Guardians of the GospelOur authors reflect on what it means to be entrusted with the mysteries of the faith as a guardian of the gospel (1 Timothy 6:20).
Our thanks to the following writers: Erma Wolf, Brandon, South Dakota; Marcus Kunz, Park Ridge, Illinois; Kathleen Anderson, Seattle, Washington; Merle Brockhoff, Kansas City, Missouri; Larry Isbell, Columbus, Indiana; and Heidi Heimgartner, Blooming Prairie, Minnesota.
What Shall I Cry?
"A voice said, ‘Cry out!' And I said, ‘What shall I cry?'" (Isaiah 40:6).
Unlike the rest of my seminary classmates, my ordination was in December, the season of Advent: the season of hope, of waiting for what is promised but not yet, of longing for light in the midst of darkness. Certainly that fit with my experience of waiting for a call. Now, after months of false starts and working part-time jobs to make ends meet, I was being ordained and would move two days later to my new congregation.
The preacher for the occasion had picked his text, the story of Jesus washing the disciples' feet. The bishop had chosen the second lesson, from 2 Timothy, but said I should choose the Old Testament text, as he was certain there would be one that I would want. He was right.
Advent is important to me. Years before, while struggling to cope with the grief of my mother's suicide, I found the only way I could handle December was in a congregation that strictly kept Advent. No "holly-jolly" Christmas carols, but only the deep longing of Advent hymns and texts allowed me to worship in the midst of unresolved grief. No text spoke to me like Isaiah 40, the call narrative for second Isaiah. My experience was that those I love could die, suddenly, without warning. "The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass" (v. 7). What could I depend upon when I knew that everything could change in an instant, that death could come in a blink of an eye?
"A voice said, ‘Cry out!' And I said, ‘What shall I cry?'" What had been my question through the wrestling with a call to the holy ministry of Word and Sacrament found its answer in the response of hope and faith from Isaiah. "The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever" (v. 8). Choosing Isaiah 40 as the first lesson for my ordination service summed up what I knew about my past and what I trusted in for my future, as well as what would guide me as a pastor. The Word of God does stand forever. The living Word revealed in Jesus Christ crucified and risen, written in the Bible, and active in proclamation does not fade away or suddenly vanish. It does accuse; it is scandalous and difficult to understand, but it promises to bring life from the ashes of all the deaths we experience, even from the frozen cemeteries of the prairie in January.
Twenty-two years later, I still hear that insistent voice saying, "Cry out!" And I still ask, "What shall I cry?" It is no easier now to be a voice for the Lord than it was then, and in many ways has become more challenging. My doubts and fears remain, but the promise God made to me in 1987 is still my strength, and is what I guard wherever God's call may take me and this church that I serve: the Word of God will stand, forever.
Brandon, South Dakota
The last evening I spent with him before he left for college, our first child came and sat where I could hold him in my arms one more time. Over six feet tall, his arms and legs spilling all over the armchair and footstool, he no longer fit in my lap. While I silently held him tight, I remembered other times when I cradled him.
Five days after he was born, I sat in a rocker in the neonatal ICU, cradling him in my arms. The danger of a life-threatening infection had passed. Now, late at night, exhausted, I struggled to hold my eyes open and my arms safe for this tender life. A protective nurse gently coaxed me to release him to a more secure bed.
Two weeks later, wide awake in his bedroom, I cradled him in my arms again. Sitting on the floor so that I couldn't drop him, I vowed that I would grow with him, learning how to love in ways I did not yet know or feel comfortable with as a reserved introvert. I promised to cradle him in the safety of my love so that he could enter freely and confidently in the world, not frightened.
From the time he began to encounter the rough-and-tumble world of peers, I jokingly volunteered my services as his enforcer, but he never took my offer. Instead, I kept cradling him in my arms while he napped as a two-year-old at Disneyworld, when I carried him home raw from an abrasive fall off his bike six years later, and after driving him to the emergency room for stitches ten years after that.
Today I am confident that cradling has been the most faithful guardianship I could have given, and I delight in the young man in whom God's life and promise are abundant.
I also think about this cradling in relation to my promise to be a servant of Christ and a steward of God's mysteries (1 Corinthians 4:1). Some argue that the gospel needs stewards who are like vicious guard dogs — I've heard rottweilers mentioned more than once — but almost reflexively I recall Paul's warning, "Beware of the dogs" (Philippians 3:2). Others, like the servant who buried his talent because he feared the master's wrath (Matthew 25:25), seem desperate to keep the gospel "safely" entombed in orthodoxy's jargon and orthopraxy's rubrics.
Instead, I recall Martin Luther's remark that the Scriptures are the cradle that presents Christ, and I believe that the most faithful, biblical guardianship of the gospel that I can offer is a loving cradling that confidently releases God's promise into and for the life of the world.
Park Ridge, Illinois
Setting the Gospel Free
"If you love something, set it free" is a proverb often quoted about relationships and love affairs, but it also applies to those of us who have been given the gift of God's gospel.
When I served a small parish in Pennsylvania I began to realize how relevant that quote is to a message and practices to which many pastors and congregations claim ownership. That parish claimed God's word as American, given to Americans for Americans, delivered wrapped in the United States flag. The flag in the worship space was many times bigger than the cross that sat on the table in front of the congregation. The implicit statement was that one could not or would not exist without the other, and it was a choking, static interpretation that drained the joy of the gospel from its proclamation.
Since facing the close-minded possessiveness of that congregation, I have, unfortunately, found the same attitude in other congregations. Sometimes it manifests as idolatry of the very gifts of God, gifts meant to be celebrated unfettered among people but often hindered by the blinders of guardianship, a charge that makes people think we are the ones meant to keep the purity of the Word, the sacraments, or the church at large. Another congregation clung so fiercely to God's gifts that, in their view, the gifts became greater than the giver and, consequently, an idol. But the things that God gives us are not meant to be cradled in cotton wool, to admire when company comes, or polished and used only for special occasions. To be God's stewards is to see that God's gifts, meant for all, are used well and that all people are given the opportunity to share in them.
I admit I'm twitchy at the term guardian. As a pastor, I do not think that God's intention for me is to guard, protect, or preserve what God gives to all. Rather, my role in the office is to do all I can to help the gospel flow unfettered to all and through all. In John 3, Nicodemus struggles to understand Jesus' words about being born of the Spirit, and only ends up sounding stupid as he can only hear them in a literal sense ("How can anyone be born after growing old?"). Jesus, however, clues Nicodemus in to the free-flowing movement of the good news in verse 8: "The wind blows where it chooses ... but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes."
So I believe it is with all of God's gifts. I don't know who set them free before I got wind of them, and I don't necessarily know who will use them and learn from them when I send them on their way again. The only way for any of us to be true guardians of the gospel is to set it free to reach and touch people we may not even know. It's not up to me as a pastor, or even to us as Christians, to monitor every movement. It's up to us to trust that God guards, protects, and preserves us, the church, and God's own gospel.
My father and I walked in to the little café, batting the dust off our jeans.
"Here comes the preacher," Harvey said, setting down his coffee cup. The hair on the back of my neck stood up a bit hearing that, and a flush hit my face.
"Pastor, Harvey. I want to be a pastor, and I'm not one yet," I replied.
"Preacher!" he'd quickly retort, in a tone that hinted, "I just love to get under your skin."
I identified a sense of call in the 10th grade. Active in my home congregation, I made plans for college as "pre-sem." But I was the son of a farmer, and it was with farm folks that I most often interacted. Whether at the café for coffee, or in the corn crib shoveling ears into the hopper, or wrestling with livestock, or appearing at the implement store grease-covered from repairing an uncooperative piece of machinery — the refrain was always the same from Harvey when he saw me. "Watch your mouths, here comes the preacher!"
Harvey was a member of my home congregation. Faithful to the core, he served on the congregation council and attended worship weekly. But like most farm folks he (and I) could cuss a blue streak when circumstances warranted. As a teenager, I just wanted to blend in and be like one of them. He'd call me on that, if I let a foul word slip from my lips.
"That's no way for a preacher to talk," he'd say.
I didn't appreciate his constant reminders that seemed to set me apart. I did not care for that title preacher either. Pastor, caregiver, nurturer, shepherd — I wouldn't have bristled at those. They described what I thought I wanted to do.
But Harvey was insistent on that one title, preacher. He laid it on me every chance he could.
It has taken years to appreciate and understand the gift that he was intuitively giving me. Harvey knew that while there are an awful lot of "helpful" people in the world, they don't have a lot to say that really makes much of a difference. Preachers do. They come to give a word from God.
Harvey came to church week after week to hear that word. His teasing reminded me to be attentive to what I had to say because it was God's word, not my own.
Now I claim the title preacher with a clearer understanding of what I'm called to do and what those who have ears to hear expect of me. Thanks for being a guardian, Harvey.
Kansas City, Missouri
The Geometry of Relationships
Worries and struggles associated with recent ELCA churchwide assembly votes on human sexuality and ordained ministry point me to a lesson I learned in childhood.
My father owned a small excavation business, and I often worked for him. On some jobs we needed to look at a set of blueprints before we began. These blueprints are often called specs — specifications. It is a handy coincidence that we also use the term specs for eyeglasses. The specs are meant to enable the contractor to see how the job is to be done.
In excavation work, the completed job does not always look exactly like the specs. Very few earth-moving jobs look exactly like the engineer's design.
The reasons for this are many. A contractor might hit underground wires or boulders, calling for a change in the geometric design of the job. Once in a while, we ran into quicksand. One excavator uncovered an ancient cemetery plot and the entire project had to be redesigned.
Rules and reality are not always a perfect fit. My father once said to me, "Things are never as easy as they look." He was reminding me that the reality of given situations will not always match the paper perfection of written plans. Another way of saying it: Life is a mess, and it cannot always be precisely engineered.
I find this to be an analogy for our practices in ministry.
Like an engineer's specs, our dogmatic formulations are crucial for living in the fellowship of the baptized. However, as I look at the Gospels, I see how Jesus often seems to choose relationships over rubrics and people over propositions. He values community as much as he values creeds.
I agree with many who say that dogma is crucial for our life together. I agree with those who say we need to pay more attention to the Law-Gospel polarity, and that it is perilous to simply "erase" the Law.
But it is also healthy not to forget the faces we meet in our ministries. Real life is messier than the paper perfections of our theology.
One of my mentors, Hans Waengler, served in the German navy during World War II. Hans told me he was ordered to shoot down an enemy plane. When he got the plane in his sights, he saw the pilot's face. Because of that, he intentionally missed his target. Seeing the face of the "other" made a big difference.
A friend reminded me of a statement attributed to Michel Foucault: "The map is not the territory."
We need our theology and our creeds. We need careful reading and serious interpretation of the Bible. But we must not forget that God calls us into relationship. God creates us for the other. The God who is a relationship, the Holy Trinity, has created us in God's own image. We are made for relationship.
When I minister with the congregation, I minister with conservatives, liberals, moderates, and a thousand variations of each. Real mission and ministry has a face. In congregational life, a gay or lesbian person is not an abstraction. A "right-wing" Christian is not just a dot I find on one of my "maps." Instead, these are all part of the living body of Christ. The geometry of relationships always looks different than the lines drawn on the specs.
The Horizon of Mercy
What does it mean to be a steward of the mysteries of the faith, to guard what has been entrusted to me?
It means everything.
When I was in seminary I had a wise and seasoned contextual education pastor. She said to me, "Knowing the secrets is the hardest. When you have the daughter who still struggles with the fact that her father sexually abused her as a child ... and you have the father in the pew as well." Gulp.
The mysteries of the faith are what keep me in ministry. Who knows why people do what they do? Or don't? Or won't? The lapsed confirmand who comes around his senior year of high school, desiring to finish what he started years before. The downright sullen teenager, who makes several Big Mistakes in a row, somehow grows into an enthusiastic nurturer of her children's faith life. The shaky marriage that seems to get righted, and the supposedly solid ones that crumble before my eyes. The elderly ones and the tiny ones and the least-likely ones who radiate a countercultural love despite the consequences. The endlessly generous ones and the endlessly anxious ones sitting in the same pew exchanging the same peace of Christ.
Then, of course, there are the mysteries of the accidents. And the intentions. The feuds. And the reconciliations. The secrets kept, and the secrets that had to be exposed. The sacraments and the ordinary living. The downright privilege to be with folks in their most vulnerable moments of life and death. Speaking a word of healing and hope. And being speechless.
What does it mean to be a steward of the mysteries of the faith, to guard what has been entrusted to me? To us? It means, pastors and ministry leaders, we'd better lean into the distant horizon of mercy, taking the long view once in a while. The best stewards of the mysteries of faith see themselves as just that — stewards, serving the almighty God. The Almighty God! — who, at times, is shrouded in the mysteries of the faith and in the vulnerabilities, foibles, and graces of the faithful.
What does it mean to be a steward of the mysteries of the faith, to guard what has been entrusted to me?
It means everything. To them. And to us.
Blooming Prairie, Minnesota
This article appeared in the January / February 2010 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 26, no. 1).