March Madness

When we moved to Mount Desert Island (in the month of May), a local friend told us, “Start watching the police beat in the Islander in March.  That’s when it starts getting weird around here.”  True to form, March newspapers in the past few years have included: a story of “shovel rage” – a local resident moved to throw snow at a town truck and strike it with his shovel in frustration that the sidewalks were not being cleared quickly enough (no damage was reported, and no arrests were made); a report of a man calling police from the maintenance shed at a golf course, claiming that he was being chased (there was onbly one set of footprints in the snow); a motorist slamming on his brakes because the car behind him was following too close, causing a rear-end collision and damage to both cars; a resident calling police to say that someone had been rude to her over the phone; and a report of a woman walking down Main Street in her underwear.  One of my favorite recent local-interest items, the disappearance of a tub of scallop gonads from a car at the Somesville One Stop, actually occurred in November, but in a nice bit of symmetry, made it onto Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” in March of 2013.

Of course, many of the reports in the police beat are not funny at all.  I can’t quote statistics, but it seems as though calls for domestic assault, OUI and other drug and alcohol-related crimes are high in late winter – or maybe it’s just that it’s not obnoxious tourists getting drunk in hotel parking lots, but our own folks getting into trouble near to home.  It’s no secret that winters here are long and dark, and that cabin fever is a real danger.  When Cap’n Nemo’s in Bass Harbor burned down in a few years ago, a thoughtful local reminded me to be on the watch for domestic disputes, as the folks who had previously found their social outlet at the neighborhood bar would now have to spend time in small houses with their spouses and children.

For many folks, March is also the time when the money put aside from summer jobs starts to run thin:  the oil tank is empty, the refrigerator is empty, the rent is due, the light bill is due, and there is no paycheck on the horizon until May or June.  In the best years, there is no margin for error for those who rely on a seasonal economy, and in years with long, cold winters, there is little hope of making the summer money stretch far enough.  Both Island pantries have unfortunately become regular parts of the winter economy, and I can vouch that requests for assistance from the clergy discretionary funds peak in the late winter.

March is when it starts getting weird (or perhaps weirder).  But today, most of us have some sort of shelter, some source of heat and light, and some opportunity to get out of the house occasionally.  Imagine life in northern Europe in the Dark Ages, when many folks lived in one-room huts, heated with a wood or peat fire.  Only the wealthy could afford glass for windows or candles for light.  Food was stockpiled in the fall, with no effective means to preserve it.  In this setting, winter is not just depressing and stressful; it is actually life-threatening.

The days start to get a little longer after Christmas and the midwinter solstice, but not nearly fast enough.  Spring is months away, and any sort of harvest well beyond that.  Late winter is a season when time seems to slow down, when death seems to be all around, and it’s hard to remember that new life will ever be possible.  A time when we count the days until we can crawl out of our winter cocoons, our stagnant little tombs, and celebrate resurrection and the triumph over death’s finality.

The Christian tradition of Lent, of counting off the forty lengthening days before Easter, recognizes the reality that rebirth doesn’t come without death, that new life doesn’t always come when we are ready for it.  March would be easier if we could spend it under a sunlamp, or if we just sang happy songs and ate lots of chocolate.  Lent would be easier if we could just jump straight to Easter.  Many of us can afford to head south in March to someplace where the sun shines and the earth isn’t a bog of frozen mud.  Some of us can afford to heat our houses to 73 and leave all the lights on.  We can afford to create the illusion that winter has no hold on us, that death has no hold on us.

Those of us who spend Lent counting the days until the resurrection know that it is actually death’s hold that is the illusion.  Resurrection life doesn’t necessarily come when we want it.  But it comes.

An invitation to an above-average Lent

On Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, one of his long-running schticks was the moral superiority of places that suffer through long, cold winters.  Keillor never missed an opportunity to disparage southern California and other places that “don’t have seasons,” and his “News from Lake Wobegon” tended to judge those who spend winters in Florida or Arizona as slightly suspect.  Winter builds character, according to this thinking, and avoiding it shows a lack of moral fiber.

The church year has its own seasons, and some traditions seem to treat Lent like February in Maine:  something one chooses to suffer through, with the vague sense that the suffering itself is what makes it good for you.  Of course, the winters we have nowadays are nothing like what we had back when I was a kid, and neither is Lent.  Back then, we knew something about penitence!

Confession, repentance and penitence are all worthwhile things, but they are not all that Lent is about.  Lent began in the early Church as a period of preparation before the great celebration of Easter; those who hoped to be baptized and join the church at the Great Vigil spent (at least) forty days in study, prayer, fasting, and self-examination.  Remember that the church in those days was persecuted or illegal in many places, so that one needed to think long and hard before taking the fateful step of presenting oneself for baptism.  Remember also that the unbaptized left the room after the scripture readings and prayers:  Holy Communion was a mystery only for those who had shown a serious commitment to follow Christ.

As Christianity became the established religion of the Empire, baptism became much more ubiquitous, and preparation for it less arduous.  As time went on, however, an increased focus in the Western Church on human sinfulness led to a more mechanistic economy of sin.  Penitence, the honest acknowledgement and turning away from one’s sin, was replaced by Penance, self-inflicted punishment in exchange for the church’s promise of absolution.  Lent became a time of sometimes morbid self-mortification, on the assumption that God desires and approves of our suffering:  that suffering, like cold winters, builds character.

In reaction against this sort of masochism, some Christian traditions have abandoned Lent altogether, or have reduced it to little more than the switching of green hangings for purple. But just as Garrison Keillor finds something unwholesome about year-round sunshine, I think there is something missing from a church year that doesn’t include a season of study, prayer, fasting (in whatever form it takes), and self-examination.  Identifying oneself as a Christian is perhaps not as risky as it was in the second century, but we still need to think long and hard about what it means to live out that commitment.

Fasting, like penitence, can become a parody of itself when we focus exclusively on what we’re “giving up for Lent.”  Perhaps a healthier way of thinking about Lent is as a time to examine our lives for those habits and behaviors that come between us and God; those idols that demand the time and energy that could be better spent on our relationship with God and with God’s people in the world.  Seen this way, Lent is less about giving something up or improving ourselves, and more about making time and space for God in our lives.  It is about stewardship of our time, energy and attention.

Idols don’t have to be evil things in and of themselves; even good things can become idols if they come between us and God.  For example, we may load up our leisure time with so many enriching activities and worthwhile causes that we “just don’t have time” for daily prayer and meditation.  We may be so frugal and self-denying that we find ourselves anxious about finances and resenting the pledge we made to the church in faith.  Or we may notice that lots of time calling out injustices on social media can feed the demons of hatred and fear, alienating us from our brothers and sisters and making us forget the love that creates justice.  Turning away from these habits is not about making ourselves miserable – it’s about making room in our lives for the real joy that comes from relationship with God.

And let us not forget genuine penitence!  I would remind you that the Rite of Reconciliation (sacramental confession and absolution) can be a restorative, liberating practice.  The two forms that begin on page 447 in our current Prayer Book are intended as a framework and a first step in a process of repentance, not as an act of self-abasement and penance.  This ministry is always available by appointment, but Lent is a particularly appropriate time to lay aside those things that trouble us as we prepare to meet our risen Lord at Easter.

Why do we read what we read when we read it?

One of the real blessings of our current model of shared ministry among the parishes of MDI is the opportunity for congregations to hear multiple different preaching voices from month to month (Actually, I’m a little jealous of you in that regard:  I only get to hear preaching from my talented colleagues on Fifth Sundays, and sometimes I get a little tired of the sound of my own voice).

The lectionary, however, provides a thread of continuity from week to week and among congregations.  The lectionary is more than just a reading list.  At best it can be an interpretive tool that encourages us to juxtapose passages of scripture that we might not otherwise, and to participate in conversations among the different voices of scripture.  At worst, it can allow us to skip over difficult or uncomfortable passages, or encourage anachronistic or even anti-Jewish interpretations of the Hebrew Scripture.

The idea of a set scripture reading for each week goes back at least to the exile of the sixth century BC when the writings of the Torah were being compiled and when the pattern of synagogue worship was being established by the Scribes.  Early Christian congregations adopted and adapted the Jewish synagogue practice, adding the reading of open letters among congregations (the Epistles)  and later the retelling of stories and sayings from the life and teaching of Jesus (the Gospels).  While consensus developed around the canonical books of scripture in the Western Church in the third century, the scripture read each week varied widely from diocese to diocese until quite recently, especially during the “Ordinary” seasons of Epiphany and Pentecost.

Our current three-year lectionary is largely a product of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church (1962-1965).  Prior to this point, most lectionaries for worship repeated every year, and included only a small portion of the Bible, with the assumption that Christians were reading the Bible systematically on their own at home.  Goals of this new Mass Lectionary were to encourage the reading of more of the Bible in worship, and to ensure reading from the different parts of the Bible each week:  Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel.  Each of the three years in the cycle is organized around a semi-continuous reading of one of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), with readings from John’s Gospel incorporated mostly into Lent, Easter, Advent and Christmas.

A version of the Catholic Mass Lectionary was included in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.  The current Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) was adopted with minor modifications by the Episcopal Church for trial use in 1994, and as the official lectionary of the church as of the first Sunday of Advent, 2007.  It is used by many mainline Protestant denominations, and it is good to know that many of our Christian brothers and sisters are reading and responding to the same scriptures as we are each week.

One noticeable difference between the RCL and earlier lectionaries is the option of two different tracks through the Hebrew Scriptures during Ordinary Time.  The track which was included in the 1979 BCP is driven by the Gospel reading for the day; readings from the Old Testament are chosen specifically to complement typological themes and images from the Gospel.  The newer track is a more nearly continuous reading through big chunks of the Hebrew Scriptures from week to week.  The advantage of the “complementary” track is that it (theoretically) makes preaching easier, as readings are already grouped around a theme, but at the cost of chopping up the Hebrew Scriptures into out-of-context snippets and more or less forcing the interpretation of Jewish scripture through a Christian lens.  The advantage of the “continuous” track is that it allows the Old Testament stories their own integrity, but it makes connections less tidy.  The intention is that a parish pick one track and stick with it throughout the cycle, as it doesn’t make much sense to have a continuous reading if you are dipping in and out of it.  At St. Saviour we have followed the continuous track for the last several years.

Finally, a note of caution.  Even with the three year, multi-track lectionary, there are huge parts of the bible that we don’t ever read week to week.  It can be argued that some passages are not particularly edifying (long genealogical lists, fine points of the purity code, chronicles of forgettable kings).  Other passages, though, seem to have been left out because they are troubling:  violent, misogynistic, nationalistic, or otherwise telling a story we’d prefer not to hear.  For a fuller picture of humanity’s relationship with God, I invite you to check out the parts we leave out:  the verses before and after the appointed readings, and especially any “holes” cut out of the middle of passages.  And then ask yourself, “Why do you suppose we don’t read that?”

Tim ruins Advent for you

A mischievous older priest once told me, “When someone says ‘We’ve always done it that way,’ it usually means ten years, but seldom longer than the tenure of the last rector.”  The fact is that many of our practices that we think of as ancient are in fact quite recent compared to the life of the church, and some of our most beloved Advent and Christmas traditions are among them.

The Advent wreath is perhaps the tradition most associated with the season, and the combination of evergreen boughs with four candles seems to be such an apt symbol for the season that it is easy to assume that it is an ancient or at least medieval tradition.  In fact, the Advent wreath was invented in 1839 by Johann Wichern, a German Lutheran pastor at a mission school in Hamburg.  The children at the school would ask every day how long it was until Christmas, so Pastor Wichern affixed four large white candles and 24 small red candles to a wagon wheel, lighting one candle successively each Sunday and weekday.  The custom caught on among German Lutherans and spread to German Catholics in the 1920’s, but was not seen in the United States until the 1930’s, or in England until the 1960’s.

Until very recently, the Advent wreath was considered a nice tradition for the home, but not necessarily something one would observe in church.  The only mention of the wreath in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is in the “Additional Directions” for candles at Evening Worship on page 143: “During Advent, the lighting of an Advent Wreath may take place after the Prayer for Light.”  The Book of Occasional Services, the priest’s guide for special occasions, is even cooler:  under the heading “Concerning the Advent Wreath,” it sniffs: “When used in the church, no special prayers or ceremonial elaboration beyond what is described on page 143 of the Prayer Book is desirable.”

The Advent wreath is really a sort of ritualized form of the Advent calendar, but it seems that we owe that tradition to restless 19th-century German Lutheran schoolchildren as well.  The Advent calendar was designed as a teaching tool with a Bible verse hidden behind each window, intended to edify (and pacify) children who were eager for Christmas.  Contemporary versions with chocolate or even jewelry behind each window serve the same purpose for impatient adults.

And any conversation about the Advent wreath has to address the burning question (sorry, couldn’t help it) of the correct color for the candles: should they be violet, blue or white, and should the third Sunday’s candle be pink?  In fact, the idea of uniform liturgical colors is modern:  before the liturgical revival of the late nineteenth century, the “standard” colors for vestments and paraments varied widely from one church to another.  Parishes who could afford it might try to match their colors to those used in their own cathedral, but most held only to the practice of using the “best” vestments for major feasts, “second best” for lesser feasts, and “everyday” for everything else.

One can search through the entire 1979 Book of Common Prayer and not find any mention of specific colors for seasons or feasts.  The colors that we think of as standard are generally those adopted by the Roman Catholic Church after Vatican II.

The question of violet or blue for Advent dates from the Oxford Movement in the Church of England.  In an effort to emphasize the Catholic roots of Anglicanism, certain Anglo-Catholics encouraged the revival of the “Sarum Rite:” the liturgy as celebrated at the Cathedral of Salisbury in the 11th century.  In fact, little is known about the actual practice of the Sarum Rite, and even less of it was ever adopted into modern practice, with the exception of the use of “Sarum blue” for Advent instead of violet.  Some cynical folks have suggested that “Sarum blue” was invented by makers of liturgical furnishings, who could thus sell a fifth set of vestments and paraments to every church.

The Hanging of the Greens (or the Greening of the Church), the decoration of the church with evergreen boughs on the first Sunday of Advent, also seems to date only to the early 20th century in the US, although the tradition may be much older in northern Europe.  Evergreens like cedar, pine and holly which keep their green leaves through the winter are used as symbols of eternal life in scripture, and in fact were common symbols of rebirth in pagan religions as well.

And of course, the Greening is closely related to the Christmas tree.  The tradition of decorating a tree with fruits, nuts, sweets, and small toys for Christmas seems to date to the 15th century in Germany, Poland, and the Baltic lands, although the use of trees in religious ritual (or even the worship of trees themselves) is very ancient:  witness the prophets’ long campaign against sacred groves and asherah poles throughout the Torah.  By the 18th century, the Christmas tree was seen as a particularly Protestant tradition, as compared with the Catholic Nativity Scene or crèche.

The crèche itself is an interesting case.  St. Francis of Assisi is credited with staging the first Nativity pantomime in 1223, inspired by a journey to Bethlehem.  The pantomime became popular (as did almost anything having to do with Francis), and staged scenes with statues or figurines instead of live actors and animals were easier to deal with.   As was standard in medieval religious art, the manger scene includes overlapping narratives:  the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger, the visit from the shepherds, and the rejoicing angels from Luke, as well as the Star of Bethlehem and the visitation of the Magi and the offering of their gifts from Matthew.  Like many churches, we don’t move the Magi into the scene until Epiphany, perhaps as a way of untangling the separate stories.

Knowing too much of the background and provenance of our Advent and Christmas traditions may seem to diminish them: what we thought was ancient and eternal may in fact be recent and invented.  But that need not be a problem. We believe that Christ is incarnate and the Spirit continues to speak, and God does something new in every generation.  What makes something a tradition is not that it is old, but that it is worth handing down.  What makes something worth handing down is that it continues to speak, continues to be a channel of grace, continues to point beyond itself to the mystery it embodies.


For a moment, imagine a world where everyone, or nearly everyone, is a Christian.  Children are baptized as a matter of course, and are brought up learning the faith in the household of God.  Young people choose to make a mature affirmation of their faith, and grow into leadership roles in their faith communities.  Activities are not planned for Sunday mornings because families are all in church (or at least they claim to be).  Pews are crowded, church nurseries are crowded, Sunday school is crowded.  There are conversations and even debates about faith, religion, and morality in the public square, but the speakers all assume a Christian or Judeo-Christian foundation for their arguments.  Some may doubt and question, but their doubts and questions come from within the tradition of faith.  Church, society, and even government all seem to speaking the same language.

Now imagine a world where Christianity is one among many spiritual and religious paths.  Some folks are enthusiastic public Christians, but they are a minority, albeit a highly visible one.  Some folks are devoted to other faiths that have nothing to do with the Judeo-Christian tradition, and many choose to shape their own beliefs and practices from elements of several different traditions.  Some follow new religions and philosophies that seem to spring up to meet particular social and psychological needs, and then wither as a generation passes.  By far the largest group of people does not follow any organized religion other than the civil celebrations of the nation’s history, of personal rites of passage, and sports and entertainment events.  The wider society makes few allowances for religious worship, practices, or belief.

Which of these sounds more like the world in which we live today?  Which of these sounds more like the world in which many of us grew up?  Which of these sounds more like the world for which our congregations and churches and buildings were designed and evolved?

It is no secret that we live in a society where religion fills a very different role than it did just a couple generations ago.  In the United States, churches were disestablished (separated from the government) in the eighteenth century, yet our culture had remained outwardly Christian until very recently.  In Europe and Great Britain, where the Church remains established by the state, the Church has been culturally irrelevant even longer.

Church officials are terrified to see attendance and membership plummet across denominations and traditions (evangelical and megachurches, which for a while looked like the exception, seem now to be merely a few years behind the mainline churches in their decline in North America).  The majority of two generations of young people have grown up without any exposure to any faith community, and in fact those who have been involved in church youth groups are less likely to be church members as adults than those who grew up unchurched.  While the Church is healthy and growing in the developing world, it seems to be withering in Europe and North America.

The first paragraph of this article describes (at least in caricature) the culture of Christendom that was assumed to be dominant in much of the European-American world from the early Middle Ages through some time in the middle of the twentieth century.  The second paragraph, while it applies to some aspects of our current society, was written to describe the late Roman Empire – the first several centuries after Christ, when the early Church experienced explosive growth.  In many significant ways, the post-Christian world looks more similar to the pre-Christian world of 100 AD than it does to the world of fifty years ago.

So what are we to do about this?  Should we be travelling from town to town, preaching on the village greens and daring the authorities to arrest us, like Paul and Silas and Timothy?  Perhaps some will find this effective.  What seems clear, though, is that it does little good to go on pretending that all we need to do is to open the doors to our magnificent buildings, and that people will show up seeking what we have to offer.

When Constantine established Christianity as the state church of the Roman Empire, many in the early church believed that this was a disaster for the Christian faith.  How could the world-shattering gospel of Jesus Christ function as an arm of the imperial government?  Many pious men and women were called to turn their backs on the empire and retreat to caves and huts in the desert, where they could practice their radical faith without compromise.

When the United States disestablished religion, it seemed like a disaster for the churches (and in fact was a very difficult time for the previously established Anglican Church). But in the generations that followed, the world was amazed to see religious revival burning across the American frontier, and the US became one of the most enthusiastically religious nations in the world.  Establishment was a crutch and a straitjacket; disestablishment set us free, and demanded from us an intentional decision to follow Jesus.

Look at the first two paragraphs again.  While the world of the first paragraph may seem cozy and familiar to some, it was also stifling and stultifying to many.  I am quite sure that there are many people active within our parishes and faith communities today that would not have felt welcomed or engaged by the church-world of the first paragraph.  The second paragraph offers us no guarantees, but allows much more space for the Spirit to teach us new ways of being the Body of Christ.

The world is changing, but the gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be silenced, and will ultimately triumph over the principalities and powers of this world.  The church is changing, but the gospel of Christ, the mission of God, will triumph with or without the sponsorship of this world’s culture and civilization.  Of this I have no doubt.

Why do we give?

Generosity is a category of good behavior that is of interest to Christians, not just because the church relies chiefly on the generosity of members for its financial resources, but because wealth and the ways we relate to it are such a central part of the Gospel.  Jesus talks more about money than he does about any other human institution, so there must be something there that he wants us to hear and understand.

Our spiritual relationship with money and giving is complex, and includes challenging ideas about philanthropy, charity, security, poverty, pride and greed.  Today, though, I’d like to address the narrower question of whether and how we give money to the church – a question that is freighted with all sorts of history and assumptions which can make it hard to talk about.

Before going any further, I should give credit to my friend The Rev. Timothy Dombek, former Canon for Stewardship and Planned Giving in the Diocese of Arizona.  He taught a two-day seminar called “Stewardship University” that changed the way I think about stewardship, and this article relies a great deal on his teaching.

Some of us may give to the church out of sense of duty or guilt.  We may have the subconscious fear that we are loved in proportion to the size of the gifts we give, or that we can somehow make expiation for our sins by giving to the church.  We may know intellectually that God’s grace is unconditional and irresistible, but our insecurities doubt that this can be so.  Or if we don’t doubt God’s impartiality, we may worry that our pastor or someone else in the church will think better or worse of us based on the size of our gifts.

Some of us may have internalized the world’s model of payment for services rendered, and may give because of the good things we get from the church.  We love the music, we appreciate the preaching, we enjoy the fellowship of our friends, and we are willing to pay something for that. If we find ourselves asking questions like “how much is the church worth to me?” or talking about our gifts to the church as dues or taxes, we may be giving from this model.  If we think about giving to keep the lights on, or to make sure that the church will still be here for our grandchildren, we may really be thinking of the church as just another local business that we wish to support.

A much subtler version of this kind of giving is when we give philanthropically because we want to support particular activities of the church in the world.  If we give to the church because the church does things we like, then we are really just giving money to advance our own will and our own interests, even if those things we like are good in themselves.  This sort of philanthropy is a wonderful thing and has supported many worthwhile charities and causes and arts organizations. There is an important distinction, though, between a charity and the church, between philanthropy and tithing.

Tithing – the practice of setting aside a percentage of one’s income for the church – is at its best a spiritual practice for the giver rather than a fundraising technique for the church.  Tithing is an exercise in trusting God rather than ourselves; trusting that God gives us enough.  Tithing is not about the church’s need for money, but a challenge for us to let go of part of the treasure that the world tells us so urgently that we need to protect and to hoard.  Tithing is not the way we fund ministry; tithing is ministry.  Tithing flips our assumptions about who is offering a gift to whom.

Tithing is a sort of Sabbath for our money: a recognition that all of our time and all of our gifts belong to God, and that we don’t need to squeeze more work out of every minute and more stuff out of every dollar.  As Sabbath makes the whole week holy, tithing a percentage of our income hallows all of it.  Tithing is sacramental:  it takes something material and worldly and turns it into a sign of the Kingdom of God.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Jesus knows human nature well enough to understand that our money is a proxy for our energy and our work and our commitment to what we actually value.  What we do with our money says more about the state of our heart than the words that we speak.

Twenty-two Months

About fifteen years ago, I was in an open parish meeting to discuss long term planning for a particular congregation.  People were sharing visions of the future, as well as complaints and fears.  After a lot of conversation, a gentleman rolled his eyes and said, “Why does it seem like we’re always talking about discerning?  Why can’t we just figure out what we need to do and do it?”

Discernment is a wonderful, positive, necessary thing, but I can understand this fellow’s frustration.  Discernment is supposed to be a practice of listening for God’s voice among the many voices of the world, including our own.  It is supposed to be about bracketing our own will and being open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in community and in our lives.  Sometimes, though, discernment can feel like a code word for wheel-spinning and navel-gazing, an excuse for never coming to a decision. 

If you’re familiar with the Myers-Briggs Personality Types, a useful but much over-used way of talking about our fundamental orientation to the world, an attitude toward discernment is one of the things that defines the J / P scale.  People on the “J” end of this particular continuum tend to like to gather information, weigh it, make a decision, and move on (rather like the gentleman in the congregation above).  At the “P” end of the spectrum, people like to keep options open, always seeking more information, always ready to reconsider.  Neither orientation is better than the other, but the two types of people tend to drive one another crazy.

According to some studies, approximately 70% of Episcopal clergy tend toward “J”.  Yet, if I were to think about the personality of our Church as a whole, I would have to say that many of us are of the keep-all-options-open, hold-opinions-lightly, always-ready-to-do-more-discernment “P” orientation.  Again, neither type is “more spiritual” and the world needs both, although one or the other may be more effective in a given situation.  But it may describe some frustration and misunderstanding that sometimes happens between clergy and congregations.

Some of us may feel like the gentleman in the parish meeting:  it seems that our communities have been in almost perpetual discernment for (at least) the last six years.  What is the way forward for our congregations?  Are we better together?  How do we best work together and steward our particular gifts?  What are we willing to give up in exchange for the promise of abundant life?  It sometimes seems as though we have just made one decision when the situation changes, asking us to enter again into discernment of our part in God’s mission.  Some of us “P’s” may be comfortable with this state of perpetual openness, but some of us “J’s” may find it exhausting.

In August, Bishop Lane announced his retirement and called for the election of his successor.  This announcement set in motion a process that is expected to take twenty-two months and culminate with the consecration of the Tenth Bishop of Maine in June of 2019.  The next twenty-two months will be pregnant with discernment of who we are as the Episcopal Church in Maine and who we are called to be, as well as discernment on the part of those who may be called to present themselves as candidates. 

For some of us, twenty-two months sounds like a long time.  Why do we need to spend so much time having meetings and doing surveys?  We know who we are; why can’t we just put an ad in the paper?  For others, twenty-two months feels like a deadline racing toward us.  How can we do justice to this important process in less than two years?  How can we prayerfully consider every possible option? 

For the next twenty-two months, we will need the gifts of those who can look at the data, make a decision, and move on.  We will also need the gifts of those who can sit patiently with uncertainty.  The Holy Spirit can and does work though both types.  During this process, there will almost certainly be times when we will drive one another crazy. That’s one of the ways we know that we’re doing real discernment.

An open window

If you’ve been around the Episcopal Churches on MDI this summer, you know that we’re trying something different.

A few months ago, informal conversations began among the wardens of all four churches about ways we could continue to deepen our cooperation and shared ministry.  Around that same time, three “openings” presented themselves to the island parishes.  Mother Kathleen Killian’s contract was set to end or be renewed on July 1.  Father John Allison was ordained to the priesthood in February.  And Mother Sue Cole announced that she would be leaving the Church of Our Father this summer.  It seemed that there must be some way for these three opportunities to come together.

Often when a solution looks too simple, it is.  Often there is some good reason why the obvious idea is not a good idea, or at least some rule that says you can’t do it that way.  When the church is presented with a challenge or a chance to try something different, our response is often to convene a committee to study the question for three years, publish a report that no one reads, pass a resolution that does nothing, and congratulate ourselves for facing reality head-on.

In this case, your wardens and treasurers did something different.  They realized that this window would only be open for a short time:  John and Kathleen would pursue other calls, or Church of Our Father would call another priest, and the window to try something different would be closed again.  So your wardens and treasurers started asking, “If we were to try something different, what might it look like?  What would happen if our three parishes were to covenant together?  How would that look different from the covenant our two parishes have shared for the last five years?  How would the finances work?  What might be gained?  What might be lost?  Would it have to be lost?”

As your wardens and treasurers set about pondering these questions, new possibilities arose:  “How might our two parishes be hospitable to Church of Our Father as they step into an arrangement that we have had five years to get used to?  What can our two parishes learn from Our Father’s unique gifts?  How can the gifts of all three parishes combine to support the growth and formation of new clergy?  And what about St. Mary & St. Jude, the fourth parish on our island?  How might all of us together offer a stronger witness to the world than each of us separately?”

Several remarkable things have happened during this process.  First, it seemed that whenever there was an obstacle that made some of us think the whole thing would fall apart, folks involved stayed in conversation, listened to one another, and a way around the obstacle became clear.  Each group and each individual had to accept a certain amount of discomfort, a certain amount of compromise, and when that happened the other groups and individuals were gentle and patient with those who were needed to slow down and catch a breath.  Second, the Diocese of Maine in the person of Canon Michael Ambler was willing to allow this relationship to find its own shape here on the island, with great support and a notable absence of micromanagement.  Third, when the process was opened to members of the congregations, concerns were expressed and heard lovingly, and incorporated into the conversation.

The fourth thing that happened is a little harder to put a finger on.  As sibling parishes who have lived together for more than a century, it seems that all four of us have a tendency to stereotype one another, to project on one another identities that we might not recognize in ourselves.  Somehow, in this process, I found myself constantly being surprised by graceful actions and reactions from others that should not have surprised me at all.

One of the tools of discernment is to hold a process lightly, to allow room for the Holy Spirit to speak and guide in directions we might not have foreseen, to pay attention to opportunities, obstacles, and the state of our own soul as we discern.  From that standpoint, I am awed by the presence of the Spirit in this new thing, and pray that we will all be able to continue to hold it lightly and let it take us where it leads.


This week, I was reading the script of a play called “The Christians,” by Lucas Hnath, which is scheduled to be performed this month at the Acadia Repertory Theatre in Somesville. The action of the play is set in motion by an Evangelical pastor’s announcement that he no longer believes in hell, and the conflict that follows.  The play is not intended to be a theological treatise on either side, but really a study of characters dealing with a rupture in their worldview.

One of the things that struck me most, though, was what the pastor said at the end of his announcement:  “We are no longer a congregation that believes in Hell.” In other words, the pastor is the one who defines the faith of the congregation, and if the pastor has discerned something that causes him to change his mind, then the congregation is expected to follow suit.

I told Andrew, the Director at A.R.T., that I could not imagine an Episcopal priest or bishop standing in front of a congregation an announcing that “We are no longer a church that believes X” – not because our understandings and beliefs don’t evolve, but because our pastors don’t have that sort of authority to define the faith of the faithful.  Revolutionary thinkers and theologians in our tradition have been more likely to announce, “I have come to the conclusion that I can no longer believe X.”  At its best, then, the church has weighed and sifted that assertion and come to a consensus, or at least a willingness to live with differing interpretations of X.

This kind of communal discernment has led some to question whether the Episcopal Church actually believes anything, or expects its members to believe anything.  I have even heard well-intentioned Episcopalians say that one of the things they like most about our church is that you can believe whatever you want (at which point the Rector flinches involuntarily).

It’s true that the Episcopal Church does not have a pope and magisterium to define and guard doctrine. Nor do we have a formal confession of faith like many Lutheran and Reformed churches do.

John Hooker, one of the earliest systematic Anglican theologians, writes that the sources of authority in our church are Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, later oversimplified in the metaphor of a three-legged stool which collapses if any of the three legs fails. In fact, Hooker saw Scripture as the primary source of authority, interpreted in terms of the other two, but the fact that all three are subject to human interpretation seems like a problem if we are looking for a concise statement of “what Episcopalians believe” (although one must admit that even the Reformed Confessions are subject to interpretation).

In the back of your Prayer Book, on pages 867-876 in the section called “Historical Documents,” one can find the Articles of Religion, first published in 1571.  This document is sort of the letters of incorporation of the new Church of England, taking care to differentiate it from both the Roman Catholic and radical Reformed churches.  While the attention to specific timely controversies (like whether it is proper for a Christian to swear an oath before a judge) seem quaint to us now, at least the first twenty-eight articles are a statement of orthodox Protestant teaching.  But in fact this document is considered by many Episcopalians to be a historical artifact, not a statement of essential doctrine for the church today.

The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886 on pages 876-877 is closer to us in time as well as in spirit.  It states that, in the interest of Christian unity, the Episcopal Church is willing to compromise on preferences and customs, but that the essential marks of the Christian church are 1) The Holy Scriptures, understood to be the revealed Word of God; 2) The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of Christian faith; 3) The two dominical sacraments of baptism and communion; and 4) “The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted.”  Whether or not one accepts these items as essential (number four does not seem as obvious to many other Christian denominations as it does to us!), they represent a bare minimum of what the Episcopal Church considers necessary to be the church.

The Catechism on pages 845-862 is an outline for instruction in the faith, newly composed for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, but the prologue clearly states that it “is not meant to be a complete statement of belief and practice; rather, it is a point of departure for the teacher.”  In fact, many of the statements in the catechism are so open-ended and pre-suppose such knowledge of Christianity that they are of little use in defining a distinctively Episcopal faith.

When challenged to describe “what Episcopalians believe,” a popular answer has been to quote the motto Lex orandi, lex credendi, that is, “the law of prayer is the law of belief.”  This is an acknowledgement that the Anglican tradition is not defined by agreement on doctrine or dogma, but on a shared way of praying and worshipping; furthermore, our habitual common prayer defines and shapes our faith rather than affirmation of any particular propositions.  This can be caricatured as rote repetition without theological understanding, but at best is a recognition that human beings are more than intellectual animals, and that in prayer, song, body posture and sacrament the Holy Spirit can reach parts of our created selves inaccessible to rational discourse. This understanding makes the design and practice of liturgy and worship even more critical, as they are not only habit, but the way that Christians are formed.

None of these, of course, is the same as a fifteen-point statement of faith to which we can choose to subscribe or not.  But neither is the lack of such a bulleted list an indication that Episcopalians believe nothing or everything.  Rather, when we stand and hear the Gospel proclaimed, when we recite the Creeds, when we celebrate the sacraments, we may not be narrowly defining what each means, but we are affirming that we are members of a church that believes that these things are important and true.  We are able to have a conversation about hell or heaven or bishops or health care or climate change, or whether it is acceptable for a Christian to swear an oath, secure in the knowledge that we may disagree and not be asked to leave the church. No single person nor any single document can tell us what we must believe, and yet over the last five centuries we have somehow managed to hold together this dynamic consensus about what it means to be faithful.


As I write, we find ourselves once again (or perhaps still?) in a time of transition and trying new things.  We have expanded our outreach to our neighbors by partnering with the Common Good Café for community suppers.  We are making our buildings available to more community groups, even when that occasionally means we are inconvenienced.  We are eagerly awaiting the inauguration and occupancy of a new community of neighbors in our Parish House. We are in the midst of interviewing and calling a new person to lead our music ministry.  And we are in conversations with our friends and neighbors about a possible new relationship among the other Episcopal parishes on this island and our clergy.

On a larger stage, we are seeing the relationship between the Church and the culture changing, with panicked cries that the church is becoming irrelevant, or that in her quest for relevance the church has lost her prophetic voice.  Bloggers and authors loudly insist that what we must do is to withdraw into our own Christian communities and reject the fallen world, or just as loudly that the Church must catch up to the rapid changes in culture and in fact be on the progressive cutting edge of social change.  We are exhorted to follow God into the neighborhood, letting go of anything that is not the Gospel, but at the same time we are reminded to remain true to ourselves and our own story.  It is a very confusing time to be the Church.

But of course, it has seldom been easy to be Gods people. Disagreements among faithful people are a dark thread that runs through scripture and church history.  Consider the ancient enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans, worshipping the same God from the same holy books but from different temples.  Consider the competition in Jesus’ time among the Sadducees who chose to compromise with Roman culture, the Essenes who chose to withdraw into the desert to keep themselves pure, the Zealots who plotted religious terrorism against Rome, and the Pharisees who devoted themselves to living according to God’s law in a hostile environment.  Consider the controversy between Paul and Peter, each convinced by his own vision of what Christ had intended his movement to be.  Consider any human conflict when each side is absolutely sure that God fights for them.

It would certainly be easier if God were to speak plainly to us as he did to Abraham and Moses, then listen to our counter-arguments and perhaps adjust his plan. But for better or worse, for the last several thousand years God has relied on us to use the tools he has given us to work things out as best we can:  Holy Scripture, the human and fallible Church, and our human and fallible intellect.

Think about that:  God relies on us to work things out as best we can.  Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it this way in his commentary In Man we Trust:  “What God does first and best and most is to trust his [people] with their moment in history…  He trusts his [people] not to bring death but to do what must be done for the sake of the whole community.”[1]

Seen this way, our struggling to live out our good intentions with the limited information and resources we have at hand, trusting God but wishing that he didn’t trust us quite so much, is not just the best we can do; it is what God calls us to do. Our groping along in the dark is not our failure or God’s design flaw; it is at the heart of our relationship with the God who created us with free will specifically so that we might live in a genuine and loving covenant with him.

There may have been a time when it seemed that all the hard questions were settled, everybody was a Christian, and the Church would never need to change. That is certainly not true now, and I doubt that it ever really was. Thanks be to God that he trusts us enough to show us the truth about our moment in history, even when it may seem overwhelming.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, In Man we Trust: The Neglected Side of Biblical Faith (Eugene, Oregon:  Wipf & Stock, 1972), pp 33-34. Digital edition accessed May 25, 2017 from