by Daniel Harrell
Again, thank you, Colonial Church for your generous gift of sabbatical to me and my family this past winter. I spent three months in sunny Southern California as a visiting scholar at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. I’m using these Eastertide sermons to explore some of the many lessons I learned. So far I’ve preached about how black faith matters for all people and how our brains have a limited relational capacity and are prewired for belief. On Easter Sunday I talked about how time compresses to encompass eternity and the ways we experience that now. Colloquially we use phrases like “time flies” and “small world” to describe the phenomenon, but theologically we think of these experiences as “providential” or “God’s timing.” For instance, I just had the providential pleasure of taking the last seminary class being taught in Pasadena by the same professor, Dr. Richard Peace, who “just happened” to have taught me my first seminary class in Boston 32 years ago.
The small class was called Spiritual Traditions and Practices. Six other students from all over the world—Korea, Malaysia, South Africa, Berkeley—and I traced a history of Christian spiritual renewal and formation traditions from the early desert fathers of the second century up through the time of the Protestant Reformation. As to practices, we spent a day on silent retreat, meditated on Scripture via Benedictine lectio divina and prayed prayers with Ignatian indifference. Each of these practices were designed to draw Christians back to the core of the faith, back to a love for the Lord and his word. Each practice came tied to a tradition that was in essence a renewal of the church. The early desert fathers fled to deserts of Syria and Egypt to indict a Christianity that had grown too complacent once legalized by Rome. Benedict of Nursia established a community order to pull wayward monks back to Scripture and prayer. Francis of Assisi yanked friars out of cloistered comfort to reach out to the world. Hildegard of Bingen chastised popes for wielding too much worldly power. Ignatius of Loyala impassioned believers using mindful imagination to submit to the spirit of God and to their first and true love, Jesus Christ.
The Protestant Reformation started as a renewal movement too. Martin Luther hammered at overreaches of church power. John Calvin brought clarity and piety to Christian thought and wove it into every aspect of life. Medieval Catholicism built firm walls dividing sacred and profane, with gatekeeping Popes and priests, immovable doctrines and sacraments hardening into an exploitive obstacle course between people and God, road closures you might say, reminiscent of those erected by Pharisees in the New Testament. Protestantism tore down the walls and the barriers and unleashed the Spirit. For Luther and Calvin, there was no sacred and secular, no supernatural and natural, no church versus the world because “Christ is in all and fills everything.” Life relies on the Spirit and word to animate existence, bestow faith and empower human will toward obedience and worship and transformation.
The Reformers focused especially on vocation—our calling as people to live as reflections of our Creator and in the likeness of Christ: “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” This applied to every aspect of life, and especially to the work we do which then as now defines our participation in God’s creative purposes. Ministers and pastors serve their role, but we do so alongside lawyers and farmers and engineers and technicians and accountants and artists and baristas. “Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” To view our work as for the Lord instills within it an inherent integrity and worth apart from anything else it might accomplish. Our calling goes beyond job descriptions or tasks assigned and completed, to the ways our work enhances human life, serves human needs, stewards creation and glorifies our Creator. Work done in the name of the Lord is a kind of worship, soliciting from us all the skill and care we have to offer, without the work itself becoming our idol because it is Jesus we serve. Work done for the Lord refuses to sacrifice family, health or friendship to its ends for it does not prize fortune or status. The glory of God is sufficient reward and true satisfaction. At the end of the day, our identity is not in what we do but in Christ for whom we do it.
Then again, have you met my boss? Endured my deadlines? Felt my stress? Bore the burdens my labor weighs on me? Seeing my daily grind as a dream job sounds like so much theological spin. It’s like tech companies that hire young talent, work their digits to the digital bone, only to then let them go for bottom line reasons, euphemistically referring to their firings as “graduations.” “Congratulations!” exude the employers in an email, “You get to move on! Please go pack up your cubicle and turn in your keycard! We’re having a party for you in the lounge!” Similarly, a church I once served had a bad year financially and needed to cut staff. My boss approached and offered a “sabbatical”—only permanent—an eternal rest as far as that position was concerned.
I heard some of you wondered whether I was coming back from my sabbatical this time, which I think (and hope) had more to do with my desire to return. I did have a hard time coming back. We modern day ministers of larger congregations are tasked with duties they never taught us to handle at seminary—building management decisions and budgets, benefit plans and program design. Frying chicken for 200. By contrast, sitting in the California sunshine poring over ancient and arcane ideas with no practical application, freed from responsibility by an uber-competent staff and church leadership back here at the ranch, my main worry was whether anyone would realize I was away.
The week before we departed California, the sun started to set on my peaceful easy feeling, looming responsibility crept back into my consciousness. I had trouble sleeping and tried counting sheep, but ended up counting a checklist of pending concerns: year-end budget shortfalls, annual meetings, personnel issues, various decisions and deliberations and everything else that comes with running a religious operation. I don’t always like my work.
As you know, we’ve got a couple of beehives out back. I’d say that beekeeping isn’t something they teach at seminary — except that I learned beekeeping at seminary. Concerned by the well-publicized plight of pollinators, I took a course up at United Seminary in New Brighton, and learned enough to recruit some of you to start our own Colonial apiary with two hives, just like the Pilgrims would have done it. I think they teach beekeeping at seminary because it’s a lot like being a minister. Bee hives operate as one super-organism; you can’t be a bee by yourself. Every bug bears its share of the load, workers working together in unity, growing their community, raising their larva, making their honey, all the while providing for a flourishing world of flowers and fruit in service to the one queen to whom all bees knees bow. Beekeepers help make this happen, feeding and making space, coaxing and cajoling good behavior while trying to keep away sinful mites that can suck away life from the hive. Churches are super-organisms too; you can’t be a Christian by yourself. We work together in service to our one king, Jesus Christ, to whom every knee bows. We grow our community, raise our kids, all the while providing for a flourishing harvest of spiritual fruit—love, joy, peace and power for good. Ministers help make all of this happen, teaching and caring and coaxing and cajoling and chasing away the mites.
But just because you learned something in seminary doesn’t mean you can do it. One of our beehives didn’t survive the winter, weakened by vicious mites and thus unable to do what had to be done to thrive. We fed them and treated them with anti-mite medicine and lovingly wrapped them for what turned out to be a mild winter. But they still didn’t make it. Every winter, beekeepers lose a fourth to a third of their hives. We lost half. Our bee-coach from United Seminary lost six of his seven. It’s an alarming number, raising fears that the decline of these remarkably resilient insects will soon limit the food production Americans take for granted. You’ve heard too, and experienced, the collapse of congregations in America: 40 percent of Americans say they go to church weekly, but less than 20 percent actually do. Somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 churches close their doors every year. Since 2010, more than half of all American churches failed to add a single new member. This too is alarming.
Our beehive that survived did so only because its whole was so much greater than its individual parts. Every bug bore its share of the load for the sake of the hive, just as every member is needed to make a church the body of Christ. The good news is that the Spirit helps, naturally and supernaturally. I described last Sunday how psychology has shown people to be natural born believers. Our brains are prewired from birth with a head start in the faith department. Likewise, psychology has shown humans to be “conditional hive creatures.” We have this inborn ability to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves to purposes greater than ourselves, realities larger than the temporal concerns over security and reputation and success that can otherwise dominate our thoughts. In the midst of ordinary day-to-day living, we find ourselves nagged by that sense that this cannot be all there is to life. Christians call this a calling. Jesus said only by losing your self can you find your real self. Psychologists call this making “the hive switch.”
When I don’t like my work that usually means I’ve let it become labor. I’ve lost sight of what I’m doing. You’ll remember the distinction columnist David Brooks makes between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. Résumé virtues are those skills you spend so much energy acquiring so to get ahead in the world and make your way up the ladder. Eulogy virtues are the ones people speak about at your funeral. Colossians lists humility and patience, kindness and meekness, gratitude and forgiveness. We never speak to such virtues as the products of good genes or evolutionary luck. Nature predisposes us toward belief and transcendence, but it can’t make us do either. Moreover, mites infest our souls and suck the goodness from our best intentions. The Reformers taught over and over how our good deeds always contain built-in elements of self-interest; our most righteous aspirations always turn out a bit skewed. As the apostle Paul confessed, and we so often confirm, “I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. I want to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway.” Belief is not enough to make it through the winter—even the demons believe. Faith is required for virtue to take hold.
And yet this is what makes faith so hard. To have faith and be virtuous often means working against our nature rather than with it. Spiritual disciplines help: prayer and silence and Scripture and community and submission and obedience and worship reorient us back toward our real self. Suffering does too. Jesus said that losing your self to find it will require crosses. Suffering is not something we choose but in God’s time suffering does choose us. Theologian Paul Tillich taught how suffering scours away a floor inside ourselves, to expose that deeper level, and then the floor gets scoured some more and another deeper level is revealed. Finally, we get down to the core wounds, the core loves, our real faith, the fruit not of our effort, but the yield of our yielding to the spirit of Jesus. Our best and most beautiful virtues are not grounded in nature. They surpass nature.
John Calvin wrote: “We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves, and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our goal of life.”
I don’t always like my work, but I do feel called to it, and with a renewed energy coming back from sabbatical. In times of stress or frustration, we trust the spirit to “clothe us with love” and “let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts with thanksgiving.” Depth and transformation are not things we make happen as much as things we let happen to us. We yield our resumés to our eulogies, “dying to ourselves that we might live to Christ,” as Scripture beckons over and over again.
Churches struggle to survive and attract new members. We wrestle with finances and maintaining real estate and being efficient and productive and setting goals and direction. We bemoan the loss of stature and the encroachment of culture and worry about the future. We rejigger our identities for the sake of relevance, we design new programs and cool websites and whatever else we can do to get attention and prove we still matter. It can be so exhausting and so futile. Of all the questions I get asked as Senior Minister of this church, among the most common is “How Can We Get More People to Come to Colonial?” This isn’t a bad question, but it is a hard question, and we don’t know the right solution. I’m not even sure it’s the right question for a church. We live in a world that measures size as a sign of spiritual success. We pad our numbers and praise the Lord, counting legs if we have to. We lower the bar and do whatever it takes to get folks though the door and butts in the pews, forgetting that numerical growth on its own is a résumé virtue. We need to make a hive switch. Instead of asking “How Can We Get More People to Come to Colonial?” we need to ask “How Can We Get More of Jesus?” How can we intensify and deepen our faith and our virtue as a body of Christ, losing to find, dying to live, raised from the dead and filled with the spirit and reborn, so that our lives and work can be harmoniously and joyfully done unto the Lord? This is a hard question too. But at least we know the answer.