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Four Words

January 13, 2014

“Four Words” © 1.12.14 Baptism of the Lord (First Presbyterian Church installation of ruling elders) by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There’s a great line from the film Sleepless in Seattle. Tom Hanks and Rob Reiner are discussing a timetable for the renovation of a client’s kitchen. Plans are beginning to gel, and Reiner asks: “What do you call that place where everything comes together?” Hanks’ cynical response: “The Bermuda Triangle.”

Thanks to the way the Sundays and Wednesdays have fallen in January, everything is coming together liturgically for us today as it has not for at least a decade. I trust we will not be sucked through a portal into some other dimension, never to be heard from again, as in the infamous Triangle. But I do hope we will be lifted up to another reality, as John was in Revelation when a door opened into heaven.

So what’s going on that we haven’t experienced in recent years or maybe even ever? What can inspire and change us? Just this: today we are renewing our baptismal covenant as a congregation. That’s not unusual. You’ve done it during my tenure here, as well as with other ministers. But as far as I can tell from a check of old bulletins, not once in at least the last ten years have ruling elders been installed on the same day as the covenant service, thus making clear that their ministry arises from the baptismal calling of all believers. Add to that the celebration of Holy Communion, and this Sunday’s liturgy becomes incredibly full and exciting.

Because our worship on this festival day is so rich in prayer and ritual, what I have to say is going to be brief. I want to focus for a few minutes on four words. They come from the ordination vows that will be reaffirmed this morning. Many of you are ruling elders, so you know these questions, have made these promises. Some of the vows have to do with personal faith, others with doctrinal standards, still others with relationship to the church, while a final set asks about and suggests standards for service by teaching and ruling elders.

The four words we’re reflecting on this morning come from that last group. They are “energy,” “intelligence,” “imagination,” and “love.”

I fantasize that some creative, hopeful, dissatisfied, literary soul somehow got those words put in a constitutional question. They stand out against all the others that are in many ways institutional and commonplace. Those four words contemplate a church and leadership somewhat different than the run-of-the-mill. What if every elder, whether ruling or teaching, approached his or her ministry in the manner suggested, exhibited consistently such qualities? What would the church be like? What would be done in our Lord’s name?

First, then, “energy.” Physical drive, interest, vigor, get-up-and-go are definitely in view with this question. But even if their “get up and go has got up and went,” as in the common saying, elders can still display energy. They can and do care passionately about a cause or a concern. They can display an intensity of spiritual power that inspires and unites. They can express themselves with fervor in speech or in print, while others do the heavy lifting, so to speak. Haven’t we known people who, though physically not imposing or perhaps weakened in some way, nevertheless are full of spiritual energy, conduits for someone beyond themselves?

I think it is the job of a congregation to keep up the energy level of elders. I suppose you could do that by regularly supplying the session with energy drinks. But what I really have in mind is making sure that they are upheld and trusted, so they don’t become discouraged. You have the right and the obligation to ask questions, share ideas, raise concerns, voice complaints. But at the end of the day, elders need to feel free to act as God leads them without second-guessing themselves or fearing negative reactions. Will they always be right in what they discern as God’s will, the proper thing to do? No. But when they know they are in your prayers and have your gracious permission to fail now and again, they will be able to summon the energy to try again and keep going.

So, then, energy. Next, “intelligence.” We might naturally think of this quality as something that can be measured on an IQ test. “Intelligence” thus means the same as “book smart.” But in recent years, we have come to understand that there are different sorts of intelligence. Elders need every kind. Even if no individual has them all, the gather elders will and should. We have to have people that can work with language, organize thoughts, and decipher legal documents, for example. But we also need those with emotional intelligence, which means the ability to empathize, to read between the lines of someone’s speech, and to interpret what’s going on. Emotional intelligence also means responding appropriately to the emotions of others, not being baited into a fight or returning anger with anger. With so many hot-button issues in churches, that’s a skill that’s incredibly important.

Emotional intelligence is a subset of social intelligence. Psychologist Daniel Goleman coined the phrase. He defines it this way: “Social intelligence means being smart about relationships. It means being empathetic, sensing what the other person is feeling, understanding their point of view, and ease and facility in having smooth, effective interactions. So it’s both knowing what the person is feeling and acting effectively based on that” (see note 1). Someone else has this: “Social intelligence is the mental ability to understand the motives, emotions, intentions and actions of other people and to motivate and influence the behavior of (groups of) people. Persons with high social intelligence are usually good in recognizing subtle facial, verbal and behavioral clues in other people that can indicate their emotions and intentions” (see note 2). Socially intelligent people make others feel relaxed, comfortable, and understood. They can motivate and encourage.

Whatever sort of intelligence it is, that quality is important for an elder. But so is imagination. I’ve spent so much time on that word in other sermons, blogs, and so on that I’m not going to say much about it here. Imagination is the ability to see things in a way others might not. It asks “What if?” and “Why not?” and is not satisfied with trying to make the old answers fit new questions. And it’s not just the ability to tell a story or make a film. Somebody who has limited resources and has to make do is imaginative. Imagination is Scarlett O’Hara making a dress from curtains or someone improvising a solution to a problem out in the wilderness or on a jobsite with duct tape and chewing gum. How often these days do elders have to have that kind of imagination?

And now we come to the last word. We could spend hours meditating on “love” alone. But let’s just note what Scripture says from two of its traditions. The author of 1 John reminds us: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). The opposite of love is not hate. It’s fear, which is the father of hate. When elders live with love, they help break the grip of fear in our land and in the church and so also begin to bring an end to the hatred and intolerance and cruelty and suspicion that are everywhere.

And of course Paul sings a hymn to love and calls such self-giving sacrifice the greatest of all virtues, even beyond the enduring realities of faith and hope. Elders who live with love enable the church by their example and their words to become a community of faith, hope, love, and witness, and so build up the body of Christ, helping it be more closely conformed to his image.

Energy. Intelligence. Imagination. Love. Four words that can and have and will change the world.

Note 1:

Note 2:


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