A Better Way

Dear Church:

“(I)t doth not yet appear what we shall be” (1 John 3:2). I heard these words for the first time about 15 years ago while facilitating a discernment process for the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, known today as Bautistas por la Paz. Dwight Lundgren, a board member and leader in the national offices of the American Baptist Churches, used John’s phrase to describe the liminal space of discernment as BPFNA moved from one way of being into another way that was not yet clear.

The shift required letting go of a treasured identity — that BPFNA was a small band of prophets advocating for peace on behalf of other Baptists, or, to use a more ironic metaphor, a small troop of soldiers defending the last outpost for peace. The shift called for living into a new identity — that BPFNA gathers, equips and mobilizes peacemakers already working in many places around the world. The shift depended on new understanding, new leadership, new structures and a new desire to be part of something bigger that, despite or because of its cost to the ego (being the peacemakers or the progressive voice has its attractions, of course), is the better way.

“(I)t doth not yet appear what we shall be.” Dwight applied to BPFNA’s situation a phrase from a first-century letter written to an audience who anticipated Christ’s return in their lifetime and wondered what the parousia, the end of history, would mean for them — what they would see and who they would be. So did Dwight take some liberty with the text? Or was his exercise of freedom the embrace of responsibility?

I believe Dwight’s way of reading is faithful in that the text’s uncertainty mirrors our uncertainty now. His reading is revolutionary in that he “takes radically something that was always there,” as the theologian H. Richard Niebuhr said. I think we have to read as Dwight does to make sense of apocalyptic texts, scripture that expects the imminent return of Christ, which is to say most of Christian scripture.

“(I)t doth not yet appear what we shall be.” The uncertainty of the first-century situation prompts a piety with urgency: everyone who hopes in Christ must “purify themselves, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:3). Conversely, “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil” (1 John 3:8). The stakes are high. So believers must be blameless such that they are not “put to shame before him at his coming” (1 John 2:28). True believers are those who “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7), not in the darkness — the text we heard at University Baptist Church on Sunday. Those who walk in the light are part of the fellowship, while those who walk in the darkness are blind and without Christ’s word (1 John 1:10). The stakes are high, the contrasts are sharp, because “it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18).

What are we to make of such texts 2,000 years after the apocalyptic moment passes? Is there a reading for liminal space, the in-between that is the long haul? Is there an interpretation that prompts a piety with urgency for our time as well as circumspection, plus generosity for times after our time?

As a child at a Southern Baptist camp in the Sierras I learned a song from the first letter of John that provided clear guidance about the Christian life I had embarked upon:

Beloved (beloved),
let us love one another
(love one another)
for love is of God
and everyone that loveth
is born of God and knoweth God.
He that loveth not
(clap clap clap)
knoweth not God
for God is love
(God is love).
Beloved (beloved),
let us love one another.
First John 4:7 and 8.

As I grew up, my theology evolved and my faith went “deep and wide” (another camp song). I was inspired by the theological insight that “God is love” and challenged by the ethical imperative to “love one another.” The correlation of “God is love” and “love one another” is the most profound truth of religion. So it becomes the lens by which to read not only John’s first letter but all of scripture. It becomes the bridge by which to link an ancient tradition to our day.

What are the implications of such reading for faithful living? Apocalyptic piety draws the sharp distinctions: pure/impure, good/evil, inside/outside, not of the world/in the world, lightness/darkness, confidence/shame. A mature piety for the long haul “takes radically something that was always there” — that God is love and that we are to love one another — and breaks through the binaries, cares less about distinctions, cares more for connections, strives more for genuine community.

A mature piety for the long haul is not pursued to make one blameless, for we know that no one is without blame, but to “abide in God” (I John 4:16), to travel with the Great Lover who teaches us, in and through community, the more perfect way of love.

“(I)t doth not yet appear what we shall be.” University Baptist Church has wrestled for years with letting go of an old identity — “Austin’s progressive voice of faith” — and living into a new identity in which the church is part of a larger movement for a more just and inclusive city. In this year of discernment, the church stepped into liminal space, leaving a narrow understanding that the church is for a small group of people and living into an expansive vision of building relationships in the university neighborhood that transform the wider community.

The liminal space surfaced longtime tensions in the church as well as systemic issues, such as the lack of accountability for staff, the lack of structure to support fragile arrangements (such as the relationship between volunteers and paid staff and the relationship between an interim pastor and settled staff), and the lack of structure to work through conflict and require leaders to practice what they preach about reconciliation.

The season of discernment also made plain the reality of a small inside circle that maintains the status quo and a larger outside circle that is eager for a more expansive mission. If you doubt the inside/outside dynamic of UBC, just ask the person sitting some distance from you in the sanctuary on Sunday, or call one of the members who won’t be in worship.

When the discernment process illuminated the desire to turn the church inside out — and clarified the need for a certain kind of leadership that could advance the church’s mission through collaboration with the university, partnerships with other progressive congregations and secular groups, and creative use of space and resources — the inner circle tried to rein in the discernment.

How? By discounting the depth and breadth of the majority voice. By postponing in-depth consideration of major issues, such as the use of property and staff structure. By moving to limit my role as interim pastor weeks in advance of the congregation’s April vote to extend the interim period to March 2020.

In Discernment Committee conversation prior to the congregational vote, committee member Lisa Cauble asked two questions, which I paraphrase: (1) Is it appropriate for the interim pastor to facilitate the search process? (My contract is very clear on this point: My role is “to assist the congregation in the identification and retention of a settled church minister.”) (2) If the interim pastor does not facilitate the search process, does the church need the interim pastor to stay through the search process? The committee had, to my knowledge, little discussion about the first question. It just sat on the table as a fait accompli. As for the second question, the committee went ahead to recommend to the church that I stay through March 2020, but this question became a sticking point in the debate that erupted in the following weeks.

Why the eruption? Because, as family systems theory suggests, there will be sabotage right at the moment of clarity. Because the process revealed the gap between the church’s leadership needs and the skills of the inner circle’s preferred candidate for senior pastor. Because the process threatened the status quo.

Now the inner circle speaks of the need for healing — a healing they maintain must occur before the church can even contemplate new leadership, much less a bold vision. If this is to be genuine healing, it won’t be a return to the status quo; it won’t maintain the inside circle/outside circle dynamic that manifests itself in competing visions for the church.

Genuine healing requires an honest reckoning with the past. Genuine healing depends upon an intentional effort to strengthen the systems that failed everyone.

Finally, genuine healing will only happen as the church embraces the radical correlation that “God is love” and we are to “love one another” — the truth that frees us from the prisons of binaries; the truth that delivers us from the temptation to seek our own preservation; the truth that liberates us from the captivity of a sanctuary to create community with our neighbors.

Genuine healing depends upon leadership that will call the church to a better way. Even more important, however, will be the courage of the congregation to step now into the expansive vision it articulated. If the church is to heal, it must resist the sidelining of aspirations that became clear in this season of discernment.

“(I)t doth not yet appear what we shall be,” but the church knows there is a better way. “Beloved, let us love one another” and thereby welcome love’s transformation of this congregation and the community you serve.

Be bold. For love’s power is yours.

Daniel Pryfogle
Interim Pastor

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