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.

Life is Full

In my appreciation of the many loving, caring, good relationships that fill my life, the gap between idealism and intentionality in claiming that my life is full of good things narrows.

“Life is full.”  I’ve used this phrase, rather than “I’m busy,” for the past couple years.  I feel like busy-ness is a term about which we’re ambivalent in not particularly healthy ways.  It has a surface level negative connotation - “there’s just too much!” - but I found that I would sometimes take a perverse pleasure in ticking off all that is overwhelming me.  It’s as if in doing so, I was measuring my worth in terms of all the important(?) things I had to do.

So I’ve taken to saying that life is full.  I often go on to say that life is full of good things, and so I juggle them as best I can, because I don’t want to drop any of the good things that fill my life.  My intent is to indicate that the fullness of my life (my calendar, my to do list, my email inbox) isn’t simply accumulated dross, but that there’s intentionality in what fills it.  These are tasks, relationships, activities with which I have chosen to fill my life, and so I’m not going to complain that there’s too much of them.

Of course, my idealism isn’t always matched by my intentionality.  There can still be a kind of perverse self-congratulation about all the “good” things I’ve chosen to fill my life with, without spending a lot of time reflecting on how truly life-giving they are.  There can be a shallow sense of accomplishment in making it from one meeting to the next, and responding to that request promptly, and… without truly appreciating how meaningful these interactions usually are.

So Full

One Saturday a few weeks ago, I was “supposed to be” in four places at once.  At least, I felt that there were good reasons for me to be in each of these places, that they would all be meaningful interactions and that I would like to attend each.  Two were church related: a conference on reconciliation that a pastor friend’s church was hosting, and a workshop on how to support the sanctuary movement for undocumented immigrants, in which others at AMF as well as myself had interest.  The third was playing an ALTA tennis match with the neighborhood team I’m a part of, but for whom I manage to show up only 2-3 times each 7 week season.  And finally, it was my sister-in-law’s birthday, and the rest of the family, at least, would be going down to meet her and Christina’s parents for lunch.

I found that that abundance of good options had a clarifying effect for me.  I joined Christina and the boys to celebrate Stephanie’s birthday.  Family, at least on this day, seemed more important than church or neighborhood camaraderie.  

Dropping Things, Appreciating Relationships

There have also been times over the past months when family needs have required me to “drop” other good things - to postpone or to leave church meetings abruptly, to back out of the tennis team lineup yet again, to skip opportunities that would be fun, meaningful, good, but for which there’s not sufficient flexibility in our family’s schedule.  While that is often frustrating, I find that these occasions also have a clarifying effect.  When it becomes impossible to juggle all the good things with which I’ve filled my life, it’s so far been relatively easy to decide which ones to “drop” for a time.  A significant part of the reason it’s been relatively easy is that the people who have been “dropped” at these times, have responded with graciousness, understanding, and support.  I am grateful.

My life is full, and I like that it is full of good things.  I have for some time believed that we should measure our lives’ worth in terms of the quality of our relationships, rather than in terms of the things we do - what we achieve or accomplish.  As I have sometimes had to put off worthwhile activities or postpone interactions with people I value, the solicitude of those affected has increased my sense that this is right.  And so even as I “drop” some of the good things in my life, my life feels no less full as I appreciate how full of caring people it is.  

In my appreciation of the many loving, caring, good relationships that fill my life, the gap between idealism and intentionality in claiming that my life is full of good things narrows.

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