FREE TO WORK BENEATH THE SURFACE OF THINGS

Christians do a great job of celebrating Christmas and Easter, but it’s really Jesus’ ascension which ‘seals the deal.’  Forty days after Easter, Luke tells us in the sequel to his gospel, Acts of the Apostles (1:6-11), Jesus ascended into heaven in front of the eleven disciples: “…as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (v.9)  They stood there, watching and waiting.  At that moment, similar to Easter Day, two men in white robes appeared and said to them, “Why do you stand looking up to heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go.” (v.11)  Immediately, they set about to work, no longer dependent on Jesus’ earthly presence.  Immediately, they did what they knew they were capable of doing, spreading the good news in word and deed.

That’s a great question: “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?”  Most of us are conditioned to look for direction from elsewhere, not within.  Why do you stand looking up to heaven?   Because we’re so conditioned to look for direction from elsewhere we’re also lousy at practicing freedom. When we talk about freedom, then, we tend to think about being free from something — from others, from expectation, from binding laws.  That’s not what God means by freedom.  For God, freedom is not being free from something.  It’s being free for something.
Christianity is a religion of freedom, but be careful: what Christians actually celebrate is that we are free, in fact, to exercise the better angels of our nature, to borrow Abraham Lincoln’s phrase.  We are free, truly free for the exercise of higher spiritual values.
All of this, we say, is because Jesus took up our nature, our humanity, with him.   Without the Ascension, we’d never get around to doing what we’re capable of doing.  Without the Ascension, we’d be sitting around, drifting aimlessly, acting like wild-eyed children, practicing the freedom which is really lawlessness, or waiting for another leader, monarch, dictator, self-help guru or diet commercial to tell us what to do.
The 16th century reformer, John Calvin, taught that our material nature is already in heaven, at least in part: “Since he entered heaven in our flesh, as if in our name, it follows, as the apostle says, that in a sense we already ‘sit with God in the heavenly places in him’ so that we do not await heaven with a bare hope, but in our Head already possess it.”
And Brooke Westcott, the 19th century Bishop of Durham (England), wrote: “By the Ascension all the parts of life are brought together in the oneness of their common destination. By the Ascension Christ in His Humanity is brought close to every one of us, and the words ‘in Christ,’ the very charter of our faith, gain a present power. By the Ascension we are encouraged to work beneath the surface of things to that which makes all things capable of consecration. … He is not only present with us as Ascended: He is active for us. We believe that He sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
It could be said, in a sense, that Christians gather to re-learn and practice a freedom which this world does not, cannot teach.  We gather and enjoy and engage, as Bishop Westcott said, “the surface of things” — we make friendships, build community, serve the needy and oppressed.  But we are cognizant, at the same time, that we’re also, everyday, “working beneath the surface of things to that which makes all things capable of consecration.”  A freedom such as that is not to be missed.

THE STUPID PAROCHIAL REPORT

This will shock anyone who’s ever tried to teach me math, but I like numbers.  I believe that established metrics and regular evaluation are key to moving forward or, at least, knowing where you are and how you got there.  And I like trying to figure it out.

Episcopal Church leadership likes numbers so much they ask those of us on the ground every year to fill out “The Report of Episcopal Congregations and Missions according to Canons I.6, I.7, and I.17 (otherwise known as the Parochial Report).”  I like how they just casually toss in the Canons, a not so gentle hint.  Due March 1 this is, then, a time to celebrate that it’s done for another year.

THE PAROCHIAL REPORT

In its current form, the report stinks.  We’re hardly measuring the right things and the bulk of it measures the wrong ones.

The first section measures membership.  How many people were added?  Who’d you lose?  That’s how you get Total Active Baptized Members.  Those who are active but not baptized or were baptized in another denomination or, my goodness, another Episcopal church get a separate line: “Others who are active.”  Does no one move to a different city and not get around to having their letter transferred?  Also, in my experience, a greater percentage of the “Others who are active” are more active than those among the Active Baptized.

The longer we spend on this the further we get from more accurate metrics.  Measurements which point to vitality have to do with participation and discipleship — not membership.  The closest thing the Parochial Report comes to measuring that is Average Sunday Attendance, in my opinion one of the only worthwhile metrics.  The report tries to find the underlying story when it asks about baptisms or confirmations or “Total Church School Students Enrolled,” but these measure enrollment, not participation; sacraments, not discipleship; attendance, not leadership.

And don’t even get me started on the Letter of Transfer.  In six years, we’ve done two letters, one in, one out.  If evolution is the case, I hope the Letter of Transfer is the first thing to go.

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Recently, a member of a local congregation told me they’d like to transfer their letter to St. George’s.  They intend to stay connected to both congregations but want to transfer membership here.  I said “No.”  I don’t want theirs or, for that matter, anyone’s letter.  In fact, I want the idea that someone becomes a member at one parish which has one priest (or a team of clergy) and is defined over against the other local parishes, Episcopal and otherwise, to go away.  I’m looking for church as a gathering of disciples or, at least, a mixed bag of those who are, those who want to be, and those who are genuinely curious about the whole discipleship affair.  At least I want the institution called “church” to model this and no longer churn out measurement tools which are pre-programmed to tell us we’re not where we were back in 1957.  I guess that’d be the second thing I hope would evolve away.

More, this distraction is inhibiting the building we need to be doing.  Leaders at the height of the Baby Boom built new buildings and new parishes; today’s Parochial Report is a vestige of that time.  Today’s work, though, is to build networks across parish boundaries, connections across geographical divisions, mission relationships beyond the lines our predecessors drew.

In our diocese, the parochial reports trickle out via a notable tradition of public shaming.  Every year, the convention booklet publishes the list of errant parishes, listing the truants by name and in categories from bad to worse.

Last year, we were one of the tardy congregations.  The report forced us to count numbers we don’t categorize in the same way, and it didn’t allow us to use the numbers which point to vibrancy. Someone said, “File an addendum,” which I knew would be read but go nowhere.  A colleague said, “Just file it.  They don’t care.”

I’ve written elsewhere about the creative way this parish has found a more lively connection between mission and money, operations and ministry.  (Read here and here and here.)  In short, we’ve set up a completely decentralized budget.  It does two things well:  one, the operations of the church are supported by a lean, central operating budget; two, the ministries of the church rise or fall depending on the movement of the Spirit of God amongst the People of God.  We don’t fund outreach or Christian education, for example.  And the ironic good news is that they raise more money because they are free.  In turn, because our operating budget is so lean we can see, at a quick glance, what’s going on with operations.

We are growing, in part, because we’ve learned that operations and ministry are both mission and yet are not the same.  We’ve freed ministry from operations.  Further, we understand that operational functions are not only a vital part of the church’s mission but also support relational ministry.  This, in turn, gives a new validity to administrative functions and operations.

This budget strategy is healthy, life-giving and the only way to make a budget according to the logic of the Body of Christ, not the illogic of the world.  But it’s squarely in conflict with the assumptions behind the Parochial Report.

Our Normal Operating Income (NOI), then, is slim.  But that’s not all the money.  Even more small mindedly, the Parochial Report enforces a myopic view of expenditures and money raised.  Outreach expenditures are “Outreach from operating budget.”  According to this illogic, we report $0.00 given to build up our community and world.  In reality, we raised and spent $13,144.76 in 2012 and $9,767.71 in 2011, lots more money than we were ever able to give out of the centralized operational budget!  The report doesn’t even ask about Christian education or young adult or senior adult or youth ministry.

Beyond griping, here are five suggestions for revising the issues surrounding the Parochial Report:

1.  Determine new actual average measurements, in addition to Average Sunday Attendance (ASA), that might point to discipleship, leadership, and participation.  Poll church leadership and ask one question, “What are the things you do in the course of your week which tell you if something’s working and there’s growth energy?”  On the basis of what I’m sure will be a fairly universal set of responses, determine new actual average measurements.

2.Establish that Normal Operating Income (NOI) be determined by the total of four actual numbers: (a) total pledge contributions, (b) total ‘plate’ contributions, (c) any rental fees from parish properties, and (d) contributions from congregation’s organizations.

3. This will force and free up congregations to figure out other ways to budget the categories the Parochial Report currently determines as being inclusive of the NOI.  It’s likely they’ll stumble upon a decentralized budget like we use at St. George’s, Valley Lee.  They, too, will enjoy the healthy distinction between operations and ministry.  Moreover, they’ll see money given to support operations go up, if only remain the same.

4.  Make timely receipt of the Parochial Report without sufficient excuse and blessing from the Bishop or Ecclesiastical Authority the determining factor whether a parish or mission gets seat and voice and vote at that next year’s Diocesan Convention.

5.  Make 10% giving of NOI — the NOI I sketched, above — mandatory for all parishes.  If the diocese enables its congregations to find a life-giving connection between money and mission the diocese deserves 10%.  Counterintuitively, the reason too many dioceses abandoned mandatory giving is because institutional, diocesan leadership is unsure of their role as network builders and uncertain how to model a new way of being of the institution and, at the same time, free of the institution.

And while I’ll bet a lot of readers were with me right up until I said “turn it in on time or lose your vote” and “give 10% to the diocese” the larger point is this:  in an age in which people from all generations are happily walking away from institutions and institutionalism, the only choice remaining for those of us commissioned with leadership of these, face it, institutions is whether we propagate the old way (which a lot of us don’t believe in) or whether we use these structures to truly help people measure the areas in real life which impact joy, success, strength, and energy (positively or negatively).  When we revise our metrics, we might actually see more liveliness, vitality and growth than we’ve previously seen or appreciated.  We might, as well, see more clearly what’s standing in the way and needs to be removed or refashioned.  Who knows?  That awakening might actually make us more boldly the Body of Christ on earth, and more equipped to model it for others.

QUANTUM INCARNATION

One of my favorite classes in high school was physics.  To be honest, I didn’t do well in the class; I earned a lowly C-.  Nevertheless, I’m intrigued by the ideas of physics, principally the idea that this world is not a random, thrown-together mass of stuff but an orderly, systematic and profoundly amazing creation, a created order.

For me, it’s a spiritual interest.  According to classical physics, Aquinas and Aristotle and Newton among them, this world is not only orderly but that order can be uncovered, deduced.  And, once unveiled, it points to a greater force.  People of faith call that force God.  Seeing the order of the universe unveils something beyond, something greater, something which has somehow imparted meaning.  Classical physics affirms spiritual truths.

But classical physics seemed to suggest a break where there is, in the deepest levels of reality, fundamental union.  In classical physics, you come away with the perception that there’s something like two worlds:  one, a world of stuff (atoms and mass and energy) and, two, a world of intelligible order.  Most of the time those two worlds are united into one, sensory universe.  Which is precisely what enabled Newton, for instance, to posit laws of motion.  And which, at the same time, enabled him to humbly and faithfully claim: “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”

Over the last century, however, the established, prove-able laws which guided Newton’s classical universe were challenged by what is now called quantum physics: a subatomic world, a world within the stuff of the universe itself.  And it’s not as easily, universally, and scientifically observable, let alone ‘prove-able’.  Where there, once, seemed an orderly world, established by intrinsic, predictable forces and proved, so to speak, by exterior principles or laws, now there is, following quantum theory, seeming random-ness, subatomic entities spinning about and unable to be completely observed or detected or, let alone, studied and reduced to man-made principles.  Even though this quantum world seems fuzzier than proving gravity by sitting under an apple tree, it also points to a certain order and truth and a “plan”, if you will, albeit perhaps several plans and perhaps competing ones and never one plan which can be fully deduced and turned into a Theory of Everything.

I don’t understand quantum theory, and I’m still intrigued by it.  (I’m in good company. The 20th century Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, is himself rumored to have said, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.”)

What I find so fascinating, even though I understand so little, is that these new vistas in modern physics seem to confirm what we Christians know about reality, that deeper level of reality, in particular.  This is the kind of reality we celebrate during Christmas.  Christmas is not just a holiday but a profound spiritual truth.  Here’s the real reality, we say: God took on flesh, our flesh, and not only came among us but became one of us.  This is the mystery we call “incarnation”.  And don’t let the flip side of the incarnation pass you by without notice, then: God also became human so that our nature, our humanity, our mass and energy and atoms and stuff would be renewed, restored, and redeemed.

John the Evangelist points to this remarkable truth in the prologue to his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word,” John writes, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”  What John’s trying to do is shine new light on an old, old story — that God has always been a part of the world, not a distant, removed, faraway entity; that God has been breathing, inspiring, moving in and under and through this world, a very part of it.  There’s quite a quantum theory within John’s gospel:  “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. He was in the world and the world came into being through him. To all who received him, he gave power to become children of God. And the Word lived among us, and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. No one has ever seen God.”

The radical message of the incarnation, then, is radical in a quantum way – order and truth, purpose and plan, intelligence and truth is not outside of the stuff of this world; no, the meaning is a living, breathing, part of that stuff.  The creation has within it, already, the power of redemption.  And when God took on our flesh God wiped away the dirt and the grime which we had allowed, generation after generation, to obscure the gifts of this marvelous creation.

This’ll change the way you live. One of the keys to salvation is to live in the way God chose, intentionally, to live – as fully human, as a fully incarnate human person.  Stop trying to be more spiritual.  Start trying to be more human, indeed fully human.  Realize that the years of distance and sin and distrust have made us leery of ourselves, but they have not wiped away that original blessing, not permanently at least.

The challenge, then, is that there’s no universal principle by which salvation is earned, save for one: we all, all of us, work out our salvation by becoming fully human, to the degree that God has made himself known, already, within.  Love, then, as we know we can love, as God has shown us how to love, giving freely and generously of the grandeur of Godself in order to become vulnerable as one of us, vulnerable even to death.  Forgive, then, as we know we can forgive, as God showed us how to forgive, from the heart.  Live, then, as God showed us how to live, “from his fullness” and yet borne from within the context of this life, this earthly, physical, particular and human life which is, all the same, mysterious, wonderful, and endowed with the mark of blessing and truth.

……….

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

BOTH RELIGIOUS AND SPIRITUAL

I am a religious Christian.  It’s not so cool, today, to say you’re religious.  It’s much more trendy to call yourself ‘spiritual but not religious’.  But let me make a claim for religion, and I gather it’s not one you’ve often heard.

The root of the word, religion, has to do with binding.  People who are religious, by definition, participate in something that’s not necessarily theirs in a private and personal sense, and it’s hard to pinpoint just who came up with those symbols and those traditions – bread as body, wine as blood, water as new life?  Religion is limiting where spirituality is free.  For those very reasons, religion is  less appealing than spirituality.  And yet, for those same reasons, I am religious and encounter no contradiction between my religion and my spiritual outlook.

You see, the longer I live with Jesus – the longer I live into the Christian story and get shaped by these symbols and stories and words – the more aware I become that I am participating, through Christ, in a small slice of a great mystery: the mystery that I am a part of a creation, not a disordered jumble of stuff, and that this created order is being loved into a greater wholeness and transformation.  Christianity is the home through which I seek to understand and, even when I don’t fully understand, nonetheless follow the God who is at work transforming this new order.  Those who have been married for a long time know what this is like: the longer you’ve been married to your partner, the more at peace you are with all those other people you didn’t marry.  Or the longer you live in your vocation or career, the more at peace you become with all the things you didn’t – and will never – get around to doing.  The longer you live the life you are living, fully and proudly, the less you worry about what other things you should or could or needed to be doing, and the more at peace you are.  Religion binds us to a story and, ironically, at the same time keeps us open to the reality that our narrative is not necessarily the story; rather it’s one lens on the whole.

The more one reads the bible – a pretty religious thing, after all – the clearer this becomes.  The Old Testament book of Ruth is a good case-in-point.  Here’s the story: Naomi is a Jewish woman from the town of Bethlehem who, in a tragic sweeping accident, loses her husband and her two sons while the family is living in Moab.  She prepares to return home and  her two foreign daughters-in-law also prepare to go back with her.  Naomi tells them to turn back and stay with their people, instead, and one of them (Orpah) agrees but the other (Ruth) refuses.

Ruth and Naomi, then, go to Bethlehem, and the rest of the drama confirms why this story is so appealing – astonishing in that it not only features as main characters ancient Near Eastern women, but two very determined and plucky and savvy women, at that. Naomi plays the matchmaker between Ruth and a Jewish guy named Boaz, and Ruth does her part to secure her future, and that of Naomi’s family name.  The final, final result is that Naomi via Ruth via Boaz becomes the great-great-grandmother of David, and Ruth becomes, then, the foreigner great-grandmother of Israel’s most laudable kind.  A foreign, plucky, determined woman, the ancestor of Israel’s great Messianic figure.

If religion were pure and of small vision, stories such as Ruth’s would not have been included.  If this were about purity and small-mindedness no right thinking Jewish editor would have tolerated having a savvy foreign woman as the great-grandmother of their great King.  All religions struggle with inclusivity versus exclusion.  This struggle has always been, for religions are very much human-made systems of understanding, but human-made systems of trying to understand a great and profound mystery, let’s not forget.  And, in every religious tradition, there are those personalities and symbols which point beyond human conceptions and towards the expansiveness of God’s emergent, radically inclusive Kingdom.  The story of Ruth and the very fact that it’s a part of this so-called Holy Bible highlights, once again, that the God we follow is profoundly expansive.  If I want some small measure of peace in keeping up with that dynamic God, I’d better find a religious home, a place in which I can find comfort when challenged and challenge when comfortable.

Whereas the world sees religious folks as small-minded, judgmental, and myopic in their viewpoints and opinions, most religious folks I’ve met are quite broad-minded and expansive and at peace with the various stuff of life, its ups and downs, and the ways in which conventional human traditions might give way to new understandings, and how God might very well be in all of that.  Religious people or, I should say, religious people who are also spiritual are the folks who can straddle that line between utter mystery and simple comprehension, between the passing nature of our ideas and the eternal substance of God’s wisdom, between the gift of welcoming an outsider and the need to delineate group norms, between being transformed and being at peace.

And that, in itself, is probably the reason for which I am a religious Christian.  Religion helps give peace and the Christian religion gives me a profound peace, and it’s not the peace which the world gives; not at all.

It’s the peace Jesus modeled and taught.  Summarizing the commandments into two – love God and love your neighbor as yourself – Jesus actually pointed beyond the commandments, the words and pointed us to the heart of the life of faith: love.  In particular, He named three loves: love God, love your neighbor, love yourself.

If in pursuing peace you want to find it, if in seeking meaning you wish to uncover it, you would do well to re-invert those three loves and start to work at them as a spiritual practice.  First, start by loving yourself.  Look, this isn’t an invitation to vanity, but a call to truly know yourself as God’s beloved: know your goodness and your wickedness; know that you’re sometimes screwed up but altogether redeemable; know how deeply you’re loved, and know in your heart that God thinks of you as His beloved.  And that depth of knowledge — knowing something by heart — is what Jesus calls ‘love’.  Love yourself, that unique and marvelous person whom God has made.  Love yourself and you will be at peace as you love your neighbor and even, as Jesus also commanded, love your enemy and, ultimately, love God.  If, in turn, you cannot love yourself, you’ll never love your neighbor and, in fact, you’ll only blame your neighbor and scapegoat your god and find every fault possible with your enemy.  You’ll always be looking beyond and to others for their faults.  And life, then, will not be life-giving, not to you nor for others.  And you, then, will not ever find peace.

But be at peace with yourself, with your understanding of the world, as limited as it may be, and you will, in turn, know God.  And, even more so, you will find yourself at peace with God while God goes about doing what God does – loving those whom you and I might rather not like; redeeming those whom some of us might see as enemies; bringing into his Kingdom those whom we might rather exclude and keep out.  But if your religion is true and your spirit refreshed, that won’t mean a thing, for you will keep following the God who is changing you, at that very moment, from the inside out.

 

__________

Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland on Sunday, 4 Nov. 2012.  For the full text of the sermon, click here.