Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: A Church Odyssey

As the first decade of the new millennium comes to a close, there will be innumerable "top 10" lists, retrospectives, and even a few forecasts for the future. For myself, 2010 saw me complete my first year as Priest-in-Charge of St. Edward's, move into the Rectory (cutting my commute from 40 minutes to 40 seconds, as I like to say), and launch our new two-service Sunday morning schedule. It also saw us make some significant beginnings in addressing long-deferred maintenance on both our buildings and our programs. Sadly, the year ended with a decision to close the preschool we've been sponsoring for more than seven years. In many ways if feels a lot like the Rectory looked in early August halfway through the renovation--lots of potential, but lots of mess and a lot of work to do!

I think that is perhaps my chief reflection on my own ministry this year--a sense of digging into everything, clearing away accumulated stuff, and really getting a sense of the challenges ahead for me and for this church. These challenges are by no means unique to St. Edward's! We recently completed an Advent series where we invited my colleague and former Interim Rector here at St. Edward's, the Reverend John Buenz, to talk to us about "What's happening in our world?" and to suggest some trends worth watching. While there are many, the bottom line is that the era of the Christendom-based institutional church that simply opens its doors and welcomes the hordes of people clamoring to enter is finally dead after decades of decline. Few people not already in church are waking up on Sunday morning with the idea "Hey, I really need to find a great church to attend this morning!" The beauty of our buildings and our liturgy is lost on those who would never think of walking in the door.

As I've been reflecting upon this, and upon the spiritual hunger that still permeates our culture, I've come to one conclusion that seems pretty obvious: It's all about Jesus. What I mean by that is that it is not all about the church for the church's sake, but the church for Christ's sake. The purpose of the church, if one cuts through all of the flowery and perhaps overly theological language, is to introduce people to a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ, to facilitate the growth of that relationship by linking them with fellow spiritual pilgrims, and to equip them to express that relationship in the world in word and deed. Period.

That purpose is why I do what I do as Priest-in-Charge. That's why we gather on Sunday morning. That's why I just spent a couple of hours choosing hymns for our 8:30 a.m. service for the next two months. That's why we keep the lights on, the rooms heated, and the roof fixed. That's why we invest money in both buildings and programs. That's why we close down programs--not to save money per se, but because we believe that God is calling us in a new direction best served in a different way. It isn't all about the church, it's all about Jesus. In 2011, St. Edward's will no doubt focus on the question: "What can we do, as St. Edward's Episcopal Church in San Jose, California, to better introduce people to Jesus, disciple them to maturity in their faith, and send them out as witnesses to the world?" In working out the answer to this question, I have the able assistance of our new Priest Associate for Evangelism, the Reverend Julie Nelson. I look forward to that process of discovery!

As the church considers how to make real its own mission, I will also be thinking about what can I do as Priest-in-Charge to both model that and help it happen. Certainly one aspect of that will be to revive my own journey of discovery of Jesus, discipleship, and service in Christ's name. The institutional church often imposes a heavy administrative burden that can distract clergy from tending their spiritual life, and I have found that to be true for me in 2010. So, as St. Edward's discovers its spiritual heart, I will be re-discovering mine as well.  Stay tuned....

Friday, November 12, 2010

Church: Closed Castle or Open Community?

In this twenty-first century, post-Christian, post-modern world, the church is having to re-assess how it relates to the world around it. Phyllis Tickle wrote a book about this, entitled The Great Emergence, in which she advanced the idea that the church and the world go through these massive paradigm shifts every 500 years--in the time of Jesus at the turn of millennium, at 500 C.E with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, in 1000 C.E. with (among other things) the Great Schism between Eastern and Western Christianity, in 1500 C.E. with the Protestant Reformation, and now in the post 2000 C.E. time with post-Modernism and the information age.

One interesting commentary on how we interact with the world is a recent article which asks the church to "stop policing the borders of Christianity." The author's point is that Christianity is more interested in maintaining purity than in growing community. This is the old "be in the world but not of the world" conundrum--how does one prevent becoming indistinguishable from the world while still following Jesus, who "took the form of a servant," literally incarnating God on earth? This is a significant challenge, as the prevailing attitude about Christians is that we're "not of this world" in all of the wrong ways--that we're more judgmental, rigid, and unloving than the world around us! Yet as the world becomes yet more polarized, we have a prime opportunity to express what Christianity is, not just what it is not. This risk-taking, get-your-hands-dirty, earthy Christianity is precisely what Jesus modeled for us. He ate with people with whom he shouldn't have been sharing a table, touched people who were unclean, and generally eschewed purity in favor of one-on-one interactive love for all people.

This does not mean that Jesus wasn't interested in how people lived their lives. He repeatedly points out sin when he encounters it, but he doesn't do so by shouting down from the ramparts of the holier-than-thou castle, he does so as he interacts with real people, with real problems, in real situations. In fact, Jesus has some rather harsh things to say about the religious authorities of the day who require high standards of purity from others and who, while ritually pure, have some serious problems with the "love your neighbor as yourself" commandment.

As we enter the twenty-first century, one of the biggest trends in the church is moving from a buildings-based, "mighty fortress" mentality of us against the world to a risk-taking, get dirty, work among folks, community-building mentality. It may not be as visually impressive, and it is certainly a lot more risky, but it is perhaps a truer version of the Gospel then all of the stained glass we have. The challenge is to turn these buildings from sanctuaries from the world for Christians into sanctuaries from the wold for everyone.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Heart of the Church

Ever since the fire at the VTS Chapel a week ago, I've been thinking about the nature of this thing we call the church. Fr. Tim Schenck points out in his blog, the chapel was and is the heart of the seminary, so the heart of both the seminary and the people that have found a home there, is wounded. Adding to that thinking process has been the recent dust-up at Executive Council regarding the remarks of the Presiding Bishop regarding the need to change the way the church is governed. We are also in the very beginning stages of putting some flesh on the bones (perhaps appropriate for Halloween!) of the vision and mission that we have discerned for St. Edward's. Now, the question becomes: What do we actually want to do? What is the heart of who we are as a church and how do we communicate that?

Whether one is planting a church or re-planting one, as we are, there is the perennial question: What kind of church do we want to be and how do we live that out in what we do? I've blogged about those issues with respect to St. Edward's, but I'm also doing some personal reflection as well. I'm a 42 year old man, raised in both the church and in Silicon Valley, married for almost two decades, and with two children. In many ways, I'm exactly the kind of person that the church--any church--most wants to attract and keep. Somewhat ironically, my own position as Priest-in-Charge at St. Edward's is at least partially dependent on attracting and keeping people like me. The question then becomes, what do I want in a church and what would cause me to come, join, and stay at one?

Others are thinking of this as well. George Bullard wrote a recent article about the "back door" of churches, or why newcomers that are warmly welcomed at the front door, slip out the "back door" and leave the church within a year. He writes about the need for people to "make attendance a habit," by which he means attend between 39 and 42 Sundays a year (in this modern, mobile culture). He also suggests that people need to be given the opportunity to get connected with a small group or Sunday School class, to develop deep relationships (some of which hopefully have predated their arrival at church), and to "get to work"--becoming actively involved with a ministry of the church.

After reading that article and reflecting on my own situation, it strikes me that the biggest challenge I have with being a Christian is one that I'm sure I share with others my age--the fact that I have both very limited time and the fact that the pace of the world is frantic enough that it often seems to preclude opportunities for deep prayer, introspection, and relationship-building. I haven't personally been in a small prayer and sharing group for more than eight years, and while I pray and study the Bible as a professional, it is also true that I sometimes come to the end of the day without having had a personal time of prayer and study. Obviously, involvement in a ministry of the church is not a problem!

What it boils down to for me, and, I suspect, for my contemporaries, is that the church needs to both offer the opportunities for relationship-building (with God and with others), be very clear and obvious that it is doing precisely and intentionally that, and convince people like me that it is worth my time to set some aside in order to take advantage of those opportunities. We are not a service club, a college, or a restaurant. We don't simply offer volunteer opportunities for their own sake, teaching for its own sake, or serve food (unless you count either bread and wine or the occasional potluck!). What we do offer, at our best, is a relationship with God and others that is potentially transformational. Hopefully we can communicate that!

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Loss of the VTS Chapel

Today at 3:55 p.m EST (12:55 p.m. my time) the chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary, my alma mater, burned to the ground. While it is true that it appears as merely bricks and mortar, the chapel  has been a special place ever since it was built 129 years go.  All of the usual things are thought and said--"it was only a building," they will rebuild," and "thank God no one was hurt." All are true. However, they do not lessen the sadness I feel on this night. Unlike some others, I was neither married nor ordained in that chapel. Yet I spent three years praying there each day in the fourth pew back on the right-hand side, looking at all of the memorial plaques from those who had gone before, listening to the organ, and allowing the decades of history to seep into my soul. The chapel is literally a shell of its formal self now, and I grieve its loss.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Visionary Leadership vs. Cult of Personality (updated)

UPDATE: I just ran across the following video presentation on Steve Jobs and Apple Computer. It has a lot to say about the cult of personality verses a culture of vision:

One of the things I struggle with in my own ministry is how proactive to be in my leadership. I've seen (mostly evangelical) churches where the pastor (or, sometimes, the pastor and his wife) are front and center in advertisements and promotional materials, and it is very clear that this is "Pastor X's Church." Among the many difficulties with that is that when the pastor moves on or, God forbid, has some moral failing, that loss has an incredibly huge impact on the congregation, much more so than it might if the pastor were just another staff member. How do you have Pastor X's Church without Pastor X? On the other side, it is quite clear that the pastor of any church has enormous impact in all areas of church life--spiritual, financial, programming, etc... Leadership does matter, and as much as we talk about delegating authority and broadening our leadership base, someone has to be the point person and say "We're going THERE!" Committees don't do that nearly as well as a single individual.

The other issue with a single leader versus a shared leadership model is the cognitive dissonance that people go through. On the one hand, people crave clarity and stability and so are often happy to follow a leader who is self-assured and at least appears to have a good grasp on things. On the other hand, there is a deep distrust in our country of people with any sort of power. We can see it at work in our national politics, with the warnings of people "taking over" or "ramming things through." We seem to be intellectually more comfortable with distributed power and shared leadership, but our hearts know what our brains often forget--there is no substitute for a clear vision and direction and a visionary leader to cast that vision and support it.

As we enter October, the church moves from the rush of the beginning of the program year to thinking about what is variously called stewardship season, the Fall Pledge Drive, or any number of other names. It is a time when we quite literally ask people to buy into a vision, to support it with both their money and their time. The more specific and compelling that vision is, presumably the easier it is to achieve such buy-in. Yet this is not my church, it is God's church and the congregation can do far more collectively than I can do individually. So we are back to the conundrum--do we make the pastor the focus in the interest of having a more focused vision or do we have a more distributed leadership in the interest of sharing power and inviting more participation? Like anything else, it is a delicate dance...

Monday, September 13, 2010

Keeping Balance in the Midst of Transitions

As many are aware, I'm in the midst of a family transition at the same time as my parish is in the midst of a programmatic one. Early this month, we moved in to church-owned housing from our temporary housing where we had been since October. On the positive side, my commute is substantially shorter, and we're all settling in to the neighborhood well. On the negative side, it still has that "this isn't our house" vibe, mostly because it is so new and we haven't moved all of our things in yet, much less put up pictures and done other things to personalize it. Ironically, it seems more temporary than our temporary housing seemed! I know that will pass, but it is nonetheless disquieting.

At the same time, St. Edward's has embarked on a new journey--a two-service schedule. At 8:30 a.m. we have a traditional Rite I (Elizabethian English) communion service with hymns. At 10 a.m. we have a Rite II (modern English) service with contemporary music. We have had great success with both so far, with a combined attendance last Sunday of 63 people! At the same time, there are always issues when something new comes about, not the least of which is that I'm needing to get back some balance in my own life as both my family and I settle in to our new house and the parish settles in to our new schedule.

Hence the reason I'm blogging on what used to be my day off--I've decided to take Mondays as an "Administration and Study Day" and make Fridays my day of the week off. Hopefully, that will mean more time and energy for my family as I close the door of the office on Thursday evening and don't re-open it until Sunday morning. With my office and home so much closer, maintaining boundaries becomes both much more difficult and much more important as well.

So, after this brief foray into personal blogging, my plan is to do some prayer and study for a while and see where God takes me!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Run-up to Fall: On the Lookout for God

I've checked this blog often (it serves as the "menu" for blogs I'm following) but haven't really felt moved to commit any thoughts to a post, and now summer is almost over and nothing has been written here since the beginning of summer! Perhaps that is appropriate, as summer is generally regarded as the season in which we step back from our hectic pace, take time to relax, and step away from the busyness of life.

That is decidedly not the description of my summer! Summer here at St. Edward's has been spent in a flurry of reorganizations, upgrades, and various events large and small. Our preschool is in the process of undergoing a re-start as "Roots and Wings Christian Preschool," the Rectory is in the final week or so of a complete renovation, the trees around the property have been cut back, and I am laboring in these final weeks of summer to finalize the selection of a worship leader in preparation for the launch of our new service schedule on September 5! All of this, while other more mundane things continue to happen--40 to 50 people show up and worship together on Sunday mornings, tithes and offerings come in, bills are received and paid, and the normal everyday business of church is accomplished.

It is in that context that I find myself keeping an eye out for God's presence. I'm finishing up Sara Miles' first book entitled Take This Bread, in which she recounts her experience of coming to faith in Christ through being offered a piece of bread at the communion table at St. Gregory of Nissa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, California--just up the highway from here. Though she takes a decidedly non-traditional route to faith, she makes some good points about looking for God in the mundane, the everyday, and especially in mundane, everyday, flawed human beings. So, I'm keeping a lookout....!

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Leader or Nutcase? Time and followers will tell...

I'm in the midst of a challenging period in my ministry. Challenging in a good way, but challenging nonetheless. The challenge is that I've gotten what I've prayed for--a parish eager to grow and knowing that there is a clear choice between growing and thriving or shrinking and dying. Many churches, though they say that they want to grow, are perfectly happy just the way they are. St. Edward's, thankfully, is not one of them.

That's not to say life is without difficulties. We're ending the time of transition between the former Rector's tenure and where we hope to be in the near future. This summer is a turning point, a tipping point, between the old St. Edward's and the new St. Edward's. As we end the transition and look towards the future, we also are spending money previously thought of as inviolate--walled off from being touched and, in some ways, a part f the parish's identity. We're having to let go of that identity a bit, without any real assurance about the future. To add to that, we're discovering as we go that, much like when one renovates a home, as we explore further we discover issues that need to be addressed, sometimes requiring more funding than originally anticipated. While I'm sure of our direction, such discoveries nevertheless give me pause.

My seminary classmate and Bishop of Texas, The Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle (Andy to me) passed along the following to Episcopal Café. I think it is really an interesting commentary on leadership:

This was personally a revelation to me in a number of ways. The biggest is that it takes almost more courage to he a "first follower" than it does to be a leader. You can be a leader and be a nutcase. However, as a follower, you have the choice to follow or not to follow a given leader. Once someone gains a few followers, it is no longer about the leader.  I'd really like to get to that point, though we're still early in my time at St. Edward's. One challenge, of course, is that the priest is the identified leader and there is a continued differentiation between the priest and the lay leadership (vestry, ministry leaders, etc...) It is only when you get a large enough group to actually obscure the priest that such a person simply becomes nothing more than a rather specialized ministry leader. Food for thought about how I can become such a person.

Besides dancing with my shirt off, that is. No one wants to see that. Trust me.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Ministry Navigation in Uncharted Waters

As we continue in the beginning year of this second decade of the new millennium, it is becoming increasingly evident that we are beginning to embark on a journey into uncharted waters. Whether politically, socially, or even religiously, we are seeing institutions, the rationale behind such institutions, and the ability to fund them adequately, rapidly eroding in the face of a substantially more diverse and less duty-bound population. This is no less true in the church--we are rapidly losing the generations that felt it was their duty to attend church on Sunday mornings and those few newcomers that show up on Sunday mornings justifiably need a compelling reason to even stay through the service, much less come back again the next week!

As an Episcopal priest, I am by definition a representative of an institution. While I do not begrudge that fact, and appreciate the support and accountability that goes with it, it is sometimes like captaining a battleship an an era of fast patrol boats--as impressive as the hardware is, one increasingly wonders how useful and practical such institutional accouterments are. The church feels like it is increasingly in need of fast scout ships to chart out the road ahead, not massive battleships to withstand the secular onslaught.  We are launching out into uncharted waters with few, if any, markers to help us find our way.

It is clear that in the twenty-first century, churches will need to intentionally be places of formation, community, and service and they will need to be clear about what sort of Christian formation they are doing, why that is important, why it is important that it be done in community, and why service is both the thing that we attend and the work that we do afterward. This will be a tremendous challenge to both the church and to those of us who were trained under the old institutional paradigm. It will be an exciting journey, but not a comfortable one.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Scapegoats and Identified Patients

Diana Butler Bass just passed along the video clip below. While somewhat dated, it has immediate application to contemporary political and religious discourse, or the lack thereof:

In my own life, I've attempted to maintain what I call a centrist stance on many controversial topics, politically, ecclesiologically, and theologically. However, just like when one straddles the median on a highway, one can expect to get hit from both directions! The video on extremism really puts out there the idea that simply identifying a person or group as "the problem" is both a vast oversimplification and also lets us off the hook. We're all the problem, and we're all the solution. I am reminded that Jesus reportedly said "take the log out of your own eye and you will see better how to remove the speck from your brother's eye." We seem to have more than our fair share of "speck spotters" and very few "log removers."

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Dying and Rising, Death and (Re-)Birth

I ran across the following quote, thanks to my friend and colleague Leslie Nipps:
"When we focus on things that are passing away we get scared, we get anxious, we get depressed, we lose hope; and when we focus on things that are being birthed and are coming newly into creation we get excited, we get imaginative, we get optimistic, we feel drawn closer to one another, we feel as if we have meaning and purpose in this life, and we have joy." -- Bishop Jim Kelsey (1952-2007)
There seem to be a lot of things passing away just now. Perhaps even using the word that often gets translated "passing away"--dying--might even be a better way of saying it. Things are dying. Ways of being are dying. Even ways of being and doing church are dying. I've seen commentaries from the Alban Institute, from Archbishop Rowan Williams via Episcopal Café, and from a host of bloggers about the changes that need to happen and/or are happening in churches and seminaries throughout the church. Outside the church, political discourse has reached an all-time low with the radical fringes holding power and capturing the headlines. Death or threat of the death of a way of being or doing, and the fear engendered by it, seems to be the dominant theme these days.

I've blogged before about how we might turn our churches from hospitals or restaurants to birthing centers. The feeling of a hospice is much different from that of a maternity ward! Yet it often seems as if the church is forced into, and rewarded for, helping people pass through the gate of death more easily into the afterlife rather than midwifing the seed or spark of new life. As my friend and colleague Dylan Breuer notes, it is quite expensive to do the theological education work necessary to nurture faith from birth through adulthood. The answer, while simple in concept is challenging in execution: congregations and denominations must place a high value on lifelong Christian formation and be willing to literally put their money where their mouths are.

This will mean finally burying the idea (and the ideal) that people arrive at the doors of a church basically Christian and simply need a tweak or a touch-up and then be invited to "take a seat" in the nearest pew--whereupon they will instantly tithe and naturally gravitate to joining the Altar Guild or other vital group for maintaining the church's current program. Rather, it assumes that people arrive at the door of a church, if they even get that far, utterly unprepared and perhaps even bewildered by the myriad of sights, sounds, books, and other accouterments if Episcopal Christianity. We will have to invest time, money, and patience with folks and know that we are planting seeds that we hope and pray God will grow. Gardens or maternity wards are much nicer than parking lots or funeral parlors, aren't they?

Update: The Baptists are looking for answers, too! (link courtesy of Episcopal Café)

Monday, March 29, 2010

Institutional Death and Resurrection

As we enter another Holy Week, I find myself pondering issues of death and resurrection--not individual death and resurrection, but congregational and denominational death and resurrection. It seems to me that there are many signs that congregations and denominations that flourished in the twentieth century are finding it difficult to continue to survive, much less thrive, in the post-Christendom, post-modern, and post-Great Recession times of the early part of this century. Author and blogger George Bullard has some thoughts on exactly this:

The Columbia Partnership: The Coming Death of National Denominations

Among many other observations, he notes that:

...many national denominations believe that restructuring themselves or re-tasking national agencies is the same thing as renewing the spiritual, strategic direction of the national denomination. No consistent evidence exists that restructuring national denominations alone leads to the renewal of these denominations. Restructuring actually is a step in preparing for another restructuring within five to ten years. Restructuring fits in the same category as rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.

Being raised in Silicon Valley and graduating from high school in the mid-1980s, I have some personal experience with the difference between large institutions who fail to innovate quickly and small, nimble companies who can adjust to changing demands and conditions quickly. For more than a decade, I've said that many aspects of mainline denominations resemble a battleship--slow, difficult to steer, but incredibly tough and resilient. There was a reason for the "battleship church"--it was seen as a source of stability, power, and consistency in a world that was anything but stable. Words like "sanctuary" and hymns like "A Mighty Fortress is our God" spoke of the church as an unchanging rock against the tidal waves of change sweeping the culture of the late twentieth century. That sense of the church a a guardian remains one of the main touchstones of many people's faith.

Yet we are now in the era where institutions must be more like powerboats or patrol boats than battleships. The Navy doesn't make or use battleships anymore. In the same way, we in the church must find ways of rediscovering that "nimble church" that is alive, vibrant, and perhaps a bit more vulnerable than the previous "edifice church." That is easier said than done, of course. Planting new churches, re-planting declining or plateaued churches, and not simply rearranging things but revitalizing the things we do is an incredible challenge. Yet the message of Holy Week and Easter is that sometimes things need to die before then can be reborn. The message of the cross is that to get to resurrection we must place our sins at the foot of the cross and die to an old life. How does that function on a congregational level? What things do we need to crucify in our congregations (without getting crucified ourselves, of course!) in order to make room for new life? Something to think about.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Technology and Sanctuary

Take a look at this video. It talks about all of the technological revolutions that have occurred in the last several decades and what is forecast for the future:

I'm 42 years old this year and I am mindful that my lifetime has seen revolution after revolution in how we get, process, and make use of information as well as how the vast majority of the rest of the world does this. And, as the video points out, the rate of change is accelerating logarithmically as each day passes.

Two things occur to me as I think about both the past and the future of the vocation God has called me to as a pastor and priest of the church. First, that this information revolution will affect some things that we do very much--people will have access to a virtually unlimited amount of information about the Bible and theological reflection and will be able to, essentially, be their own expert (for the moment) on anything that they choose to study. Second, however, I believe that there will be an increasing need for a sanctuary from the information tsunami--a place to step back, step out, take a breath, and ask some very low-tech questions about meaning and purpose.

The church may well be uniquely positioned to offer just such a sanctuary, a harbor, in which to ask those questions and seek answers that are not accessible at the touch of a key or the click of a mouse. Now all we have to do is penetrate the noise....

Saturday, March 13, 2010

What is God up to and how can I get in on it?

I've spent more than a little while in thought and prayer about what God might be up to in twenty-first century America and how the congregation I currently lead and I can get in on that action. It is increasingly clear to me that the biggest challenge for the institutional church today is learning how to build on and celebrate what has gone before without succumbing to either grief that much of the last vestiges of Christendom are passing away or the temptation to become a preservation society, frantically scrambling to protect what we already have against the onslaught of post-modernity.

Archbishop Rowan Williams has talked about the concept of the "mixed economy" church where the old and the new not only coexist, but actually support one another. One phrase in (not from him) in particular caught my eye:

Very diverse expressions of church would exist alongside each other in mutual fellowship. Old and new would be a blessing to one another.

Old and new would be a blessing to one another.
So counter-cultural a notion, that both the old and the new would be a blessing to each other rather than a burden. As we move into what many have talked about as a new reformation, a new way of being and doing church, perhaps such a concept would help with this transition. Still thinking....

Monday, March 01, 2010

Spiritual Feeding and Working for It

I'm continuing to ruminate on the idea of spiritual feeding and spiritual growth. So many times I think I'm laying out a spiritual banquet when I preach or teach and yet I will hear "I'm not being fed." Sometimes I think it is a lack of imagination on our part as clergy--we're so used to serving up the usual fare that it never occurs to us to add to, or even rearrange, the spiritual menu. I'm not suggesting getting rid of communion or (God forbid!) the sermon, but I am suggesting that it might make sense to push the edges of the spiritual envelope a bit and see who (literally) "bites."

I don't think it is just the clergy, however. I'm also thinking that in an age of fast food, microwavable dinners, and pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we all might be a little reluctant to work for our spiritual food. Face it, most of us are as lazy spiritually as we are often lazy physically. We want God to show up, put on a good show, give us our instructions for the week, and then disappear in a flash of light, leaving us to live and love for another week. What I suspect we least want to do is to do that daily work of prayer, scripture study, and personal worship that is central to the Christian life. Even as a pastor and priest, there are times when I'd much rather take a nap or catch an hour or so of TV (or do an hour of surfing the Internet) than I would like to engage in personal devotions.

Yet just as there is not substitute for eating healthy and getting exercise, there is no substitute for taking in healthy spiritual food and engaging in (at times rigorous) spiritual exercise. Deep down, we all know this, and yet as much as it is tempting for me as a teacher to try to "re-package" things to appeal to the fast food culture it is also tempting for me as a disciple to want that for myself. May this Lent be a time where we eschew pre-packaged and processed spiritual food for the milk and meat of scripture, the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and the sweet honey of God's spirit flowing through us.

UPDATE: One of my favorite theologians, Diana Butler Bass, collaborated on this short video, which says what I just said better than I just said it:

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Umbilical Cord of Christianity

For many years, I've struggled with the developing tradition of inviting people to receive communion prior to being baptized. It is specifically prohibited in the canons (rules) of the Episcopal Church, and yet many churches do so. It is often referred to as Communion Without Baptism or CWOB. Perhaps the most visible example of someone coming to faith in Christ through this practice is Sara Miles who wrote Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion. She is just out with another book Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead. I just read an interview with her and I'm struck again by how she really battles against the church's attempt to control or constrain God. I'm struck by her faith and by the fact that she accurately portrays some of the chief obsticles to that faith that lie within the church itself.

As I thought about that, I thought about how we think about baptism and communion. The idea is that we join in this meal at God's table after we have been born (actually, re-born) into God's family through baptism. In other words, we're born and then we are fed. That makes a certain kind of sense. However, if one takes this metaphor a bit further, how are "pre-Christians" or yet-to-be-(re-)born Christians fed before they are born into God's family? In other words, what provides the "womb" in which a person's first cells of faith can grow and the "umbilical cord" that provides the "nutrition" or spiritual food without which the unborn-again person will spiritually starve? It seems like, for Sara, that umbilical cord was, at least in part, communion itself.

I don't know exactly what to do with this metaphor, but I do think it is worth asking whether the church is a place that provides a safe place for spiritual growth and the "food" necessary for such growth or whether the church can only provide solid food, as it were, to those already in God's family. If it can only feed those who are already Christians, then we become essentially spiritually barren--unable to receive the gift of the beginnings of a new life that is growing within someone and nurturing it to in climax in someone's rebirth. Thomas Brackett, the Program Officer for Church Planting and Redevelopment of the Episcopal Church, talks about "midwifing" what God is already doing--nurturing it and helping it along. How might we best do that, I wonder, and what would it take to move from hospital or restaurant to birthing center?

Friday, February 19, 2010

40 Days and Four Months

Yesterday marked four months since my first Sunday at St. Edward's, San Jose. Like many milestones, it seems like I have both been here forever and (more often) like I have just arrived. I've frequently remarked to folks that beginning my time as Priest-in-Charge in October has been like leaping on an already moving train--things are already in motion, and it is often more of a case of having only enough time for slight adjustments in direction rather than the time to make wholesale revisions to the way we do things. Summer is often the "down time" in which major changes to program or direction are best made. However, having not yet had a summer here, I'm figuring on continuing on in this "transition phase" and seeing where God takes us.

Lent is a particular reminder, however, that in the midst of the busyness of life, there is a need to periodically step back, take a deep breath, and spend a bit of time in introspection and discernment. My own Lenten commitment is do to just that--to take regular time for prayer, study, and personal worship during Lent and see where that leads me (and St. Edward's as well). In the benedictine model I'm following both personally and professionally, Lent falls during the time of concentration on obedience, which chiefly involves listening to God, to the church, and to others. Like Jesus in the wilderness, I'm often tempted by the urgent things on the "to do" list to ignore the important work that needs to be done on a more foundational level, but Lent is a very good time to recognize that temptation and flee from it. By the grace of God....

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Good News?

It has been two weeks since I last posted here, though my blog entries at the St. Edward's blog have been many and varied over that period of time. It has also been nearly two weeks since the massive earthquake in Haiti, where much of the world's, the church's, and my attention has been over these last several days. Refreshingly, we in the Episcopal Church have been diverted from our seeming obsession with sexuality to a much more productive obsession--figuring our what we can do for the people of Haiti and discovering, sometimes for the first time, the things that the Episcopal Church has been up to in Haiti and continues to be up to.

I must say that it is a huge challenge to preach to a congregation like St. Edward's while people are literally dying every second in the streets and crumbled buildings of Haiti. Tomorrow morning I'll get in my hybrid car, drive down a well-paved and well-traveled road for 40 minutes, and arrive at a church in a relatively well off area, in fact just blocks from a very exclusive part of Los Gatos. I will lead worship in a beautiful church building with nice grounds around it, and we'll have coffee and cookies outside the front door (or inside, if it is too cold). At the same time, my fellow Episcopalians in Haiti will have already awakened to yet another day of hardship, wondering where their next meal will come from (or even if they'll have a next meal anytime soon) and simply attempting to survive for the day until they (hopefully) fall into an exhausted sleep. Frankly, anything I could possibly say from the pulpit of a comparatively well-off church seems woefully inadequate!

And yet, as I ponder again the lessons appointed for tomorrow, I also run across the collect appointed for the day:
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I'm pretty sure I know what "Good News" and "salvation" look like in the streets of Haiti--people being pulled from rubble, finding friends and family alive, and finding a relatively safe place to sleep, a bit of food and water, and possibly some relief from the mid-80 degree heat and humidity. Nothing more complicated than that: food, shelter, life. What does "the Good News of [Jesus'] salvation" mean to me and to the people entrusted to my spiritual care? What should it mean?

The answer, at least as far as I can tell, is summed up in one word: transformation. For those who literally have nothing, very simple things can be transformational. For those of us who have more, transformation looks a bit more complicated. If you want to know what I say tomorrow about transformation, head on over to the St. Edward's blog on Monday or Tuesday. I should have something more to say then.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Sealed and Marked

"You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever."

These words are those that I and other Episcopal priests use as we mark a cross with holy oil on the forehead of a person just baptized. It is a powerful statement! The newly baptized person has essentially been branded (or tattooed?) with the sign of the cross, a sign that while physically invisible is also permanent. We believe that we are "Christ's own forever" by virtue of that baptism and sealing.

I'm thinking a lot about baptism because I am preaching tomorrow on the baptism of Jesus (the feast day of the "Baptism of Our Lord", to be specific) and thinking about what it means to be baptized. Much as no one remembers the day they were born (which is probably fortunate...), those of us who were baptized as infants don't remember what might be regarded as our "second birth." So our identity does not proceed from a remembered event but from an emotional affirmation of an affirmed theological and spiritual reality. What, then, does it mean to be baptized and, more personally, what does it mean for me that I am baptized?

I think it means at least three things, both theologically and personally, for me. First, it means that I am inexorably linked with God--I am "marked as Christ's own forever." The covenant of God is not one that can be voided, it is eternal. So even in the midst of the trails and tribulations of this mortal life, I can know that I am linked with God as a beloved child of God. That identity is a precious thing it a world that seeks to define us in a host of lessor ways. We are classified by our public roles as constituents, consumers, and taxpayers. We are evaluated by "what we do" in our jobs as doctors, lawyers, priests, salespeople, cashiers, managers, students, etc... We are evaluated by our family roles as parents of our children, children of our parents, and sometimes even parents of our parents in their old age. We can even by typecast by surface things such as race, body type, clothing choices, or even hairstyle. None of these ways of categorizing or judging ourselves and others reveals our most important, most lasting, but most hidden identity as baptized children of God.

Second, it means that I am linked to a worldwide community of faith that is currently locally manifested in the various people in the pews of my local congregation at St. Edward's. Perhaps the most powerful call to ordination for me was the call to form and facilitate such local faith communities, parts of the Body of Christ. I have been both supported and challenged in various ways by them--from youth groups to college groups to the church family at my home church (Christ Church, Los Altos) to classmates at the seminary I attended (VTS) to the various parishes I have served--all have served to teach me what it is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and support me in that effort. In a world of both increasing personal isolation and yet more and more ways of connecting to one another across thousands of miles via email, Twitter, Facebook, etc... such personal relationships are more and more tenuous and yet more and more critical.

Third, it means to that I am empowered and enabled to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit living in and through me. This is perhaps the most difficult of things to articulate. It is comparatively easy to claim my identity as a child of God and a part of the church, but how does one put into words something so ethereal and yet so central to my own life and ministry. I suppose the answer to that is that I cannot put it into words but only put it into actions. How I function as a Christian, how I care for myself and others, and how I exercise my gifts and talents in service to God in the world perhaps embody more than anything else the often unseen work of the Spirit within me. Hopefully my own human failings don't get in the way of the Spirit's work too often!

So, that is a bit of what I'm likely to reflect upon in my sermon tomorrow--being a child of God, a member of the Christian community called the church, and an agent of the Spirit. Come on by and join us!