Cross directions

In response to the changing realities of the church, the Eastern Synod this year is making a significant change to the way it organizes itself for ministry and mission

No longer will there be Conferences — like the Ottawa / St Lawrence Conference to which we belong. This Spring the Conference structure gives way to smaller units called ‘Ministry Areas’. This transition will likely be the focus of church-wide meetings over the next couple of months. We will be a part of about 8 or so congregations forming the ‘Ottawa Ministry Area’ whose local leadership will be appointed by the Bishop.

How will this new structure operate? Certain technical aspects of how elections to Synod and national conventions will work, for example, are part of these constitutional changes that will be considered. But how will it work in the sense of achieving the mission of the church?

Lately, again, I sat around a table of pastors and lay leaders of Montreal Ministry Area congregations who, literally, are up against a wall — for their shrinking resources and inability to afford ministry the way they used to. They know they have to work closer together, and share resources such as church buildings and pastors. And they have come up with some small, concrete plans for the near future: They are planning some combined worship events and more focused leadership meetings. But how will this new cooperation function and look like? That’s still up in the air.

And it’s not too long into our future in Ottawa when more and more of our congregations here will be pressed into a greater need to look at different models for ministry. How will that work? What will be the end result?

In reviewing the results of the pastoral care survey that was circulated over the last month here, one of your top choices for workshops was to get more information and help around making a housing change — downsizing — when physical limitations increase with age. You instinctively know that this is the direction, eventually, that many of us eventually take. But, for you who haven’t yet made that big change, how will that look? Where will you go? You may not know precisely how that will pan out, especially when spouses and their health are in the equation as well. You just know that a change will need to be made at some point.

Palm Sunday is just that day in the church calendar where the need to know the end result is tempered by the realization of what it will take to get there. On Palm Sunday, we focus on the direction more than the goal itself.

And this may be why Palm Sunday and especially Holy Week worship is not a very popular draw for Christians in our day. Because we are saving all our church energy for Easter, right?

Our culture, and the dominant belief system of the secular world today, is mesmerized by goals, and goal-setting. I was sitting around a table with Lutherans from the Missouri Synod, ELCIC and CALC. We are planning together a musical event to celebrate the Reformation, later this year. It was at our last meeting when someone said: “What is our goal? I need to know what the goal is for this cooperative effort.”

Management by results seems to be these days the methodology of choice, evidenced by how our politicians govern to how churches run their activities. While I believe time is never wasted in clarifying purpose, we may need to practice exercising a bit of humility when it comes to anticipating certain results.

A man and a woman were married for many years. Whenever there was a confrontation, yelling could be heard deep into the night. The old man would shout, “When I die, I will dig my way up and out of the grave and come back and haunt you for the rest of your life!”

Neighbours feared him. The old man liked the fact that he was feared. Then, one evening, he died when he was 98. After the burial, her neighbours, concerned for her safety, asked: “Aren’t you afraid that he may indeed be able to dig his way out of the grave and haunt you for the rest of your life?”

The wife said, “Let him dig. I had him buried upside down … and I know he won’t ask for directions.”

Perhaps it is time for Christians to ask more questions about the direction of our faith. We know the ultimate end, as Christians. We know that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. We know what our destination is. It is the direction that causes us trouble no matter how often we affirm in our creeds and sing from our hearts about heavenly glory.

Palm Sunday, as it ushers in Holy Week and the Passion of our Lord, may be a good time to reflect on the way, the direction, that Jesus calls us in our lives on earth. While Jesus may very well have know for certain the end result of his passion and suffering, Holy Week emphasizes the direction — the humility, the emptying, the letting go, and the loss — that the Cross of Christ stands for.

The children’s video we viewed this morning ended significantly: the path Jesus saw from his vantage point atop the donkey amid the Hosanna-cheering crowds was leading Jesus not to the glory of resurrection, but to the condemnation of the religious leaders and Roman authorities awaiting him.

It’s the direction we are asked to consider during Holy Week, not the goal.

What does this approach ask of us?

In a recent, popular, healthy-living book by Maria Brilaki called “Surprisingly Unstuck”, she makes the argument to focus on a lifestyle change as opposed to fixating on results. Rather than motivate or will yourself towards a goal — for example, lose five pounds in a week — instead practice making small choices: Eat an apple for a snack instead of a chocolate bar; walk up the flight of stairs instead of taking the elevator; refrain from that second helping at dinner, etc. Greater success comes to those who focus on small, healthy habits in the moments of daily living rather than forcing or willing some grandiose change based on a perceived goal.

Making small steps in the direction and according to the values of one’s faith, is better than expecting that by our strength alone we can engineer our salvation and the salvation of the world.

In the lectionary study this past week, we reflected upon the second reading for today from Philippians. One of the very good questions arising from our conversation was: How do we become humble, like our Lord? It’s hard to imagine what a humble life might look like in the manner of Jesus. Because, after all, none of us is Jesus. So, what does it mean to be Christ-like, or “little Christs”, as Martin Luther put it?

Saint Paul described the character of a humble lifestyle in the context of this reading from the second chapter of Philippians: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (v.3-4); “…for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (v.13).

The result of this life-style may look very different, person from person. Mother Theresa in the 20th century exercised genuine humility differently from the martyrs of the early church or from millionaires today who sell off their riches in order to serve the poor in developing countries, or from a teenager who volunteers tirelessly in a nursing home, or asking a neighbour her viewpoint on something you hold near and dear to your heart, even if that opinion is different than yours.

While the result of our work may not be clear, from our vantage point now, we have enough to go on in the direction of our faith. Call it instinct. Call it conviction. Call it the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This is God’s work enabling us in the direction of our faith.

So, if down-sizing is inevitable, what to do? If we can’t see exactly how it’ll turn out in the end, perhaps we can practice now little habits of letting go — whether in the way we pray, or giving away treasured possessions little by little.

If we can’t see now how the church will be organized in twenty years, but instinctively know significant things will have to change, perhaps now we can do little things to share ministry with other congregations, build friendships with those from other congregations, organize events with other churches and share space.

That path set before us, as it most definitely was for Jesus over two thousand years ago, may be difficult, challenging and uncomfortable. But perhaps by focusing on the little ways we can share the love of Jesus with each other and the world around us — we will, in the end, experience God’s work and power in our lives.

Let it so be. In Jesus’ name.

About raspberryman

I am a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, serving a parish in Ottawa Ontario. I am a husband, father, and admirer of the Ottawa Valley. I enjoy beaches, sunsets and waterways. I like to write, reflect theologically and meditate in the Christian tradition.
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