Saturday, July 24, 2010

Gifts All Around Us

Life Overflowing: God Gifts All Around Us

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

I Corinthians 12:4-7

Filling Slots

We’re entering into one of the most anxious months of the year in many of our congregations. Why is this such a “pressured” time? It’s because we’re focused on one question.

Will we be able to come up with enough Sunday School teachers for another year? (We hit a similar crunch time in the six weeks before annual meetings in the winter: will our nominating committee be able to “fill all the slots” on the ballot for elections?)

So how are we doing with this perennial task? How does your congregation go about assembling a full complement of teachers for Sunday School?

I fear that there are many nervous phone calls that go something like this: “Sue, we have three more slots to fill on our Sunday School teaching staff for this fall. The Christian education board is frantically digging up warm bodies, and you have to help us out. It’s been a while since you taught, after all, and you still have a kid in Sunday School—so you really should be doing your part, you know. If you and others don’t say ‘yes,’ we might just need to cancel third grade this year. No one wants that to happen. So, what do you say?”

Calling Forth Gifts

What if we approached the recruitment of Sunday School teachers—and all sorts of other servants of Christ in our congregations—in a completely different way? What if we started with the assumption that God is abundant, not stingy, and that in our congregations we have more than enough person-gifts to do God’s work? What if we led with opportunities, callings and gifts—rather than needs, obligations and guilt?

A visit with a prospective Sunday School teacher might sound like this: “Sue, our church’s ‘good gifts team’ has been praying for our Sunday School. And as we’ve been praying we’ve been surveying the whole congregation—with eyes peeled for the gifts that will help us pass on the faith to our kids. We’ve noticed that you seem to be especially good with children, that you have a flair for telling stories in memorable ways, and that you bring a calm and caring demeanor to all that you do. We believe God has gifted you. So we’re inviting you to consider the ministry of teaching in our church. We don’t expect an answer right away; please take time to think over, pray about and discuss this invitation with your family.”

Together, We Have What We Need

If you look carefully, you will not find the word “volunteer” anywhere in the Bible. Worldly wisdom suggests that if the church (as an organization) needs leaders or workers for certain programs, one option is to plead for volunteers. Works in the Kiwanis and the Garden Club—why not the church?

We can operate that way, if worldly wisdom is all we want to drawn upon. But what about the deeper, biblical wisdom that is ours? I can’t find any Bible stories that commend the notion of putting a sign-up sheet on the church door, in order to “fill slots” on parish leadership teams with grudging volunteers.

But what I do find in the Bible is an intense and comprehensive commitment to viewing the people of God as a community overflowing with gifts for the work of ministry. And wise, faithful Christians know that God has a penchant for giving gifts, one of which is the gift of identifying and calling forth such gifts in others. Church is a community of abundant gifts, and it is our delight to recognize these gifts and invite other disciples to share them, for the building up of the whole Body of Christ.

A neighboring synod has a mission statement that still knocks my socks off whenever I read it, especially the last line: “Together, we have what we need.” What an amazing statement of confident faith in the abundance of God who lavishly doles out personal gifts that put “legs” under Christ’s church. God has given us all that we need—but only “together.” Each congregation has more than enough gifts—but only if we notice and call forth all the gifts from all the people. Leave no one out!

For the Common Good

One of the best places to learn about all of this is the twelfth chapter of I Corinthians. Hard to imagine, but the early Corinthian Christians may have had too many gifts to contend with—so much so that they became over-focused on their gifts, with some gifts (e.g. speaking in tongues) being more highly prized than others. Differences of opinions over their rich gifts heightened divisions in their congregation, and Paul had to straighten them out and bring them back together.

The chapter is worth your own careful reading and reflection, but here are a few of the key points that Paul makes:

• God and God alone gives all good gifts.

• God gives those gifts purely as God sees fit.

• God loves wondrous variety in giving these gifts—no two persons have the same set of gifts.

• No one is left standing behind the kitchen door when God’s gifts are being given. No one goes away empty-handed.

• And, finally, all God’s gifts are given, not just for our personal happiness, but always for the common good. God’s gifts lead us always not to gaze at our own navels—but to confess before the world: “Jesus is Lord!”

Digging for Treasure in Our Own Back Yards

So dream with me, just a bit, about how we might receive in fresh ways God’s overflowing gifts to each of us, for the building up of the Body of Christ. What would it look like if we moved from a needs-based mentality (that often employs guilt and obligation as motivators) to a gifts-based way of life (that assumes the grace of God in Christ saves us in order to send us into God’s service)? Here are some markers…

1. We recognize scarcity-mentality as another form that faithlessness can take. We live in the confident that because God only gives gifts generously, “together, we have what we need.”

2. We look far and wide for the gifts that will serve God’s mission. We set aside old wives’ tales like: “Men never teach Sunday School.” Or, “We can’t ask retired folks to do that—they’ve done their time.” We regularly survey the entire congregation when mapping the assets of our faith community.

3. We replace Nominating Committees with Good Gifts Teams (or some other name that reflects our biblical consciousness of God’s abundance). The team spends significant time in prayer, Bible study, and focused reflection on the “feet on the ground” within the congregation. The team also meets regularly, thoughout the year, not just when it’s crunch time (before the start of the program year or prior to the annual meeting).

4. We promise never again to fall back on using guilt or obligation as motivators in seeking workers or leaders. We expunge from our vocabularies phrases like “calling for volunteers” or “digging up warm bodies” or “filling slots” (who really wants to “fill a slot” anyway?)

5. We assume that some of the best gifts available are right under our noses. A while back someone wrote a book with a great title: “Digging for Treasure in Your Own Back Yard.” Amen!

6. When we call forth the gifts of others we also provide training and support as they exercise their gifts. And we recognize that Sabbath rest is crucial for gifted people; no one is expected to serve on a leadership team or teach a class “forever.” Provide graceful ways for leaders to step back periodically, to recharge their batteries and prepare for their next “tour of duty.”

Your servant in Christ,
Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.

Questions for reflection and discussion:

1. Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Think about how your congregation recruits workers and leaders. What, if anything, seems “insane” about that process? How could your church take a fresh look at the ways it surfaces disciples for particular ministries?

2. Why is it so tempting to use guilt and obligation to motivate persons to “step forward?”

3. What is one gift God has give to you that the church has yet to recognize and call forth?

4. What is one step you could take to help your congregation move toward a gifts-based approach to calling forth workers and leaders?

This is the seventh in a series of articles on the theme Life Overflowing—an ongoing exercise in missional theology for the disciples and congregations of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod during the year 2010. These articles may be used for personal reflection; they may also serve as background study or a devotional resource for congregation councils and other parish leadership groups.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Noticing That Stirs up Compassion

Ordination and Installation of Jennifer Grangaard
July 10, 2010 at Mt Olive, Minneapolis
July 11, 2010 at Glyndon Lutheran, Glyndon
Luke 10:25-37

When I was a lad growing up on a farm in southern Minnesota in the 50s and 60s, we had a beloved school bus driver named Francis Good. His name fit him to a tee: Francis Good….a gentle, caring, good man…and not just that, but also a good Catholic.

That’s how my Lutheran parents put it anyway. Francis Good was a “good Catholic”…. which (as I soon learned) meant that he wasn’t like all other Catholics.

Most Catholics, I gathered (half a century ago)… were not so good, not to be trusted, their children not to be dated lest it lead to marriage. Catholics were a tribe apart. But our school bus driver was a notable exception. Francis was one of those very rare “good Catholics.”

This little reminiscence from an era that thankfully has come and gone…this reminiscence helps us recover something of the original “flavor” of this parable. We have allowed the phrase “good Samaritan” to become so pedestrian, reducing it to nothing more than “nice guy.”

In Judea of the 1st century, though, “good Samaritan” would have sounded like an oxymoron. Jesus’closest Jewish kin may well have believed in their heart of hearts that the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan.

But this man in the parable, this traveler who showed mercy—he was different. He was a good Samaritan. He was an exception—and why?

1. In the first place, this Samaritan noticed, he saw—really saw!--that man all beat up along the side of the road.

The priest and the Levite had noticed the victim, too, of course….but their noticing spurred a speedy escape. Their noticing led them to pray: “Feet, don’t fail me now!”

But the Samaritan noticed, in a way that made all the difference for the one who was noticed. He noticed and was moved with pity.

There is a noticing that stirs up compassion, calls forth mercy….and that kind of noticing comes from God.

It is a noticing that says: God is here, God is taking note, and when God notices, things happen. Again and again, throughout the scriptures, when God notices and remembers, mercy is poured out, our sorry past is erased…and a new, undeserved future is cracked open.

Jeni, all followers of Jesus are called to notice persons like this beat-up man by the side of the road. But pastors have a special responsibility in this regard. These folks at GLC will notice who you notice and how you notice. They will take their cues from your attention to the lost, the last and the least.

So who will you notice, Jeni, as you take up this calling? You’re sharp enough to catch my drift….so I won’t belabor the point: you are called to notice others, Jeni, in such a way that God’s mercy gets poured out.

2. The second thing that made this Samaritan “good” was that, once he noticed the wounded man in the ditch, he didn’t hesitate to get up to his armpits in trouble.

There were 101 very good reasons why the priest and the Levite were smart to skedaddle, wise to bypass this whole sorry situation. They saved themselves from a load of hurt—these two holy men whose noticing had them beating a hasty retreat.

But the Samaritan was cut from different cloth. Without hesitation, he waded in and welcomed a heap of suffering into his life.

• For one thing, he could have been ambushed by the same gang of thieves that attacked this man…

• The Samaritan could have violated the don’t-touch-a-corpse taboo, had the victim already died.

• The Samaritan did, in fact, take on the sheer physical unpleasantness of this wounded man. Breezing right past any squeamishness about “blood-borne pathogens” the Samaritan washed wounds, dressed abrasions, and hoisted the victim up on his own beast of burden.

I picture the Samaritan starting out that day with a long “to do” list of things that needed to be accomplished before sundown. But helping out a poor wayfaring stranger probably wasn’t on that list….and yet, without a second’s hesitation, the Samaritan set aside all of that and got himself up to his neck in another man’s troubles.

And God was in all of that, too.

Jesus, after all, began his earthly ministry, up to his neck in the muddy water of the Jordan River. I imagine our Lord, at his Baptism, rising up out of that river dirtier than when he went in, stained with the sin of the whole world swimming around him—the sin Jesus came to redeem.

Jeni, to be a pastor in Christ’s church is to open yourself up to a world of hurt.

If things go well for you, there will be days when you simply have to step back, take a deep breath and splash some cool water on your face. It will astonish you, the stuff folks will share with you, the wounds you’ll be called upon to dress, the emotional and spiritual abrasions you’ll help bind up.

There is a reason for that, you see. It’s because the church is just chock full of sinners and victims of sinners. I received a letter recently from a pastor in another church body—and on the letterhead, right below the name of this pastor’s congregation, I was struck by this line: “No Perfect People Allowed.”

Jeni, to be a pastor in Christ’s church is to get painfully close, on a regular basis, to sinners and victims of sinners. It is to commit yourself to serving a community in which no perfect people are allowed. That is right where God already is, all the time. It is where God wants you to be.

3. And why? ….Because of the third reason why this Samaritan deserved to be called good.

For he was not content just to be a first responder—as critical as first responses always are! This parable would still have been amazing had it ended at v. 34, with the good Samaritan getting the wound man to the inn caring for him the rest of that day.

But the Samaritan couldn’t sit back contentedly, offering just one day’s worth of mercy.

No, the Samaritan took it upon himself to guarantee the victim’s future as well. Enlisting the innkeeper as another mercy-sharer (because showing mercy is always a shared endeavor!)--the good Samaritan left behind a virtual blank check, assuring full payment of future expenses for the wounded man.

And note how discreetly and generous he was—this Samaritan—departing the next day while the wounded man was still slumbering, quietly promising payment-in-full, even after the victim had healed up and moved on.

Jeni, the chief difference between an itinerant evangelist and a pastor is that a pastor moves in, settles down, and attends to the redemption and the future of those for whom she cares.

In our increasingly impatient, gotta-have-it-all-right-now, “wired” world….pastoring takes a much longer, more patient view of things. A pastor knows that faith isn’t rustled up in a microwave as much as it is stewed and simmered in a crockpot.

A pastor practices and invites others to practice, in Eugene Peterson’s splendid phrase, a long obedience in the same direction.” Pastors are more than first responders who temporarily stop the bleeding; pastors hunker down with God’s people to speak and act redemptively, over the long haul. Pastors do this—all of it!—at the invitation and in the strength of the One who has taken our future into his hands by dying for us, and rising again to get us ready us for God’s great resurrection morning.

So, Jeni, there you have it. Just take your cues from the Good Samaritan: notice others…dive into the hurt…and serve up a redeeming, future-opening Word.

Simple as that! Hop to it!

If we said “Amen” right now….you’d be wise to make a run for it, Jeni.

Which is why, when a pastor is ordained or installed, we should by rights tie a rope around her ankle, so that when you decide to flee—as, by rights, you should!--the gathered community can haul you back into the chancel for one final word.

And here it is: in case it wasn’t clear all along, this is God’s work, from start to finish, Jeni. It’s not so much a matter of you working hard to think, feel and act like the Good Samaritan. It’s that God the Good Samaritan is choosing to think, feel and act through you.

God has commandeered you, God has gotten you into this fine mess, and God will see you through.

God the Good Samaritan will “get ‘er done,” to you, for you and (thankfully!) through you in the company of these sinners, who by God’s grace have been made saints in Christ Jesus.

And that is the final Word.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.