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


flickrfoto

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 draw....so, 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.

I will with God's help....uncomplicating the complicated

I was baptized when I was nine years old. I have vivid memories of the baptism itself, of being terrified, as I was fully immersed three ti...