"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Saturday, March 23, 2013

missing the mark

St Paul talks about the multiplicity of gifts/abilities expressed individually by members of the assembly which, together, express the reality of Christ present within the Church.  His vision for the christian community, the Church, seems to be just this joining together of the many into one "body."  But, at the same time, Paul is very clearly the one in charge, and he seems to be appointing people (eg; Timothy) to exercise his authority vicariously and to guide and develop the nascent christian assemblies he has formed.  So, the community exist, seemingly, as both egalitarian/inclusive and hierarchical/exclusive.  It's authority and power, what's right and who decides.  I have a thesis that this intersection of authority and power is at the heart of the struggles of the people of God, but without getting into that too much I am interested in a particular expression of that conflict

In my tradition (Anglican) we have ordained persons who provide spiritual leadership.  These people are "called" or identified within particular congregations, but then confirmed and tested by the hierarchical leadership beyond the specific congregation where their specific gifts were first recognized.  Ideally, it is a nice balance between the inclusive and exclusive push/pull of the Church.  In reality, it can be a difficult and wearying experience almost wholly at the whim and mercy of the hierarchy.  There seems little willingness to trust in the discernment of gifts by the congregation.  I suspect this is a hard-learned lesson involving situations where people weren't willing to be truly honest with one another.  I generally assume good intentions of others, but let's be honest; anyone who spends some time in church knows that its full of difficult people (including clergy) or perhaps worse, people who don't know that church isn't reserved to the good and gracious.

I've met enough bad clergy persons that I can appreciate the hierarchical concerns regarding quality of candidates presented by congregations.  At the same time, I've known good people who've become good clergy not because of hierarchical support but in spite of it.  I don't have any solutions really, except this.  Gifts and call and the action of the Holy Spirit is a crazy, a-rational thing that probably cannot be neatly fit into a "process."  Identifying, discerning and preparing people for vocational ministry isn't like making widgets with a known raw material, a measurable process and an expected outcome.  God can't be pinned in like that.  I think it is far more like art, sculpting perhaps - which is more a process of stripping away the unneeded to find the true figure previously hidden within the stone.

Friday, March 1, 2013

the tie that binds

For the amusement of serious Episcopal Church geeks only!

At General Convention last year, a resolution was passed that directed, more or less, the sale of our Church HQ building in New York City, fondly known as 815 (because that's its address).  Somewhat surprisingly (or not) the people who work there submitted a report to the Executive Council that said, "thanks, but no" and then gave some self-serving reasons why they thought General Convention didn't really mean what it said and everything should stay just like it is.

I have to be honest here and say, I'm not really sure what benefits, if any, come to my parish because of the work of the 815 staff.  I don't doubt they exist, but I don't know what they are.  I know what Episcopal Relief and Development does.  I know what the Church Pension Fund does (and thank you!!!!).  I even know what the Episcopal Church Foundation does and the National Association of Episcopal Schools do as well.  I can clearly articulate their mission and how it affects me, but 815.... nothing.  And so my question is this - what do they do and how does it help me spread the Gospel in southern West Virginia?

And since I love to make grand suggestions for change, allow me to indulge my fancy for a moment.  Let's get rid of it, just to see what happens.  Let's try to just hang together based on the Prayer book, General Convention, and support of those groups and networks (and those like them) mentioned above.  To draw on the analogy of my family, we remain so based on a shared history, some physical resemblance, and mutuality of relationship and frankly not spending too much time in each other's business.  I'm all for hanging together as a church on the thinnest of threads because if Jesus is in it, it will all work out and if he isn't... its just as well it goes away.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

where from here - part 2

After my last post, I've been thinking more about the future shape of the church.  I've heard lots of people tell me what the future of church looks like; everyone seems to have a preferred model (house churches for everyone!).  But it strikes me that there isn't one ideal model out there, and whatever the future looks like, I think we'll be seeing a much greater mixed economy of "church" than we've seen in a long while.  There are places where the traditional parish model still works (and well) and is very effective.

Looking specifically at my situation here in West Virginia, one of the most obvious things about this diocese is its lack of urban areas (see last post) and given the open marketplace on religious affiliation, many locales are not able to support the traditional parish model

[As an aside, it strikes me that there are plenty of places where rather than 14 branch offices of Christianity, they would be much better served by just one community church.  The ever present desire to go our own ways and dismiss Christians who see things different from ourselves as somehow lesser is a cancer on the body of Christ.]

But isolated, self-supporting worshiping communities have not always been the norm.  It may be true that such a model has been the preferred way, but are there any examples of a relatively thriving Christian Church in the absence of cities?  Well yes, there is - ancient Ireland.  The Christian Church managed to establish itself and spin-off some pretty amazing folks (Ss Brigid and Columba for example) who remain as example and who were instrumental in the spread of Christianity elsewhere in Europe.  And what I recall is that the locus of activity for the Irish church was not the parish or the diocese, but monastic communities.

Now I don't necessarily think that the future of the Episcopal Church in rural America is monasteries, but what about intentional communities of some sort?  I'm imagining a core of individuals and families committed to worshiping together, committed to a revenue generating activity, and committed to a focused ministry.  Perhaps, if such communities could be fostered and grown,  they could operate as Christian centers whose influence could spread across a much wider region, supporting smaller worship communities and perhaps even developing new focused intentional communities on the same model as themselves.

I'm not suggesting this as THE answer, but something like this has worked in the past and it thrived for hundreds of years.  I don't see it as an impossibility, so if anyone has some usable property (or maybe a little cash) to offer in Southern West Virginia, let me know.  Maybe we could start our own Christian micro-distillery!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

And where from here?

The Episcopal diocese of West Virginia was established 140 years ago, about ten years after the state established its separate identity during the Civil War.  And the diocese has 68 congregations, 3/4 of which were founded before 1900.  Like most places, West Virginia has changed significantly since 1900.  The 20th century saw a boom in coal and railroads as energy resources buried almost everywhere under the state was dug up and shipped off.  Coal mining and railroads were once huge, sprawling industries and extremely labor intensive and so people flooded into West Virginia and towns sprouted up and fortunes were made.

And though a great deal of coal is still mined here, it is not anything like as labor intensive as it once was and neither is rail-roading.  So it turns out that all those little coal camp hamlets and the bigger towns that arose to serve their needs from doctors to movie theaters aren't quite the thriving places they once were.  Exhibit A is the city of Welch in McDowell county at the south end of the state.  In 1950, 100,000 people called McDowell county home and Welch was a bustling place.  Today 22,000 people live there and Welch is a much quieter place.

All of which is a prelude to asking, if we were to start from scratch establishing the Episcopal Church in West Virginia, would we build something that looks the church we have now?  My guess is, probably not.
The image below is taken from an amazing project called the Census Dotmap which aims to show the location of every single person in America.  As you can see, West Virginia has only a few clusters of people.
To locate our churches we would need to know about how many people are needed to support an old-fashioned Episcopal parish (probably about 100 households)and how much of the population can we attract to an Episcopal Church (historically, 1-2%). This would suggest to me that you need at least 10,000 people and probably more like 20,000.  West Virginia has 13 "metro-areas" with more than 20,000 people.  If we built a church for every 20,000 people in those areas we would build 40 or so parishes.  If we were smart though, we'd shoot for a couple of really big congregations in the largest metro areas, which would leave us probably more like 25-30 parishes.  Remember, we have 68 now.

I think the other thing we would do is to develop those parishes with a much greater sense of responsibility to the whole diocese, so that some large portion of their revenue would be directed towards support of ministry centers in the many small towns where we didn't build a parish.  What if we could attract 5% of the population though?  Well, now we're talking about needing roughly 5000 people to make a viable parish.  These are the places where would focus our efforts as a diocese to evangelize and do mission.

I think that to some extent, our desire to recreate the English vision of a parish and a gentleman in every village of the land has meant that we only ever have one goal - a full, self-supporting parish - for our ministry expansion efforts.  I think we can be more creative than that and be ok with letting go of that vision where the population just won't support it but where the progressive Christian tradition at peace with human knowledge championed by the Episcopal church would be an important beacon of hope is needed.  I also think we won't ever reinvigorate this diocese without being willing to let go of the old vision and be ready to go where the people are now and not try to cling to where they were a century ago.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Why aren't there any Centering Prayer studios?

Ok, quick quiz - raise your hands if you know someone who claims to be Buddhist.  Ok, now raise your hands if there's a Buddhist temple with 50 miles of you.  My guess is that most everyone could answer positively to the first and much fewer to the second.  So how exactly does Buddhism spread?  And more importantly, your friend who says they're Buddhist - what does that mean exactly?

image from mydeepmeditation.com
Now as far as I can tell, the number of people in America claiming to be Buddhist is increasing.  Wikipedia
 (I know, but this isn't for credit, so deal, ok) says there are between one and a half and six million self-identified Buddhists in America whereas I'm guessing 50 years ago they could probably be numbered in the thousands, with almost all being ethnically Asian.  So how does a religion with little or no infrastructure grow by millions, while Christianity, with a branch office on every corner has declined by many millions in the same time frame?

It seems to me from my own brief immersion in Eastern religion long, long ago (Taoism for me, I like to be different) that part of the appeal was an attraction to a spirituality divorced from a largely unattractive cultural Christianity, part of it was its lack of organizational structure, and part of it was a young person's desire to differentiate myself.  I never pursued it in depth, but I still own my copies of the Tao-Te-Ching and Chuang Tsu, where they sit in my priestly office and there's a reading concerning death, that I still find very comforting.

But I also wonder to what extent, eastern practices are attractive.  I found Taosim through karate, and most serious Buddhists I know meditate faithfully.  The entry way to Eastern spirituality, at least here in America, seems to be through taking up a physical manifestation, a discipline.  I'll throw in Yoga as the most successful of these eastern spiritual practices.  Now, not everyone who takes up karate gets into Taoism, but there's no denying that these activities operate on more than one level (double ditto for Yoga).

So, why does most Christian evangelism start with convincing people of our doctrine?  And further, why do we primarily offer only our devotional life as our entry way?  Are there other Christian practices than worship that might be an easier gateway?  Could we reorient our churches to being homes to different spiritually-based activities (that people pay for, btw) that would be a boon to the spiritual life of the believers as well as offering something meaningful and beneficial for the agnostic or spiritual seeker?  Maybe entering into faith wouldn't seem so intimidating.  Jesus tells the parable of the sower, but who says the seeds have to be asking people to swallow the wholly grown plant?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Grave Digging

I have found the life of a parish priest to be endlessly interesting, drawing me into places and encounters I would never have imagined.  Which is how yesterday I found myself, early in the morning, in the memorial garden digging two graves as snow softly and quietly came down.  Now, these are graves only meant to accommodate the ashes of the dead, not a full size casket so it wasn't particularly strenuous, just unexpected.  But I'll share something else I wouldn't have expected.  It was deeply gratifying to do this final task for someone entrusted to my care by God.  I have always found the whole foot-washing thing a little creepy and invasive, but I think that in digging out these two small graves I discovered in new and more visceral way what it was that Jesus was trying to show us.  There was a dignity in this small service I was able to render, and I found myself thankful.

I should also confess that I had some help, from my daughter.  I appreciate that grave-digging isn't the usual kind of father-daughter bonding experience but it happened something like this.
Me:  I have to go over to the church now
Daughter:  Can I come Daddy?
Me:  Well, I have to clear the snow and dig some holes
Daughter: why do you have to dig holes?
Me:  Well, two people died and we're burying them today.
Daughter: Can I help?
Me: Well... I guess so - put on your snow pants

And off we went.  She's only four so it's unlikely she will remember the details of this day, but I won't be surprised if something of it doesn't lodge within her memory somewhere.  I know I'll never forget.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Jesus and stuff

So it's been awhile as I've been trying to find a new rhythm in a whole new way of life.  But it is my hope to work some things out here and not just keep them rattling around in my head.

Last week’s gospel reading in the lectionary was from the gospel of Luke and it describes Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry going into the synagogue in his home village and reading a short passage from the writings of the prophet Isaiah.  What he read was this:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

And then it says that Jesus proclaimed to the audience that "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

The inference here is that Jesus is claiming that Isaiah is referring to Jesus, ie that Jesus is the one anointed by God to lead the Judean people to a new relationship with God; that he (Jesus) is the long-anticipated Messiah.

So if that is true, then this passage serves as Jesus’ mission statement.  What is of interest to me is that Jesus’ self-described mission is not inherently religious, at least not in the way that we think of religion in this culture.  Jesus’ mission is primarily political; only the restoration of the blind’s sight is apolitical.  Though even there, we can look at how disabled persons are treated in first century Judea and construct a political subtext.  In other words, Jesus’ mission has nothing to do with going to heaven, or personal morality but instead has everything to do with creating a just society.

In comparing life in most modern industrialized societies to life in the Roman Empire, we live in paradise.  And American and European culture is inherently Christian in its assumptions and perspectives, that perhaps it is no surprise that institutional Christianity is on the wane – so much has already been accomplished.

Of course, that’s probably not true.  The Church thought it had accomplished Jesus’ mission back when the emperor Constantine came around to their way of thinking 1700 years ago.  The great historian of the church, Eusebius, implies just that and believes the takeover of the church by the imperial court was God’s greatest victory (mind you he saw it the other way ‘round).

But I do find it depressing, as a Christian, to see many of my so-called brothers and sisters leading the fight to maintain the old, unjust societal systems created to maintain hierarchies of privilege.  My reading of the bible does not lead me to see Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as something so small as a fear based system of moral rectitude designed to deliver me to some otherworldly realm of ease.  Rather, I see an invitation to immerse ourselves in the messy world so that we, emboldened and made fearless by Christ’s actions, can demand and implement changes in human society to create a more just world.

And by the way, the bible suggests that the return of Christ is the descent of heaven so that it and earth are one and the same.  Where do we get the idea that our destiny is a disembodied eternity?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

This was the sermon I preached at St Luke's Evangelical Lutheran Church on the Epiphany.  Their pastor (Pastor Wanda Childs) and I did a pulpit swap.  It was a first and lot of fun for me to preside at a Lutheran service.  To see Pastor Wanda's sermon at my regular venue, you can find it here.

Epiphany, RCL year C, 2012

Today is Epiphany, and in this season we weave together the stories of the Magi and their gifts and the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan as we contemplate the heralding and announcement of the arrival of the Lord which we have anticipated in Advent.  At Christmas, God has become incarnate and now in Epiphany, that manifestation of God begins to affect our world.

Thought the Magi seek the King of the Judeans, they themselves are not followers of the One God, but their compulsion to follow that brilliant light in the sky to Bethlehem is the first sign that the arrival of the Messiah of Israel is an event of worldwide importance and cosmological magnitude. 
The savior of Israel, it says, is the savior of the world, the light over Bethelehem is meant for all eyes to see, it’s brilliance meant to chase away the shadows and darkness which enslave our world.

The whole effort of God’s Covenant with Israel, the thousands of years of waiting have been building to this, the Incarnation of God in Jesus.  And this God-child arrives in the most unlikely of places, born of a virgin in a stable, a helpless child born of poor parents far away from their small village.  The God of all that is, seen and unseen, arrives quietly in the margins of life.

And that God should come this way, quietly, at night, as a human child says something profound to us.  That our world is capable, and not just capable, but worthy – worthy of holding and nurturing the divine.

The Christ child is a bold pronouncement that we matter, our lives matter and that to be born and to live is an act of divine love.  And that this life is not something merely to be endured, some sort of cruel test to decide whether we get to wear wings and play harps for all eternity, but something to be savored and the very essence of God’s creative action in the universe.

We believe Jesus to be fully divine and FULLY human.  He was a man with dirty fingernails and callouses, who lived with all of the difficulties, troubles and annoyances which beset us.  And in the midst of a human life he still followed, wholly, God’s will, even though, as the gospels attest, he himself would have rather avoided it.

In the individual stories of the Bible we see the intersection of God and human lives and the human imagination.  And taken all together the Bible stories tell us the salvation story, the grand narrative of God’s efforts to create out of chaos and to gift life into the cosmos.
But for us, it can be hard to see God’s actions in our own lives.  It is easy to see faith as a response for something God did a long time ago.  In Christmas itself, we look back to events that occurred over two thousand years ago.  And truthfully, in our individual celebrations of Christmas, we are half living in the Christmases past, remembering the joys and losses of the Christmas seasons past.

And our lives in the church can be the same.  We remember how things used to be.  In too many churches we remember how much better things used to be.  But perhaps our memories are not so good as we might believe.  The four gospel writers don’t even agree on all the details of the birth of Jesus, Mark doesn’t even comment on it at all.  I suspect that if I were to poll everyone here today about the Christmas story, nearly all of us would mash together the individual gospel stories, plus some stuff from our hymns and maybe a TV Christmas special or two to come up “the Christmas story.”

But I suspect also, that by and large we would all come up with the salient points, that Jesus was born, that his arrival heralded great things, and that throughout, God was present and active.

And so it is with all of our faith stories, the details aren’t always as important as the great themes and the trajectory of the story.  I think it is important that there is no Book of Jesus.  Jesus left us no written works, no book of laws, no pithy sayings, nothing.  No, instead Jesus left us his friends.  And he commanded his friends to tell others and to have those others tell even more.  And so on and so on until someone told you and me about Jesus.

And that’s what church is about.  It’s a place where we discover our own story in the midst of God’s story.  And it’s the place where, hopefully, we gather the means and the courage to go and tell someone else.

And that’s what Epiphany means, revelation – the sharing and showing of something.  So we gather here, to remember certainly, but also to be reminded of God’s great care for us, God’s great love for us.

The arrival of Christ and his revelation to the world is a bold pronouncement that we need no longer live in fear of the powers of darkness which suffuse our world. It is meant to embolden us not to turn our backs on the world but to engage it fully, to take hold of it and to transform it in light of the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, the Christ.  This Epiphany is our permission, no - our command to continue that pronouncement, that Revelation, that Life - so that one day, no one will live in fear but all will live within the hopefulness of Christ.  Amen.