Blog Series: Your Perspective, Insights, and Witness Make a Difference
Dear friends, TMC thrives on listening to and learning from you – ministry leaders, TMC cohort facilitators, and other conversation partners across the country – who continually provide deep insights, alternative perspectives, and imagination that helps us discern where the Spirit is blowing and how the TMC network can faithfully respond. Your collective feedback is a powerful witness to what God is doing in the world. So, as always, we want to hear from you! Each post in this blog series is a question directed to you, accompanied by short reflections about why we’re drawn to these questions, and a simple way for you to respond. We hope these questions resonate with you and others in your ministry context.
Like most people, I indulged in a bit more TV than usual over the holidays. One of the commercials that Sling played on repeat was a public service announcement by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The commercial stresses the importance of properly installing car seats. After scenes of a frantic family dealing with lost shoes, empty milk cartons, and a load of laundry turned pink by a rogue red sock, the narrator cuts in and reminds us: “You’re not going to get it all right; just make sure you nail the big stuff.”
While aimed at parents, it strikes me that this is pretty good advice for pastors.
You’re not going to get it all right. The task is too hard, the landscape is too quickly changing, and there are just too many variables to deal with. The expectation that we get everything right is not a biblical value but an idol rooted in late-stage American capitalism and its obsession with production, performance, and progress. So, if you’re feeling like you’re not getting everything right these days in your ministry, go easy on yourself. Getting it all right is not the job, nor is it the way of discipleship. The grace of Jesus Christ is for you, too.
Equally important, though, is that pastors pay attention to “the big stuff.” When it comes to church leadership, not all things are equally important and worthy of the same amount of time and attention. Part of the work is being able to identify the big stuff amidst the deluge of little- and medium-sized stuff that crashes upon you every day. That’s why my colleagues and I want to ask:
When it comes to passages of scripture and theological themes, what’s the big stuff that you are paying attention to these days? And why?
For me, one of the big things I have been paying attention to in Scripture lately is the end of the book of Deuteronomy. In chapter 34, we find the Israelites near Mount Nebo, just to the east of the Jordan River. From this vantage point, Israel would have been able to look west and see the land promised since the time of Abraham. They are tantalizingly close, but not yet there. The promise remains unfulfilled. Complicating matters further, Moses, Israel’s paradigmatic leader, has died. Who will lead them? Is there even life after Moses? With the land not claimed and their leader gone, was leaving Egypt even worth it?
Deuteronomy 34 might strike us as a surprising and anti-climactic ending to the Pentateuch, which in both Jewish and Christian circles has traditionally been seen as a self-contained unit within the canon as a whole. And at least in the Jewish tradition, there’s evidence that at one point the Pentateuch (or Torah) stood on its own even before the rest of the canon was in place. Given this, shouldn’t we expect an ending with better resolution and a clearer fulfillment of God’s promise? If the Pentateuch were an HBO series, its conclusion would leave audiences less than satisfied (Game of Thrones, anyone?).
I want to suggest that there’s intentional theological design to Deuteronomy 34. At this moment in the story, Israel is already fully constituted as God’s covenant people even though they are not yet in the land. The ending of Deuteronomy would thus have served as an important reminder – and indeed, good news – to later Israelites living in exile or the Diaspora that their lack of access to the land of Israel did not disqualify them from full participation in God’s covenant. The land might be holy, but it’s never a prerequisite. The land might have value, but not ultimate value. In the biblical story, the promise of land remains open and unresolved, a matter for theological imagination not geo-political preoccupation.
Further, Deuteronomy 34 stresses that however successful Israel’s forms of leadership were in the past, they would be inadequate for the journey ahead. What worked in the wilderness would not work in Canaan. This point is driven home by Deuteronomy 34:6b, which reveals, quite curiously, that no one knew where Moses had been buried. This would be like losing track of where someone like MLK Jr. or George Washington was buried. It seems implausible, but here again, an important theological point is being made. There’s no going back to Moses, not even to pay one’s respects. Nostalgia for “the way things were” in the past – even if that past includes someone as legendary as Moses – can be a barrier to progress into the future. Deuteronomy 34 underscores that new circumstances would demand new patterns of life together. The community would have to evolve and adapt.
Both of these points are worth paying attention to today. In our own experiences of wilderness, exile, or dislocation, how can we more fully trust that God is with us, even if, or especially if, we perceive that a specific promise of God remains unfulfilled? What forms of nostalgia do we need to leave behind so that we can more faithfully imagine new ways of life together? What do we tend to think is a prerequisite for participation in God’s covenant when, in reality, it really is not – and how is that affecting our faith formation and leadership?
These are some of the theological themes I find myself paying attention to at such a time as this. What are yours? We really want to hear from you. So, please share your thoughts by clicking the link below.
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