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Progressive Pastors Build Community

When I started in seminary, during one of our plenary orientations, we were told that pastors are the doorkeepers of life’s transitions. That is, we preside over the rituals that mark the most dramatic changes in the lives of our parishioners: We dedicate a newborn child, we baptize young people on the threshold of adulthood. We conduct the weddings and the funerals in the lives of families. It is a largely symbolic role, but it formalizes a deeper reality through a common ritual.

But this role is not always merely symbolic. Sometimes the rituals take on profound importance, like the day I helped a young father take his infant son’s casket out of the backseat of the limo. A child for whom I had held a dedication service just a few weeks before, now ready to be placed in the family cemetery.

And yes, we perform weddings, one of my least favorite tasks because of all of the ego and expense so often involved, but we’re usually around for the divorces as well. And sometimes that is not just sad, it is dangerous. In my 41 years in ministry, I have rescued women from abusive homes, wrestled a gun out of the hands of a drug addict who was bent on killing his family, chased a runaway teen into the heroin den where she lived and carried her out in my arms, stepping over the strewn bodies of the addicts lying on the floor.

And, of course, we do funerals but, on a few occasions, before the funeral, I was called upon to escort the grieving mother into the apartment where her son had committed suicide by shooting himself in the head in living room. Or standing outside the intensive care unit with a husband who has to decide whether to ask for the extreme measure of invasive surgery or to allow his beloved spouse to die in peace. 

Rituals can be symbolic, but it would be a mistake to say that they are merely symbolic. Sometimes they are necessary, sometimes healing, sometimes comforting, and sometimes even inspiring. 

Beyond these priestly functions, there is the role of pastor as teacher. I’ve done more than my share of Bible Study classes, but teaching is not always done from the classroom or the pulpit. Sometimes it is when you take a busload of teenagers to Appalachia to teach them compassion by making home healthcare visits to a run-down mobile home deep in the woods, or to clean up alleyways in a Chicago housing project full of drug paraphernalia and the equipment of the sex trade. 

Sometimes, being a prophetic pastor demands that you keep planting seeds that you will never see grow up into a meaningful harvest.

And I have taken teams of adults to help families restore their homes after a hurricane in New Orleans, or to Central America, to build houses and dig wells for some of the most impoverished people in this hemisphere. 

A great deal of what pastors do is to teach orthodoxy, the right and true beliefs at the core of any faith community. But, I have found the classroom to be more of an impediment to education than a real center for learning. Learning how to mix mortar in a depression in the ground with a shovel and a few buckets of water and then carrying that mortar in 10-gallon buckets to the people who were laying the blocks, moving a family from a shack made of mud and bamboo, into a real house, a house with a floor and door. Those are lessons not soon forgotten.

Sometimes a pastor is called upon, simply to be present in the midst of chaos and crisis. You go and sit in a prison cell with someone who might be innocent and might be very guilty of serious crimes. And to courtrooms where I have sat beside a young woman who was looking for support for the moment when she would have to give testimony against her step-father for his sexual abuse, or to sit with a family as they had to watch their grown child be sentenced unjustly to years in prison for an offense that should never have resulted in a day in incarceration. 

It is a life full of wonder and celebration, mixed with terrible failure and sadness. Every addict doesn’t become sober, in fact, most do not. Marriage doesn’t always end in healthy reconciliation, in fact, it usually doesn’t. 

But what our seminary lecturer did not say back in that long ago fall of 1980 at Vanderbilt is that the best pastors, the ones who strive to be prophets, also stand as doormen in the passageways of an entire society. We don’t hear their names very often, but the poor have Washington Gladden, a New York Congregational pastor, to thank for the fact that electricity was provided in poor neighborhoods just as it is in gated communities. Dorothy Day, forced early 20th century city dwellers to see and to care for the hungry and the homeless during the Great Depression. 

The church has been guilty of many horrible sins and humiliating hypocrisy, but who would want to live in a culture that had not been transformed by the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., or the anti-colonial efforts of Mahatma Gandhi? 

I found my own prophetic voice in the early 1990’s as the AIDS epidemic made both politicians and preachers use the fear of AIDS to vilify the gay community. Taking up the cause of gay rights was not a natural move for me. I had not grown up in a “woke” family and my education had hardly prepared me for the hatred and fear I would face in trying to bring liberation to the marginalized who were not heterosexual. 

Working with alcoholics, you learn to accept failure in 4 out of 5 cases. When you are trying to help society through a gateway into a new way of living, you are likely to fail a thousand times before you ever see success.

I was a part of countless demonstrations before it became legal for same sex couples to be married. We led hundreds of demonstrations against America’s illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with no discernible influence on public policy. We have demonstrated against the PayDay Loan industry, and in support of Planned Parenthood, and in favor of giving a living wage to food industry workers. 

Sometimes, being a prophetic pastor demands that you keep planting seeds that you will never see grow up into a meaningful harvest, but to borrow my favorite line from Bruce Cockburn’s sone, Lovers in a Dangerous Time, “we have to keep kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.”

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We are now at a time in history when the old models of what it meant to be a church are passing away. Many churches that were already in steep decline, will simply never re-emerge from this global pandemic, and, in many cases, that may be a good thing. The church has a long and sordid history of defending slavery, supporting the ruling class at the expense of the poor, of teaching homophobia, perpetuating racism, and covering up the crimes of pedophile priests and pastors. 

When I see small churches being transformed into large family homes, or cathedrals into office parks or shopping malls; I have to tell you, I have mixed feelings. I have lived within the four walls of institutional religion for my entire adult life, and I know how toxic church politics and denominational power can be.

As the Florida pastor, James Harnish, once said, “The church is like Noah’s ark - the only way to stand the stench on the inside is to remember the storm on the outside.”

In my youth, I had some church leadership who were people I looked up to and I aspired to be more like them. In the waning days of my time as a denominational pastor, I barely survived two men, an Area Minister and a Regional Minister who were guilty of embezzling church funds and hiding serious sex crimes on the part of denominational leaders. I know a lot of people who are in prison who should not be, but those two men should certainly be in prison right now but they were allowed to coast into retirement, suffering no consequences for their crimes and showing no signs of having ever had a conscience. 

Churches are a self-selected community and so, many friendships and some romances are discovered in the process of being a community. The very nature of a voluntary association that deals with the most important and the most controversial issues of life will draw people who want to claim its voice and its vigor, and some, for reasons of ego or sociopathy, then choose to try to destroy it. 

It took me a long time to realize that most of the people who want to push you up onto a pedestal will eventually enjoy, even more, watching you fall. It is easy to think of these people as having malignant intent but, looking back on more than 40 years of these relationships, I am willing to conclude that most people simply don’t know how to be a friend. 

For the most part, when we say “I love you,” we say it with a very large “I” and a very small “you.” I think that one of the most powerful aspects of the gospel accounts of the passion narrative is if you read it, paying close attention to the friendships. As they are written, there were a dozen men in that inner circle of Jesus’ associates. Most of them slept through the real moments of crisis, never aware and never getting involved. Peter, whose protestations of love and loyalty were the strongest, showed that hypocrisy was his most pronounced characteristic. The literary creation of Judas, whose very name is intended to represent the faith community, got involved in a lethal way, betraying Jesus with a kiss. 

The gospel writers would have us to believe that Judas was motivated by greed, but it is evident that sociopaths destroy the lives of others out of envy. Over the years of publishing my newspaper columns and now posting my sermons on-line, I have had hundreds of pieces of hate mail and dozens of death threats, but such stuff is like what Soren Kierkegaard called “being stomped to death by geese.” It takes someone you love very much to be able to really hurt you, to get close enough to drive the dagger in deeply. 

A lot of energy over the past 41 years have been consumed by betrayal and defeats, senseless ego battles and board room politics over budgets and personnel. I have witnessed the toxic seamy underbelly of organized religion and I am entirely sympathetic with those who want to have nothing to do with it but it isn’t really fair to judge a home by looking in its septic tank. The perspective on life from the vantage point of the sewer is never that rosy. 

The only proverb that is original to me is one that I came up with about 30 years ago: If you light a candle in a dark place, you will draw bugs. 

That is, if you try to accomplish anything that is really important, something noteworthy, and heroic; critics will literally come crawling out of the woodwork. Still, I refuse to define my life in ministry based on chirping of the frogs from the sewer. You know, lions don’t spend much time wondering about what sheep think! 

Forty-five years ago, I thought that I wanted to go to law school, but I became persuaded that there were a lot of good lawyers in the world but not many good preachers. Once in grad school, I realized that the majority of demands for my time was in pastoral counseling, and I considered becoming a licensed psychologist, but again, I realized that there were many excellent psychologists in the field but finding a really good preacher was nearly impossible, so I devoted myself to the task of becoming one. 

I will have to leave it to you to decide whether I ever accomplished that goal or not. For myself, in spite of the hardships and conflicts, I judge my commitment to the church and specifically to the pulpit to have been worth it. Whether I ever became a really good preacher or not, I am deeply grateful for having been given the opportunity for four decades to try. 

I find myself now standing in the doorway of yet another transition. This is not my retirement speech, I hope that it will be a few years before I deliver that one, but this is certainly marking a transition as david ketchum and I will try to share this one job between the two of us. Fate brought David to us a few years ago and I could not have found a co-pastor with whom to share a pulpit that I respect and trust more than I do David. 

This transition also affirms the fact that we will primarily be an on-line church, providing messages and content to thousands of people around the globe while still remaining rooted in a small, seated congregation here in Springfield, MO, the most unlikely place to base a progressive spiritual voice. 

Dr. Roger Ray

My crystal ball is all foggy. I don’t know what the future of church life will look like in the next decade. I don’t have any better idea about what my life will look like over the next decade, but I am confident that people of faith have a vital role in shaping the world that is now emerging. There is no retirement from kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight. I hope that preaching less often will give me an opportunity to just get better at it.

Dr. Roger Ray

The Emerging Church