1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15
One of my favorite memories of working in the church office dates back several years, back to when Ruth Morse was still our church administrator. Ruth was sitting at her desk in the main office, and I was working just a few feet away in mine. When the door between our offices was open, we could often, without trying to, hear one half of the other’s phone conversations.
And so it was that one morning as I sat working at my desk, probably answering or sending an email, the phone rang and Ruth answered it.
There was much silence on Ruth’s end, silence interspersed with an “uh-huh” here and there, then more silence and another “uh-huh.” Finally, I heard Ruth say in a cheerful voice, “Oh, that’s not very likely. We make decisions in a slow and agonizing manner here.”
That statement, in addition to being true, turned out to be a very effective way of getting rid of a telemarketer.
That statement, in addition to being funny, turned out to be a fair, if incomplete, description of congregational polity—how most UCC churches are governed.
Which is to say: Bythe members of the congregation, in which no one, including the pastor and the moderator, is given more authority than anyone else. By a decision-making process that, at its best, involves lots of deep listening—to the Spirit and to one another—prayer, and discernment. By a human impatience that sometimes gets ahead of the Spirit. By the honoring of, and consideration of, our shared values—with the implicit acknowledgment that gospel values rarely overlap with efficiency. With an awareness that times will come when the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, when the head misunderstands the heart, and when harsh and critical words are spoken.
Or, as Ruth put it: “Here we make decisions in a slow and agonizing manner.”
A manner that seeks out the guidance our still-speaking God. A manner that, at its best, spends as much or more energy trying to imagine what new thing God might be doing in and through us as on which of two or more tried-and-true alternatives to choose. A manner that honors the views of the minority and the feelings of outliers. With a wisdom that knows the difference between the passing of chronological time and the gift of kairos time—the fullness of time, when the moment is right. With a faithfulness that remembers that one of the fruits of the Spirit is patience.
A shared commitment to a Spirit-filled governing and decision-making process requires that we live willingly in the tension between chronological time and kairos time: between our human love of clarity, efficiency, and movement and the sometimes messy spiritual practice of discernment, which involves a fair amount of slowing down and listening—and often produces no small amount of frustration and confusion.
Congregational polity sometimes highlights the tension between our Spirit-fed desire to be the people of God and our natural human desire to be just like everyone else.
Which brings us, of course, to Samuel and the elders of Israel.
The elders of Israel—the 1 percenters—were fed up with the traditional system of judges and prophets and divine decrees. They were particularly fed up with Samuel, who, besides being old and faithful, had ended up with sons who cared more about the accumulation of wealth and power than the righteous guidance of God’s people.
The elders of Israel seemed also to be fed up with Yahweh, who, on top of being a force they could neither see nor control, had left their ancestors to wander in the wilderness, had issued commandments and laws, and was forever telling them to care for the poor and the stranger, the widows and the orphans.
The elders considered the current system of tribes and judges and elders (and God) to be inefficient and often inscrutable, vulnerable to mismanagement and corruption, and biased toward the poor. They were sick of it.
Wouldn’t streamlining the means of production and outsourcing the government be more efficient and less frustrating? Wouldn’t having a monarch elevate their standing in the community of nations, create a strong national defense, and leave them less vulnerable to getting pushed around?
“Give us a king!” they demanded. “Give us a king so we can be like everyone else!”
Never mind that in neighboring civilizations of the ancient Near East it was a culture’s gods—not the people—who instituted monarchies. Never mind that Yahweh had given humans agency and allowed them to make their own decisions. Never mind that the fundamental m.o. of most monarchies was to rule over and take from the people.
“We want a king!” the elders said.
And so it was that they got what they wished for—over Samuel’s objections and God’s grief. God wanted to make sure they had some idea of what they were in for, and so told Samuel to read them the fine print of how monarchies work: how a king would forever be taking their money, their cattle, their land, wives, their children, and their servants, for his own ends. Tell them, God said, that a king will not care about their needs or desires or dreams, that they will be little more than subjects to a king.
Samuel told them, but they didn’t care. They wanted efficiency and status, pomp and circumstance. They wanted to be like everyone else.
And so they got what they asked for: some 400 years’ worth of kings, all of them human to a fault, some of them incompetent, some of them corrupt, a few of them downright evil.
Which is not to say that we are wrong to sometimes feel frustrated with the messiness of our congregational ways of doing things. After all, more than a few Christian denominations have hierarchies of bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and even a pope to make the big decisions and make sure things are done in an orderly and timely matter. Many congregations grant their priests and pastors no small amount of authority, handing over to them the hard work of listening to God, discerning the way forward, and taking the blame when things don’t work out.
And, God knows, the Spirit can move in and through all manner of polities, processes, and individuals.
But if the story of Samuel and the elders of Israel demanding a king tells us anything, I think it is that God will not force her ways upon us. That God gives us the freedom and the choice to do things God’s way—which is sometimes unclear, often messy, and rarely in sync with our timetables—or, if not our way exactly, then at least the way everyone else does things.
The way of the church becomes even more challenging when we who are members of Christ’s church are also citizens of the world, leaders in business, academia, and other institutions, experts in doing things well and on time. It can be hard to leave that all that training and experience, that way of seeing and being, at that door when we come to church.
The Spirit invites us, and equips us, for a more challenging and, I think, ultimately rewarding path.
And that is the path of trust—trusting not only God’s faithfulness, but also that God can work through a community of God’s people who, even if they’re wandering in the wilderness, will continue to listen and learn, trusting that however messy the process and however long it takes, Love will lead them to the Promised Land. That is the path of being and growing in love and faith as well as doing.
Beloveds, neither I nor other church staff or the Elected Leadership Team have ever led a church through and out of a pandemic before. We don’t know all the answers. We have, and most likely will continue, to make mistakes. We have, and most likely will continue, to sometimes get frustrated with one another.
Much the same can be said of our Alive with Purpose process. We are in largely uncharted territory, and the way is not always clear. We are building the bridge as we walk across it, seeing the waters part only when we step into them.
And all along the way we have been, and will continue to, pray for wisdom and listen for Spirit’s guidance. We have, and will continue, to be committed to, above all else, loving God, one another, and our neighbors. We have, and will continue, to pay attention to the science and the very particular circumstances and vulnerabilities of our own people more than we go along with what everyone else is doing.
And together, with God’s help, we will ground ourselves in Love, take courage, be patient, and press onward—maybe more slowly than someone else would do it but also with more love and faith, hope and trust.
Last week Dick and I attended an hour-long webinar on congregational singing—whether and when it might be safe to do again. We learned lots of helpful information and important metrics to consider as we make our decisions. It was such a gift to hear from church people who fully understand that we never signed up to be gatekeepers, that the last thing we want to do is tell people we love “no” or “not yet” when it comes to doing things that are at least as important to us as they are to you.
I found myself weeping at the naming of this holy burden, and yet I also felt deeply grateful for the blessings that have come in the midst of the messiness.
I don’t want a king or a pope, a bishop or even a pastor who’s been given free rein to do whatever, whenever.
I want the messiness of God’s way, the gift of God’s people working and listening and praying together, the stunning surprise of an idea or an outcome we would have never imagined without Spirit’s help. I want the joy and healing and community of living together in love.
May it be so.