The Concept of Mu

Feeling frustrated and confused, I went for a walk last week. I had spent the morning trying to imagine the next gathering in this adventure in consulting. The last time we were together, we focused on the numbers. They had gone on Neighborhood Walks and then we looked at the numbers. We looked at the statistics for each neighborhood and repeated those questions of discernment over and over again.

They were frustrated. They didn’t trust the numbers before them and I know that it wasn’t a distrust of the numbers, but a question of who this outsider was that had the audacity to make such claims about a community she did not know. It’s something I’ve bumped into in pastoral ministry before. I’m the pastor. I have some authority that no one else in the congregation has and so I must know something that they don’t but all I’m doing is asking these annoying questions. They aren’t the only ones who are frustrated.

I’m frustrated too and so I found some comfort on my walk with my earbuds warming my ears with wise words from the poet and community leader Pádraig Ó Tuama. I took comfort in hearing Ó Tuama  reflect upon something he’d read in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Like me, he didn’t really like the book but he took away from what he read something I didn’t remember. He told Krista Tippett on OnBeing that he’d held onto the idea of mu. He describes it as a Buddhist concept which acts as a response. When a questions is asked, according to Zen tradition, your response can be mu which Ó Tuama explains to be a way of saying

“‘Un-ask the question, because there’s a better question to be asked.’ The question that’s asking is limiting, and you’ll get no good answer from anything.”

Whether church member or consultant, it’s hard not to feel like we should know the answers. We should have some clue to where we are going and what it is that God requires of us and I’ll admit that it feels absurd to repeatedly ask the same questions of the same group of people but I believe in the questions.

Just as we find new hope in words from scripture we’ve heard thousands of times before, when we hear the same questions repeated over and over again, new hope emerges. We hear something we haven’t heard before. Some possibility opens that no one saw before not just because we followed the script and committed to the process but because we changed the script. We said mu to each other when a question didn’t work. We asked different questions, but we needed to ask the wrong questions first so we could find the right questions. We had to make our own edits so that we could put this future dreaming into our own words.

I spend a lot of time wordsmithing the questions that I ask. I spend a lot of time thinking about how these words might lead a group of people to dream about their future ministry and it’s frustrating. I’m frustrated by it. I want the answers as much as those I’m leading, but the truth is that I have more questions than answers.

The next time I meet with this church we’ll dive deeper into the questions. I’ll ask a whole bunch of different questions to encourage their imagination and creativity. I hope the questions build on what we’ve already explored. I hope that these new questions resonate with the yearnings of their hearts but open-ended questions like these are just as likely to paralyze as they are to spark new hope. God’s ways are confusing enough and so I think I might start by introducing the concept of mu so that the questions might not overwhelm us but invite us into deeper discernment of what God is doing with this church.

 

 

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Recipe for Discernment

I had the honor of meeting Elizabeth Liebert last month in San Anselmo where I began my studies in spiritual direction. I had read her book The Way of Discernment way back when I was discerning whether or to leave my first call. I was testing the spirits and her words were amazingly helpful as she reminded me, in her own words, that

discernment … is the process of intentionally becoming aware of how God is present, active, and calling us as individuals and communities so that we can respond with increasingly greater faithfulness.

Convinced both then and now that faithfulness great or small is going to be lost on me, I also read this article from the Christian Century. The author simply says God has no secret plan but only asks any of us into the greater faithfulness of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

Still, this feels lofty and overwhelming and I know it will for Central Congregational Church in Topeka tonight when I lead them through this exercise in discernment. Tonight, we’ll look at all of the data that we can find about the mission field in Topeka. There will be holes. We won’t have everything we want or need, but with what we’ve found and what I have gathered as their consultant, we’ll try to discern the greater faithfulness of this congregation.

To do so, we’ll borrow questions from Elizabeth Liebert’s The Way of Discernment. In other chapters, she encourages listening to the heart’s desire and paying attention to your body. She invites dreaming and prayer but in  the third chapter, it’s all about the data. We’ll repeat the questions she offers twice throughout the night but as I review my notes again I hope that these become familiar questions that recur in the months ahead when this church will need to make still more decisions. I don’t expect that we will come to a clear answer tonight, but I do hope that these questions will guide us in the ongoing process and it’s why I want to offer these questions to you.

Whether it is your church or your own self that is in the midst of discernment, here is a recipe that might helping you get cooking toward knowing what that greater faithfulness might be.

recipe-for-ministry

It didn’t fit on my cute little design but there is one final step which is to give thanks. There may not be clear answers to where God is leading, but God is still leading. God is present in every questions and soon enough we will know what it means to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. Until we’re clear, both you and I will return to this practice and ask these questions over and over again until we have a clear sense of where that greater faithfulness is.

If you are interested to learn more about my consulting practice or how I might help your church, I hope you’ll contact me. I would love to hear from you.

 

Lessons from the Past

After worship was over, in the middle of the Annual Meeting of this tiny church I’m serving as interim pastor, we shared in the work of memory. Earlier that week, I had taped a blue line upon the wall of the church hall with my trusty painter’s tape and chartered those significant events that I could cull from the archives and records.

There was a fire many, many years ago so that some records have been turned into ash but there are gaps in the present too. There are dates overlap from annual reports that don’t seem to have all of the information that we might hope to find but I was able to find when the women’s group started and when most recent bylaws were approved.

Inspired by Roy Oswald’s Discerning Your Congregation’s Future, we shared in what he calls an Evening of Historical Reflection but it was daytime for us and we attempted to do too much too fast. I knew that there was a risk of this. I grimaced a bit inside when the Consistory offered that this would be the best time because there would be so many more people present and engaged, but it was too much. It really should have happened on its own.

This church has had a particularly challenging recent history. I came to be their interim pastor after an abrupt departure of their previous pastor. This is a guy who had come from faraway to be their pastor after their beloved pastor died during Holy Week not too many years before. Theirs is a familiar story of a new pastor not measuring up to the old pastor. Maybe there were other factors that contributed to the abrupt ending of the relationship between this pastor and church. It was one of the things that I had hoped to become clear in this act of memory.

As Oswald suggests, we worked backwards in time. We started with the present and attempted to work through each pastorate which meant that we started with me. So, I asked: what has happened since this relationship began? The responses were all about how it feels now. There were no particular events offered as they would struggle to do moving backward in time but it was mostly about feelings. There is more energy. There is a sense of togetherness. There has been healing. All good things but are these the type of things that we would record in the records of the church history? I don’t know. Then, it was time to talk about that previous relationship with that former pastor. Again, there were more feelings. So many feelings that it was hard to name the events that we might want to name as points of historical significance.

We moved on to talk about another interim and the beloved pastor and everything that was said was about how wonderful these men were. Of this, I have no doubt. They sound like amazing men who loved these people with such depth and power. It’s hard to argue with that. But, I do want to argue. I want to argue because the role of clergy is changing. With the increasing distrust of institutions, there are big questions about the role of professional ministry being raised. Clergy have gotten more and more professional but churches have been less and less able to afford their services (and their student loan debt). Questions have been raised about not paying clergy while others wonder if bivocational ministry should be the new normal. And yet, it is not just financial realities that are changing how clergy function.

Clergy were long ago seen as the theologian in residence and the only one that could offer pastoral care but that seems to be changing as much as how clergy lead. So, I want to argue with these good people about why and how clergy matter. (To be clear, this is my vocation. I loved what I do. I hope there are churches that want to pay me a salary with benefits and a pension in the future. I am called to this as I know that there are other clergy that are just as called to this work as I am.) But, should every church bear that financial burden of paying a clergy person? Should each individual congregation assume that the only measure of success is having their very own pastor?

I look back into the history of this church to see that they shared a pastor with the other United Church of Christ just a mile down the road. They decided in 1931 to dissolve that relationship but the history observes that the congregation always struggled with membership and finances. Would the best option for their future be to reignite that relationship? Are there other possibilities of partnership with the several other United Church of Christ congregations in the area? Is there only one mode of success? Does success only come with calling a new pastor? What might the past teach us?