Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What does membership mean?

In his famous book, Bowling Alone, author Robert Putnam notes the substantial decline of membership in a whole host of clubs, nonprofit organizations, and civic groups in the last 20 years. As we anticipate the beginning of a new year and our upcoming Annual Meeting on Sunday, January 29, it is worth asking: What does membership at St. Edward's mean? What is expected of us as members, if anything? Even the concept of a volunteer organization such as the church might cause some people to bristle at the notion of any expectations whatsoever. Yet as has been demonstrated repeatedly, a growing church does have expectations of those who choose to be its members. Not surprisingly, I believe that membership expectations at St. Edward's mirror our four-fold mission: Welcome all. Worship fully. Witness to God's grace. Walk the way of Christ. Let me explain.

Welcome all.

Part of who we are as members of St. Edward's includes welcoming each and every person, regardless of their faith journey (or lack thereof), political affiliation, or theological opinion. As such, the first expectation of our members is that they will actively seek out newcomers, welcome them to St. Edward's, and facilitate their participation in our worship service or other event. We are always to be on the lookout for another one of God's guests that passes through our doors.

Worship fully.

While it is probably obvious, one of the basic expectations of a member of St. Edward's is that he or she will attend and actively participate in our worship service each week, unless prevented from doing so by illness or other overriding obligation (work-related travel, etc...). Churches are often criticized with the indictment: "They just want my money!" Well, while we're perfectly happy to receive your financial support (see below), what we most want is your participation, not your pledge.

Witness to God's grace.

If you've ever been to an airport, you've seen the signs that say: "If you see something, say something!" One of the expectations that we have for our members is that they will be sensitive to God's work in the world--directly, through them, and through others--and that they will find ways to say something about what they've seen or experienced in this area. Part of this response is to pledge financial support to St. Edward's as a tangible reminder and indicator that God is working in and through the church to accomplish God's mission on earth. In short, we have to put our money where our mouth is! If we believe that the church is God's instrument for the reconciliation of the world, it follows that it both needs and deserves our support.

Walk the way of Christ.

The early followers of Jesus Christ were simply called "The Way." This was a reflection of Jesus' saying "I am the way, the truth, and the life." (John 14:6, NASB) It was also an indicator that to follow Jesus means to be on a pilgrimage, a spiritual path. As members of St. Edward's, and therefore followers of Jesus, it is expected that our service to God does not end at the church door, but that we "seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves" (as our Baptismal Covenant says). In practice, what that means is that every member of St. Edward's is expected to identify and participate in both activities that enhance their spiritual lives and service opportunities that help others. As we do this, we are well aware that we will always fall short of what God has in mind for us, yet as St. Paul writes, we "press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:14, NASB)

Hopefully the above gives you some encouragement, perhaps some challenge, and perhaps a new resolve to make your membership in St. Edward's even more meaningful in 2012. See you Sunday!

Monday, December 19, 2011

To what is God trying to give birth?

I've been thinking over the Gospel lesson for this past Sunday. Several weeks ago, I participated in a "new expressions of church" conference call in which the question was asked: "How are you helping to give birth to something God is doing?" or something like that.

As I was mulling over that, I was directed to the following YouTube video, considering what it would be like if Joseph was on Facebook at the time of Jesus' birth:

As somewhat funny as this is, it also points to the fact that what God was bringing into the world was not something that was even thought of, and was fraught with danger. With two-thousand years of hindsight, we believe Mary was given the greatest gift of all--the opportunity to be theotokos, the "god-bearer." Mary's recorded reaction reinforces that belief, to a point. It also reminds us that even God's gifts come with some associated responsiblities.

2012 will be a year in which we discern what God is bringing into being, or giving birth to, and what we can do to help that process along, to "mid-wife" that process, as it were. While as a man I've never been pregnant, as a father I know the profound changes having children can make in one's life. The birth process is messy, painful, sometimes complex, involves considerable work (that's why they call it "labor"), and generally requires a group of people to help things along. And that's just birth! Actually raising a child requires a whole new set of skills, another group of people (remember "It Takes A Village"), and a long-term viewpoint.

As we celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Jesus, may we be inspired to look for signs of new life and new birth in our own lives and at St. Edward's as well and prepare ourselves to mid-wife and guide that new life that God has for us.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What are we expecting?

The Gospel for this past Sunday invites us to take a second look at John the Baptist, after our first look the week before. As attractive as John was to the crowds that flocked to be baptized, he truly puzzled the authorities of the day:
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Who are you and why are you doing what you are doing? That was the big question to which the authorities needed an answer. They needed to to identify John, classify him, and verify his credentials before they could figure out how he fit into their very carefully constructed world.

But that was the problem--John didn't fit into their very carefully constructed world. Jesus would be even less of a fit. As an aside, I find it interesting that we don't have any record of Jesus baptizing anyone--even though, as the Messiah, he presumably was "authorized" to do so. But just as John's baptizing was a scandal to the authorities of the day, Jesus' teaching and healing were scandalous to the authorities. It seems as if God doesn't have much respect for religious authority when God is doing something new. As one of the designated "religious authorities" of today, that often gives me pause!

One of the biological facts of our lives is that we generally see what we expect to see. We unconsciously screen out things that do not conform to our expectations. Whether we're driving down the street and looking at a landscape we've seen hundreds of times before, experiencing a worship service we've experienced many times, or solving a problem similar to others we've solved in the past, our mind automatically screens out the unusual and fills in the gaps with previous experiences. We naturally classify things to avoid being overwhelmed with stimuli.

Advent is the season of expectation. We wait in expectation of the anniversary of our Lord's first coming at Christmas and in expectation of Christ's second coming. But just as John and Jesus were not at all who people expected them to be and did not do what people expected them to do, we need to keep an open mind about what what Jesus coming anew into our lives might mean. Perhaps our expectation of Christmas is simply another holiday, hopefully with family and friends, with a few tastefully chosen gifts in the bargain as well. But, as the Grinch who Stole Christmas found out, Christmas doesn't come from a store. The challenge for us is to put aside our expectations and instead expectantly ask a different question:

What could God be up to this year?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Invest in Faith or Bury in Fear?

I've been mulling over the Gospel passage from last Sunday for at least a week now. Even though that sermon is over, for some reason God still won't let me let go of that passage. There is a saying that preaching every week is like having a baby on Sunday and waking up pregnant on Monday. I won't claim any expertise in the area of pregnancy, but it seems like there is something in that passage that God doesn't want me (or us) to let go of quite yet. And, since our Priest Associate for Evangelism is preaching and celebrating this Sunday, I have a chance to take another shot at it!

Part of that "not wanting to let go" is a sense that the passage has a lot of application to us at this point in our lives at St. Edward's. I think that there is a huge temptation to follow the world's example and tighten our belts financially, hold out collective breath, protect what we have, and hope that things get better. Essentially, to bury our talent in the ground so that we'll at least have that in the end. I also think that is a fearful, not a faithful, response and a sure recipe for institutional death.

I managed to touch a bit on it in my sermon, but newly-consecrated Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde's first sermon as Bishop of Washington (DC area) said it much better than I could. Go ahead and read the sermon. Or listen to it. Here is how she ends it:
This is our life. This is our Church. We are a unique expression of God’s creative genius.  Never doubt the importance of what you are doing, and what we are doing on earth.
This is likely what St. Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Thessalonians: "Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing."

Planting or re-planting a church is risky business. Like planting a tree, it takes a lot of preparation and planning, much watering, and then a tremendous amount of patience and some pruning as the tree matures. In many ways, St. Edward's has been uprooted from where and what it was, pruned (perhaps severely) and moved to a new context, a new reality. Where we were perhaps once a tall, strong oak, that tree has split and we are now once again a small seedling. We have huge amounts of potential, but a lot of work and worry ahead of us.

I believe that, through this Gospel passage, God is calling us as a community to choose to move forward and risk what we have in faith rather than to shrink back and bury what we have in order not to lose it, or lose it any faster than necessary. This will not be an easy task. We are naturally a risk-averse people, and many of our congregation have a significant financial, emotional, and spiritual investment in St. Edward's. But we cannot go back. We cannot recapture any sort of glory days of half a century ago. And there is no point in wishing for more money, more people, more of anything we don't currently have. As Bishop Budde said at Washington National Cathedral, I say to you: "This is our life. This is our Church. We are a unique expression of God's creative genius. Never doubt the importance of what you are doing, and what we are doing on earth."

Never doubt the importance of what God will do through us, either....

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Pondering (Re-)Planting

This coming Sunday, October 16, we will kick off our Fall Pledge Campaign, with the overall theme "Giving is..." with a weekly tie-in to our fourfold mission of welcoming all, worshipping fully, witnessing to God's grace, and walking the way of Christ. This Sunday it is "Giving is Serving Jesus" and will focus on the "welcome all" portion of our mission. This is not a "welcome all, and help us meet our budget" mission, it is a "welcome all into the Kingdom of God" mission.

I just ran across the following video talking about planting a church. God-incidentially (rather than coincidentally) he is talking about San Jose! He is planting a church not far away from St. Edward's, called The Garden City Church.

As I listened to this fellow pastor, and his desire that many, many churches be planted in San Jose, it fanned the flames of my passion for us to be one of those "planted" churches. What would that look like? What do the people of our area need? What are their hopes and dreams? What can we as an Episcopal church offer them?

Given this pastor's and the church's more conservative theology (see this belief statement), we are likely not going to attract the same people to St. Edward's as they will attract to their church. We offer a more sacramental, more theologically moderate, and more anciently rooted experience of God's church that may well attract people that would never think of attending Garden City. So, as we continue to travel down this (re-)planting road, may we be awake to and aware of opportunities that God sets before us.

See you Sunday.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Joy of the Lord is Our Strength

As I prepared and preached a sermon on the scriptures for last Sunday, I was struck by two things: the question "Is the Lord among us, or not?" and the pronouncement of Jesus that "the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him."

As I mentioned in my sermon, too often we operate under the assumption that God is somehow absent and that it is solely up to us to do what God has called us to do. That almost directly translates into a lack of joy and to eventual burnout. The Pharisees' desire to preserve the religious institution dedicated to God blinded them to the new thing that God was actually doing in their midst. It was the tax collectors and prostitutes, the lowest of the low who had nothing to lose, that were the most receptive to John the Baptist's message and Jesus' ministry.  The mention of prostitutes and talking about the danger of a lack of joy, reminded me of this passage from The Kingdom of God Is a Party, by Tony Campolo:
After I finished, Harry leaned over the counter and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he said "Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?" In one of those moments when just the right words came, I answered, "I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning." Harry waited a moment and then almost sneered as he answered, "No, you don't. There's no church like that. If there was, I'd join it. I'd join a church like that!" Wouldn't we all? Wouldn't we all love to join a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning?"
I'm not announcing a new ministry to prostitutes at St. Edward's, although a colleague of mine runs a quite successful one called Magdalene House in Nashville, Tennessee (shop their Thistle Farms site for great products for a great cause). What I am saying is that when we allow ourselves to take risks, to think outside of the church box, to really connect with the needs, hopes, and dreams of our community, the news that we proclaim goes from old news to good news.

One of the key things we'll be doing as a "new re-plant" church is something that churches that are planted often do--look around at the neighborhood and ask the question "What do people need?" As we do that, we also need to be aware of what gives us joy. Perhaps my favorite quote comes from Frederick Buechner, an author and Presbyterian minister: "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." Being able to discern where our deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet will be a key part of our re-planting process.

Jeremiah 8:10 says "Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength." The old St. Edward's gave us much to grieve--the loss of friends, resources, and passion. To successfully plant the new St. Edward's, we need to do what God has called us to do, not of our own strength out of a sense of duty, but out of God's strength with all the joy that God has for us. See you Sunday for another celebration!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Pressing on Towards the Goal

I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. - Philippians 12b-14
This past Sunday morning, coincidentally on the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, I announced that we had reached the point in our life together where we needed to be about the work of (re-)planting St. Edward's and announced that we were formally beginning that replanting effort. Replanting a church means re-launching the church in a fresh new way that honors the past yet looks towards the future. In other words, while we do have already existing buildings, budgets, and committed members, we need to look to the world and essentially say "We're planting a new church. How should we go about doing that, assuming we were just starting out with nothing?"

There are two challenges we face as we re-plant St. Edward's. The first challenge is that our mission context is vastly different from the one that existed 55 years ago at our first "planting." The culture of sometimes explicit, often tacit, social supports to our faith--often called "Christendom"--is dead and is not returning. The world outside our doors is almost completely secular and often, at best, looks upon the church as a curious anachronism of a bygone era. It is thus a huge challenge to convince any twenty-first century American that church has anything to say that would be applicable, much less transformational, to his or her life.

That is not to say that people are not spiritually hungry and thirsty--they very much are. Sometimes, especially around significant life events, the pull of ritual and church ceremony exerts itself. This past weekend we had over 200 people at St. Edwards. Those people were spread over four services (two funerals, our 9 a.m. Eucharist, and the 9/11 commemorative service) but I would like to think that we made at least a minimal impact for Christ on the life of each person who came through our doors. Note that since neither of the funerals were for current members, fully three-fourths of the people who sat in our pews at some point during the weekend were not our members. This doesn't even count the many Christian brothers and sisters who were here as part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that meets in our church building on Saturday mornings! It also doesn't include the many twelve-step or other groups that use our social hall and Fireside Room. Clearly our buildings have been and continue to be well used by God, if not necessarily by us.

The key, of course, is (to use Diana Butler Bass' terminology) to help the spiritual "tourists" who are here for a single experience to join us as spiritual "pilgrims" on a long journey of faith. To even hope to do so, we have to admit to the second challenge: we often succumb to "tourist Christianity" (my term) ourselves. We sometimes think of our financial contributions to the church as a mere payment for services rendered, we ask "what am I getting out of being here" and, if the answer seems to be "nothing," we are tempted to move on. Sometimes we even find a good spot along our own pilgrimage trail and set up housekeeping, not very much interested in moving forward to new things.  No one is immune from these temptations, even clergy! A more pointed version of this indictment was recently expressed by The Rev. Frederick W. Schmidt, an Episcopal priest and avid blogger, who wrote:
What Muslims have rightly criticized in western culture is that it is spiritually flaccid and self-indulgent. The churches of Europe are empty. While they are not as empty in the United States as they are in Europe, Christians here often live remarkably dissolute and directionless lives that are not easily distinguished from the lives of those around them. We are without discipline. We live as if our faith in God doesn't matter. And in our desire to not be thought of as fundamentalists we have crafted churches that are a studied attempt to avoid deep commitment.
In today's post-Christendom, post-9/11, and increasingly post-Christian society, any attempt to plant (or re-plant) a church that is "a studied attempt to avoid deep commitment" is doomed to failure. People do not seek out hospices unless they or a loved one are dying. People do not seek out churches designed to be (or that have come to be) spiritual hospices unless they simply want to be comfortable as they decline. Offering Karl Marx's "opiate to the masses" is no longer an effective long-term growth strategy, if it ever was.

If you are a member of St. Edward's, please don't read this as some sort of blanket condemnation of your commitment to St. Edward's, much less your commitment to Jesus Christ. A great many of you have served long, faithfully, and well in a variety of capacities over the many years St. Edward's has been here--some of you from the very beginning of its existence! You have left a lasting legacy for future generations and continue to come and support the church as best you are able. As wonderful as that is, however, I am asking everyone to actively support, commit to, or at the very least not oppose the inevitable changes that every new effort like (re-)planting a church brings.  Stay with us, ask for help on the pilgrimage if you need it, and pray and expect God to do wonderful things in your life and in the life of those who have yet to walk through our doors.

So, to borrow from St. Paul, we are forgetting what lies behind--the difficulties of the last decade at St. Ed's, the pain and loss involved in the split in March 2009, some of the initial missteps of the last couple of years, and the lingering fear and uncertainty that follow such things--and we are straining toward what is ahead and pressing on toward the goal of responding faithfully to our own call from God to welcome all, worship fully, witness to God's grace, and walk the way of Christ. I invite you to pack up your spiritual backpack and join me on the adventure.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Fear, Farming, Forclosure, and Seed Planting

One of the recurring themes in the scriptures for the last several Sundays is agricultural--sowing seeds, buying fields, etc... Today, The Rev. Thomas Brackett, my redevelopment mentor and the Program Officer for Church Planting and Redevelopment at Episcopal Church Center, had this to say in his latest blog entry:
The difference between [urgency and desperation] is incredibly important. Desperation stifles creativity and the capacity to listen deeply for the future that is longing to emerge in that moment. Urgency is the shot of courage necessary to take action and learn from the outcomes. Desperation is often borne out of a sense of institutional narcissism that believes that it really IS all about us!....I guess the difference between the two might be compared to the difference between "betting the farm" and losing the farm to foreclosure. Can you feel it?
As we continue to do the challenging work of redevelopment at St. Edward's, this is a key distinction. We need to avoid the temptation to slide into an attitude of fearful desperation. At the same time, we need to cultivate a sense of what one might call "holy urgency"--a sense in which we are no longer content with the status quo, not because we don't like what we have but because we have a deepening sense that God is calling us to be more than we have been in the past. This "holy urgency" is directed outwards, not inwards. It is a commitment to re-engaging with our community and serving the world in Christ's name. It is also a commitment to investing funds and time that we view as limited and finite, and taking the risk that some of our initiatives will "fail" and become learning experiences. Such a "failure" was our 10 a.m. Contemporary Service--it did not reach the necessary number of core members to be sustainable so we opted to step back, learn from that experience, and move forward.

I invite you to be a part of the discernment phase of this redevelopment work and to get a sense of "holy urgency" in the process. We will be meeting as a congregation this coming Sunday, July 31 following the 9 a.m. service to talk about where the Vestry and I believe we are called to go in the future and how we might best get there. Please come prepared to have both difficult and life-giving conversations about the future of St. Edward's, and bring both a dish to share in our potluck and a determination to share in our discussions. See you then!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Don't Blame! Don't Complain!" but do Pray and Offer All

One of my colleagues recently brought the following "campaign" to my attention:

While I'm not really excited about the theology that says that God actively controls all aspects of our lives and therefore allows, or worse, causes calamities to occur, that sense of being thankful for our blessings and learning and growing from our difficulties is an excellent reminder!

I'm in the process of mulling over the lessons appointed for next Sunday, July 31 (Fr. Lawrence Robles of Santa Maria Urban Ministry will be preaching this coming Sunday).  The Gospel lesson is the generally well-known story of the Feeding of the Multitudes (4,000, 5,000, whatever...).  Of the many lessons to be gleaned from this story, perhaps the most powerful one is that when we offer all that we have to God, for God's use, God will give us the resources to accomplish God's purposes. This is no "prosperity Gospel" that says that if you "invest in God" you will reap monetary rewards. Rather it encourages us not to be discouraged at what may seem meager resources in the face of so much need. Rather, God takes, blesses, breaks, and gives all that we offer, and more, back to us for accomplishing God's will in the world.

This is a hard lesson to learn in an era of tight budgets and a climate of fear and scarcity. It is hard to focus on God's abundance in the face of a deficit budget. Yet the command Jesus addresses to his disciples continues to be addressed to us: "Bring them here to me." Bring what you have, ask that it be blessed, and use it to feed the world.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Institution and Transformation

It has been interesting to watch a sense of urgency surface amongst congregations around the 'need for new members'. This is precisely the problem. The focus should be on the power to change lives, the desire of persons to find our congregations to be incubators for the development of the faith and vehicles for sending Christians out into the world to witness in word and deed to the glory, grace of love of God.
- , "Everything is Transitory" in the blog The Missionary Leader
It has been an interesting couple of weeks at St. Edward's. A little more than a week ago, our Vestry gathered together for a Strategic Planning Retreat and began to talk about the long-term plans and future of St. Edward's--with a key difference. We didn't break out reams of paper and start brainstorming about things we wish we had or could do. Instead, we talked about the results of a demographic survey of the local area and how that might impact our future. Long about lunchtime, things were at a sort of a low point--this remains a challenging mission field. Yet as we transitioned from defining where we are now to looking at the possibilities for where we might be in the future, a fresh breeze of the Spirit began to waft through our little "upper room." We began to look towards future possibilities, not present or potential difficulties.

At the same time, these last two Sundays have invited us to look at the beginnings of the church--the giving of the Holy Spirit to both the disciples in the upper room and to the crowds on Pentecost Sunday and then the Great Commission (or, as my colleague Lauren Stanley preached: Go. Baptize. Teach. Need I say more?) yesterday (Trinity Sunday). As I mentioned in the announcements yesterday, this is priming the pump for a "summer of discernment" at both the parish and diocesan levels.  At the diocesan level, we're working our way through a strategic plan that will hopefully be adopted by Diocesan Convention in November and will be implemented in the months and years to come. On a parish level, we're more than halfway through my own three-year tenure as Priest-in-Charge and it is a good time to look towards our long-term future.

Yet as we do all of that, the desire and need to sustain the institution of the church can block out What is really important--our relationship with God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. To the extent that we as a congregation and as a diocese function as incubators of faith, places where spiritually hungry people can not only get fed but can help fed themselves and others, we will be doing what God has called us to do and we will grow. To the extent that we focus on drawing people in so that we can sustain the institutional church we will devolve into just one more nonprofit organization with its hand out, looking for a piece of the increasingly smaller charity pie.

So, this will be a summer for discernment--for talking and listening. We'll talk about St. Edward's, about the changing demographics of the community around us, and about the evolving plan to engage that community with the transformational Gospel of Jesus Christ. As we do that, my prayer is that we will remember that it is our call to prepare a place where people may experience God's transforming power.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Getting Out and Getting Real

"I won't argue that I have all of the answers. I won't claim to have named all of the challenges that you are facing. For all that we hold in common, each of us have an experience that is all our own. But I will offer you a place to begin doing your own spiritual work, a place to talk about what is happening "out there" in the spiritual landscape that we all journey, a conversation partner, a place to begin thinking spiritually about the life you live, and thoughts to build on or to reject. Come what may -- and your responses will have a lot to do with what we discuss -- my hope is that you will be a little clearer about what you believe, why you believe it, why it matters, and how it shapes your life."
-- "The Dave Test,"  The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr.
I had a great experience today--I went and had lunch with our Priest Associate for Evangelism, Julie Nelson, at her office. In many ways it was a 19 year flashback to my "before seminary" days as a Technical Support Specialist at a computer hardware and software company. I left the secular workforce in July 1992, entered seminary, graduated and was ordained in 1995 and have spent over 15 years in one parish ministry or another. It was almost surreal being back in that environment--and I was only in the cafeteria!

Julie can probably speak to this more than I can, but after our great lunch talking about future possibilities at St. Edward's I drove back to the church thinking: "How many of the hundreds of people on that campus have any relationship with any church of any kind and how many of them will be impacted (or fail to be so) by the Episcopal Church?" It seemed like "the church world" (where I spend 98% of my working life) and the "real world" are, literally, worlds apart. I eat, drink, and live church--it's my passion, perhaps occasionally my obsession. On my best days, that passion goes hand-in-hand with my love of God in Christ and my conviction that God is at work in the world and in and through each one of us. On my less-than-best days, it is simply a passion for sustaining the institution and something that can push more important things to the side if I'm not careful.

Being out there "in the world" forces me to confront a critical question: What does the church have to say to, for example, a 30-something software engineer with a wife and children, who works long hours, has precious little family time, and the usual raft of personal challenges common to everyone? Is he going to get up on Sunday morning and show up at 9 a.m., family in tow, to experience worship at St. Edward's? Probably not, unless he has either heard of us (positively!) from someone, someone invites him to church, or he attends some other event where he is introduced to what we offer folks here. I don't have to go 25 minutes north to Julie's office to think about this, either. About 1,000 feet away from where I'm typing in my office is Xilinx, a microchip company literally just over the overpass. I'm guessing that some of the same types of people who work where Julie does work at Xilinx as well.

My thoughts about connecting "the church world" with "the real world" coalesced when I ran across the article: The Dave Test, a portion of which I've quoted above. The author, an Episcopal Priest who has written several books, is talking about his (then forthcoming) weekly column: The Spiritual Landscape. However, in my thinking, his vision for his column is precisely the vision I have for the church. That is what I want the church to be, or at least to be more of---a place where people can come with their stories of both joy and loss, triumph and tragedy, wholeness and brokenness, and feel that St. Edward's is a place where they can feel comfortable exploring and thinking about their lives in a spiritual way. I'm not sure exactly what that looks like with in our particular context, and with our particular assets and challenges, but I am sure that we're not there yet. Food for thought, though....

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why don't people go to church?

As we continue to grapple with the many cultural changes swirling around us, perhaps one of the most basic questions we often ask is: "Why don't people go to church?" After all, presumably, we've found a home here at St. Edward's and, if we've been here long enough to feel a part of the St. Edward's family, it probably doesn't occur to us not to go to church. However, for those who are contemplating church for the first time, or for the first time in a long time, church can sometimes be a little intimidating. Look at this video for a great response to the question:

It is worth remembering these things, both in (hopefully!) sharing our own experience of faith with others and in welcoming those who do muster the courage to come through out doors. If you are one of those folks who is contemplating a visit, know that the above video perfectly reflects how we think of church attendance: all are welcome!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Christ is Risen! Now what?

It is Monday of Easter week, and I just got off a conference call with other clergy who are also leading redevelopment efforts in their respective parishes, all in California. It was a smaller group than usual, and we were pretty much all worn out from the busyness of Holy Week. Normally one gets into a rhythm: Monday you de-stress from the wildness of Sunday and, as the week progresses, you do both sermon and other service preparation in amongst all of the other things that leading a church involves--administration, pastoral visits, the occasional solicitation call, and hopefully time for prayer and some personal Bible study as well. With a weekly worship service, there is generally ample time to take a breath before the next Sunday rolls around. Not with Holy Week. We have a comparatively light schedule here (see last week's post), but the tiredness is still there.

There's a deeper weariness, though, that I also heard from my colleagues--the weariness of living in a world that appears stuck in Good Friday (death) while trying to preach and live Easter (resurrection life). It is also quite a challenge to lead an entire church composed of people engaged in this same struggle. What does a mission-minded church faithful to God's call look like in this place and in this time, and how do we get there from here? That is the challenge we face as individuals and as a community of faith.

One person's answer to that question, in that time and in that place, is my colleague Rebecca Stevens, founder of Magdalane. Becca's efforts just "went national" with a spot on National Public Radio (NPR). The story shows what transformation looks like--and how difficult it can be.

Regardless of our own context, the video does demonstrate one truth: we may not be able to do everything, but we can do something. For now, the "something" that our church can and does do is provide a place for various 12-step groups to meet, groups that respond to a real need and that have been life-changing for many people. God may be calling us to do even more, but that's where we are now.

We'll see where we go now....

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Day After Palm Sunday (or "Monday in Holy Week")

Less than an hour ago I finished praying Noonday Prayer as the first in the series of daily liturgies we will move through this Holy Week. We'll repeat Noonday Prayer tomorrow and Wednesday, then move to Eucharist and Stripping of the Altar at 7 p.m. on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday Liturgy and Solemn Collects at Noon on Good Friday, Procession with the Cross from Cambrian Park Plaza Shopping Center at 6 p.m. followed by the Stations of the Cross, then joining Trinity Cathedral on Saturday evening for the Great Vigil of Easter. All in all, a full week!

But for today, it was just me in a semi-darkened church reading Noonday Prayer, surrounded by the Palm Sunday decorations (palm branches reaching to the sky, palm fronds scattered in front of the altar, a lone palm cross left on the floor at the church entrance, etc...). As I prayed, I thought: "What must have that first Monday been like?" After the chaos, celebration, and fear of Palm Sunday, what might it have been like the day after? Perhaps some loose palm fronds scattered along the road, an expectant hush over the city wondering where the revolution (and the revolutionaries!) went, and everywhere the remnants of what must have been a wild day. In a short time, all of the palms will be gone from the church. In likely as short of a time, all traces of celebration would have been gone from the streets of Jerusalem.

I keep thinking about all of the "players" in this drama--Jesus, the disciples, the Pharasees, the crowds--what were they up to that first Monday? A week later and it would all be over--literally, death would be vanquished and the resurrected Jesus would begin a succession of appearances to his disciples. But, for now, the remnants of a celebration, and an expectant waiting....

Monday, March 7, 2011

Lent and "Enough"

As we count the days until Lent (finally!) begins, some of the "self-examination and repentance" might well focus on what we have and how much we need--how much is enough. A recent article entitled "When Rich People Do Stupid Things" makes the point that wealth can be just as addictive as anything else--some people never have enough. On the other hand, one only needs to go as far as St. Paul, who writes:
"I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want." (Philippians 4:12).
Most folks are not the ├╝ber-rich described in the article. Yet how much of our time, energy, even prayers are consumed with consumables? How much of our lives are focused on our next paycheck, our next payout, or our next payback? Time for some self-examination and repentance, perhaps?

The author of the article ends it with the assertion that researchers are in agreement on the following:
"Money isn't the key to happiness. What really gives people meaning and happiness is a combination of four things: Control over what they're doing, progress in what they're pursuing, being connected with others, and being part of something they enjoy that's bigger than themselves."
I think pursuit of wealth is a symptom, not the disease. The problem is that we have (again, literally) been sold a lie--that wealth equals power and control. Who doesn't feel out of control these days? When people feel out of control, they look around for something the can control and that (they believe) can help them control their lives, and wealth is at the top of the list.

It's a lie.

Of course, wealthy people do have more choices than poor people do. The wealthy have more "discretionary income" and so their choices are expended beyond simply needing to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. But wealthy people ultimately have precisely as much control as anyone else--and that is not much. We don't know whether an earthquake will take place tomorrow and wipe out our homes, businesses, even churches (witness the quake in Christchurch, New Zealand). Even individually, we don't know what is going to happen in our lives.

What faith can do, and what church can strengthen, are the last two items in the list: being connected with others, and being part of something they enjoy that's bigger than ourselves. As we enter Lent, perhaps the best self-examination and repentance we could engage in is identifying how much time, effort, money, and even prayer goes in to maintaining that illusion of control and diverting that into strengthening one's own faith in God and support for the church. Who knows? God may do something new...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The times, they are a changin'--fast

In a recent response to a FaceBook posting by Diana Butler Bass regarding the current economic struggles, I wrote:
The challenge is that we are getting to the point (if we're not already there) in which the current model is unaffordable and unsustainable. The same "back to the good old days" mantra that reverberates throughout the church does so in politics and economics as well. The question is: How do we get a sustainable and compassionate economic system and how can we get enough of a momentum shift to elect folks to implement it?
I've previously spoken and written about the fact that the age of Modernity, which began to decay fifty years ago, has reached it's final years, if not months. In the face of the aftermath of the Great Recession, governments from school districts to states to our nation can no longer afford to keep alive the systems and patterns of life that all but the Greatest Generation (who are rapidly dying off...) accept as normal parts of life. We have come to the end of being able even to pretend to afford the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed--economically, socially, ecologically, even spiritually. The difficulty is that as we ask "What next?" very few people are willing to ask the question "How do we get a sustainable and compassionate system?" in any area of life. Most are looking backwards and warning of terrible calamities if some people (generally not them) don't "sacrifice" something to return to the "good old days" of yesteryear. Never mind that the "good old days" were rarely, if ever, good for everyone. In other words, those who look longingly back at the "good old days" are generally those with the most to lose, and thus those with the greatest fear of what is to come. Hence the place we at which we have arrived in our political discourse.

A colleague of mine has recently blogged about the absence of fear by those who have spoken truth to power in Egypt and in other parts of the world. Coincidentally (or perhaps God-incidentally), the Gospel for this coming Sunday addresses exactly this sort of basic fear. Jesus says:
"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-- you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, `What will we eat?' or `What will we drink?' or `What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:24-34)
Keep in mind that Jesus is speaking to people in a much more materially precarious position than most of us are experiencing today. In Jesus' time there was no social safety net, no homeless shelter, no soup kitchen, not even any government that even pretended to be the least bit responsive. The people Jeus is speaking to live a tenuous existence in a region occupied by a hostile foreign army. Human life, as Thomas Hobbes would describe it more than 1500 years later was very often "...nasty, brutish, and short."

The point, then and now, is not to simply sit around hoping and praying for divine provision and deliverance. Jesus doesn't say "don't worry, be happy!" What Jesus does say is "Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness." What that means for us is that we are called not to be paralyzed by worry, nor to react in fear, but to proactively partner with God in bringing God's kingdom to fruition in our own lives and in the lives of the people and systems that surround us. It is a call to action (strive) not reaction (worry). If we can get over our worries and our fears, what might God accomplish through us?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Light and Life: Epiphany

Hail! the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail! the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
risen with healing in His wings.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
-- Charles Wesley(1707-1788), 1739
A little light-hearted (pun intended) offering for today:

Several days ago, we marked the end of the Christmas season on Epiphany (January 6), the celebration of the arrival of the Magi at the stable in Bethlehem. Never mind that the chronology is problematic (i.e. how did they get there in 12 days, and why were Joseph and Mary in the same spot 12 days later, but I digress...). The point (I think...) is that Jesus was worshipped by Jew and Gentile alike from the moment of his birth--there was a recognition that God was doing something new and momentous in the world.

I always choke a bit on Christmas carols, such as Away in a Manger, that like to romanticize the birth narrative of Jesus. There is a sense from these songs that Mary and Joseph wandered into the sleepy little town of Bethlehem after a quick trip down the interstate, dropped by a local Motel 6, saw a "No Vacancy" sign, and settled into a nice comfortable stable where Jesus was born in serene silence with some nice heavenly music playing in the background. To the extent that the story is accurate, what you really have is a young couple forced by the authorities (occupying forces, no less) to make a perilous journey through often dangerous places to a town that had probably quadrupled in population, likely spending at least hours if not days trying to find somewhere, anywhere safe, to have a child that was literally in the process of being born and finally ending up in a cave or shabby outbuilding amongst none-too-clean animals and finding only a feeding trough to lay the newborn Jesus in as Roman soldiers patrolled the streets outside on alert for trouble. I'm guessing that Jesus probably was like most other children and screamed his lungs out at his birth. So, the story is pretty much of a young couple in trying circumstances having a baby in a filthy stable after being exhausted by travel and a fruitless search to find adequate lodging. Hardly the scene for the most important birth in human history!

Oddly enough, the story of the Prince of Peace being born in less-than-ideal circumstances, into a highly unsafe territory occupied by Roman forces gives me plenty of comfort. As I mentioned in my sermon last Sunday, Jesus is not born into peace, Jesus is our peace. God did not wait for ideal circumstances to break into the world in the person of Jesus--the flight into Egypt to avoid Herod's massacre of the children of Bethlehem demonstrates that. What God does do is come into our messy, harried, less-than-ideal lives and transforms them from the inside out. Slowly, even imperceptibly, but constantly and surely.

That's really what this Epiphany season is all about: light in darkness. The liturgical season of Epiphany highlights that in the midst of the winter darkness and cold, the light of Christ breaks in, warming and illuminating our lives. How will we each carry that light into the world?