Monday, October 27, 2014

Being Good Enough

When I played college baseball our coach had a saying:  “Don’t ever let good enough be good enough.”  No matter how good things were going he would always tell us to never be satisfied.  Sometimes it got comical. 

After a fall doubleheader, in which we split with a much better team, we came off the bus ecstatic.  The previous year we had won a paltry four games (losing 29!), so one could understand our excitement.  But Coach was not pleased.  “Don’t be satisfied with just winning one game.  We should've won them both.”  He then proceeded to tell us that we shouldn't be satisfied until we won the conference, and then not until we won the College World Series, and then not until we won every single game, and then not until we won every single game by the 10-run rule.  We couldn't help but laugh. 

Coach never really lived down that moment, but his mantra to never let good enough be good enough stuck with us.  In the sports world it’s not a bad mantra.  It pushed us to be better today than we were yesterday, to be better tomorrow than we are today; in fact, that attitude led me to have what is without a doubt the best pitching season of my life.  We didn’t win the conference that year, or the World Series for that matter, but we improved dramatically, and we were happy with that.

But in my two short years of ordained ministry I have wrestled with this concept.  As a Christian, and especially as a Christian leader, I wonder exactly when I should be satisfied.  When is good enough really good enough?

In his book The Grasshopper Myth Pastor Karl Vaters addresses this issue.  A non-denominational pastor, he had been schooled by the Rick Warrens and Joel Osteens of the world who had said that the goal of every small church should be to transform itself into a mega church.  The goal is more people in the pews, as many as you can get (and, subsequently, more money in the plate).  Pastor Karl tried this approach; he developed newcomer ministries, increased his own hours at the church, and even built a new, giant auditorium for all the folks who would be coming through those doors.  And it worked!  For a while.  Eventually Pastor Karl burned out.  Attendance dwindled, and the pastor took a sabbatical and wrestled with that very concept of ‘good enough’ until he came back and realized, quite simply, he was a small church pastor.  And that was good enough.  It was good enough for him, for his congregation, and, most importantly, for God.

There is the old saying about things they don’t teach you in seminary.  This is one of them.  As one of my colleagues commented in a clergy gathering, “How do we know if we’re really doing our job?”  That’s a great question!  I've walked away from pastoral visits and wondered if I actually did enough for the person I just visited.  I've worried whether or not a sermon that I had hoped would inspire anyone would actually have a lasting effect.  How do I really know if I’m succeeding at my job, at my call?

What is our barometer of success?  What does success look like?  In sports it’s easy.  Stats simply do not lie, and wins and losses make it pretty clear. In the Episcopal Church we have a necessary evil called the Parochial Report, which lists how many members we have, how many came to Christmas mass, and how many folks we baptized and confirmed in the last year.  Are we meant to use that to measure success?  But if that’s the case, do we count a year when we did not grow in numbers as a failure?  Is that Christian way of measuring success?

Jesus said nothing about Parochial Reports.  And none of us took vows at our ordination to “Fill them pews, people!” (as George Carlin’s Cardinal Glick says in Dogma).  So when is good enough really good enough? 

I wonder what would happen if we focused less on the quantity of our ministries and more on the quality.  When one church says they grew by 30% last year maybe our response should be ,”That’s great!  Thanks be to God!” rather than “That’s great!  What can we do to be like them?”  Instead of asking our colleagues, “What’s your ASA (average Sunday attendance)?” maybe we could ask them, “What’s one of the most life-giving ministries that y’all are offering?” What would happen if we knew that we were already good enough for God as we are?

It’s stewardship season, I know.  And we all have the Great Commission to live into, to make disciples of all nations.  So we can’t exactly escape the need to address issues of money and parish growth.  But Jesus said nothing about growing OUR church, but rather THE Church.  And there is a difference.  The former often focuses more on quantity, while the latter focuses on quality.  Remember what the prophet tells us, that God’s ways are not our ways.  Perhaps that means God’s standards, God’s means of measuring success are not ours, either.

Maybe we too can focus more on quality than quantity.  We might find, as we focus less on how much money we have and who isn't coming to church, that God is continually providing grace among those folks who are already with us.  And that grace is all sufficient, after all.

We do not have to impress God.  And whether we average 30 people on a Sunday or 300 God is still glorified.  If we recognize that fact we may find that we don’t have to continually worry about being better tomorrow than we are today, that we who are ministers can sleep easy at night knowing that what we do matters, even if we don’t have a means by which of measuring success.  We may find that God is already doing amazing things among us.  We may find that, as far as God is concerned, we are already good enough.  And that’s good enough.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Step by Step

"Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran.  He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set.  Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.  And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it."
-Genesis 28: 10-12

In 1995 my dad entered what would be his final season coaching basketball on the college level at Clinch Valley College.  He had been thinking for a year or so that the grueling challenges of coaching collegiately were just too much--traveling all over the country to recruit players, traveling all over the southeast to scout opposing teams, days and nights of practice and film sessions that were so long that he often slept in his office, rather than drive the 40 minutes or so back home on the mountain roads.  The years had taken their toll. 

That might have been why Dad did something a little different in the media guide for that 95-96 Highland Cavaliers team.  Coaches often take song lyrics or inspirational speeches and use them to motivate their players.  Dad, however, devoted two whole pages of the team's media guide to a man named Nimrod Workman.  The pages told of how Nimrod grew up in the coal camps of West Virginia and how he himself went to work in the mines at the age of 14.  Most importantly the pages told of Nimrod's passionate work with the coal miner's unions, his partnership with Mother Jones, and his participation in the of Blair Mountain, a civil uprising between miners and their corporate operators in 1921.  And in those pages were the lyrics to a song Nimrod wrote, a song he loved and sang often, with lyrics taken from the opening words of the constitution of the United Mine Worker's of America.  It was the song that would be the theme for that final basketball season for my Dad and the Highland Cavaliers.  Here's the song in its entirety, just four lines long:

Step by step the longest march can be won, can be won.
Many stones can form an arch, singly none, singly none.
And by union what we will can be accomplished still.
Drops of water turn a mill, singly none, singly none.

Nimrod knew that every journey, especially the journey for equality, is about going one step at a time and working together for a common purpose.  When the season drug on, when the Cavs faced their challenges, they came back to this song.  Step by step the longest march can be won.  One step at a time.  By union what we will can be accomplished still.  Only together can we achieve our goals.  That final season didn't end the way we wanted, with a first round loss in the conference tournament.  But the Cavs never lost sight of those words offered to them by Nimrod Workman.  Maybe that's why that was the only team my dad coached at Clinch Valley that had a 100% graduation rate.  Step by step.

Today we hear story of Jacob's Ladder.  Most all of us know that story, I suspect.  Jacob is weary from his travels and so he takes a stone as a pillow and falls asleep.  In his dream God stands next to him, and he sees a great ladder going up to heaven, with angels ascending and descending.  And when he wakes up Jacob promises to follow God, promises to uphold his end of the covenant that began with his grandfather Abraham, that Jacob and his offspring will be God's people, and God will be their God.  Forever and always.

I wonder what that ladder looked like.  I wonder what each rung held.  How far apart were those rungs?  Did the angels ever get tired going up and down them?  Did any of them try to skip over a few rungs?  Or did they all take their time, one by one, step by step?

The story of Jacob's Ladder is an allegory for the connectedness between heaven and earth.  We experience this connectdness in Holy Eucharist when we approach the altar--the place where heaven and earth collide--and most especially we experience it in Jesus, the true ladder that connects heaven and earth. But this story is more than an allegory for these things. It's also an allegory for our very lives.

Some of you probably remember that Sunday School song, "We are climbing Jacob's Ladder"?  My parents used to sing that to me as I drifted off to sleep as a kid.  Every rung goes higher and higher, the song says.  Each day, each passing moment, brothers and sisters, we are climbing those rungs.  We are moving ever-closer to the glory of God.  Step by step.  Together.  Never alone. 

The journey along this ladder is a marathon, it's not a sprint.  Step by step.  And along each step God calls us to do something new, something more that we could not do two or three rungs back.  Several rungs back I thought called was calling me to be an actor, to entertain folks.  I went a few more rungs along and discovered God calling me to be a baseball coach, to inspire and educate others as my Dad had.  But then I continued my journey along the ladder and found God asking something new of me, asking me to be a priest in Christ's holy Church.  And here I am.  I'm not so sure what the next step will be, what the next rung of the ladder will look like, but I do know that I won't be going through it alone.  I've never been alone.  Those angels that ascended and descended Jacob's ladder have been with me.  They're with me now, everywhere I turn.  Like Nimrod Workman, we recognize that the journey that we are on, the journey for justice for all God's children, the journey of bringing about God's kingdom here on earth, is one that is done together, one that is done step by step. It's a good reminder for us when life gets so challenging, and we feel like we can't go on. Step by step.

So I wonder, what might God be calling you to do with your next step along your ladder?  What might God be asking you to give of yourself as you stretch out for that next rung?  What new thing is God working in you as you prepare to take your next step?   Sometimes it's hard to hear God through all the noise of our lives, but when we quiet ourselves, when we find our still place, as Jacob found on that hill that he named Beth-El, the House of God, then we hear God's voice urging us along.  Step by step.  And we know in our hearts that the work of bringing about the kingdom of God here on earth is not a singular task.  We need each other. Many stones can form and arch and by union what we will can be accomplished.  It is together that we do the great work God has called us to do.  Together.  Like those drops of water that turn the meal.  Slowly.  One by one.  But the mill turns.  The work gets done.  We are the drops of water. Each of us has a part to play, each has something to contribute, so that that work gets done.  And God is glorified.  Step by step.  So brothers and sisters, what is God calling you to do with your next rung on the ladder?