Wednesday, April 02, 2014

How to Serve as God's Representative

You must not be proud of one of God’s teachers more than another. What are you so puffed up about? What do you have that God hasn’t given you? And if all you have is from God, why act as though you are so great, and as though you have accomplished something on your own?- 1 Corinthians 4:6-7

I was raised in a traditional religious setting that many Friends would call programmed. Starting from a young age, words and rituals like confirmation, baptism, and communion were known to me. As a young child, I grew very attached to the minister. She appreciated my intellectual precocity and acted in many ways as a second mother to me. Years later, when in the middle of upheaval in another church many miles away, I recognized how she had managed to remain the minister for several consecutive years. She hadn’t rocked the boat and had not challenged the congregation.  

I’ve seen other female ministers adopt this same stance, for the same reason. Among a persistent minority, women have no place in the ministry. Before I turn this piece into an ain’t it awful discussion, it should be noted that male ministers dodge the very same difficult topics. Though unprogrammed Friends have no called ministry, the temptation among each of us is often to skirt the identical, problematic theological points. These take place within committees rather than the sermon. Many liberal Quakers prefer to see the glass always half full, forgetting that good intentions are only part of a much larger, essential dialogue.

Church politics always shows itself during a leadership transition, regardless of the form it takes. In this case, returning to my past, I mean the selection of a new minister, or perhaps an assistant minister. I’ve seen the very worst of people in situations like these. The outgoing minister often has built up a cult of personality around him or her. Members of the congregation are loyal to him or her more than the church as a whole. When the minister leaves, they do, too.

Those who remain serve as judges for the beauty pageant to follow. A committee is formed. It agrees to select a new minister after doing research and then interviewing several worthwhile candidates. The committee makes its decision with enough objectivity to justify its time and enough subjectivity that they can get away with. Most churchgoers eventually grow attached to their new leader in the pulpit, but some nurse old grievances.  

The verse of Scripture I referenced above pertains to the always-problematic Corinthian church. Paul had to write directive after directive to make sure everyone was on the same page and that factionalism had no place there. The Corinthians had split into various cliques, each following its own superstar preacher. Each clique believed that it was the only one who held the truth. As a result, they felt spiritually prideful. No preacher has more authority than another, but we can be very competitive at times, whether we realize it or not.

In the early days of Christianity, the faith practiced was more similar to Quaker unprogrammed worship then what would develop centuries later. The ritual, dogma, and doctrine that many people of faith observe today are much more recent creations. It might even be feasible in unprogrammed Worship to have two or three spiritually powerful ministers who enrich Meeting for Worship for everyone. Some Meetings may be blessed with more than one weighty friend whose vocal ministry is of a consistently high quality.

It is easy for us to become attached to a spiritual leader. When someone helps us or inspires us, it’s only natural to feel loyalty. But back to the above passage, Paul warns against having too much pride in our favorite leaders, if this pride causes divisions in the church. They don't have to be living or even be physically present in Worship. These leaders can be the typical liberal demigods: Martin Luther King, Jr., the Dalai Llama, and Thích Nhất Hạnh, to name only a few. These few have reached rarefied air. My grandparents felt the same attachment to Robert E. Lee, who has since been dubbed “The Marble Man” because his legacy has now overshadowed the details of his life.  

Any true spiritual leader is God’s representative. He or she has nothing to offer that God’s hasn’t already given him or her. Those who spend more time debating church leadership and church decisions don’t have God, the Holy Spirit, or Jesus as their top priority. Our deepest loyalties are to God, not to other humans. Learning to be attuned to Spirit would put aside many questions and enrich our lives tremendously.  

This particular point is worth emphasizing. Our spiritual gifts come from God alone, not ourselves. Should I give a vocal ministry in Meeting for Worship, an unseen force guides my works. Words and phrases I would have never chosen in any other setting arrive. What I speak is partially me and partially the Holy Spirit. Much to God's credit, I have never lacked for words when I find it my turn. May each of us listen closely to the Spirit, who should we reach out, will keep us from outrunning our guide.