I don't know how to say this except for the truth it is.
Last Monday, December 3, was one helluva day.
It was a day in which the administrative duties of my position necessitated action on my part that is never pleasant, and was, in this instance, painful. Necessary for the big picture, but painful. I had lived with the reality of certain decisions through the weekend, so there was plenty of time to build up a good case of dread before meeting the moment head on.
And I had a severe case.
It was a day in which the character of the Church I serve was being asked to consider a new way of being for the sake of Methodist ministry in the city. And, while I have committed to the presence and place of Methodist ministry in the city, that does not mean that every model floated my way is "the one." Being calm and discerning on a day that isn't calm, is pretty tough to pull off.
But it was how my day ended that was the most surprising of all.
My wife and I were among 20 or so others who had been invited to dinner at the home the senior pastor of one of Memphis' mega-churches. I was there with clergy and spouses who are leaders in their denominations, from across the city. Black and white, men and women, Catholic, Presbyterian, United Methodist, Baptist, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalian, AME, and, Jewish.
And that last one's why I was there. If I was on Micah's list to be at something like this, then I'm there, no questions.
Curious, sure - but I trust him implicitly.
So, there we all were, names of people that anyone who worships in the city would know, except, say, for mine.
It seems there's a growing awareness among clergy leaders in the city that we can't change the city for good unless we know each other, and not as professionals - just as people.
We are people of divergent faith traditions and world views, bound by one thing - we all know we each have inherent value because we are made in the image of the Divine.
A few folks I had told I was going to this were most curious about what I would have to say after having done it.
We'll, here goes.
I believe the effort to be genuine, and I will continue in it.
My mother is fond of saying, of those whose power and position seemingly places them in higher regard than say, other folks, "they put their pants on just like you do, son, one leg at a time."
There was no pretense that night. True hospitality, and the opportunity for community among those of us who find our vocation leaves us remarkably lonely, is a means of grace that should never be ignored.
Kristy and I left 3 hours later, not sure what all had happened, but we were glad we were there.
I wrote our host, Craig, an email. We didn't have a chance to do much more than the small talk that night, so, I wanted him to know who I am. He's someone I had only heard of, but never met.
I was braced for someone I did not meet.
Rather, I discovered an open heart.
Because this email says a whole lot more about me, than him, I include it here:
I'm left with sense of gratitude from our time together in your home Monday night.
What I found was an intentional effort to put away job, status, size of pulpit or congregation, to join together in fellowship at table. A fellowship framed from no other allegiance or perspective than this - we each are made in the image of the Holy One, and thus, have value.
The desert monastics talk about the importance of welcoming the stranger. It is not so much because it is the "right thing to do," although it is. Rather, they held that we welcome the stranger because in him or her resides some element of the Divine that we have not yet seen - and, invariably, it is something that most fits the empty space in our spiritual journeys.
I believe that is true. I preach it. I am certain that most, if not all in your home Monday night do, too. The real issue is one of integrity. Can we, who are called to be spiritual leaders for God's precious children, practice it in our own lives?
It is a question I try to check myself against. Although we did not have opportunity to meet other than the general small talk, I want you to know how deeply and honestly I sensed that from you. And, I wanted to affirm that from both you and your wife.
In addition to my own practice of ministry for over 20 years, I am a preacher's kid. The issues associated with clergy families and their quest to live, love and grow as any family - coupled with the external pressures and expectations of others, have always been present in my life. Even more, I have written and led on the question that, over time, the rigors of the job, with all that seduces and tempts, we clergy find that years on, we forget who we are first and foremost - not merely people charged to do extraordinary things in the name of the Church - but simply sinners saved by grace whose discipleship must continue to be nurtured and tended even as we lead.
All of which is to say - this gathering, whatever it was, and whatever it is becoming, is a means of grace. To that point I bear witness.
In my congregation we use the language of "radical gospel hospitality." Saint John's is an interesting group of people, at an important season in it's life. We are not homogeneous about anything - I have some of the most liberal and conservative people you'll ever know sitting in the same worship space at the same time. What we've determined about ourselves is simply this - of all the labels we carry - politically, theologically, social standing - there is no label that matters to us more than the One who calls us to Table - together. So, if that's true, we believe there is a place at Table for any one. For everyone.
It is not rhetoric. We truly seek to practice that, and I've watched extraordinary things happen in our small band of believers simply because they choose to hold Jesus in common more than any other affiliation.
That is a bit of me that I bring to this table of our mutual fellowship. And I know I will be all the more complete by having you, and the rest of our brothers and sisters there, too - bringing the real stuff of who they are into our common experience.
Micah said this is about "being." I'm all over that. There's plenty enough "oughts" and "doings" in my life right now that I can handle. To have a place, a safe place - sanctuary to come to. That's a blessing.
The Peace is yours....so breathe it in.
He was quick to respond - and right after the holidays, we're having lunch.
Not out of curiosity, I suspect, but out of the genuine hope that there's something of the Sacred in each of us we'll need each other to discover.
When the day started, I was waiting to get home, grab my favorite glass and pour up a couple of knuckles worth of Pritchard's to ease the pain of the way the day had gone.
By the time to day ended, I was thankful, at peace, and ready, with gladness, to bring this day to its end. The glass never came out of the cabinet.
Strange how authentic fellowship works, isn't it?