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Posts Tagged ‘priests

A Primer On Non-Directive Community

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In recent months, we’ve been trying on a unique shape of community, one discerned over years of prayer and practice. It’s been good … but recently, I’ve experienced an awkward kind of tension in meetings (and not for the first time). Part of the reason, I think, is because I still have habits, as a pastor, that fit a different model of pastoring than the one I feel is called for in our project, in this season. Pastoring is often done from a front-of-the room position, where the pastor as ad-ministrator stands in the place between God and the people, putting into words the things that need saying—the pastor speaks to God on behalf of the whole community and to the whole community on behalf of God. It’s a model that has deep historical roots, and can be powerful when the pastor is able to hear God and the community really well. That’s all I will say about that.

I haven’t felt like that is the right model for this community project. We’ve had occasion to talk about leadership as a shared domain, not belonging only to a pastor-type. Leadership can come from people striking out in the power and perspective of their own God-given gifts. It’s been a hard sell: that is, it’s been easy for all of us to talk about, but hard to do. Because we all have these same organizing habits, I think. In practice, I am still the person who talks the most in meetings, and I wonder if my jabbering makes it hard for people to believe that they have as much right to the floor as I. To make matters worse, there is an old story (rarely spoken, firmly believed) that nobody is as qualified as pastors to “lead” in church. I think that’s wrong, and the problem is in how we think about leadership. Leadership is not expertise, or even one kind of skill above others … it is choosing to go after something and inviting people to join you. The person who gets to do that is the one who sees the opportunity and responds, and that person may or may not know what they are getting into, or how they will get out of trouble when it comes. That’s why they don’t go alone.

The invitation has been open for some time for people to bring their thoughts, readings, questions, problems, ideas, art, whatever, and to share them with the group, where we can join in with each other. Here are some examples of what that might look like in community, regardless of who is doing the sharing.

From my own weekly musings on life and faith, here are my offerings, and ways that I would hope the the community could respond; how others could join me in my pursuits.

1. I have a long-term concern for the day-workers, undocumented, and/or generally low-income and service-industry hispanics in my community. I am not comfortable when I see one racial group largely relegated (?) to a single social/economic status. I am disturbed by what I see, confounded by the complexities, and don’t know how to respond.

I would like nothing better than to talk and pray and explore these themes in my Christian community. I imagine different people taking up different aspects of the conversation: some might have a prayer response, some might bring scripture or other stories from faith history to light, some might make art to work out something that words can’t express. Or, and this is OK too, the group may bless me in my struggle and not join me in it … but having been heard, I would feel supported in a basic way. And more important, I would be known.

2. I want to do an art project next Easter to focus on resurrection during our (now, annual) lamb roast.

I would love for members of my community to make art along with me, wrestle with the theological questions around resurrection, and help me think about the practicalities of creating a semi-public event to communicate something of the power of this essential Christian idea.

3. In reading the letter to the Hebrews, I noticed how the author has a different way of speaking to readers than can be found in the letter to the Romans (more about grace and rest than sacrifice and obedience), which I thought had a real resonance for our community. It prompted me to think about our community like the Hebrews, and draw out the unique way that author calls people to God.

As I explored some of these scriptures, and drew out themes of rest and obedience, it was cool to be able to read, discuss, and pray with the group. I was satisfied by that. What would have taken it to the next level was some art-in-response, or a story from others about how these scriptures continued to resonate in the weekdays-in-between. Or not–negative responses provide their own refining quality.

Non-directive community is not without direction. It is, though, without a single director. When the community joins an individual as they “work out their salvation in fear and trembling”… and where every individual can have a turn if they want, then community gets stronger by encouraging and strengthening each individual in their God-given impulses. That is the great theory. Non-directive community is not without direction. It can be specific, focused, and purposeful. But the direction comes from within the community in a dynamic and organic way, and not from a single person.

An obvious fear of letting people lead out of their unique perspective is that there would be chaos or weirdness. But what I’m describing here is not an absence of pastoring, just a more dynamic kind of leadership. I don’t think pastors should disappear, no way. As a pastor I will always have a shepherd’s instincts, to see that people are safe to grow and explore in peace (and I’m not the only person with those instincts). I’ve always thought that sheep (to extend the metaphor) do not need to be told where to eat … they know pretty well where to find the fresh grass. Shepherds don’t need to spoon feed sheep, or to protect them from wandering off of cliffs—sheep are not lacking in intelligence, contrary to popular misconception. But there are risks, and shepherds tend to be the kind of people who keep their heads up, not down in the grass munching. King David was a shepherd, and he was very dangerous with a sling. How’d he get so good at hitting targets at distance, unless he was used to watching the horizon?

Anyhow, having put these things out there to the group, by way of example, I return to the Awkward Tension as I walk the line between pastor, leader, and community member. Now, pastor-guy has spoken, and people may default to “What if my ideas don’t measure up? What if the questions I struggle with are less theologically or culturally weighty?” It’s for this reason that I have tried to keep my mouth shut, making room for people to bring their own things. But this wasn’t working so well. The lack of communication on my part was not creating an environment where people would spontaneously do something that they had rarely (if ever) been asked to do in church. So in this case, it seemed (with a little nudging from Anghelika) like a good opportunity to throw some examples out there.

Each of us has a personal storehouse of musings on faith and life. These are the content that gives our community shape and are the shared struggles that connect us to one another. That is, if we are willing to risk sharing these things with one another.


Written by dmaddalena

2013/12/08 at 1:37 pm

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Maybe Not Rock Stars

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One of the very interesting things to me about Christian communities is that they are in some way meant to be a priesthood. Strange, when we’re used to thinking of priests as a specialized class of people, set apart for special duty within the church. It’s true, there will always be people set apart for certain tasks in any community, but some of the most important duties are meant to be shared by all. Priesthood is like that.

When a person comes to recognize that they belong in some way to God, they take on a new relationship with things. This can include changed perspectives, changed attitudes, and changed responsibilities. For the person in God’s camp, each of these things add up to the qualities of a priest: they now see with God’s eyes (the perspective of a priest), they love with a God-like love (the attitude of a priest), and they are sent to help people encounter God in a fresh way (the responsibility of a priest). Going back to some of the earliest stories in the bible, the whole collection of people that made up the people of God were somehow understood to be in priestly service to the rest of the world (you can read about how God gave them the job in Exodus 19).

This is a different way of thinking about priesthood: it is not a special class of people serving only the people within a special community, ie, church. It’s every member of a community (therefore the community as a whole) serving everyone else. The priestly burden is to be shared. ‘Priest’ does not mean solitary leader or ruler or gifted teacher. It means mediator of God’s perspectives, attitudes, and responses. Another way of thinking about it is that priests stand for God. And you can’t reserve that for a special class of people. Our God has taken a stand for each and every man, woman and child. And if God stands for each of us, then each of us can stand for God.

But how do we think about priests today? As an anachronism? As one third of a good joke? (Or, all of a bad joke?) Could the priesthood ever again be understood to be mediating the power and grace of a living God? Priests are pretty far from what you’d call popular: they’re no rock stars, who seem to be able to pull off bad behavior with no risk to their reputations.

I think I’ll be returning to this question of what a priest is more than once. Today I’ll leave as my first offering to the discussion a remarkable woodcut made by my wife’s grandfather, an artist who lived in the middle of the last century. He was an Orthodox Greek, and so the measure of his faith is somewhat obscure (which is always the result when religion is so intertwined with a culture). His work suggests that he thought deeper about the faith than most: he painted the interiors of a few important orthodox churches in Athens, which, if you know anything about orthodox churches, is a little bit like translating the entire bible and a good portion of sacred history into pictures.

by Spyros Vassiliou, c. 1944 (click to enlarge)

In this woodcut (about which I’ve written before), a priest is doing battle of a kind that most people wouldn’t understand today: his weapon is prayer, and he brings it to bear on a group of devils attacking a ship, which is in danger of sinking under their influence. This priest has got something going on that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in any other depiction of a priest: power, courage, guts, and an uncharacteristically kick-ass attitude. He’s come to play. I love it. The theological term for what you see in this portrait is not ass-kicking, begging your pardon, but intercession,  which means going to battle (usually in a spiritual mode) for the sake of another who needs your help. It’s not rock and roll, but if you’re on the sinking ship, it totally rocks.

This is a part of what it means to be a priest, which is a job-title that can be applied to anybody living life in the way of Jesus. A priest is a spiritual fighter, ready to get in the way of trouble, to intercede for the weary and the weak and the innocent, whenever and wherever they are at risk of being overcome. Often this is a spiritual exercise, accomplished in prayer. But not always.

I know that as a word, “priest”, hasn’t got a lot of street cred today, and I don’t know how to restore it except by making new histories. Looking at that portrait, painted almost 70 years ago, I get excited about the job. I can’t help it.

(Extra Credit: while nobody would mistake the priest in the woodcut for a rock star, there’s something going on there that even a rock star can recognize. The woodcut was used last year for the cover of Picture Atlantic’s awesome EP, Dulce Et Decorum Est.)

Written by dmaddalena

2011/01/23 at 12:43 am

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