Standing By Truth

I ate dinner in a church basement the other night with a group of friends and colleagues. When it was over our host dismissed us with a blessing and his assessment of our experience. It was, he assured us, the essence of Christian fellowship. This is the sort of thing one often hears at church.  At potlucks, missions conferences and the church’s services in general, we are told that we are enjoying a foretaste of heaven.

I hope not. Surely there is more to heaven than boiled beef and small conversation about last night’s game. The problem here is not really the menu or even the company-though both could stand improvement on occasion. The problem is the language we use to describe our experience. I am not condemning the art of small talk, which has a legitimate  place in the life of the church. I am criticizing the church’s slovenly approach to language and its penchant for meaningless hyperbole.

In an essay entitled “Standing by Words,” Wendell Berry speaks of the importance of fidelity to language. According to Berry “there is a necessary and indispensable connection between language and truth.” Berry states, “My impression is that we have seen, for perhaps a hundred and fifty years, a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning.” As a Church which is constituted by the Word and which worships and serves the one who is called the Word, we ought to be concerned about this decline. Language matters deeply to God. Instead, we ape the culture. We resort to cheap hyperbole to describe our Christian experience. We overstate, understate, and euphemize. We are civil tongued but inveterate liars.

The good news is that there is a remedy for this. According to Ephesians 4:15 we are to “speak the truth in love.” Unfortunately, most of us are proficient in only one of these languages. Either we speak the truth but without love. Or we speak out of love but cannot bring ourselves to tell the truth. We opt for the tired path of truism and cliché. But if  we are to speak as if language matters, such half-measures will never do.

Ministry Monday: Vision’s Dirty Little Secret

Wendell Berry writes that a farmer’s connection to the farm often begins in love: “One’s head, like a lover’s, grows full of visions. One walks over the premises, saying, ‘If this were mine, I’d make a permanent pasture here; here is where I’d plant an orchard; here is where I’d dig a pond.’ These visions are the usual stuff of unfulfilled love and induce wakefulness at night.”

 I would contend that something similar happens to the pastor who dreams of a different kind of future for the church. Like Berry’s farmer, thoughts of what could be drive sleep from us. Night falls and our work is only beginning. We imagine and plan. We create whole new worlds in our mind, striding across the landscape like giants. Until our spouse, weary from our tossing and sighing, tells us to either give it a rest or sleep somewhere else.

 Yet if it is to be realized, this imagined future must be shaped as much by reality as it is by vision. “One’s work may be defined in part by one’s visions,” Berry explains, “but it is defined in part too by problems, which the work leads to and reveals.” As powerful as vision is in motivating us to work for change, the change that eventually comes to pass usually differs from that which we initially imagined. Our dreams are transformed as we come to terms with the reality of our environment. Berry sees this as a necessary correction, one which “gradually removes one’s self from one’s line of sight.”

 In saying this, Berry has uncovered the dirty little secret of most vision work. Vision is often as much about us as it is about the future, a fact which explains why so many visionary leaders also turn out to be narcissists.

 There is, thankfully, a corrective built into the vision process, which is simply this: every leader is dependent upon others to bring the vision to pass. These “others,” usually consisting of the congregation, meddle with our dream. They resist it. Shatter it. Then eventually recast it in their own image. The result, if we are patient enough to wait and humble enough to submit, is often something even we would not have imagined.

Questions:

What do you think are some of the “best practices” for drawing stakeholders into the vision process?

How do you deal with the natural frustration that often arises when those stakeholders re-shape and change your vision?