether it was compassionate for the priests to feed the people of God in their hunger.

So in this new year 2013 perhaps a good resolution is to try to engage less often in these kinds of “who is right” discussions and instead engage in “how can I be compassionate” actions.  Will this draw the ire of modern-day Pharisees?  Doubtless.  But let us not allow them to distract us from the life of love that Jesus has called us to live.

God bless us everyone!



The Garden Tractor Pull

Over at Indispensable Churches I have a comment or two on today’s meditation from the Henri Nouwen Society.  Here’s the link:

Indispensable Churches:  Focusing on the Poor

So often we pastors who are assigned to minister in these churches become tired and discouraged because we don’t “see any progress.” Our mailboxes (and email boxes) are flooded with mailings about seminars and conferences about the latest programs or technologies.  Pastors of churches larger and more “successful” than ours come around on speaking tours to tell us how they became “successful” and what we can do to be as “successful” as they were (if we only follow their recommendations exactly).  Even the district executive comes with his / her agenda as to how to make our congregation more successful, more “missional,” more “transformed.”  All operate on the premise that there is some way in which this Indispensable Church is not what it could be, and they have ways to make it better.

I suppose that works OK to a certain extent.  But here in Lodi at past Corn Festivals we’ve had a little contest called a Garden Tractor Pull.  Now a Tractor Pull works like this:  you get someone who soups up a standard farm tractor with a blown engine, supercharger, and whatever else he can think of to give that tractor more power that you can imagine.  He and a bunch of other guys and their super tractors get together, each to try to drag a huge sled filled with massive weights over a set distance.  The super tractor that drags the most weight over the longest distance wins.  A Garden Tractor Pull is just like that, only on a much smaller level.

The thing is, no matter how much you soup it up, a garden tractor is just a garden tractor.  It’s purpose is to mow the grass, to plow the garden, and to mulch leaves.  Not much more than that!  For the Pull you can get it to do things it wasn’t meant to do, but then it isn’t a garden tractor anymore – now it’s useless for mowing, plowing, and mulching.  Yet those things still need to be done, so what happens – you get another garden tractor for the mowing, plowing, and mulching.

Seems to me that in the church there are those who are building bigger and better tractors; and there are those who are bent on selling us all kinds of equipment to soup up garden tractors; and there are those who say “but we need something simple, plain, unremarkable – but indispensable! – to do the mowing, and the plowing, and the mulching.”

Focusing on the Poor (Churches)

Here’s today’s meditation from the Henri Nouwen Society:

Wednesday October 31, 2012    

Focusing on the Poor

Like every human organization the Church is constantly in danger of corruption.  As soon as power and wealth come to the Church, manipulation, exploitation, misuse of influence, and outright corruption are not far away.

How do we prevent corruption in the Church? The answer is clear:  by focusing on the poor.  The poor make the Church faithful to its vocation.  When the Church is no longer a church for the poor, it loses its spiritual identity.  It gets caught up in disagreements, jealousy, power games, and pettiness.  Paul says,  “God has composed the body so that greater dignity is given to the parts which were without it, and so that there may not be disagreements inside the body but each part may be equally concerned for all the others” (1 Corinthians 12:24-25).  This is the true vision.  The poor are given to the Church so that the Church as the body of Christ can be and remain a place of mutual concern, love, and peace.

- Henri J. M. Nouwen 

If what Henri Nouwen says about the Church and the poor is true, and I think it is, then perhaps as we turn his words into our practice we should think about what “poor” we’re looking at.  For instance,

There are people who are “poor in spirit,” as Jesus would say.  So consider – how much time and attention do I spend being with someone who is “rich in spirit,” soaking in their prayers and receiving their spiritual direction on a regular basis; and how much do I spend with someone who is “poor in spirit,” who is perhaps in as much need of the spirit that I can give them as I am in need of the other?  Yet I am the one that “poor in spirit” has access to; they do not even know about the “rich in spirit” that I admire.

And there are people who are financially poor.  So consider – how much time and attention do I spend around rich people, or at least people who live “comfortably,” and how much do I spend around people who have less than I do?

But Nouwen would have us ask the question, “Why would you want to spend time around people who are poorer than you are?  Is it because you think you have something great to offer them, to ‘lift them out of their poverty?’  Or is it because you think they have something great to offer you, something you can’t buy with all your money and can’t realize with all the spiritual guidance you receive?  Do you go to the poor because they are needy, or because you are needy?”

And so we should ask the same questions about churches.  The poor churches, the dishevelled ones, the ones with buildings in need of repair; the ones that can’t pay the bills, the ones that live from hand to mouth, the ones that can’t afford a pastor; the ones out in the middle of nowhere, the little ones, the “unsuccessful ones”; the not-megachurches, the not-fancy churches, the not-contemporary churches.  The ones that are ignored because they don’t have huge programs and varied ministries; the ones that are overlooked because they’re not reaching out to all kinds of cultures or adding new members every year; the ones that are pushed to the bottom of the district executive’s to-do stack because they seem like such a nuisance; the ones that are always in need of some kind of financial bailout or else they will fold, and yet they never do.  Should we attend to them because they are needy, or because we are needy?

These churches are the indispensable ones, just like the poor of our society.  These churches are the ones we should be flocking to, attending to, spending time with.  Just like the poor in spirit or the poor in checkbook.  Not because we have something great to offer them, but because we are needy for what they have to offer us.  Luther called it “the mutual conversation and conversation of the brethren.”  Nouwen called it “a place of mutual concern, love, and peace.”

On logs and specks and simul iustus et peccator

New post by Chris Cahill on Indispensible Churches


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