Disoriented Following

By Wayne Nitzsche, Interim LEADership Minister

I’ve been granted the privilege of walking with the congregations of Alpha, Bally and Taftsville as they engage the journey of calling a pastor. Jenifer Eriksen Morales has prepared them well for the steps in the process. But as in all of life, we make plans and sometimes it works to perfection and for a brief moment we believe we’re smartly in control. The rest of the time, life happens.

For example, recently I planned for a weekend trip to Taftsville, Vermont to have meetings with the Transition Team, Council and to preach on Sunday morning. The meetings went well, the congregation offered warm hospitality, and Vermont showcased its winter beauty, a dazzling display. Sunday afternoon when I’d plan to return home, four inches of new snow blanketed our vehicles. Vermonters for whom that is no big deal,
cautioned me about evening travel in blowing and drifting snow. I decided to spend an extra day and wait out the storm.  Initially I was frustrated. How could I miss a Monday morning and evening meeting and a day of work? When I let go of the temporary and minor disorientation of my schedule I was able to relax. I was gifted with an hour-long walk in the snow, and engaging conversation with my delightful hosts.

My change of plans was a minor inconvenience. But other situations feel more major. Heather Wolfe, member of the Taftsville Transition Team reflected on a piece of their four year pastoral search process. At one point, two pastoral candidates seemed to be real possibilities. However, both people withdrew their names from consideration. Dorcas Lehman, who was an interim pastor at that time, reminded the Team that Moses wandered in the wilderness for forty years before reaching the Promised Land. Surely Moses felt much disorientation, and disappointment.  Heather remarked that they hoped it didn’t take 34 more years to get to their Promised Land of finding a pastor!

In January, I visited Alpha Mennonite Church and was delighted to hear Krista Showalter Ehst preach a sermon called “Disoriented Following” based on the text from Matthew 4. Jesus begins ministry in a new place, and immediately calls two sets of brothers.

Krista began with her own story of disoriented following. She was about to graduate from seminary. A congregation inquired about her openness to a pastoral call. While on a silent retreat she sensed the Spirit validating her call to pastoral ministry. Soon there were multiple long-distance Skype interviews with a search committee resulting in a call to candidate at that church. Krista purchased plane tickets but then suddenly questions began to emerge from the search committee and the offer to be the pastoral candidate was withdrawn. Krista was obviously disoriented and devastated. Questions about that experience remain, but she testifies that it led to growth and new opportunities.

Krista says about Matthew 4:12: “Jesus himself is coming off a very disorienting experience–his temptation in the wilderness. Somehow, this disorienting wilderness experience seems to have brought him a renewed strength and clarified call as he now chooses this moment to begin his ministry.”

Later she says about the call of the brothers, James and John, and Peter and Andrew: “What a daring decision, and what a disorienting decision! They don’t even know what “following Jesus” means–in fact they may not even know that this guy’s name is Jesus yet! All they have to go on is his invitation and this cryptic phrase that they’re going to somehow fish for people. And so without any concrete sense of what lies ahead or where they will be led, they step out into this abyss of newness and change. I can’t imagine a more disorienting moment. I’m curious whether, an hour down the road, James turned to John or Peter turned to Andrew and said: “Brother, what in heck are we doing?”

Matthew has a purpose when he tells this story. And I think part of it is to remind his readers that the brothers’ disorienting beginning to their discipleship is indicative of the overall nature of discipleship. Being Jesus’ disciple has the potential to totally transform and change the shape of our lives–what we do with our lives, our relationship to family and friends and the various people and things we come to depend on. Being a disciple of Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims may just turn our lives upside down and call us away from everything familiar and secure.” This is just a little piece of Krista’s sermon. She agreed to send me the manuscript. Being the generous person she is, I’m sure she’d share it with you too.

What is your personal story of disoriented following? We all likely have many as we try to follow Jesus, and trust God’s loving care. We surely have them as congregations too. Often pastoral transition can be very disorienting for a congregation. It’s when congregations turn to the conference for leadership. It offers a great opportunity to live into the disorientation and grow by reconsidering current identity, context and mission.

Clearly we are in a disorienting time as a nation.  It offers the church the opportunity to differentiate itself from nationalism, patriotism, redemptive violence and consumerism that is often confused with American Christianity but has nothing to do with the gospel of Christ.

That Sunday at Alpha, Krista concluded her sermon by leading us into sharing the Lord’s Supper. Perhaps we need to more frequently rejoice in this gift that Jesus gave us. As we eat and drink may it prompt a powerful memory of his life; freely given for love of this beautiful but often disorienting world. May we live into these disorienting times, as individuals, and congregations so we may live courageously, oriented toward Christ’s kin-dom, coming on earth as it is in heaven.