Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Occasional Advice

I write in a journal almost every day. It’s a file on my computer that has the current quarter’s entries, which I then add to another file for each year’s journal. I rarely look back at things I’ve written in the past—maybe when a specific anniversary comes up. Mainly the purpose of the journal is to provide me space to do some theological reflection—to try to express my gratitude for my blessings, articulate my personal concerns, and make sense of how God is working in my life.

Like almost every journal, it is intended for an audience of one. There are no big secrets in my journal, nor do I break any confidences in it, but still I would be horrified to think that someone else would read it. Those words are not intended for them. I wouldn’t have written those things in that way if I had known someone would read it. That’s why those files are password protected.

In today’s reading from 1 Timothy, I get the sense that we are reading a private letter—one intended for an audience of one. To me, it’s funny to think of how a letter Paul wrote to his dear friend Timothy ended up in the bible, where millions of people have read it and studied it—not only as an interesting read but as God’s word. Sometimes, when I read other letters of Paul like Romans or 1 Corinthians, I get the impression that he intended those writings to be widely circulated, but these lines from 1 Timothy seem to be a private instruction. They aren’t scandalous or controversial, but I think they were intended as an insider’s guide for how to run a church, and they give practical advice on what it takes to be a bishop or deacon.

Paul spent his later years spreading the gospel and growing the church. He travelled from town to town, exhorting the Christian communities, advising on issues of doctrine, and settling community disputes. We know some of what he did through the letters he wrote to those communities—letters in which he addresses the issues that threatened to split those churches apart. But we don’t have his journal. And we don’t really have any second-hand accounts of his visits from the residents of those cities. But we do have 1 Timothy, and I think we see in it some of the on-the-ground ways he did his job.

If you’re going to choose a bishop, make sure it’s someone who isn’t going to cause controversy. It should be someone who can keep his family in order, who is well respected both inside and outside the Christian church. He should be gentle and temperate. When you look for an overseer, keep those things in mind. Likewise, when you look for a deacon, choose someone serious as their work itself is serious. Many of the same qualities of a good bishop make for a good deacon—not greedy, not a drunkard, married only once, and faithful. If you want the church to succeed and grow, start by appointing good leaders.

Those words make sense, and I doubt they surprise any of us, but I wonder what they are supposed to teach us today. Our own bishop has been divorced and remarried—clearly not an exclusion for episcopal ministry. Today is the seventh anniversary of my ordination as a deacon, and on occasion I have sat around a table with other deacons, indulging in too much wine. I’m still ordained, or, as a friend said in a text message this morning, “And they said it wouldn’t last.” Sure, if you’re electing a bishop or ordaining a deacon, Paul’s words to Timothy are good guidelines (if not rules) to go by. But what do they really mean for us?

Near the end of today’s lesson, Paul writes, “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God.” That’s the sentence that caught my eye this morning. What does it mean to be a part of the “household of God,” and how are its members supposed to behave? Paul knew. He had seen it. God didn’t sit him down and say, “Paul, make sure all bishops are temperate and sensible.” Instead, Paul had spent enough time in the church to figure out what works, and he was sharing that advice with his friend and colleague—not as gospel truth but as sage advice.

What have we learned since then? Some things have changed, and others have not. If we want the church to grow, we need to learn from those who have worked in it for a while, and we need to allow our age-old guidelines to change with continued experience. Some models for ministry have run their course. Others are just springing up. The nature of 1 Timothy as a private letter reminds me that we make a mistake when we elevate a particular way of doing things to eternal, unchangeable truth. What are some of the things we do that seem inviolate? Paul teaches us that you need to be sensitive to experience and do what works. When was the last time we thought that way in the church—especially in the Episcopal Church?

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