“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.”
Poet Muriel Rukeyser

Saturday, January 24, 2015

By Instinct or Intent, Our Identity in God

 Epiphany 3B: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Cor. 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

Ollie is a big goof of a dog, a large Weimaraner, my daughter’s dog. He’s been with us since Christmas, on an extended visit. This is nothing new, he has stayed with us in the past. When the three dogs are all together they act as though their pack is now complete, life is how it ought to be. Whether here, or at home with our daughter, one of Ollie’s favorite past times is looking out the sliding glass doors and watching the yard full of squirrels and rabbits and deer. 

The deer come almost every night and eat from our bird feeder, tipping the feeder until the seed pours into their mouths like candy. Granted, Dan entices them by filling the feeder just after dark when he knows that the deer are off in the distance, waiting for him.

We’ve taught our dogs to be quiet and watch the deer, but sometimes they can’t help themselves and have to bark. Ollie is certain that if we let him out he could take one of them. However, if he actually encountered the huge buck with the giant rack of antlers he’d quiver to the ground in total submission. I know, because he does that with other dogs, too. He comes off all big and tough, but he’s really a baby. 

The squirrels aren’t so sure of Ollie’s timidity. And to be certain he would easily capture a squirrel, given half a chance. The squirrels in our backyard hang around the bird feeder, eating seed that falls to the ground, or appreciating the handful that Dan throws down for them. These squirrels are particularly attuned to Ollie’s presence. I am sure that when he’s around they all start griping, “Oh no, not HIM again.”

Ollie will bark to be let outside for the sole purpose of chasing after the squirrels. They, being hyper aware of his presence, bound off for the tree, before I open the door. Ollie charges out and makes a bold attempt to climb the tree, certain he can get the squirrel. Because the yard is not fenced, the dogs are attached to a long lead-line, that gives them a wide range of mobility, but still limits how far the can go. 

The squirrels know just how high they need to go to be out of Ollie’s reach but still be able to effectively taunt him. Which they do incessantly - an angry chatter fills the air as the squirrels chastise the dog and bemoan his existence. Before long Ollie grows bored with squirrels and comes back inside, only to repeat the pattern again and again. I’m not exactly sure what triggers the timing of when he has to go outside. He will sit and watch the squirrels for hours through the sliding glass door, and then, for some unknown reason, he just can’t take it anymore, and has to go out after them. And, because this is a lifelong habit that my daughter has tried to break him of, I want to be clear that we do not endorse it, no matter how amusing it is to us.

All of these animals are driven by instinct. Perhaps they have some conscious awareness and some ability to determine their behavior, but most of it is instinct driven. Surely the deer know even as they lay in the snow, with their eyes attentive to our door, that the dogs are leashed and cannot get them. The squirrels and rabbits know it too, for they will often stand just outside of the reach of the leash, and not even move when the dogs race out. But most of the time they act and react out of instinct, predator and prey.

Our faith can be instinctual as well. Often we live our lives, and even practice our faith, based on motivations that are just outside of our conscious awareness. Sometimes we try and are able to articulate why we do what we do. Sometimes we can describe our experiences of God and how God has acted in our lives. But often we cannot. 

Over the last couple of Sundays I have shared some stories from my spiritual journey. I’ve reflected on the lives of my ancestors and wondered how much of their faith lives on in me, wondering if my call to be a parish priest resides in my DNA. You may wonder the same thing - how much influence have your ancestors had on your life? 

Last week I spoke about the years when I left church and how I found my way back; how my return to church had the marks of God all over it, although I didn’t know that at the time.

It is in retrospect that I am able to see where God was working in my life. But God has been at work often enough that I now trust that God is doing something even when I have no idea what or how. 

The same is true for each of you and for this church. Christ Church has been a part of Dearborn for nearly 150 years. Over this span of time God has been instrumental in shaping our parish community. From the first fifty years when there was great uncertainty over whether the church would survive, to its heyday in the 1950’s, to now with our many missions and ministries, God has been with us. Fifty years ago we were a large parish that was the hub of Episcopal life in Dearborn. In the 1950’s and 1960’s we launched three mission churches in the area: St. David’s in Garden City, St. Andrew’s in Livonia, and St. John of Beverly Mission to the Deaf. We supported St. Bartholomew’s mission parish in the 1920’s and when it closed in 1931 we welcomed their parishioners into our community. In those days Christ Church was how a man climbed the corporate ladder and found career success. Here a woman climbed the social ladder, made life-long friends, and found her work in guilds and clubs. Children attended dances and Sunday School and learned about religion.

Now Christ Church is smaller and our stature in Dearborn may be less prominent, however our vitality as a people of God remains strong. We continue to listen to God and follow the nudges and signs of God’s presence and interpret these into active mission work and ministries. We are smaller, but we remain strong and clear on who we are as a people of God. 

Part of the clarity that has formed our recent sense of identity came from the tremendous work done by the Charrette groups in 2010. It also comes from the wisdom of that time to recognize that more development was needed, and it would happen over time, with the calling of a new Rector. In my four years here we have done just that, developed a clear sense of mission and ministry, grounded in the that early work, but intended to carry us into the future. The work we have been about, discerning, clarifying, and listening, guides the process as we claim, and live into, our identity as a Community-Centered Church.

Whether we anchor our reflection this morning on the reading from Jonah or 1 Corinthians or Mark, the point remains the same - God claims us, calls out to us, leads us, has our back, and will never let us go. Our identity as individuals and as a congregation are found in God, whether we are actively aware of this or not. Through out the history of Christ Church in Dearborn, our instinct has been to make a difference in the lives of people. Right now, in particular, we are developing what this means though the Liberia SCHOOL Project, Blessings in a Backpack, dance lessons, music and voice lessons, Martial Arts, AA, the exterior plaza project and many creative ideas of how to use it, the labyrinth, the community garden, the memorial garden, the pet memorial garden, and soon, our plans for a 150 anniversary celebration. 

Today is our 148th Annual Meeting. We will review the mission and ministries of the year past, celebrate our Vestry and our Commissions, Committees, and Ministry Teams. We will elect new members to the Vestry and we will share a meal. It’s a time to rejoice and give thanks to God for God’s faithfulness to us and to thank the leaders of this parish who continue to discern God’s call to us, shaping and forming how we express our identity as Christ Church in the world.