Informal Musings
Over Coffee

James Rissler

James has served as pastor to Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship since October of 2006 and was ordained in May of 2010. In what seems like a prior life, he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion from the University of Notre Dame. So he can be called Rev. Dr. James Rissler, but that sounds ostentatious. The only people who call him that are public officials responding to letters advocating for greater justice for all, which he signs with those titles, hoping they’ll be impressed :-) James is married to Christina, and they have two boys, Andrew and Peter.

James emphasizes the love of God and the importance of loving relationships with God and with all persons. He believes that relationships take precedence over doctrine, and that, almost always, people can find common ground that is wider and deeper than our theological differences. His enduring optimism is grounded in God's creation of us in God's image, a creation that God called very good.

Golf and Coping Skills

“Someone once told me that a pastor’s job is to take things seriously while holding them lightly. Humor can help do that.“

I try to play golf once a week with Tim, a pastor friend of mine, usually on Mondays. I’m not particularly good at keeping a sabbath rhythm to my weeks, but I see playing on Mondays as part of my attempt to do that, as is making that date night for me and Christina. Last week, between a sick child and busy schedules, Tim and I weren’t able to make it. So we decided that this week, we’d try to play twice.

On Monday, Tim played his best round ever (80!), and after a forgettable front 9, I played one of my best nine holes ever (40!). Yesterday, we both played quite poorly (I’ll leave those scores out). There might be grist for reflection there about what God thinks of pastors playing golf twice a week, or about how being distracted by to do lists that we know are waiting affects our play. But what I found myself thinking about yesterday was how I was trying to cope with my poor play, and how that relates to how I respond to more important challenges in life.

Finding Humor in Frustrating Circumstances

Finding humor in frustrating circumstances is definitely one way I cope. We found joy (maybe that’s too strong; let’s say wry amusement) in noting that I had managed to hit eight trees in the first eight holes. We extolled my “skill” in getting some extra distance by hitting the cart path not once, but twice, on a particular shot. We channeled Donald Trump in encouraging an attempt at a particularly ill-advised shot by saying, “What the hell do you have to lose?” And while there were a fair share of groans at yet another shot gone awry, we laughed just as much or more than we do when we’re playing well.

I think what’s right about my use of humor to cope with frustration is that it helps me to hold things lightly.  Someone once told me that a pastor’s job is to take things seriously while holding them lightly. Humor can help do that. I’ve found self-effacing humor in particular to be an especially disarming pastoral tool that can lighten the mood of a group, and that keeps me from taking myself too seriously as well. On that note, I may have found wry amusement in hitting those eight trees, but telling Christina last evening sure seemed to bring her joy, judging by her incredulity and hearty laugh.

Patiently Plodding

I contrast that lightness, which is good, with another coping mechanism that I’m aware that I use. I think of it as plodding patience. I think I’ve trained myself pretty well not to get angry. Frustrated, yes, but very rarely what I would call angry. But what I notice is that sometimes when I am frustrated, the way I cope is to take a deep breath, and try to just patiently plod through whatever circumstances are before me. Sometimes, like when I’m stuck in traffic and going to be late - that’s appropriate. I can’t do anything about the situation, so a deep breath and patient resignation to my plight may be the best option available. But sometimes, that plodding patience closes me off to more creative responses.

My brother, Matt, is an excellent father. He once posted a video (privately) on Google+ in which he “talked” with Miriam, their infant child, about how she was hungry, because she’d just thrown up all her food all over the floor and Mommy, so that Miriam had a completely new outfit (except her socks), and Mommy was upstairs changing her clothes, and Noah (2) was sitting all by himself at the table eating his french fries. It was hilarious, and it combined the best of patience with finding the humorous take on a situation.

This summer, our family was together in Virginia, and at one point Noah was being two - clearly tired but refusing to admit it, and unwilling to go along with anyone’s suggestions for making life better. Matt was patiently plodding along, and once he’d eventually gotten Noah settled, I asked him if he, like me, sometimes resorts to that in the face of frustrating kids, and if he, like me, feels the sense of not being able to imagine more creative responses in those moments. He agreed.

Reaching for More

On the one hand, I’m glad I’ve developed habits of patience, so that I rarely really get angry. I’m glad I generally can make it through frustrating circumstances without yelling or saying things I regret. But as I wandered around (all around) the golf course yesterday, I felt the benefit of reaching for something more. I so admire teachers and parents who are almost constantly positive - finding things for which to praise their kids and easily redirecting them. Sometimes I reach for and grasp that character for myself, but often I don’t. I use that exclamation point tone of voice (Peter! Andrew!) that expresses displeasure, or quickly threaten consequences rather than truly engaging the kids, or allow a conversation to focus on what someone could have done better rather than what they succeeded or took joy in. And while there are worse responses, there are better ones as well.

I think keeping things in perspective so that I can hold things lightly is important. And finding the humor in a situation often helps me do that. Now, of course, one can take this too far, and there are circumstances in which humor is more and less appropriate. In college, my roommate was dubbed “Procrastination Boy” and I was “Sacrilege Boy,” marking my penchant for making jokes that some people found just a bit offensive to traditional Christian faith. When I first began pastoring, I asked a former pastor to keep an eye on my sense of humor and let me know if she thought I crossed any lines.

But often, humor can serve to keep things in perspective. Humor, even sometimes with people who are angry or grieving, can help open those tight balls of feelings inside to let something else (love, care) in as well. I’m no comedian, by any means. But I often find myself wryly smiling at life, and I wonder if God does too.

So here’s to humor, and more importantly, to perspective and holding the cares of our lives lightly, even as we give them their due. Hug a tree when your golf ball bounces back into the fairway. Hug your kids (or spouse, or friend) and tell them you love them when you’re frustrated with them. Let’s look for the joy (or at least wry amusement) that’s often just a shifted glance away.

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