Rami Elhanan is an Israeli who grew up in Jerusalem. While serving in the army, during one battle in the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, his unit set out with 11 tanks and returned with only 3. He lost friends and, even worse, lost his innocence. He was broken, angry, bitter – and filled with hatred. In time, he got married, started a career and a family. On the evening of Yom Kippur 1983, he held in his hands his beautiful baby daughter, Smadar. But on the afternoon of September 4, 1997, Smadar was killed by two Palestinian suicide bombers who took the lives of five innocent people in browing the shelves in a Jerusalem bookstore — one of them Rami’s beautiful 14 year old daughter.
Bassam Aramin grew up in the West Bank city of Hebron. At the age of 12, Bassam saw one of his friends fatally shot by an Israeli soldier. For him, revenge was a palpable, dark force. He joined a group who called themselves freedom fighters, but those in power called them terrorists. They threw stones, at first, and empty bottles but one day in 1985 he found several discarded hand-grenades in a cave. With his friends, they threw them at Israeli jeeps. Two went off; no one was injured. Bassam was sentenced to seven years in prison.
After his release, Bassam began to build a life for himself, which included a family. Sadly, however, on January 16, 2007, Bassam’s 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot in the head with a rubber bullet by an Israel soldier. She was standing outside her school. She died two days later.
Following such unspeakable tragedy, both men chose to do remarkable things. Both men chose to stop the strife and warfare and anger and bitterness. Both chose peace.
For Rami, Smadar’s death brought back his old, unprocessed anger. But he couldn’t stir up enough even to reignite revenge. A group called the ‘Parent’s Circle’ invited him to a session. ‘Parent’s Circle’ brings together families who’ve lost children and loved ones in the conflict and yet still want peace. From that session on, Rami’s world, he says, was turned upside down. Those whom he once hated embraced him and loved him. Former enemies were the source of his greatest consolation.
In 2005, Bassam founded ‘Combatants for Peace’ – an organization which brings together those who fought on opposite sides. ‘Combatants for Peace’ evolved into a movement of individuals who yearned to simply talk with those whom their states told them were enemies. As Bassam once remarked, “Abir’s murder could have led me down the easy path of hatred and vengeance, but for me there was no return from dialogue and non-violence. After all, it was one Israeli soldier who shot my daughter, but one hundred former Israeli soldiers who built a garden in her name at the school where she was murdered.”
We don’t do so very well in resolving conflict and finding peace with our enemies. Even our best attempts fall flat. Oscar Wilde famously instructed: “Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.” Godfather Michael Corleone gave what is, to many, sound advice: “Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer.” Abraham Lincoln once offered a poignant line about making friends out of enemies but it, still, carries notes and scars of battle: “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends,” Lincoln remarked. Even when we try to make nice, we are often our own worst enemy.
That’s why Rami’s and Bassam’s stories are so unique. It didn’t take decades and increasing maturity. It didn’t require the passing of years to realize that what once tore apart their souls with bitterness and revenge is now just water under the bridge. Within moments – moments not years – of unspeakable tragedy, they responded with peace, dialogue, empathy and understanding. Immediately: peace.
That’s what’s truly remarkable about the earliest Christian movement, as well. In Acts chapter 10, there’s a famous story about Peter and a Gentile named Cornelius. God tells Cornelius his prayers have been heard and that he should send for Peter, who’s staying in Joppa, a nearby village. In Joppa, meanwhile, God presents a rather strange vision to Peter – a large sheet comes down from the sky with all kinds of animals. In the vision, a voice says “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” But Peter’s a good law-abiding Jew. Understandably, he says, “By no means, Lord! I’ve never eaten anything profane in all my life.” “What God has made clean,” the voice says, “you must not call profane.” Peter comes to just as a knock comes on the door. It’s the men whom Cornelius sent. Peter goes with them to Cornelius, they have a wonderful heart-to-heart and the Holy Spirit immediately descends upon the room. Peter feels it and baptizes the whole household, right then and there.
What happened in that moment for Peter and Cornelius, like that which followed Rami’s and Bassam’s tragic losses, was immediate. No study period, no checking with the elders, no consulting scripture or thinking about what’s been done before. God swept in and peace happened. And it happened immediately.
But that’s not exactly our situation. Flip to Acts chapter 11 and you see the after-effects, the angry backlash. The leaders of the Christian movement – a still Jewish movement – heard that a Gentile was baptized without first having to become circumcised. They’re angry. They call Peter to headquarters. There, he tells the whole story: the sheet, the animals, the voice, the trip to Caesarea, the presence of the Holy Spirit. What else could I do? Peter says. It was so very clear, so very immediate, and I responded.
Like Peter, we don’t live in communities which quickly and altogether respond to immediacy of any kind, let alone an immediate turn from revenge to love, from being enemies to friends, from separation to unity. In fact, I learned of the story of Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin from a 2012 documentary entitled, Within the Eye of the Storm. It tells the story I told you, about their lives and the processes they both undertook to find peace. They became friends. But the film is also about the experience of introducing one another to their communities – communities which were not prepared and did not necessarily, automatically, immediately respond with the same kind of love and forgiveness and peace. Imagine it. An Israeli sitting with Arabs who quite literally – and, you might say, for good reason – hated him simply because of who he was. An Arab sitting with Israelis who literally and, again, you might say, for good reason, saw him as a terrorist. Forgiveness doesn’t come easily in this world. Peace is not won swiftly. None of this is ever immediate.
The world in which we live is not geared towards wholeness and healing; it’s not designed for love and forgiveness. American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr outlined in his now-classic 1932 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, what’s called “Christian realism.” Power and positioning and pride lurks everywhere in this world, at least this side of heaven, Neibuhr argued: sin is at the bedrock of the foundation of this world. That’s why even our attempts to play nice sometimes turn out so rotten.
Being a person of faith, in general, and a Chrisian, specifically, involves the hard work of scrutinizing that which comes from within. It may be of God; Jesus said the kingdom is near you. It may not be of God. Israelis and Palestinians are trained to hate. That’s their base reaction. A good law-abiding Jew like Peter was formed to avoid, at least, and by no means accept a Gentile like Cornelius. That’s Peter’s gut reaction, in spite of the fact that he lived with Jesus all those years. Even the apostles and elders of the Christian movement had a resistant gut reaction, a frankly reactive, bitter resistance. What kind of person do you dislike, and for what reason? What do you abhor and on what scriptural or political reasons do you base your opinion? In it may be God, and it may very well be not of God.
It’s a certain truth that when God shows up he keeps shattering the boxes we make, blurring the lines we draw. But when we take the risk to love and live as God so clearly does, the world says you’re unrealistic, naïve, and at the very least that you’ve gone about it all too immediately.
And yet ours is a faith that makes us try, still. No doubt you’ve seen a bumper sticker with a quote from Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Problem is, he didn’t say that. Not exactly. It sounds like a self-help magazine, and awfully, well, like a bumper sticker. What Gandhi actually wrote was this: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in this world would also change. As a man changes his own nature so does the attitude of the world change towards him. We need not wait to see what others do.”
We need not see what others do. Rami and Bassam, early in their lives, did what others did and they paid for it. In time, they chose to live differently. When tragedy struck, again, they did not wait to see what others did. Peter didn’t wait to see what others did, either. And that community, the church, which called him to task – they, too, were a little bit odd, a little bit strange, a whole lot spontaneous. The moment in that room was hardly silent after Peter recounted his story, for the Holy Spirit was moving and sweeping in her delightfully spunky and, you might say, radically upsetting way. Immediately, they praised the God who shattered their prejudices and destroyed their small-mindedness. Immediately, they rejoiced that theirs was a kingdom not of this world. Immediately, they did a bold thing and were given the grace of God to do it with courage. They may have looked back, they may have been afraid, but immediately they were also transformed.
As a boy, Tolstoy and two friends put together a club. They called it the White Polar Bear Club because the only membership requirement was that a boy had to stand in a corner for 30 minutes and not think about a white bear. Memory researchers say we’ve all got a bit of the White Bear Syndrome. Close your eyes, if you don’t believe me, and whatever you do do not think about a white bear.
Intentional thought suppression was once tested in a Harvard psychology lab. Participants were told they were going to sit for five minutes and describe, in words, what’s on their mind; speak their stream of consciousness. They were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was told they could think about a white bear. The others were told they could not think of a white bear. They would press a button if or when they thought of a white bear. Additionally, their stream of consciousness utterances were recorded and the number of times they said “white bear” were counted. Participants who were told to not think about bears actually mentioned it less than the others, but all of them pressed the button at about equal rates. If the goal is to stop thinking about something, it’s hardly effective.
Also interesting was a follow-up test with those who, in the first test, were told to not think about bears. In a second test, they were told they could now think of white bears. Those folks – first told to not think about something, then told they could think about that thing – were off the charts in mentioning white bears and pushing the button, much more so than either group in the first study. Suppressing a thought actually leads, in time, to its subsequent over-indulgence. Someone trying to quit drinking only thinks about alcohol; someone trying to lose weight lets himself have just a nibble of a chocolate bunny’s ear and winds up devouring the whole thing.
We humans are tricky animals, crafty, and pretty good at self-deceit. I’ve always thought the Apostle Paul was describing me when he said to the Romans, “I don’t understand my own actions.”(Rom. 7) “I do not do what I want,” Paul wrote, “but I do the very thing I hate.” What do to about it? God “gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul wrote in another letter, so you and I should “stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15)
This is true. When life besets us and gets us down, when the anxiety is too much to bear and the worries are real, when pain is acute or life’s direction gone missing, the story of our faith is that the victory’s already won. For us, then, we hold on, we stand firm.
This is true, but it’s the type of truth Christians know a lot better as mystery than fact. For the fact is that the games of life and the culture of death not only exist outside but also tear us apart, within – desires are inflated, wills are set in competition, and I continue to do the things I do not want to do and which I know aren’t good. Christians celebrate resurrection, new life, but the context of this gift is death.
We labor but sometimes, contrary to Paul, it feels like we do so in vain. I can only imagine that’s what it felt to those women who headed out early on this first day of the week, carrying heavy sacks of ointment and spices. They were doing what they knew to do, laboring through life. Like them, we are also good at finding tricks to get through the day: when life gets overturned, we make lemonade, some say, or bury ourselves in work or master a craft. Mind over matter. A study performed at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, in fact, suggested we’ve got some capacity to exercise mind over matter. From an article in The Week: Twenty particpants were arranged into two groups and told to search for an item. One-half of them were allowed to repeat, out loud, the name of the thing they were looking for. The other half could not say the name of the thing. On average, the group speaking the name of the thing found it quicker than the group which was silent. Similar studies of children show that those who talk themselves through the process of tying their shoes do so faster than those who don’t. We have the capacity, some capacity, to exercise mind over matter, to accomplish tasks, to labor well, to get through the day.
But that’s not what resurrection looks like. Just laboring is not new life. Breaking the culture of death and attaining new life is the goal, but it’s truly hard. Phase two of the University of Wisconsin study is where it gets more interesting. Again, from The Week: “Researchers carried out a ‘virtual shopping task’ for common grocery store items, like Jell-O or Coke. Just as in the first phase, some of the participants were asked to repeat the item’s name to themselves while looking. But this time the results were ‘more complex.’ …Talkers were able to find familiar objects like Coke much quicker. But for less familiar objects, such as the slightly more ambiguous Speed Stick deodorant, the mutterers actually took much longer. Why? ‘Speaking to yourself isn’t always helpful,’” one researcher said, “’If you don’t know what an object looks like, saying its name can have no effect or can actually slow you down.’”
If you don’t know what an object looks like, or if the events of life have so worn down the truth you once received, or if you’ve already made yourself believe there is no hope, just simply saying it has no effect on you. In fact, it might even distract you, slow you down, get in your way. Truly, I wonder how some of the words we regularly toss around in the church actually sound to people, to you. What does resurrection mean? What does new and unending life imply? What does redemption say, to you, today? Are you hearing something or, just as likely and for no apparent fault of your own, do these words not only sound empty, vacant, vacuous but are they a distraction, obscuring your path to wholeness?
The way the Easter story is told, then, is precisely for you, you who are tricky animals, you human beings. The gospels do not describe the resurrection. They tell only of its faint aftermath, the evidence of the action of God: a stone unrolled, a tomb empty, a promise kept. Resurrection is a matter of faith, and faith is born in a place within the lives of perfectly ordinary women and men, people who can and do, from time to time, delude and trick ourselves. Like those women we forget and lose sight, we alter memories and, as science has shown, we are actually a whole lot better at driving ourselves further from the truth than we are at doing what people say when you lose something: just stop thinking about it and you’ll find it.
That’s not what the angel said in the garden. He said “Remember.” “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man will rise again.” And they remembered what he said and that he said it because they remembered how. They remembered, at that moment, not in their quickly deceiving minds but in their well-hewn hearts. For resurrection cannot be thought or learned. Redemption isn’t something some are better at because they pray harder or attend more regularly. It’s a gift and is retrieved in remembering, in coming back together and returning to life. In that moment, in that garden, those women remembered how Jesus embraced them and blessed them, how he took bread and broke it, how he welcomed sinners and loved the outcast, how gently he touched them, in a place deeper than words or meanings or thinking.
That place is the harbor of faith, and it is there in you. It’s been there all along.
The new Archbishop of Canterbury is giving a lesson in ethics. What he’s actually talking about is changing the way the church functions.
Yesterday, the Archbishop didn’t zero in on the political mess the Church of England’s gotten itself into. The pundits on the sidelines are striving to get him to say something about women bishops or gay marriage. Welby mentioned several times his own “fear and trembling,” but I think he showed remarkable strength in not talking about those things – in not chattering on about the church in self-reflexive ways, focusing with profound insularity on theological method (as his predecessor did); in not taking a prophetic stance toward the issues of the world while ignoring the clutter of his own spiritual house (as our Episcopal Church, I’m afraid, too quickly does). Archbishop Welby showed great steel in turning our textbooks back to Aristotle and Jesus, in focusing our attention on a simple message: the church must be in the business of human flourishing.
In his inaugural sermon, Welby argued that the goal of the Body of Christ should be to enable human persons to flourish: in his words, to “make space for our own courage to be liberated, for God to act among us and for human beings to flourish.” The church has taken prophetic stances over the years, Welby acknowledged, positions which became manifest in social campaigns – freeing slaves and ensuring the safety of factory workers, among others.
Similar issues confront human society in the 21st century, he noted, but his analysis, interestingly, didn’t go from cause to cause. Rather, he quickly moved the conversation back to traditional Christian social thought.
Dissapointing media pundits and stumping secular critics, Welby’s message appeared, at first, to be about our work, our message, our cause and then, just as quickly, became a message of God. “Fear imprisons us and stops us being fully human,” he preached. “Uniquely in all of human history Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the one who as living love liberates holy courage. …Courage is released in a society that is under the authority of God, so that we may become the fully human community of which we all dream.”
Early Christians adopted from Plato and Aristotle the concept that there is an end to which all human striving should be directed, a goal which is good for its own sake. The Greek word is eudaimonia, often translated as happiness or flourishing. In the Aristotelian worldview, eudaimonia is entirely egoistic: an individual’s self interest is to flourish, so a particular individual’s good is to flourish for the sake of her own good. That obviously wouldn’t do for the early Christian community whose Lord commanded them to love one another, so the Christianized concept of eudaimonia also had to do with mercy, justice, forgiveness, and community. Human flourishing from a Christian point of view is to strive towards the only goal which is good unto itself. That we call the Kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God involves people, but what’s good for people is not necessarily a good unto itself. That’s not an ultimate good. The kingdom of God has a church but what’s good for the church isn’t necessarily a good in and of itself. Better not chatter on about the church with incessant insularity. The kingdom of God is expressed, from time to time, in our social campaigns to make this world a more just and equitable and liveable place, but those causes are not necessarily the same as the reign of God. Best not confuse our social politics and theology. If we want to understand what it means to flourish, we’ve got to understand what it is to be of God, firstly, and to have our actions and words speak Him.
Although this is deep within our tradition, it’s also a new teaching for the church. It’s hard for many to understand, let alone embrace it. We, the church, allowed secular society to put us in the center of their world – first it was Constantine, then Charlemagne, then in America our own interpretation of the Bill of Rights. For centuries, we thought Christendom spoke for itself. Even when it’s been waning these past several decades we tried to bolster the buttresses, talking on and on about ourselves and our self-proclaimed mission and our business.
That’s all falling apart. Not the Way of Jesus, mind you. Not Christianity. Just the force of the predominately institutionalized shell.
And that’s why Justin Welby is the right man for the job, the right man, that is, at this moment. While bishop of Durham, he seemed uniquely able to speak the truth plainly. In an address in April 2012 to the Anglican Alliance for Development, Bishop Welby pointedly said, “The question that faces the church is that of what is human flourishing, good news, amidst the deep poverty…and utter spiritual bankruptcy and increasing material poverty?”
In that address, Welby named a profound truth: “Our good news,” he argued, “must be unique, because the radicality of the gospel call[s] us to a sense of what we are doing and saying utterly different from all other groups.” This can be unsettling. For those who have grown accustomed to Christendom this is a difficult teaching to bear. Yet almost automatically, Welby’s mind readily goes beyond insular theological methodology – a threat to those hiding inside the church – and criticizes the way of the world from nothing more, nothing less than the Gospel of Christ. To his credit, he already knows that world. When he mentioned “suspicion of the NGO industry, its thousands of employees and the tendency to be as donor dependant as the recipients of aid, with whom one is drawn in a grim dance,” Welby quickly added: “I know, I ran one.”
Authenticity is the litmus test these days, which is both an opportunity and challenge. We live in a time in which our message is heard only so long as the audience knows, already, the depth and quality of its source. It’s no longer sufficient to make grand speeches without mobilizing the People of God. Nor can we shirk from the obligation to speak a word of life in the public square; now, however, it requires the harder work of turning the hearts and minds and lives of those already among the body to influence those not yet. The new Archbishop put it as a question: “As Christians,” he asked, “are we simply a spiritual bit of the same tribe or, as self-proclaimed disciples of Christ, how is what we bring good news?” Reading Micah 6:8 (“do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God…”) and Romans 12:1-2 (“…do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”), Welby reminded:
“the language of our good news is not GDP, output and so forth, though they are part of the means. It is human flourishing in a context of love. The tools of our good news [are] the unique ones of reconciliation and peace, with its fellow travellers of generosity, community and self-giving love. All aid outside the context of the grace of God leads to the abuse of power and the creation of dependency. So we are called not merely to do, but to be. The inner motivation matters as much as the outer.”
These days anyone and everyone can see directly inside, beyond the stuff we’ve projected in order to protect us – our beautiful churches and stately liturgy, our pomp and circumstance, our cathedrals and order, our tradition and customs. Real human flourishing is an inside job, and that matters a great deal.
Moments following his election as Pope, Cardinal Bergoglio, now, Francis I eschewed the custom of going up to a high platform and sitting on a white throne. Instead, he stood on the floor and greeted his brothers, one by one. We already know he hopped on the bus instead of taking a triumphal ride in the Pope-mobile. And the name Francis, he said, came to him when his friend said “remember the poor” – it’s also a name which speaks of purity, simplicity, and a man of the people. Just yesterday, in his first Sunday as Pontiff (17 March), Francis gave his security detail a headache when he wandered out in public, shaking hands, exchanging hugs and pats on the back, not only before but after saying mass at St. Anna’s Church.
Image consultants call this very good “buzz.” The secular media – which, let’s be honest, simply does not understand religion – calls Francis “spontaneous” and “a Pope of the people” and then, in the very same breath, says something about how conservative he is and that little is going to change in the Roman hierarchy.
The press he’s getting is obscuring the point. Most likely, Francis is not doing what he’s doing for good popularity ratings nor does he see any contradiction between his theology and taking a stroll on the street corner to kiss babies near St. Anna’s gate. This is not about publicity. Neither is this is not about conservative versus liberal.
This is about the Roman Church and indeed the rest of Christianity coming into its own, bringing to fruit the ideas shared a half-century ago. From 1962 to 1965, the Second Vatican Council was an opportunity, in the words of Pope John XVIII, to open the windows of the church and let in some fresh air. It purported to carry on the essential teaching of the Councils of Trent (Catholicism’s 16th century conservative reaction to the Protestant Reformation) and Vatican I (the church’s 19th century engagement of the modern world which resulted in a decidedly more monarchical papacy), yet Vatican II also articulated a hope, as John XVIII said, for a “new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind…; that this certain and immutable doctrine be…reformulated in contemporary terms.”
Francis, I think, is trying to move our attention to Vatican II’s teaching about power and authority in the church, expressed in the Council’s 1964 document Lumen Gentium. Specifically, Francis’ early actions suggest he might be preparing to turn the church for the first time into a body in which real power is claimed and authority is shared. Vatican II did a new thing in trying to balance monarchical authority and conciliar decision making, and Francis is the first Pontiff who grew up with that approach. Interestingly, in 1964 Francis was still Jorge Mario Bergoglio; he was not yet ordained and was teaching high school literature in Argentina. It would be another five years before he became Fr. Bergoglio, SJ. In that same year Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, was Josef Ratzinger – a well-respected professor, priest and theological consultant at the Second Vatican Council. Francis lives and breathes the spirit of Vatican II in a way his predecessor simply could not.
Lumen Gentium is characteristic of conciliar thinking: it tries to straddle the line, draw continuity between what was and what should be. In its third chapter, “On the Hierarchical Structure of the Church and in particular on the Episcopate,” it both affirms the real power of the papacy and (re)introduces concepts and practices of shared authority. “[F]ollowing closely in the footsteps of the First Vatican Council,” in its words, Lumen Gentium acknowledges a monarchical papacy – not wanting to go against Vatican I: “The pope’s power of primacy over all … remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power.” (L.G. 3.22) That said, it also tries to enrich papal dominance by reprising the Catholic conciliar tradition:
“…the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together. Indeed, the very ancient practice whereby bishops duly established in all parts of the world were in communion with one another and with the Bishop of Rome in a bond of unity, charity and peace, and also the councils assembled together, in which more profound issues were settled in common, the opinion of the many having been prudently considered, both of these factors are already an indication of the collegiate character and aspect of the episcopal order; and the ecumenical councils held in the course of centuries are also manifest proof of that same character.” (L.G. 3.22)
In case you thought this was about American checks-and-balances — checking unbridled monarchy by instituting shared decision making – the next line is a quick rebuke: “…But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head.”
The same journalists and media types who are trying to figure out Francis’ odd behavior would also call this strange. In fact, Vatican II so confuses secular political thinking that hardly anyone these days is talking about it. No one, that is, except the man in white. This is deep in Francis’ heart and it’s certainly influencing his behavior. Francis – along with many faithful Catholics, Roman and otherwise – sees no contradiction between claiming real power and sharing authority. Lumen Gentium describes it in richly spiritual terms, seeing this “collegial union” as an invitation to practice more deeply what it means to be the Body of Christ on earth, expressing in our very existence “the bond of peace, love and unity.” (L.G. 3.23)
A highly vaulted Roman Curia, along with a Pope seen as ruler of the rulers of the earth, is what has gotten the church in great trouble. That kind of thinking trickles down into very dangerous behavior. For this reason, the butler who stole papal documents is a criminal but, to many, a hero. To his credit, I suspect Benedict XVI tried to bring about the reforms that young Ratzinger described, but there is a world of difference between understanding something, envisioning something and having it as part of your world entire. Part of me wonders if Benedict resigned because he knew that the reforms he dreamed of could only come about from the heart of one who embodied those ideals, one who grew up in that church, one who was younger than he.
But this is not only a message for and about the Roman church. Similar to the ecumenical awakening which followed Vatican II, this is an opportunity for Catholics to lead the rest of Christianity. Specifically, this is an opportunity to model for all Christians a church in which real power is claimed and authority is shared, a church in which there is no apparent contradiction between the two.
Many of us know all too well the dangers of monarchical leadership. But what we also need to appreciate are the limitations of conciliar thinking, at least as a singly dominant organizational theory. Power is still there; it’s always been there, it always will be. Desperately needed in more conciliar churches, then, are leaders who have enough self-confidence to be honest about what power is and how they’re using it or striving not to use it. One of the most dangerous things is eschewed power — which can become, in truth, a wide opening in which one may act as if consensus guides the process while, behind the scenes and because of power’s implicit yet subtle presence, effectuate its use in passive-aggressive ways which make the body ill.
This is our danger as Episcopalians. We’ve confused shared decision making and consensus discernment with an utter abandonment of power, leaving power, then, in those dark corners from which no good can emerge and much bad still does.
There’s a story many Chicagoans know and treasure about the late Cardinal Bernardin — even I know and love it, and I’ve never been Roman Catholic. In 1982, introducing himself to the priests of his new archdiocese, he said “I am your brother, Joseph.” A clear departure from the style of his predecessors, Bernardin’s words were like a lightning bolt to that assembly and were quickly reported to the city and nation and world. His biographer, Tim Unsworth, says “Bernardin set an entirely new style, one marked more by gentle leadership than feudal authority.” As Bernardin showed us, there is no contradiction between claiming and using real power and sharing authority in the councils of the church. Erring on one side or the other, I’d say, is where danger lurks. Perhaps in Francis, then, we have an opportunity to get honest about call and responsibility, about owning and sharing — all of which are essential parts of maintaining those bonds of “peace, love and unity.”
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-members 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.
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.
Anyone who’s ever served on a church search committee knows what I’m talking about. There’s such a gulf between our hopes, our expectations and the real qualities of real people who put their names forward. As Americans, we deal with the swell of expectation and inevitable dissapointment regularly — every four years, in fact. But we know in another four years we get to make a choice again. Churches are harder places for leadership shifts. In the church, we know we’ll be living with the consequence of our choice and, to be honest, living with what we didn’t know or expect at the time for a long, long time.
We don’t like to feel powerless. That’s why search committees worry about things which are so far beyond anyone’s capacity or comprehension, unless they actually have a crystal ball. It’s impossible to know how in the particular person of the Rev’d Mrs. Right or the Rev’d Mr. Wonderful (or, in the conclave, Cardinal So-and-so) our future hopes, past experience, and projected expectations will merge and find meaning. And which I should quickly add “…find meaning, for me.”
That’s just it. We like to be in control. We are in control of a whole lot of things: what words we use, whether we tell our children we love them, what groceries we buy, whether we go the gym, how we spend our money, and who we associate with.
And yet we are decidedly not in control of a number of other things: why bad things happen or, for that matter, why good things happen, why other people act the way they do, whatever happens in the stock market, and why we are unable to resist impulse buys in a checkout line.
The question is how we deal. Some among us, the Type A’s, exert such profound control over the things they can manage they never have to deal with the things they can’t. Others write poetry or songs. Some drink, others buy things. Still others, most notably youngest children such as myself, don’t really give a hoot because we actually suspect someone else is in charge. And still others are brilliant conspiracy theorists, and here I’m thinking not only of Oliver Stone but the folks who produce FoxNews and MSNBC.
We want to be in control and yet we know we’re not. We want to manage the big things and, to add insult to injury, we’re afraid we don’t know who’s in the back office and, even if we knew, we still couldn’t trust them. We are walking, talking contradictions. Our Lutheran friends have a great phrase for this: paradox, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true.” That concept doesn’t solve anything (not for the Type A’s, at least) but it makes the conflict feel a bit more palatably holy. To me, it’s always seemed the healthiest, least dysfunctional, most honest stance to do what 12-steppers call Step One: admit it. Admit your human-ness, your frailty, powerlessness, lack of imagination, inability to control the future, and general anxiety about what’s coming next.
There’s good news and bad news.
The good news is that most of those who work in the institutional church, by and large, get this. Over the past several decades, we’ve started becoming honest. We’ve started to be unafraid of claiming our numerical decline, brokenness and powerlessness and laying that mess before God. A seminary professor once pointed out the irony that most churches house AA groups but treat them like tenants or, in some cases, nuisances. Too many churches, he remarked, fail to connect the transformative potential of 12-step spirituality to their actual functioning. Too many fail to see AA as a mission partner, maybe mission builder, not just a renter. (To be honest, the second “A” does have something to do with this.) Fortunately, over time, the institutional Christian church has become increasingly comfortable with admitting our powerlessness. Maybe being honest about, say, numerical decline is the first step towards actually seeking wisdom from a Higher Power.
Bad news: this still comes as a shock to lots of people. It vexes search committees and stymies personnel decisions in too many churches. Too often, we call institutional managers instead of pastors or, at least, expect those we call to be patient managers even though we might actually need what William Willimon called in a recent Christian Century article “impatient instigators”. The 2005 papal transition highlighted this gulf, as well. When the veritable definition of “institutional-manager”, Cardinal Ratzinger, became Benedict XVI, taking over after John Paul II, he not only followed a genuinely gregarious leader but — and this is no small point — took the reigns after his predecessor’s 27-year reign, over which time most of the world either became so comfortable with the ways J.P.2 filled the red shoes or, rather, never knew another Supreme Pontiff.
That’s why Benedict is, today, Benedicto!, a true blessing not only to the church but to the world. He’s handing off leadership in a public way without the, um, advantage of dying in office — a quick trip to sainthood for anyone in the church. It is a blessing — benedicto! — to finally be honest, and not only that but publicly so.
So let’s keep the spirit alive. Here’s the honest truth made public, church: most of those whom you call to lead these institutions have, through a long process of discernment, had to undergo fairly intense spiritual, emotional, psychological and, add to that, physical inspection and introspection, and we’re really serious about working on the inner life. We think there’s real value to doing that, and we also think it’s a blessing that people aren’t joining churches to get a job connection or “see and be seen”. Rather, we actually expect people who come to church to also want or at least want to want some intense spiritual and emotional introspection and hear a message about changing the way we live our lives.
Now that we’re being honest, we also want to admit we’ve been afraid of a lot of you who want us to act as managers and fit your prototypes and expectations. We’re afraid of rocking the boat too much because (a) we don’t want to come across as meanies — though we have spiritual directors who help us deal with that — and (b) we’re all too painfully aware that no small number of folks think of church as nothing more than a voluntary organization, no different than the Elks Lodge, so if things change too much too quickly a number of you might just revoke your pledge. We’ve been unsteadily trying to re-frame the conversation and talk more about God’s mission. We’ve been afraid and sheepish.
We haven’t been as clear as we need to be, but I think it’s time. I sense that it’s time.
In my experience, I’m touched by the ways in which the yearning for honesty spills across generational lines. I’ve been pleased that most people genuinely come to church for spiritual, life-changing reasons. I also think we’ve sold ourselves short. For me, it’s been argued too often that Baby Boomers have an inability to talk about the stuff of real life — stuff which may involve brokenness or powerlessness — because they remember with fondness the stable institutions of their youth, and they’re trying to recreate their childhood. That’s just not true. Most members of the Baby Boom generation I know have watched their children and, now, grandchildren grow up in an changed world and they’ve come to terms with uncertainty, disorder, and suffering. It’s also the case that the Boomers who wish for the 1950s all over again have already left churches because they sense we’re serious about steering into the wind, and those who’ve remained in our congregations are already doing that profound inner work. It’s also been said too much that young people, today, don’t have a moral bone in their body or they’ve just put their faith in Apple products — not Jesus like previous generations did. Youth and young adults have quite penetrating faith in God, and they also have a great ability to see what’s really there. Many young adults are looking for congregations to take that Lord who turned over tables in the Temple quite seriously, and act in their lives and in our society as a voice of change — a voice which gets its power because it comes from the margins, not the center. They just don’t find as much meaning in potlucks and old-fashioned dinners as did previous generations. This gulf is being bridged day after day in most parish churches across our nation. It’s refreshing to see someone in her 80s sit down over coffee with someone in his 20s and talk openly, truthfully, and meaningfully about life’s ups and downs, a conversation in which neither party is offering advice or trying to fix anything, both there as companions on the way.
This is good news, church. And it’s time to be honest, publicly honest, and celebrate the work we’ve been doing and which previous leaders have envisioned. It’s time to be a lot more bold about it, in fact, for if the Christian church can’t be the place in society in which people come from all walks of life and form community grounded in honesty and truth-telling, who will be?
Benedicto!, Benedict XVI or Pope Emeritus or Cardinal Ratzinger or whatever we’re supposed to call you these days. Maybe, in the spirit of all this refreshing honesty, we’ll just get back to basics, and remember the only name God knows you by – Joseph. Well done.
In the annals of the church of my youth there was a great pastor who served for nearly three decades. He was renowned in the community and his sermons, legend has it, filled the pews, so much so they needed to build a larger church. The new edifice went up next to the existing building. It was a grand space, a long nave with a skinny chancel and grand pulpit. With regard to the particular functioning of this pastor, the new building featured two notable elements – the first, an expansive pastor’s study replete with fireplace, leaded-glass windows and balcony, located high up in the tower and only accessible via a steep staircase, so high that, obviously, accessibility and pastoral calls were not highly regarded. The second was an idyllic courtyard carved out of the space between the two buildings and which the congregation came to call ‘the garth’, itself a lovely, archaic phrase. This pastor, Dr. McGee was his name, wrote poems, too. The only poem I can recall was about the Garth Garden, how much he loved the simple, solemn quietude of a space set apart which featured, in his time, a bubbling fountain in its midst.
To me, nowadays, his sermons aren’t particularly compelling — they express the best of 1920s liberal Protestantism with snippets of bible verses thrown in. His poems, even the one about the garth, weren’t altogether timeless either. But that didn’t matter, not at the time nor in the decades which followed. It wasn’t what he wrote or said. It was the feeling and, in particular, the associations folks added to those feelings which mattered, and which have made Dr. McGee’s words into phrases which seem to reside, for some among the congregation, among the classics.
Distortions can all too easily morph into delusions which, over time, become distractions. I don’t know when I first came across George Herbert, the seventeenth-century English priest and poet who truly belongs among the classics, but when I did I stayed or tried to stay, to breathe his air, to remain. There’s something that seems pure in The Country Parson, Herbert’s description of the life and character of a country priest, living out one’s vocation in a little village, taking pride in the routine acts of daily prayer, serving the common person, taking rest as the fire crackles in the vicarage hearth at the close of day. A poet as well, Herbert is responsible for a collection of penetrating verse, The Temple.
Beware the delusion, however. We draw too closely a connection between a quiet, country life and the ability to think deep thoughts, to write lasting words. We, the reader, make the link between Herbert’s verse and text back to Herbert’s life. This is as true for lovers of George Herbert or those fond of Dr. McGee as it is for the wider television audience of Downton Abbey or those who remember the Vicar of Dibley or wish for the simpler antics of Fr. Tim in the Mitford series. Of course, anyone who’s actually read Herbert’s Country Parson is aware that I’ve painted pictures of a simple, bucolic life which is, frankly, nowhere found in his actual text, a piece of writing, it should be added, which is something of a laborious list of duties and pietistic expectations. I’m sure life in Downton Castle, itself, wouldn’t have been as romantic as we’d like to think in our daydreaming.
Maybe it’s limited to Anglo-philes, not to mention the entirely strange caste called Episcopal clergy, but George Herbert has long exerted a real influence. In the summer of 2004, I closed the chapter on a life in Chicago, a life I had come to treasure and enjoy, taking pleasure in that great city’s many cosmopolitan offerings. Off I went to the Virginia Theological Seminary to do my one-year Anglican ‘dip’, as it’s been called. A part of me (or was it my bishop?) told me that I was coming back to Chicago at the end of that year. I could have a wonderful, formative time but I wasn’t there to plant roots. When the time came, early on, to choose which parish I’d work at as seminarian for the year, I resisted the advice of most folks who told me to go across the river to Washington, DC, find an urban congregation and connect there. That’s what I’ll be doing when I go back to Chicago, they reasoned. That’s what I’ll be doing when I go back to Chicago, I heard, so maybe there’s something else.
I had spent a week before the beginning of the academic year with my aunt and uncle in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, the birthplace of the colony, locals are quick to say, but which is known by anyone who knows of St. Mary’s as the southernmost tip of the rural portion of the state known as southern Maryland. For that week under the hot August sun, I helped my uncle harvest grapes in his vineyard and, as the day closed, we sat under a great shade tree and drank wine and ate figs, hardly a noise to be heard except the crickets, no such thing as a traffic light, only the lush colors of a sunset and the brilliant nighttime stars and moonlight. On Sunday, I ventured with them to the Episcopal chapel which has been their worshiping community as long as they lived there and which, together with its parish church up the road, has served that community for centuries, pretty much ever since Europeans stepped onto the shores of this part of the continent, back in 1634.
“That’s where I’d like to spend this year,” I told the seminary’s director of field education. He thought I was crazy, wanting to drive more than seventy miles one way to my field education site, but he let me do it nevertheless. And thus began a year of leaving the busy-ness of northern Virginia and the insularity of a seminary community and hopping in my car on Saturday mornings to drive down and spend a weekend in the country. It was election season, as I remember, and the Kerry/Edwards signs which populated northern Virginia turned, in time, to a greater preponderance of Bush/Cheney signs once you got past the Washington, DC metro area. What I found in St. Mary’s Chapel and Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Mary’s City, however, was in fact a wonderful cobbling together of diverse people – watermen and farmers worshiping next to professors and defense contractors, those who came here recently kneeling at the same altar rail as those who can trace their family’s lineage back to the original settlers, just as countless generations of people had done in a colonial parish which feels, to us Americans, almost ancient.
True to his word, the parish priest who was, for that year, my mentor (and is now my friend), let me do almost anything and everything I could think of, which is when I also learned the truth underneath George Herbert’s Country Parson – that in a country parish you do have the opportunity and, indeed, challenge of being involved in just about everything: you’re not only the chaplain and liturgical functionary who works in the church; you wear a lot of other hats. You’re the closest thing many families have to a commonly-agreed-upon counselor in times of dispute or need; you’re a fixture at family parties and reunions; you are known throughout the community, even when you don’t wear your collar; you have a public role and, in time, you’ll bless everything from pets to yachts to vineyards to fire trucks. You are a public person which is the very origin of the term parson. For me, it was a year rich in learning and formation, a profound and eye-opening year.
At the end of that academic year, not even nine months after I first stumbled upon St. Mary’s County, I packed my bags once again and headed back to Chicago. I’d been called to serve as curate at a large urban parish, a call I was not only looking forward to but, quite honestly, a type of vocation – curate, then rector of a city parish, then who knows what – I thought I was going to be engaged in for the rest of my life.
Looking backward on my life I may have a different perspective but back then, while a curate, I was enjoying a great mentoring program but I was, as I probably told people at the time, bored. My duties were primarily functional and limited (I was only a curate, after all) and, as is often the case, I was doted upon by some within the congregation and held up as one who could do no wrong (I wasn’t the rector, after all). I wanted more and, yet, I also wanted less. I felt disconnected from the ground of that place’s being, divorced from the ground of my own priestly being, too, so haughty did I become when first ordained. In the back of my mind, I kept returning to George Herbert or, in truth, what I thought was the call of a simple, peaceful, holy, country life. Thus it was that the celebration of my time as curate was also my sending forth to a little country parish, nestled within the hills and valleys of St. Mary’s County, Maryland.
The layers of associations we’ve lumped onto figures such as George Herbert are a palpable force and, on some level, a siren song. This needs to be admitted. This needs to be dealt with, along with some intense denominational therapy, I’d say. In his compelling 2009 book, If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him, Justin Lewis-Anthony makes the point that we’ve vaulted an image, no less a graven image of George Herbert, not the real deal. “Herbert has been, and continues to be, used as an exemplar, the exemplar for the English parson,” Lewis-Anthony writes. “Whether you are High Church, Low Church, Evangelical, Charismatic, whatever, Herbert is portrayed as the prototype of the pastor, teacher, almoner, negotiator, gentleman, scholar. He is Ur-Vicar, the Echt-Rector.” Further, though he was relatively unpublished in his brief lifetime, George Herbert’s fame not only grew posthumously (Lewis-Anthony: “this has always been the fast-track to canonization in the folk religion of the Church of England”) but the myth of Herbert became established lore, most interestingly, when Anglicanism was trying to find its distinct voice. In times of conflict, uncertainty, distraction, confusion, and the feeling that we are far from the ground of our being, we yearn for simplicity, purity, holiness. Often, in such moments, we find George Herbert or, rather, who we’ve turned him into.
Having served as a country parson for nearly six years now, I can report there is no idyllic ‘Bemerton parish’. There’s hard work and struggle, with enough silver linings to remind me why God is calling me here. There’s confusion and disorder and uncertainty, graced by moments of pure bliss in which I have, literally, felt God’s presence. There’s frustration and ego and pride which sneaks in, more often than I care to admit, and, at the close of most days, a true delight in simplicity. I knew something was up when, following one particularly contentious Vestry meeting early in my time, I woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep, so nagging on my soul was that one person and her downright stubbornness. Never before moving here had I ever awoken in the middle of the night. Never.
When a friend asked about the differences between a large, urban congregation and this smaller, country parish, I shared what was, at the time, an astonishing realization – that the issues between the two contexts were eerily similar, if not entirely the same. “That’s probably true,” she said to me, adding: “I’d guess that when you went from a larger church to a smaller one what you really traded was quantity for intimacy.” Intimacy is a two-edged sword. When intimately connected, as we are in small communities and country parishes, you love deeply and you fight powerfully. In this place, I’ve suffered – and suffered publicly, out in the open, at that. I’ve experienced crushing defeat and loss and, along with it, piercing shame and guilt. In this place, too, I’ve celebrated growth and witnessed depth, such things which only point to the authorship of a vibrant, living God. Here, I’ve achieved things I only previously believed, hoped I was capable of and I’ve been surrounded by love and warmth to a depth and degree I never imagined existed, not the least of which through the gift of my daughter who was born here. This place has been my cross and the working-out of my redemption, my bitterness and my land of milk and honey. And yet it’s not so on the surface. Not at all. The thread which weaves my little story in and out of God’s greater one is intimacy; without it, this is just a place and these are just people and this is just a job and that struggle is no failure of mine and that success just another notch on my resume.
The point Justin Lewis-Anthony makes is not only that we’ve vaulted the wrong image, not only that there is no bucolic Bemerton parish (…add to that list Dibley, Mitford, or whatever parish Downton’s in, for that matter), but that these delusions mustn’t be searched for. I take his point as a good one: there’s a disease in our church-ness, convincing us that church is supposed to be entirely gentle and calm and peaceful and lovely. The provocative comedian Eddie Izzard described it in this way: “Nowadays, Church of England is much more ‘hello’, ‘how are you’, much more of a hobby-type. A lot of people in the Church of England have no muscles in their arms,” Izzard carried on in a routine, traipsing about on stage like a wimpy, dorky priest. This is ruining our churches. We really don’t know how to engage our world and get out there, get messy. (For Exhibit A, I’d introduce into evidence the line-drawing of Chicago’s Church of Our Saviour – that bustling urban parish where I served as curate – hanging in my office. The sketch doesn’t include the apartment buildings behind the church nor the ones across the street, from which vantage point the drawing is made, nor does it include any hint of cars and people on Fullerton Parkway, nor anything that might tell you it sits squarely in a densely populated section of a major city. No, in this drawing, there’s an expansive lawn, no neighboring flats and, most beguiling, trees are sketched in where the rest of the city would, otherwise, be.) This is ruining seminary formation, as well; too many folks are running from the demands of their busy, hectic, professional lives into what they think is a simple and peaceable job, that of a priest, and how nice it’d be to live and pray and eat in a seminary community for three blissful years. As it turns out this, too, is ruining our churches. In the absence of bold, entrepreneurial, faithful leadership, we know what to expect. Taking Lewis-Anthony’s words as an indictment of our failure to truly grow congregations and do evangelism – a consequence of our inability to re-thinking priestly ministry – we are guilty as charged.
And yet once the graven image of George Herbert is smashed to bits, as it surely must be, we have for the first time the opportunity to come close to the person, the lived experience of a man of God, to see what he did with his experience. This is a really hard thing, to take George Herbert down from the library shelf. I’m thinking in particular of one of T. S. Eliot’s last books, his 1962 contribution to the ‘Writers and their Work’ critical series, Eliot’s George Herbert. The bulk of this thin, three-chapter work is spent tracing the connections and distinctions between Herbert and his literary and spiritual mentor, John Donne. Comparing one of Donne’s most famous religious sonnets (“Batter my heart, three person’d God…”) with Herbert’s poem Prayer (I) (“Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age…”) Eliot claims:
“The difference that I wish to emphasize is not that between the violence of Donne and the gentle imagery of Herbert, but rather a difference between the dominance of sensibility over intellect. Both men were highly intellectual, both men had very keen sensibility: but in Donne thought seems in control of feeling, and in Herbert feeling seems in control of thought. …[W]hereas Herbert, for all that he had been successful as Public Orator of Cambridge University, has a much more intimate tone of speech. We do not know what Herbert’s sermons were like; but we can conjecture that in addressing his little congregation of rustics, all of whom he knew personally, and many of whom must have received both spiritual and material comfort from him and from his wife, he adopted a more homely style.”
Eliot comes so close, let me say, to breathing George Herbert, describing his “intimate tone of speech”, picturing him surrounded by those “whom he knew personally.” Yet even in this there’s separation, a removal, the kindling of what becomes, in others, romanticization, delusion. Perhaps it was the Englishness which Eliot came to treasure and, in time, adopt or that he was commissioned to write a critical piece about Herbert but, nevertheless, it strikes me as odd that there’s such a remove from the real lived experience of George Herbert – analysis so devoid of intimacy that Eliot, in a sense, furthers the delusion, imagining “homely” homilies preached to “rustics.” Once vaulted there, Herbert resides permanently in the pantheon of the classics, rendering him as untouchable and statue-like as, to us Americans, George Washington is still.
What’s really standing in the way of growing the church is that we are downright afraid of the hard work involved in becoming the Body of Christ, the intimate and vulnerable work of becoming really human, really broken, really redeemed women and men who know themselves to be living out the story of God’s salvation. That description probably sums up the character of George Herbert, but we’ve become so distracted with the graven image, our own projected delusions. In his time Herbert took what he had – language – and used it in decidedly novel, penetrating ways. Language is what we all have, in fact; it’s the only thing we possess to express that which resides within. Of late, we’ve tried hiding behind the status quo and Christendom, but that’s falling apart. We’ve tried High Church or Low, chasubles and copes, ashes to go on street corners, but the world has said it doesn’t care about our wardrobes or churchmanship even while it may be amused by our gimmicks from time to time. What instead people seem to be searching is a lived story of redemption, experienced and expressed in the intimate truth-telling of real human persons.
This is vulnerable, frightening, new work. And yet this is Herbert’s life’s work and what he modeled for us, that is, until we meddled. Northwestern University’s Regina M. Schwartz offers, for the literary community, a new interpretation of George Herbert and, for the faith-based community, what I’d call a fitting method to renew focus. In her essay “From Ritual to Poetry: Herbert’s Mystical Eucharist,” Schwartz argues that “in an age when the sacraments were under fire and undergoing rapid revision,” George Herbert left behind the opportunities and worldly trappings he enjoyed as a university spokesman, took up a living in a little parish, and did a poignant thing. Boldly, he dug into his own life, warts and all, and drew connections to God’s life, which has no small amount of turbulence and pain but whose destination is always, already redemption. Herbert made the story of the interior life accessible and, most notably, sacramental. In the seventeenth century “poetry,” Schwartz maintains, “is called upon to carry the performative power of the liturgy.” This is a refreshingly different way to adopt the legacy of the Rector of Bemerton, considering Schwartz’s words:
“Unlike so many theologians, Herbert shows no interest in defining the meal served – in addressing the issue of the Eucharistic elements – instead, he attends to the process of conversation itself, the calling and answering. What is at the heart of Herbert’s mystery of the Eucharist is that an utterance could ever be heard, that a call could ever be answered, an offer ever received, an invitation ever be accepted, a conversation ever take place. For Herbert, then, an important aspect of this sacramental mystery is the mystery of language. …In [his] understanding of language, what is said and its relation to the referent – the sign to the signified – is less important than the activity of saying, than the conversation itself. …We have much to gain by framing the question as Herbert did: not economically but linguistically, in the context of conversation. For when we shift the trope from gift to conversation, we no longer imagine an exchange of goods; instead, we think of a response that evokes a further response. There is a world of difference.”
Realizing Herbert’s legacy should’ve been that of a man who knew, intimately, his own wretchedness and potential and one who knew, in turn, how to express with authenticity that place where God’s divinity meets our humanity, sans gimmicks, it’s all the more painful to admit that we’ve participated, we’ve directed the future of this particular illusion.
There is, indeed, a world of difference once we leave behind the graven images of cloistered garths and expansive studies; of bucolic parishes, whether Bemerton or Dibley or Mitford; of simple, blissful lives we’ll never be fortunate enough to have or find, though we may try and keep trying. There is a world of difference when we realize that the only possibility of resurrection is found in that kingdom planted within, and that the road to unmasking that mystery takes us straightaway through our humanity, indeed, demands that we become fully human, intimate with our joys and pain, our pride and anguish, our failures and achievements, our Crosses and our Easter Days. In this day in which none can hide behind pietistic pabulum, and which we, Jesus followers, ought no longer even if we may, no one wants our distorted signs and broken symbols, our treasured relics which speak confusion and, at times, pain to the world beyond. I won’t be so audacious as to stake a claim for what others want, but what the world certainly needs is our utterly true self, presented as a vulnerable and substantial offering, a sign of what new life looks like: intimately wedded, like the disciple whom Jesus loved, resting on the very heart of God. Again, for the first time in a long, long time, maybe ever, we’re coming to terms with this George Herbert, the only reason he’s made it through the ages.