Opening our eyes that we may see


Rev. Peter E. Bauer

United Church of Christ Minster

Recently, I had my annual eye exam. I try to make sure that I get my eyes checked every year, because, like a lot of people, I spend many hours a day looking at computer screens. As a part of the eye exam, the optometrist will usually dilate your eyes. This way they can check on your retina and your ocular. 

When the drops are injected into your eyes, after a while you can get sensitive to light. I always find this being the case when I walk outside after the procedure. The sun is very bright. You can’t look up even with prescription sunglasses. I end up sitting in my car, for up to a half hour, allowing my eyes to adjust and recover before I attempt to drive.

The blinding sunlight makes it difficult to see clearly. You can’t act and respond with movement right away. Instead, there is the need to pause and wait until you can fully see again and perceive accurately your surroundings.

Our spiritual journey can sometimes reflect the same pattern, sometimes being hard to see, other times revealing great clarity. St. Paul observed this when he wrote:

For now, we see through a glassdarklybut then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (I Corinthians 13: 12).

Life in the Church usually can be anything but totally clear, anything but the total absence of conflict.

During the last few years, I witnessed a church where I served as Interim Minister leave The United Church of Christ denomination after serving its community for 120 years. This happened during the Covid-19 pandemic. A few years before, I witnessed another church close its doors after providing ministry for 125 years.

Again, just recently I heard of another church disbanding and being taken over by another denomination. This is a process known as “steeple jacking,” which also is the title of a book written by former General President of The United Church of Christ Rev. John Dorhauer. The book describes the process of how a group of people will, in predatory fashion, descend upon a vulnerable congregation and then snatch it up and incorporate it into their group.

What happens then is that the history and the culture of the community changes. What was known before is no longer honored. The new culture of the conquerors will now be recognized and honored.

Again, I witnessed this many years ago when there was a merger of two congregations, one Asian, one German American. The Asian community had greater influence and thus the German influence and heritage receded. Of course, it could have been the reverse. But like a Time-Warner merger, there isn’t the atmosphere of a win-win for everyone, someone always ends up losing.

Which is why it’s so important that we talk about what it means to be a “good shepherd.” Why is shepherding, caretaking and pastoring so important?

Think about when you received transformative ministry at a time you were in need. Maybe it was when you were faced with a life-threatening illness, or when you went through a horrendous divorce, or when your heart was broken when your child took their life to suicide.

These times of earth shattering, and soul crushing crisis demand outstanding pastoral care and counseling from caring and effective clergy.

The writer of John’s Gospel observes:

“I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” ((John 10:11)

During the first century CE, it was customary that if sheep were kept in a pen, and there was a gateway that extended to further pasture, a shepherd would lay down over the threshold to protect the sheep.

That’s a strong visual image depicting how committed a Pastor can be about taking care of a congregation.

This is in strong contrast to the behavior and grandiose drive of tele-evangelists who are notorious regarding soliciting money and then remaining aloof, removed from real people and real problems. Instead, they tend to prefer private jets, extravagant houses and cars and leaving scandals in their wake.

I know someone who has been a good shepherd. This individual has pastored several churches, has been a very effective teacher, involved with his community and has written a book.

But one of the most impressive accomplishments concerning this good shepherd was their willingness and generosity to devote over thirteen years of volunteer service visiting young African- American youth who were incarcerated in the Baltimore, MD city jail.

This good shepherd took seriously the mandate of the Gospel to deliver good news and charity to the most vulnerable.

John reminds us that wolves are always lurking out there ready to attack the flock. When I was dealing with the church that decided to leave the denomination, it was a Sisyphean ordeal. Just when you thought that you had salvaged some support you turn around and there is more erosion, more propaganda and more flat-out power play behavior.  Instead of building up the body of Christ, it was a deliberate torpedo style schism.

So much for ” And They will know we are Christians by our love. “

What happened during that schism is that people who I loved and pastored became greatly harmed and left the congregation, finding a new church home elsewhere. I’m not sure that the victors of the ” steeple jacking ” ever fully appreciated the pain and suffering that they created per their offensive.

John reminds us again that the Good Shepherd is not only for us, but that the Good Shepherd seeks to comfort all.

“I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” (John 10: 16)

The Gospel appears to be saying that diversity is good, and that diversity makes the body of Christ better. This is in sharp contrast to those who would want to marginalize and discount the perspectives of others.

Recently, a friend of mine shared that their big church left the parent denomination and affiliated with a new denomination. I asked the friend how was the transition going?

They replied:

“Well, it’s better. At least we’re all on the same page now!”

I’m not convinced that this is an accurate reading of human nature. There will always be difference of opinion, there will always be conflict within congregations and communities of faith.

The challenge becomes how do we deal with conflict in a healthy fashion? How do we affirm different perspectives from people and express grace and charity for all?

The current win/lose mentality that is witnessed in contemporary church congregational struggles is dis-satisfying and dangerous and can lead to terrible wounds that can stay with a community for a long time, perhaps decades and beyond.

The Psalmist writes:

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me, your rod, and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23)

This passage of scripture is normally read at funerals or memorial services, and it speaks to the everlasting steadfast love of God.

I think that we should also see this as a guide to living life here and now abundantly.

We can be led by Good Shepherds who can be totally committed to the life of congregations, to the people of God who follow the way of Jesus the Christ.

Our denomination The United Church of Christ is fond of quoting John 17: 21-23

“That they all may be one.”

The lyrics of the hymn “Open My Eyes That I May See” says it best:

Open my eyes that I may see;

Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me;

Place in my hands the wonderful key

That shall unclasp and set me free.

Silently now I wait for Thee.

Ready, my God, thy will to see;

Open my eyes, illuminate me,

Spirit Divine!

We have the opportunity now to live out the truth of this claim. Indeed, we all may be one, amid our differences, backgrounds, and commitments, we all may be one.

May it be so for us now and always.

Rev. Peter E. Bauer is a United Church of Christ minister. He has been a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and Medium.Com.


1 comment

  1. David 19 April, 2024 at 14:52 Reply

    Peter– another thoughtful effort. As I mentioned, my outlook on church mergers is different. My experience is that often, failing churches face this dilemma: Either close the church doors or merge with a like-minded church and denomination. Anyway, let’s talk soon.

    Blessings! Dave 713 722 9298 832 988 1609 cell

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