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During the past year I have served as a consultant in two churches involved in conflict. In both cases, misunderstood or inappropriate communication by email or on FaceBook increased the conflict. Out of those experiences, I wrote the following piece for the Center for healthy Churches. It originally appeared on the CHC website
|By Joel Snider
CHC CoachHave you ever:
If you haven’t had one of these experiences, you’ve had one similar. We can all share stories of digital communication gone wrong.
Members of faith communities today often ask, “How will we relate to each other as Christians in a digital world? How will we treat our brothers and sisters in Christ in the ever-changing cyber-world?” Many assume they know the answers, only to discover that not all members of the fellowship share the same convictions.
How do we come to a common understanding of appropriate digital communication? A church may adopt an official policy on the subject, but policies are only enforceable with employees. How does the broader membership agree on principles of internet conduct?
While exploring this idea, I discovered the concept of a digital covenant between members – a common commitment to how we treat each other in the virtual world as part of Christ’s church. I don’t have a finished product, but here are some suggested principles.
Remember Colossians 3:17 – “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus….” We don’t have permission to stray from the mind of Christ just because we are angry, or participating in sports – or because we are on the internet. Paul mentions no exclusions to “everything.”
These are starting points for a covenant about how we treat each other in the digital age.Consider having a church discussion about the idea. Develop your own principles and then pledge together to treat others on the internet in a way that honors Christ.
I’ve never been on Facebook. I’m one of the few Ludites left who is concerned about privacy. Therefore, I’ve not seen firsthand the interest in one of my sermons on parenting that has resurfaced. I appreciate the kind words that have been forwarded about it
Based on that sermon, several parents have asked, “What are the questions to ask our children?” Since I entered retirement, I’ve been working on a book about this idea. The current title is Seven Conversations. I won’t try to preview the whole book here but in response to texts and emails, here are the basics:
How can we wait? Teaches delayed gratification.
How can you do that yourself? Teaches independence.
What shall we eat? Invites the family to a common table.
What are we thankful for? Teaches gratitude.
What shall we give? Teaches generosity.
What shall we pray for? Instills faith.
I’ll save the seventh as a tease. I’ll get to another post soon to explain why these questions and qualities are important.
If you are interested in more about parenting, scroll right and read my post “The Lottery,” if you dare.
I read about a woman in New York City who was interviewed as she departed church one Sunday. A reporter asked, “What is Easter?” The woman said, “Easter is when we throw off the robes of winter.” A critic of Christianity said, “Easter is a spring ritual celebrating the ancient myths of the Mediterranean mind.”
Christians and nonchristians alike tend to join Easter with the arrival of spring. Between now and April 1, we will see countless pointers to new blooms, the end of winter’s grayness, and the reemergence of green in our yards. Spring is our dominant metaphor for Easter.
I want to raise the question: is spring an appropriate analogy for Easter? Perhaps not. I came to this conclusion several years ago when I traveled to the Southern Hemisphere for the first time. One of the things that I really wanted to see while there was the Southern Cross, that constellation that can only be viewed south of the equator. One night in Kenya, I asked a resident of the country to help me find it in the night sky. There it was.
That experience started me thinking about the differences in the hemispheres. I paid attention in social studies as a child, so I knew the seasons are opposite. I wondered, “What do they do about Easter down here, when nothing is blooming and everything is dying?” How do have Easter if you can’t point to green grass, flowers in bloom, or the death of winter passing away? How do you celebrate Easter south of the equator, without the metaphor of spring? I goggled sermons in every English-speaking country south of the equator that I could think of. I discovered they do quite well without spring.
A couple of years later, I found these statements by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Mediations on the Cross:
Good Friday is not about the darkness that necessarily must give way to light. Nor is it the winter sleep or hibernation that stores and nurtures the germ of life. Rather, it is the day when the incarnate God, incarnate love, is killed by human beings who want to become gods themselves. It is the day when the holy One of God, that is, God himself, dies, really dies—of his own will and yet as a result of human guilt. p. 71
Easter does not celebrate a struggle between darkness and light….It does not celebrate a struggle between winter and spring, between ice and sunshine. Rather, it remembers the struggle of guilty humankind against divine love, or better: of divine love against guilty humankind. p. 70-71
In the beginning chapters of Paul’s First Letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul is speaks to the Corinthians about earthly wisdom, worldly wisdom, and how there is nothing in it that would make you think about how God saves us. Paul says, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the Gospel, not with words of human wisdom lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
Skip ahead to chapter 2 and we read, “And the things we speak of, we were not taught by human wisdom, but we were taught by the spirit who expressed spiritual truths and spiritual words.” His point is you could look at spring all your life and never come up with the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. The cross is foolishness.
Too often we ask nature to do our preaching for us. We ask questions such as, “How could you look at the beauty of spring and not believe in God?” As if that experience tells all a person needs to know about God and Christ. Can we look at blooming azaleas and deduce, “Love your neighbor as yourself”? Is there anything in a dogwood that says, “Love your enemy”? Is there anything in grass turning green that says, “If you would be my disciple, deny yourself and pick up your cross daily and follow me”? In all of nature is there anything that says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, and his son came into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him”?
We need to remember that Easter is not simply a time of general renewal but this is a time when we come to worship because Christ has redeemed us by his cross — and the last enemy has been destroyed.
“The Lottery” is a famous American short story. It has appeared in countless literature textbooks and anthologies since The New Yorker first published Shirley Jackson’s piece in 1948. The event which gives the story its title takes place in a small American town as residents prepare for the annual drawing of lots. Jackson describes the preparations and the emotional anticipation of the characters getting ready to pull slips of paper from a black box. Not until Bill Hutchinson draws the black dot do we begin to see that this is a lottery no one wants to win. After a second drawing among the Hutchinson family, Bill’s wife, Tessie, holds the single slip with the black dot. When the story ends with the rest of the village stoning Tessie, we realize that the only thing Tessie wins in this lottery is the opportunity to be a victim.
The story has sparked controversy for decades. Most readers find it hard to identify with a village that could turn its back on one of its own and ignore the cries about the injustice of the lottery of death.
My mind turned to “The Lottery” recently when I heard the story of Brian, a middle-school student diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. The treatments compromised his immune system and he was forced to avoid crowds. For months his mother home schooled him until his ability to fight infection recovered to the point that he could return to classes. You can imagine his anticipation as he prepared to get back to his normal routine and to be with friends again.
You can also imagine his surprise when he returned to school and his friends ignored him. Maybe we should say they shunned him. None of his friends had anything to do with him. Disturbed by her son’s account of the day, Brian’s mother called the mother of one of his friends to see what happened.
The friend’s mother reported that several parents met during Brian’s absence and decided their children could not be Brian’s friends any longer — because he was going to die. His death, the woman explained to Brian’s mother, would be too traumatic for their children, so it was best they cease being friends now, in order to lessen their grief later. No one has said that Brian is certain to die, but Brian’s friends ignored him to save themselves the possibility of pain.
Congratulations, Brian, you’ve won “the lottery,” where being one among thousands means losing, not winning. It means being cut off from the people who once surrounded you as community and friends — and now turn their backs on you as you die. Just like Tessie Hutchinson.
In case you are wondering, yes, this is a true story. I’ve altered the circumstances to protect both the innocent and the shameful. Though I will never meet them, I would like to address the parents of Brian’s friends.
If you only take one thing from this article let it be this: you cannot protect your children from grief. If Brian dies, your children will still grieve. Long ago I tested a theory of mine. I asked people, “Who was the first person your age that you can remember dying?” As most people remember where they were when Kennedy was shot or when the World Trade Center was attacked, every person I asked had an immediate answer. They remembered a child hit by a car. A teenager who died of a mysterious heart attack. A suicide. They remembered the name of those who died and their age when it happened. Your children will remember, too. You can’t protect them from knowing and you can’t make them forget.
You cannot stop death from coming near your children and you cannot stop them your from grieving when it does. By removing them from contact with Brian, all you have done is added the prospect of shame to your child’s grief if Brian dies. Your children will know he died and they will remember they turned their back on him when he needed them most. I have seen the grief of those who failed to do their part as a friend or family member died. No grief is pretty, but the grief of the guilty is the ugliest of all.
And, in your effort to protect your child, what if you do raise a son or daughter who has no connection to those in pain, no grief for the dying, and no guilt for their own actions? Congratulations, you have raised a sociopath. Look up the definition. Was that your intention?
And, if we follow the plot of Shirley Jackson’s story, what about next year? What if your child is the next to win the lottery? Will you voluntarily withdraw from public life so that their surviving friends will not have to love your sons and daughters, lest they grieve more when your children are gone? What if you get cancer? Will you move away from your children to spare them the pain of seeing you die? No, you will cling to every precious moment because, like Brian, you will need the presence of those you love.
I have a suspicion that the issue here is not the tender feelings of the children, but your own fear. The fear that you will have to think about death and try to explain it to your children. The fear of your own children’s grief. The fear of facing the prospect that your children are also mortal. It is a terrible thing to love that which can be taken from us.
The adage says “growing old is not for sissies.” Neither is parenting. So buck up and take the responsibility that you cannot put aside, no matter how difficult it is. You signed on for the task when your children were born.
Teach your children that true love is not without sacrifice, but it is the sacrifice that makes it most dear. Teach your children that real life cannot be avoided, but it can be lived courageously. Teach them that faith in Christ is strong enough to sustain us, even when we don’t understand all that happens around us.
You cannot control the events in your child’s life. Such control is an illusion. You can, however, help your children develop the virtues and the faith that empower them to bear with and to overcome life’s most painful moments. But first you will have to acquire them yourselves.
This post was originally prepared for the Center for Healthy Churches. If you are interested in discussing how to plan for retirement in another field, make a comment below, or email me.
I admit it – I am anal. A classic “Type A.” I’ve tested as a conscientious personality style, the characteristics of which include: not resting until the job is done and done right, working hard to do well, and loving to work and be challenged. If there were a club for those least likely to retire early I would be a charter member. Last May, however, I retired at 63 and haven’t regretted it a day.
In order to make this transition, I started thinking about retirement eight years ago. Two factors weighed on me. First, I knew I wouldn’t be happy in retirement without something meaningful to do. Finding something to fulfill me in my post-pastor chapter of life could not wait until the day after my last Sunday. Second, my love for the congregation would not allow me to walk away from the pastorate with a large amount of unfinished business (there’s the conscientious personality trait rearing it’s head). If I had hopes of retiring I had to know what I could do for personal fulfillment and I had to know what God needed me to do in the church I served. I could not discover these two things overnight; they required much prayer and work. Eight years seemed a workable timeframe, so at 57, I began a journey of spiritual discernment.
I “tried out” a few paths to personal fulfillment. Some did not satisfy, including training as a mediator. I also created a website where I could author in small doses to see if writing would be gratifying. That experiment worked. Leadership coaching already provided significant gratification and felt like a ready-made extension of ministry, so I continued to develop those skills.
Additionally, a friend and I developed a list of things we wanted to do, if only we had more time. We all know the tyranny of a crowded calendar on a beautiful spring day. These are the days we want to be outside, soaking up the sunshine, but we have people needing appointments and deadlines to meet. With the help of my friend and I created a simple catalog of “things I’d like to do today.” I wanted to learn Excel, take better photographs, go cycling…I have more than 25 things on that list.
Consequently, the day I retired I was training for a cycling trip. Three writing projects awaited me, along with multiple coaching clients.
Along with the joy of grand-parenting and family life, they provide satisfaction and avenues to continue my calling to minister. Had I not planned ahead and discarded a few interests that did not fulfill, I would not have been ready. On the few days I’ve suffered boredom, I take a hike, grab my camera, or cycle an extra hour, relishing the fact I have time to do them.
The discernment process also uncovered three major projects which seemed necessary in the life of the church. I sketched a rough timeline for them and began to work toward their completion. A nugget of wisdom says: “the days are long, but the years are short.” Without the intentional plan for these long-range projects, it would have been easy for time to slip away, while waiting for a more convenient time to begin them.
God speaks to each of us in different ways. On a February day, two months after surgery resulting from cancer screening, God spoke to me. I didn’t hear a voice, but the Spirit made a clear impression on my heart. It was time to retire. When I felt that prompting, I was ready. I had discovered some things that were fulfilling to me and I could see the end of the church projects I had started. I could see where one path transitioned into another. In May I announced to the congregation I would retire twelve months later.
One more thing remained. During my last year, I made regular lists of my duties. What pastoral tasks happened weekly, monthly, and annually? What processes did I initiate that might not occur to anyone else? I was 42 when I went to First Baptist in Rome — the junior member of the staff. After 20 years I possessed much of the institutional memory. With the help of others, I compiled a list of my duties and made explanatory notes for many of them. I believe that list was the most helpful thing I did for the congregation, prior to retirement.
Planning for retirement is about more than IRA’s and Social Security. If we take our callings seriously, retirement planning includes discerning what Christ needs from us in our current roles. We all want to know we finished well. We also want to consider how to continue our calling in another form. There is no retirement from our Christian commitment, but that doesn’t mean we have to keep the same role.
I wrote the following article for The Center for Healthy Churches. It originally appeared at chcchurches.org.
Recently I returned to my home state of West Virginia to conduct a funeral for a distant relative. Following the service at the funeral home, we drove to the cemetery in a procession. After arriving, I walked to the back of the hearse where I joined the funeral director and six pall bearers I did not know. We stood awkwardly while we waited for others to exit their cars and for the family members to take their places.
While standing there, we heard it A loud, metallic buzz that came from nearby trees. Very loud. It faded slightly and then rose again. The pall bearers looked over their shoulders, trying to see the source of the noise. “The seventeen year locusts,” pronounced the funeral director, who had seen the questioning on all our faces. “They’re back. Its the seventeen year locusts.”
I had not thought of them since I was a child, living with my grandparents. Perhaps I’ve lived in the wrong regions of the country, or in a city, where they don’t’ swarm, but I hadn’t heard them or thought about them in decades. But I remember my grandmother telling me how particular strains of locusts had a long life cycle, much of which approached dormancy. Then, after seventeen years they appeared again in large swarms. Now, here they were, swarming and buzzing, One pall beard noted that they sounded apocalyptic – so great was their noise.
My grandmother warned they’d be back, but I wasn’t paying much attention when I was twelve. I had more pressing things to do in the next seventeen years than to wait on the return of locusts. From the time she told me about them until they returned the first time I would live in four states, get my driver’s license, graduate from high school, college, and seminary. I would marry and be waiting on my second child to be born. With that much living to do, who has time to think about something that takes seventeen years to happen?
Now, in my sixties, I stood behind the hearse and listened to the swarm. I made the quick calculation and realized, that since my first encounter with the locusts, I have lived through three, seventeen year cycles. How long seventeen years seemed back then; how quickly 51 years have gone by since. This is always the problem in taking the long view in life. The future looks incredibly distant from the front side and remarkably short from the back side.
If only we could learn to take a long view of life when we were younger. When I hear an older people say, “If I had known how long I was going to live, I would have taken better care of myself,” I know they wish they had taken the long view. I’ve read articles by investors who wish they had placed more trust in the power of compound interest over time instead of trying to hit the moon every year with a hot stock tip.
I believe the long view of life is the healthiest and most effective. It allows us to be intentional about life and purpose instead of responding to the “tyranny of the urgent” the things which get in our way and demand our attention.
What does it look like to take the long view in ministry? Here is one, simple idea: write down a preferred future for you and your church. It may be a detailed strategic plan, but it may simply be a guiding sentence. Look at it no less than once a month and do one concrete thing to move forward the vision God has given you.
Funerals happen. People show up at your office door unannounced. Interruptions abound. Therefore, don’t get discouraged if you don’t wok on the plan every day or every week. But every month, do at least one thing to move it forward. Do something to move the glacial pace of change and improvement one inch in the direction God indicates. Just one inch.
An inch every month may not seem like much, from where you stand today, but by the time the locusts return you’ve moved seventeen feet. When you take the long view, incremental movement adds up over time.
We can apply the power of long term, incremental change to the churches we serve, or to our personal lives – losing weight, working on a degree, or writing that book we’ve dreamed of authoring. Moving an inch here, losing a pound there, writing a page this month and next. Pretty soon you’ve made progress. Real progress.
The key is to get started today. From experience I can tell you that the locusts will be back before you know it.
Special thanks to Sam Ratcliff for the great shots from my retirement day. Thanks to Nancy for delivering!
Forgiveness is the number one spiritual problem. That’s my experience after 40 years in the ministry. More individuals struggle with the dynamics of forgiveness than any other spiritual issue. They ask questions such as:
“Can God forgive me for ________.” Fill in the blank. with your own worst sin.
“How can I ever forgive ______ for what he/she did?” Fill in the blank with the name of the person who has hurt you the worst.
“How can I forgive myself?”
I’ve encountered very few people – Christians or non-Christians – who have resolved all of these questions. Consequently, I’ve preached often on forgiveness and collected many books on the subject. One book that I’ve seen referenced, but had not read is Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower. Thus, during my first week of retirement I read it and offer some observations.
Those with a decent memory of the Holocaust will remember that Wiesenthal was a Austrian Jew and a concentration camp survivor who went on to be the most effective hunter of Nazi war criminals following WWII. The Sunflower represents his own encounter with the dynamics of forgiveness and is written in two parts.
The first portion of the book describes an event that occurred when Wiesenthal was a prisoner in WWII. One day while on a work detail in a hospital, a nurse approached him and bade him to follow her. Wiesenthal found himself in a room with a single patient, an SS officer dying of grave wounds. The Nazi officer’s head was wrapped in bandages could see nothing of his face.
With great physical and spiritual difficulty the officer described his transition from “a good Catholic” prior to the rise of National Socialism in Germany to an SS officer who participated in a heinous atrocity against the Jewish inhabitants of a village on Germany’s Eastern front with the Soviets. This officer helped corral old men, women and children into a house drenched in gasoline and then set the house on fire with grenades. He and his comrades shot those who tired to escape. He shot one family in particular who stared straight at him in fear and pain as they jumped to their deaths.
The SS officer explained that he did not want to die with this crime on his conscience. He had asked the nurse to bring a Jew to his room in order that he might confess to him (all the prisoners in this context being male.).
Although Wiesenthal shows fragments of compassion to the SS officer during his telling of his story, when the officer asks for forgiveness, Wiesenthal eventually leaves the room in silence, withholding the forgiveness that he had sought. Wiesenthal then struggles with his decision and discusses it with other prisoners. After the war he located the officer’s mother and visited her, offering solace. But he did not forgive and asks the reader whether or not he was right in his decision.
The remainder of the book is comprised of essays by Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist thought leaders who respond to Wiesenthal’s question. Their divergent responses further suggest that forgiveness is a pivotal, spiritual problem. There are themes that appear and reappear, but there is no agreement on what Wiesenthal did or should have done.
Several of the essayists ask whether Wiesenthal had the capacity to forgive on behalf of others. If he was not among the SS officer’s victims, did he have standing to forgive?
Others ask if Wiesenthal had forgiven the SS officer, would he have done justice to the victims. They suggesting that for Wiesenthal to forgive would slight the victims’ injuries; therefore, they counsel that he did the correct thing by not forgiving.
Other writers ascribe impure motives to the SS officer. Was his confession genuine? Did he continue to objectify Jews by asking that a representative Jewish man hear his confession? Why didn’t he confess to a priest? I found the assumptions behind many of these criticisms to be highly prejudiced and unhelpful.
A few respondents, chief among them the Dali Lama, recognized that forgiveness is essentially about the heart of the person offering forgiveness. With that understanding of forgiveness, Wiesenthal could have offered forgiveness from himself to the officer. He could have expressed that the officer’s past actions did not dictate Wiesenthal’s future attitude and actions toward him. This view coincides with my own understanding of forgiveness.
The essays not only point out the critical nature of forgiveness as a spiritual problem, but they also serve as evidence that there is confusion about the vocabulary surrounding forgiveness.
In the New Testament, forgiveness is not presented as the equivalent of full reconciliation or as the restoration of fellowship between two, estranged parties. Forgiveness is the attitude of the injured party directed toward the injurer. In this attitude the heart of the injured does not count the injury as the defining issue between the two. Instead, love – agape love – defines the relationship – at least from the side of the injured. Forgiveness is the removal of the obstacles of hate, anger, or the desire for vengeance which stand in the way of possible reconciliation. In direct relationship to the Greek of the NT, it is letting go of all these negative attitudes.
With humans, this new perspective represents a change from all the negative emotions which had previously defined the relationship between the injured and the injurer. With God, the desire is always there, always reaching toward us. Forgiveness is an expression of God’s constant and abiding love. Romans 5:8 says: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Therefore, forgiveness in the NT is not identified with reconciliation; it is a stage antecedent to reconciliation. It is that which makes reconciliation possible. Repentance on the part of the injuring party allows forgiveness to be received. Then reconciliation may take place. In our relationship with God, it means accepting what God was already offering. This understanding of forgiveness is missing in the majority of essays in the second part of The Sunflower.
Additionally, as a Christian I remember Jesus’s resurrection statement to the disciples in John 20:22-23:
“And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (ESV)
Christens do have a ministry of forgiveness.
I don’t offer these observations as a debate about the correctness of Christian theology vis a vis Jewish theology, but my tradition does direct my response, just as the Jewish tradition directs Wiesenthal’s.
I wonder what the response of a Viktor Frankl or Corrie Ten Boom might have been. Both were alive and available when the first edition of The Sunflower was published.
Cherry and I have spent our first Sunday of retirement going to church together. We have done that rarely over the past 35 years and it was one of my goals for this new chapter of life. We worshipped at the Chapel on Bald Head Island, NC.
We also enjoyed watching worship at FBC.
Sunday marked my retirement from First Baptist Church of Rome. It is a wonderful church made up of great people.
I’d like to thank the ministers I’ve worked with: Keith Reaves, Music and Worship; Tamara Smathers, Education and Administration; John Uldrick, Students and Missions; Gwen Stephens, Interim Faith Development (Children and Preschool. They are a wonderful group of Christians who are dedicated to their callings. They have made me a better pastor .
I’d also like to thank the church for hosting a marvelous reception last Thursday night. Cherry and I were honored and humbled by the presence of everyone who came. We are not half-way through reading notes, letters, and remembrances that you have sent.
I’m also thankful for conversations that retirement afforded. Concluding my ministry at FBC precipitated the opportunity to express affection, respect, healing, and hope to each other in ways that we might not do if next week looked the same as last week. Routine can kill initiative, but the conclusion of 21 years together made it possible to say things that were long overdue. I am thankful for these exchanges.
John Head mentioned on Sunday morning that I plan to write. You could not tell it from visiting this website over the past weeks. One of my goals is to write here much more often than I haven the past few months. Without a sermon to prepare, The Substance of Faith site will be primary outlet for book reviews and observations. I’ll have more on those future plans soon.
Again, there are no words to express appreciation to the great people of FBC for your kindness and generosity. Cherry and I love you all and join you in praying for the Pastor Search Committee as they continue their work.