Monday, November 4, 2013

Be Calm In Thy Soul

Pastors don’t have a fast track to holiness. We deal with everyday issues like everyone else. We have bills to pay, family issues to resolve, and personal faults to overcome. Even the issues of church work is rarely more 'spiritual' than things corporate leaders face in other lines of work.

Pastors have a product. They lead an organization. They manage assets.  They make personnel decisions. They find ways to fix leaky roofs.

Sometimes, they also find time to pray or to study scripture.

In today’s world, congregations rarely evaluate a pastor on the basis of his spiritual life or knowledge of scripture. Congregants tend to evaluate pastors, and pastors tend to evaluate himself, on how well he achieves the sorts of things all corporate leaders work to achieve – a greater market share, a healthier organization, and, above all, happy shareholder’s.

The problem is, the Church rarely acknowledge this. It seeks its future leaders among those interested in spiritual life; among those who love to study and to communicate the Word of God. So, people interested in such things are the ones who respond. They prepare themselves for do the work they believe the church has asked them do. They often end up feeling betrayed by the reality of church work, which may draw very little on the skills and knowledge they have brought to the table.

So contemporary church work can be stressful.  Church leaders get stressed because they offer something different than what many of their congregants seem to really want. Congregants get stressed when they believe their spiritual leaders are disconnected from ‘the real world.’

Like many pastors, I have tried to learn about good business practices and healthy organizational systems. I have tried to put people into place with such skills and experience. I try to give them the freedom they need to do their work on behalf of our church. I have tried to stay aware of the cultural, technological and demographic realities of the world. At the end of the day though, I always drift back to the things that attracted me to this work in the first place: biblical studies and spiritual life. I am especially interested in how these things actually affect the real lives of real individuals, including me.  

Christianity promises, indeed proscribes transformation. Unfortunately, Christians neither agree what transformation looks like nor how it is supposed to occur. Most of us believe that scripture and spiritual life are somehow involved but we are not sure how exactly.

We all agree that Christ has somehow made transformation possible and that the ultimate effects of transformation will occur sometime in the future “when all things are fulfilled.” We also agree that elements of our ultimate transformation ought to become visible in this life. When we think we witness these elements emerge in some individual, we call that person a “saint.”

The problem is we don’t often see the sort of radical transformation that would cause unbelievers to think that perhaps supernatural power was at work. Actually, we sometimes must admit that the evidence seems to point in the other direction.

I live in one of the most self-professing Christian areas of the world – the American South – that, like all places, has many delightful characteristics. The South also has a shadow side, which many of its citizens refuse to acknowledge. Our levels of education, health, and communal infrastructure are abysmal, at least by the standards of modern industrial nations. As one moves into our Appalachian mountain areas, the situation becomes dire. That stressed me out.

There is a disconnect, or so it seems to me, between the promises our faith makes and the actual conditions of our faith-soaked region of the country. If our leaders and citizens did not so loudly and conspicuously invoke their faith when discussing moral and social issues, this disconnect might not feel so obvious. However, people pray in public here and do their Bible studies as Starbucks – which I appreciate, by the way – without seeming to notice the growing disparity, even among Christians, of financial well-being, education and access to basic health services. 

Perhaps then, I tell myself, we should expect individual rather than communal transformation. Unfortunately, the results are mixed here as well. I know several people in our own church who have saintly characteristics. Then there are others, after years of claiming Christian faith, are still a constant source of discontent, chaos and pain. Then there are the masses of people, neither rascals nor saints, who just live life.

Despite these challenges, I remain convinced that personal transformation in Christ is central to our faith. If there is no discernable transformation in those who follow the teachings of Christ, I think we have little to offer the contemporary world. In that case, wee have no other proof that we are following much more than “cleverly devised fables” without the evidence of a changed life. And that stresses me out.

Fairy tales delight but they do not transform. We enjoy them and move on into the real world, where we earn a living. What we do for entertainment and use to escape from the real world are different than we do to affect change in the actual, material world. If  what we are doing in church work is offering an escape from the real world rather than helping people function effectively in it, then our job is no more complicated that discovering what people want and offering a more exciting version of that to them than our competitors.

I, for one can’t live with that. If Christianity has nothing real to offer other than offering fun music and a delightful pep talk to help people get through the workweek, then we should say so. Then, those of us that can stomach managing people who need that sort of crutch can keep on doing what we do.

Ok. That is professional background against which I live out my faith. Yours may look different, but I guarantee you too experience some pressure between faith and professional life. Figuring out how that pressure helps (as well as hinders) your spiritual journey is a vital part of how we develop as Christians and as human beings.

I think the first thing, for me anyway, is lowering the self-imposed pressure. We can deal with the pressures others try to impose on us if we can only learn how to deal with the pressures we place on ourselves.

William Longstaff, in the hymn Take Time to Be Holy, calls us to BE CALM IN THY SOUL. That seems like the first order of business. We must become claim in our soul.  Continual stress, even stress supposedly caused by spiritual life, is not healthy.

After I quoted Longstaff’s lyrics in a sermon, one of our board members offered some observations. Joe Cook is his name and he exhibits some of the godly characteristics I have written about here. Joe is a venture capitalist who strategically aims a lot of money at diabetes.  In fact, Joe is at war with diabetes and like all good worriers, he has learned a lot about his enemy.

“The prolonged release of cortisol kills us,” he said. “It causes all kind of havoc to our body and our mind. We must learn how to calm ourselves.” 

Could is be that the way church leaders ought to respond to the chaos and havoc of contemporary life? Should we not learn to “be calm in our souls?” In the midst of a culture – including a church culture -- that honors the hyperactive, the extroverted showboat, the over-the-top passionate performer – what if a Christian leader is simply someone who is at peace with God and with himself? What if our objective is neither success or failure but is simply an awareness of ourselves as individuals holding a temporary position of responsibility? What if our ‘main product’ is simply the peace that passes understanding? I mean that would be something amazing in today’s world!

Contemporary church work forces me to confront a lot of questions about things I didn’t questioned before. The behaviors of some Christians have done more to unsettle my faith than any thing I faced during my many years of study in secular schools. As a result, I have ceased being a knower. I have become a seeker.

As a seeker, I have come to realize there are questions we will never settle in this life. There are aims we will never reach. We will not only fail to reach some of our past dreams and ambitions but will come to find many of those past dreams and ambitions empty and silly.

In this life, we will always see in part and know in part. Here, we have only this: a Divine presence that haunts the world and comes to those who continually invite Him. If allowed, he will step into the raging seas of our heart, and he will whisper; “shhh, peace, calm, rest.”

Or, in Longstaff’s words:

“Take time to be holy; the world rushes on.
Spend much time in secret with Jesus alone.
By looking to Jesus, like him thou shall be;

They friends in thy conduct, his likeness shall see.”

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