Amazing Grace – William Wilberforce

This past Friday night, a group of us watched the film “Amazing Grace” which is the story of William Wilberforce, his faith, and the fight he led for the abolition of slavery in England.  Wilberforce was pulled between the call to the religous life and the call to use his gifts and passion in the political process to abolish slavery.  Ultimately his choice was grounded in his deep faith.  God’s call on his life resulted in years of persistent, painful work in the face of the horrors of slavery.  Bill after bill failed in parliament.  Yet Wilberforce,  mentally and emotionally tortured by the horrors of slavery could do no other than to continue to fight.

Indeed, the the context of the story is the abolition of slavery; but the focus is the life of mature faith.

In discussion following the movie, we explored what sustained Wilberforce and what sustains us when the work is hard and the journey is long and we see defeat again and again.  Several sustaining influences were named:

the community that called him out, worked with him, and encouraged him along the way

Pitt, who needed Wilberforce (as Wilberforce needed Pitt)

the woman who became his spouse — who called him to talk about his deepest passion even when he said he could not because the pain was too great

the willingness of Wilberforce to pick up the witness begun by John Newton, to hear his confession, and to make it his own

the deep knowledge that God had found him — which as he stated “was terribly inconvenient.”

This is a film of passion, humor, and maturing faith.

I recommend going to the Amazing Grace website where pastors may order a copy of the film (free) for group use and teaching.  The Faith study guide is very helpful whether you are viewing and discussing the film in one sitting, or using clips for discussion.

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The Soloist – Mental Illness

We saw the film The Soloist today.  As one who serves an inner city congregation and has contact with men and women who are mentally ill and who live on the streets, I found this portrayal to hold such deep truth.  So many men and women who are mentally ill live on the streets. They are first and foremost individuals, people with hearts, and histories, and the need for friends.  We are clear that our mental health system has abandoned so many.  Yet, the answers are not clear.  The issues and behaviors are complex, to say the least, and cannot be romanticized.  Those with extreme untreated schizophrenia live in a world that most of us cannot understand.  Very often we respond in fear, and in self protection.  I understand why:  not because they are violent (they seldom are) or are a threat to us, but because we are at a loss and do not know how to relate with care, while keeping appropriate boundaries for ourselves and for the one who is ill.   That requires a level of work and commitment that most of us are not ready to give.   The one who is mentally ill, very often does not function within expected and accepted  social boundaries.

In The Soloist, Nathanial and other homeless, mentally ill people in the community have needs and passions rooted in their life experiences — just as we all do.  Theirs are just muddled in a mind that is jumbled; that at least I don’t understand.  Nathanial’s ways of speech and expression are so familiar.  I confess that there have been times when I have heard this apparently nonsensical mixture of words, phrases and images and I have written that person off.  I have forgotten that she or he is someone trying to make sense of her/his world, trying to express a concern or a need.  Perhaps my care and respect for her as person is what I can give at that moment. All too often, it is not that those who are mentally ill and homeless do not have families; but that those who loved them have worn out, given up, reached the point of not knowing what to do.  Worn down by their behaviors, their families have backed away out of a need to care for themselves and others in the family.

The Soloist, though affirming the need to care for the individual as he is, leaves us with the difficult question of how we as communities best care for those living with mental illness.  Yes, we need to offer friendship without the need to “fix” the person.  On the other hand, how can we offer protection and care and, yes, helpful treatment when possible.  The need to respect the individuality and rights of the person cannot mean that we stop searching for ways to improve the life conditions of those who are ill.

Pastor’s Lectionary Study Group

Like many pastors, I meet weekly with an ecumenical group of colleagues for lectionary study.  This is not the first wonderful group of this kind in my years of ministry; I’ve been fortunate to participate in three of these.  This group meets on Tuesday mornings at 8:30, rotating our gatherings between our different church buildings.  In recent summers, when our schedules are less dependable, we have held our gatherings in a neighborhood coffee shop.

The group at this time includes 2 Disciples of Christ, 2 United Church of Christ, 2 Presbyterian, and 1 Episcopal Church pastors/priest.  We are 3 women and 4 men.  We are gay and straight. We are in our 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.   We are high church and low church and somewhere in between. We are congregational pastors, hospice chaplain, and a director of an ecumenical urban ministry.  Our congregations/ministries are all located within about a 2 mile radius — in the inner city.

The added gift is that our congregations have grown to share in ministry together through outreach, worship, and special events. Just last week, one of the Presbyterian congregations hosted the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper that was a fundraiser for our outreach ministry.  Then all of the congregations shared in our “Ashes to Go” on the street on Ash Wednesday.  And that evening, we shared in Ash Wednesday worship hosted at the Episcopal church.   On Maundy Thursday, we will be at one of the UCC churches.  And on Good Friday, we will all share in our annual “Way of the Cross Walk” through our neighborhood.  Almost 40 years ago three of our congregations, along with another that is no longer in existence, developed the ecumenical urban ministry that we now all support (along with the support of many other congregations in the metropolitan area).

This morning, as we sat together in the library of our Disciples congregation studying our preaching text for this coming Sunday, I could not help but think of the amazing gift of this community of pastors and congregations.  As pastors we support each other personally.  We listen to and challenge each other.  We laugh and we cry together.  We are able to share and help each other work through difficult times in our congregations.  As congregations, we grow and change and deepen in our ministry through relationship with each other.

I have been in lectionary groups that used a research approach, bringing a variety of resources from theological and biblical scholars to the text each week.  That was a good approach.  This group, however, approaches the text through Lectio Divina.  I have grown to cherish the experience of group lectio and the prayerful, always fresh connection to the text that emerges from our time together.

This type of group cannot always be created.  Some groups work and some do not.  There are times and situations that are more or less conducive.  Every group is different.  But I am convinced that, through these relationships, the ministry of the Church is strengthened in ways we would never have imagined.

Thanks be to God for my dear, dear friends in ministry!

Friendship in the Church

I’ve been thinking a lot about friendship in these days.  Friendship and ministry.  Friends in congregations.  In my seminary experience over 26 years ago, there was an emphasis (and often there still is) on maintaining such boundaries that we do not become friends with the people in congregations we serve.  The danger of getting too close to be their pastor has been outlined in detail. There is the danger of favoritism.  The danger of losing objectivity (the whole concept of objectivity in ministry can be called into question.)   Our friendships were supposed to be outside the congregation.

Indeed, some are beyond the congregation and those friendships carry traits and qualities that differ.  They can offer a freedom that we may not be able to achieve when we are someone’s pastor.  But the truth is that I have never been successful at limiting my friends to those outside the congregation.  I do have dear friends within each congregation I serve.  And I have come to see that as good.  Not only good, but grounded in our faith.  I grow to love the people with whom I live in church community.  It is a love that I call friendship.  Hopefully, the kind of friendship in which we call each other to accountability in ministry.  And the kind of friendship in which I remain clear about my role as pastor, and each person is able to relate to me as pastor and friend.  That complex relationship takes on a different look in each individual case.

Jesus said, “I no longer call you servants, but friends.”  In that claim, a level and quality of relationship is established between Jesus and those who follow him.  Surely ‘friend’ is lifted up and even redefined as the basis of a relationship of faith and trust. As we in the church model faithful relationship, are we not called to be friends?

Within our role as pastors, we care and pray for those who are ill. We stand at the threshold with those who are dying to this life and entering the next.  We journey through grief with those who experience loss.  We are present with those negotiating the hurdles of life.  We work with the church and the community through conflict and differences as we address issues of justice.  I have discovered over many years and am currently reminded that ministry is transformed by friendship, just as friendship is transformed by ministry.

When I call one ‘friend’, my presence in illness and in grief, in conflict, joy and pain is transformed.  It is  harder and it is richer.   When I call one ‘friend’ I can no longer hide behind a mask of invulnerability; I learn that we care for each other in the community of the church.  I’ll never forget a sermon preached by Dr. Fred Craddock.  It was at a General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciple of Christ) when he was addressing pastors in particular.  At one point he said, “if you are feeling alone, join a church!”  As I remember there was laughter; some of it nervous laughter.  Unspoken questions floated on the air:  Are we supposed to find our community in the church?  How can the church meet our needs for friendship when we are the pastor?

I don’t know the answers to all the questions about pastoral identity and friendship within the church community.  I do know that for many of us, our lives are in the Church.  The people with whom we share our deepest passions and faith are in the Church.  In particular, they are very often in the congregations we serve.

And so I know that I ache when my friend is ill with cancer or with AIDS.

I shed tears when a friend grieves a painful loss.

I grieve when a friend leaves the congregation … for whatever reason.

I miss and long to see those who are away — whether across the country or across the world.

I am overwhelmed with joy when a friend has a baby.

I am proud and want to celebrate with a friend who graduates or begins a new job.

Thanks be to God, who calls us friends.