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A Season of Gratitude, Not Anxiety

More than once in these pages I've linked you to a quarterly magazine produced by Yale Divinity School called Reflections: A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry.  I've enjoyed having a bit of a relationship with that magazine, and it's been an honor to be included among its writers.  Almost a year ago I was invited to write something for an issue the editor Ray Waddle was putting together on the future of congregational ministry.  I hesitated, partly because I was on sabbatical and partly because I didn't know what to say.  But after pondering a bit, I sat in a cafe outside the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem and started writing.  What came out was included in that Fall, 2015 issue. Here's the beginning, with a link to the rest if you're interested:

From Reflections, Fall, 2015 (full citation at the link below)

A Season of Gratitude, Not Anxiety
Author: Wesley Avram 

I had just met with the YDS Dean’s Advisory Council, tending to statistics, initiatives, projections, and the school’s institutional strength. It felt like a good meeting. I hurried to my rented car to drive down to my 30th reunion at Princeton Theological Seminary. The timing of the YDS meeting allowed me to include the reunion in my plans. 

Nice coincidence. I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. Too busy. Too programmed. Too distracted by ministry. So the scheduling allowed four days to celebrate theological education and its impact on pastoral ministry. I connected with old friends, heard lectures, remembered days when a sense of calling into parish ministry felt both clear and innocent. We compared notes. It was good.

An Unexpected Critique

Then came the final Princeton convocation. Eugene Peterson was the preacher. The seminary chapel was packed. It was to be a worshipful affirmation of our vocation and service. Eugene’s lecture, though, was anything but a celebration of our accomplishments. It felt more like a deep and heartfelt critique.

He spoke of his own ambition as a young pastor decades ago, and how an innocent desire to serve the gospel by serving the church quickly morphed into a predictable desire to run good programs, please his congregants, fill the pews, be relevant, meet every expectation, and stay busy. As he put it, he became a caricature of himself: “If there was a deformation to which I as a pastor was subject, it was becoming a shopkeeper in religious goods and services.”

He laid bare his fetish for activity, achievement, and institutional measurement. He spoke of a chasm between his personal faith and an experience of ministry that brought less joy and blessing than ordination had promised. His diagnosis was loving but severe.

Time, Story, Place

He described how literature became his corrective. James Joyce’s Ulysses taught the value of the ordinary, of time as the place of God’s unfolding. Wallace Stegner reminded him of the power of story to texture the meeting of meaning and sense in human life. And Wendell Berry took him back to place, so he could see his congregation as a locale, even a world, in which rich complexity arises from limitation and connection grows from patient dwelling. 

The chapel was silent as his lecture advanced like waves on a beach. Most of the working pastors around me seemed to be working hard to avoid looking at each other.

Eugene finished with words of Peter Forsyth: “You have but a corner of the vineyard, and cannot appeal to all men; humility is a better equipment than ambition, even the ambition of doing much good.” Then he sat. And the room burst into applause, loud and sustained, with everyone soon standing. 

I stood too, but I didn’t want to. I found the ovation ironic. We had been exposed for all the ways we have acquiesced to deformations of the best of our vocation. We had been challenged to recover the work to which we’d all been promised in some way. Applause felt like an indecorous response to that call. I thought we should have just inhaled to recover our breath and then sat in silence, like at the end of a Maundy Thursday service: quiet because we know the import of the moment, expectant because we know it’s part of Easter’s story. Instead, we applauded, stood in line to shake hands, and went off to dinner.

... To read the rest of the article, go to: