Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Personal Reflection for a New Year

Dunedin town hall clock chimes in 2013

Fireworks celebrate a new start.
I walked up “my” Mount Cargill today and sat at the top thinking of the year ahead. There is uncertainty related to my health, but even bigger than this, 2013 will mark the final year of my career as a Church minister. It has been an interesting journey and during it I have always felt ill at ease.  I have, however, ended up staying in when many of my contemporaries have opted out.  I guess I could say that my work in church ministry began in 1972 when I went to our Theological College in Melbourne, Australia. We had student Churches. Since then I have been in ministry, except for two years when I tried other work. (I will have clocked up 40 years) Can I look back and say, “I chose the right career”? Should I have stayed plumbing? Perhaps I could have been a social worker? Some of my lecturers wanted me to carry on studying and take on an academic career? As I approach the end of this career, did I take the right road?  There are things that suggest I didn’t. I have been like a horse chomping at the bit, wanting to break free since my first ministry out of college.
My Theology barely fits

I recall doing an assignment for the College Principle related to my view of the Scriptures. I got a good mark for it and he accepted it, but in the margin he wrote something like, “It all makes sense but you may have a hard job convincing the people in the pews of your perspectives on the Bible!”  That is a long time ago, my faith has changed dramatically since then, but his statement would still be true about a lot of my theology.  I listened to an atheist comedian the other day ridiculing religion and found myself agreeing with a lot of what he was saying. If I were to list off my concept of God, many in my denomination would count me an atheist or a heretic. I see the term “Son of God” when referring to Jesus, as people in Jesus’ day using current mythological language to describe Jesus’ impact on their life. I don’t believe that it describes some metaphysical truths about the Godhead. The Trinity also for me is people seeking to give a description of their experience of God. Once again it is not for me a theology to take on board for all time.  The word “God” has different connotations for me than for most Christians. I could go on, but that is enough to show I do not exactly fit.
The Church
I see the Church as being like a sailing ship that has too many barnacles and encrustations on its hull so that it no longer can steer the right course.  I see Church life as a distortion of what following Jesus is all about. Many Churches I see as a waste of space. Others I think promote a “Churchianity” rather than true Christianity.  Some expressions of Christianity I see as down right dangerous. I prefer to call myself a “follower of Jesus” rather than a “Christian”.  I don’t like the songs sung in Church. Most Churches and denominations are focused on “survival or growth” not necessarily on Jesus’ lifestyle and priorities.  So I do not easily fit in “Church”.
Looking back…

So I have been in ministry for 40 years finishing my career at the end of the year, with these hassles bubbling away?  Do I look back with bitterness, sorry that I chose this career path?  No, as I look back I am happy that I have been a Church minister. I do look forward to not being responsible for the ongoing welfare of a traditional Church. But I do not regret being a minister for much of my life, for two reasons.
1. I believe that the way of Jesus has “ultimate truth” about it. His call to love your neighbour as yourself, his call to live a servant lifestyle and the generosity of attitude he promoted is “truth” about life. It is of course found in other religions, but his life epitomises it. Jesus for me is important and the Church is the only place the story of Jesus is continued and kept alive. So I am happy to have been involved in keeping the story of Jesus alive.  It is an important, useful and positive function.
2. Being a minister in the church has allowed me to give expression to my gifts and to my devotion to Jesus in active ways. I have been able to serve people in the community using the Church as a base and as a springboard for action. I could do social work in my way in the name of Jesus. So I look back and feel pleased with what I have been able to do as a person as a Church minister.

I cannot say that I have had great success in growing Churches. As I look back I have not been a big mover and shaker in the Church. I have held national positions, but I have been largely ignored within the Church. I suspect my denomination’s hierarchy will breathe a collective sigh of relief when I retire at the end of next year. I have not been a big mover and shaker in the community. I have not been involved in community politics; I do not have big influence in the city and am largely an unknown. But I have made a difference in people’s lives. I recall a story about starfish. This older man was wandering along the beach and noticed lots of starfish washed ashore and stranded by the tide. He began to throw the starfish back into the water.  He would walk, bend down, pick them up and throw them in, one at a time. A young man noticing him doing this came up and asked, “Why are you doing this? There are hundreds of starfish stranded; you’ll never get them all. What difference can you make?” The older man bent down, picked up a starfish and threw it in the water. “It will make a hell of a difference for that one!” That’s me. I have not been a big influential powerful leader. But as I look back, through being a minister, I have made a difference in a lot of people’s lives one at a time. I’m glad I have chosen ministry as my career.
“Will it matter that I was?”
Quite recently a friend reminded me that a colleague used to have a poster with these words on it. “Will it matter that I was?”  It is a very ultimate sort of question.  If I were to die tomorrow, as I look at my life, what difference have I made?  I am an imperfect man with many flaws. But because I have been a follower of Jesus expressing myself in Church ministry I can say this;
Over the last 40 years overall…
·      I have enhanced life rather than limited it.
·      I have encouraged reconciliation, peace and harmony rather than adding to divisions.
·      I have given support and guidance to people and reduced isolation in their journey of life.
·      I have encouraged generosity and sharing rather than selfishness.
·      I have built community rather than added to the destructive individualism of our society.
·      I have been constructive rather than destructive.
·      I have encouraged inclusion and acceptance rather than exclusion.
·      I have brought hope, humour and laughter into people’s lives.
·      I have given people a vision of an alternative more noble way of life.
·      I have encouraged careful stewardship of the earth.
·      I have encouraged a deep recognition of each person's worth and dignity.

I guess I could think of others, but suffice to say, for all my hassles with the Church, I am pleased to have spent my life doing these sorts of things in my way. I will continue in 2013 to do these things as best I am able as a Church minister. Then it will be time for a change, but I hope I still do these things in some way shape or form.

I wonder about the Church?
I really end my career saddened for the state of the Church in the western world. It will keep going, it may even prosper, but it will just be drawing people into a religion on the side of mainstream life. It requires, in my view, a profound reformation, to rethink its focus, its faith and its practice if it is to facilitate any real relevant spirituality.  I have lived in it, compromising myself in an effort to bring change and indeed I have been on a journey of change myself. But I despair for it. The world needs a spirituality encouraged that is bigger than current Christian thinking and expression.  Big parts of the Church are regressing to small mentality Christianity. Others are stuck in establishment Churchianity.  Maybe new things are just over the horizon?  I am glad to have been a minister but will be pleased to take a step back.  Meantime I have a career to finish, and finish well. That was my thinking as I walked up the hill then sat on the top, on this the first day of a new year.

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