Just the Beginning of the Conversation…

            Martin Copenhaver, in the marvelous book on the real lives of ordained ministers that he co-authored with Lillian Daniel, This Odd and Wondrous Calling (I really should get a commission for every copy that gets sold on my recommendation!) wrote a chapter about why he greets people at the back door of the church sanctuary every Sunday.  It’s his chance, he says, to touch base with them, perhaps to get a quick glimpse into what is going on in their lives: an upcoming surgery, a pending transition, a little triumph or a looming challenge. 

            It is also, of course, a chance to hear reactions to what he has just said in the pulpit.  Sometimes these are along the lines of: “Nice sermon, Reverend.” Or, “I really enjoyed what you had to say.” But sometimes, Copenhaver writes, the sermon is just the beginning of the conversation.  As it was when he preached an anti-war message and had a retired general engage him rather heatedly on the way out the door. 

            I’ve had similar instances in my ministry.  Like the time ten years or so ago that I decided to express my support for a then just-released statement of our denomination’s General Assembly encouraging gun control measures.  I was preaching on the Beatitudes, in particular “blessed are the meek,” so it wasn’t like it was totally out of the blue.  I did make it clear that I knew not everyone would agree with me, nor did I expect them to do so.  That being said, the congregation I was serving at the time was populated with a host of gun owners, many of them N.R.A. members.  As I moved into the gun control paragraph in my sermon, people in the congregation crossed their arms and furrowed the brows.  If looks could kill, I would have been maimed, at the very least.  As my hearers greeted me on their way out that day, I learned firsthand what Copenhaver meant.  That sermon was just the beginning of a number of conversations.  (Not too long after that I found a great cartoon, depicting a pastor behind a bullet-riddled pulpit.  The caption read something like this:  Pastor Bob decided that this would be his last sermon on gun control.) 

Who would have ever thought after I preached that sermon, that I would one day be the owner of an N.R.A. range card? I still think reasonable control on gun purchases is a good idea.


            In my current congregation, a number of my sermons have created dialogue as well.  Several years ago, in a sermon on the persistent widow from Luke 18:9-14, I mentioned the peace protests of Father John Dear, who enters military bases and hits F-16’s with hammers.  The very next day I received an email from a church member who was working in the Pentagon at the time. The dialogue that ensued helped both of us come to understand more about each other and how Christian theology and various stances towards war intersect.   

            Just this past month, on Mother’s Day, I indicated my opposition to amendments banning same-sex marriage.  Many members of my congregation told me they appreciated my courage in taking that stand.  But not everyone agreed with my position.  One parishioner, who happens to disagree with me on the subject, engaged me in a loving, thoughtful and well-reasoned email conversation several days later.  We both grew from the experience.

            Earlier this year, I conducted a memorial service for a church member who frequently engaged me in email dialogue about things I said in my sermons. We came from different places on the political spectrum, and our interchanges, while respectful, could occasionally have a bit of an edge.  Perhaps it helped that we had a deep appreciation for the game of baseball and the life of the mind in common, but Peter and I grew to really value each other as friends and conversation partners.   We loved each other.  And I dedicate this post to him. 

My late friend Peter at his Princeton reunion. Thanks to his wonderful wife Martha for sharing this photo.


            I think one of the places the Scarred God meets us is in the vulnerability of honest and respectful conversation, even disagreement.  So it is my hope that “Serving A Scarred God” might become a place, not just for me to share my thoughts in posts, but for you who read them to react to them.

            In other words, I hope that this is just the beginning of many conversations….

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18 Responses to Just the Beginning of the Conversation…

  1. F. Rooney says:

    We learn much more in conversations of respectful disagreement than in conversations of agreement, which merely reinforce our current thinking.

    • afeickstaedt says:

      I agree, Fran! 😉 But seriously, I think you’re absolutely right. It’s pushing beyond the discomfort that not being in agreement causes, and really listening to each other, that is difficult.

  2. Paula says:

    I have always wondered how church leaders figure out how they’re going to talk to sensitive issues. When you see a really strong stance (like the guy talking about gays in concentration camps), is his whole congregation nodding in agreement? Are they feeling like they’re wrong if their pastor has a different stance? I’m glad you’re able to engage like that.

    • afeickstaedt says:

      Thanks, Paula. I think some of the decision to speak to sensitive issues arises out of the tug of conscience and conviction. Rarely on an issue of any consequence or controversy is there complete agreement in the congregations I’ve served. Creating a climate (how’s that for alliteration?) that invites respectful conversation is the key…

  3. Scott Kenefake says:

    Nice … enjoyed it very much!!

  4. Tina Alston says:

    Peter’s ongoing conversations with me over our last 48 years have definitely been transformed by our walks in Faith. In those days our political convictions were even sharper at least on my part with a youthful arrogance that it was up to me to change the world, as well as Peter!

    Upon reading your comments of Peter’s treasured times talking with you in McMean it’s evident how welcoming your particular church was in allowing and even appreciating such differences.

    In our brief visits Peter always had something to show me stemming from those Conversations after the sermon . We all are so fortunate in knowing Peter. And we are still coming to know Peter better.

    • afeickstaedt says:

      Thanks, Tina… I agree that we were fortunate in coming to know Peter. And I was glad that I grew beyond seeing him as an adversary into seeing him as a partner in the search for truth. Even if we didn’t agree on any number of subjects, our perspectives were broadened…

  5. Nerissa says:

    Beautiful post, Aaron. I think every place we disagree is a place to bring God in as a divine Third to the conversation. And I am reminded that we have this idea that the early Christians all saw things the same way. Apparently, they did not, and started arguing pretty much as soon as Jesus was crucified (in fact, I guess they were arguing before then (Luke 9:46). I am guessing that one of the main jobs as minister is to engage one’s congregants, to get people thinking. I know for a fact that you do this very well.

    • afeickstaedt says:

      Thanks, Nerissa… Love the idea of bringing God in as a divine Third. And there’s no doubt that Jesus-followers have had their disagreements and misunderstandings from the beginning. Mark’s Gospel is the best window into that, I think. And the book of Acts gives even more insight into the squabbles, not to mention Paul’s letters and the letters of John. The early church was a pretty contentious bunch. Longing for the halcyon days of the early church is equivalent to being led to a mirage. Getting people to think is a pretty high calling. You do that, too. Thank you for that!

  6. brooksley says:

    I’ve never thought about how vulnerable a minister can be by exposing his opinions in his sermons. In fact, opinions and conversations are one of the purposes of sermons, aren’t they? Interesting post Aaron. I can see how you would be an excellent minister!

    • afeickstaedt says:

      Thanks, Brooksley. Ministry and preaching are inherently vulnerable tasks, at least when they are done well… I’ve gradually learned to grow beyond a tendency to defensiveness…

  7. Ashley King says:

    Hi Aaron! I love this. Makes me think you might appreciate this TED talk by Elizabeth Lesser: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsSd2nmoKNA

    • afeickstaedt says:

      Thanks, Ashley. I watched the Lesser video this morning. Intrigued by the idea of the conflict between the warrior and the mystic, and the call to take a Republican (or Democrat) to lunch…

  8. kailakuban says:

    hi aaron,
    once again a lovely post that makes me think about all the similarities between being a pastor and being a teacher – the ways in which we try to engage our congregation/classroom, and the vulnerabilities it requires when we broach sensitive topics – especially when those that sit before us disagree. this piece makes me think of preaching & teaching as two different – but crucial – components of an important project: creating dialogue that opens our minds to alternative ideas/beliefs so that we may offer olive branches across the (sometimes) vast differences between us – in the hopes that we may grow as individuals and as part of an increasingly enlightened group consciousness. thank you! kaila

    • afeickstaedt says:

      Thank you for this thoughtful comment, Kaila. I love the idea of preaching/teaching as the task of creating dialogue in the midst of sometimes vast differences. How to gain a hearing without having your listeners tune out is the trick…

  9. Sabine says:

    Great post and nice way to dedicate it

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