Not too long after we finished the “Essentials” seminar at Ashland – which emphasizes that one of the components of healing is “community” – my wife and I had the opportunity for a little vacation to Columbus, Ohio. Before we headed home we decided to make a stop at the Ohio Historical Center, just to look around. I was completely dumbfounded by this exhibit of quilts done by residents at the Ohio Asylum for the Insane in Athens, Ohio in the mid-1900s. These remarkable works of art and craftsmanship – done as part of the physical therapy program and then given to other residents – exhibit a beautiful mix of healing components that we as caregivers might well consider in our own ministries:
gathering into small groups (since it is well-known that it is difficult to quilt alone);
working on some project together keeps the hands (and maybe the left brain?) busy, leaving the right brain free to talk with others (and it’s also well-known that quilting in a group is not a silent activity!)
working on a project together might give participants a sense of working toward a visible, tangible goal
the idea that the quilt would be given to another resident might make the project and the effort seem all the more worthwhile, and result in a sense of accomplishment but also a greater sense of well-being among the recipients: “We not only did something together, we did something good together for someone else!”
What other healing factors might you notice about a project like this? Is there a way you could encourage this kind of project more often in your ministry?
The Christian claim is that life is better lived in the church because the church, according to our story, just happens to be true. The church is the only community formed around the truth, which is Jesus, Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life. Only on the basis of his story, which reveals to us who we are and what has happened in the world, is true community possible. (page 77)
In a world like ours, it is tempting to seek community, any community, as a good in itself. . . . (page 77)
The Sermon [on the Mount, Matthew 5-7] implies that it is as isolated individuals that we lack the ethical and theological resources to be faithful disciples. The Christian ethical question is not the conventional Enlightenment question, How in the world can ordinary people like us live a heroic life like that? The question is, What sort of community would be required to support an ethic of nonviolence, marital fidelity, forgiveness, and hope such as the one sketched by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount? (page 80)
– Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989)
We happened to be reading the “eye for an eye” part of the Sermon on the Mount last Sunday in Bible class, and commenting on how difficult it is for us to live the kind of life Jesus describes in those verses. But we’re not alone – everyone struggles with the “love your enemies” words of Jesus. We do the Christian quick-step around them with re-interpretations (“He didn’t really mean love in the same sense that you love . . . “). We make exceptions (“I can love my enemies in general; but not that one in particular”). We’re so hopelessly in love with the lex talionis because each of us has so idolized our individual selves that for Jesus to say things like “But I tell you . . . ” drives a knife right through the heart of our self-importance. And yet we want to call ourselves Christians, too, and claim to follow Jesus. The rock is firm, the hard place is hard, and we are caught firmly in the middle, unable to escape by ourselves.
Then come Hauerwas and Willimon (above), who tell us that it is precisely because I cannot escape by myself that I need the church, the community of believers, the communio sanctorum. It is only in that context and in that community that I can be faithful to the words of Jesus. It is only in the church, surrounded by other believers current and past, that I learn the truth about forgiveness, marital fidelity, and all the other things Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount. We both know we won’t learn any of it in the world. We both know that not just any community is up to the task, no matter how ethical it tries to be. Only the church, the body of Christ, is uniquely designed by Jesus Himself to feed and nourish and nurture its members so that together we grow into the temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells.
I need the church that is the body of Christ all over the world – in India, in the USA, in Europe, wherever there is another believer. I need that believer. I need the church that is the denomination I belong to, and the denominations I see around me. I need the church that is the body of Christ assembled in the building in which I preach, as well as those assembled in other similar buildings in our community. I need the church that is the huge one in the big city, and I need the church that is the tiny one on the ridge overlooking the village of used-to-be. I need them all – and so do you – because each and every one of them teaches me how to live the “But I tell you . . . ” I confess that I am a poor, miserable sinner. I rejoice that Jesus has forgiven my sins! But I need the Church Indispensable to teach me to be the disciple He calls me to be.
The white frame church sits on a low ridge above the little village. It’s been on that ridge for over 100 years, looking over the comings and goings of the village and its people. And there have been plenty of comings and goings here in this pleasant village in southeastern Ohio. At one time this was a busy place, the home of miners and farmers that would come to this church every Sunday by the hundreds. Weddings and funerals, baptisms and celebrations and farewells were held here time and again as the people came and went from the area.
These days the strip mines are closed and farming is harder than ever. The population in the area is way less than it used to be. Even for the 100th anniversary of this congregation, hundreds of people did not show up, though the celebration was wonderful and fun. They haven’t been able to afford a full-time pastor for a lot of years, so other congregations in their district have shared their pastors with them. On Sunday mornings twice a month the congregation meets in the morning to worship, using sermons provided by one of those pastors. On Sunday afternoons the other Sundays of the month one of those “shared” pastors makes the two-hour trip to worship with them, bring the Good News of Jesus to them, and celebrate Holy Communion in their worship service. Sometimes he stays to have dinner at somebody’s home. Less than two dozen people come to these services, some of them struggling with the infirmities of age. Hospitalized members are usually cared for by the pastor of a Lutheran church in the next county.
But babies are born and baptized here. Young people are confirmed, then married. Twice a month the saints of God in this place celebrate Holy Communion. In the summertimes the congregation has opened its building to servant-event groups coming into southeastern Ohio to do mission / service projects in the Appalachian foothills. Sister congregations have sent Vacation Bible School teams there as well as other service project teams. (For all the financial people: this congregation has a higher annual per capital giving amount than the majority of its sister congregations in the district, though it is one of the smallest.)
This congregation is small, and getting smaller. We don’t know how long it will last, or what it’s future will be. The kids that grow up there, get married and move away, so it keeps getting smaller. Is it dying? Is it on the verge? Shall we do something to encourage the few who are still “hanging on” there to follow others westward or southward 30-40 miles to the next nearest congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod? Or shall we think again about whether this is one of those Indispensable Churches
It’s Indispensable because of its location – one of only two LCMS churches in an entire quadrant of the State of Ohio (almost 20 0f the 88). It’s Indispensable because of the opportunities it offers others to be of service. It’s Indispensable because it offers sister congregations opportunities to expand their ideas of ministry and fellowship beyond their own walls and embrace the saints of God in this little village. It’s Indispensable because it offers those congregations opportunities to share their pastors with these saints, and it offers the pastors opportunities to see their own ministries as wider than the communities to which God has called them. It’s Indispensable because the Word and the Sacrament are there, and so is Christ. It’s Indispensable because the people of God gathered in this place are the temple of the Holy Spirit in this little village in the hills of southeastern Ohio. If someone ever asks, “where might I go to find the Holy Spirit’s temple here in Pleasant City, Ohio?” people could point to the white frame church up on the north ridge. It’s Indispensable because it is named Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, and together with St. Michael the Archangel Byzantine Catholic Church on the south ridge the saints of God in Pleasant City have these visible reminders that the Triune God who loves them, who redeemed them, who sanctifies them, and the angels that He assigns to protect them, are watching over them always.
Jeremiah 23:1-6 – “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. 2 Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the Lord. 3 “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. 4 I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing, ” declares the Lord.
This is the Old Testament reading for this coming Sunday for many of us. It’s kind of a warning for us preachers and pastors, isn’t it? “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” Kind of makes me want to pull in my head and glance around: “You talkin’ to me?” Because here God is upset on behalf of His sheep. He’s left them under the care of some shepherds, but He’s come to find out His sheep are uncared-for, they are scattered, far away, afraid, terrified, and missing. He’s steaming, now, and will replace those shepherds with new ones who will care for His flock properly.
So what if you and I, my brothers and sisters in the ministry, are these new shepherds? Often we wonder about whether we’ll “do the job well” so we also won’t be replaced. But we’re not only shepherds but sheep, too. So as we assume the task and role of shepherding God’s sheep, who tends the shepherds? Who cares for them? What if the shepherds themselves are uncared-for, scattered, disconnected, afraid, terrified, or even missing / AWOL?
Does your administrative structure care for you like a shepherd cares for the flock? Does it try to provide connection and collection, a place of peace and grace and consolation for the shepherds?
Do the shepherds around you mostly tend each other without outside help? Do you have a group of fellow-shepherds that care for one another, lift one another up, create and atmosphere of forgiveness and consolation among yourselves, and speak the precious Gospel to each other frequently?
Or do you mostly go it alone? Is God’s tending enough for you? It may well be, and certainly we want to learn to depend on Him to fill all our core longings. I’m not saying that shepherds should look to other shepherds to fill the longings that only God can fill. I am suggesting, though, that He provides fellow-shepherds, small groups of pastors, regional conferences, even judicatory officials as vessels of His mercy and grace for your strengthening, refreshment, and care as you go about your work as His shepherds.
Drop me a comment or send me an email to continue this conversation.
I’m leaving today for our District Convention. Some of my friends refer to this kind of gathering as Annual Conference, and others by who knows what name. Our advantage is that this only happens once every three years rather than annually.
This will be the eleventh time (I think) I will have been to a District Convention in my 30 years of ministry. Most of them have mostly been enjoyable, but not because we “accomplished a lot.” The enjoyable part comes with the fellowship, the renewed friendships, the laughter, the hugs and smiles. The enjoyable part comes with eating together and worshiping together, lifting our voices loudly in hymns and songs, and tearfully singing “God be with you till we meet again” as the closing hymn of all. It is because of all these things, I think, that some of us endure the reports, the resolutions, and all that other stuff.
Because the “business” of a Convention or Conference or whatever you want to call it is what we bring to it – we human beings, with our god-like penchant for trying to bring order to chaos, trying to understand the wondrous, and trying to make sense out of the mystical. Underneath or over or around all the “business” is the chaos and wonder and mysticism of the Holy Spirit who always “calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth” (as Luther said) – even in Conventions and Conferences and other business-like Inconveniences.
So as I go off to our Convention – and as you go off to yours, whatever it’s called – be on the lookout for the work of the Holy Spirit. He won’t be on the list of delegates or alternates or guests or vendors, but He will be the one you definitely want to see while you’re there.
The blogs "Indispensable Churches" and "The Formational Pastor" have been moved to "The Basin and Towel" blog. Archived posts from these blogs, and future posts that would otherwise have been posted to these blogs, will be tagged as "Indispensable Churches" or "The Formational Pastor."