Thursday, June 30, 2011

Which way to fall?

I posed a question to my congregation this past week: Are you ready to fall into God's grace? This challenge was prompted by two things I have been reading lately.

First, the Revised Common Lectionary's continuous readings for this part of the season after Pentecost have us following Abraham. In reviewing the Patriarch's life it turns out that he made a lot of bad decisions with serious consequences. He decided to take Sarah up on the offer to father God's great nation through Hagar, her handmaid, and conceived Ishmael. The consequences of that decision followed Abraham and his ancestors throughout their lives, and is still with us in the Middle East conflict today. He twice traded his wife Sarah for his own safety, risking his promise for a nation and his love for Sarah on the virtue of a Pharaoh and a nomadic tribal leader, questionable decisions at the best of times. He allowed his nephew Lot, not a giant on character issues, to decide which path to take when foraging shortages were threatening their combined flocks, a decision that placed Lot in Sodom just before its judgement, threatening Lot, Abraham, and their families. These are some, though not all of Abraham's decisions.

Who bailed him out and turned the bad into good? God. About the only good decision Abraham made was to pick-up his tents, call his family to him, gather his flocks, and lead them all to where God was showing him.

Second, in conjunction with these RCL readings, I picked-up a book by the Franciscan Priest, Religious, and Scholar, Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. The premise of this book: that we need to build structures during the first half of our lives, so that we might be prepared to be what God has created us to be in the second half of our lives. The paradox of the faith journey is that it is not the successes of our building time that help us grow, but the failures. Just as God was there to bail out Abraham, God is there to bail us out too. However, we have to learn and accept this grace. So, Abraham was most successful when he was most wrong. Hence, Rohr's title, Falling Upward.

I think this way of approaching our faith lives, both individually and corporately, makes us uncomfortable here in the the good ole USA. This culture values success, and it values people and congregations who are "self-made" in their success. The problem with this way of being is that it leaves little, if any, room for God and God's grace. My church is trying is trying to rebuild. I think we need to be bold in trying new things, risking the possibility of being as incredibly wrong as Abraham, and letting God work on us through these failures. Given my choice, as anxiety laden as it may be, I choose falling, and falling upward would be fine.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Generational Narcism

Serving historic churches is a mixed blessing. The long history, the structures-physical and organizational, and the reservoir of ministries accomplished are all things that provide for the kind of inertia that save many of us from immediate irrelevance. If it were not for this institutional and spiritual inertia, inertia of a good sort in that it connects us to the historic witness and its trajectory, my 293 year old congregation might have ceased to exist independently about a decade ago. Generational Narcissism, the sense that my generation is the only one that matters, interferes with the positive aspects of standing among the great cloud of witnesses.

It was in an invitation from a local synagogue, one celebrating its 110th anniversary, that I was reminded of this obligation that may constrain but may also be a factor in giving life. At the turn of the 20th century a Jewish community of Eastern Europeans was established in my town. Coming from varied backgrounds from within their own faith, they put aside their differences in order to form a synagogue. Then, interestingly, they were aided in their effort by two local churches, one Roman Catholic and mine. The aid was structural, contributions to a building to house the congregation, and relational, a teacher to instruct these young Eastern European Jews in the Hebrew they needed for their Bar Mitzvah. To imagine a group of early teenage boys trooping to the Episcopal Church for Hebrew instruction is quite intriguing, especially in the late nineteenth century. Hearing the story bound me to its narrative. I stood no longer on my own, I stood in that line of rectors, good and bad, that led the spiritual life of this community.

I have been known for both creating change and reinforcing tradition, hard things to do. Hard poles to manage. The change that I am aiming for is not to totally redo things in this place, but to give it form in a new context which both honors the traditions and takes us into the future. My parish is on less solid ground financially than the one now tended to by Chris. So it needs updating, not upbraiding, and it needs a congregation, which when asked which traditions are really important, can tell me clearly, distinctly, and with a sense of spiritual understanding that shows not only local but universal connections as well. None of us stand alone in the Church.

The mixed part of this blessing, and one in which generational narcissism plays a major role is in the unfortunate history that is part of my parish's past. I am not talking about wrestling between Rectors and congregants. That is tough stuff but not the worst. Rather it is this institution's history with slavery as a commercial enterprise and the source of wealth for prominent members and leaders of this church as well as the source for many of its buildings. Focusing on recent history, and not connecting to our past, allows us to forget the degrading impact of this legacy, one which should firmly ground all the generations of this parish in the notion that they are not perfected but redeemed, and that with our holy deeds have come unholy ones as well. Humility, it seems, is the response that is appropriate to the views of the heights, depths, and faithfulness of the Church and its congregations.