Searching For Relevance
"A City On A Hill?"
June 29, 2018
Recently, several people have inquired as to what I thought were the most challenging times over the course of my 36 years in local church ministry. It took me a minute or so, as I mentally reviewed events, actions, and crisis from that time span before I could respond. After all, those years included: recessions, wars, and natural disasters (i.e. the Challenger and Twin Towers), along with multiple elections, impeachments; as well as economic booms and busts. All of which impacted the spirit of the nation, the corporate lives of congregations, and the individual lives of church members. And contrary to the wishful thinking of some, neither the church, nor its constituency, exist in a “bubble” of isolation. One way or another, these things affect our lives as they impact our spirits and we bring them with us to church, as we rightly should!
So, this was not an easy question answer. But after reflecting, I did respond and my answer was “Now”— “Today”! These feel like the most challenging times I have ever labored in as a pastor. Why? Because of the atmosphere of hostility and incivility that currently exists. We see it on the news. We experience on our highways. It has infected our relationships, dividing families and ending friendships. It feels as though everyone wants you to take a side . . . their side . . . on any and all matters. “What’s your position on . . . ?” “What do you think about . . .?” “Who do you believe is telling the truth about . . . ?” I’m okay with all of these questions as a pastor if they are expressed in an open, dialogical, and respectful way. But too often, these questions do not feel like genuine inquiries regarding the application of faith to life, but the expectation of an agreement (maybe with that the assumption of God’s blessing) of a position already held by the person asking.
I understand that there can be no Democracy without opposing viewpoints. I realize that’s intrinsically how it works! However, without fair, open, honest, and respectful sharing of our varying perspectives, there can be no successful and healthy way forward. On a “micro” level we all know the truth of what I’m saying. Marriage counselors affirm that by the time a couple seeks a resolution to their conflict, the best that can be accomplished is an amicable divorce. Too many years of harmful words and personal attacks. Whatever love was present at one time or another has been frayed to the point of snapping, and this is how I feel as a pastor and institutional leader these days.
Leonard Sweet, the noted author and speaker, addressed this very subject when years back, he wrote, “our choice in life is whether to always be RIGHT or in RELATIONSHIP.” In other words, having others bend to your will (can you feel the line in the sand?), or having others, despite differences, as a part of your life? I recall the close bond of Senators McCain and Kennedy, politicians who couldn’t have been more divergent in their views for the solution of our society’s gravest issues. Their differences were vocal and obvious. What they never lost, however, was their agreement that there were issues … critical issues … that needed attention and nothing could be accomplished, for the good of something bigger and greater than either of them, if they were intransigent in their thinking and uncivil in their attitude.
No passage from scripture has been quoted in the public square more than Matthew 5: 14, “You are the light of the world — a city on top of a hill . . .” First applied to our country by John Winthrop aboard the Mayflower as he reminded his fellow Pilgrims that they had to be “knot together in their work as one . . . holding each other in brotherly affection.” Since then, this passage, with it’s accompanying image, has been used by Presidents Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama as an illustration of how important it is to remember who we choose to be as a people, and as a result, what we model for the world. And what we are modeling these days, greatly concerns me. But let’s not forget, the ultimate responsibility for the attitude and spirit of our nation lies not with others, but each of us.
What will be the plumbline by which we choose to move ahead? Do the means always justify the ends? What is our highest priority? Are we more committed to always being right, or in relationship with each other? And is the main thing, or at least what we claim to be the main thing of our faith, LOVE . . . still . . . the main thing?
And this is not . . . a political statement . . . but an ethical, moral, scriptural . . . Jesus statement. Because Jesus recognized that none of us live in a bubble, and “us” includes the church .
Sincerely In Christ,
Rev. Dr. Keith A. Haemmelmann