Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What in the World is Happening to Christian Churches....

About a month ago I posted a reflection about this issue. Here is a shorter, revised version of that reflection.

There have been a number of articles, over the last few years, in the news and circulating in emails, about the collapse of the Episcopal Church. These articles cite as an example of the demise, the crumbling budgets of parishes and dioceses, and lay blame on liberal influences on church teachings. In response I have some thoughts, most of which are grounded in the studies of sociologists concerned with the state of Mainline Christian Denominations and the Episcopal Church in particular.

To understand the situation with some depth it helps if we begin by looking back 150 years ago and then progress forward to the situation today. Beginning around the year 1850 a world view known as “modernism” was developing. This point of view grew out of the development of scientific methodology, asserting that “for every question there was an answer.” By 1870 the concept of scientific reason had begun to influence theology. For example, it was during Vatican I (June 1868) that the Pope was defined as infallible. During this same period of time people began to speak of the Bible as inerrant. Prior to the 1870’s no one considered the idea that a human, even the Pope, might be infallible nor would they have imagined the Bible as inerrant. Thus, for the first time in Christian thought, there developed the idea of “Ultimate Truth.”

Eventually the idea that there could be “an answer for every question” began to polarize society into extremes of right and wrong, truth and untruth, black and white. It set up the means for groups of people to divide along the poles. Following in accord, churches became divided between liberal churches on one end and conservative churches on the other end.

Subsequently, historians, and the media, have posited a two-party system into religious history framed by the efforts of liberals versus conservatives to control the dominant voice in denominations. This division first organized itself around issues of race and science. Liberals advocated for freedom of slaves, placing a corporate responsibility for social justice issues. Liberals also embraced biblical criticism as a methodology to understand scripture from a number of perspectives including its historical context and its hermeneutical context.

In the meantime conservatives advocated for a biblical basis of owning slaves, and developed strong arguments for biblical inerrancy. They argued that the Bible was the literal word of God, without error – the Bible was a changeless theological handbook and moral guide. Conservatives also organized missionary work, focused on faith healing, and argued for moral strictness.

Many of the mainline churches such as the Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Baptists divided over these issues. Around that same time, from about 1870 until 1960, another phenomenon occurred in Christianity: there began a rising up between the liberal and conservative poles something which can be called the “Established” church.

The established church created a voice of Christian authority and tradition that held people in place and gave Christianity the dominant voice in this country for 90 years. Churches formed themselves somewhere on the liberal to conservative line but all with the same voice of authority defining what was good and right. The Established church and its voice of authority gave people clear understandings of what they were to do.

Christian spirituality during this time was focused on church buildings, family faith, and generations of families who worshiped in the same church and or the same denomination. The minister’s job was to perform certain spiritual tasks (baptism, weddings, funerals, Sunday worship), the church blessed the social order of society, comforted people in need and raised children in the faith.

In the United States the surrounding culture supported the Christian church as the voice of authority. This was true across denominations. The established church created a voice of Christian authority and tradition that held people in place and gave Christianity the dominant voice in this country for 90 years.

But around 1960 society began to change. Culturally Americans grew wary of all voices of authority and a shift occurred from an established centralized authority to many individual voices, each person able to be his or her own voice of authority. Known as “Post-Modernism” this shift of authority from “Institution” to “Individual” has had the most dramatic impact on the Church. Sociologists believe that churches today are undergoing a shift similar to the Reformation of the 1500’s! This shift is at the core of our issues today, despite the media’s desire to point the finger at the old polarity of “liberal’ versus “conservative.”

The media likes to both simplify issues and polarize issues, neither of which reflects the real depth and breadth of any issue. Minimizing the state of the church, whether Episcopal or otherwise, to a simplistic division of “liberal” versus “conservative” distracts us from a far more complex issue. Since 1960, due to technological advances like computers, the internet, and television, the emphasis on the “ individual” has shifted into a “plurality of individuals.” Our world is no longer “homogenous” but recognizes a vast diversity of liberal, conservative, ethnic, religious, and social realms.

All of these aspects of individualism pull at the seams of Christianity as a dominant voice in the world. This shift is further challenged by the recent economic decline, the likes of which have not been present at this magnitude in decades, if ever. Other challenges to the church include global terrorism and violence, and the tragedy of sexual abuse in the church. Whole generations of people are wary of the church, skeptical of its authority, and fail to find in it any way to make meaning for their lives. As a result of the shift from “Institutional” authority to “Individual” authority, the church, for many, is no longer meaningful nor able to be an agent of meaning-making in people’s lives.

The primary question before is, how can churches adapt to this shift in authority without losing our identity? Knowing who we are, as Christian communities, is fundamental. But knowing who we are means we must answer these questions: “How can churches offer people a way to make meaning out of their lives?” And, “How can churches offer people a way to make meaning out of the very real challenges before them?” Understanding the mission of the Church as God’s Mission, will point us in the right direction. Liberals and Conservatives might have different ideas of what God’s Mission looks like, but in the fullness of time, God’s time, we will probably learn that God’s mission includes both.

Thanks to Diana Butler Bass in “Christianity for the Rest of Us” and her presentation to the alumnae at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, Oct. 2006, and a variety of internet sources on “Modernism” and “Post-Modernism” such as Wickipedia.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

In the beginning was the Word....

A Reflection on John 1:1-14

A few weeks ago we pulled out our boxes of Christmas decorations and began to decorate the house. One box was marked, Nativity set. Now, I have three or four sets and I wasn’t sure which one this box contained. Turns out it was an old, relatively inexpensive one given to me by a former client, and therefore treasured because it came from her. Slowly I pulled out the pieces and set it up: three wise men, a donkey, the crèche, and Joseph. Carefully going through each piece of newspaper and wrapping paper to make sure I had all the pieces. But in the end I realized that two were missing…..Mary and the baby. How, I thought, can you have a nativity set when Mary and the baby are missing? A donkey or a sheep can go missing and the story is still ok. A shepherd too, maybe even one of the wise men could be missing – and well we could just pretend he was coming along later….but, there is no nativity set with Mary and the baby….Thus far I have yet to find them…and no idea where they’ve gone too….

While I have a few nativity sets one of my friends collects them. She and her husband bought their first one from Walmart… a few years after they were married. It is a large and colorful nativity with the usual figures.

Her favorite nativities are the small ones. She has several nativities that are less than 3 inches

The latest addition to her collection… is a nativity scene that her husband brought back from Colorado. It has a teepee… with an angel flying over the flap of the teepee... three braves bearing gifts... a young brave with a lamb on his shoulders... a wolf... a buffalo... Joseph… Mary... and a baby Jesus in a papoose lying on a mound of straw.

Like nativity scenes that depict the Christmas story, our readings today tell us the story of our salvation history. We have Isaiah writing after the exile at the beginning of the restoration of Israel, when life was settling back into something that felt normal. Of course the people of Israel had been struggling for 500 years, so who knew what was normal by that time. Nonetheless people were settling in and hope was returning – Isaiah says: “The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.” You will be called by a new name, people of God.

And our Gospel reading from the prologue to the Gospel of John is one of the most beautiful readings of all our scripture – reminding us that our salvation history, what God is doing in and through humanity, began before time and will continue always. This reading reminds us that God is an expressive being, God speaks, and God’s Word is made manifest in all creation – but most particularly in human life.

As Christians, through our baptism we are told that we become the living body of Christ - that is our new name given in baptism. But, what does it mean?

What does it really mean when we say, Incarnation, Body of Christ, Light of the World? These phrases are like passwords into our Christian identity. Personally I’m not terribly fond of passwords. You know the password that protects strangers from accessing our online bank account or our email account? The one, if you are like me you always forget?

Passwords are like keys – they can keep things in and can let things out. Passwords enable us to open things up, like the protected systems we access on the Internet. For example:

Want to pay for something purchased on eBay with PayPal? You need your password.
Want to sign in to AOL, or Yahoo? Yup, a password.
Want to sign into certain diocesan web-pages? Again, a Password.

In fact, some of us can't even get anything to come up on our computers unless we first give it a password.

Every time we sign into a protected system we must provide certain information so that the system knows we are who we say we are. If you don't know your personal "password," the system won't let you in. Years ago one friend of mine used the name of her favorite food, “popcorn,” as her password. Now, in this day and age of identity theft we are cautioned to use cryptic number and letter combinations that are totally random. I have about four different letter and number combinations I use – the problem is I forget which version I have used for whatever it is I want to access – this is particular true for online things I only access once in awhile.

One thing I try not to forget though, is who I am as a Christian. As Christians our identity, through baptism, becomes connected to Jesus, we are known as “The Body of Christ.” But the body of Christ is not the same as a password – it is not intended to be something that limits or restricts who has access to God, to Christ, or to the Body itself. Passwords are a good thing when we are talking about internet protection and security…but as Christians God calls us to something else – not limiting access but opening up access. God came into the world that all might see God’s light, hear God’s Word, and know God’s love.

Long before Christ had a body, before the Word became flesh, this expressive Word of God was active in the world. God spoke, breathed, moved, and things happened. Then God chose to become human, to act in and through human life. When we no longer see his body, when we can’t find the baby for the crèche, our scripture stories remind us. They remind us of what God is doing n and through humanity, in and through history. They stand as a reminder of what God is doing now in and through us. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was made flesh, and the word is us. We are his body, his hands, his heart, his face, his love, his grace, and his hope.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas Reflection


There is an ancient story about the richest man in town. Although his house was next to the church, he spent every Sunday sleeping through the worship service. One morning he awoke early, just in time to hear, through the open window, some verses of scripture where God instructs the children of Israel to place twelve loaves of bread on the holy table.

The man, in his half awake bewildered state, believed that God had spoken to him directly, instructing him to place twelve loaves of bread on the holy table, the altar in the church. The man felt somewhat honored at the thought that God needed him. But, given that he was wealthy enough to do anything, he also felt somewhat foolish that all God wanted was bread. That did not seem very important. Nonetheless the man got up and made twelve loaves of bread.

Later, the man entered the church with his bundle of bread and wondered how he could possibly leave it without being seen. Finally the room was empty and he was able to place the bread on the table, as he did so he said, “Thank you, God for guiding me in your desire. Pleasing you, God, fills me with delight.” And then the wealthy man left.

No sooner had the wealthy man gone than the poorest man in town came into the church and knelt in a pew to pray. All alone he poured out his heart and told God how he had nothing, not even enough food to feed his family for the week. Then the man saw the twelve loaves of bread on the altar and exclaimed, “It’s a miracle! Blessed are you, O God, who answers prayers.” Then he collected the bread and ran home to share it with his family and neighbors.

Minutes later the rich man returned, curious to know what God had done with the bread. Slowly he climbed the stairs to the holy table where he saw that the bread was gone. “Oh my God,” he whispered, “You really ate the loaves! I thought you were just kidding. This is wonderful. You can bet that next week I will bring twelve more loaves, with raisins in them!”

The following week the rich man returned with twelve loaves of bread, with raisins. He placed them on the holy table and left. Shortly there after the poor man returned and once again began his litany of woes. Then, again, he saw the bread on the holy table and felt that his prayers had been answered.

And so began a weekly ritual that lasted twenty years. The rich man baked twelve loaves of bread and placed them, once a week, on the holy table. And once a week the poor man came, said a prayer, and found the bread. It became such a routine that neither man gave it much thought.

Then one day the priest, detained in the sanctuary longer than usual, witnessed this amazing and odd ritual. First she saw the richest man in town place on the holy table twelve loaves of bread. Then she saw the poorest man in town come and take those loaves of bread.

The priest summoned both men to come and meet her. Then the priest questioned the men about their actions. After hearing the story she told them that it is wrong to give God the characteristics of human beings – God does not have a body like ours and God does not eat!

The men, feeling ashamed vowed to never to this again. But the priest said, “Each of you look at your hands. Yours,” she said to the rich man, “Are the hands of God giving food to the poor. And yours,” she said to the poor man, “are the hands of God receiving gifts from the rich. In this way, God is present in your lives. Go and continue baking and continue taking. Your hands are the hands of God.”

Our scripture stories remind us, over and over, that God comes to humans and call us to act. God acts in and through the lives of humanity. God acted through Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, and from these ancient people God builds a nation of people who listen and follow God’s desire. Later, as we hear in Luke, God called and acted through Mary and Joseph. God calls them to bear forth into this world, the very life of God. The mystery of this night/day, of Christmas, of the birth of God into human flesh, of the Incarnation, is made manifest in the reality of God choosing to act in and through human life. As Episcopalians we center our faith on this, on the incarnation, for it is the birth that then makes everything else possible. It is the birth that shows us how to live as faithful people. It is the birth that eventually points us to the brokenness in human life, to all the ways we reject God’s love. It is the birth that leads to the death that leads to the new life again – and the assurance that God’s love is given over and over, given to us exactly as we are, in all our brokenness. Given to us that we might do the same to others.

On this night/day we celebrate the gift of love that God has given the world, the gift of Christ Jesus, the love of God poured out for all. God comes to us as the Christ, as a human being, who changes the world through the grace and power of love. This love of God is both a gift to us and a calling. As Christians we are called, through baptism, to be the Body of Christ, which means we are called to continue bringing forth God’s love. Give us this day our daily bread, we pray. I am the bread of life, Jesus tells us. The bread that Christ gives us is the food of love, nourishing our hearts. Fed by the love of God in Christ we are called to heal the sick, called to care for the poor, called to reconcile the broken- hearted. Come, let us make bread together, let us become the food of love that will heal this broken world. Let us be Christ’s hands and heart in the world.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Great Experiment

A reflection on 1 Thessalonian 5:16-24 for Advent 3B

Some 26 years ago, when I was working in theater, I had my first experience of sushi. Sushi, for those of you who may not know, is steamed rice pressed into a small bite sized cake upon which a thin piece of raw fish is placed. During that time I had colleagues from New York City who came to Chicago several times a year for performances. On one of those trips we went to a local Sushi restaurant on Clark Street called, Happi Sushi. Now, I had never had sushi before, but I was willing to try it. I let my colleagues order the fish and then, with great enthusiasm, dove in.
The required side dishes for proper sushi eating include: soy sauce for dipping the sushi, marinated ginger root for cleansing the palate between pieces of sushi, and this green garnish that looks like mashed avocado. Assuming it was avocado I enthusiastically dipped my piece of sushi into the soy sauce and then into the ground avocado, and popped it into my mouth. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the green stuff was not avocado but horseradish. Japanese horseradish, and very strong. There I sat with a mouth full of fish and horseradish strong enough to make my eyes water, a heat slowly seeping up my face, thoroughly clearing my sinuses and probably cooking the fish in the process.

A few months later I was in NYC working on a show and visiting my friends. One of them took me to Chinatown. I remember sitting in this Chinese diner with carts of food being pushed from table to table. My friend made a number of selections for us, which would be stir-fried and served to us. I’ll never forget that one of the items, a delicacy, was chicken feet. I’m sure I must have looked completely appalled as I stared at the tray full of chicken feet, claws and all. My friend tried to get me to order some but I refused. I couldn’t get it out of my mind where those feet had been – and the little claws….ewww, just too gross.

It’s a funny thing, isn’t it, what we will experiment with and what we won’t?
Experimenting describes well what we are about these days. A time of transition always means a time to experiment, a time to try things on and see what fits and what does not, what appeals to us and what does not, what feeds our passions and what does not. We are in the process of a great experiment! I wonder what we will find out about ourselves? This experimental process reminds me of a story:

The local monastery was falling into a state of disrepair. No new monks were coming and the old monks were dying off. The moral of the place was low and people stopped coming for Spiritual Direction and prayer. The abbot of the monastery was in great anguish over this decline. He prayed and worried and prayed some more. One day the abbot decided to take a walk in the woods that surrounded the grounds. In the woods walked an old rabbi, highly regarded as a man of prayer and wisdom. The abbot hoped to run into him. Sure enough shortly into his walk he encountered the rabbi. As he walked up behind the rabbi the rabbi turned. They stood and faced each other for a moment, and then both the rabbi and abbot began to weep. Their mutual despair over the monastery filled their tears. Meekly the abbot asked the rabbi, “Can you give me any advice or direction that will help the monastery thrive again?”

The rabbi simply said, “One of you is the Messiah.” Then the rabbi turned and walked away.
The abbot returned to the monastery and encountered a group of monks who had seen him talking to the rabbi in the woods. “What did the rabbi say?’ they asked. And the abbot responded saying very slowly, “One of us is the messiah.”

The monks began to talk to one another. “One of us? Which one? Is it Brother John? Or perhaps Brother Andrew? Could it be the abbot?”

The monks began to look for the Messiah in one another. They listened carefully to each other’s words, hoping to hear the Messiah’s voice. And as a result of careful listening, of open hearts, and of gracious spirits, slowly things began to change in the monastery. Over time people returned to the monastery for spiritual guidance and prayer and new monks joined the community.

The rabbi, in his great wisdom, directed the abbot to lead his community into an experiment of the imagination. I mean really, just because the wise rabbi said that the Messiah was among them did not mean it was true. They could have just ignored him and continued on. But he piqued their imaginations and a renewed energy was born.

Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians, is giving instruction to the Christian community of Thessalonica on what it means to be the Church. In particular these verses we heard today deal with the call to work together for unity; to work toward a place of peace and joy. We are not to “quench the Spirit”- instead Paul reminds us that we are to allow our imaginations to be piqued ….nor are we go off on our own acting independent of each other, as if the arm can function without the torso, or the foot without the leg…no, we are called to work as one. We are to do this in such a way that the Holy Spirit remains alive in us and is not stymied by fear or resistance. Which, I suppose, to push the metaphor a little further, means trying those chicken feet! The Holy Spirit calls us to find out who we are as the Body of Christ, today, tomorrow, and the next day. For just as we are not the same person from one day to the next nor are we the same church one day to the next. In its most simple form this is true simply because people die and new people come.

Therefore discerning who we are is always our primary work. We are living breathing dynamic beings and that makes the church a living breathing dynamic being, one that is always growing, hopefully growing into the fullness of Christ. As the Body of Christ we are on a journey. Experiments usually come to an end, to some logical conclusion. But a faith journey never comes to an end.

As people on the journey we are experimenting, trying things for awhile in order to learn what we like and what we don’t like. In this experiment we are learning a lot about each other. In time we will decide that some of the things we have done in the course of this experiment will be like that green horseradish, which by the way, I’ve come to love, likewise some of the things we are experimenting with we will come to love. Other things will be like those chicken feet, which I suspect that if I tried them once it would also have been the last! Eventually, there will be a smaller range of experimentation – I mean once you’ve eaten raw fish all that’s left is to try the various kinds of raw fish and see which are your favorite: tuna, salmon, shrimp, or some variation there of…eventually we will discover ourselves living in rhythm….Sunday to Sunday, season to season. St. Francis is a healthy community and as such we are learning how to navigate together remembering that a healthy community is adaptive. A healthy community strives to bring all the parts together to make a whole. So let us experiment creatively, let us be a laboratory for spiritual gifts: may we rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances, and all the while nurturing the Christ in each of us!

Monday, December 08, 2008

Christian Formation

Last week I found myself in the middle of a delightful conversation when a group of five women gathered for lunch and a discussion to plan the upcoming Lenten Program for our church. I knew all five, two were parishioners, and two will be presenters at the Lenten program, and me. It was however the first time the others had met each other, including the parishioners. So, it was really wonderful that the conversation went so well.

In the course of the conversation one of person raised the idea of "Formation." This lead to a conversation about what it is. What is Christian Formation? Her idea, the one who raised it in the first place, is that formation is the way God speaks to us and we respond. Over the course of time God speaks into our being and our efforts to respond to that movement of God in us, is formation. I didn't ask this at the time, but I suppose this is particularly true when we decide to be intentional in that response to God, when we intentionally work on our formation.

Offering opportunities to work, intentionally, on our formation, is what this group had gathered to do. How to create an interesting Lenten program, one that will appeal to the people of our congregation. How to do this when the common denominator between the five nights will be prayer. We all acknowledged that a theme of prayer would not be a, one said, "How do we make prayer "sexy."

That of course led to all kinds of fun. Which presenter would lead the teaser? Which presenter would be foreplay (reflections on the Wisdom of the Desert Mothers and Fathers)? Which presenter would take us right into the heart of the matter (reflections on centering prayer and healing prayer? How would we organize the climax, a Taize service? You get the idea. Five women howling at the metaphor of Christian Formation as sex, as making love with God.

From our conversation it would seem that Christian Formation brings with it a kind of intimacy and vulnerability. Christian Formation asks us to bare our selves to God. Of course for it to be truly formative it also means that we anticipate God baring God's self to us as well. Making love is much more fulfilling when it is between two beings, each being equally vulnerable, each willing to enter into that most intimate of all relationships.

I wonder how many of us really think of Christian Formation with this kind of anticipation, hope, and desire? It makes me think of one church who said to me, in the interview process, that the adults of their community were "done" with formation. It was OK to form the kids but the adults want to come to church for worship only. They'd rather spend time together having dinner and going to the opera than in an adult ed. class. The idea that at some point we are "done" with our formation leaves me feeling so sad and discouraged. Formation is one of my passions, I love to turn people on to God. I love to turn people on to exciting ways to experience God. I love offer people opportunities to enter into the mystery of God. We spend so much time in the didactic, preaching and reading...and so little in the experiential, the mystery. I love to offer this to folks in a variety of ways.

Christian Formation is more than just reading a book or having a discussion. Christian Formation is about a life long relationship. Perhaps this relationship, like others, ebbs and flows, but hopefully it also grows through the changes and challenges.

Monday, December 01, 2008

A Response to the "Demise" of the Episcopal Church...

There have been a number of emails sent round in the last few days about the demise of the Episcopal Church. These emails cite as an example of the demise, the crumbling budgets of parishes and dioceses, and lay blame for this demise on the liberal influences on church teachings and thought. Much is made of the idea that liberal thought has watered down Jesus until he has become meaningless. In response I have some thoughts, most of which are grounded in the studies of sociologists (Diana Butler Bass, among others) concerned with the state of Mainline Christian Denominations and the Episcopal Church in particular.

To understand the situation with some depth it helps if we begin by looking back some 150 years ago and then progress forward to the situation today. Beginning about 150 years ago the world was adopting what has become known as the “modern” philosophical and sociological view. This point of view asserted, following a scientific methodology, that for every question there was an answer. By 1870 scientific reason influence theology and the idea of ultimate truth developed. For example, it was during Vatican I (June 1868) that the Pope was defined as infallible. During this same period of time people began to speak of the Bible as inerrant. Prior to 1870’s no one considered the idea that a human, even the Pope, might be infallible nor would they have imagined the Bible as inerrant.

The scientific method of an answer for every question eventually polarized society into extremes of right and wrong, truth and untruth, black and white. It set up the means for groups of people to divide along the poles. Following in accord, churches became divided between liberal churches on one end and conservative churches on the other end.

Subsequently, historians have posited a two-party system in religious history framed by the efforts of liberals versus conservatives to control the dominant voice in denominations. Specifically this division organized itself around issues of race and science with liberals advocating for freedom of slaves, a corporate responsibility for social justice, biblical criticism, - in other words accommodating itself to modern culture and new sources of human experience and knowledge.

In the meantime conservatives advocated for a biblical basis of owning slaves, and developed strong arguments for biblical inerrancy. They argued that the Bible was the literal word of God, without error – the Bible was a changeless theological handbook and moral guide. Conservatives also organized missionary work, focused on faith healing, and argued for moral strictness…shaped by a central belief in the eternal and unchanging truth, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

Many of the mainline churches divided over these issues: Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists. Around that same time, from about 1870 until 1960 another phenomenon occurred in Christianity: there began a rising up between the liberal and conservative polarities something which can be called the “Established” church.

The established church created a voice of Christian authority and tradition that held people in place and gave Christianity the dominant voice in this country for 90 years. Churches formed themselves somewhere on the liberal to conservative line but all with the same kind of voice of authority of what was good and right and gave people clear understandings of what they were to do.

Christian spirituality during this time was focused on church buildings, family faith, and generations of families who worshiped in the same church and or the same denomination. The minister’s job was to performed certain spiritual tasks (baptism, weddings, funerals, Sunday worship), the church blessed the social order of society, comforted people in need and raised children in the faith.

In the United States the surrounding culture supported the Christian church as the voice of authority and a homogeneous closed system developed. This was true across denominations. The established church created a voice of Christian authority and tradition that held people in place and gave Christianity the dominant voice in this country for 90 years.

But around 1960 society began to change. Culturally Americans grew wary of all voices of authority and a shift occurred from an established centralized authority to many individual voices, each of us able to be our own voice of authority. This shift of authority from Institution to Individual has had the most dramatic impact on the Church. Add to this the reality that world is no longer “homogeneous” but recognizes a vast diversity of ethnic, religious, and social realms pulling at the seams of Christianity as a dominant voice in the world. This shift is further challenged by the recent economic decline the likes of which have not been present at this magnitude in decades, if ever. Other challenges to the church include global terrorism and violence, and the tragedy of sexual abuse in the church. The issue before us now is not how does “The Church” respond? Rather how do churches respond to the shift? How can churches adapt while not losing their identity? How can churches offer people a way to make meaning out of their lives? How can churches offer people a way to make meaning out of the very real challenges before us?

In stressful times like these there is a push to assert that "everything was OK before" and "the problem is the new leadership, or the liberalization of the church." This push affects churches most dramatically when three things are present: the community is stressed; it hasn’t accepted the direction it is moving into; and it enables unhealthy communication patterns.

It’s helpful to remember that stress is cumulative and typically is not coming as much from within the community as from without. Stress comes from a sense of a loss of control and anxious people feeling stress tend to resist change at the level where they feel they have the most control. Church is an area where people think they should have control. People tend to think that the church exists to meet their needs and forget that the church exists to do God’s work of love and reconciliation. In times of stress people will try to return to the "good old days" and are not willing to deal with the real stressors of the present situation.Some of the stress may be perceived changes in the congregation, new leadership style, new rector, perception of significant changes in worship, loss of members, growth in members, change in worship times, change in building structure. Any of these place stress on a community and asks it to be adaptive. Communities under a lot of stress resist the need to adapt.

The greatest influences on the stress of a community, which cause it to resist adapting, are the stressors from outside.These stressors occur from major changes in the macro community, the city, state, country, and or the world, in terms of the economy, politics, and violence. Because these changes are in the larger world context individuals develop a feeling of helplessness. Individuals in a church community may also be feeling significant stress from illness, death, finances, or family issues. These issues may be personal or in the lives of close family and friends. Often the people who are "acting out" are either the most stressed or the least able to tolerate stress. The chaos from these kinds of challenges feels too immense and as a result people feel impotent. These feelings of helplessness and impotence increase the level of stress and decrease the ability to adapt. They have nothing to do with what is going on inside the parish community but can impact its ability to function in healthy ways.

Stress in a system can be reduced by understanding that much of it is coming from outside the system, and that the changes to the system are relatively small, purposeful, and reasonable. It may be helpful for people to discuss the changes they have experienced in the last two years and their personal feelings around these changes.When an awareness of the whole system is not present there are three ways to address the reaction to stress: 1. stop the changes, which is like giving into a child's temper tantrum, and may not be possible if the real stressors are outside the community. 2. allow the stressed person to find a different setting where they feel more safe 3. place boundaries that define how individuals must act - even when stressed - as members of a loving community. When a community can learn to do #3 they become a healthier stronger community prepared to face the future.

The Episcopal Church, like other denominations, will face some financial hardship due to loss of members and the economy. It will be helpful if we can remember that these losses are not the result of some simple thing we can "change back. " The losses are deeper and more systemic and require a comprehensive understanding of societal changes. As often happens in times like these the losses may actually become the source for new life, new growth, and a healthy church.

Becoming a healthier church community enables us to focus on the real issue of what it means to be a Christian today. For us Jesus is not some watered down meaningless person, but a savior who points us to the hard work of love and reconciliation. The love Jesus points us to is not romantic love. It is God's love - love in the face of challenges, love in the face of anger, love in the face of divisiveness, love in the face of hurt. A love that seeks to restore hope, instead of fear, and peace, instead of anger. It is a love that welcomes all instead of excludes. Loving as God loves, loving as we see manifested in Jesus is hard work. It is not meaningless, but meaningful and meaning making.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Hearing the story anew....

A reflection on Mark 13:24-37

When I was a little girl one of my favorite activities was to lie outside and watch the falling stars. During the month of August, my brothers and I would line up on blankets in our front yard excited that we were allowed to stay up way past our bedtimes. We would lie there in great anticipation of seeing the falling stars, hoping to see a really big one! As our excitement eased and we became quiet I found myself pondering the immensity of the universe. I tried with all my might to imagine an endless universe, a space that went on forever and ever. I tried to imagine other planets like ours with life on them. I tried to not be limited by the images of our favorite TV show, Lost in Space. If alien life exists in outer space, I thought, it was probably not dangerous monsters out to harm us, but rather beings that expressed the mystery of God acting in all creation.

Heading into Advent, the season of the church year that we begin today, beckons us in a similar way to imagine the mystery of God acting in creation. Advent is a season of darkness, mystery, wonder, and, like my brothers and me lying on those blankets, a time of anticipation and waiting.
All the seasons of the liturgical church year, from Advent to Pentecost, invite us into a story of faith, of God and our salvation history, what God is doing in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Life provides lots of questions. How it is possible for a person to be mauled, run over, and killed, by a mob of Christmas shoppers? Or, as we worry about terrorists randomly shooting people in hotels in India, how to we make sense of the chaos? It makes me want to stand up and, like the robot in Lost in Space, flail my arms and shouting, “Danger danger”

I don’t have a simplistic answer to these and other questions. Rather I know that we cultivate an understanding of the anxieties and fears of our lives when we focus on who we are as a people of God and trust in God’s faithfulness to us. Our faith anchors us in the assurance of God’s faithfulness in an uncertain world. Our faith helps us make meaning out of the tragedies of our world. Through the church our faith gives us a language, words like greed and sin, words that point to our brokenness and our need for God. Each Sunday morning, when we gather to worship we hear the story of the history of human brokenness and of God’s response with love and faithfulness.

Stories are important. They remind us of who we are and our place in the world. Stories are shared from generation to generation, stories about our grandparents, our parents, ourselves, and our children and grandchildren. Stories we tell which will then be retold by other generations. Of course each time a story is told it changes just a bit. Even when we tell the same story over and over we might choose to nuance a certain piece of it or we might hear a piece of the story in a new way.

The same thing is true of the stories of salvation that we hear on Sunday morning. Sunday after Sunday, Year in and year out, we listen to scripture readings and sermons and pray the Eucharist. And yet, if we pay attention, the story we hear will not be exactly the same from one Sunday to the next, from one year to the next.

Our Gospel reading this morning does not ease us into Advent with a gentle call to wait. Instead it has an apocalyptic tone that reflects the real fears we face of death and annihilation. But, rather than keep us in that place of fear, this reading throws us into the mystery. Jesus’ words are filled with layers of symbolism and complex visual images and sobering ideas. Jesus’ vision propels us out of the comfort and security of our ideas and world and drops us into the mystery of God. This reading reminds us that we cannot know everything. We can’t see everything, we can’t predict everything. Jesus speaks of losing sun, moon, and stars, of darkness, the loss of our usual ways of illumination. Then this reading - and the season of Advent remind us - when the world is deprived of light as we’ve always known it, we are to become that source of light. We are the source through which the light of Christ can shine.

One of the things we are doing at big church is engaging the many opportunities for praying the Eucharist that our rich Episcopal tradition affords us. We are anchoring each of the prayers in the context of the liturgical year, choosing to worship with particular Eucharistic prayers because they speak intentionally to the theme of the season we are in.

In the season of Advent we will be praying a particular version of the Eucharistic prayer that speaks into the mystery of the Advent season. This story, this prayer, is a dialogue between priest and congregation. It begins with the story of who we are and how Christianity continues the story begun with the Israelites:

We say, We praise you and we bless you, holy and gracious God, source of life abundant. From before time you made ready the creation. Your Spirit moved over the deep and brought all things into being sun, moon, and stars; earth, winds, and waters; and every living thing. You made us in your image and taught us to walk in your ways. But we rebelled against you, and wandered far away; and yet, as a mother cares for her children, you would not forget us. Do you hear in this our story? Do hear how this connects to the opening verses of the Book of Genesis and the story of Israelites? And how it connects us to the ways we act out, ways in which instead of building up the body, we seek to tear it apart? It is an age old story that plays out over and over.

We then begin the salvation history story as it continues in and through Christ, we pray: To deliver us from the power of sin and death and to reveal the riches of your grace, you looked with favor upon Mary, your willing servant, that she might conceive and bear a son, Jesus the holy child of God. You see how this prayer tells us the Advent story, the story of God choosing to become human?

The prayer then continues with the story of how Jesus lived his life: He broke bread with outcasts and sinners, healed the sick, and proclaimed good news to the poor. He yearned to draw all the world to himself yet we were heedless of his call to walk in love.

The story then moves to the last night of Jesus’ life and the institution of the Eucharist itself. We pray, On the night before he died for us, Jesus was at table with his friends. Remember the scripture verse where Jesus tells his disciples, I no longer call you servants, I call you friends? That is the version of the story we hear in this prayer. When we gather around this table Jesus calls us to gather as friends.

And this is exactly what we pray for, that we can be friends and as friends, the Body of Christ. Using these words we pray: Pour out your Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the Body and Blood of Christ. Breathe your Spirit over the whole earth and make us your new creation, the Body of Christ given for the world you have made.. Not only is the bread and wine consecrated and made holy, but so are we. Our lives, in the story of our salvation history, are made the living body of Christ. We are called to be his hands and heart in the world. We are called to care for the sick, the dying, and the needy. Even in the threat of chaos and a world on the brink of collapse, we are called to treat each other with dignity, respect, and love. We are called to let love be our guide not fear, because we know our purpose is ultimately faithfulness to God.

Let the words of this story seep deeply into our hearts and into our beings. Let the words shape and form us to become most fully who God calls us to be. May the love of Christ shine in our hearts and point us toward what really matters, God. May this light of God, the love of Christ, shine into fear and bring hope, shine into the anger and bring peace, shine into hurt and bring healing. May the story truly be our story, reminding us, Sunday to Sunday, year to year, from one prayer to another, of the love God has for us.

May we be that love.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving Poem

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I'm thinking a lot about the "family of things" this Thanksgiving. There seems to be so very much to think about...such as

Trust. How do people in organizations function when they fail to establish a basic level of trust?

And, if we fail to trust one another, how then do we manage to function with integrity and respect?

I am fairly destracted by stuff going on....but it is feeling a bit like Thanksgiving, despite living in the desert...because it's raining and cool!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Homeostasis part 2 (Balance)

From Edwin Friedman, "Generation to Generation"

"As stated, family systems thinking locates a family's problem in the nature of the system rather than in the nature of its parts. A key to that relocation is the concept of homeostasis: the tendency of any set of relationships to strive perpetually, in self-corrective ways, to preserve the organizing principles of its existence. Theories based on the individual model tend to conceptualize the "illness" of a family in terms of the character traits of individual members, and in ways in which their various personal problems mesh. The family model, on the other hand, conceptualizes a system's problems in terms of an imbalance that must have occurred in the network of its various relationships, no matter what the nature of the individual personalities.

Family theory assumes that no matter what the various members' quirks or idiosyncrasies, if the system exists and has a name, it had to achieved some kind of balance in order to permit the continuity necessary for maintaining its identity. The basic question family theory always asks, therefore, is not do these types of personalities fit, but, rather, what has happened to the fit that was there? Why has the symptom surfaced now? This is not a static concept, but a dynamic one, as when a thermostat controls the temperature balance, not at a fixed point but in a range. Similarly the fact that the balance in a family system has gone beyond the range of its own thermostat is not always bad. If only some families could be less stable!

The concept of homeostasis can help explain why a given relationship system, family or congregation, has become troubled. It sheds light on which family member becomes, or is likely to become, symptomatic (the identified patient)."

I've been thinking a lot about homeostasis and wondering what I remember from my studies and what I've forgotten. I first read this book in 1995 while in seminary. I read it again in 1996 while working on my MSW. One of the things I am now thinking about, having re-read portions of "Generation to Generation" is the emphasis on pathology, dis-ease. My experience of congregational life, which is richly informed by family systems thinking, places less of an emphasis on pathology and more of an emphasis on inter-relationship dynamics. I guess I just don't like the medical model of disease being used so inclusively. Not everything is a disease....sometimes we are just working through the complicated nature of what it means to be human.

Is it a pathology when someone who was given a lot of power and authority in a congregation suddenly finds, because of a change in leadership personnel and style, has lost that power and authority? Is it a pathology when this person begins to push back in an effort to regain the power they had? Or is it just someone trying to restore order as they know it? True, the way the person tries to restore order, by acting out, being divisive, resisting change, can begin to feel dis-ease like. And, it can be very disruptive to the good of the whole. Such behavior can become very destructive, especially if it is not understood by others as being what it is, a struggle for order as it was once known.

The tension only increases as the struggle to restore that old sense of order fails to succeed...or as Friedman says, "the tendency of any set of relationships to strive perpetually, in self-corrective ways, to preserve the organizing principles of its existence." In many cases, though, the effort cannot succeed because the old is gone - and the new cannot become the old. Of course sometimes the effort to restore the "old order" ends up causing more change because the new leaders burn out and leave. When this happens the "system" thinks it can find a new leader to restore things as they were. Except that never happens in systems, whether congregations or organizations...the old never returns, only more chaos and brokeness. It is hard for us to realize that the healthiest thing is to NOT restore order as it was, but to find a new sense of balance.

Life is, after all, founded and sustained on the principle that all of life is adaptive. It is through adaptation that we are able to grow, thrive, live.

Thus, while it is very difficult work, it is also helpful for the long range health of the system, when the new leadership can maintain a certain level-headedness when encountering the push-back for homeostasis. This level headedness is also known as "Self-differentiation" or the ability to detach oneself from the emotion and see a situation for what it is. It means staying focused on the big picture, the good of the whole, and not the anxiety of an individual, or set of individuals. When the leadership can do this eventually a new sense of balance is established. Sadly (or not) this often comes at the expense of the person fighting so hard to restore the old order. That person(s) either learns to adapt, loses power, or leaves.

It can be very useful to understand congregational life through the lens of family systems, that we are all interconnected in a web of relationship. I appreciate family systems thinking, even though I am not fond of turning the anxious dynamic into a pathology, a disease. We are human beings, each trying our best to do what we think is for the good, for balance. Quality leadership manages to not let the anxiety of the system, and the anxious people themselves, determine the course of direction. Quality, self-differentiated leadership remains non-anxious, and works to focus the group on the big picture.

One thing I have learned, when doing this level of work, there is no guarantee of the outcome.

An Award...

Katherine E at meaning and authenticity awarded me the Super scribbler. You can learn more about it here.

Of course, as with every Bloggy Award, there are A Few Rules. They are, forthwith:

Each Superior Scribbler must in turn pass The Award on to 5 most-deserving Bloggy Friends.

Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author & the name of the blog from whom he/she has received The Award.

Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his/her blog, and link to this post, which explains The Award.

Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit this post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List. That way, we'll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives This Prestigious Honor!

Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog.

Thank you Katherine E. I am grateful for this honor, and will pass it on. Today though, I am not feeling well - a flu bug I think....So, once my head stops pounding and my tummy settles down, I'll tag five others, if they haven't self-selected before that time.....that said, if you read this, consider yourself tagged, follow the rules, and leave me a comment that you have posted this! 'Cuz you are a Superior Sribbler, ya know, and deserve this!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


I've been thinking a lot about homeostasis, from the family systems perspective. I need to re-read "Generation to Generation" - it's been a number of years since I last read it. I should also see if I can find my notes from a workshop that Edwin Friedman gave at the seminary I attended. This workshop was on Friedman's last book, "A Failure of Nerve." I have to admit it was pretty awesome to be in that workshop with him, sitting at the feet of the teacher. It was also really sad to learn of his death a few months later, before the book was completed. I never bought "Failure of Nerve" because I have those notes....but now I'm thinking it would be a good idea. Just because I have a Masters of Social Work and specialized in family systems for congregations doesn't mean I remember all this stuff. Anyway, I think I'll begin with "Generation to Generation" and continue my thinking about homeostasis - that desire to restore balance and order. Sometimes the restoring balance and order based on what feels normal and familiar, is no longer the healthy balance and order....

Monday, November 17, 2008

From Fredrick Buechner, "Wishful Thinking"

"In Hebrew the term dabar means both 'word' and 'deed'. Thus to say something is to do something. 'I love you.' 'I hate you.' 'I forgive you.' 'I am afraid.' Who knows what such words do, but whatever it is, it can never be undone. Something that lay hidden in the heart is irrevocably released through speech into me, is given substance and tossed like a stone into the pool of history, where concentric rings lap out endlessly.

Words are power, essentially the power of creation. By my words I elicit a word from you. Through our conversation we create one another...

God never seems to weary of trying to (Gods)self across. Word after word (God) tries in search of the right word. When the creation itself doesn't seem to say it right - sun, moon, stars, all of it - (God) tries flesh and blood..."

I love this quote. It speaks deeply to what I believe as well...however, I changed all the male pronouns Buechner used for God...the older I get the less I can imagine God as "he"...God for me is God - both male and female and so much more. Yes, I think words are important and speak a truth deep into this world that sends out concentric circles....words that ultimately speak in and through all of humanity.

So, let me say - I am feeling a very fragile sense of hope. Fragile because it lies in the tension between the election of Obama and at the same time overturning Prop 8 in California and approving a change to the Constitution in Arizona defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Which leads me to ask, "What are WE saying in this country? Who do we want to be?"

Fragile because I think Obama opens our imaginations and enables a new kind of creativity - imagine who can be President in the USA. Imagine what is possible here in this amazing country we live in! Imagine. Fragile because in the same breath we say, oh, well, some things are possible, but not this..... And then, once again, we slam the door on what is possible. So, then I ask, assuming God works in and through humanity, "Where is God in all of this?"

Words matter. The words we say to ourselves over and over matter.

We are God's own and God has chosen to live and breathe through us..... Imagine if we really believe that. Imagine if that is the chatter that plays through our heads - "I am God's own, God works through me!" - and then imagine if we act accordingly.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

How Did I Feel?

Thursday I wrote about the big meeting and one of the comments was, "How Did I Feel About It? or rather, how do I feel about it?

At the time, as I led the meeting I was not as calm and self-differentiated as I would have liked. But of course the meeting was all about me, how I am being perceived, how I am leading, what I am doing. Its hard to write about...not because I don't want to talk about failure on my part or mis-perceptions on their part. But because I don't want to be public with their emotions, their comments, and their feelings, which need to be respected and held between us.

So, without saying much more, I will aim to write about how I felt, how I feel. Like I said, I was not as calm and self-differentiated as I hoped to be. I imagined myself inviting them to speak, talking notes, and listening gracefully. I imagined myself taking a few moments to respond and share with them my take on the dynamics at play. All of that happened....just not calmly. My voice, I think, revealed the contained emotion I was holding back: the desire to cry, the desire to be angry, the desire to say, "Where have you all been?"

I had my report, given to them months ago, laying out everything I hoped we would to do over the next six months. In that previous meeting we discussed this report point by point and agreed to all of it, with a few amendments. And this is what we have been doing in the months since that meeting. I wanted to say, "Does no one remember discussing and agreeing to this? I did say, "Given that we agreed to it, I have been living into this exactly." and, "I intended to free you up from some of the day to day burden in order to enable you to think more creatively...but rather than become creative the freedom raised your anxiety and unhinged you... So, here is another itinerary of where we are going." And again, I laid out a (revised) plan to proceed forward.

Now, what is it that I am trying to do? I am trying to get them to think creatively about who we are and craft a vision of who we are as a parish. They struggle to recognize how the vision work is as important as their fiduciary role in parish leadership. Actually, the vision work is more important at this juncture of new leadership, because everything else hinges on this work. So, I said, from the vision, once we have articulated it, we can design our strategy to live into that vision, as a parish, as leaders, as staff, as committees. From the strategy will come goals - for the parish, the leaders, the staff, the committees. From the goals come our course of action for the next program year, possibly the next five program years. Once that work is done, the hope is we will have more cohesion between all the various fabulous committees and work we do - the right hand will know what the left hand is doing. We will have a means (vision, strategy, goals) by which to articulate who we are, what we do, what we hope to do, and the impact we are making, and hope to make, on the world around us.

This really is a fabulous community. I stand in awe of what is accomplished. All I want is for it to be conveyed more comprehensively, cohesively, and clearly. Well, that and I want us to function with trust, with collegiality, and as a team working together, not as individual silos....It really should not be this hard.

But the reality is, shifting the paradigm from: individual committee work that is disconnected from any sense of a cohesive whole, ie silo mentality to: team work that is connected to a cohesive whole; is the biggest, scariest, least understood, process for this group. And I get that. Which is why I wanted to manage my feelings and express what needed to be said without fueling the anxiety.

It occurs to me that this group of long retired folk, gifted and brilliant as they are, never experienced vision work in the work place. In my previous church, as we did vision work, they all had done something like this in their jobs. The corporate world has adopted vision work, team leadership, collegiality - but none of these folk ever experienced that, they retired before that became a working model. So. I am beginning to understand just how foreign this all is.

Alban Institute says that as leaders we have to adapt (temporarily?) our leadership style to fit the desired leadership, or at least the familiar leadership style, of the church. I have had to adapt from mutual collegial, to authoritarian.

It's tough on both of us - me and the leadership team. I don't like being authoritarian, but I can. And clearly they don't want me to really do this (be authoritarian), even though it is the familiar we are working to change the leadership culture....and it is producing anxiety....To some degree this shift has been articulated, but it needs more discussion...something we will do in our winter retreat on Mutual Ministry, which is being led by someone other than me.

Over the course of the meeting my emotions calmed, from a low simmer, to a non-anxious presence, and I then was more like I hoped to be.

My hope is we will move forward crafting what needs to be done and continue to do the hard work of building trust in one another.

Do I feel better since that meeting. Yes. and no. I am glad we had it and could lay on the table the current of anxiety, that is always helpful. I'm glad I had that document in writing showing, at least from my perspective, that I have been doing what I thought we agreed too. I am not sure where the meeting will lead us and if it will serve to build greater trust. And, mostly I suspect, as is often the case, the work will continue to be a challenge for another couple of years until the leadership paradigm is shaped and takes hold and is embraced by everyone who holds a leadership position.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Well Today...

So the BIG meeting today went well enough. It was fortuitous that I found an important back up document before the meeting - one that supports a great deal of what I have done and am doing - and reflects the initial support of this group - support which seems to have dissipated over the last two months. It has been very weird, these last two months.... The forgetfulness, the anger, the vitriol, the assumptions, the confusion...

The opportunity was offered today to clear the air. I hope that is what happened...I hope that what we said is what we will live into...

I guess time will tell.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Preparing the Spirit

A reflection on Proper 27A

I have a good friend who is always late for everything. Whenever my friend and I schedule a date to get together I plan to arrive 15 minutes to a half hour later because inevitably she will call and say she’s just leaving. Of course, occasionally she’s on time, which then makes me the late one!

At first brush, the Gospel story of the bridesmaids seems very critical of those who procrastinate and are late. Unusually harsh because the story says that none of them knows the day or the hour that the bridegroom will come. So, if you don’t know the day and the hour how are you supposed to know when to be ready? Under those conditions even the most conscientious of us could be late and unprepared.
Like many other stories in scripture this story raises more questions than it answers. It stands in sharp contrast to all the other places in the Bible that speak about grace, generosity, and hospitality. Since this Gospel reading seems incongruent with other pieces of scripture it beckons us to take a deeper look, to look beyond the surface, and ponder what is really going on.

One day, Honi, a legendary Jewish man saw an old man planting fruit trees. “Why are you doing this,” asked Honi, “You’ll be dead before they bear fruit.” The man replied, “I am planting these fruit trees for my children and grandchildren. Honi was impressed and sat down in the shade of a nearby tree to ponder this. Later he awoke to someone picking fruit and exclaimed, “How can a tree just newly planted bear so much fruit.” “What do you mean?” Asked the man picking the fruit. “These trees were planted by my grandfather.” “Oh my,” thought Honi, “I have slept for 70 years.” Stay awake, our reading says, we know not the day nor the hour.
What we are pondering today is not promptness, rather we are pondering what it means to be awake, attentive, preparing. Specifically we are speaking of spiritual preparedness. Spiritual work is quite distinctive from taking care of business and completing tasks. Spiritual work is the core of who we are as Christians, it is work grounded in prayer, discernment, worship, and community, and it requires us to intentionally dedicate time to cultivate our spiritual lives.

Jim Wallis, one of the founders of the Sojourners community, tells a story about a colleague living in a village in Central America. She worked in a community that was marginalized in all kinds of ways. She poured herself into her work for social justice, laboring with great might to bring change to this village. One day, some of the people of the village came to her, asking her why she worked so hard, why she didn’t join them in their fiestas or sit with them on their porches in the evening.

“There’s too much work to do!” the laboring woman replied. “I don’t have enough time.”

“Oh,” the people of the village said. “You’re one of those.”

“One of who?” the woman asked.

“You are one of those,” they responded, “who come to us and work and work and work. Soon you will grow tired, and you will leave. The ones who stay,” they said, “are the ones who sit with us on our porches in the evening and who come to our fiestas.”

Most of us have been raised in a world that values busyness, as if there is a correlation between busyness and importance. Or perhaps the issue is the opposite, perhaps we do not have enough to do. Perhaps we feel like our lives have no value because we aren’t busy enough. Regardless, we, in this country, and especially in this parish are truly blessed. We are able to have both work and leisure. We do not have to worry about walking miles to haul clean water, nor wonder when we will have our next meal.

The issue this Gospel reading points us to look at is how we spend our time and what occupies our inner thought process – in particular those things that draw us closer to God and those things that pull us away from God. Essentially asking us, above all, to make time for God. Nothing is more important than our relationship with God, with self and with others. And the only way to have a healthy relationship with God, with self, and with others is to nurture it. To rest on our spiritual porches and commune with God.

There is another ancient Jewish legend about two men walking through the Red Sea, which God has spectacularly parted, in order to aid the exodus of the Jewish people. Imagine that walk, the high walls of water held back by a mysterious and awesome force so a group of people can follow God to freedom. Now imagine two men named Ruben and Simon who were part of that group, but instead of looking up and seeing the glory of God, they looked to the ground and saw mud.

“This is terrible,” said Ruben, “There’s mud all over the place.”

“Disgusting” said Simon, “I’m in muck up to my ankles!”

“You know what?” replied Ruben, “When we were slaves in Egypt we had to make bricks out of mud just like this.”

“Yeah,” said Simon, “There is no difference between being a slave in Egypt and being free here.”

And so it went, Ruben and Simon complaining the entire way across the bottom of the Red Sea. For them there was no miracle, only mud. Their eyes, heart, mind, and spirit were closed to the possibility of miracle, grace, and God, even though they walked right through it all. We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are….

Here at large church we are a richly blessed community. We have a beautiful worship space, lovely church grounds, a generous and loving parish community, a very professional and committed staff. We have a multitude of well organized and skillfully led ministries that engage many people, all volunteers, from Altar Guild to Ushers and everyone in between. We have numerous opportunities to help and care for the world around us, from the amazing accomplishments of our Outreach Committee to our vibrant ECW, the Boutique and its offering to our community. From the Social Activities Committee and their dedication to planning four fun events for us each year, most notably the Hoedown and fall BBQ, to our choir and the dedication of those who sing and lead us in music, to our clergy who care deeply for the pastoral concerns of this parish, and especially our vestry as it discerns the vision for the parish and the strategy and goals for living into that vision while at the same time tending to the fiduciary responsibilities of parish leadership. We are an awesome parish filled with gifted people from all walks of life and with vast experience. We have so much to celebrate, for we are profoundly blessed!

Next Sunday we gather to Celebrate our Ministries, to celebrate all the ways we are blessed. In between services, at 9am, we will have a celebratory brunch. At this brunch we will have the opportunity to recognize and thank the many people who enable us to have and to be such a vibrant parish. We will celebrate and honor the leaders of our various groups and committees and their members, we will give thanks for all they do.

And in the Eucharist we will take a moment to come forward to the altar. How many of you have ever walked through the altar rail gate and stood at the altar?
Coming forth to the altar is an invitation to step into sacred space; the Lord’s Table is our most holy and sacred space. The invitation to this sacred place is an invitation to present your self to God: mind, body, and spirit. Our lives are a gift from God and therefore our lives are holy. We will stand in this sacred space and give praise to God for the gift of life, and celebrate the sacred within each one of us.

Coming forward to the altar I have also asked you to bring your envelope with your offering of time, talent, and treasure. I’ve done this with congregations for 10 years. I know that some of you are anxious about this. You think that people will be watching you and taking roll – who is pledging and who is not.

If our focus is on taking roll, then we are focusing on the wrong thing. The reality is, no one knows what is in the envelope you bring forward. It might be empty. It might have your offering for the day. It might have your pledge. Who knows? Who cares? What’s important is NOT what is in the envelope, but what is in your heart.
Coming to the altar is an invitation to present yourself and offer what is in your heart to God. Some of you will choose not to come forward. That’s ok, no one is counting. Some of you may come forward with fear or resentment about something, even anger. That’s ok, too. Others will come forward with peace and joy. Whatever is in our hearts we bring to God.

The reality is our lives are holy and sacred whether we know it or not. Our lives are holy and sacred whether or not we nurture our relationship with God, with self, and with others. The primary difference is, when we stay awake, when we actively cultivate our spiritual lives, when we actively nurture our relationship with God, with self, and with others, we find ourselves living full authentic lives. Living full authentic lives, grounded in God, causes us to lift our eyes from the muck and mud around us, to cease our complaining and see the glory of God in the world around us. Our scripture readings from the Old Testament to the Gospels to the Epistles make it clear that we are to nurture our relationship with God. Some call this Sabbath Time. Some call it prayer. Some call it Contemplation. Some call it worship. Regardless taking time to focus on God is the only path toward living a balanced, holistic, fully integrated and authentic life of faith.

Thus the process of preparing opens our hearts to the peace of Christ. With the peace of Christ in our hearts, our spiritual lamps are filled with oil ready to be ignited by God’s love. Then, having hearts ablaze with the passion of Christ’s hope and joy, we are able to recognize how truly blessed we are, committing ourselves to being Christ’s hands and heart in the world.

Back Home Again

This week I was blessed to spend two nights and two days at a retreat house north of where I live. In the mountains and the desert this retreat center is a place for silent comtemplation and centering prayer. I have to admit I was not perfect in my silence. My daughter called. My husband....on the cell phone. We only spoke for a moment to check in. It's not that being silent is difficult for me. It's not. But for this particular retreat I was unable to leave my life behind.

Even more distracting than the two brief phone calls, the chatter in my head. Some of it has been worked through and I have a clearer picture of where to take all this chatter. So, that's good.

On my retreat I spent some time drawing. I haven't put pencil to paper in ages. The first thing I did after I arrived and unpacked was draw two pictures, one with pastels, the other with charcoal. The next morning I took a long walk in the crisp morning air. The center has the stations of the cross built along the hill side and down and around the back half of the center. They over look the valley and mountain range to the east as well as the nearby mountains at the west end of the property. It's in a place call "Picture Rocks" which is an apt description for the area. At station V I sat and spent a long while drawing the trees, shrubs, and mountains to the west.

I found that the desert is really difficult to draw. It is largely monochromatic, or rather various shades of green, from the bright lime of the Palo Verdes to dull bluegreen of something else, to the gray green of the shrubs. The desert landscape has lots of irratic scraggly brush and trees, sand and rocks, and prickly pear cacti. I haven't found the medium that I like to use for the desert. Charocal was too dark, using charcoal requires a light hand for drawing the desert. The pastels were better, more range of color. The colored pencils were ok, but not enough range of color. My favorite picture ended up a mixed medium of colored pencil and pastels.

I think I need to practice drawing individual trees or cacti before I try to draw a landscape. I need to study the detail of a Palo Verde (and there are three varieties of PV), the detail of the Mesquite (again, several varieties), and the detail of various cacti. Then I can do a landscape that contains some detail and some blurring of detail to more accurately reflect the essence of the desert. But that is for another retreat.

Aside from the drawing and the walking I read, knitted, ate well, and just sat. I meditated and prayed. I slept soundly even though I could hear the distinctive eery conversations of the coyotes. Coyotes don't always howl...they talk, in a vocabulary that is not a bark nor a howl, it's like a high pitched yip and yap but with slightly longer duration than the yip of a dog, and at a different pitch. It has an eery quality, definitely not dog, but something wild and free.

The place, The Desert House of Prayer is not a fancy place. It is very simple. But in this place there is an energy of deep, profound, stillness. An energy of deep profound grace. I am grateful I went there. I will go again.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

History Made

Back in the primary he was not my first choice, but he was when I voted today... tonight I wept to see history made...thank God the voting was so decisive, thank God there is no doubt who we wanted....I have hope for the future....(and am glad I don't have to start packing)...

Desert House of Prayer: A Silent Retreat

Tomorrow, after a full morning of meetings (and some filled with "complaints") I will head off with a parishioner, who is also a Benedictine Spiritual Director, for a silent retreat. This woman invited me to go away for some time of silence, prayer, and renewal, and I am grateful. We are going here. I have purchased sketch paper, charcoal pencils, colored pencils that can also be water color pencils, and grapite pencils. I hope to draw. I hope to reconnect with that side of me that loves to connect with nature through drawing. I am not a good artist, but I am good enough....besides, drawing is like meditation for, I care less about the technique of my art.

I will be gone until Friday morning, giving me two nights and the better part of two days to slow down and rest.

Since life continues to be complicated at church with numerous dynamics at play (sigh)...I hope this time is not only restful but restorative....

Election Day

The first time I voted was in 1976. I was 19 years old and a junior in college and took my voting privileges seriously. I did my homework and voted for the candidate I thought would do the best job for our broken country. That election the candidates were Gerald Ford (R), and Jimmy Carter (D). My first Presidential election and I voted Republican even though I was (am) a die hard liberal. I voted for Ford because I liked him, but also because I did not trust Carter....I did not trust someone coming into the White House with a Christian agenda. It's the only time I have voted for a Republican Presidential candidate, although I have voted for Republican governors and green party officials if I like there policy stands.

Since 1976 I have voted in every election except one, 1984 Ronald Regan and Walter Mondale...and that was only because I could not get to the polls to vote...for some reason. Of all the times I've voted for President my vote has been cast for the winning candidate two times, 1992 and 1996, all the other times I have voted for the loser.

My criteria for casting my ballot is based on social justice issues, offering equal opportunities for all that this great land offers whether that is medical and dental care or education or employment. I believe that sometimes government has to set the standard for justice because we won't: states will have huge variances in their policies - citizens in one state will have rights that citizens in another will not, the right to marry or to decide when and or whether to carry a pregnancy to term, a minimum standard for health care that all citizens are afforded so no one goes with out doctor care, hospitalization, mental health care and dental care....sometimes we need the federal government to make us accountable to the needs of people around us. I think we need the government to put forth regulations that control the extremities of our corporate, free trade, global and market industries.

So, tonight we see what happens with this's clear, based on the issues I care about which candidate I I just hope I don't have start a job search in Canada...

One thing has changed in the last 32 years since I cast my first vote. I now believe that religion should have and must have a voice in politics. I believe we need our politics to reflect the vast differences the people of this nation hold in our beliefs and values, and not have them predetermined by a vocal minority.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Ollie Update

Apparently all went well with Oliver (Ollie) for his first night in his new home. Our daughter said he played hard, seems to get the idea that he does his business outside, and is bonding with her. He likes to sit on her feet, bring pieces of his food to her, drop it at her feet, look at her, wag his tail, and then eat it.

Funny things about him: he's been an out door dog, on a cattle farm. Coming into a home was a new experience. He is afraid of mixed floor textures, such as her tile bathroom with bathmats. When he stepped from the tile to the rug, he turned around and ran out of the room. Carpeting was a little freaky to him. Stairs are impossible, he's only 6 weeks old and 11 pounds.

Thankfully he slept in his crate all night. He woke up once and wimpered, she put her hand in his crate and touched him and he went back to sleep. He woke her up at 5am to go outside and pee. yup. He can't always manage that, but in one day he's learned a lot.

The only issue, when she tried to take a shower she put him in his crate and as soon as she was out of sight and in the bathroom - he HOWLED. HOWLED and howled and began to throw himself against the crate. So, she had to let him out before he hurt himself or woke up her roommate and neighbors....he then laid on the floor, again, on her slippers, and slept while she showered....

Now she's worried about how he will behave at the barn today while she is teaching lessons (horse riding)...

Taking a Break from the Celebrations.... say that Ollie is home. Our daughter picked him up today. She said he's doing great, played all night and finally crashed...

...on her slippers.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Question of Anxiety, or the Way to Love?

A reflection on Matthew 22:34-46

One of my favorite television shows is found on the Discovery Channel from 6:00pm to 7:00pm Monday through Friday; it’s called Cash Cab. The premise of this show is a New York taxi driver who hosts a game show in his taxi.

The game show is simple to play. The host/driver asks the riders a series of general knowledge questions and the riders respond. Each time the contestant gives a correct answer they earn prize money. Each wrong answer is a strike against them. Three strikes and the cab ride is over, they have to get out of the cab immediately and they lose all their accrued prize money.

Once everyone agrees to the rules the cab starts the trip and the driver asks the first question. The first few questions are worth $25.00, then after awhile the prize money doubles to $50 and then the last few questions, if the riders get that far, are worth $100. I’ve seen people win over $1000 in just one cab ride. The questions are supposed to be general knowledge questions but the point is for the host to ask them in a tricky fashion in order to increase the confusion rate and cause the responder to doubt their answers.

Such was the technique being applied by the Pharisees when they approached Jesus in today’s Gospel. The Pharisees hoped to trick Jesus into an endless debate of confusion and misunderstanding. They asked a simple seeming question, “Which commandment is the greatest of all?”

But here is the tricky part. The Old Testament has 613 commandments, something the Pharisees knew and so did Jesus. The Pharisees hope that Jesus will pick one commandment as the most important, and in response they are primed, with 612 other options, to argue against what-ever he says.

The Pharisees were having a lot of concern about Jesus and were plotting against him. He was doing new and unusual things. They felt a need to question what he said and what he did. And the anxiety, for the Pharisees, was high.

Some days there is a fair amount of anxiety here, at large church too. But I want to assure you that, unlike what was going on with the Pharisees, who were full of deceit and trickery, the anxiety we are feeling is a normal response to our lives. A certain amount of anxiety is an appropriate response to our lives at this time. The reality is we have a lot to be anxious about. In addition to our health, and our finances, we are trying to settle into a new relationship between you and me. We are in the early stages of a new relationship, congregation and Rector. This kind of relationship is unique. It occurs on a corporate level and it also occurs on a one to one level.

Relationships of every kind take time to grow. We need to nurture them, which takes effort. Testing, too, is a natural part of relationship building – will you still love me if you know all my warts and pimples? Kids test parents, husbands and wives test each other, groups of people test the leader and one another this way.

The truth is, yes, I will still love you, warts and pimples and all. And, in time you will love me and my flaws too. At the moment though, neither one of us really knows the other. There is some uncertainty, and as a result some anxiety. In addition to being a priest, I have a Masters in Social Work. I have an understanding of group dynamic and parish life that is broad and deep and grounded in lots of parish life experience, some 20 years of it.

The point I want to make is, anxiety always likes to find a focal point. The Pharisees want Jesus to pick one commandment. It will give them a place to focus their anxiety and argue their point. It is very difficult for human beings to focus anxiety on intangibles, like the emotions and feelings of a new relationship. It is much easier to focus anxiety on things – what ever the “thing” may be. Focusing our anxiety on some “thing” enables us to think we can control that “thing” and as a result control the anxiety and settle down the anxious feelings. The problem is that the “things” are not the real issue. So trying to fix the “things,” what-ever they may be, will only be a temporary fix, soon the anxiety will crop up again. What will fix the anxiety is time. Time to grow into relationships of trust.

William Bridges wrote a book a number of years ago called, “Managing Transition.” This and other resources state that the transition time for a parish begins as soon as the incumbent rector announces his or her retirement and continues until 18 months after the new rector has come. In other words parishes are in a state of transition for the better part of two or three years every time the incumbent rector leaves and new rector comes on board.

We are only 7 months into the 18 month process of getting to know each other. You, see, we are normal and right on target, experiencing the usual kinds of anxiety in this process.

As we go along we will find things we like about each other and things we don’t. Its ok, we’re human, not perfect. We will try things together. Some of the things we try we will really enjoy, and so we will do them again. Some of the things we try we may discard, and then try something else. It’s a learning process of getting to know one another. Slowly we will begin to feel less anxious and more trusting.

So, back to Jesus and the Pharisees’ question. Jesus gives them an answer they were unprepared for, a brilliant, absolutely right answer. And the answer Jesus gives offers us good direction as well. Instead of choosing any one of the commandments, instead of focusing on a “thing” Jesus recites for them the Shema, the summary of all the commandments, a prayer well known by any good praying Jew: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all strength, and with all your soul, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This prayer points us to the ultimate truth of God’s desire for us, love. But the trick to understanding it is to know what love really means.

Love is risky. Love is challenging. Love changes us. Our love for another person enables that person to become most fully who they are able to be. We do not and cannot love instantly. True love takes a long time to grow, and ripens as it lives through challenges, uncertainty, anxiety, joy, hope, and patience.

Here is an example of this love: A woman has a stroke. Her daughter takes her into her home and cares for her, helping her recover. Despite the steady loving care a fight breaks out between this mother and daughter. Finally the mother yells, “Why are you doing this?”

The daughter offers a variety of answers about helping her mother get well, about trying to make up for past hurts and painful memories of her childhood, of not wanting her mother to go to a home, and so on…her reasons were numerous. Finally the mother said, “Junk.”

“What!” said the daughter. “Junk” said the mother. “You don’t have to have all those reasons. We love each other, that is reason enough.”

Relationships are complicated. We have a tendency toward temper tantrums and stopping of feet when we don’t get what we want in a relationship. This is true in churches, in marriages and families, and in friendships. But being in relationship is not about getting what we want. It’s about growing in and through one another, in and through our experience of each other, and ultimately growing into being deeper richer fuller human beings. And most importantly being Church is not about getting what we want, but about doing what God desires of us.

Beverly Wildung Harrison, a Christian Ethicist, wrote the following in her essay, “Making the Connections.”

“I believe (she writes) that our world is on the verge of self-destruction and death because the society as a whole has so deeply neglected that which is most human and most valuable and the most basic of all the works of love – the work of human communication, of caring and nurturance, of tending the personal bonds of community. This activity has been seen as….too mundane and undramatic, too distracting from the serious business of world rule….This urgent work of love is subtle but powerful. Through acts of love…we literally build up the personhood of one another. It is within the power of human love to build up the dignity and self respect in one another – or – to tear each other down. We are better at the latter (at tearing each other down) than the former (of building each other up in love). However, literally through acts of love directed to us we become self-respecting and other regarding persons, and we cannot be one without the other….”

Today we baptize another person into the Body Christ. Christ, who is himself the embodiment of God’s love. In Christ God’s love pours into our world, and into our lives, seeping into the broken places and holding them, seeping into the anxiety and bringing peace, seeping into our joy and celebrating with us. God’s love in Christ is a mystery and grace, the fullness of love. In baptism this love is given to us. As Christians God’s love lives in us in particular ways, defined as much by the quality we bring to it through an open heart, as by its innate quality. This love is not to be limited by our own inward focused neediness.

Today V S comes to us as an adult seeking baptism. He has spent a life time looking for a community in which to live a life of faith, a family of faith to help deepen his understanding of what it means to love as God loves. For years God has been speaking into his being and V has responded, searched, prayed.

Now, today, he chooses to enter into a particular expression of his life-long faith, an expression grounded in baptism, the fundamental Christian sign of God’s love. In our baptismal preparation on Friday I told V he would be asked six questions. “Oh,” he said, “How will I know the answer?” And then I assured him that they were not trick questions, the liturgy provides the answers. The process of question and answer will provide him an opportunity to remember that what he promises, will happen, “with God’s help.” Through this baptism V S will be blessed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. Just like the rest of us he comes into this relationship: vulnerable and anxious and yet, hopeful. And, just like the rest of us, he comes seeking to love and be loved.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Fist

One of the rare but chronic symptoms I experience under stress is a spasm in my chest. The spasm occurs in the proximity of my heart, but it isn't my heart. I've had it checked out. It is caused by a spasm in the intercostal muscles near my heart. These muscles are literally in the intercostal spaces between the ribs and attach at the sternum. When my stress is high, the kind of high stress that comes from a breaking heart, these muscles hurt. They twinge and spasm. You see I have what is called a Trigger Point in the muscle. Maybe the TP is in the pectoral muscle, not the intercostal, but who really cares? I know that the spasms are from a TP because I can feel it, and when I put steady pressure on it, the TP hurts with the same kind of pain of the spasm. But after a few minutes appling steady pressure on the TP the pain ceases.

And so do the spasms.

I think that when under stress my body tightens like a fist, angry and protective and preparing to protect. This is not always the healthiest response. But, since my massage yesterday I have suddenly been able to meditate once again. Meditating has alluded me for about two years. And now, just like that, I can again. I feel remarkably different. It all reminds me of this poem by Mary Oliver:

The Fist

There are days
when the sun goes down
like a fist,
though of course

if you see anything
in the heavens
in this way
you had better get

your eyes checked
or, better still,
your diminished spirit.
The heavens

have no fist,
or wouldn't they have been
shaking it
for a thousand years now,

and even
longer than that,
at the dull, brutish
ways of mankind -

heaven's own
Instead: such patience!
Such willingness

to let us continue!
To hear,
little by little,
the voices -

only, so far, in
pockets of the world -
the possibilities

of peace?
Keep looking,
Behold, how the fist opens
with invitation.

(Mary Olive: Thirst; Beacon Press Boston, 2006)

Nothing has changed in my life. All the stresses are still there. But I hope that the fist has opened on this diminished spirit of mine and peace can settle in despite it all. I think the fact that I have had no chest pains since yesterday is probably a good sign...

How to know what I don't know that I don't know....

What are the things that I don't know that I don't know? This is the primary question that Faithwalking asks each person to consid...