Thursday, October 14, 2021

Those who sowed with tears….

Serving as a parish priest is always challenging; serving in a time of pandemic is even more challenging. All of us are, in one way or another, grieving. I think part of that grief rises out of our realization that there is no way to go back to the way things were two years ago. And that realization comes in the wake, if we have been honest, of the realization that there is no way back to the way things were a generation ago when church-going was the norm in North America. 

Although there was no de jure establishment of Christianity in the United States and Canada, there was a de facto establishment during much of the last century. That has ended and we have been faced with a difficult choice. Do we resist disestablishment or do we embrace it? I have for at least the past decade believed that embracing disestablishment is what God requires of us. And that involves honest grieving. 

Twenty years ago I was unemployed for several months. I had decided not to continue teaching and the interim work that I was doing came to its inevitable end. As I began looking for work one verse of Psalm 126 became part of my daily prayers. “Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.” (v. 6) It was for me a promise. After some none too patient waiting and an embarrassing encounter with a deployment officer, I was asked to serve a parish that was in crisis. When I arrived and began to post that verse on the sign board outside the parish office, the parish secretary immediately recognized that it was from Psalm 126. That was, I thought,  confirmation that the promise was not just for me but for the parish as well.

During the pandemic I have prayed Psalm 126 during Compline each night. It is an affirmation of my belief that the tears we sow, our grieving, will be seeds that God uses to bring new life to the Church. Not a return to what once was but something new and unexpected.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Who Are We?

On the first Sunday of my time as locum at Christ Church, I mentioned in my sermon how the people of Israel often misunderstood the nature of their identity as God’s chosen people. The problem, I said, was that they thought their identity was about their superiority, that God had chosen them because they were inherently better than other people. They had forgotten that God had called them to be a blessing to “all families of the earth….” (Genesis 12:3)

This amnesia led some of them to despise those who were outside the community of Israel. That led some of them to define themselves simply as “not one of those people.”

That amnesia can infect our churches as well and lead us to see ourselves simply as not like those Roman Catholics or those Baptists or…. The challenge is to discover how we are called to be a blessing to the community in which God has placed us. Or to put another way, what would the wider community lose if we weren’t there? How, specifically, has God called our church to be a blessing to others?

At Christ Church we often point, rightly, to the Thrift Shop as a blessing to others, but resting on our laurels is hardly appropriate. The world today needs God’s love and we are, not the only channel, but certainly a channel through which God’s love can flow. It’s our task to listen and discover what new adventures in becoming a blessing await us. 

Monday, August 30, 2021

Sharing in God's Mission

This week I begin a three month stint as locum tenens at Christ Church in North  Conway, New Hampshire while my friend Richard Belshaw is on sabbatical. Unlike my previous experience at Ascension Memorial Church, this will be with a community I have known for more than fifty years. Jan and I met at Christ Church in 1971, married there the following year, and chose to retire in the Mount Washington Valley in 2016. 

A sabbatical is not only an opportunity for learning for the cleric but for the parish as well. The old saying about the minister ministering while the congregation congregates can be proven wrong during a sabbatical. All members of the Body of Christ are called to share in Christ's transforming and renewing work in the world. The chance to explore new ways of sharing in this work is one of the gifts that the parish can receive during a sabbatical.

During the next three months I will, of course, have responsibility for worship, pastoral care, and some administrative work. But I will also have an opportunity to help parishioners explore new ways of serving one another and our neighbors. I look forward to this new adventure and ask for your prayers.     


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.