What Comes After?
(Continued from Wednesday.)
I began my graduate studies at Princeton Theological Seminary in September of 2002. In that season the memory of 9/11/2001 was still very fresh in the American consciousness. As students studying ministry, theology, and related disciplines, we were challenged during our studies there to think about how we would have responded in the wake of such crisis. For American pastors just a year beforehand, this was no academic question. It was a present reality.
We were told how some ministers largely ignored the attacks the Sunday afterwards, preferring to continue on with their already-written homily or planned sermon series installment rather than address the situation at hand. This was a mistake, we were told. I cannot say I disagree.
Significant crises will come. This is a basic fact of human history. Most of the time we cannot stop them or control them. We can, however, choose how to respond. This is true for each of us on an individual level, even as it is true for those of us who are called to lead churches and religious communities.
As I write this I am currently visiting our university's Oregon campus. We have a Master's cohort here studying for their degree. Driving down from somewhat smoky Seattle to the very smoky Portland/Salem area and talking with some of the residents here, I became so much more aware of the disaster that has unfolded for so many here. In the hotel I stayed at last night I am fairly sure there were refugees from the wildfires. At least one of the churches in our denomination has burned to the ground. The crisis has come.
For the ministers in these communities, there is no option to ignore what is going on. They are called to serve and love others, and I have no doubt that many are doing so, and doing so well.
Over the past many months, we have all faced a different challenge: the pandemic. Nearly 200,000 people have died of it in the United States. Our way of live has changed. Tensions and subsequent crises have blossomed out from all of this. But, despite the negative press from a few bad actors amongst the ranks of pastors, I am happy that so many churches have looked to find ways to serve their people and their communities during this season. The crisis came, and so many did so much to meet it.
Meeting the challenges that come: physical, spiritual, financial, psychological, and otherwise. This is part of what it is to be a Christian leader. It is not a duty from which we should shrink. Not for a minute. And yet: not all crises offer solutions as direct. Not every response to disaster is as straightforward as finding housing for the displaced or food or finances for those those in need.
Sometimes the crises are systemic. Sometimes they are political. In the face of these thornier topics, we have a much larger temptation to just want to back down. Like me when I went a four-year blog writing hiatus, we just cannot seem to bring ourselves to say or do anything.
Living out a self-imposed gag order out of fear or failure of nerve is not our calling, though. Our calling is to shepherd those under our care. It is hard. But it is right there. We cannot look away. We cannot shy from it. And, if we are a shepherd, those to whom we are called are sheep (to follow the metaphor). At the heart of that image is the idea that they are under our care. But unlike sheep, they are not instinct-driven pack animals. They are thinking, processing, reflective, and soulful beings, yearning for what is more, and facing the void together with us. They wrestle with belief in the midst of unbelief. They grapple with truths. And sometimes they, like us, just do not know what to do. These are the the ones we are called to shepherd.
Leaders: I know you do not have all the answers. Honestly, I don't know if we can (or even should). But we do have a platform and an opportunity. To listen. To talk. To lead by asking good questions and deeply exploring the unexplored. And I understand: this is a hard thing. Mention Donald Trump and the trenches are already dug. Consider the Black Lives Matter conversation and tensions explode. But you know what: the God who cares for our world, the God who cares for the way we live in it as citizens, the God who invites us to pray that His Kingdom comes? I do not think this God wants us to pass by these things thoughtlessly.
When faced with political and electoral tension, or when asked to confront the complexities of American racial relations and systems of injustice--very relevant topics for American pastors today--we cannot remain silent. The crisis has come. What do we do now?
That is why I am writing here. That is why I challenge you to lead others in these things. In dialogue. Through questions. By pointing to the eternal in the midst of the temporal.
We who get to lead them? Who get to help them explore love, truth, and the questions (and answers) of God in the midst of our fractured existence? We have the privilege to do so. But only if we get down to it and actually do it. So friends, let's not shrink from it. Let's answer the call of our times. Because what used to be next is now. And what is next? Well, it's next. So let's get ready.