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A reflection on Galatians 1
In a recent posting on Faith and Leadership, Will Willimon was commenting on Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton pushing for a constitutional amendment in Alabama that would allow legalized casinos. They said that there motivation was “jobs for casino workers in some of the state’s poorest counties”. Willimon wrote about the social devastation and corruption that casinos inevitably bring. Then, he reflected on “the peril of not being clear about the source of ministerial authority”.
It reminded me of Paul’s opening chapter in his letter to the Galatians. Paul spent 18 verses clearly setting out that his authority came from God’s call to him, not from any human authority. All the commentaries I have read on this chapter speculate that Paul was trying to establish his legitimacy in the minds of the Galatians. I wonder, though, whether or not he was also trying to keep clear for himself the source of his authority.
It is easy to lose sight of that source in ministry. For one thing, within a congregation, many people have different agendas for the minister. Trying to meet those agendas can leave very little time for prayer and for wrestling with the scriptures. It is a constant juggling act. Without a clear sense of what God has called one to be and to do in ministry, it is difficult to sort through all the demands and decide which ones to focus on and which ones to leave undone without feeling guilty.
The other challenge, however, comes from the diminishing authority and status of the clergy in the culture. When I was ordained 28 years ago, ordained ministers were held in relatively high regard in a community. I have seen that regard erode continuously over the years. The recurring scandals of clergy who have abused their authority have played some role in that. There is also a sense that clergy don’t do anything critically important or decisive. I remember talking with one woman about the levels of clergy compensation compared to other people with far less education. She commented, “Well, you have to take into account the importance of what they do.”
That lack of social regard can lead a minister to want to do something that affirms that what they do and who they are does have significance. That can also lead a minister to avoid doing some things that s/he fears would lead to diminished regard by others. For instance, I have seen clergy remain silent while someone has been treated unjustly because speaking out would jeopardize their own standing in the institution.
Another pressure comes from the cost of confronting corrupt systems. Part of the resistance to someone telling the truth comes in the form of an attack on the person who is raising uncomfortable questions. In such a situation, it is hard to remain free.
The first steps in Paul’s journey in freedom take him to the origins of his call and his authority. It’s God who sets the agenda. It’s God who gives authority and significance. Living the freedom that Christ gives means revisiting this regularly. I have found Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles enormously helpful in doing that.
While he acknowledges the pressures clergy are under to do many things, he reminds clergy of what is critical in their calling: the three practices of prayer, scripture and discernment. Without attention to those practices, the other activities don’t hold together. In all three, we re-direct our focus (which can get scattered in the press of the demands of the job) toward God.
Since the most decisive and determinative thing that’s going on in any situation is what God is up to, ‘working the angles’ becomes critical in staying on mission. I imagine it would still be possible to be mistaken in the stands we take on issues, since all of us are imperfect and discern God’s will imperfectly. But the focus on the three angles keeps a person open and creatively responsive to the work of the Holy Spirit. Walking in freedom becomes a matter of staying close to Jesus Christ who is our freedom.

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