Friday, July 21, 2017

33rd EPISTLE TO THE NEVADANS: FOR THE FAT LADY


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Prologue: One sunny July morning in 2007, I woke up in one of my favorite cities, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Being a church-going guy, I set out for a nearby old Roman Catholic Church and took a seat near the back. During the first lesson, an elderly – or maybe she had just had a hard life – homeless bag lady came in and sat beside me. During the sermon she nodded off, slumped my way, and slept through the priest’s proclamation with her head on my shoulder. She woke up around the Creed.

I spoke even less Spanish then than I do now. So, the sermon did not stir my soul either. As an Episcopalian, I was not supposed to receive the Sacrament; and I honored the boundaries of the Roman Church.

So, what was the point of my being in Church that morning? One rarely knows the point of what one is going to do before one does it or even while one is doing it. In retrospect, I believe I was there to provide a shoulder for the bag lady’s head.

Maybe Americans are losing interest in going to Church because they were going for the wrong reason in the first place. I have often heard, “I used to go to St. Swithens, but I stopped because I wasn’t getting anything out of it.” That is the cry of the spiritual consumer. I want to ask, “What exactly were you putting into it?” To be clear, I don’t mean “you have to put something into it to get something out of it.” I don’t mean you have to hold up your end of the bargain in a spiritual/ commercial exchange. I mean the point of going may not be to get something out of it. We might go to support others, maybe people we don’t know, maybe some bag lady who wanders in. Maybe we say the Creed not to express our opinions but rather to give voice to the faith someone else may need to keep them going in life.

Community As The Starting Point And the Destination. My last Epistle troubled some people. It was meant to. It troubled them because I argued that individualistic spirituality in which we practice our own private religion, standing alone is not the way practice our faith. http://bishopdansblog.blogspot.com/2017/06/32nd-epistle-to-nevadans-ruth-reality.html Authentic spirituality has its roots in community. I said:
           
Ruth’s religion began in a human relationship. Her God was not her own, not “the God of her own understanding” but the God of someone she loved and the God of a people to whom she had consented to belong. How utterly and shockingly foreign to the individualism of our contemporary culture!

Ruth the Moabite loved Naomi the Jew and chose to be a Jew. To be a Jew was not to make up one’s own idea of God, but to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, the God of Naomi. That understanding of God arose out of an older, larger horizontal flow of human relationship. There were tribes. There was a tribe of Ephraim, a tribe of Zebulun, a tribe of Naphtali, a tribe of Benjamin, a tribe of Judah, 12 tribes in all -- and they each had their god. Some called their god El, some called their god, YHWH. Then Moses drew them all together in a covenant law of freedom, justice, and equality. He convened the 12 tribes, calling them all by a single name, “Schema’ Israel. Hear oh Israel.” Then he continued, “Your God is one. You have the same God. YHWH and El are One. Adonai elohanyu Adonai echad.” They agreed to worship one God, no longer divided over whether god looked like a bull or winged lion but praying together to an imageless nameless God whom they worshiped first and foremost not by sacrifice but by treating each other justly.

In sum, I said authentic spirituality is a group project. It takes the church, the synagogue, the mosque, the sangha, the AA meeting. We need each other. Without each other “the god of our own personal understanding” is a projection of our own psyches, an idol of our own making, not the Wholly/Holy Other who can summon us beyond the prison of our little selves.

The objection to my argument is: what about our own private spiritual practices. Is there no value in that? Is there no point in going to the garden alone? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RadBma-4P4 The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola are a solitary practice. Is faith just group think? Can I love a God with whom I do not meet intimately in solitude? My beloved Byron said,
           
            Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt
            In solitude where we are least alone.
                                                Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

The Place Of Personal Spiritual Practice. Our technology and social structure train us in linear thinking and that makes religion – any mystical religion: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism – hard for us. Religious truths are not linear. They come in paradox. The tension between community and individual spirituality is such a paradox. We pray together our common prayers in order to be sent forth to pray unique prayers privately out of the depths of our unique hearts. We then bring the experience of those one on one meetings with God back into the community, both in our worship and in our care for one another. When I lead a congregation in the common prayers, I can feel without a shred of doubt how much private prayer has gone on the previous week. Without the infusion of spirit from those private encounters with God, our worship together falls flat.

The Gospels recount multiple episodes of Jesus in synagogues and in the Temple, places of common prayer. Jesus was a good Jew and Jews show up. But Jesus also said:

            When you pray, go to your room, close the door,
            and pray to your Father who is in secret . .  .
                                                            Matthew 6: 6


It takes both. Neither works alone. Common prayer that does not draw together the vital private spiritualties of individuals is drudgery. Private spirituality untethered from the community is like a kite with a broken string. It doesn't soar.

The Real Point Of Personal Spiritual Practice. Lest I seem to have made an easy peace with the privatized spirituality of our time, the one I challenged in the Ruth and Reality epistle, I must offer this twist. Most of our private spirituality still misses the mark.

Let me preface this by saying I am talking about my private spirituality too – not just yours. I started meditating to relieve my law school stress. I resumed it awhile back to manage my anxiety. I pray regularly, mostly intercessions for people facing troubles. But the most sincere prayer I ever pray is “Help!” I pray hardest when I’m the one in trouble. That’s where I am and I do not criticize you for not being better than I am. This self-focus is where we all start.

But if our private prayer is stuck in private agendas – like I want to get in a spiritual zone or I want to feel elated or I need some peace – natural and legitimate as those things may be, they are not enough. Private spiritual practice does not achieve its end unless it transcends those consumerist goals of “getting something out of it.”

St. Mary of Paris (thank you Bishop Matthew Gunther for calling this to my attention) said:

            The way to God lies through love of other people. At
                   the Las Judgment, I shall not be asked how 
            successful I was in my ascetical practices nor how    
            many and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be         
            asked: Did you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, 
            visit the sick and the prisoners? . . . . I always knew it
            but now it has penetrated my very sinews. If fills me 
            with awe.”

Our prayers do move God but only as God already desires to be moved. They invite God into our lives. When God enters our lives, we are changed – as St. Mary was changed. The change is not the sort a spiritual consumer might choose. The change does not chill us out or put us in a perpetual zone of comfort. The change leads us not out of this troubled world but more deeply into it, just as God plunged into it and went to the Cross with us and for us. Authentic spiritual practice should come with a warning label. Actually, it does. The Bible.

So, here’s the point. I went to Church that morning, not to understand the sermon – I didn’t – not to receive the Blessed Sacrament – I didn’t. I was there to provide a shoulder where the bag lady could rest her head. When I pray alone, it is no different. Even if I am praying for myself or savoring God in nature or entering into wordless imageless contemplation of the Ultimate Mystery, it isn’t about me. It’s about the bag lady. It’s for her.

And who is the bag lady? My beloved mystics and contemplatives, for the love of God, read, mark, and inwardly digest Franny and Zoey by J. D. Salinger, the greatest mystical novelist of our time. No one loved solitude more than Salinger. But read Franny and Zooey, the story of two young actors whose departed older brother Seymour was their guru. In the novel, Franny has discovered the Jesus Prayer and given herself to it a bit too whole heartedly in her brother Zooey’s opinion, At the end, Zooey reminds Franny how when they were child actors their brother Seymour would admonish them to shine their shoes, to be funny, to do their actor’s art “for The Fat Lady.” The book ends with Zooey’s corrective to Franny’s private spiritual quest.

(Seymour) never told me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time . . .. This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on the porch all day, swatting flies, the radio going full blast from morning till night. . .. (S)he probably had cancer. …. Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that yet? Don’t you know that g**d*** secret yet? And don’t you know – listen to me now – don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . . Ah buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.

Walk your labyrinths. Recite your mantras. Do your lectio divina, your active imagination with Scriptures. Pray your own way in your own time and place – but do it for the Fat Lady.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

32nd EPISTLE TO THE NEVADANS: RUTH & REALITY


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Whither thou goest I will go.
Thy people shall be my people,
and thy god; my god. 
Ruth

No passage of Scripture is more central to the spiritual crisis of our time, the choice we each and all must make, the heart of our faith. 

I.               The horizontal floor beneath the pillar of faith.

This is the wonky reflection on the Bible as literature leading into philosophy. So, if you want to get to the point, feel free to skip to section 2. But if you want to know where I get the point, this is it.

Ruth did not go on a solitary vision quest, meet “the God of her own understanding” (necessarily the unique god-image residing inside each human skull as a result of our neurology and early childhood experiences), and work out “her own personal relationship” with that individual idea. Her way was quite the opposite.

I mean no disrespect for individual vision quests. There is a place for “the hero’s journey.” Ancient cultures enshrined it. Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Black Elk, and Jesus all went on them. Even I have gone on a few. But the ancient heroes went out from a community and returned to a community. At the end of his quest Gilgamesh exclaimed, “Lo, the walls of Uruk!” and resumed his civic duties. Odysseus found his way home to his family and the kingdom of Ithaca. Black Elk became heyokah of the Lakota Sioux.  Jesus returned from the desert because the Spirit of the Lord had anointed him, not “to go his own way” but to “proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4) It wasn’t about them. They went out for their people and returned for their people to serve and sometimes lead their people. 

Ruth’s religion began in a human relationship. Her God was not her own, not “the God of her own understanding” but the God of someone she loved and the God of a people to whom she had consented to belong. How utterly and shockingly foreign to the individualism of our contemporary culture!

Ruth the Moabite loved Naomi the Jew and chose to be a Jew. To be a Jew was not to make up one’s own idea of God, but to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, the God of Naomi. That understanding of God arose out of an older, larger horizontal flow of human relationship. There were tribes. There was a tribe of Ephraim, a tribe of Zebulun, a tribe of Naphtali, a tribe of Benjamin, a tribe of Judah, 12 tribes in all -- and they each had their god. Some called their god El, some called their god, YHWH. Then Moses drew them all together in a covenant law of freedom, justice, and equality. He convened the 12 tribes, calling them all by a single name, “Schema’ Israel. Hear oh Israel.” Then he continued, “Your God is one. You have the same God. YHWH and El are One. Adonai elohanyu Adonai echad.” They agreed to worship one God, no longer divided over whether god looked like a bull or winged lion but praying together to an imageless nameless God whom they worshiped first and foremost not by sacrifice but by treating each other justly. 

A different process produces a different result. Discovering the unique god-image residing inside our skull reveals one sort of deity, perhaps one we love, perhaps one we hate, but who he, she, or it is we can readily know as it is our own god. We own him because we made him up. The god arising from a network of human caring, on the other hand, is quite different – most fundamentally in that such a god is not the work of our own hands (idol) but rather something arising out of a wider, deeper, older reservoir of human relationship. The “god of our own understanding is smaller than us, because we created it and we can change it. The God arising out of a deep and wide sea of relationship is bigger than we are and just might change us. 

What does “God” even mean when it comes about in such a way?

“God” is the notion that we (not I – we) come from somewhere and that we are headed somewhere. “The whence and the whither,” Karl Rahner called it. To combine the “whence and the whither” in the single notion of “God” is to say that neither is random. They are connected. “My end is in my beginning.” (T. S. Eliot).  “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” (Revelation) There is a pattern and course to each life and to the history of our world. This all means something, amounts to something. It is not “a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing” (Shakespeare) but a story with a coherent plot and even, God help us, a theme, perhaps a moral. The story of life is not assorted words randomly scattered on a page but a novel worth reading, even living. What that “whence, whither,” and meaning are is beyond our grasp – but we must believe they exist albeit mysteriously if we are to have any framework, any structure for our relationships – a floor on which to dance, a melody we can sing together. So, we agree there is a meaning of which we can apprehend only “hints and guesses” (Eliot), and we agree to stammer about it together in poems we have agreed to recite together. They are at best partly accurate. The importance is not as much in their accuracy as in the togetherness of our reciting them. The constraints on inaccuracy are measured by the togetherness. A “God is love” (1st John) divinity flows naturally from such a relational religion. A god of wrath and judgment would be quite another matter. Such a god is more apt to be the “god our own personal understanding” based on unfortunate early childhood experiences or a life in a traumatized and traumatizing culture. 

Our central Christian sacraments are Baptism and Communion. To be baptized is to be claimed, to belong, to be born anew into a family of faith. It is to say, “Thy people shall be my people; and thy God, my God.” Communion is to live into that bond. It is to place ourselves on a single altar, giving ourselves to one God, to receive our life back from that one God, eating from one loaf, drinking from one cup.” Those rites are not symbolic expressions of something each of us has individually experienced. They are rather an experience of one-ness with each other, out of which our faith in the One-ness (Coherence) of Reality is formed. With that bond to each other and that sense of our common source and common destiny, we say “Whither thou goest, I will go.” 

2.         I Believe In One Reality

There are good reasons things are the way they are in our time. By “the way things are” I mean we are radically rebellious, passionately individualistic. We deify our own wills and worship them by asserting our wills against those of others. The result is loneliness, alienation, meaninglessness, cynicism, and despair – not to mention injustice and violence both random and systemic. But there are good reason things are the way they are in our time. 

For centuries, we lived with rigid hierarchies constructed for the hoarding by elites of political power and economic wealth, and buttressed by religions corrupted by their political and economic context. (Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood). We began pushing off the weight of those hierarchical traditions in the 18th Century, only to have horrifically totalitarian regimes take their place in the 20th and 21st. “It is right, good, and a joyful thing” that we fight back against such oppression. The Abrahamic religions were born in just such a rebellion when YHWH said, “I have heard my people cry. Go tell Pharaoh, ‘let my people go.’” Jesus said the Spirit of the Lord was on him “to proclaim release to the captive . . . to let the oppressed go free.” Paul said, “For freedom, Christ has set us free.”

The tragedy is that in rebelling against oppression, we have turned against one another. We have set our face against our neighbor. We have gone our own way. I know of a priest who died recently and wanted at his funeral, not “For all the saints who from their labors rest” – not a song of sweet reunion with “those angel faces . . . whom I have loved long since, and lost awhile” – but “I did it my way.” Your god is not my god. My god is my god. In truth if “god” is my highest value, my guiding principle, then I am my god as you are your god, which makes each of us an infidel to the other’s religion. 

In those days, there was no king in Israel and each man did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges)

Hey, hey, you, you,
Get off of my cloud! (The Rolling Stones) 

Your god is not my god; nor your people, my people. 
Whither thou goest, I shalt not go.
We will each go our own way – alone!

How would we expect such a cultural irreligiosity to play out politically?  Obviously, in rancorous division and hostility. In the 19th Century, the French social scientist Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America, exploring the question of whether our American experiment could possibly survive. He said, the worm in the American apple was individualism but the project might yet be saved by one thing – our churches! Worshiping together forged our bonds as a people. He did not mean that we all worshiped in the same way. It is not an agreement about theology. But it is that we come together, forge faith together, practice religion as a team sport that makes democracy possible. It is not the content of the beliefs but the network of relationship and the quality of character it forms. 

Today, three forces – each arising out of individualism -- sow the seeds of chaos: atheism, apathism, and privatized spirituality. Many new atheists treat Christians with contempt attributing all sorts of silly notions to us – chiefly that we think there is a Super Being dwelling on a distant planet from which he magically manipulates events here. I will not disrespect atheism in kind by saying it simply a denies that Super Being. Proper atheism (Hume, Nietzsche, Mackie, and Hecht) being heroic examples) denies that there is any coherent connection between our whence and our whither, that there is any meaning to this whole adventure. It is in fact “a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” There is no right and wrong (Kant equated God with the Moral Order so to be an atheist one denies that there such a thing as right and wrong), only personal preference. There is no Beauty, only what suits my fancy. And here’s the kicker, there is no Truth. I have heard for years, “That may be true for you but that doesn’t make it true for me.” Truth is just what I make up in my head. In our time, that subjectivism has come to a solipsistic crescendo.

Apathism does not take the ultimate question of what matters in life seriously enough to pose an answer yay or nay. It is to say I am not sufficiently interested in other people to care about their deepest value. Privatized spirituality – the “spiritual but not religious” -- gives free reign to each of the gods “of our own personal understanding(s).” It is to sing, “I did it my way” as a Gospel hymn. All three reject shared faith per se regardless of its content. We choose to sing only solos, to live in private worlds. 

The result is: each of us creates our own set of facts. We each dwell in our own separate reality. Your sun may rise in the East if you like, but if I prefer to believe the sun rises in the North, then by (my) god, that’s where it rises. 

            Whither thou goest, I shalt not go.

I have in recent years heard people seriously arguing that the earth is flat and that the round earth is propaganda used to manipulate us. I have likewise heard that the heliocentric solar system is a hoax. The overwhelming evidence that global warming is happening and that carbon emissions contribute to it is dismissed not just by random nutcases but by people to whom we have entrusted real power. I hear people believe the FBI bugged the President because he says so, but when the FBI explains that they were bugging a Russian gambling ring in Trump tower, that cannot be believed because the source is “the government.” People believe wild memes on social media if those memes fit the reality in which they chose to live, but refuse to believe news from reputable journalistic sources because they “don’t trust the press.” 
Political leaders confronted with “facts” that belie their claims do not argue the evidence but appeal to “alternative facts.” We believe reports that suit our agenda but regard all else as “fake news.” Reality is not a given to deal with. It is a fantasy we each construct in our own imaginations. 

This flows from an implicit theological premise: If God is the ground of Reality, and if we each get to construct our own god, it follows as the night the day, we can each make up whatever facts we choose to believe.

No less skeptical a philosopher than Jacques Derrida says the very project of science itself rests on the faith that there is a coherence to be discovered through observation and experimentation. (Believing In Order To See) The post-modern repudiation of God leads inexorably to the repudiation of science and the disbelief in any objective reality where we might live together. 


3. So What’s The Question?

The question is secondarily about God. Primarily it’s about our relationship with each other. Is it still possible, are we still capable of saying one frail fallible mortal human being to another,

Whither thou goest I will go,
and thy people shall be my people;
and thy god; my god?

I can construct a pretty good rational argument for God – not a proof but an argument that shows belief on God (Rahner’s “whence and whither” – not the Super Being on a distant planet) is a reasonable and desirable conviction to hold. Much brighter people than I – philosophers, theologians, and yes, some scientists -- have made more convincing cases than I could ever attempt. But none of that does any good on the front end.

On the front end, faith is a matter of the heart. Credo – “I give my heart.” And the first movement of the heart is between people. It isn’t between me and a sunset. It’s between us, you and me. It is the horizontal human relationship which constitutes the floor on which the vertical pillar, our relationship with God, must rest. 

Social, political, and economic systems have oft-times been disillusioning. They have also sustained the human race through the millennia. I do not say that to defend them as good – only to say that some sort of system is essential to our survival. How are we to deal wi†h our natural ambivalence about the fact (if we are willing †o concede there are facts) that we are all in this together. We need each other.  Is there a way we can live together, not just materially but spiritually, can we discern meaning together? I do not mean utopian harmony. I just mean the mixed and muddled business of being a body politic instead of the dystopian chaos into which we seem to be sinking. 

We often bandy about the term “social construct.” It applies to a norm, a custom, a way of doing things, or a belief that things are a certain way. A social construct means people have collectively made it up. We don’t usually mean anything good when we say such and such is “just a social construct” since it is neither scientifically proven (now even science is not being called “a social construct”) nor an expression of our individual creativity. 

But the things humankind has made together can be impressive – languages, architecture, technology, democratic institutions. If we socially construct our ways of living and loving, our ways of sensing and expressing meaning, perhaps we might find a kinder way to regard what we have done together. Things we might call a social construct today have in years past been called such things as “the Mayflower Compact,” “the Magna Carta,” “the Covenant of Israel.” 

Do we dare risk our individual selves in the hope that we might find ourselves larger, deeper, kinder, lovelier, better in relationship with one another. Might we dare to inhabit a world not of our own making, even pray to a God we did not invent in our own solitary laboratory? 

If we choose to do so, we might swim in a very large sea of humanity. We might join with humanity around the world, in ages past, and in ages yet to come. What is the question? It is a question of courage. Ruth is the model of such courage. The courage to love. 

Whither thou goest I will go.
Thy people shall be my people,
and thy god; my god. 















Sunday, April 2, 2017

30TH EPISTLE TO THE NEVADANS: WE LACK ONE THING


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

After wandering in our desert for nigh unto a decade, my understanding of the challenge we face has distilled in the heat of our sun. It has been a purgation as all sorts of ideas, feelings, and attitudes have been burned away.

The question I ask now may not be of immediate or obvious interest to you. I tie my mind in knots over how to be the Church. You are struggling with your daily lives of family, work, relationships, finances, and all the stuff that makes up a life. What I am struggling with matters to you only if two things are true:

1   1. The key to living any aspect of our life is the Christian faith that defines the meaning of         everything we do. Religion is not a category apart from our other activities. It is the core of all of them.

2.  2. Christianity is a team sport. We are shaped Christoform through our participation in the Body of Christ, the Church. Individualistic me-&-Jesus spirituality is a modern – mostly American – invention. It is not the faith of the New Testament or centuries of Christian tradition. To Jesus and the apostles, this faith can only be practiced together.

If either of those points is false, there is no need to read further. But, if they both might be true, then this could be important.

I have prayed for the Diocese of Nevada daily for so many years now. At first I prayed for specific things until I came to believe we needed absolutely everything. So, I prayed “God we need it all. We need more people, more leadership, more vision, more passion, more money, more buildings. We need it all. We’ll take anything you’ve got to offer.” And I prayed it with a desperation worthy of the psalmist.

While I prayed, I offered and promoted programs and assistance in various kinds of ministry. Most failed. Occasionally, some met with moderate success. One of them has made significant in-roads for some congregations. But we still live on the edge, just getting by. Why is that?

Two things have slapped me awake this year. They have been happening all along. But they finally came together to bring me to the ground zero of being the Church in Nevada. They have brought me on my knees to Mark 10: 17-21 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+10%3A17-21&version=NIV and Luke 10: 38-42 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+10%3A+38-42&version=NIV. You may do well to read those texts before going on so you’ll know where we’re headed.

The first wake up point was seeing how we treat each other in our congregations. In those congregations that are declining, the reason is plain as the nose on one’s face: People behave deplorably toward one another. Insults fly. Plots thicken. Ultimatums are thrown down. “If you don’t do x, I’m leaving.” The issues are usually of near comic insignificance, but the passion invested is over “getting my way.”

But if you bite and devour one another, watch out or you will be destroyed by one another. – Galatians 5: 15

It is no wonder contentious groups do not attract or retain people. Self-preservation dictates keeping our distance.

Such conduct is human nature as far as group behavior is concerned. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion wrote about it in Experiences In Groups. We use fight-flight to self-sabotage and defeat our real mission, the actual point that brought us together. I do not judge or condemn. It is merely human behavior. But that doesn’t make it Christian. The entire thrust of the New Testament is that we are not bound to merely human behavior. For those of us who are “in Christ,” it is possible to be an entirely different kind of community -- a community that heals, empowers, and sanctifies us, transforming us from glory unto glory into the likeness of Our Savior.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed            away. Behold the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5: 17

We are “in Christ” if we are in the Body of Christ, the Church, if we are baptized. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to live in the way prescribed by the New Testament and not remain enslaved to the world’s ways so well analyzed by Wilfred Bion. The Hymn to Love in 1 Corinthians 13 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+13&version=NIV  is not about marriage but how to be the Church. The Epistles are all about the art of community.

Yet even our congregations that are doing well on the institutional vitality scale are riven by people treating each other in sub-Christian ways. Nor is this limited to congregations. I sometimes see our Diocese acting hurtfully, judgmentally, unkindly, shackled by pharisaic law rather than flying free in the Spirit of love with joyful expectation for the Kingdom Mission.   

In a word, we are not behaving like Christians. Naturally, we welcome people who are not spiritually mature so there are bound to be incidents we regret. But I am saying something more fundamental. Our norms of behavior are not Christian. Why would that be? That question leads to the second wake up call.

I have heard from several of our leaders and leadership groups, sometimes reporting what they hear from congregations, about what we as a Diocese care about, what deep down matters to us. I hear that our congregations just want a building and a priest. Some value the camp’s enjoyment of wholesome outdoor activities. Some value charitable activities which could well be tied to the gospel, but I have not heard them tied to the gospel and they are the same charitable activities secular groups offer.

What I hear about our mission is not at all bad. It sounds as if we are lonely and want to connect with each other as friends. Some of us want to do a bit of worthy community service. There is nothing wrong with that. Indeed, it is good. If a secular service club named these priorities, I’d say that’s just fine. But what rocks me is that I have heard literally nothing – not virtually nothing, literally nothing -- about the Christian faith. I get the sense that we are serving a secular cake with Christian sprinkles. If that’s all we’re doing, I would still vote for it but I wouldn’t campaign for it or contribute to support the cause. When I notice that about myself, the reason most of our congregations cannot mount stewardship campaigns or engage in evangelism suddenly becomes obvious.

I feel that all the technical fixes for the Church have finally been distilled away. We need one thing – except it is not a thing – it is a person: Jesus.

When the rich young man came to Jesus seeking eternal life, Jesus gave him the to-do list of his time and place. We have our to-do list of Church projects and some of us do them. But when the young man said he had checked all the boxes, Jesus replied, “You lack one thing.” He told him to sell all he had. But that is not the “one thing.” That is just clearing the path of his many things so he can choose the one thing. “Come, follow me.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o469PRLdbHU

Martha of Bethany had her to-do list. She was bustling about the house like priest and altar guild on Sunday morning while Mary sat at the feet of the Master. When Martha demanded that Jesus shoo Mary away, Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are . . . upset about many things. Few things are needed – indeed, only one. Mary has chosen the better part.” Mary chose a relationship with Jesus.

Here’s what I believe. There are scores of congregational development programs that would, in principle, help us do a better job of Church. There are behavioral covenant models that, in principle, would lead to us treating each other more civilly. There are stewardship methods that would raise more money and evangelism programs that would swell our ranks – all in principle. But there’s a problem. They are like a manual on better farming practices. Back in the 40s, a young man was trying to sell an old farmer a manual on farming but the old farmer replied, “Son, I’m not farming half as good as I know how, as it is.”


Our challenge isn’t knowing churchmanship. It’s knowing Jesus. It’s deciding to follow him heart and soul, not just as individuals but as a community. It would mean living for the Kingdom Mission because that’s the only thing that makes our lives count. If we fall in love with Our Savior and follow where he leads we will, as the song says, “never be the same.” Then and only then will all the programs make a whit of difference.