July 18, 2021
"Between Action and Contemplation"
Rev. Scott Landis
The General Synod of our United Church of Christ has been taking place this week in a virtual format. Instead of the usual 3,000 (or more) delegates and visitors converging in a huge convention center in some mid-continent city, many more are gathering online for reunion, worship, business, and reaffirmation of the work of our national church officers, boards, and committees. I’ve been following the Synod as my schedule allows – which has been kind of difficult given our time zone. But I have been interested in some of the resolutions making their way through the plenary sessions.
Resolutions are overtures from churches, associations and conferences that help to direct the financial and physical resources of our denomination – and provide a “missional roadmap” for the foreseeable future. Resolutions, once passed by the Synod, provide focus for action based on the discernment of the delegates.
When a resolution is passed, all levels of the church – national, regional, and congregational are supposed to adhere to its directives. But, being a congregational church, we can do what we want. As we are often reminded, the General Synod can speak “TO” but not “FOR” the church.
There are many resolutions which become the work of separate committees to review, revise, and determine whether they are ready for a vote during a plenary session of the Synod. Prior to the vote, and before the resolution makes its way OUT of its respective committee, there is a lot of “politicking” done by advocates to ensure that THEIR resolution is moved to the plenary floor. If this sounds like a little bit like Washington D.C., well, I’m afraid it is pretty similar. Lots of talk, lots of paper, lots of compromise, and lots of heated debates – depending on the controversy of the resolution at hand. [Pause]
One of the resolutions that really caught my attention at THIS Synod has particular relevance to our gospel story for today – and, I think, is critical for all levels of the church. The resolution entitled “Becoming a Church of Contemplatives in Action” is something I thought I’d never see in the United Church of Christ. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE my church. I’ve been a member of the UCC from my birth – baptized, confirmed, and ordained into this denomination – but I also know how it operates.
Our denomination has always been quick to act, a champion of needs of others, demonstrating courageous leadership in social justice, environmental stewardship, peacemaking, and standing in solidarity with those most marginalized. We have always been a social justice church – it’s in our DNA – but that has not always sat well with ALL our members, and we have lost quite a few depending on the stands we have taken – especially when it comes to the rights of gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender persons, or women’s rights in reproductive health, or marriage equality – just to name a few. [Pause]
I was recently privileged to interview the Rev. John Dorhauer, our United Church of Christ General Minister and President. He described our church as the church of “firsts.” Taking exception to the criticism we sometimes receive as politically too far to the left – he said, “No. We are simply the ones who show up first to do the very thing we believe Jesus would do.”
The problem is, always being FIRST may mean taking a few lumps – it can be very tiring – may leave us feeling depleted. It’s a reality that is finally being recognized that such leadership on all justice issues is simply not sustainable.
The call in this resolution is to develop a contemplative consciousness for balance. The rationale:
Contemplation without action fuels narcissism.
Action without contemplation is a recipe for bitterness and spiritual depletion.
In the words of the Rev. Traci Blackmon, our denomination’s Associate General Minister for Justice and Local Church Ministries, “The reason we are having so much trouble with the work ‘out there’ is because we have not done the work ‘in here’ … Jesus is asking us to be courageous, but Jesus has a bigger ask. Jesus is asking us to be transformed … and be changed from the inside out. Only then can we fully and effectively do our work.” [Pause]
The disciples came back from their first road trip all excited. Jesus had sent them out in pairs – remember? “Don’t take much with you – just the clothes on your back. One pair of sandals. No food. Depend on the hospitality of others.” They were given the authority to do everything Jesus could do: preach, teach, heal, cast out demons. And it worked! They were astounded – quite impressed with what they could do. And they could hardly wait to see him.
So, they returned filled with stories they were eager to share. And share him they did. Apparently, they went on, and on, and on. In Mark’s inimitable fashion, he records this whole scene in two little verses:
“The apostles then rendezvoused with Jesus and reported on ALL that they had done and taught. Jesus said, “Come off by yourselves; let’s take a break and get a little rest.” (For there was constant coming and going. They didn’t even have time to eat.) [Pause]
We’ve seen this before in Jesus. It’s just how he rolls – and we ought to pay attention. Constantly in demand, Jesus knew when it was time to step aside and leave tomorrow’s work for tomorrow. The gospels repeatedly record that Jesus “Went away to a quiet place apart – and there he prayed.” [Pause]
Some of you know I have been on the faculty of our denomination’s CREDO team for several years. CREDO is a wellness ministry of the United Church of Christ (also offered to clergy in the Episcopal and Presbyterian denominations). In CREDO, we invite clergy from all over the U.S. to come together for a one-week retreat – and, having done a lot of pre-retreat assignments – we ask them to carefully assess their lives, their ministries – specifically in the areas of their physical and emotional health, financial and vocational plans – AND their spiritual lives. I was the faculty member on the team responsible for the spiritual life of our clergy retreatants.
It’s amazing how honest one becomes when living together in a retreat setting for several days. When we “take a break – and get a little rest” as Jesus suggested. It’s then that we tend to see ourselves and life much more clearly.
One of the options in the CREDO week is for clergy to sign up for one-on-one consults with each of the faculty members. My schedule was always filled to capacity on the very first day. What I discovered time and time again, is clergy are really good at leading worship, marching in protests, organizing the next stewardship campaign, and resourcing various committees in the life of the church – but they are very bad at taking care of themselves – especially when it comes to spiritual lives.
I would hear repeatedly, from the most dedicated and hardworking colleagues, confessions like, “I don’t have a healthy prayer life – in fact, I never pray unless I have to. I don’t read the bible for my own needs – just for sermon preparation. I’m not even sure what I believe anymore.”
It was clear, they weren’t taking a break – they weren’t getting any rest. They were both physically and spiritually depleted. They weren’t doing the work “in here.” Admitting that, was the first step in deep and true healing as we discussed baby steps toward Jesus’ “big ask” as Traci Blackmon suggested – that they be transformed and changed from the inside out. [Pause]
That’s what Jesus invited his disciples to do. He knew what they could DO – but he wanted them to be sure they learned how they could simply BE – as a child of God.
I was once told – you know we’re called “human beings” for a reason – not “human doings.” We have to discover who we are and whose we are before we set out on the tasks WE think we have to accomplish. [Pause]
Like the early disciples quickly discovered – the church has a whole lot of work ahead of it in order to be a place for folks to come and find rest for their souls. As we seek a Kahu to lead us into the future, that individual must be someone who understands this need of “being” and “doing” – of being a “contemplative in action.”
If you listened carefully to the story, you realize that their time away didn’t work out very well for the disciples. Those in need found out where they were going to rest and beat them to the location. Sometimes retreats turn out to be a bust. But we must keep trying – and daily – to spend time with the source of our being.
A friend sent me a humorous card this week which pictured a rooster – looking quite frazzled and out of sorts. The caption read: “Some days I need a little coffee – and a whole lot of Jesus.” Let me suggest that as a mantra for each of us. We may need a little coffee – but we need a whole lot of Jesus. We need a whole lot of Jesus to do the work “in here” so that we can do the work God calls us to do “out there.”