Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Following the Path
            
     We officially entered pastoral ministry in the Wesleyan denomination in 1979. Little did we know when we entered the ministry that we were taking a front row seat to witness the dissension that can accompany division which had begun to manifest centuries earlier in the Church. Our denominational movement, like much of the Protestant movement, tended to change policies according to protests that would rise up to the surface across the short history of a denomination.  And a church in Georgia could hold certain traditions as essential while a church in California could pass them off as non-essential distractions. The absence of unity in our own denominational movement was disenchanting and embarrassing yet it followed suit with the Protestant movement. 
            The paradigm of legalism that was typical for evangelical denominations until the 1970's would eventually shift to keep up with the culture; "seeker friendly" methodology was incorporated into nearly every facet of church life. Over time the denomination would follow the trend of the "Church Growth" movement that was big in evangelical circles in the 70's and 80's.  Churches that used this formulaic programming promoted relevant preaching and had a preoccupation with  worship styles that would meet people's felt needs.  When growing the Sunday worship attendance became the goal for the local churches, a subtle shift took place.  Pastors needed larger portfolios: administration and management of local church endeavors required business savvy and a heavy dose of charisma. Churches had to be more "attractive," worship more relevant.  Members expected more interesting "experiences" on Sunday morning for themselves, their teenagers, their children, their toddlers and babies. And a mediocre cup of coffee and maybe a donut or two was thought to make the trip to church more satisfying.
           
"[Worship] has been replaced by the yawn of familiarity. The consuming fire has been domesticated into a candle flame, adding a bit of religious atmosphere, perhaps, but no heat, no blinding light, no power for purification."
--Donald McCullough

            During the 1980's and 90's as evangelical and fundamental movements gained influence in politics and  entertainment, churches seemed to take on more of a Christian Country Club mentality.  Bigger is better!  But what seemed to be getting big were egos and an inflated sense of entitlement among the members, pastors and denominational leaders alike. We both started to question some of  the bulimic fascinations with trends and methods for growing a church.  The sense of spiritual starvation that was happening around us began to draw our own spirits toward a search for the sacred wisdom and understanding given to anyone who inclined their ears to the words of Scripture and the Sacred Tradition of The Faith.
             Our desires to shepherd and care for the members of the churches we served were swallowed up by the pathology of Protestantism--dissension, division, and discord.  Over our 34 years in service to the movement we witnessed church splits over inflated issues among members.  We endured the loss of nearly half of a congregation in a week's time over the denomination's stand against petty non-essential lifestyle commitments. We struggled to serve a church swept up in a vortex of political maneuvers that earned it a reputation of being hard on the pastors (and their families) that tried to serve them. And ours was not a unique experience! It was normal in many denominations to hear more about church divisions than anything else. Questions settled into our spirits that we found ourselves trying to answer more frequently the longer we served in ministry.  Is there nothing sacred anymore? Where is a firm foundation of authority? What IS worship? What is the purpose of the Church?

The first great fact which emerges from our civilization
 is that today everything has become "means."
There is no longer an "end"; we do not know wither we are going. 
We have forgotten our collective ends, and we posses great means:
 we set huge machines in motion in order to arrive nowhere.
--Jacques Ellul

            Conversion, real conversion, requires pain and loss for transformation to be effective. And the years of ministry to our last church hold many tipping points in our spiritual maturation. It has been said that doubt is the necessary partner to real faith.  Though we often did not recognize at the time that the feelings we were having were caused by doubt, they surely served as stepping stones in our conversion through a deepening of our faith. The experiences were leading us away from the Protestant movement and bringing us closer to Catholicism, often without our immediate comprehension. 
            As we attempt to illustrate our spirit's departure from the Protestant movement, we are very cognizant that the denomination we served is really no different than any other denomination or organization. It's the human condition, but it is profoundly sad and disturbing when the same attitudes and pursuits of the world infiltrate the body of Christ where there is supposed to be unity. Churches and organizations contain posers, players, and bullies who attempt to exert their authority. Churches and organizations also are made up of committed or indifferent attendees who just want to come to church or to be a part of an organization to feel good about what they are doing or what they are receiving.  Church life can very much operate as, and feel like, club life. The good, the bad, and the ugly.  Our good experiences are filled with many acquaintances and several significant friends.  Positive memories abound. Good people are everywhere. The bad and the ugly resulted from tensions mounting within the congregation, the denomination, and the Protestant movement.
            It was  during our tenure to our last local church that we began to do more spiritual reading. Solace came through authors that appealed to each of our natures.  I, Jeff, found significant help from authors who were outside my immediate denominational background.  Eugene Peterson was especially helpful as his books dealt so much with the theologies of pastoral ministry and worship.  Peterson's writings were so often contrary to what I sensed I was being pushed to believe in my own local church and my denomination.  Denominational leadership bombarded pastors with articles, books and conferences/seminars on leadership.  Pastors increasingly were being compared to CEO's of major corporations.  The insinuation or often direct teaching was that we were to lead like these business leaders. One particularly unsettling example of that focus took place during what was supposed to be a ministerial retreat.  We were lectured on current marketing techniques that could be adapted in our churches to make them more attractive and interesting. Retreat did happen, in my spirit! I began to see that many of these notions focused way too much on man's abilities and too little on the enabling, equipping and empowering gifts of the Spirit of God. I couldn't put my finger on the source of the frustration rising up within me, but I did understand that there had to be a firmer foundation to give my loyalty to than the shifting sand I was standing on in the Protestant movement. A straw that broke the camel's back fell shortly before our decision to resign from pastoral ministry.  Our district leadership was intensely focused on expansion by numbers, so much so that an entire "state of the district" message was devoted to the "one thing" that is most important in the church.  What was the "one thing" that should be central to worship?  According to the predominate evangelical thinking and to our denominational leadership, it was doing  everything we could humanly manage (read control) to get more people into the pews on Sunday morning.  Of course, I desired to touch people's lives with the healing virtues of salvation.  However, I knew that if worship of Almighty God was dis-ordered by man's preoccupation with success, there was no end to what could be conjured up, all in the name of evangelization. The ties of my loyalty to the denomination continued to loosen.
             I came across the following quote while reading one day:  "The Gospel came to the Greeks and the Greeks turned it into a philosophy.  The Gospel came to the Romans and the Romans turned it into a system.  The Gospel came to the Europeans and the Europeans turned it into a culture.  The Gospel came to America and the Americans turned it into a business" (author unknown).  The "business model" of the pastoral ministry was bringing me to exhaustion and to anger, and truth be told, a crisis of faith.  As this "business model" (dressed in gospel language) progressed, congregations increasingly viewed the church as a business.  Congregants came to church expecting to have their preferences met, their democratic rights recognized, and their responsibilities lessened.  It was (is) the job of "the business" after all to meet "customer expectations".  The shift was on...from serving the God of Heaven by serving people to serving people for the sake of the people.  This is just wrong.
            And the frustration that was growing in me regarding our attitude toward worship could not be ignored if I was going to maintain my personal and spiritual integrity.  Gadgets, gizmos and technology seemed to be abounding as it pertained to the worship of Almighty God.  The focus of attention was continually heightening on the pastor (as preacher/communicator) and the worship team (singers/musicians).  Times of worship had to be slick, relevant, marketable, experiential, pleasing to all generations, and entertaining.  In other words, man-centered.  I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that worship is something we do, not experience. Yet leadership believed we were duty bound to configure a worship service that "moved" attendees to "have some experience" with God.  I disagreed.   What had we come to? I knew how we got there, I'd seen it unfold over my years of ministry in the denomination.  I was beginning to doubt and question what I was witnessing. And I wasn't sure that I could continue to standby to see where it was all leading.
            Someone has said that the new trinity in the evangelical church is "Buildings, Bodies and Bucks".  It seemed that the church in many Protestant quarters had been reduced to doing what it must to attract people in order to pay for the buildings and the trappings that will continue to attract more people. We had to keep the cycle spinning!  I remember hearing a church lay leader state in a council meeting, "We gotta have the dough for the show."  The hearing of those words is seered into my memory as one of the defining moments in my deepening desire for sacred and holy worship.
                The longer I served the denomination the more I found myself longing for worship that was saturated with the spoken word of God.  I hungered for worship through thanksgiving and adoration of God's saving work through Jesus Christ.  The Old and New Testaments are filled with examples of what happened when men "exchanged the image of God" for the convolutions of man. Nothing is new under the sun. The results of false worship were and continue to be catastrophic to the people and to the generations that came after them!  Worship must be Christ-centered, not man-centered. What did God think about the tipped-upside-down worship we conjured on Sunday mornings? I was starved for authentic worship of the Triune God. I had no idea at the time that I would eventually find biblically-ordered worship in the Catholic Mass.  Worshipping in a Catholic Church wasn't even on my radar screen at that time in my life.
            One of the first books I, Lois, read during those years of ministry in our last church, was written by a Protestant. The author's insights helped me discover more about  meditation and  prayer.  But what astounded me were the rich quotes of people I had never heard about! The profound faith of writers such as St. Clement of Rome, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Bonaventure, St. Therese of Lisieux and St. John of the Cross reached into my life and drew me back into the richness of the Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church. And  how had I never heard of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman?! As I began to read of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman's conversion to The Catholic Church I unknowingly stepped onto the long path of reconciliation with the Church.  I could not comprehend the distant scene but I was certain of every step.  It wasn't long before I was devouring every book I could get my hands on about the Apostolic Fathers, early Church Fathers and Saints of the Church.  
            The more we discovered about the fullness of the faith present in The Catholic Church, the more we searched.  The morsels of beauty, goodness and truth were like crumbs of bread leading us down a path further into history. What we met on that journey was the transcendence of The Catholic Church; a light beckoning us deeper into the ancient Faith of The Catholic Church.   Each step on the journey through our last ministry assignment was intensely humbling yet our spiritual reading was astoundingly enlivening.

Drowning

Steer the ship of my life, good Lord, to your quiet harbor,
where I can be safe from the storms of sin and conflict.
Show me the course I should take.
Renew in me the gift of discernment, so that I can
always see the right direction in which I should go.
And give me the strength and the courage to choose the right course,
even when the sea is rough and the waves are high,
knowing that through enduring hardship and
danger we shall find comfort and peace.
--St. Basil of Caesarea

(Lois)

            One summer in our last few years of ministry we traveled to Maine to visit our son and his family. While on that vacation we rented a home on the beach. One afternoon my husband and I decided to walk out during low tide to an island about a mile from the bay's shore where we were staying.  We began the walk feeling the weight of the condition of our lives like we had never felt it before.  The heaviness in our spirits was nearly suffocating, but the walk soon turned into a refreshing and peaceful stroll through the low tide of water.  We lingered at the island walking the circumference of its shoreline and collecting shells as keepsakes to carry back in our bucket. After awhile we looked up at the sun's place in the sky and decided that we best turn toward shore and begin the mile hike back. We had misjudged the time and the distance that we needed to return to shore.  Soon we knew we were in trouble as the tide had already begun its return to the shore line.
            I am a lifelong swimmer, and have often joked that in my past life I was a mermaid since I feel most at ease in water. I'm a certified lifeguard, long distance swimmer and water exercise instructor so the reality of the situation we were in was startling because I understood exactly what was going to be required of us if we were going to make it to shore.  However, my husband is not a swimmer. The gravity of the situation gripped him with fear as soon as his feet could no longer touch the ocean floor. Panic began to set in.  As I judged the distance we had yet to go, about 1/2 mile, I quickly considered our alternatives.  As a lifeguard I knew that if I came into physical contact with him his own natural fight-or-flight reaction could drive him to take hold of me. I had been trained to speak calmly to a drowning victim and if possible to extend a flotation device toward the victim.  My presence and my calm voice was all I had to help him and so I began to call to him to turn over on his back and stop looking at the shore, relax his body into the water and allow the current of the waves to aid his arm movements, to look at the sky and follow my voice. He followed the instructions all the while calling out, "Help us, Jesus."

            I let loose of the bucket filled with our ocean treasures and began to swim toward shore, every few strokes looking back at him and repeating the instructions, but each time I looked back there was more distance between us, and his head was sinking further and further into the surf. My mind shifted between the knowledge that if I swam to shore for help he would drown, if I swam back toward him and attempted to take hold of him in the lifesaving grip, chances were strong that we would both drown. During those interminable minutes I decided that I would swim back to him and we would either survive or drown together. I would not leave him alone.  Through God's providence I decided to allow my feet to drop below me before I swam to him, my toes barely brushed the ocean floor and I felt as all of heaven was surrounding us in that moment. I called to him, "I can touch, I feel earth, relax, keep looking at the sky, reach toward my voice as you stroke your arms."  Someone on shore (we later learned her name was Angel) had heard my calls for help, saw we were struggling and had been swimming toward us, she made it to us just as my husband had reached toward me and allowed his feet to drop.  His adrenaline was doing all it could to move him toward life, but as soon as he touched me, he collapsed into our arms and we dragged him into shore.
             We returned from that vacation still very much unsettled, walking back into a current of "full catastrophe living" because our lives during the last twelve years of ministry seemed to be an unyielding  tide of soul-shattering, life-altering circumstances in our private and vocational life.  There's an old German proverb that goes something like this, "Sooner or later, a hush comes to every family." We were living through extreme circumstances that brought a hush to our family  and we were grieving deep and private loss that was profoundly life changing.  The loneliness, helplessness and searing grief we felt tore at me like nothing I had ever experienced.   The gravity of what Christ suffered as the sacrificial Lamb for humanity's sin imbedded in my heart as we bore the weight of what sin had unfurled in our family's life, we would never be the same. We often felt like we were drowning.
             The church we served was mired in dissension  My husband's spirit--loyal and pastoral--began to diminish through a litany of demeaning circumstances in our service to the church. It was slowly pressing him toward the de-construction of everything he believed about himself, his abilities and gifts, and about his call. His devout faith in God and his commitment to daily immersion in prayer and Scripture reading along with spiritual reading served as his only source of spiritual refreshment and renewal. The evidence of the Authority of the Faith still present in the Catholic Church and the writings of Early Church Fathers began to draw his spirit, so much so that he quietly began considering his perspective on the Catholic Church.  He was finding answers to the questions we both had about the purpose of worship in the Authority and Sacred Tradition of the Church.
            Near the end of that season of our life Jeff went away to a friend's farm for a time of concentrated prayer and reading of the Scriptures to discern what God desired of him.  He came home from that time away with the clear message from God that he was to resign from the church where we were serving.  He also came home convinced that we needed some counsel on what to do, because although he was certain he should resign, he was not certain how and when he should resign or whether he should take up another assignment.


All Those Who Wander Are Not Lost

Die to the world by renouncing the madness of its stir and bustle. --Tatian

To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story,
 the light side and the dark side.
In admitting my shadow side I learn who I am
and what God's grace means.
--Brennan Manning

True freedom consists in not being
attached to anything. It is in this detachment that
God seeks your soul in order to work His great marvels.
--Juan de Bonilla


            After nearly eighteen years of serving our last congregation, I (Jeff) think I was about to crack.  I told my loving, praying wife that we needed to get away for some time of quiet reflection and spiritual counsel.  Thanks to the generosity of some dear friends we were able to go to a retreat center that is specifically designed to intervene with ministry couples in crisis, and they are legion! (We learned during that retreat that 1,500 Protestant pastors per month resign from ministry.  The casualties of The Protestant Reformation fill history.)  We couldn't wait to get to the retreat.  The journey into the Rocky Mountains couldn't have been more appropriate.  We felt much like the prophet Elijah fleeing to Mt. Horeb hoping to hear an answer for our deepening doubt.  And we also needed to receive divine food to restore our failing spirits.  Our prayer leading up to the retreat was for one thing--clarity.  Our retreat was led by a godly couple that had served many years in an evangelical denomination.  It was during that week-long retreat that included spiritual guidance and counseling,  something gave way deep in my person.  There was a growing fissure in my spirit that I could no longer ignore.  I became more willing to accept the lack of health in the evangelical Protestant position.  Steps had to be taken.  I did not know what each of those steps were, but I knew in time God in his grace would make them apparent.
            On a warm September day we took a walk on a path that led into the woods that surrounded the retreat center.  We were mostly silent, pondering the counseling session we had just finished with our counselors.  As we walked it was as if God was whispering from the aspens that lined the path, "This is the way, walk in it, trust Me." We climbed on top of a boulder to take in the beauty of God's creation. We made decisions as we sat on that rock that day, decisions that would unfold in ways we could never imagine.
            I (Lois)  also made a quiet decision of my own one afternoon while meditating and praying at one of the several prayer stations that had been nestled here and there in the woods around the retreat center.  The station was named "Grace" and a simple prayer rose up in me as I wept and grieved, "God of Grace, this does not belong to me it belongs to you."  Three things I began to pray for that day, two of which I share with you: I would abide with a quiet spirit alongside my husband and that Jeff's eyes would be opened  and his ears would hear what God desired to reveal to him. I remembered the words of Moses to the Israelites, "Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today..." Exodus 14:13.  If I was to trust the grace of God, I was to be still and wait before Him.


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