I begin this new blog at a crossroads in my life: leaving my job at a large, suburban church to take a position on a college faculty. Below are excerpts of some remarks I made at a farewell celebration earlier this month at Fuquay-Varina United Methodist Church.
I did not expect that my life’s journey would bring me to Fuquay-Varina United Methodist Church. But who among us ever knows where life is going to take us? All our journeys are filled with surprising detours; with plans interrupted; with people, places, and experiences we never saw coming. But I really did not expect that my life’s journey would bring me to Fuquay-Varina United Methodist Church!
Yet here I’ve been for 5 and ½ years.
I was hired, in part, to teach some things. I hope I’ve done that. But the process of teaching and learning is always a two-way street: the teacher learns and the learners teach. And so it has been with you and me. We have grown together. We have challenged each other. We are better for the encounter, I’d like to think—for the struggles, the joys, the quarrels, the breakthroughs—for all that has brought us to this day and this moment.
But what is it, exactly, that we have learned? What have I tried to teach in my time here? What have you taught me? I know that I can’t capture it all adequately with a few words, especially since teaching and learning and growth and transformation are all something of a mystery that must be entrusted, finally, to the work of the Spirit. But perhaps a few things can be said . . .
First, that Christian community requires truth-telling.
It’s hard to argue with this as a general principle, but it’s not so easy to practice. One reason that Christians find it difficult to speak truthfully to one another—and by this I don’t mean just “saying whatever’s on your mind”—is that we often don’t know what conditions are necessary for truth-telling to be the normal course of things, to simply be our way of life.
We live in a culture that encourages superficial relationships; that promotes virtual community and no-strings-attached relationships. We’re warned against getting too personal. Your business is your business; mine is mine. I’m happy to report what I’m feeling on my facebook page, and I’m interested in how you’re doing, but in the end we can take or leave each other as we please. Remote connections are prized in this culture, not ones that are intimate, time-consuming, complicated, inconvenient.
So we’re friends at a distance—even in the church.
We’re polite. We’re nice. God knows we’re nice! But living the way of Jesus Christ is not really about niceness. It’s about truthfulness . . .
A second thing I hope I’ve been able to communicate—and it is related to the practice of truth-telling—is that Christian communities cannot avoid conflict. Which doesn’t mean we should seek out conflict for its own sake; rather, conflict and disagreement are inevitable if we’re going to try and live truthfully before God and one another.
Conflict, in other words, is not a problem for Christians. How we deal with conflict can, of course, create problems; ignoring conflict usually causes even bigger headaches. But conflict emerges when truthfulness is practiced. Don’t we argue most passionately with the people we love the most?
Conflict in a church is usually a sign that people are wrestling with things that matter. A lack of conflict or a denial of conflict probably means that we’re back to being nice.
But dealing well with conflict does require some wisdom and skill and grace and maturity—characteristics learned and sharpened over time as we build relationships of trust and accountability.
Which points to a third thing I hope I have taught in my time here: the necessity of friendship in the body of Christ. Friends experience conflict in their relationships. We don’t usually argue with people we don’t know well. (Road rage doesn’t count!).
But friendship is not the same thing as friendliness. Friendliness is pretty easy—especially for Southerners schooled in the genteel ways of civility and good manners. Friendliness is simple cordiality. It is keep-the-peace niceness. And it has its place. Nobody wants to encounter a surly waiter or a rude, impolite bank teller.
But friendship is something else. Friendship is a moral practice. It takes effort. It “requires a particular sort of loving attentiveness that sees the other both honestly and charitably” (Paul Wadell, Becoming Friends). Genuine friends seek each other’s good. They’re invested enough in one another’s well-being to risk conflict by speaking the truth in love. (See how all these things are connected?).
And friendship with one another in the body of Christ reminds us of our ultimate calling: to be friends with God. “What is the chief end of man?” asks the first question of the Westminster Catechism. “The chief end of humankind is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.” Friendship.
Which leads to a fourth thing I hope I have communicated here: the centrality of worship. It is in the worship of God that we come to know we were created for friendship with God. In baptism, we are incorporated into the mystery of God’s triune life—a life of unending love and generosity among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; divine friendship. In the Eucharist, we glimpse our future share in that divine life—receiving just a taste of what eternal fellowship/friendship with God will be like.
As some of you may know, one of the reasons I applied for and took this job in 2003 was that I was writing a book on worship and Christian formation. As I was nearing completion of the book, it became increasingly clear to me that if I was going to presume to tell others about how to do Christian education in the local church, I’d better go do some myself.
So worship has always been uppermost in my mind as I’ve done my job here as Director of Christian Education. Worship is the most formative thing we do; it’s the most important thing we do. Week in and week out, the way we worship shapes us profoundly . . .
I may come to worship wrapped up in myself; the culture we live in trains us, as we well know, in diverse forms of self-preoccupation. But the liturgy “pries me open,” inserting me into a narrative and a tradition older and deeper than myself, giving me a language and a story for myself that I could not have discovered on my own. The church’s liturgy is formative of my identity in deep and essential ways.
Once we enter into worship, we enact the great cosmic drama of salvation in song and speech, sermon and sacrament, in prayer, proclamation, and silence. Through our active participation in this drama, we are shaped as disciples of Jesus Christ, and we are called to carry our worship and witness into the world. The liturgy, literally, makes us who we are and who we are to be for the world that God loves and seeks to save.
But we’re conditioned, are we not, to think that worship and Christian formation are two very distinct things: we worship in a sanctuary; we experience Christian formation or education in a classroom. Worship is about praise and prayer and feeling good and Christian education is about learning stuff.
This way of putting the matter seems so logical and is so deeply embedded in our way of thinking, it is almost impossible to challenge. But I’ve tried to give it my best shot . . .
The last thing I hope I’ve communicated to you in my time here is really a summation of all that I’ve said so far: Christian education is not something that happens only in a classroom with chairs and tables and books and bibles. Formation is going on all the time—for good and for ill—in all areas of our lives. We need to be able to name and describe that process truthfully, to risk conflict in doing so, and to recognize that it is our friendship with God and one another that makes it possible for us to grow and flourish in our work and witness in this place.
What I’m saying is that Christian formation has more to do with action than ideas, with practices more than beliefs, with being “doers of the word of God and not hearers only” (James 1:22).
I’ve already named some of these practices: truth-telling, friendship, worship. I’ve hinted at others: hospitality, forgiveness, conversation, sharing food together. When we engage in these kinds of practices we put our head-beliefs into bodily-action and we become who we are meant to be.
In the last three years many of us have been part of a new Christian practice at Fuquay-Varina UMC: community gardening. Working the ground together week after week, season after season, has reminded us—in tedious, mundane ways—that the life of discipleship is slow going, that formation is for the long haul, and that the mystery of transformed living is one in which some people plant, others water, but it is God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:6).
Out of the experience of working in the garden has come my involvement with Iglesia Monte de los Olivos, the Church of the Mount of Olives, a Latino congregation that meets here in our facility each week. For the past several months, I’ve been working with the older kids of that congregation—or, rather, they’ve been working on me: teaching me, shaping me, bearing witness to the love of Christ to me.
This is one of the surprising, grace-filled ways that Christian formation works. Just when I think that I am in control; I’m the teacher; I’m helping others in their journey of faith—that’s usually when I discover that I’m the one being changed; God is working on me.
I’m going to miss being with my Latino pals—Oliver, Kati, John, Adelzar, Jessica, Zaira, Annabelli. They have enriched my life in ways large and small. And I hope that some of you will consider getting involved in this ministry—just showing up for a couple of hours on Sunday evenings to be transformed by meeting Jesus disguised as a mischievous little boy named Oliver.
And here, last but by no means least, is what you have taught me:
Not to take myself so seriously. The work, yes, but myself not so much. You have helped me to laugh and to lighten up when I needed to. And Lord knows that anyone who works in a church needs to learn to laugh—a lot!
You have taught me, contrary to what is often communicated in seminary training and in clergy circles, that most people in the pews are hungry for depth and substance and rigor and challenge in their Christian walk. You want your faith to be stretched and deepened. You are open to new ways of thinking; to critical questioning; to digging deep.
You have given me encouragement and support in ways that simply overwhelm me. There have been many times when one of you has spoken or written words of affirmation that make me wonder if you really know me! At those times, when I’ve felt like a failure for knowing I could never measure up to your expectations, I’ve been humbled by the simple truth that any good that I have done here has been Christ at work in me.
This past year has been a difficult one for me and for my family. I can tell you this because we are friends. In the midst of this difficult year so many of you have lifted me up without even knowing it. You have exercised a crucial gift of the priesthood of all believers: that of bearing another’s burden. Some of you did this knowingly, many unknowingly, but the effect was the same: to make real to me and to my family the love and mercy of Jesus Christ in and through his Church.
Thank you for letting me practice Christian education on you. Thank you for the ways you have supported and affirmed me; for the ways you’ve challenged, criticized, disputed, and argued with me.
Thank you for helping me to see that the work of education, formation, transformation—this thing we often try to domesticate and manage for the purpose of “church growth”—is really a mystery: the mystery of the triune God at work in us. And as we cooperate with that mysterious work, as we surely must, we find that there are no easy answers, no pious slogans to fall back on. In fact, there are always more questions than answers, more doubt than certainty.
But such realizations are, I believe, the beginning of wisdom, for as we abide in the mystery of God’s transforming love, we come to know, finally, the truth of God’s grace—the grace we experience in Word and Sacrament, in the stranger among us, in the natural world, in each other: the grace that makes our lives possible and that sustains us for the journey, this day and every day.
Who knew? Christian education is about grace and mystery and being ok with ambiguity. It is about our transformation over the long haul as we learn over time and in relationship with each other how to live fully into the mystery of God’s transforming love.
I had inklings of all this when I started working here in November of 2003, but in the intervening years you have put names and faces, flesh and bone, stories and tears and laughter to these truths. And I thank you.