In the soup

The restaurant patron looked down in disgust. Pushing his bowl of soup away, he signaled for a waiter. “Waiter, what is this fly doing in my soup?” the patron demanded.

The waiter bent closer and peered closely at the offending insect. Straightening up, he replied, “I believe he’s doing the doggie paddle, sir.”

Amusing story.

Unless, of course, you happen to be the fly.

And there have been times, this past year, that I’ve felt like the fly. Haven’t you?

. . .

In the previous post, I wrote to pastors about the story from Joshua 3 of Israel crossing the Jordan. I believe it’s a useful metaphor for the challenges of leadership during a time of pandemic. Our destination, whatever it may be, is on the far bank of a flooded river basin. We have the promise that God will get us across safely; God will stop the flow of the river, and the waters will recede. But someone has to lead. Someone has to go first. The priests therefore, as instructed, pick up the ark of God’s covenant, put their feet in swollen river, and start walking. And they keep walking, anticipating the promised miracle, even as the waters come up to their neck.

Imagine now the people standing on the riverbank. They get to watch the miracle from a long distance away, from the safety of the shore. Nobody gets see the waters of the Jordan stand up in a heap; that’s happening miles upstream. The priests and the ark are far away, too, at best a speck to the watching Israelites.

But eventually, they see the waters recede. By the time the priests reach the middle of the riverbed, the water has stopped flowing. The people — legion upon legion of men, women, and children — have the privilege of crossing on safe, dry ground.

Well, mud anyway, that fills their sandals with sticky silt. But they don’t have to try doggie paddling across the Jordan.

I imagine that some of the people, right then and there, wanted to worship God for opening the door to the Promised Land in such a striking fashion, reminiscent of Moses and Red Sea. But some probably scurried across as quickly as they could, clutching their children to themselves, lest the waters suddenly return. And others just unceremoniously scratched the Jordan off their mental list of worries: Well, that’s taken care of. Now what about Jericho?

But did anyone think of texting the priests to thank them for going first?

. . .

When we feel like we’re treading water just to stay afloat, it’s easy to become overwhelmed or cynical. We become so wrapped up in our own challenges that we lose perspective. We lose hope.

The problem is that when this happens, we may begin to treat each other in a way that further undermines our hope. True Christian hope is not an individual psychological construct: it’s a possession of a Christian community, embodied in how we encourage one another and help each other keep things in theological perspective. As I’ve suggested before, to hold onto hope, we need to hold it together, in community.

Pastors are a bit like the priests in Joshua’s story. They are tasked with going before the people; they have to be the first to step into the swirling, muddy water, to help the rest of us find a place to cross. And in this time of uncertainty, anxiety, and polarization, they are often confronted with a no-win scenario: no matter what they decide regarding how to respond to the pandemic, someone is going to accuse them of faithlessness.

Many pastors take it for granted that they will get more complaints than encouragement. But this is not how it should be with the people of God. We don’t have to agree with a decision, for example, to be gracious in the way we receive or respond to it. Hurling accusations of apostasy is obviously not helpful, but then neither is gossip. Is it possible that even if we hear of a decision or policy with which we don’t agree, we might assume that it was made prayerfully, in good faith, and in an attempt to be obedient to God?

I know. There are congregations in which the power of leadership has been abused, and in such contexts, it’s hard and perhaps even unrealistic to give the benefit of the doubt in the way I’ve suggested. Noted. What I’m asking, though, is that we look honestly at ourselves. Are we in the grip of cynicism? Even if we have good reason to be cynical, can we recognize how corrosive it is both to our own spirit and to the spiritual health of the community?

Sometimes, to find hope, we need to simply do the things a hopeful person would do. What can we do to encourage our leaders? We may have thought to ourselves, “I’m glad I’m not in their shoes.” But our leaders are in their shoes, sometimes walking out into the mud, hearing little more than criticism.

What would a hopeful person do to encourage hope in our leaders, and in turn, a more hopeful community?

Whatever it is, do that.

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