Learning to Eat

I spent last week at Mt. Eagle Retreat Center near Shirley, AR, one of my favorite places on earth. I was there to teach seventeen new (or at least new to United Methodism) preachers about worship planning, sermon preparation, communication, and the like. I did a lot of listening, a fair amount of talking, and a whole lot of eating.

I hate to say it that way, really. I live in a culture that likes to brag about its excess. The amount of food one can consume at one sitting is a badge of honor. Clean the plate of the 72-oz steak and fixin’s, and you’ll get your picture on the wall.

But the kitchen at Local Pastor Licensing School this year was a far cry from an all-you-can-eat catfish buffet. Chef Susan assembled 9-ingredient salads with fruits and nuts I never would have considered. She grilled pickles, baked chicken, and cooked the best omelet I think I’ve ever had. Her cuisine was worth of the classiest restaurant, assuming that your idea of classy is somewhere above Cracker Barrel.

Two thoughts stuck with me during mealtimes. One is something I heard a spiritual director say years ago: a key ingredient to any good meal is hunger. The healthy fare Susan prepared did not have the same filling quality as a super-sized value meal. By the time meals rolled around again, I was usually hungry in a pleasing way. Filling up on M&Ms (and God knows I love M&Ms) five minutes before supper would have not only insulted the chef, but would have detracted from the joy of eating. The best way to enjoy the meal was to come hungry.

My other thought was that appreciating good—really good—food required me to change my approach to eating. The goal was not to scarf down calories the way I do on Tour de Faith, nor to get my money’s worth the way most of us do at a buffet. In fact, I can’t say that any kind of goal played into the meals at all. They were simply places of nourishment, both physical and conversational, that invited participants to savor what was set before us.

Dining at LPLS has reminded me to slow down and enjoy what is both good and nourishing, and to appreciate the art behind it—the skillful preparation and surprising juxtapositions of flavors. The best God offers may not be pre-packaged, convenient, or value sized. The best of anything rarely is. We were not created by God as consumers, but as fellows. God sets a table and invites us to it. Come hungry. Receive what is good.

Speak to the Universe

Every year as spring melts away into summer, I start planning my escape to a cooler climate back to South Dakota, perhaps, or maybe the Northeast. I can handle long winters with cold temperatures and scant daylight. But stand me outside in an Arkansas summer and I will slip into a pit of despair, fueled by images of global ecological catastrophe.
In the grip of this climate-fired melancholy, I find myself once again asking the questions clergy always ask of themselves. Do I belong in this job? Did I misunderstand God’s calling? Why does so much of my work feel like failure? What do I want to be when I grow up?
I voiced these questions to a friend last night. Her response was simple: answer those questions aloud. “Speak them to the universe,” she said. “Give them voice and make the answers real, then see if they return to you carrying opportunity.”
I’m just intrigued by her advice. It had not dawned on me before that dealing with life’s bigger questions may not be so much a matter of locating answers, but of sending our answers out to see how they return. She is suggesting a sort of spiritual echolocation. We find our way in the dark by sending it ur dreams, letting them bounce off unseen obstacles and opportunities and return to us with news. Or better, with some unexpected possibility.
When God set about in making the universe, the story says, he spoke it into being. His voice went into the void, and the result was a good and very good creation.
My voice will never call matter into being or separate light from dark. But perhaps there is some of that creative energy yet within us humans, created as we are in God’s image. Perhaps by speaking my dreams into the universe, I can at least locate some of what is now hidden from my about my place in the world. I’m working up the courage to do so, and I’m taking my time just in case it works.

Earn Thy Authority

“Take thou authority.”

It’s been almost fourteen years since Bishop Huie first gave me and my class of new United Methodist pastors this charge at our ordination ceremony. The directive to take authority for the ordering and spiritual life of our congregations was the primary point of her sermon, or at least what I remember of it. To tell the truth, I haven’t thought much about it in a number of years.

This weekend, however, I kept bumping into these words. “Take thou authority.” I officiated a wedding in the auditorium where that ordination service was held. Back at my family’s church on Sunday morning, our senior pastor said those words more than once as he talked about our associate pastor’s move to a new congregation.

So I’m thinking about authority again. And—no surprise here—I’m also taking issue with it.

Most American denominations (mine included) are obsessed with power and leadership. We pastors are praised for being capable executives, able to manage a staff and a budget and competing interests within our congregations. Doing so requires decisiveness and organization. The buck stops with us.

I won’t criticize this idea of leadership in its entirety. Management stills matter, and we have a responsibility to order the life of the church—especially through seasons of conflict.

What I’m questioning today is not the need for authority, but the source of it. Many would-be leaders derive their authority from the nameplates on their doors. Pastors are no different. We are in a position of leadership, and we expect people to respond to us accordingly.

But that never works, even for Jesus.

When he began his public ministry in Luke, he read from Isaiah and told the people that he had come to fulfill that prophecy. That sermon almost got him stoned to death. Rather than impose his authority on them, Jesus simply moved on.

Contrast that with his encounter with the woman at the well in John 4. Jesus makes claims about his identity, but he does so in conversation, not proclamation. She believes him because he knows her and communicates compassion toward her. Not only that, she brings Jesus into her Samaritan village, where many others believe also.

Jesus, it seems, would not exercise authority where authority was not given. While Christians hope for his authority to reign over all when he returns, all we have for now is Jesus’ example. And he does not obtain power by virtue of position. He earns it by virtue of person, and exercises it with love and fairness when it is afforded him.

Perhaps my issue with the ordination language is just a matter of semantics, but experience tells me otherwise. When I teach at our conference’s local pastor licensing school, I always remind students to begin their ministry with firm resolve, but also with humility. If they want to have authority following Jesus example, they will have to live in such a way that it is given to them, not taken by them.

We Christian leaders might do better if we took that to heart. Taking authority may be our right. But earning authority through love is our heritage.