Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Acts 5

In the Daily Office lectionary cycle, we are in the midst of Acts. Chapter 5 records a phase of conflict between the religious authorities and the Jesus movement. It is one of my favorite vignettes from Acts.

When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.

But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time.

Then he said to them, "Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men.

For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared.

After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered.

So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail;

but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!" They were convinced by him,

Gamaliel offers a very interesting bit of direction in this passage. He postulates that the Jesus movement looks like many prior movements and they all failed. Gamaliel, however, leaves the door open. God might be doing something in Jesus. If that is the case, it is not to be resisted, but embraced.

What could Gamaliel be saying to us?

Perhaps, he provides a lens to view our approach to the “New Movement”. If God is part of our mission and ministry, we will know it by how well we meet mission objectives. Growth and health have some role in helping us see the presence of God in the initiative.

I don’t mean this in some limited or fatalistic way. I mean big picture, health and vitality. It is more comprehensive than how we might feel as individuals. It is based more in an objective dimension.

The Gospel is about calling people into relationship with God. We help others recognize God’s love is present for the taking and sharing. We are the community charged with this message. On some level, we know it is working and the Spirit is in our midst, when others are responding.

What would it mean for us to apply “Gamaliel’s gauge” to our individual lives, the life of the parish and the state of the Church?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Looking Back at Missed Opportunities

The Lead provided a link to this interesting post on the blog of Thomas Brackett. He speaks of how examining the past is easier than grasping the gravity of the present moment. Brackett applies this to his experience of conversations about the lack of health found in the Church of England. This is my description, not his. His point is that the exclusion of younger people in leadership 20 years ago is part of the sad state of the C of E now.

Growth and health are not accidents. Growth and health are gifts of the Spirit. We can accept the Spirit’s offer or decline it. Too often we reject. We are too comfortable or too afraid to accept the new life offered us.

What if parishes were communities of exploration and experimentation? What if we shed tired programs that feel like burdens and tried new approaches? What if we were to encourage new people in the community to make suggestions rooted in fresh vision and experience? What if we were prepared to share what God is doing in our lives and why Church matters to us? What if we were to recognize the few things we can do well and do them? What if we were to become serious about worship? What if we were to become intentional about the formation of the next generation of leaders?

These questions and more will determine the state of the Church, we enjoy, as we look back to this moment.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

General Convention

        In my diocese, like many others, we hold a clergy gathering with the deputies going to GC. It is a time for sharing information, asking questions and clarifying opinions about the issues on the table. Our GC forum was just last week. In the days since, I have found myself pondering GC itself as a legislative unit, rather than the issues that will be considered.

In the midst of our economic upheaval, some say we should cancel GC. It is too expensive. It should be a teleconference. Some have argued that we should shorten it and just deal with budget. The immediate crisis is rarely a helpful force for sound decision-making or long-term vision.

In a somewhat different fashion, the economic crisis has crystalized my thinking about the Episcopal Church. The failure of General Motors has sparked something for me. GM, once the largest corporation on the planet, has failed and sought reorganization after years of decline. It has been clear through most of my lifetime that GM was not in a position to compete over the long-term with manufacturers like Honda and Toyota. GM has long been top heavy, slow and cumbersome in operation. Every CEO of GM over the last thirty years has promised to improve vehicle quality and profitability. Yet, the slow, stumbling giant has fallen to his knees. An elixir with chunks of SUV will not help him to his feet. What now?

If GM is to survive, it will be through a radical transformation. A top to bottom renaissance is required. I hope GM can make it work.

I wonder what it was like to be inside GM during the long slide. It seems that some raised the alarm. Why was the response inadequate? I imagine some just wanted to believe everything would be fine, after all, we are talking about GM...I am sure many didn’t want to let go of the known for the unknown.

The Church is in the midst of decline. The Mainline has been in a slide for quite some time, maybe as long as GM. As a denomination, we don’t seem to be doing very much about it. Some have examined the data considering birth and death rates. Some have noted growth in larger parishes, and argued that we are experiencing a shift and not decline. Some will argue that faith, health and vitality cannot be quantified.

The numbers included in the “State of the Church” piece of GC seem to illustrate simple decline. There are fewer members of the Episcopal Church. There are fewer people in the pews of Episcopal parishes on your average Sunday.

The Episcopal Church is not a business. There are a zillion ways comparing the Episcopal Church to GM is unfair, but I am thinking about practical dynamics. How connected is GC to the actual state and health of the Church? GC is a legislative body that produces a huge number of resolutions, revisions and what not. How effective is GC at empowering the Church to be the Church? For that matter, how effective is our present model of “being” Church? Do GC, current diocesan structures and parish structure serve the Church well at present, or will they serve the Church of the future?

My questions are not asked out of fear or scarcity. I am not saying we should pare down to run the enterprise more inexpensively. What I desire is a more vibrant, committed, exciting and growing community of servants of Jesus Christ. We face real decisions as the Church. Will we simply operate the way we always have, and pretend that the slide of the last thirty years isn’t happening? Will we expend all our resources and energy propping up an institution that is not currently structured to meet our needs? If GC had the will and support of the rest of the Church, maybe we could do a new thing, a better thing, a more faithful thing. With the aid of the Spirit, it is time for the Church to remake itself.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Pentecost and Beyond

The Spirit is the most difficult person of the Trinity to conceptualize. We speak of God as Father. He gets billing as a bearded, sage-like older gentleman. Jesus is of course the Son. He was a human being, so it is simply not that difficult to picture him as a first century Jew. He gets the sandals and the requisite Middle Eastern garb.

But the Spirit simply defies description. Sure, we have the violent wind language. What does wind look like? I don’t think I have ever seen wind. I have seen the effects of the wind, but never the wind itself. I have felt the wind, but not to feel its shape or to know its essence. Yet, I still know it is there.

The Holy Spirit must be something like wind. The Spirit is known by its impact, not by our ability to force it into a form.

I remember being present for a service that included the Veni Creator Spiritus. It is an 8th century hymn that invokes the presence of the Holy Spirit. The most typical setting is a call and response piece. The Bishop starts: Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire. The people respond: Enlighten with celestial fire. It goes on. It is a beautiful piece, even if it is very familiar.

However on this particular occasion, we sang another setting, a Tazie piece, named for the monastic community that is known for the style. The style is marked by its simplicity and repetition. The words go Veni Sancte Spiritus, Veni Sancte Spiritus. The congregation sang to line over and over. A cantor began a variation on the line just out of time and pitch with the rest of us. It created this incredible and delightful interplay of sound and voice. The organ gently played in the background, swelling and then fading. The volume of our voices followed the lead of the organ. After what seemed like a long time, voices and organ faded to whispers.

The hair on the back of my neck was standing straight and tall. My flesh was marked by goose bumps. We invoked the presence of the Spirit, and the Spirit obliged. At the reception following, everyone I talked with shared that sense of the Spirit breaking in on us and making us aware of that fact.

The essence of this day is the coming of the Spirit. As Jesus speaks to the disciples in John, he makes it clear that he is leaving, but they will not be alone. The will have a powerful partner to support and guide them. They will be given words. They will be given hope. They will be given the animating force that permeates the essence of God.

Acts demonstrates the way the Spirit comes and makes itself known. It is a force of translation and transformation, breaking into the moment and revealing a deeper, richer, more complete picture of God’s relationship to the world. The Spirit breaks down the barriers of ethnicity, language and allegiance. The Holy Spirit unites those who will accept unity and executes God’s vision for a reconciled people bound together in love. The Spirit comes to accomplish the task.

There is a lot of talk about spiritual renewal in our time. It is usually couched in terms of an inner pursuit. It is often about quiet, inner peace. It is often very individualistic.

Individual devotion is a critical piece of the spiritual life. Believers need internal clarity and commitment.

But the Spirit we speak of this day is a supra-personal. This Spirit is working beyond individuals, and for the peace of the entire body of Christ.

This day we recognize the life-giving power of God calls, supports and sustains us even now. The Spirit of strength, discernment and blessing resides with us. The Spirit is able to break in on us even now and give us life we could never claim alone.

We should gather in expectation that the Spirit just might tear the fabric between heaven and earth. When we gather, we risk the presence and power of the Spirit. Veni Sancte Spiritus!