A Dean’s Clarity on General Seminary: An Important Call to the Church

Thusfar, I have tried to remain focused on what General meant to me as a student, what it means to the wider Church, and to reflect on what the mess there says about leadership in the Church.

ringI expected the situation to resolve itself as the weight of alumni and Church opinion laid heavy pressure on the Board of General Seminary to make real moves toward restoring the terminated faculty to their positions.  I thought that Stanley Hauerwas, one of the foremost ethicists in the country, calling into question the labor practices of the Seminary and pulling out of the prestigious Paddock lectures would get the point across.

This seems to have been optimistic to say the least.  Just as I had myself ready to write something more deeply pointed, Fr Tom Ferguson’s piece just came out.  Tom serves as the Dean of Bexley Hall and he and I worked together for a very short while in the Ecumenical Office at the Episcopal Church Center.

Tom’s piece says all that I wanted to say except moreso – it is strong, direct, and rigorous.  More than that, it reflects the kind of moral leadership whose absence has been achingly felt by all those who love General.

Here is a link to Tom’s piece – may it be read and shared widely.  More importantly, may we discern how to react to this with boldness as a Church.

I would add this – the last section of the Board’s release today speaks of reconciliation.  It is a difficult thing to reconcile with one who holds your pension, healthcare, and career in his or her hands.  Reconciliation is not for the weak to initiate in the meek hope of being given it as a gift from those holding power.  Reconciliation is the acknowledgement of the abuse of power, principles, or relationship by the one who holds power.  How can this whole thing be turned – how can metanoia (the turning toward God) be prayed into reality?  I have seen not one note of repentance so the claim to a desire for reconciliation seems the barest of fig leafs hardly covering naked manipulation.

Robert

How an Atheist Became a Priest: The Persuasiveness of Simple Things

I am a fan of Ricky Gervais.  I have loved the BBC version of The Office longer than I have been a practicing Christian.  I followed Ricky on Facebook a number of years ago and his posts generally amuse me.  Yet, occasionally, he posts some fairly vitriolic anti-Christian posts.  He is an avowed atheist who seems to consider religion with about the same level of charity as Hitchens and Dawkins.  Sometimes this frustrates me to no end.  Ricky also often posts about human rights and animal rights and part of me wants to shout to him that some of the most vocal and effective proponents of both are people of faith.

Yet, I can’t always shake my feeling that sometimes, somehow, he has it right.  I don’t mean that he has it right that somehow religion is an awful and fruitless thing.  Or maybe I do mean that, I suppose.

Not that long ago, I considered myself an atheist too.  I had a bumper sticker in Mississippi that read, “The problem with Baptists is that they don’t hold them under the water long enough.” I had another that read, “If you want to live in a religious country, move to Iran.” This was long after I had persuaded myself that I was a firm believer because my politics were so right.

Yet, somewhere, it all went off-track.

I had grown tired of bombastic, abusive forms of Christianity.  I was disgusted by the scandals of the Roman Catholic Church as abuse after abuse was uncovered – abuse by priests I had once defended because I thought, or wanted to think, they could do no wrong.  I was queasy because I had been active in the Christian right as leaders were being caught in financial, moral, and political malfeasance of all sorts.

I had decided that I was an atheist because so many of the followers of Christ seemed to have it so wrong.

Yet, there was still something speaking to me.  Not in doctrine but in decency.  Not through evangelism but evangelically.  Not with words but with patience.  You see, even though I had grown frustrated and disillusioned, my wife had not.  Not only had she not become disillusioned with Christianity – more importantly she had not become so with me.  She waited out my break with God because she saw it for what it was, the coming home of someone who had run away.

I could remember fits of anger as a younger man.  Once, when I was asked to find a shirt of a particular size when working at Brooks Brothers, I had gone to the shirt room to find it.  When I didn’t find it immediately, I began to throw the boxes off the shelves in a fury.  At what, I had no idea.  These kind of bouts, while not regular, were a pattern.

You see, when I was much younger, I had lost my mother and my sister – and I had never forgiven God.  God was still on trial in my heart.  And I felt that somehow I was still on trial in God’s.  So I decided I was an atheist.  Yet, I was not angry at nothing – I was furious with God.  I was hurt, bitter, resentful, and felt as powerless on any given day as an eight year old who can’t figure out what has happened to his mother.

So when I heard others singing the praises of God it only amplified the anger I felt.  When I heard people thank God, I could only say “For what?”

There was war, poverty, and famine.  There were abusive priests and thieving televangelists.  There was murderous homophobia. There was silence in the face of torture. There was wrath, envy, and hatred.  There were bombings and beheadings. “God is Love” was lost behind a seeming sea of “God hates fags!” signs all over the news.

What in the world could make a believer be so idiotic as to believe?

I came back to the Church not because I was persuaded somehow by argument, word, or reason but by love.  I could tell that this was something that was important to a person who meant the world to me so I came along – grudgingly and often looking for an excuse not to.  Yet, when I came, I found something that seemed to be missing.  God was till speaking even when my anger tried to drown out the choir and second-guess the preacher.

I began to look for reasons to go not just for reasons to be angry.  I realized that I was not an atheist.  I didn’t not believe – I truly and deeply believed.  And I was furious with God.

Yet, simple things made me listen again.

trinityexteriorwebA thoughtful, educated, and decent priest.  A warm greeter.  A catechist with doubts.  A man who lost more than me and yet still came back.  One by one, I met people who taught me more of faith than the media could of fear. I met people who were bright, faithful, kind and yet who could admit they didn’t have all of the answers.

Laughter and tears. Bread and Wine.  Hymn and Candlelight.  Simple things ultimately wore my anger down to something manageable – something I could finally metabolize because I was being fed with something else.

I would not be a Christian if not for two things.  The love of someone patient and the beauty of adoration offered lovingly.

If I were asked now for what might bring people back to Church, I would offer those two things – be patient with those you love – the whole community around you if you can. Do what you do with beauty, care, and reverence.  These two things – patient loving-kindness and attentive beauty are scarce in our society and their cultivation says something holy about us as believers and as a community of faith.

God speaks to us in these simple things.  Ultimately, God is patient with us.  God tells us something of himself in beauty.  God is giving us a chance to hold open the door for those who long to come in but can’t dare to dream that the invitation is for them too.

Robert

The Eucharistic Heart of Christian Leaders

In watching a couple of crises unfold around the Church I have been wondering about the nature of Christian leadership.  I wrote a piece not long ago on “prayerfully holding the center” in times of change and crisis.  The image I chose was one of the host being carefully held in a priest’s hands during mass.  I had chosen the image because I said that leadership that emanates from the Altar is different from leadership asserted at a board table.

Now though I am thinking that there was more to the image – to its use in talking of the exercise of Christian leadership.  What is Christian leadership except the giving up of self to become something more?  In order to truly lead a Christian organization one must, necessarily, sublimate the ego-self to the point where your own best gifts are seen in the revealing light of Christ’s own Presence in the community and in the Sacramental life.

There is a Eucharistic Heart to Christian leadership.

It fundamentally and decisively hinges on holding the community and people you serve with the same delicate attentiveness that one holds a consecrated host.  The Body of Christ we serve demands the same reverence, adoration, and thoughtful care that the Sacrament does – for what it makes of us is as precious as what it is.

The Sacrament, and Christian leadership, do not exist for their own ends but for the ends of those who receive them – they do not exist to feed privately holy or powerful individuals but to reveal and focus the Christ-likeness of those journeying in the heart of God.  A Christian leader is one who reveals more of the fundamental best, the essence of the community and the individuals in it. The crucial thing is to hold onto the essential truth that our fundamental best is Christ.

Icon, Adorer of the Euch. Face of XtWhen we consecrate bread we are taking a common thing and naming it holy because that is what Christ commands of us.  We are in mortal danger when we take it without perceiving that deepest alteration of its essence.  It is substantially transformed and by grace we approach it, take it, and let it make of us something new.  We are in equally mortal danger should we not see the Body in the community that trusts us to lead.

We come to it with trembling hands because we have been given an awesome gift.

The exercise of Christian leadership must be undertaken with the same awareness of the precious gift that it is – and with the same care for that which is being handed to us.  Our role is to hold, adore, nurture, and receive the gifts of the Body.  In the same way that we implore the Holy Spirit to make of bread a new thing, the Christian priest begs the Holy Spirit to be in and with the communities we lead and to make of them a new and holy thing – to reveal their essence which has been baptized into new life.

This leadership is only about power in that it is the welcome of the power of the Spirit.

It is only about force when in that we reject the force that raised the cross.

It is only about ego in that it is about laying aside our own.

It is only about abuse in that it frees the community from the fear of it.

It is only about recrimination in that it asks us to interrogate our own motives.

The Eucharistic Heart of leadership rests its hope on the shape of the Eucharistic act.  We gather with our community.  We hear and know the word of God.  We respond to that story of God’s faithfulness with our own pledge to live in holiness.  We confess where we have gone amiss – and when we have wronged the Body.  We are forgiven and restored.  We know peace and come before the throne together.  We gather our shared gifts, small and large, and lay them out for transformation.  We ask the Holy Spirit to come.  We see, know, and understand brokenness – then we see it made whole in perfect love.  We share in that which we know ourselves to be as the Body.  We are blessed and we go forth blessed, fed, forgiven, and made bold in Christ’s own humility.

In all of this it is easy to be distracted by the stuff – in liturgy it is easy to fall prey to the need to be charismatic, charming, or humorous.  It is easy to think, “This is going wrong and it is up to me to fix it.” It is easy to say, “I’m doing a great job!”  It is even easier to say, “I’m failing.”  It is tempting to be anxious, resentful, or fearful.  It is tempting to be prideful, vain, or self-satisfied.  Yet, it is not about us.

When we hear the words of Christ, when we look into the eyes of the gathered community, when we let the generations call us to humility in a Communion shared from before the foundations of the world, when we know ourselves as forgiven and restored – when we do all of this with a generous heart we will have rested in the Eucharistic Heart for we will have let the Body change us.

The Eucharistic Heart of leadership is not really about “leadership” at all – at least not in the classic sense of force of will or charisma.  It is about creating the space for holy and utter transformation to occur – this can never happen in communities that are fearful of our authority.  It can only happen in communities that trust that we too are letting the Spirit make of us a new thing – that we are letting the Body feed us for some new work of holiness.

So we hold it gently.  We hold it fearfully.  We hold it with tenderness.  We hold it knowing that in it the fullness of Christ is prepared to dwell – if only we can have the courage to see it for the revered and precious thing it is for it is nothing less than the Body.

Robert

Appreciating the Faculty of General Seminary

“It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was;  that He speaketh, not spake.  -Ralph Waldo Emerson

This evening, I remembered something from our senior year at General Seminary as I was finishing an earlier piece about GTS.  I was responsible for coordinating the annual Faculty Appreciation Dinner and put together a program for the evening.  The program included appreciations of the faculty written and submitted by students.  These included reflections such as:

David Hurd: “A true genius, it is an honor to learn from David Hurd – CM 1 was as much a class in liturgy as music, and we get brilliant flashes of insight as such during his lectures – in both these lectures and in his work in the chapel and schola, it is abundantly clear how much this man truly loves God, and that his most fervent wish is to communicate as much and in such ways as will spread that love to us as individuals, and will help us to go forth in that very spirit. There are few things in life more sustaining than witnessing David Hurd when the spirit is moving in him.”

Deirdre Good: “It has been an incredible relief to have an intelligent, strong woman as an example. I love that I am not only allowed but expected to think outside the box and I have learned more from her than she will know.”

Mitties DeChamplain: “Mitties is such a powerful proponent of the student’s own abilities… she is one of the most supportive, yet challenging teachers I have had the pleasure to study under. Her ability to manage rhetoric and help us to say what we really mean (or what we need to say in the world) is priceless to this institution!”

The program is attached in its fullness below and has many more reflections offered.  It would be a wonderful thing to see these kind of reflections all over Facebook so we can express our appreciation for the fine, faithful work these men and women have done regardless of how the current dispute unfolds.

Faculty Appreciation Program

Robert

And There Was War: Remembering General Seminary at Michaelmas

GenSemInt1

“And there was war in Heaven.” Thus begins the reading from Revelation for the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, also called Michaelmas.

“And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.  And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”

This reading stuck in my head all day as I read and heard of turmoil at The General Theological Seminary.  For those catching up, there is more information to be found here.  In short, a Christian community dedicated to the formation of faithful leaders essentially has fallen prey to the old serpent which deceives.

In terminating the contracts of eight faculty at one time the leadership has hollowed out its core of rising stars and living legends alike.  More than that, it has become the latest victim in the Church to zero-sum brinksmanship and posturing.

It would be cathartic to write a screed against the kind of leadership that leads to such an impasse yet I find myself wondering why I’ve been so impacted by this news.

The simple fact is that I love General Seminary.  I love the idea of General.  I love its traditions.  I love its quirks and faults.  I love its patterns of worship, community, and witness in the heart of the city of New York.

I first visited General on a prospective students’ day.  I had moved across the street from another seminary in another state assuming that was where I would go.  However, I was going to give General a try.  I had lived in New York before and thought it would be nice to be back in the city for a day.  I walked onto the grounds and was entranced.  I met students there and was immediately drawn to their combination of wry wit and faithfulness.  I went to solemn Evensong and the deal was sealed.

I fell in love.

Few General students can forget the matriculation service when, as David Hurd played riffs on Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, we all signed our names to a book that students from generations before had signed.  Mine was particularly amusing to my classmates and myself – I was not yet officially a postulant from the Diocese of Connecticut – so I was announced not as a Master of Divinity student or the like.  I was announced as the sole signatory of a column entitled “Students in Special Circumstances.”

I met friends I will have for life.  We sat on top of the chapel tower drinking cheap beer and smoking middling cigars.  We met on top of Sherrill Hall, the old building on Ninth Avenue that looked like the waiting room of a Stalinist airport, and talked of the world and the Church’s problems as the sun went down and the lights of the city came up.  We had black tie celebrations and back room bets.  We debated the creation of a dueling society to settle theological disputes.  I spent many a night in our homeless shelter housed just across the street and talked of the Rolling Stones, pepper mills, the army, hummus, and powerful addictions with our guests.

I remember a lunchroom like Hogwart’s.  I remember drunken ladies and gentlemen on 10th Avenue breaking up and getting back together in the course of a loud stumbling stroll from one end of the block to the other.   I remember a southern-accented Latin graduation ceremony  and the steady drumbeat of geo-thermal drilling our whole first year.

In our sophomore year, we were in charge of the Map-Quiz liturgy.  A storied tradition in which the sophomore class welcomes the first-year students with a mock liturgy, procession, or the like during their first exam (the map quiz in Old Testament).  Ours was a rollicking solemn mass of a liturgy that had too much smoke, too many copes, and just the right amount of laughter.  It was so over the top that we may have been the last class to do one.

We elected a chief sacristan, the person in charge of our liturgical life, with a process that culminated with white smoke coming from The Chapel of the Good Shepherd.  We had follies shows and dances and took the work we did seriously even if we took ourselves less so.

All of this and so much more was punctuated, marked, governed, and shaped by a commitment to prayer as a community.  We were shaped in that holy space as we sat literally surrounded by the words of the ordination liturgy etched into the walls all around us.  No day was without prayer and we learned that our lives, our time, was not our own – it was God’s.

I came to General to learn about being an Episcopalian – I had grown up Roman Catholic.  I left not just learning about being an Anglican but loving being an Anglican.  I learned to be a Catholic in the fullest sense of that word.

General has that effect.

I remember Fr Wright’s priesthood class in which we sat in a small group in his apartment and talked over the pain and joy of pastoral ministry.

I remember Dick Corney’s Old Testament class in which he asked a question on an exam about history and memory – I wrote a long dissertation on Dracula and Romanian dictatorship.  He loved it.

I remember Deirdre Good’s class and learning of mountains, and haste, and the sea, and more – we learned of metaphor and richness in the New Testament.

I remember David Hurd trying gamely to help me sing the mass to little real effect despite his pounding on the keys of the piano to help me find a pitch I never heard.

I remember Drew Kadel revealing with glee the latest Oxford Movement tomes he had tracked down and knowing I would share his joy.

I remember the unwavering kindness of Mitties DeChamplain, the courtly gentlemanliness of Bob Owens, and the laugh of Ellen Sloan.

I remember Titus Presler abashed at ribald humor.  I remember a toast to the Queen of Heaven at a dinner at which we all pretended, just for a night, that goodbyes weren’t coming.

I remember tests and stress.  I remember rest and long commutes.  I remember how we prayed.

Prayer centered the life of academic inquiry at General so that we were not a place concerned just with learning about God but a place in which we could deepen our relationship with God.

God spoke to us, changed us, and challenged us in class, in chapel, and in community.

Yet, there is always the danger of war – the danger that sides become so polarized that the only acceptable action is the utter defeat of the foe.  There was war even in Heaven and yet, ultimately, we know that a victory was won.  My hope is that we can remember that victory has been won for us and that our attempts to control, manipulate, and dominate are so often the throes of the dragon who still refuses to believe himself well and truly thrown down.

Robert

Prayerfully Holding the Center: Leadership in a Changing Church

So, in a sign of perhaps something but probably little, there is no option for clergy/religious in the list of occupations when one registers for Foreign Policy magazine.  This is also the case when one subscribes online to The Economist.

It was a puzzling time figuring out where one properly falls when your “industry” is not recognized.  I have written on the “productivity” of clergy before but this was a different experience.

I was struck not by the fact that religious leadership was not one recognized alongside these other fields but by how much of each of these other fields a clergy person must know something of to get by in their work.

Here is a list of those fields offered by Foreign Policy in which a clergy person must be at least somewhat conversant in order to get his or her work done:

  • Accounting/Banking/Finance
  • Advertising/Marketing/PR
  • Consulting
  • Education
  • Data Processing
  • Architecture
  • Health Care
  • Insurance/Property Management
  • Internet/Online Services
  • Legal Services
  • Media/Publishing/Entertainment
  • Non-Profit/Trade Association
  • Travel/Tourism/Hospitality
  • Logistics

This also struck me as the background noise of my social media experience right now is the unsettling news coming out of General Seminary.  A solid portion of the faculty there have chosen, after many attempts to use other means, to essentially go on strike until they are able to meet with the Board of the Seminary to discuss grievances.  Their action has been dismissed by some as evidence of their inability to deal with change.

From my personal experience of the faculty there, I can only say that I have often found them to be more than eager to engage the changing realities of the Church.

Yet, my thoughts are not about the situation in particular but in the difficulty of forming leaders for the Church in general.  A friend of mine commenting on Facebook about the Task Force for Re-Imagining the Church (TREC) wrote, “I remain convinced that the big answer is painfully simple: real leaders in every parish.”

It is painfully simple yet a profound challenge to recruit, train, deploy, sustain, and retain these kinds of real leaders.  When you look at the list above it is no wonder that so many clergy experience burnout, depression, and more.

How can we be leaders who do not model the great American addictions – doing more, looking busier, and being highly stressed – but a kind of centered, authentic leadership that rests not on our capacity to masterfully handle everything but to prayerfully hold the center.  This is less about equipping or training than it is about nurturing and feeding.

A leadership whose place is found not at the head of a board table but at an Altar is a fundamentally different thing than leadership in any other field.

A recent discussion about a parish’s dynamics had one of my very capable and thoughtful conversation partners talking about “bottom-up” leadership – leadership that resulted from knowing and heeding the will of those being led.

My response was simply that I thought the Church might benefit from center-out leadership models in which we know and remain centered on what is at the heart of our Christian ministry – a relationship with the Trinity whose essence is relationship.  This can only happen when we remain fixed, as the Prayer Book says, on the one place “where true joys are to be found.”

There is lots of discussion about a failing church institution yet I think we are just about to run the course on that conversation.  When I look around the Church and hear the incredible work being done by faithful congregations and leaders, I am immensely hope-filled.  Sure, there are challenges, but there always have been.

One of those challenges is to be leaders who model Christ-centeredness in our being.

communion-55Do our actions and way of leading reflect our words, bearing, and focus at the Altar and in the Pulpit?  Can our congregations see in us an authentic proclamation by word and example that we have faith that this is God’s Church and not ours alone to carry?  Are we welcoming others to the table and giving them a chance to lead with the same generosity that we welcome people to the Altar and Font?

Do we trust them to be the Body of Christ?  Can we, as leaders, celebrate and share in true Communion with Christ?

As my friend says, real leaders in every parish is a painfully simple answer – yet it is a true one.  We need real leaders who are willing to give away a large amount of their “authority” for the sake of the Gospel.  We need real leaders who are content to know that they do not know everything but are faithful in their pursuit of the one thing we must pursue – a deep and abiding trust in the presence and power of God all around us.

This is a leadership all about trust.  Trust in God.  Trust in our parishioners.  Trust in our colleagues.  Trust in ourselves.  Trust that the Church, fumbling as it so often is, moves on through and despite us.

Robert

Why Anglicanism? Catholic Evangelism and Evangelical Catholicism

There have been a number of blog posts floating around under the heading, “Why Anglicanism?” I started to write a piece on the same topic and then realized that I was essentially rewriting a piece I had done before.  So I reproduce that piece below with one addition.

That addition is this – the comprehensiveness I mention below in various ways is not a grab bag or buffet in which we pick one thing we like from part of the tradition and another piece we like from another.  Evangelical and Catholic strains of the faith are strongest when interwoven and viewed not as opposites on a continuum but as constituent parts of a whole way of being faithful.  A commenter on my original post noted that “churchmanship” battles are at an all time low.  I actually agree with that to a point – however I have a huge number of people here at the Cathedral who are former Roman Catholics or former Evangelicals who are primed to distrust Catholicity or Evangelicalism either because it is the tradition out of which they came or because it is a tradition they have been actively warned against in their faith journey.

One of the facts of being Anglicans is that we are blessed to be part of a tradition formed and informed by both the Reformed, Evangelical stream of Christianity as well as the Catholic. We blend, in a unique way, traits of both that form a distinct persona within the spectrum of Christian belief, practice, and history.

Another fact is that we are part of a tradition within which is a distinct distrust of the perceived excesses of both strains. How many times have we heard that something is “too Catholic” or “too Evangelical” to be Episcopalian? We have many within our Church who have been hurt by the unreflective and reflexive adherence to respective sources of authority within both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.

The genuinely sad thing is that we seem to often miss out on the gifts of both traditions in our rush to run from popular excesses in either.

The Episcopal Church, I think, embodies the best of both the Catholic and Reformed traditions.  Sometimes though, we look to other expressions of those traditions and simply say, “Well, we’re not that!” It is easy, and sometimes emotionally gratifying, but ultimately unproductive to build an identity on correcting the negatives of other traditions.

The more difficult task is not differentiation but self-expression – who is it that we are not in reaction to the hurts of the past but in response to our hope for the future? Where are we being called as a people who come not cast out of one place but called into another?

When I came to the Episcopal Church it was with the great realization that I had found a place of Catholic Evangelism – or Evangelical Catholicism. It is a place that draws on what is essential to the nature of both Evangelicalism and Catholicism and holds these in tension – correcting the imbalances that arise and drawing strength and hope from the wellspring that is both.

Each tradition is a source of renewal and grace for both the individual believer and the whole Church.

When I think on our most essential quality, I often ponder the collect for Richard Hooker. It reads,

“O God of truth and peace, who raised up your servant Richard Hooker in a day of bitter controversy to defend with sound reasoning and great charity the catholic and reformed religion: Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.”

The way forward for the Episcopal Church – and perhaps for the Church Universal – is not found in compromise for the sake of avoiding hard questions but in a comprehensive approach to our faith that draws from the wisdom of men and women across the ages who knew something more, something deeper, something true of the walk with Christ. This has happened in places and ways we can scarce imagine and continues to give new life in ways beyond our knowledge yet deep within our soul.

The great Evangelical truth is that Christ is at work in the life of each and every person and this is occurring within a world that the Catholic faith knows as full of promise and Presence.  From the source of Scripture comes the knowledge of the grace offered in the Sacraments as we are made free by authority that comes from outside of ourselves.

What does this Catholic Evangelism look like?

At its core it should have at least the following (not only and not simply, but at least):

A Belief that Christ is active in the Sacraments: Christ is at work in Baptism, Communion, Confession, and more. He is not at work simply with the goal of a vague amendment of life but for the sake of every person who would rest their hope in him – and beyond. He is at work in the Sacraments for the salvation of the whole of humanity – for the reconciliation of humanity to God that is mirrored in our reconciliation with one another. The Sacraments do not exist for their own sake (for the sake of the Sacraments) but for ours – to draw us more deeply as the People of God into the Holiness that is Christ’s own Body. The whole of the Church is taken up into the mystery of faith – and even as all are drawn so is each one – and as each is drawn so are we all.  Participation in this mystery is not a right but a gift we should enter with thought, care, and preparation.

A Commitment to the Historic Church: There can be few deeper marks of hubris or heresy than to believe that the Holy Spirit is speaking to us and not to others. Across our history, the Holy Spirit has moved and given of himself to bring consolation and transformation. The very nature of our being is revealed in our forebears and their engagement with the Spirit. We inherit both the things that are of the Spirit of God and those that are of the spirits of this world, however. Thus, we are tasked with the work of discernment. Yet, we impoverish our whole self if we allow ourselves to cast aside aspects of our heritage without the careful witness of the whole Body of the faithful across time and boundaries. The Spirit moves across the ages and we receive this as the Holy Tradition of the Church. The Historic Church, the Church in her fullness, has lessons for each and every believer. Whether zeal, penitence, prayerful centering, selfless service, divine liturgy, theological inquiry, prophetic witness, scriptural rigor, and much more – across the whole of the Church’s being and history are lessons for us to deepen our participation in the ongoing revelation of the Holy One.

A Conviction that the Holy Spirit is still transforming us: A Spirit active across the ages is still speaking and proclaiming today – still drawing us into the wonder of God Incarnate. Just as we impoverish our identity by ignoring the past we do as much harm if we pretend that revelation is no longer being made known – that we have no more tidings to hear. We are being called by prophetic voices all around us to engage the world and to know its pain so that we may bring word of Christ the Healer. Just as we ask for the Holy Spirit to descend up Bread and Wine and to sanctify water, we need to be praying for the Holy Spirit to descend upon the whole of the Church and upon each of us daily that we might know and share the gifts of the Spirit.

A Belief that Sin, Powers, and Principalities are real: It is an unfortunate side-effect of having so many of us fleeing traditions that belabor the power of sin and death that we often now downplay their very real role in our lives. If we are, indeed, saved, then from what are we being saved? A simple answer would be, from ourselves. We are being drawn out of the depredations of unmoored souls adrift from the abiding strength of Christ. We spend much of our lives in the pursuit of some identity or another that will allow us to know ourselves as “independent” or “in control” and at the heart of our yearning for control or independence is a sinful impulse to know ourselves as belonging to ourselves. Only when we know ourselves as held in the hands of a Sustaining Father, shaped by the will of a Creating Christ, and caught up in the power of a Redeeming Spirit, can we begin to more clearly see the hold of sin and death. Often, those brought up in dysfunctional families are unable to see the dysfunction until they stand outside of the system and see the hold it had over their energy and being. In the same way, we need the community and the Church to help us stand outside of the shape and structure of society and help us name that which is sinful and holding some piece of us in its grip. The Church gives us the vocabulary to name that which must be exorcised in our individual and corporate lives and to name and hold onto that which is holy and life-giving.

A Belief that a relationship with Christ matters and is decisive for individuals and the whole Church: A world of diversity makes the declaration of the Lordship of Christ a sometimes uncomfortable proposition. We encounter good and even holy men and women of different and sometimes no faith and ask ourselves how a universal truth claim might be made. Yet, the way forward is not with bland or generic attempts to erase difference but to engage difference with the holy awareness that we just might be wrong. And yet, we know that our own lives and the lives of those we know, have been bought with the Love of Christ. That conviction and conversion gives us a certain foolishness to offer Good News. The most fruitful conversations I have ever had about difference were not attempts to erase or erode difference but to name it and share stories of where that difference had played out in our lives. A conversation with another is not a chance to convert them (though the Spirit may just lead that change of heart) but a chance to know our faith deepened by encountering the diversity of God’s Creation. We lead not with the fear that another person might be damned but with the joy that we are known and claimed as Christ’s own. No one is saved as an individual alone and no Church is truly holy without a Holy People of God who know themselves, in their deepest self, as given new life.

0962329bda74d2421145211b29036a20710715ebA Conviction that sharing the Good News is required for those transformed by the Good News: A people given Good News are called to share the Word with others. Sharing the Good News is the stuff of reaching the people of God in the way that God reaches us – with tenderness, compassion, forgiveness, and love (though this may mean bearing hard truth). In the way that Jesus walked amongst us and gave of himself we are called to be among those for whom Christ gave himself. We are to walk with the living Word – devote ourselves to be walking Sacraments – bearing witness to the Presence of Christ among us. The reality of God with Us is made known in our own willingness to be with, among, and alongside. Each of us is given a bit of the Good News to share in all the ways we know – with each of our many gifts we are called to offer some glimpse of the one whose very nature is relationship and self-giving. This is at the heart of good stewardship – that God blesses and we share that blessing to bring others word of God’s abundance. At the heart of Good News is God’s great abundance – the outpouring of God’s own self.

A Grounding in Scripture that welcomes the Word of God into our daily lives: A people who read, mark, and inwardly digest the word of God will be marked by that word. There is something life-giving and powerful in the engagement with the deepest stories of our faith. In the same way that we can appreciate the complexity of a dish when we’ve delved into a cookbook or two, the complexity, joy, and demands of our faith take on a new depth each time we open God’s word and let ourselves be transformed by it. Of course, this means we will wrestle with hard passages, frustrating bits, and confusing narratives. We will stumble over names, dates, and places. We will be told things we might not want to hear and delight to discover things we didn’t dream were written for us. Reading the Bible is like being told stories of your family tree – sometimes shocking, sometimes a little boring, sometimes liberating, always telling us a little more about who we are and where we come from. God’s holy word, passed on to us through the work of the Holy Spirit (and no small amount of Byzantine maneuvering), is given to us as guide and gift to be the place where we begin to know the story of God’s unfolding work, the nature of Christ, and the birth of the Church. We will be unsettled and convicted – and welcomed in new ways into the story of Salvation.

A Pattern of Prayer that shapes our days: Paired with a daily pattern of Scripture reading is a daily practice of prayer and marks and shapes our daily life. A Church prays. Period. If we are to be the Church outside the walls of our buildings then we have to pray. Period. We are given a pattern for this in the Daily Office. A young nun was once walking through the halls of the nunnery away from the chapel, a much older nun saw her in the hallway and asked, “Sister, are you not going to prayers?” The younger nun replied, “I just don’t feel like it today.”  The older nun, sighed and smiled and told her, “Sister, I have not felt like going to prayers for 20 years – which is why I go.” And off they went. The purpose of a regular pattern of prayer is not our enjoyment – it is a way of structuring our day with God’s will for us in mind.  We hear a bit of Scripture and remember the One who guides our days.  This will not always be an unadulterated joy or moment of bliss – prayer (like life) is often a thing of offering and struggle which is punctuated by moments of clarity, understanding, and joy.  Like so many things, without the investment of ourselves in regular patterns of spiritual discipline, it becomes harder and harder for us to hear the Holy Spirit speaking in, through, and to our days. One of the things about a regular pattern of prayer is to hear God’s charge to us in the morning (to serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness as we go before the face of the Lord). We close our day of work hearing the promise of God (He that is mighty has done great things for us and fills the hungry with good things). We go to bed with Compline (Into your hands O Lord I commend my spirit). Prayer brackets our days and prepares us to hear, serve, and trust more fully.

A Sense of the Power and Promise of Worship: Whether in the joyful strains of a full Gospel choir, the rich hymnody of Choral Matins, the simplicity of an 8:00am Low Mass, or the choreography of Solemn High Mass, there must be a sense that worship is an act of profound and holy joy. We are given injunction, over and over again, to praise God with our whole selves. With all of our being we lavish upon God our share of Mary Magdalene’s fragrant oil. We offer from the bounty of God the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. This is a necessarily Evangelical and Catholic act – it engages the whole person and deepens their encounter with the Holy One who makes himself known to us as the blessed company of all believers. If we want people to think something important is happening at church then we need to act as if something is. In a world of hyper-marketing there is nothing more winning and latent with potential than true, unvarnished honesty. The power of lovingly and attentively offered worship is that we can give others a glimpse not only of the majesty of the one we worship but a sense of just how we are being caught up in the Wonder that is his Presence among us.

There is Holy Mystery:  In the unanswered questions of our faith, in the divine-human interplay of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and of Baptism and the Mass – in all of this and in countless other ways there is Holy Mystery at work in our faith.  Our attempts to explain the Sacraments or explain the nature of Salvation are ultimately the grasping attempts of creatures to ascribe motive to the Creator.  We know the story of faith and we grasp for its deeper meanings in the eddies and currents we feel washing about us.  Beyond the order of expectations and the patterns of explanation is the salient fact of our faith – we see through a glass dimly.  We are left with the one great mystery which we explore together in Word and Sacrament, by fits and starts, as individual believers and the whole Body. We offer together the lasting Good News and the joyful proclamation – Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.

These are not the only marks of Catholic Evangelism or Evangelical Catholicism, yet they are a beginning such that we can more cogently articulate the particular vocation of the Episcopal Church and deepen our shared life and labor as we work, pray, and give for the spread of the Kingdom.

Robert

Why the Church?

This post is written as a response to the provocatively simple question asked on the Acts8 Facebook page whose mission is to proclaim Resurrection in the Episcopal Church.

Why the Church?

It is a deceptively simple question with a host of answers.  The simplest of which is that it is commanded, prayed, and longed by the Holy Trinity into existence.  The Church has existed before the dawn of humanity – from the foundation of the world.  As the Trinity’s mutuality was born the Church came into existence because that interplay of Love is the very heart of the Church.

The Church exists at that most fundamental level of cosmic ordering.  Yet, what is the role of the visible Church today?

First, and foremost, she is the vessel of salvation.  This sounds like an authoritarian and needlessly authoritative claim in an era of interfaith dialogue and multi-faith communities.  Yet, the simple notion holds within it the essence of the Church’s multi-layered role. 

altarWhether it is in making known the decisive saving action of Christ laid bare on the Cross or as a sign of a still better way, the Church exists to proclaim the salvation of humanity.  That salvation can be understood in manifold ways – yet Jesus is the Way.  We can differ on the precise nature of this saving action but we cannot debate that we are given the clear word that, by Love, Christ has come that all might be free.

This proclamation has been the source of endless turmoil and even abuse – that abuse is not of the Way.  By word and example we are to be the light that shines in the life of the many, many who fear that their only companion is darkness.

This is not about right doctrine but about right relationship between humanity and God.  That right relationship is modeled within the Church and between the Church and society.  The Church’s primary function is first and foremost the adoration of God who loves us.  Out of that adoration for our Creator flows an adoration for that which He loves – our fellow men and women.

Springing forth from God’s own generosity is the welcome to holy living that is Baptism.  Out of God’s own self-offering comes the Feast of the Eucharist.  From God’s own forgiveness comes the work of Reconciliation.  Out of God’s own love comes the commitment of Marriage.  With God’s gift of reason comes our response to God’s welcome in Confirmation.  From God’s own call to holy community and service comes Ordination.  Remembering God’s own promise of eternal life comes Healing and Last Rites.

Before the shape of our doctrine came a command to take and eat as the first Eucharists were offered in Remembrance before the books of the Bible were chosen and the Nicene Creed was written.  In that Feast is offered the form, function, and hope of the Church.  The Church, existing before humanity even realized it, offers the hope of partaking in the more that is of God.  So we pray for more.

We exist to pray.

We adore God and we pray.  We pray for the living.  We pray for the dead.  We pray for the lost and the lonely.  We pray for the aching and those who despair.  We pray for the strength to labor and the courage to forfeit control.  We pray for guidance and for the wisdom to lead.  We pray with thanks and with trembling.  We pray for forgiveness and for the courage to forgive.  We pray.

We pray as martyrs and as cowards.  We pray as those who carry crosses and as those who shout “Crucify.” We pray as sheep and shepherds.  As those who mourn and those who weep for joy.  We pray with one voice and with many dreams.  We pray for justice and for mercy.  We pray. 

We pray with voices that have cracked at hospital beds.  We pray with hands that have held tiny fingers as new life came to be.  We pray with hearts that swell, brows that sweat, and ears that ache for loving kindness.  We pray.

We pray that we can be evangelists, priests, prophets, stewards, and heralds.  We pray that we can be sign, symbol, and living Sacrament.  We pray that we can be the Church.

Robert

It Couldn’t Possibly Matter: On Righteous Dismissiveness, Frivolousness, and Tradition

One of my least favorite ploys in a discussion is this one:

Person A: “I think that using purple during Advent is more appropriate that using blue.”

Person B: “I can’t believe you’re wasting your time talking about this when [insert tragedy, injustice, or horror here] is happening!”

Person B’s response is also often followed up with a bonus round of sanctimony by asserting “Jesus never talked about [frivolous concern of Person A].  I just want to get back to Jesus.”

Now, I have had my fair share of annoyances with various people’s concerns.  I tend to get disgusted by reality television, celebrity culture, and the like because I do think they distract us from deeper relationships and original thought.  Yet my frustration with them is precisely that they undermine the processing of any number of issues that might capture our imaginations if those imaginations were not plugged into the sartorial, marital, or extra-marital concerns of celebrities and faux-celebrities.

If someone wants to tell me about the relative merits of one man over another for a singer’s long term prospects for compatibility – I really could not care less (and please note that the phrase is “could not care less” not “could care less”).

Where I might be drawn in to a discussion though is if the person is coming to me to say that this singer’s relationship challenges reflect a broader pattern in society of trend A and its intersection with trend B.  That could be interesting and well worth pursuing.  This happened all the time at Brooks Brothers where I worked in communications.  Much of our conversation was not about fashion but about the changes in lifestyle and culture nor were our conversations about advertising but about people’s notions of leisure, fulfillment, and identity.

Now, back to my first dialogue example.

More than once, especially in matters of vestment, music, or other aesthetic concerns in churches, one will hear the “wasting time” canard thrown up.  It was especially popular when I mentioned my dislike of cassock albs.  The problem is that the trivial matters.  Even when it could not possibly matter.

Trivia matters because it often points toward deeper truths than we want to readily admit.  A friend of mine just posted a picture of the envelope from her place of study.  It was addressed to “The Rev. and Mrs. His Name.” Now, a piece of postage, in and of itself, is a trivial matter.  However, an alma mater’s perceived use of the norms of formal address as representative of a patriarchal system those norms perpetuate – that is an issue worth discussing and debating.

The thing on the surface points toward deeper realities.  This is the essence of the Church – no thing is mundane nor frivolous when enacted, carried out, or lived in the Church.  In a world of superficial concerns and casual causalities, of course a debate about a vestment or a color or a song is superficial because depth of meaning is found only in the eye or ear of the individual and each individual is tasked and empowered for the work of pattern-making and meaning seeking.

In a life of deepest relationships though, every choice has meaning.  Tell me that the superficial chore of doing the dishes or changing a light bulb does not have deep and powerful meaning in a marriage!  The context of love changes changes the superficial into the powerfully meaningful.

The challenge in a culture of rapid-fire content and commentary is that no thing is surveyed with an eye toward cohesion or deep narrative – each thing (and each person’s judgment) floats apart without reference or depth and is judged only by the reaction of the instant, the individual, and the moment.

In a world without meaningful connection nothing has meaningful value.  No choice.  No relationship.  No story.  No place.  That meaningful connection is about the essential depth of something or someone – essence – connecting to the essential depth of something or someone else.

This is the Church’s construct –all things find depth and pattern in the heart of God within whom all things are created and have their being.  The connection is there for us to discern if we have the patience to be trained to see the patterns.  In this construct, the actions on the surface become not something to be judged or dismissed but to be prayed over and contemplated.  These patterns become not simply something we do or don’t do – they become a symbolic connection of one to another.  Of one person to another.  Of one time to another.  Of one place to another.  Of one Altar to another.

Nothing and no one sits in isolation.

When there are debates over aesthetics or the seemingly frivolous – the debate is not about any one person’s choice.  The debate is about that person’s relationship to those who came before and to those who will come.

Think of a beloved family recipe – it might not be the best, healthiest, or most inspired way of making the dish in question.  It becomes a holy thing for us though in what it transmits about who we are and to whom we are related.  Its merits are not found in its form but in its part of the pattern of love it represents.  Its preparation is a ritual action precisely because it makes no sense in a rational context – its preparation is an irrational act of loving connection.

There are legitimate debates to be had that will seem wildly frivolous.  When I listen to debates, for example, over whether the sub-deacon should or should not touch the paten with his or her bare hands in a Tridentine mass – I cringe a little.  But I cringe because I know the debate seems esoteric and frustrating to those who have not been trained in the pattern – a pattern developed in the way and exquisite play or work of art is always developed – with care, attention, and precision.

I can only behold such things with wonder and then, gradually, be drawn into their deeper meaning.  Think of ballet, poetry, calligraphy, competitive diving, gymnastics, Formula One racing, or the countless other disciplines and human endeavors that require imperceptible growth and development toward mastery.  In each of these, the surface achievement is a moment that reflects patient, painstaking development.  Any of us can say either “Wow!” or “That is such a stupid sport/hobby/endeavor.”

The surface of these kinds of endeavors is not the agility, power, or grace of any one person though.  Look at the evolution of running times.  Each generation of runners gets faster and faster not because people are getting faster but because our knowledge of running technique, technology, and more is growing – each generation builds on the love and passion of a previous one.

In the Church – each generation passes on to another things, ways of being, practices, and more that are ours to curate, care for, and pass along to those who come after us.  My hope is that we will be careful with those gifts – even as we carefully set aside those no longer suitable for our times.  Yet, let’s not dismiss them or throw them away casually.

Who ever thought we would enjoy quilting, canning, organic farming, or knitting – yet each of these is making a comeback.  They are coming back not because they are needed, necessary, or efficient but because they connect us to something deeper – something that takes time and care to engage.

Sometimes our concern makes an idol of things and practices and distracts us from “the thing itself,” as James De Koven said.  Yet, on the whole, I think these are discussions worth actually having.  It is worth discussing the particulars and the patterns and discerning where we are called.  What is unworthy of the Church, however, is to dismiss the patterns of connection, of one generation, people, and place to another, as frivolous or ridiculous because there are tragedies in the world.

There are always tragedies.  The question becomes, for us, how do our deepest connections – symbolized and actualized by our traditions – empower us to meet tragedy?  How does the pattern of holy connection carry us and connect us when much of the world seems to be coming apart?

Robert

Somewhere, Somehow: The Geography of Nowhere, Mason Jars, and the Church

Nowhere can be a comfortable place.  Just ask the designers of malls, shopping centers, and chain stores.  To take the example of a chain store – they are designed so that anyone who arrives can easily find their way around.  Jeans are always in the same place as are hoodies and shoes.  Each place, while seemingly different, is nearly identical. 

Last night, I went to a late movie, as I often do.  I went to a different theater than the one I normally frequent though as the film I wanted to see was only playing there.  I went to see A Most Wanted Man, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s last film as a star, which was brilliant.

nowhereThe theater was in a shopping center of a type that is popular around Denver.  It mimics a town square with a bit of green space in the middle surrounded by familiar shops.  Here is H&M, there is Dick’s Sporting Goods, and there is Gap.  It imitates charm without really having any at all.  There are many of these places around Denver – imitation town centers that are at the center of nowhere.  If I had to tell my wife or some other kind soul where I was because my car was broken down, I would have no reference point because the reference points are so common.

As I got in my car after the film, on the radio was Corinne Bailey Rae song, “Put Your Records On.” One lyric stood out from the song.  As I was driving out of the faux town center she sang, “You’re gonna find yourself somewhere, somehow.”

Somewhere.  Somehow.  This is often how people come to the Church – searching for sense of place and reference amidst the unrelenting pressure to consume and produce.  Our very geography is being shaped by the desire of the market to fuel easy addiction to that which we don’t need and create pressure to rapidly consume that which we didn’t know we wanted.

In 1993 James Kunstler wrote the book, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, in which he posits that suburbia has ceased to be a habitable environment because its geography is driven by consumption rather than community.

Too many of our churches have become part of that geography of nowhere – places that are driven by a consumer mentality rather than places of authentic community and adoration of God.  The geography of nowhere is marked by its blandness and safety.  It is non-threatening and built for the rewarding of consumer desire.  It does not build up rather it contributes to a sense of dehumanizing competitive acquisition.

How many times have we heard of ways that we can market our church or make it more appealing?  How many times have we heard that making church easier to understand or demanding less is the answer?

Ultimately the geography of nowhere is unsustainable because it doesn’t build virtue but undermines it.  It fails because it doesn’t engender affection – for the place or the people around us.  It asks nothing and offers less.

The Church can be that real place amidst a landscape of nowhere.  People come to us weary of the maintenance of the fiction that they belong in a society marked by its utter inability to actually be a home for anyone.  Whether it is pressure to consume, pressure to conform, pressure to be better or beautiful – our culture and landscape are producing malaise and deep angst and anger.

The Church provides a point of beauty and reference for those lost in bland turmoil.

An article is in the New York Times right now about the surge in the popularity of Mason Jars.  It says, “Sales of…Ball brand jars, have doubled since 2001, and that overall sales for the company’s home-preserving products have jumped 25 percent in the past two years.” The article goes on to quote the CEO of Jarden Home Brands, “’The turning point in the recent history of the Mason jar was the start of the recession in 2008. “’People stay home,’” Mr. Scherzinger says of that time. “’They don’t go out as much. They kind of go back to what the core of their roots are.’”

While the sale of Mason jars may seem to have little to do with the Church – it is intimately tied to the longing of people to find the core of their roots.  There is a yearning among people for authentic connection to their own history and to reconnect with that which made them.  The Church offers a place to find a sense of place in the midst of nowhere and a sense of identity in the face of dehumanizing economic and social forces.

We offer connection to the deepest traditions of our civilization.  The richness of architecture, music, and art are offered not as a way of rewarding consumptive desire but as a form of self-offering to the source of our hope and life.  We offer Sacraments that find their root in Christ’s own commands.  We find a story that is the story of the Church for millennia.  We offer a community that gathers around a table and gathered around Christ as he fed five thousand.  We offer hymns of praise that parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents sang.  We offer the adoration of the magi, the praise of angels, and the courage of martyrs.  We offer Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.  We offer a chance to come and be transformed.

Those who call themselves spiritual but not religious mean something very simple – they long for the holy but can’t stand sanctimoniousness.  They long for the real thing.

My prayer for the Church is that we have the courage to offer it – to offer a home for the broken and an oasis for the lost.  My prayer is that we help people find within our walls those who are living something different, something authentic, something that feels real because it is.  My hope is that we can help them find that somewhere, somehow.

Robert

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