Saturday, December 29, 2012

Going Home

This weekend I am back at Ascension Memorial Church. Today I officiated at the funeral of a longtime resident of Ipswich. Although she was not a member of the parish, it was good that we could provide a place for her family and friends to grieve, to give thanks for her life, and to hear the Good News of God's love incarnate in the Christ Child. Tomorrow I will preside and preach at the parish's two celebrations of the Eucharist.

What I felt today and what I expect to feel tomorrow is, besides the joy of being with friends, is almost the feeling of being at home at Ascension. Almost, because I am not really a member of the parish, but a visitor. But almost, because, after spending four months there, the community has become a part of my life, as have the other congregations I have served. As a parishioner said to me some thirty years ago, priests and parishioners get inside one another's hearts. Sharing life together in a congregation changes us - if we let it. I'd like to think that there are a few people whom I have helped to follow Jesus more faithfully over the course of the past forty years. I know that there are many parishioners who have helped me to be a more faithful priest. And when I am given the privilege of going back to a parish, it is a bit like going home, for it is a return to one of those communities which, like my childhood home and family, helped me to become who I am. Even as the locum tenens - the place holder - the place, the people, have a place in my heart. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Great Rummage Sale

Early in her book The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle refers to Bishop Mark Dyer's comment that every 500 years the Church has a rummage sale, cleaning out structures and theological ideas that no longer serve the Church's sharing in God's mission. The book group here at Ascension is reading Tickle's book, after having read Harvey Cox's The Future of Faith in the spring. I expect there to be lively discussions in the book group of what ought to be in the rummage sale and what should be essential in the emerging Church. Before the first meeting of the group, I have several ideas about what might be emerging as the rummage sale goes on.

I see theology moving from talking about God using the language of the creeds to relational language. While it may have been helpful in the 5th century CE to talk about the Son as being of one substance with the Father, that language doesn't work so well in the 21st century. When the Gospel according to John tells us that Jesus said, "The Father and I are one" (10:30), we don't need to understand that as being of one substance. We can talk about that unity in relational terms, focusing on the love which bound Jesus to the Father.

I see the medieval understanding of the Atonement having fewer adherents as other understandings become more widely accepted. I am a particular fan of James Alison's work in this area and of Douglas John Hall's, but there are others who have proposed other alternatives to the substitutionary theory that has dominated theology since the 11th century. The singulars focus on sin of the substitutionary theory is being replaced by a broader and more relational way of understanding Jesus' death. Hall sees Jesus as God's representative to us and our representative to God, which I find much more helpful than the language of substitute.

I see Church structures becoming much less hierarchical, with networks of relationships becoming more the norm. Oddly, we in the Anglican Communion are already seeing the growth of networks that have become more important than the Communion's formal structures. The downside of this is that these networks may turn into conservative and liberal enclaves with relationships across the diversity of the Church withering. The upside is that these networks can bridge geographical boundaries in ways that formal structures generally don't.

I see the Church having a great openness to and appreciation for other faith traditions and for non-religious movements that share the Church's commitments to peace and justice. In a wedding sermon last week I spoke of the couple's awareness that we are one people and their commitment to work for the good off all the world's people.

Finally, I see the Church embracing its identity as a participant in God's mission of reconciliation and transformation. Not the only participant, to be sure, but perhaps the only one that is conscious that it is God's mission in which it shares. Without the triumphalism that has marred its witness in the past, the Church can proclaim what it discerns God to be doing in the world. Even though some saw it differently, I saw the embrace of the Millennium Development Goals by the Episcopal Church as just such a proclamation that God is at work achieving those goals.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Grace Alone

Halfway through the adventure at Ascenison I realize that much - all? - of my preaching has been about grace. That is not at all surprising as my being at Ascension at all is wrapped up in several gifts. 
  • The gift of the sabbatical grant from the Lilly Endowment
  • The gift of a grandchild that prompted our retiring on the North Shore
  • The gift of collegiality in the North Shore Clericus where Brad and I became friends
  • The gift of welcome by the people of the parish
  • Most importantly, gift of our life in Christ
There is, of course, another reason why grace has been the focus of my preaching. We are constantly tempted to believe that we have somehow earned God's love and we need regular warnings about falling into that trap with all that that involves. When we think we've earned God's love we are very likely to judge others as undeserving of that love. We are also likely to become more concerned about avoiding various sins than about abiding in Jesus. God has not called us to judge ourseleves or others, but to love ourselves and others.

Some of the conversations that we have been having here during this sabbatical have been about how the parish can become more open to the gifts of new people. I put it that way because I think that much of the talk about hospitality in churches focuses on how we share the great things we have with others. It is true that we have much to share, but every visitor and every new member is a gift to be received with respect and thanksgiving. Respecting the gifts that others are means that we don't see them as solutions to whatever problems we have in the parish. Receiving them into the community as gifts from God, we leave them free to discover how their particular skills and experience might be offered for the strengthening of our common life.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Relational Faith Communities

Many members of Ascension Memorial Church read Harvey Cox's The Future of Faith this spring and attended his lecture at Ascension in June. One of Cox's assertions in the book, one with which I agree, is that we are moving from an understanding of faith as acceptance of certain beliefs about God to an understanding of faith as a relationship of trust in God. One of Ascension's parishioners recently raised the important question of what Ascension Memorial Church might look like with this new relational understanding of faith. In the book Cox gives examples of communities that are more relational in their understanding of faith, and even though the contexts of these communities are very different from ours, we may be able to take some clues from them. 

Engaging with the world: relational faith leads us into the world as we share Jesus' love for the world. While the relationships we have with one another are important, the Church is called to share in Christ's work of reconciliation in the world.

Reading the Bible as a transforming story: rejecting the fundamentalists' literal reading of the Bible, we can read the Bible, as Christians in Latin American base communities do, with a focus on how the biblical stories help us to make sense of our lives and invite us into a deeper relationship with God.

Living with diversity and ambiguity: as we move away from an understanding of faith as acceptance of certain beliefs about God, there will probably be greater theological diversity within our community and a greater willingness to live with ambiguity.

Embracing our marginal status in society: as Church membership becomes less and less socially important, we have the freedom to become a more intentional community of disciples of Jesus. 

Are these the only marks of a relational faith community? Certainly not, but I offer them as a beginning for the discussion.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

John 3:16

When I asked this past Sunday if anyone could tell me what John 3:16 said, I was pleased that one of the Eucharistic Ministers could recite the entire verse: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, do that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life."

I think that verse is key to understanding the Gospel according to John. Although the Synoptics are certainly about how God's love was made manifest in Jesus, John makes that the explicit focus of his account of the Good News. It was and is in the sending of the Son, the word made flesh, that God's love for the world has been revealed. Although some translators want to make this verse about how much God loves the world, the Greek word translated as "so" means "in this way." God's love is, I believe, infinite, beyond measure, and the point of John 3:16 is the manner in which that love has been expressed.

I have been pleased in the month that I have been worshipping each week with the people of Ascension Memorial Church that they understand that our life together is a gift, that it is all matter of Grace, of God's unconditional love for us and for the world. That gift, of course, challenges us to love the world as God does, to minister as Jesus did to one another and to the least, the last, and the lost.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Staying Put

The congregation at Ascension Memorial Church is a wonderful mix of members whose families have belonged for generations and members who have joined in the past few years. What I have sensed in the few weeks that I have been at Ascension is that there are not many pew-hoppers, people who are unable or unwilling to make a commitment to what the Benedictine tradition calls stability. When we are willing to stay put, to commit ourselves to belonging to a community even when it isn't comfortable, God has a better chance at transforming us.

Nearly fifty years ago I spoke to a wise friend about how unhappy I was in my current situation and said that I was thinking about moving. He cautioned me about using the "geographical cure," suggesting that I would take my problems with me because I would take with me the person at the core of those problems - me. I didn't move and over several months things got better as I began to face some truth about myself.

Years later, when I was fired from a job that I thought was the perfect one for me, I was ready to move from Buffalo home to Massachusetts. Our daughter changed that when she asked why I needed to look for the perfect job elsewhere when I could find a pretty good job in Buffalo and not have to uproot her and her brother from their friends and the schools they really liked. As we stayed put I realized that the community of clergy and lay people that I had been privileged to join in Buffalo was the community that would help me to grow. Stability in that community was the commitment that God was calling me to make.

If we keep running away when life in community become uncomfortable, when we hear a sermon that doesn't quite agree with our own understanding of the faith, or when people we don't like join the community, we put an obstacle in the way of God, making it just a bit more difficult for God to work to transform us. That won't stop God, but it might take quite a bit longer for us to discover and enjoy the blessings that God has for us.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Slowing Down

It certainly wasn't the boldest and most prophetic act to preach on slowing down on the second Sunday in July, but since my colleague Brad Clark had preached on showing up the previous Sunday, it seemed the right thing to do. The sermon wasn't only about slowing down, but about what we can get to do when we refuse to make hasty decisions. We get to ask an important question. Not "What would Jesus do?" but "What does Jesus want me to do?"

Of course we can never answer either question with absolute certainty, but we ought to be able to make a humble attempt at discerning what out faith requires of us in the many decisions we make every day, and, having discerned, act. Not only is there a chance that if we don't act no one else will, but there is the much more likely consequence of inaction, a missed opportunity to share in God's transforming work in the world.

Several years ago a parishioner asked me to help him discern whether or not he had done the right thing during an encounter in a supermarket. He had been in the checkout line and the customer in front of him was giving the young lady at the cash register a very hard time. The young lady was being very patient with the customer, but my parishioner could see that it was upsetting her. When it was his turn to check out with his cans of cat food, he asked the young lady, "Would you please gift wrap them?" For a moment the young lady looked confused, maybe even angry, and then she broke into a broad smile.

What does Jesus want us to do "to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us?" The Swiss philosopher Henri Amiel urges us to "be quick to love and make haste to be kind" and, I would add, be always ready to forgive.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Showing Up

Yesterday morning as he prepared to leave for his sabbatical, Brad Clark preached about the importance of showing up. He told me he would be posting the sermon on his blog, so I won't say more about it here. I have thought about the importance of showing up since hearing the sermon. The spiritual discipline of practicing the presence of God is not about making God present, as if God were not already present, but about our showing up, our being present and attentive. Another term for this practice has been recollection, which I like because I think of it is as re-collecting the scattered parts of myself and recollecting that I am beloved of God. Not as often as I might like, in moments when things seem to be falling apart, I have experienced the grace of remembering who and Whose I am.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Where Am I?

The metaphor of a journey is often used to describe our life in Christ. We are often described as a pilgrim people. So the question of "where I am" is perhaps more appropriate than the question of "who I am." How did I come to be preparing for my new adventure at Ascension Memorial Church?

I am one of those rare Episcopal clerics who was actually raised in the Episcopal Church. My mother and father had been married in the rectory of the Roman Catholic parish to which she would have belonged had she been a Roman Catholic. She signed the document in which she promised to have her children raised in the Roman Catholic faith, but my father, a thoroughly lapsed Roman Catholic, had no interest in that. When the marriage broke up within a decade, my mother packed up her three young sons and moved back to the town where she had been raised and on Pentecost in 1950 all three of us were baptized at St. Andrew's Church in Wellesley.

After we moved to Amherst, the Episcopal Church continued to be an important part of my life. Jr. Choir, acolytes and church camp were all part of what formed me as a child and a teen-ager. When, at sixteen, I was overwhelmed with wonder that the girl I was dating actually saw through my mask and still liked me, it was to the curate at Grace Church that I went to discuss how wonderful and confused I felt. Fr. David was wise enough to point out that I was experiencing a little reflection of the unconditional love of God, who knows us perfectly and loves us unreservedly.

Although there was at least one person who thought when I was fourteen that I might one day be called to the priesthood, I didn't experience even a glimmer of a call until I returned to the Episcopal Church after a few years as a member of the Society of Friends. I had become a Quaker because I felt, perhaps mistakenly, that it would be more difficult to be a pacifist in the Episcopal Church during the 1960s. My time as a Quaker helped me to grow, but in the end I d=found myself missing the sacramental life and I returned. It was during the year of my return, spent working for a community organization in Wilmington, Delaware, that I began talking about a call to ordained ministry. Following the advice of the Bishop of Delaware, I returned to Amherst, finished my undergraduate work at UMass and headed to the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge. 

I have to admit that my studies at ETS were often overshadowed by the war in Viet Nam and the protests here. There was also the matter of my ongoing difficulty with my draft board. I had been granted status as conscientious objector, largely because of the testimony of one of my high school teachers who was an Air Force reservist, but when the order to report for alternative service came, I was in my final year at UMass and had been accepted at ETS. I had already written to the draft board and telling them that I would not be reporting if ordered to, but would instead instead finish up at UMass and enter seminary in the fall. It was a surprise when, two years later, I was indicted for my failure to report. I was, at first, prepared to put up no defense and go off to prison, but I had, by the time the trial was scheduled, met Jan MacLean and we were planning to be married a few weeks before I graduated from seminary. I instucted my attorney to present the best defense that he could and by the time the trial began he had discovered that the draft board had violated several of its own rules in ordering me to report. The case was dismissed and the only regret I had was that it had happened in the judge's chambers and that I missed hearing the judge chew out the Assistant US Attorney for wasting the court's time with such an inappropriate prosecution.

After a summer working as a seminary intern in Pittsfield, Jan and I headed to Oxford, England for a year. Through the generosity of William Coolidge, a member of the ETS Board of Trustess, I was able to spend a year at Balliol College, where Coolidge was what they call an Old Member. Although it was hard for both of us to be away from our families, especially at Christmas, the year at Oxford was wonderful. Both Jan's parents and my mother visited us that year and we got to travel a quite a lot during Oxford Univeristy's breaks between terms. At Easter in 1973, Jan's parents and the two of us worshipped at Iona Abbey, with George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community preaching, beginning a relationship with the Community that has continued for nearly four decades.

Because I had worked there the previous summer, when one of the priests at St. Stephen's in Pittsfield accepted a call to another parish, I was invited to join the staff when we returned from England. It was during my three years there, serving as Assistant Minister at St. Stepehen's and Priest in Charge at St. Martin's Church, that I began to learn how to become a priest. It is, I know now, a lifetime task, but being mentored by Andrew Wissemann, who later became our bishop, was an incredible gift. Andrew's deep piety and his occassional moments of silliness helped be to understand the importance of taking God seriously, but myself not at all. We are, as friend would later tell me, paraphrasing Paul's mention of earthen vessels, simply crocks.

After leaving Pittsfield in 1976, I served three years as Rector of Trinitty Church in Ware and nine years as Rector of Holy Trinity Church in Southbridge. In both communities I found myself drawn into working for and with those on the margins, helping to start a food pantry and a free meals program in Souithbridge and serving on the town's Housing Authority. The pull of social service and social ministries led to my accepting an invitation to serve as the Bishop's Deputy for Outreach Ministries in the Diocese of Western New York. Working with the various social service agencies supported by the diocese and with various diocesan commissions brought me in contact with people who would be my friends and collegaues for the 22 years we spent in Western New York. When the bishop reorganized his staff, eliminating my position, we decided to stay in Buffalo, where our children had friends and good schools and Jan worked as a school social worker. After a two-year stint as Interim Rector of a suburban parish, I accepted a job as the first Director of the Erie County Commission on Homelessness. For the next six years I worked to bring together the various agencies working to assist homeless individuals and families, try to create an integration Continuum of Care. As always with such efforts, our success was real but limited. We found funding for several new programs and worked to be sure that the "not in my backyard" attitude did not prevent people from getting the help they needed. When it became clear to me that the Commission needed someone else as director, I accepted a jod teaching social ethics and New Testament at a Roman Catholic high school. I had thought about teaching when I was in college and this seemed a good chance to see how good a teacher I could be. I discovered that teaching, especially teaching required courses to less than enthusiastic students, was not nearly as rewarding as I had thought it would be. After two years I declined an offer to continue teaching and wasn't sure what to do next. I had been working part-time in parishes during my years with the commission and while I was a teacher, but my position as Interim Vicar of a mission church ended around the same as my work as a teacher, and I was unemployed for several months. 

In the fall of 2001 I was invited to return to parish work New England, but that would have meant that Jan would have to leave a job she loved. Friends and colleagues in Buffalo were urging me to stay, but no one had any work to offer. Finally, in what as a moment of exasperation, I told the diocesan Deployment Officer that he should stop encouraging me to stay and find me a job. He suggested that I might be right for a parish where a close friend had been rector until he was suspended for misconduct. I thought he was crazy, but agreed to be considered. Having been unsuccessful in their search after several months, the parish's Vestry was willing to consider me. I suspect that what may have convinced the Vestry to extend a call was my asking them at our first meeting to identify what was so good about the parish that they had been willing to meet nearly every week for several months. I accepted the call to serve as interim priest that fall and by the spring there were conversations with the bishop about the possibility that I be considered as a candidate for rector. Given the difficulties of the past year, the bishop said that he was open to that possibility but that the parish needed to develop a profile first. The profile process was a valuable one, one in which I did not participate but observed with interest. A year later, with the profile complete, I was asked if I wanted to be considered as a candidate. I was, but expressed a real concern about about being considered with other candidates. They knew me well after more than a year of working together and it would be difficult to compare me fairly to priests that they had only met during the search process. The Vestry and Search Committee agreed to consider me as the only candidate at first and to move on to other candidates if they decided not to call me. That decision and the later decision to call me resulted in some active members leaving the parish, but most parishioners were very pleased. 

During my years in that parish I continued to be involved in some of the community ministries that I had helped to start while working for the diocese and the commission, especially a community development loan fund and a ministry to homeless families i which the parish had been committed long before I came to serve there. A major focus of my work, however, was on helping the parish move beyond the crisis that had brought me there, the smaller crisis around my call, and the somewhat larger crisis that followed the election of my longtime friend Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. Gene's election prompted several active members to leave and, eventually, organize an Anglican congregation in the town. I respected their decision to leave, knowing that they could in conscience remain in the Episcopal Church now that it had a partnered gay bishop. I also became in time friends with the priest who came to serve their congregation. He had been very clear when he accepted the call that he would not criticize me, the parish, the bishop, the diocese, or the Episcopal Church. He wanted his work to be focused on the Gospel and not on identifying the congregation as "not Episcopalian." Although there were still some uncomfortable relationships between members of the two congregations, for the most part we remained friends. While we lost some members that year, we began gaining members over the next few years. Same sex couples found themselves welcomed and others who were in favor of greater inclusion in the Episcopal Church also became active. 

In the fall of 2008 I was invited to take a sabbatical at Episcopal Divinity School. During my semester I became exposed to our school's incredible faculty, auditing courses taught Kwok Pui Lan, Christopher Duraisingh, Norman Faramelli, Ed Rodman, and Ian Douglas. Just as important was the opportunity to get to know the school's students, in many of whose graduations and ordinations I have been privileged to participate. Returning to the parish after the sabbatical, I intended to stay for three years. However the arrival of our first grandchild later that year and a growing sense that it was time for someone else to lead the parish, made it clear to me, at least, that it would be right for us back to Massachusetts sooner rather than later. Bishop Cedarholm suggested when I met with him that few would question our decision to move closer to a grandchild. He was right and Jan and I retired in 2010 and accepted our daughter's and son-in-law's invitation to move in with them in Danvers. It has been a great gift to be able to watch our granddaughter grow, to support our daughter and som-in-law, and to welcome a grandson this past February.

While our family life would have priority, I decided right away to help out some at St. Peter's Church in Salem where one of my classmates, Paul Bresnahan, was one of the priests in charge. A year later when Paul announced his retirement, I decided to look for another community to serve and was almost immediately invited to work at Trinity Church in Topsfield by the parish's rector, Jo Barrett.

Now I am ready to begin the new adventure at Ascension Memorial Church. Although I have often worked outside the parish, I am committed to the parish as the place where much of the most important ministry happens. I am also committed to encouraging all of us, clergy and laity alike, to think theologically. As one of my friends said in a recent sermon, how we think about God, our theology, has a profound effect on how we think about and treat others. For the past few years I have been particularly interested in our understanding of the Atonement, finding the medieval substitutionary understanding of the Cross much less that helpful. Finally, I am committed to an understanding of theology as contextual. We can only think about God as persons raised in and living our own contexts. If I pretend that my context doesn't influence my theology, I am fooling myself and am very likely not to see how my context does influence my theology. Aware of the limitations imposed by my context, I am more likely to look for correction from theologians in other contexts. While I don't intend to turn my sermons into lectures, I hope that parishioners at Ascension will accept the challenge to become more intentional theologians.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A New Adventure

On Sunday, July 1 I will begin a new adventure as I begin four months at Ascension Memorial Church. My friend Brad Clark, who is the rector at Ascension, will be on sabbatical and the parish has asked me to serve as "sabbatical supply priest" while he is away. I am not found of that title, and prefer Locum Tenens, from the Latin for "place holder," but the more pedestrian title is easier to understand.

The sabbatical is being supported by a Lilly Endowment grant and it is intended to to be a time of renewal for Brad and for the parish. During the four months of the sabbatical life at Ascension will not be "business as usual." Although Sunday by Sunday we will continue to celebrate the Eucharist together and the vital ministries in which parishioners are engaged will continue, we will use these months to explore new ways of growing in our understanding of Jesus and of the ways we can share in God's mission of reconciliation.

Brad has decided to share some of his sabbatical experiences on a blog, AMC 2012 SABBATICAL, and it occurred to me that a blog about our experiences at Ascension Memorial Church while I serve in locum tenens would be good. Members of the parish's sabbatical planning committee liked the idea and suggested that I use an early blog post to introduce myself to the parish. That post will follow this one in a few days.