Tag Archives: Walter Brueggemann

Of Pastors and Love

chapel cross

People still think the pastor can save the church.
I am 30 years old and I do not want to be a hospice worker.
My church is so scattered. The task is to try to get them to focus.
One third of the church split off and left.
I had nine years of a dark night.
                                                                -overheard at a retreat for clergy

I have been listening to the conversations of small groups of clergy about their lives in a once, honored profession. Pastoral ministry has suffered loss of prestige, respect, and influence over the past thirty years in the eyes of many Americans. Some of the reasons for this include sexual misconduct, greed, hypocrisy, ethical failures, cultural upheaval, and changing demographics.

In addition, the rise of fundamentalism produced considerable confusion about what a “real” Christian is or is not. Some  Christians have promoted particular understandings of Christianity as normative for all disciples of Jesus. Often these perspectives have held media attention, while many other Christians do not share the same understanding. When only extreme and headline grabbing faith expressions are discussed, distorted impressions of faith end up defining religion in ways distasteful to many, including Christians themselves.

Most of the conversations I heard from pastors were about adjusting to sweeping change, which, though in the long view the human species excels at, at the same time, has never come to embrace without struggle.

Statue follow me

Cultural differences in what people are valuing
I worry about the bottom dropping out
My congregation worries that I will leave.
I want to be fully employed. I have all this stuff I want to express.
I want to finish well, stay fresh, and spiritually dependent on my God.

Earlier this month, I listened to new pastors engaged in ministry for four years or less. More recently I immersed myself in the wrenching, painful, joyful, and, yes, hilarious stories of men and women serving churches in Iowa from a range of Christian traditions. They were invited to attend a retreat by their judicatory heads and supervisors from nine different denominations, including AmericanBaptist, Lutheran (ELCA), Roman Catholic, Reformed Church of America, Church of the Brethren, Episcopalian, Presbyterian (USA), and United Church of Christ. The gathering called, The Imagination Retreat, was sponsored by the Des Moines Center for Renewal at Grandview College and held at The Shalom Retreat Center in Dubuque, Iowa.

We were all from what are generally considered mainline churches. These include the once great, proud churches with huge stone buildings, in some cases, now nearly empty and in need of repair, as well as fifteen member rural churches, bustling parishes, and missional congregations.

I want to get to know my daughters and grandchildren.
This is the first time off I have had in 32 years.
There is a whole generation ignorant of the language of God.
I am really content and happy, but maybe I am not supposed to be content.
My church worries about dying.

We had two pregnant moms in the group, older clergy nearing retirement, and ones in the middle wondering if it was time to pull up their roots and move on to a new parish. We probably did not all agree on the hot social/political issues our governments are fighting about. However we had not gathered to solve problems, debate, or convince others of the rightness of our positions.

We came because we were weary, hurting, looking for something more, and needing a safe place to be ourselves and be honest. We came because we were exhausted from being in charge and offering living water to thirsty souls, while our souls had dried and shriveled for want of the refreshment of Christ Jesus. We came for Sabbath and renewal and to imagine what seemed nearly beyond our comprehension as we began: peace, hope, faith, unexpected freedom, and joy – all gifts, which amazingly arrived pretty much on schedule at the end of day three of our four days together.


All of it is about this one woman,[or – man, secretary/choir director, organist, trustee, Sunday School teacher, family/person who runs everything,] . . .

They don’t see themselves as a vehicle for Christ. They just write checks.

How long… before I retire, leave, this church dies,
do I have to wait, until we start seeing some growth?

There isn’t a Roman Empire anymore, but there sure are a lot of Italians.

Church happens. It just happens.

I hear recurrent themes in their conversations. I hear the subtext of the laments, the confusion, and fatigue of these pastors as the groaning of the Holy Spirit in the body of Christ. We use Walter Brueggemann’s masterful little book, The Spirituality of the Psalms. Brueggemann relates the form of the Psalms to the realities of human experience as –

Psalms of orientation: songs of guaranteed creation
Psalms of disorientation: songs of disarray
Psalms of new orientation: songs of surprising new life

Christians find in these psalms, not only the story of Israel’s suffering and God’s redeeming love, but also the foreshadowing of the Paschal mystery: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, as well as their own personal and corporate experiences of orientation, disorientation, and surprising new orientation.

One recurrent theme is that of impasse, a condition of disorientation, when one doesn’t know what to do next. Our response to impasse is often anxiety and rising panic. Soon anxiety’s children show up: shame, blame, judgment, polarization, disengagement, or the increasing need to impose control or force. Learning how to manage the inevitable anxiety of change, my own, as well as that of my congregation is vital for spiritual leadership.

I have changed. They have too.

So this guy on the board says,
“That’s not what it was forty years ago.”
And I think, “I wasn’t even born then.”

On my Sabbath I ask, What is going to give me life today?
The ministerial association is horrible.
There are local pastors’ groups, but they are not nurturing.
Change means giving up something and that is scary.

And God said, “Why don’t you let me do that for you?”

For me – I am always sort of thinking I need the next class,
books, conference, skill set. Now I see I have everything I need.

9134246995_8d62e4e10d (1)

I also hear isolation and grief. I hear resilience, like the fertile, spongy sweep of a bog, a rich, deep, ground of being. I hear love, sometimes entangled and enmeshed, sometimes pure as a meadowlark’s song, sometimes self-emptied and sacrificial, always full of passionate yearning for Shalom.

It only takes me about twenty minutes before I am in love with them all.

It is easy for any child to pick out the faults in the sermon on his way home from church every Sunday. It is impossible for him to find out the hidden love that makes a man [or woman], in spite of his intellectual limitations, his neuroticism, his own lack of strength, give up his life to the service of God’s people, however bumblingly he may go about it.                            Flannery O’Connor


May Jesus hold us all close in that hidden love.


Special thanks to those who dreamed up this gathering: The Rev. Dwight DuBois, Director of the Center for Renewal, the Rev. Myron Herzberg, and the Rev. Mary Beth Mardis-LeCroy. And deep gratitude to all who gathered!

For more information about this retreat you may email Dwight DuBois .
Photographs by Suzanne Gorhau.


AUGUST 17-18

I will be Scholar in Residence at  First Presbyterian Church, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa on August 17-18, 2013. I will lead workshops on Saturday afternoon, and preach Sunday morning, followed by a Q&A forum.

     . . .from one degree of glory to another
Growing in the Knowledge and Wisdom of Love

We live in a time of sweeping changes in our personal, corporate, and global lives together.  The rapid pace and depth of change reach into every corner of our lives and leave many feeling confused, fearful, and grieving.

This presentation will consider what Christ teaches us about such change and how we may respond to the changes we face from the stance of a growing and deepening faith required for such a time as this. Our particular focus will be on the practice of contemplative prayer, which fosters wisdom, creativity, compassion, and love.

Find out more here


The Writing Exercise

Write a letter to a landscape or scene you pass through today.
For example, “Dear Branner Trafficway.”

Dear Mom,

You rest now in my way.
The plastic cartons I put you in
clutter the path
to office.

I step around the contents of your dismembered
trying not to trip,
coffee cup in one hand
sheaf of papers in the other.

Squeezing past a bin
I stumble upon
your journals
tales of trips
to the woods
wildlife sightings
what happened last Tuesday,
and how Gladys brought over a pan of sweet rolls,
still warm from the oven
poems about birds and babies
and things you cannot change and break your heart
word snapshots and watercolor sketches –

scattered orange road construction cones
confuse the once familiar scene.

The blue china sectioned dish you fed me from,
when I kicked my legs in the high chair,
peeks over the top of another box.

Photo albums, the ducks you carved,
and all the letters and cards I ever sent you
occupy the landscape of my life
and I am no longer sure
how to get from here to there.

Periods of disorientation are part of the spiritual life Biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann tells us. Such periods precede what he calls new orientation. Brueggemann charts how the history of Israel tells the story of orientation, confusion and loss of direction, and new clarity over and over. The story culminates in the crucifixion and resurrection and then continues with the church and our individual journeys as well.

What are the inner and outer landscapes you are passing through today? Take a moment to share what you are witnessing so we all may grow closer to seeing the big picture.

Thanks to Melissa Sewell and Leah Sewell and the Topeka Writers’ Workshop for inviting me to pay attention to my landscape.

The Prophet Amos Addresses the Legislature

Camden, New Jersey is one of the poorest citie...

Image via Wikipedia

Listen to this, you who grind the destitute and plunder the humble, you who say,
“When will the new moon be over so that we may sell corn? When will the Sabbath be past so that we may open our wheat again, giving short measure in the bushel and taking overweight in the silver, tilting the scales fraudulently, and selling the dust of the wheat; that we may buy the poor for silver and the destitute for a pair of shoes?”
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
I will never forget any of their doings.       Amos 8: 4-7

A new day coming, change breathing fear and conflict down our necks, we bow before the gods of Scarcity and Me First. An old order, feverish, on its death bed, hollers, flails, clutches its bedclothes with restless fingers, and sees leering phantoms rise from its bedpan.

A cry rises up out of Egypt. Here in this land the child of Compassion once found safety from another ruler’s wrath.

“Let our people go!” rings out in Libya. Rulers tremble. Politicians abandon reason and rush to protect their interests. The homeless crowd the streets. The sick are told to leave their sheltered care and fend for themselves. And truth, which finds its voice, its shape, its story, its song in art,

is silenced

as the rich and powerful cling to their gold.

A huge share of the nation’s economic growth over the past 30 years has gone to the top one-hundredth of one percent, who now make an average of $27 million per household. The average income for the bottom 90 percent of us? $31,244.

Tell them this.

Put down this.

Be still.

Or be stilled.

And Know who I Am.

And know this –

there are rules:

Love, serve, and trust God rather than trusting systems which exploit and destroy life in its many forms.
Take care of neighbors. Welcome, respect, and protect the stranger, the alien, and the orphan. Look out for the weak, children, women, and the elderly.
Don’t kill each other, or steal or tell lies about each other. Don’t be unfaithful to your commitments to each other.
Don’t engage in practices which exploit or prey upon the vulnerable.
Once a week back away from the system of anxious scarcity, production, and consumption. Stop working and rest. Do not allow your life to be defined by endless producing and doing, and no being.

and there are consequences:

I will not forget any of your doings. 


Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth. Psalm 46: 10 NIV






With gratitude to the prophets, Joel and Amos, and modern prophet and Biblical scholar,Walter Brueggemann and his book, Journey to the Common Good
The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer
Read more about prayer www.fromholyground.org,
Contact the author lross@fromholyground.org, www.fbook.me/sanctuary
Follow at http://twitter.com/lfross

Waiting: The Threats

Part Three of Four Parts

Maybe there will be a miscarriage. Maybe the child will be ill or damaged. Maybe nothing will happen, and I have made this all up. The demons slink in and taunt, harass, confuse, lie, and distort. Feeding on our fear, they float in our minds like bloated carcasses.

Impatience, fueled by fear and lack of faith, has resulted in many an aborted Christ child. Dreams, wrenched too soon from the womb of God’s providence, die torn and bleeding in the back rooms of our souls. Fearing that the Promised One cannot be trusted to save us from ourselves, we join the tribe of those who attempt to seize the kingdom by violence.

Yet the promise always comes in the context of threats, writes biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann.

The land of promise is never an eagerly waiting vacuum anticipating Israel. Nor is it an unambiguous arena for faith. It is always filled with Canaanites. That is how the promise comes… It is the very land of promise, the purpose of the whole journey of faith, which causes the failure of nerve. . . .

God’s people always want to settle for something short of promises, because promises fulfilled remind Israel how vulnerable it is, how exposed it is, and how precarious it all is. Promiseless existence is safer. The Bible knows from the beginning that promises are always kept in the midst of threats. Tables are always prepared  “in the presence of my enemies”and if one would eat at the table, one must eat in the presence of enemies. The land is precisely for those and only for those who sense their precariousness and act in their vulnerability. (The Land, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1977, p 67-69)

Threats, in whatever form they come, tend to scare the wits out of us. We feel like puny grasshoppers compared to these giants. Possibly the greatest threat, according to Jesus, is the failure to believe, or the lack of faith. There is that time before the pregnancy shows and no one can tell what is inside, and even after one has something visible to point to, like a vision, a possibility, the first faint glimmerings of a new idea, when the actual outcome is shrouded in mystery, and the course of the life of the new one to be born is unknown to us. So we must nourish the invisible, the inklings, the suggestions, and the voice of some ethereal visitor who whispered something wondrous and unbelievable.

Whom could you tell? What would they think? Maybe your lover will understand and give his support. Maybe God will intervene in a dream. Maybe a wise old friend, whose own promise leaps in recognition of your promise, maybe the old cousin will understand.

But there is a long time of hours, days, months, and even years –year upon year, when much is hidden and only you sing in your heart of what is to come, the gift you will offer. And what to do until then?

Fall back on praise and being. Notice the leaf in the redbud tree outside your window, curled and brown crisp in the sun. Stand at sundown as the earth grows still and silence creeps into your heart like a cat and curls up and purrs.

“Blessed is she who believed that the word of the Lord would be fulfilled,” announces the cousin. Blessed are those who believe in the glad and amazing truth that sings in their hearts, trusting with Mary and her Son that all will be well and that they are highly favored.

Watch for the last installment, Part Four, of this series on waiting, The Surrender, coming soon.

This post adapted from the author’s book, Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Loretta (Ross-Gotta) F. Ross, Sheed & Ward, 2000.

The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer
Read more about prayer www.fromholyground.org
Contact the author lross@fromholyground.org, www.fbook.me/sanctuary
Follow at http://twitter.com/lfross