Saying No to Mrs. Bidemeier: Reflections on Luke 24:13-35
There is a statute of limitations on the brand of persistent pessimism that stomps out every spark and blows out every flame; that has 20/20 vision for the worst in the most positive of situations. How far down the road will we go with these "misery loves company" disciples on the Emmaus Road before we say "no" to negativity, pessimism, and unfounded hopelessness and "yes" to the presence of the Risen Christ walking by our side?
It's important to practice saying "no" to unwarranted pessimism this Eastertide. I have a colleague, Dr. Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner, who is a gifted and creative teacher of pastoral care at Perkins School of Theology. She told me recently about an exercise she puts her students through to help them say no to certain things so they have time and energy to say yes to more important ones. It's practice in setting boundaries. She calls the exercise "Saying No to Mrs. Bidemeier." She got the idea from a case study in the book An Introduction to Pastoral Care by Charles V. Gerkin about people who push pastors' limits. She took it a step further and created Mrs. Bidemeier, a fictitious character whose persona she takes on in the class role-play. Mrs. Bidemeier represents the church member who feels the pastor should do just about everything in the life of the church, certainly everything that she asks him or her to do.
So you are the new pastor at a church. You have just preached your first sermon and it went pretty well and you are sitting having scalloped potatoes, ham, and broccoli salad at in the fellowship hall at a welcome lunch. Your cell phone rings. It's Mrs. Bidemeier. I'll only list her comments, not your responses.
"The van is waiting outside. Where are you?"
"It's time to drive the youth to summer camp. It's only two hours away. You will be back in plenty of time for the trustees' meeting tonight."
"Well, the former pastor always drove the youth to summer camp. And picked them up at the end of the week."
One by one the students come to the front of Dr. Stevenson-Moessner's class and confront Mrs. Bidemeier as she continues,
"I need you to marry my niece's great aunt on Saturday. I know you normally spend that day with your son at his soccer games, but they will only be in town that day."
"You need to give the invocation for the Masons who use our church on Tuesday nights. It means a lot to them to have the religious leader of our church bless their meeting. And the former pastor always was happy to do that."
"I know you are already doing three services Sunday and that it's Mother's Day, but George can't conduct the Pleasant Gardens service this Sunday so we need you to do that. It starts at 2."
The students need to be able to say no to Mrs. Bidemeier to pass my colleague's course! The exercise is about saying no to boundary encroachers so you can focus on your central purpose and stay energized and refreshed for a balanced and productive life. It's a crucial skill for ministry, for life.
Mrs. Bidemeier, while she may mean well, must be held at bay.
There is another voice that we must practice saying no to if we are to focus on our Easter hope, not understood as reducible to a feeling, but as a stubborn, sturdy conviction of faith. That is the voice that says things like "Things will never get better." "Today will be just like yesterday." "I will never be able to do that." "They will never change." "The world is beyond redemption." "This disappointment is permanent." "Death is the end."
The disciples weren't able to say no to this voice until the Resurrected Lord blessed and broke the bread.
We have the advantage of this story. And, like Luke's community, we need it, for it assures us that, even when we do not feel the hope of the Resurrection, the Risen Lord walks beside us. His power enables us to say no to every hopeless, negative thought and grasp his hand more tightly as we take our next step.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.