Monday, January 14, 2008

What You Can Take With You

“I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.” Isaiah 49:4

Out of college I joined the staff of Christian Service Brigade in 1969 just after the movement had reached its peak, but no one knew it yet. I imagined myself as part of a cadre of pioneers looking to be on the cutting edge of ministry in the reverberations of cultural upheaval. A much diminished organization continues to serve churches, extruded into a thin wire that is a mere shadow of its former promise.

Candy and I threw ourselves into the heady brew at Countryside Chapel. This small congregation with many young families was a ready laboratory for daring experiments in church community. Non-denominational, out of the circuit of prominent churches, we were free from conventional models. We bonded deeply with each other. And one by one, God spread the core leadership across the country. The presumptuous dreams evaporated, unrecognizable in a merger with another congregation.

Working for Family Concern was a way to pursue my calling with Countryside Chapel. But after three years, the split time becoming untenable, this back-up became my career. Family Concern was on the verge of becoming more than a vehicle for J. Allan Petersen’s personal ministry. As I struggled with my “dark night of the soul” to discern my calling, I fought depression with the hard work of writing, editing and research. Though a catalyst for a host of marriage and family ministries, Family Concern did not have the velocity for escaping beyond a vehicle for personal ministry and phased out as J. Allan Petersen retired.

I still consider my seventeen years as Minister of Nurture with First Presbyterian Church of Mt. Holly, New Jersey (1980-1997) as the prime of my career. Great pastoral team, spiritually strong elder leadership, solid theological foundations, daring global and local mission engagement, creative and thoughtful worship innovation. How empowered I felt to be prepared and sent by this congregation to be the first pastor of a church with a bold vision in Milwaukee. How I have hurt to hear from my friends in New Jersey as that church has struggled and slipped to find its vision for the next generation after God moved that pastoral team in new directions.

At MorningStar Christian Church in Milwaukee, I relished the same pioneer spirit that had been so nourishing at Countryside Chapel. I quickly felt the crush of conflicting visions and competition among leaders that I was unable to reconcile. After only two years, relinquishing this ministry was necessary for the future of the congregation and the health of my family. The congregation sputtered and stumbled, many left, before a new pastor could be found and a new direction forged, which is markedly different than the bold dream that had brought that congregation into existence.

Since 2000, I have been the pastor of Central Christian Church in Dallas, Texas. This church, too, has had a long struggle and endured many crises. What will come of our vision to become a community based, urban, multicultural faith community, bringing the presence of Christ in the 21st Century is far from clear. Yet, my calling here is affirmed over and over from people within the congregation and leaders and colleagues in ministry in the larger church. At 61 years old, it is certainly not about adding to my résumé or building my career.

In terms of institutional success, I do wrestle with Isaiah’s feeling of having spent my strength for nothing and vanity. I remember with a deep ache the doubt of calling I felt in my dark night of the soul in the late 70’s. I recall in 1999 the dizzying bewilderment of being absolutely confident in God’s pastoral calling and gifting for me while having no confirmation of being sent as well as called when going from Wisconsin to Texas.

Yet, I still get notes and messages of the importance of my pastoral presence from many people whom God privileged me with in these past nearly 40 years. Clearly my legacy is not in bricks and mortar, nor in organizations. It is the people through whom God has enriched me over the years. I cannot imagine losing the contact with some of these folk by skipping one of the stops on my pilgrimage. Of course, buildings crumble and organizations dissolve, but people are raised to eternal life.

“You can’t take it with you” is certainly true, but you can take them with you. The people with whom we share faith in Jesus are our eternal treasure. I have often mused how the timelessness of the Kingdom of God means not having to hurry from conversation to conversation.

Even greater is the realization that God is my reward. My fleeting conversations with God, now in Scripture and prayer, will be leisurely and intimate beyond imagination. So my cause is not career or institution but with the Lord.

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