CHURCH CAMP – FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD

As I sit down to write, the rectory’s washing machine is running, various boxes with camp gear and Prayer Books and other religious programming stuff are laid out in the dining room and, upstairs, my packing list is sitting atop my open suitcase. (And the cat’s probably sitting inside.)  It’s the day before staff training begins for Camp EDOW, our diocesan summer camp.  This, the day before camp is always an exciting, nervous, anxious, and anticipatory day.

Before I head off to the woods of western Charles County, pretty much leaving behind my other life for two weeks, I want to share my thinking about church camp: why it’s important, what it’s about, and for what purpose.  Maybe I’m doing this merely for myself, just as well, for in spite of the fact that some people think camp is all just fun and games (and it is mostly that), camp’s also a lot of work, a lot of coordination and planning.  The reason why we do this — for whom, that is — is what makes the difference.  It makes a difference not only for the kids, not only for St. George’s, Valley Lee, not only for the Episcopal Church in southern Maryland, and not only for the Diocese of Washington.  The reason we do all this is about the Body of Christ, the constant and patient work of making disciples and sending them forth.

Church camp is about the future of the church. Camp is the one week in a kid’s life that, most likely, makes the other 51 weekends at church meaningful and important. It was for me, at least. I would not have remained in the Christian church if it wasn’t for church camp. I definitely wouldn’t have gone in search of a campus ministry in college if my only memory and experience of church was attending my Sunday morning congregation. I’m not knocking my home church, mind you, but if my brother and sister and me – and our church friends – didn’t have the experience every summer of going to the Rock River Bible Camp, I wouldn’t have known that there’s so much more to Christ than Sunday mornings.

It’s just as much about the present of the church, even (especially?!) for the adults. Pastoral care and worship and prayer and exercising a public, prophetic role for Christ in our southern Maryland community are a big part of my job. They’re, in fact, the most important parts of my job. But in order to get there, along the way toward making an impact, there are a lot of phone calls, meetings, emails, social media activity and paperwork, too. Camp, on the other hand, is pure church. Camp is spending time in community, having fun, learning about God and ourselves, worshipping every day, and practicing what it means to be the Body of Christ. Anything and everything is an altar at camp, from a picnic table to an overturned canoe to a conversation at lunch to late-night bible study with Compline to the “see you next summer” as we part ways on Friday afternoon.

It’s about celebrating, indeed growing the Episcopal Church in southern Maryland. St. George’s, Valley Lee – that’s right, little St. George’s in hidden St. Mary’s County, a place that folks in our diocese tend to think of as “sooooo far away” – started Camp EDOW, our diocesan summer camp. In the late summer of 2011, Katherine Humphries from St. George’s asked a simple question: “Why doesn’t the Diocese of Washington have a summer camp?” This led to conversations and more conversations and, ultimately, a gathering of leaders from our diocesan community who, themselves, had a heart for summer camp and also knew the potentially transformative power camp could have on our entire diocesan structure and sense of ministry.

The Diocese of Washington is, at times, very, um, ‘Washington’. We pride ourselves in having The National Cathedral; in fact, the Cathedral pre-dates the diocese itself and is very much the reason there is a Diocese of Washington in the first place. (That’s also why we, in this part of southern Maryland, were gerrymandered into this diocese!) [See, for more, Richard G. Hewlett, “The Creation of the Diocese of Washington and Washington National Cathedral” in The Journal of Anglican and Episcopal History, 2002, vol. 71, No. 3]  The Diocese of Washington is a prophetic voice and leader in social justice causes, which is an important and holy role. And the Diocese of Washington, at least historically, tends to think of itself as the religious compliment to everything Washington.

Where, then, does summer camp fit in? And not a fancy, summer-long camp in New Hampshire, say. Where does one week of simple, straightforward church camp in rustic and rural southern Maryland fit in? It didn’t in our diocese.  Not for a long time.

But now it does, and it’s increasingly growing. Part of it’s success is in the celebration of place.  Equally so, a big part is letting change seep in from the margins; that is, from southern Maryland up-river.  You see, I accepted a call, now, seven years ago to St. George’s, Valley Lee, having already developed a fondness for St. Mary’s County in my year as seminarian in nearby St. Mary’s City. I knew I was coming to the Diocese of Washington, a forward thinking and progressive community, and that was icing on the cake. But my primary call was to the people and families, the woods and waters of southern Maryland; in particular, this peninsula from Callaway, Maryland to St. George Island (though, of course, we welcome people from as far away as Lexington Park and Leonardtown!), this place where people make their homes and pattern their lives on relationships, these communities where people find meaning in the play and joy and work of St. Mary’s County.

We are not the National Cathedral. We are not the fancy establishment and, in fact, even when those folks come down here, to St. Mary’s, to spend time in their summer/weekend homes they take off their suits and hang out in their blue jeans and swimsuits. So you don’t know them, anyway!

For too long, in my estimation, the Episcopal Church in St. Mary’s County tried to play the Washington game, tried to come up to that level and join them on their terms.  But they didn’t realize or else they forgot that that game, itself, was falling apart, many having come to realize that there’s no gain in winning. My initiative behind helping start summer camp was, then, very much a congregational development cause for St. George’s, Valley Lee – and all the other southern Maryland congregations. My hope was that we would be able to share with our Diocese of Washington what we have, where we are, and who we are. We don’t have soaring cathedrals, we don’t have (too much) power obsessions, we don’t have prestige and fancy-ness.  We do, however, have honest-to-God folks who know who to build community and practice relationships; we do have expansive waterways, and scenic vistas, and lots of land to play and make community within.

 

And that brings me back to the really big “why?,” the ultimate reason for Camp EDOW: it’s because the world needs Christ — needs, indeed craves the reconciling work that God is doing through the Body of his Son, Jesus.  Doing my laundry, packing my bag, getting my stuff ready so I can go and spend a few weeks in the woods and on the water with the awesome kids and adults of the Diocese of Washington is for nothing less than the life of the world.

Speaking of packing, I’d better get back to it…

Maryland Day & the Annunciation

O Lord Christ, whose prayer that your disciples would be one, as you and the Father are one, inspired certain of your followers to create on American shores a colony that would practice tolerance, consecrated in the name of your blessed mother to whom the angel announced this day a new gift: Grant that the people of this land may continually give thanks for your protection and uphold the liberty of conscience and worship, until all shall receive the benefits and follow the disciplines of true freedom, endowed by the Name of the same, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

……….

 

On my grandmother’s Illinois kitchen windowsill there was a decorative ceramic tile, maybe it was a coaster or a trivet.  “Maryland,” it read, an image of that state’s flag.  I suppose my aunt and uncle who lived in Maryland gave it to my grandmother, or she bought it there on one of her trips.  I, too, had visited my aunt and uncle, and I remember that Maryland was a faraway place — not just geographically but historically and, in many ways, another world entirely.

I remember staring at that flag, the checked black and gold set in quarter panels opposite red and white crosses; the family crests, I learned in time, of the Calverts (black and gold) and their ancestral Crossland family.  I’d seen nothing like it before.  It suggested another world, an ancient world.

I’m now a Maryland resident and, what’s more, our daughter was born here, specifically in the birthplace of the colony: St. Mary’s County.  After nearly seven years of residency, I still feel honored to live here, blessed to participate in an ongoing experiment of community building, a gift we celebrate today.  It’s Maryland Day.

On 22 November 1633, a group of English travelers — about 150 in all — boarded two ships, the Ark and the Dove, and set off from their mother country from the Isle of Wight.  Most of the group were indentured servants.  They would help settle the new colony and prepare the way for future arrivals.  There were, roughly, an equal number of Catholics and Protestants, and on board was at least one Jesuit priest, Fr. Andrew White.  Also sailing with them was Leonard Calvert, the future governor of Mary’s Land — the third English colony in the so-called “new world” — himself, Lord Baltimore’s younger brother.  Rough sailing met them as they traversed southward down Europe’s coastline and even more demanding storms beset them as they made a direct western trek across the ocean.  At one point, the Ark separated from the smaller Dove, only to be reunited in Barbados.  Eventually, they made their way to their new home, pausing initially at their destination to make a peace treaty with the native Conoy tribe in advance of their landing.  When the time was clear and the setting just right they waited a few more days.  That is, they waited until March 25 — the Feast of the Annunciation, the Christian remembrance of the moment when the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and bear a child (amazingly exactly nine months before December 25!)

On 25 March 1634, Fr. Andrew White, along with the others, stepped off the boat onto the shores of what is now St. Clement’s Island — a rather tiny island in the Potomac River, a quick swim from what is now northern St. Mary’s County — and celebrated Mass, presumably the first such Catholic celebration in what was British North America.  Although religious toleration wouldn’t be the official policy of the new colony until several years later — the Maryland Toleration Act, an ‘Act Concerning Religion’ wasn’t signed until April 1649 — it was clear from the earliest days that this new place, named for and consecrated in Mary’s name, was going to practice a degree of forward-thinking inclusivity that was unknown in their homeland and yet unpracticed in this new frontier.

Today, March 25, is Maryland Day.  We in St. Mary’s County uphold our role as the birthplace of the colony.  For some among us, St. Mary’s County is the birthplace of Catholicism in America and, indeed, just as it was in the 17th century, so too it remains today — Episcopalians down here are vastly outnumbered by Catholics!  For still others, Maryland Day and this place, the birthplace of the colony shines with the bright and not uncontroversial origin of a new thing in a new land: religious toleration, or at least freedom of worship for Trinitarian Christians.  This is a special day celebrating a special place.  Mary’s Land is a unique contribution to the American experience, and it’s well worth the time to pause and consider what implications the ideas that led to this colony’s founding had on the development of the rights and privileges we enjoy — some may say, ‘take for granted’ — today.

It’s not inconsequential that March 25 is the Feast of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38).  I’m sure it was just good timing.  But the story we hear in Luke’s gospel is a profound story about God doing a new thing and in a new way with a new setting and new people — God’s messenger, Gabriel, announcing to a poor Jewish woman that she would bear and bring into the world the living presence of God, Jesus.  It’s downright amazing that the King of the universe would’ve acted in this way, this strange and unexpected way — inviting a marginal, poor, frightened woman not only to say “Yes” but, depending on her answer, re-route the world and overturn the powers-that-be.

The special gift of these juxtaposed stories — Maryland Day and the Annunciation — is that they are new revelations, new ‘showings forth’ of ancient, eternal mysteries.  When, after hearing Mary’s striking tale, you read the story backward, turning once again through the pages of prophecy and the unexpected ‘showings-up’ of God in scripture, it all starts to make sense.  When you see what those Calverts were up to, and trace the lineage of their thinking back in time, the pieces start to come together.  And when you live, like I do, in a place that will constantly humble you by the very imprint of its history and historicity, its tradition and profound staying power, you realize that you are both new and, at your best, part of the old; that your creativity is truly fresh and yet, at once, also just another instance of the long story resurfacing.

When, that is, you’ve had the gift of practicing new revelations for a very long time, you realize that the old is the handmaiden of the new and the new the power of the old.  You realize, in a far deeper sense, what the writer to the Hebrews was trying to say: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.” (Heb. 13:8)

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

“The things of the world are ordered and designed to shadow forth spiritual things.  It is apparent and allowed that there is a great and remarkable analogy in God’s works.  The Book of Scripture is the interpreter of the book of nature two ways: viz. by declaring to us those spiritual mysteries that are indeed signified or typified in the constitution of the natural world; and secondly, in actually making application of the signs and types in the book of nature as representations of those spiritual mysteries in many instances.”

Jonathan Edwards, Images of Divine Things (1728)

……….

In 2006, 32,000 acres of the Boundary Waters, the pristine wilderness in far northern Minnesota, was devastated by a raging forest fire in the Cavity Lake area.  There was obvious concern for the welfare of that ecosystem – the glorious Balsam Firs and animals who made it their home – as well as concern that it would diminish the attraction and draw of that destination place for outfitters and hikers.  We’ve also heard, all along, that forest fires are an essential and necessary part of nature’s course.  That’s true, on one level, and not, on another.

University of Minnesota forest ecologist Lee Frelich said that if people tried to suppress or control fires over the last century or so, the forest would look pretty sad.  “You would get essentially a sea of Balsam Fir,” Frelich said, “then the budworm would come, and it goes out and kind of kills half the trees. So you’d have this kind of crappy, half-dead forest which is full of brush and branches and which is not very attractive for people or wildlife.”  Fire can enrich topsoil by speeding up the process of recycling nutrients, and it can effectively take care of grasses or shrubs which would grow too quickly and crowd out sunlight for other species and trees.  Fire is a necessary part of a forest ecosystem.

Even more fascinating, to me, is that certain living things have become fire dependent.  The cone of the jack pine, for instance, has within it a waxy substance that only opens when sustained heat comes from below – and even then it doesn’t release its seeds until another 20 minutes have gone by, obviously essential to the species’ survival lest the seed get dropped on a fire raging below.  Frelich further explains: “In the case of the jack pine, the seeds germinate much better if the leaf litter has been burned away. Jack Pine, in fact, has drier foliage than other species of trees which makes it easier for a fire to run through Jack Pine. It is almost as if they purposely promote fire.”

There is a whole system, it seems, that’s not only adapted to fire, it’s dependent on it.  Nitrogen, for instance, is a major portion of the air we breathe and a basic building block of compounds that make up plant and animal tissues, especially proteins.  Jim Peterson, in Evergeen, notes: “Nitrogen is a marvelous fertilizer, but to do its work it must first be fixed – combined with other elements to form compounds green plants can use.  The heat from fire transforms nitrogen into more easily absorbed organic compounds that fuel photosynthesis, the process by which plants, including trees, capture visible light energy and convert water from the soil and carbon dioxide into glucose and oxygen.  Glucose is then converted into other organic compounds.  In trees, these organic compounds are converted to wood fiber.”  Fire is not just necessary, it’s essential.

When God comes again to Jesus’ followers, days after Jesus had ascended into heaven, the images are provocative, violent, and stirring: the sound the disciples hear is “the rush of a violent wind” and “divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them.” (Acts 2)  Fire is, here, a lively and animating force, giving them new capacity and spirited courage.  But it’s also, as we’ve seen in the book of nature, a destructive, crippling force.  This image of God’s revelation is profound when understood in both of those senses.  This is how God comes to us, a fire which burns off the dust and dross of our old life but also, we fear, consuming it entirely – even destroying that which we hold on to and treasure, that which we feel might save us in time.  There is new life in this living God; we know that in our minds, at least.  But it’s hard to think about salvation when the old-growth forest of your private world is being ripped through with the licking flames of the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask us to become, spiritually, fire dependent.  There are those Christians today and throughout the ages who do a much better job of relying and depending on that devastating fire – the Pentecostals of today are very much related to the mystics in the Christian tradition.

Even if we’re not fire dependent, though, we could stand to be a little less fire averse.  While it’s true that fires have long been a part of a given forest’s internal ecosystem, and that all of this happened long before we came on the scene, it’s not necessarily the same as the devastating tragedies we witness summer after summer, destroying homes, in some cases taking lives, and altogether wreaking havoc in the American southwest.  Historically, at least, these were small and somewhat more contained fires, helping the ecosystem get rid of waste and nourish the soil; Peterson notes, in Evergreen, “they traveled close to the ground [and] most of these fires were not very intense.”  “By contrast,” he continues, “the crown fires that now frequent the Southwest don’t have any redeeming value. In fact, their ferocity is difficult to comprehend: flames moving fast enough to overrun birds in flight, burning hot enough to crack boulders, melting topsoil’s organic layer into a waxy glaze that is impervious to water. The flooding that follows often strips stream channels to bedrock, washing away every vestige of fish habitat.  So the irony: our early attempts to contain wildfire—a societal decision made some 80 years ago— simply postponed the unexpected but inevitable return of even larger fires and more destructive fires.”

The irony indeed is that, like in the natural order of things, we have so tried to make ourselves immune to the kind of low-level flames which are, in fact, good and healthy that we’ve actually brought about even more devastating and consuming fires.  The attempt to make oneself more fire averse will, in the end, be one’s own downfall.  Even if we can’t make ourselves, like those mystics of old, reliant on the Spirit’s flame, we’d be wise to find ways to make our spirits and hearts a whole lot less averse to Her power.

It’s much more godly and, I’d say, a whole lot easier to live this way, anyway.  It’s healthy to have a form of spirituality that is open, not closed; inquisitive, not dismissive; willing to be changed or taken in new directions, not averse or resistant.  If you are rooted in God and you trust God, wholeheartedly, what seems new or different is actually part of God’s drawing out the story of redemption. In fact, this is what it means to follow and worship a living God.  I’ve always valued what the church historian Jaroslav Pelikan once said: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

On this point, I find the response of the crowd in Acts 2 interesting: most of those who heard the apostles speaking different languages were, scripture records, “amazed and perplexed.” They were also honest, saying to themselves and one another: “What does this mean?”  That’s a perfectly normal question for an odd, unexpected, even chaotic series of events.  But we often leap-frog over that question on our way to judgmental interpretation or our own spin (or uncritically adopting another’s spin).  Even on that first Pentecost, not all were so open-minded.  Some, maybe more than some sneared and in their negative judgment automatically dismissed the event, labelling the apostles a bunch of drunks: “They are filled with new wine.”

At that, Peter preaches a pretty thorough sermon.  Over the years, I’ve read Peter’s sermon as a definitive, erudite, and bold exposition of the faith, only it’s now a faith revealed in an astonishingly different way.  To be honest, that kind of spirituality can be off-putting, as well.  Those who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ aren’t necessarily looking for the answers, given in black-and-white, and if we read Peter’s sermon as a kind of take it or leave it proposition, we might as well leave behind an increasingly vocal majority of American people who genuinely want what we call the Holy Spirit but, in equal measures, are tired of Christian dogma and assertiveness.  Outside these doors and, I know, sitting in these pews are people who are genuinely looking for a community of seekers, a gathering of ordinary folks who want to live with the questions and wonder, together: “What does this mean?”

Looking at it from another angle, though, perhaps Peter was wondering aloud, a seeker himself, drawing into the present the seeds of the past.  Perhaps Peter was simply bringing forth Joel’s words – words which had lay dormant for centuries but were nevertheless imbued with a holy force.  It reminds me of another interesting aspect of the Boundary Waters fire: after the 2006 fire, wild geraniums suddenly shot up everywhere.  A type of perennial known as Bicknell’s Geranium, a geranium which only germinates in direct sunlight, was long buried under all that clutter and leaf litter, just waiting for it to be burned away.  “That site had last burned in 1801,” forester ecologist, Frelich, said: “Those were 200-year-old seeds germinating.”

Describing what visitors would see in the growing seasons immediately following the 2006 devastation, Frelich described a picturesque scene, albeit one that’s radically different from a forest previously dominated by imposing Balsam Firs: “Raspberry plants can have seeds that have been in the soil for decades, and those will sprout,” Frelich added. “Blueberries will sprout from their roots underground. By the end of the first summer, you’ll see Fireweed, which has a bright pink flower.  By the fourth and fifth years, that’s when the berries are the most prolific. Raspberries, blueberries and berries of all sorts. By then, the saplings of trees will be four or five feet high. That’s when it’s really ideal for moose — birch and aspen that are their favorite thing to eat, and there will be billions of them, and they will all be within reach. In an 80-year-old birch forest, the moose is not going to be able to reach the crowns of the trees. But in a young forest like that, they have all the food they want. The population of Black-backed Woodpeckers will go up. You don’t see many of them in mature, closed-canopy forests, but after these big disturbances, by a few years later, you can be sitting there and eating lunch and a dozen of them might fly by.”

An amazing and beautiful landscape, all right there, all along – just waiting for the old-growth to be burned away, waiting to behold the truth that nature conveys: our God is not dead, our faith is not placed in a cabinet of cherished, fading memories, our convictions are not of a bygone era, nor has God forgotten us.  The One we worship is a living God, and ours is a living faith.  Because of which we wonder, aloud, and are unafraid of doing so: “What does this mean?”

……….

From a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Pentecost Sunday, 19 May 2013

THE HOME OF GOD

On a Saturday afternoon several weeks ago in Kentucky, a former Roman Catholic Carmelite nun, Rosemarie Smead, was ordained a catholic priest.  For obvious reasons this made something of a splash; perhaps some of you heard about it.  (Click here for a story.)

Rosemarie Smead ordained a priest, Saturday 27 April 2013. Source: Reuters

This past week, in related news, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Freiburg im Breisgau, Robert Zollitsch, said at a conference on reforming the church it’s time for the Roman Church to at least consider ordaining women deacons.  This doesn’t have as much drama as the first story, but it may have more staying power and, if so, it’ll have much longer-term interest.

These kinds of stories are not only interesting because of what they report but what they represent – why it is that they get buzz.  Apparently, lots of people want to hear about this.  I’d suspect it’s because some dominant strands of Christianity show an apparent foolishness and close-mindedness about women.  The Reuters report about the Kentucky ordination cited a poll which revealed that 70% of American Catholics say they would be in favor of women being ordained priests.

Contemporary Christianity is, for some of us, recovering from a centuries-long failure to appreciate women in leadership positions.  The official reason the Roman church gives for why women can’t be priests is because Jesus chose twelve men.  That’s true, at least on the surface.  But I’m often struck that people who say they read their bible or those who claim to know the heart of the Christian tradition, inside and out, often fail to notice what’s actually going on there.  One doesn’t have to read between the lines; there’s no hidden story in the New Testament: the male-dominated Christianity that excludes women from leadership positions is not the kind of Way which Jesus practiced, and it’s not the religion of Jesus’ earliest followers.  Let me be very clear: for Jesus and the bulk of early Christianity, I can find no distinction between male apostles and female apostles.

Women are not only characters in Jesus’ life but, in fact, key players.  Jesus chose twelve male followers but it can hardly be argued, after looking up from the pages of any gospel, that there was only a set and select group of disciples.  Jesus’ mother, Mary, not only says “Yes” to God’s intervention in her life, she also ministers alongside him – all the way to the very end.  Jesus’ best friends were a trio of siblings, Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha – whose home Jesus often retreated to in Bethany.  In John’s gospel, the first person to whom Jesus reveals he is, in fact, the Messiah is a woman: a Samaritan woman at the well.  And the first witnesses to the resurrection, the very defining concept of our Christian faith?  Women, all of them.  Then there’s Mary Magdalene, about whom much has been added through the ages, some of more ancient years designed to blacken her character, some of more recent years to take away the spotlight from her genuinely faithful relationship to Jesus.  Whatever you’ve heard about Mary Magdalene suffice it to say that the New Testament presents her as a shining exemplar of a truly great disciple and, no less, apostle of the Risen Christ.

Jesus’ gender inclusion continued in the movement which kept alive his spirit.  In Acts of the Apostles chapter 16 you meet a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth.  Paul met her and several other women in Philippi on one of his travel journeys.  Lydia became interested in the story of God reconciling the world in Christ, and she and her entire household were baptized.  Moreover, she became a major patron of the early church and founded a church in her home.  It should also be mentioned that Lydia is a self-made woman, of sorts: purple cloth was incredibly expensive, being made from a crushed shell from the Mediterranean sea basin; that’s why purple is the color of royalty — those of means and wealth were among the few who could afford such a dye.  There’s no Mr. Lydia:  just a wealthy, well-to-do, and self-assertive woman who helped the Christian movement significantly.  Read on and you learn of another couple who were leaders and apostles, Priscilla and her husband Aquila (Acts 18).  To the Galatians, the Apostle Paul stated emphatically that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)  The earliest forms of Christianity, just like Jesus’ own gatherings, were not only gender inclusive but they seemed to know no distinction between God’s acting through male or female leaders, for all indeed are one in Christ.

An all-male priesthood was made by us.  Not Jesus.  Not his earliest followers.  A hierarchical church which differentiated between women and men at some fundamental levels with exclusive consequences for leadership positions was also made by us, not Jesus.  And even though gender distinctions can also be found in the New Testament – most notably in the so-called household codes in which there’s an apparent pecking order: children obey parents, women obey husbands, husbands obey God (Eph. 5:22-6:5 or Col. 3:18-4:1) – the time of writing and origin of those documents seems to have more to do with a religion adopting the ethos of its culture and surrounding Roman imperialist society than following the clearly egalitarian and radical love-ethic of the God whom they knew as Emmanuel.

If you hear these words of mine as something like a politicized call to action or civil rights manifesto about inclusion for inclusivity’s sake, I apologize.  That’s not my intent, well, not my primary intent.  I’d like to take this another step, and at least in closing go a little bit deeper.  There is a spiritual message here.

Obviously, I don’t have an issue with raising up women in ordained leadership positions in the Christian church.  I do have an issue, however, with women being thrust into the maintenance and continuation of a centuries-long, male-dominated institution which has become known, for many, as “Christianity.”  This religion founded on the Way of Jesus is not enriched if we do little more than add women to the roster of traditional male roles.  (Interestingly, many of my female clergy friends have often remarked on how weird a feeling it is to put on the clerical collar for the first time.  Even priesthood’s dress itself – a backwards collar, no less – is a distinctly male article of clothing.)  I think what many are searching for is balance.

I don’t think that that 70% of American Catholics who say the church should be open to ordaining women as priests would be satisfied, entirely, by knowing that the celebrant or preacher or person baptizing their son or daughter could very well be a woman.  I think that that 70% is saying, in other words, they are tired of the ways in which the Jesus Movement which seemed so clearly bent on equality and life and justice became, in fairly short order, obsessed with power, position, posture, and wealth.  I think they’re calling for balance, at the very least, between the church which acts very much like a kingdom of this world and has, for centuries, nearly perfected an ethic of exclusion and judgment to now use its considerable wealth and voice to speak again the values of its Head: Jesus the holy child of God who modeled for us something truly profound and life-giving.

Whenever Jesus in the New Testament seems to describe what he’s about and the type of thing he’s trying to do, I’ve noticed he talks in surprisingly intimate, relational, domestic terms.  In the middle of his farewell address to his followers, according to John, Jesus urges them to love one another and goes on to say “my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (Jn. 14:23)  What a rich and intimate expression: Make our home with them.  There’s no institution or power or organization here, no politics or positioning or structure.  The image Jesus uses is blissfully tangible, direct and comforting: home.

There is an untold level of transformative power in the home.  Home is where the heart is, we say.  Home is where real change, real growth, real life happens.

While in Chicago, I taught for years in a Roman Catholic high school for girls run by the Sisters of Mercy.  The Sisters of Mercy acted like good daughters of the Pope but under the surface – and you didn’t need to scratch too deeply – they were open-minded and spirited radicals, committed to doing works of justice and mercy wherever it was God was sending them, no matter what the church’s official leadership said.  (Case in point: they hired me, an Episcopal man, to teach theology to Roman Catholic girls!)  I loved the Sisters of Mercy for their spunky and radical spirit, and I value their tradition very much.

CATHERINE McAULEY
1778 – 1841

Founded in nineteenth century Dublin by Catherine McAuley, the Sisters of Mercy live and practice an intentional and, as I said, radical ministry that is, at the same time, kind of quiet.  They founded schools and hospitals, orphanages and what Catherine called ‘Mercy Centers’ – places which transform society from the inside out.  Catherine McAuley once remarked: “No work of charity can be more productive of good to society than the careful instruction of women.”  This thesis, currently being tested with success in Afghanistan and other developing countries, is not predicated on sweeping political or structural changes.  Rather, Catherine argued, it’s about changing the values of the home, where women, at least in the nineteenthcentury, made their decisive mark.  If you can change the values of a home – if, for instance, because of her education a woman knows she has the power to exercise choices in life – then you change the neighborhood.  If the neighborhood changes, so might the city.  If the city, then the society, and if the society then, perhaps, the world.

I wonder what it might be like if Christians started exploring these cozier, homelier (*by which I don’t mean ‘unattractive’) and, frankly, simpler values of the One who lived as one of us: the Messiah who asked us to keep love alive so he and the Father will “make their home” in us.  Many are already striving for this balance and there’s much good news here.  For this very reason, I have to say that smaller churches such as St. George’s, Valley Lee are uniquely able to grow in vibrancy and vitality much more so than bigger church institutions – most notably those Cathedrals and dioceses and denominations which are shrinking and, if not shrinking, struggling to do little more than keep alive the tradition which built them years ago.  Perhaps the tradition of an overtly institutionalized Christianity is, these days, drawing its final breath.  If that is the case, and I suspect it is, we can say one positive thing: Jesus is not going anywhere.  Jesus is very much alive.  Nor is the movement Jesus began slipping away, but perhaps his Way which is predicated on those more intimate values of love and family, the home of God among us, is, these days, finding new life.

……….

From a sermon at St. George’s Church, Valley Lee, Maryland, preached on Sunday, 5 May 2013.  For the full text, click here.

JUST BECAUSE IT BURNS DOESN’T MEAN YOU’RE GONNA DIE

“Peter felt hurt because Jesus said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’” (Jn. 21:17b)  ‘Felt hurt’ or, as in some translations, Peter ‘grieved’ is the Greek word (lupeo) that means to be distressed. When Jesus told his disciples he would be killed (Mt. 17:23), for instance, or when at the Last Supper he declared that one of them would betray him (Mt. 26:22) they became “greatly distressed” (lupeo).  It can indicate being ‘in heaviness’ or ‘suffering’ as in 1 Peter 1:6: “…you have been (lupeo) in heaviness in various trials.”

It’s odd that Peter is distressed when, in fact, Jesus is reaching out to him, asking him three times to love him.  Jesus’ actions are a counterpart to Peter’s earlier three-fold denial, a rather passionate denial, at that, with cursing and swearing in Matthew’s telling: “…Then Peter began to curse and he swore, ‘I do not know the man!’ At that moment the cock crowed.  Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: ‘Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.” (Mt. 26:74-75)

Peter’s once ‘bitter weeping’ becomes, in time, a different kind of grief – Peter’s heavy heart as Jesus restores the relationship once broken.  When God meets us, face to face, we are undoubtedly, like Peter, not just sorry but profoundly distressed, even to the point of grief.

And it feels so good.

Let me explain by way of a story.  (It’s a story told in Adam Makos’ book, A Higher Call; click here.  And in John Blake’s CNN report, “Two enemies discover a ‘higher call’ in battle; click here.)

CHARLES BROWN

Several days before Christmas 1943, high in the skies over France a young American B-17 pilot named Charles Brown was struggling mightily to get his nearly sacked plane and injured crew back to England.  Brown was all of 21 years old, a West Virginia farm boy flying his first combat mission when his “flying fortress” was shot to pieces by swarming fighters.  Half his crew was wounded, and the tail gunner was dead.

In a moment, Brown glanced outside his cockpit and froze.  Spencer Luke, his co-pilot, saw the same horrible thing.  A German Messerschmitt fighter sat just feet from their wingtip, having closed in ready for the kill.

“My God, this is a nightmare,” the co-pilot said.

“He’s going to destroy us,” Brown added, knowing that that moment was the end of his life.  Never again would he see his family and friends.  Never again would he breathe the mountain air of his hometown.  High above France, alone and frightened, that was how it ends.

But what they saw next was an odd thing.  The German fighter pilot didn’t shoot.  Instead, he nodded at the pilots.  And then did an even more amazing thing.

Second Lt. Franz Stigler was an ace fighter pilot.  One more kill and he’d earn the The Knight’s Cross, the highest award for military valor.  By late 1943, however, Stigler was no longer motivated by thoughts of glory or pride.  Earlier in the war, his older brother, August, a fellow pilot, was shot down and killed.  The tide of the war was shifting, and the war in the skies was increasingly difficult.  Exhaustion, war fatigue and untold loss were starting to get to Stigler.  By war’s end, it should be noted, of the 28,000 pilots who fought for the Luftwaffe only 1,200 survived.

FRANZ STIGLER

Dark and sinister emotions flooded Stigler. While he stood smoking a cigarette near his plane one afternoon, he heard the roar of Charles Brown’s “flying fortress,” a plane that was wreaking destruction upon the homeland he vowed to protect.  Filled with thoughts of revenge, he hopped in his fighter, saluted a ground crewman, and took off in hot pursuit.

Coming upon the American plane, he decided to attack from behind.  His hand was on the trigger.  Then he hesitated – no one was firing at him.  Flying closer to Brown’s B-17, he saw the tail gunner humped over and lying still, his white airman’s collar covered in blood.  The American plane was a sorry sight – its skin had been peeled away by shells, its guns knocked out.  Inside, he could see men tending the wounds of other crewmen.

He nudged his plane alongside the bomber’s wings, and locked eyes with the pilot whose own eyes were wide with horror.  Stigler eased his index finger off the trigger.  He couldn’t shoot.  It would be murder.

In that moment, alone in the skies with the crippled bomber, Stigler single-mindedly changed his mission.  He nodded at the American pilot, and began flying in formation so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground wouldn’t shoot down the slow-moving bomber. (The Luftwaffe had B-17s of its own, shot down and rebuilt for secret missions and training.) Stigler escorted the bomber over the North Sea and took one last look at the American pilot. Then he saluted him, peeled his fighter away and returned to Germany.

“Good luck,” Stigler said to himself. “You’re in God’s hands.”

The horror of facing his own death, for Charles Brown, which quickly turned to his salvation is its own shock.  Franz Stigler’s turning from vengeance to empathy was an inner-struggle.  Setting aside revenge for compassion brings its own heaviness.  They saw the other’s humanity.  They met on equal terms.  The ending was happy but the process was heart-wrenching.

And it’s the kind of sorrow that just feels so good.

……….

Because it’s perhaps the one biblical passage with the single worst translation, across the board, any English version of the seaside conversation between Jesus and Peter about love (John 21:15-19) so utterly fails to convey what’s actually going on.  In the Greek of the New Testament, there are multiple words for love.  Agape is perfect and selfless love.  It’s looking out for the interest of the one who is loved, putting them ahead of self.  It’s what we call unconditional love, the love God has for us.  There’s a lesser kind of love, as well; the affection we have for a friend or family member, brotherly love.  In Greek, philios.

When Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, in John 21, the text alternates between different words.  You can’t hear this story let alone understand the message, unless you hear it closer to its original tongue.  Let’s give it a shot:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you (agape) love me unconditionally?’ Peter said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know I (philios) love you like a brother.’

… A second time Jesus said to him, ‘Peter, do you (agape) love me unconditionally?’ Peter said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I (philios) love you like a brother.

…Jesus said the third time, ‘Peter, do you (philios) love me like a brother?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you (philios) love me like a brother?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I (philios) love you like a brother.’

Peter felt hurt, but it wasn’t remorse.

Peter felt the profound life-altering hurt of being truly, wholly loved.  God met Peter, face to face.  God comes to our level and loves us.  The response when we are so profoundly known and still loved, oddly enough, is a piercing heart-wrenching pain that is, at once, so refreshing.  Time and again throughout history — above all, when God became a vulnerable baby born in the utter darkness of the year — God risks everything, God risks God’s own majesty and stoops to our level, to our humanity.  God comes to us not in pomp or power, but in humility: along the shoreline for Peter and his fellow fisherfolk; for us, in the context of our own particular circumstances.

God doesn’t expect us to be better or in a different place but where we are, right here, right now.  And God asks us, like Jesus asked Peter, to love him in the way we can, putting aside any question of how we should.  There’s no judgment here, no brow-beating or submission.  There are no power ploys or manipulative games.  Just an honest invitation to relationship, as we can, with the One who loves us in all the ways we can’t.

The story Christian people need to re-learn and tell others is that we are moved to follow Christ not because we feel things that are better than an ordinary person does but, rather, because we are perfectly ordinary people who actually let ourselves feel, who are unafraid to be broken by love.  Perhaps Pink’s wisdom sums it well.  In her song, ‘Try,’ she sings: “Where there is desire, there is gonna be a flame / Where there is a flame, someone’s gonna get burned / But just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die / You gotta get up and try.”

Peter was broken by love.  How much more wonderful for you and me that God, the author and lover of souls, would so love us that we find ourselves weeping and laughing, distressed and refreshed, in heaviness and set free, all at the same time.

……….

Whatever happened to Charles Brown and Franz Stigler, you ask?  Brown got married, had two daughters, worked for the State Department and eventually retired to Florida.  Shortly after retirement, he began to have nightmares about that incident with the German fighter pilot. Wanting to find him, he asked around at pilot’s reunions.  He put out an ad in a German newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots, telling his story and asking if anyone knew anything.

On January 18, 1990, Brown got a letter in the mail.  It read:

“Dear Charles, All these years I wondered what happened to that B-17.  Did she make it or not?”

It was Franz Stigler.  In 1953, he moved to Vancouver.  In the letter, he told Brown he’d be in Florida that summer and, his words, “it sure would be nice to talk about our encounter.”

As the years went on, their acquaintanship became a friendship.  One time, the former members of that B-17 crew assembled a reunion and invited Stigler as guest of honor.  There, they put on a slide show of all the children and grand-children and great-grand-children who were born, all because Stigler didn’t shoot.  Their wives became friends, as well, and Charlie and Franz went on regular fishing outings.

Charles and Jackie Brown, from left, with Hiya and Franz Stigler

The war cost Stigler nearly everything; as I mentioned earlier, of the 28,000 Luftwaffe pilots, only 1,200 survived the war.  They were orphans to their own cause and country; no one to talk to, no one to commiserate with and, as in Franz’s case, not even his own brother remaining.  For Stigler, there was nothing redeeming about the war.  Nothing except that B-17 he let go.  Stigler’s and Brown’s reunion was not only profound but salvific.  At long last, after too many generations of others making war, they had the opportunity to write their life’s score.  When they did, they let love win.

A love, it should be noted, which broke them both.  At one of their earlier meetings, Stigler was asked what he thought of Brown.  In heavily accented English, straining to fight back tears, he said: “I love you, Charlie.”  Sometime later, Stigler gave a book about German fighter jets to Brown, knowing that both of them were country kids who loved, when they were boys, to read about planes.  In the inside cover, Stigler wrote an inscription:

“In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th of December, 4 days before Christmas, 1943 I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder that she was still flying.

The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me as precious as my brother was.

Thanks Charlie.

Your Brother,

Franz”

In 2008, they died within months of one another.  Stigler was 92.  Brown was 87.

Franz Stigler, on left, with fishing buddy Charlie Brown

Love broke them, permanently, irreparably, wonderfully.  Loving and being loved in that way wasn’t easy, I’m sure, and it brought its own hurts and pains, its own heart-heaviness and distress, its own suffering and sorrow.

And, I’m also certain, it must’ve felt so good.

Be willing to be loved, then, like Peter and Charlie and Franz.  Be willing to be so broken by love so God is, in fact, re-making you.  Be willing to be distressed by God’s love, for surely it means you’ll find yourself in prayer crying pain and joy, all at once.  And it’ll feel so very good.  Just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die.

NOT BECAUSE, BUT WHEN YOU’VE LET GO

When we’re first introduced to Thomas in the Gospel of John, Jesus is preparing to go to Bethany, the suburb of Jerusalem where his close friends Lazarus and Mary and Martha lived.  Lazarus has died and Jesus is preparing to go, in his words, “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”(11:4)  Most of the disciples urge Jesus to stay put, to avoid Jerusalem, to let the tensions cool down.  Otherwise, they fear what will happen, and they’re pretty sure it’ll involve death.  But Thomas speaks up, saying “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”(11:16)  Thomas is bold, courageous, fearless, and strong, at least strong-willed.  Where the others are timid and scared, Thomas is undaunted.

Fast forward a few chapters, to the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, and you’ll meet Jesus in the middle of a long farewell speech to his followers and friends.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says.  “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”  (The New Revised Standard Version gives the more accurate translation – “dwelling places” – but many of us like the King James’ Version of at least this one verse a lot better:  “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.”)  “And you know the place to where I am going,” Jesus goes on, explaining that he’s going to prepare a place for us and that he’ll lead us there, in time.

This sounds wonderfully reassuring to our ears, but imagine how it sounded to Jesus’ disciples back then.  They didn’t want him to die.  They didn’t want the movement to end.  They expected to help him bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.  Like students in a classroom, they were probably very confused, even more worried now that he was telling them to not worry.  But no one speaks up, that is, no one except Thomas.  Thomas states the obvious, “Lord, we do not know where you are going,” he says, bluntly. “How can we know the way?”(14:5)  Thomas is unafraid to speak his mind, bold and unassuming.

And then this chapter, John 20, a famous story which has ever since made ‘Thomas’ synonymous with ‘doubt.’  Thomas tells his friends that he doesn’t believe they’ve seen the Lord, and that he won’t believe until he can see it himself, until he can put his own finger in Jesus’ scars.

Why would Thomas believe?  The other ten didn’t believe, themselves, until Jesus showed up in their midst, and even then they didn’t recognize him.  It wasn’t until he showed them his pierced side and the marks of the nails in his hands that they recognized him, and believed it was, in fact, their now-Risen Lord. Thomas wasn’t there, so why would he believe?

We’ve gotten so carried away with this one snapshot of Thomas that we forget the larger picture.  He’s everything leadership consultants tell us to be.  Thomas is bold, courageous, fearless and strong.  He’s a natural-born leader and a good one, at that.  Thomas has everything we’re told we need to have if we want to succeed or win friends or influence people, or everything we wish we had within.

And yet we keep calling him Doubting Thomas, focusing on that one episode – an episode that’s perfectly, ordinarily human, I might add.

Every year, I suppose, we are supposed to say something profound about doubt.  If that’s what you’re expecting, I have to disappoint.  I have nothing profound or lasting or moving to say about doubt, except for what I consider a basic, shameless truth: Doubt is.  It’s there and it’ll always be there.  It’s part of a faith life. I’ve got plenty of doubts and I’m sure you do, too.  Doubt will always rub up against belief, and belief will always challenge doubt, and those two – doubting and believing – will be for ever locked into a wrestling match in all things in life.  (And let me add that I’m also glad to be part of a tradition in which I can say this, openly.  In my reading this week, I came across a sermon preached by an evangelical pastor who said what I just did – doubt happens and I, too, have doubts – but he included a footnote in which he explained those apparently off-the-cuff remarks and stated that, after the sermon, an elder of the church pulled him aside and said something like, “Now, Pastor, you can go around saying such things…”)  Sometimes, though, the honest truth is the best one, at least the best at which to begin.  Doubt and belief are powerful forces, and they’ll continue in you.

But the longer we keep talking about doubt, either excusing it or making it sound poignant or challenging it, the more we miss the point.  This story isn’t about doubting or believing. It’s about faith, and that’s another order of things, entirely.

Let me explain by way of a story.

You don’t go to divinity school or seminary unless you’re serious about training for the ministry or you’re really interested in having all your presumptions and assumptions and faith-claims laid out naked before others and questioned and challenged.  For me, I’m glad I studied in a ministry program in an academic divinity school because I feel I got the best of both worlds – serious preparation for ministry in an ecumenical context as well as a chance to be interrogated by and rub against the challenges of a great secular university, a chance to not let my faith statements rest, simply, on pietistic niceties or baseless claims of belief, a chance to both re-ground and challenge belief in order to develop something more, something I’d call faith.  But some people don’t like to have their belief system tested.  Some people are quite happy with having faith be, for them, a series of statements of what they believe.  After my first year, and after many first years in seminaries and divinity schools, a number of students dropped out.  After a long program, some students are so changed from who they were when they first enrolled, as well. Seminary or divinity school is not a hard thing to do, by and large – you have to learn languages and read books and write and talk a lot – but the hardships are on the inside, and for some that’s truly hard.

A book that was something of a required initial read for anyone entering the University of Chicago Divinity School is Martin Gardner’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Flight of Peter Fromm.  Published in 1973 and set at that divinity school in the late 1930’s, the novel features the transformation of the fictional Peter Fromm, a young, believing, Christian evangelist wanna-be from the oil fields of Oklahoma who ventures into that great secular university’s divinity school to take on the heart of liberal theology, itself – all of which is the first step in Peter’s life’s campaign to win the hearts of America for Jesus Christ.  Peter is bright but naïve, intelligent but with an agenda driven by evangelical theology, gifted but unrooted.  The story, overall, is about his transformation, but it’s also about a man’s breakdown and faith’s remodeling.

Early in the book, while he’s still a good believer, there’s a passage that’s long spoken to me, especially as relates to Thomas in our New Testament. It’s a scene from a chapter in which Peter’s dating a Catholic girl named Angelina.

“…Peter lingered for a moment to peer through the gate’s iron grillwork at the large stone statue of Saint Thomas that stands in front of the church’s entrance.  It was dusk and the Saint’s face was in deep purple shadow.  A powdery snow was clinging to his head and shoulders and to the arm outstretched as if to touch the wounds of Christ.

‘I am his brother,’ Peter said in low tones.

‘What do you mean?’  Angelina had never read the Gospels.  If someone had asked her who Saint Thomas was, she would not have known how to answer.

‘He refused to believe the Lord had risen from the dead,’ said Peter.  ‘He refused to believe until he could put his finger in the nail prints or rest his hand on the wound made by the soldier’s spear.’

‘Did he ever do it?’

‘No, when he saw Jesus he believed.  That was when Christ said to him, ‘Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed.  Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’’ Peter’s voice had a curious ring.  ‘It was the last of the beatitudes.’

Puzzled and a little more frightened, she studied the statue more carefully through the softly falling flakes.  ‘Why are you like him?’

‘Because,’ Peter answered desolately, his words blowing clouds of whiteness into the freezing air, ‘I’m not sure I believe the story about Thomas.’”

“I’m not sure I believe the story about Thomas,” Peter says.  At times throughout life I could’ve and probably wanted to say the same.  I’m not sure I believe the story about Thomas.  I’m not sure I believe he couldn’t and wouldn’t believe even after his friends told him they’d seen the Risen Lord.  It seems so strange, so unpredictable, so odd that someone with such boldness and courage and inner strength, someone exactly like Thomas, couldn’t, wouldn’t believe.  It seems, to us, that the trick to doing something or becoming something is to will it, to want it, to make space in your life for it.  Want to lose weight?  Do it, then.  Want to acquire a new skill?  Get to it.  Want to be a better believer, a more faithful Christian?  What are you waiting for?  Start praying more frequently, attending more regularly, resisting more forcefully.

But what if it’s not at all up to us?  What if the big things in life, the stuff that really matters, isn’t in our power or control at all?

I suspect that’s the case.  And I fear that the longer we keep pretending that things might be in our power, that the secret to faith, for instance, has something to do with doubt or belief, the further we get from the truth.   For the truth of the matter is that the story of faith is not about our searching for God, our yearning and our hoping and our desires, as good and well-founded as they may be.  Even if the desire to please God, as Thomas Merton once famously prayed, may in fact be pleasing to God, it’s not entirely satisfactory to our Creator.  The story of theology and, in particular, our faith is not at all about our searching for God.  It’s about God searching for us.

I’d like to say that we need to let go of worrying about belief and thinking about doubt but that, in itself, is still on you, that still requires your initiative.  I’d like to tell you to practice letting go, to practice as an Easter celebration no longer trying to be a better person or a more faithful Christian.  Practice ending practices.

But the truth is that we can’t do this, not entirely on our own.

Caravaggio’s (1570 – 1610) famous “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” features the Apostle’s right forefinger nearly halfway into Jesus’ side!

What we’re talking about is simply being in front of God, naked and vulnerable and you.

After all, I believe, that’s the real story of Thomas.  Even though so many artistic depictions of this scene have, over the centuries, featured Thomas actually touching Jesus’ wounds, I don’t see that happening, not in the text at least.  True, Thomas said that he wouldn’t believe until he touched the marks, but nowhere does it say he actually did it once Jesus appeared.  No, when Thomas stopped searching and fretting and doubting and believing and God found him, after all, just as when God finds you, all of that other stuff dissolves and drifts away, and you and I are left face to face with the One who knows us more intimately than we, even, know ourselves.  It’s in those rare and beautiful moments, then, that we, like Thomas, find ourselves having dropped everything we were once concerned with and, together, utter in our hearts the greatest confession of faith made in the pages of the New Testament, “My Lord and my God!”

………………..

From a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland

WHAT THE CHURCH SHOULD LEARN FROM GROUPON

This past weekend, I enjoyed a great retreat with St. George’s vestry.  It marked the beginning of a new chapter in my own thinking about ministry.  Some years ago, we started to chip away at having vestry function as the unpaid, overworked staff of the church.  That was was turning more people away than towards the Body of Christ.  In recent years, we’ve started to end the thinking that vestry are the ultimate institutional managers.  That wasn’t healthy, either — one, they weren’t able to see the hand of God in the whole of the parish and, two, it had the potential to set-up a battle between rector (visionary) and vestry (management).  For the first time since ending those unhealthy ways of functioning we’re on the verge of beginning something new.

ANDREW MASON

As a team, we’re preparing to follow a new and fairly bold vision.  At the same time, we wonder how we might grow or, rather, nest this vision organically, not impose or even teach it.  If the vision gets properly nested, we wonder, it may very well change the way we operate from the inside out, making the institution called “church” all the more akin to the living Body of Christ.

Recent events with the social networking site Groupon highlight this point.  Groupon’s founder and CEO, Andrew Mason, was fired last week.  The site isn’t making money.  In fact, the declining institutional Christian church looks remarkably good compared to Groupon’s performance.  Their current worth is a mere 18% of what it was just over one year ago!  Beguilingly, the company which is only five years young was Mason’s own idea.

I think the church could learn from Groupon.

Vision isn’t a Business Plan.

I guess CEO/Founders aren’t exempt from being fired.  Many church leaders think of themselves as visionaries.  Diocesan conventions reinforce this.  And no small amount of church members participate in this delusion — just ask anyone who’s ever served on a search committee.  What a shock, then, that having a vision doesn’t prevent getting canned.

The church’s only business plan is God’s kingdom.  What we call “vision” isn’t always the same thing.  The reality is that we’re mere infants in knowing how to talk, firstly, about the things of God.  It’s only been since the church was moved to the margins of society that we’ve had to learn another language, another besides secular business models.  (A priest friend once said she never passed up the opportunity to go into the “Business” section of a bookstore.  “They’re all so applicable to church life,” she said.  Guess Borders should’ve read them, too!)

And thus the cycle.  Leaders keep visioning while vestry-members fret about paying the bills.  Vision goes up against institutional management, evidenced in too many arguments about whether to give more to outreach ministry or pay the gas company.  It’s equally unfortunate to vault vision over business.

One of the ways the institutional Episcopal Church has figured out how to shut down business-as-usual is to teach its priests how to use power effectively.  The word rector (Wikipedia tells me its “from the Latin verb rego, regere, rexi, rectum“) has to do with being a ruler: “In a moral sense a rector has the function of keeping those under his authority on the ‘straight and narrow path’.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.)  This isn’t altogether bad.  In a congregation it’s important to have someone such as a priest, someone ultimately sensitive to seeking first the kingdom of God.  And yet clergy have been too well trained to know what power we have and what we do not need to share with others.

Only last week I was approached by someone from another congregation in another diocese who wanted to know if a rector had the right to hire or fire someone.  This person genuinely loved her church and her priest, but the situation was presented as a done deal.  It struck me that the better question wasn’t what power the rector had or didn’t have but, rather, whether there’s a better way altogether.

Clergy have been formed to function as we do.  I’ll go out on a limb and admit that, yes, there is a better way altogether, a way which involves honesty, openness, trust and humility.  This way is both visionary and institutional, exciting and banal, fresh and old-fashioned.  But in order to get there we need all the ministers of the church — lay and ordained — to show a real willingness to embrace the ways Jesus would have us function, and resist a ready compliance with the established business practices of yesterday’s world.

After years of work and prayer and patience, we’re at the precipice of this at St. George’s, Valley Lee.  Thank you, God!

Turn into the Skid.

One of the criticisms leveled against Groupon is that they identified the wrong client.  Others have tried to understand Google’s rise or Facebook’s IPO flop.

Social media is incredibly popular, but it’s not turning a profit in the way traditional businesses which follow traditional business models are supposed to.  The illusion of analysis is that we can understand a current trend by examining past performance.  This, however, is uncharted territory.  The connections we think should exist between popularity, use, and sustainability do not exist.

This applies to churches.  “If only we could attract the young families who are moving into that new subdivision,” someone thinks, assuming that if we attract them they’ll use us then they’ll help us.  This makes perfect sense to a previous business model.  The only fear is an insufficient amount of newcomers.

In my experience, it’s not about if we get newcomers.  Living and preaching the Gospel makes that a certainty. The deeper challenge is what happens, when?  When the Body of Christ grows it’s newer members will, more than likely, not pay or participate in the same way and to the same degree that those among the bulk of our current membership do.  The Millenial generation, for instance — the oldest of whom, at the most conservative estimate, turn 33 this year — will be the first generation of people who will make less money than their parents.  Underlying forces are changing deeply, and no one knows how this will turn out.

Learning to drive in Chicago, as I did, there’s an essential skill of winter driving called “turning into the skid.”  A driving instructor in Colorado put it well: “‘You have to go against your natural tendencies,’ he says. ‘Turn into the skid. You also need to accelerate.’ That last piece of advice seems to freak people out the most, he admits. ‘People don’t think about accelerating to control the car.'”  Your natural tendencies tell you otherwise.  Under the church’s chatter about becoming more relevant, I suspect, is a simultaneous assumption that we’ll grow in numbers, money and participation.  But if you want to truly grow, you’ve also got to turn into those underlying assumptions, crash into them and, in fact, accelerate.  That really will ‘freak people out.’

What if our increasing relevance leads, in turn, to the end of the previous business model?  What if we get more people but few care to fill the slots on committees?  Are we ready to have lots more people hungry for Jesus’ message of new life and at the same time — and as a consequence — toss out our old secular not-for-profit business model of church management?

This, I’ll offer, is our future reality.  In preparation for it, as a kind of practice, we should become more focused, nimble, lean and trim.  That’s the only way we’ll be able to turn into the forces besetting us, once they truly beset us.

Ironically, it turns out that all this work of vestry formation and leadership development was not to maintain that which we’ve had but to prepare, entirely, for something new.  It feels like that something new is also something true, something more fully the Body of Christ.  At St. George’s, Valley Lee, we’re getting ready, together.  We’ve been getting ready all these years.