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 www.books.google.com/books?id=Q5JLAwAAQBAJ&vq. 


April, 2017

A couple weeks ago, Bob and I attended a series of workshops in Boston called “eFormation Boot Camp,” based on a curriculum developed at Virginia Seminary, and offered on this occasion by Province I of the Episcopal Church.  The goal of the event was to teach and encourage parish leaders to use Social Media more effectively to communicate within and beyond the congregation.

I guess the lower-case “e” before Formation was code to let us know that this gathering would be hip and cool and up-to-the-minute – or at least as up-to-the-minute as the mainline church is able to manage, which seems to be consistently about twenty years behind the cutting edge.  And I think that’s okay:  in a culture that idolizes novelty for its own sake, being a little out of step may be where a countercultural church should be.

Sorting through all the buzzwords and jargon, though, the message that I brought home was that social media and technology can be effective ways to share the church’s message, but that the slickest podcast in the world is worthless if the message is not clear and compelling.

Most of the workshops were led by those elusive beasts: millennials who are committed to the church.  And these were the folks telling us codgers to concentrate first on getting our message clear, and not to worry so much about the infrastructure.  Perhaps we have outgrown Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “The medium is the message.”  Perhaps we have entered a world where the message is the message, and the medium is just the medium.

So what is our message?  On one hand, we are stewards of the most cosmic, world-changing message humanity has ever been given:  the God who created us and the rest of the universe has chosen to live and die as a human being to save human beings from ourselves.  He died and was resurrected to overcome the forces of death and sin, and we are invited to follow him and know resurrection life.

This message is difficult, but we have lots of resources on lots of cross-compatible platforms and formats.  We have the message in nano-form (For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. – 132 characters, eminently tweetable).  We have it as an FAQ document in our creeds and in our Baptismal Covenant.  We have memes that we call icons and stained glass windows.  And all of these are hyperlinked to the searchable full-text version:  #HolyScripture. (If some of these terms are Greek to you, don’t worry, that’s kind of the point).

On the other hand, we too often bury this buzzy message and fill up our bandwidth with a steady stream of business as usual.  Don’t worry, nothing too challenging, nothing you haven’t heard already.  If you’re really interested, mail a self-addressed stamped envelope, and in six to eight weeks we’ll mail you a brochure.

In a couple weeks, we will celebrate Holy Week.  Over the course of seven days we will re-tell and re-live the entire message of Salvation History:  God’s creation and care for the human family, God’s continued communication with us through the Prophets, God’s message delivered to us in the Word, our corrupt and violent response, and God’s ultimate re-boot of creation in the Resurrection.

Perhaps it would be more hip and cool and up-to-the-minute if God were just to live-stream the whole thing.  It would probably get a bigger audience, and the demographics would certainly skew better.  But sometimes the medium does matter.  This is a message that we receive by hearing it, singing it, walking it, praying it, again and again, year by year, Sunday by Sunday. This is a message that burns itself onto our hard drives, re-writes our operating system. And this is a message that we are called to forward to all, by striving to live it every day.

For God so loved the world

Christianity has inherited from Judaism an ambiguous relationship with the world.  I don’t mean the natural world; in Genesis, God repeatedly declares the created world to be good, and throughout the Old Testament are hymns and thanksgivings for the beauty of the earth. I mean the world of other people, the culture outside our doors.  In the Torah are hundreds of commandments about keeping apart from the outside world, at least as that world is understood to be Gentile.  In Jesus’ time, the burning question for faithful Jews was how to live in a world where pagan Romans occupied Israel:  collaborate like the Sadducees, resist like the Zealots, concentrate on right behavior like the Pharisees, or withdraw like the Essenes.  When Christianity became a state religion in the fourth century, the Desert Fathers and Mothers withdrew from the world, protesting the Church’s compromise with the Empire.  For two thousand years, Christians have been simultaneously drawn into the world to preach and serve, and drawn back from the world to focus more deeply on God.

The battle still rages: this very morning, I ran across both approaches.  In The Atlantic, I read a review of Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.  Although this book is not even scheduled to be released publicly for several weeks, it has generated a lot of discussion by way of advance reviews and the author’s public speaking on the topic.  Mr. Dreher’s title refers to Benedictine monks and nuns who, as the Western Roman Empire crumbled, withdrew from the pagan culture of the Dark Ages and preserved Christianity as well as culture and learning, so that when the social situation improved in the later Middle Ages, the seeds they had kept alive could grow and flower.  His thesis is that, as Christianity ceases to be a guiding force in American culture, Christians need to withdraw from that culture and create intentional communities where they can live the Gospel authentically and await a more hospitable time.

The idea is tempting. Many would argue that Christianity has been at its best when it has been the most counter-cultural and that if the choice is between rejecting or compromising with the culture of American politics and entertainment, rejection and withdrawal make a lot of sense.  Dreher offers the example of Orthodox Jewish enclaves that have been able to preserve their religion and culture for centuries even in the midst of American and European cities that are wholly antithetical to their values and beliefs.

An hour after reading this review, I watched Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon from last week’s Episcopal Revival in the Diocese of Pittsburgh (if the idea of an Episcopal Revival seems impossible, that is part of the problem. See http://tinyurl.com/Revival2017). At Holy Cross Church in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Bishop Curry preached the need for a revival that goes beyond the church and spills over into the world.  He begins from the same premise as Mr. Dreher, that the West has lost its Judeo-Christian grounding in favor of worshipping the Golden Calf of the Self.  But rather than seeing that as reason to withdraw from the world, Bishop Curry points us back to the example of Christ himself, whose insistence on love grows more and more urgent the closer he gets to his own crucifixion, the act that ++Curry describes as “the sacrifice of un-enlightened self-interest for the good of the other.”

In other words, Jesus didn’t have the luxury of withdrawing into a bubble, of keeping his hands clean and his eyes closed to the sinful brokenness of the world around him.  And neither do we.  Jesus did not compromise with the corruption and violence of this world, but rather opposed it with righteousness and peace, even at the cost of his own life.  And so must we.  Jesus overcame death and the grave, defeating the satanic powers of this world by facing them head on in love.  And so may we.

Lent begins March 1.  Lent is often understood as a period of spiritual purgation and purification in preparation for the mighty events of Holy Week.  Seeking that purification, some of us choose various kinds of fasting:  withdrawing ourselves from certain habits or indulgences of the world.  Such fasting is not a bad thing if it gives us time and space to focus on our relationship with God.  But if we think that we are living the Gospel by walling ourselves off from our disreputable neighbors and the messy world we live in, we have missed the point.  To quote Bishop Curry again, “There is much that seeks to articulate itself as Christianity that doesn’t look anything like Jesus.  If it doesn’t walk like Jesus, and talk like Jesus, and look like Jesus and smell like Jesus, it’s not Christian! … And if it’s going to look like Jesus, it’s got to look like love.”


In conversations about the relationship between the Church and the World, there are three closely related but distinct concepts that often get confused:  Outreach, Evangelism, and Mission.  Many parishes have committees with one or more these names, and the work and ministry they do often overlaps.  Sometimes the name we give the committee has more to do with what was fashionable at the time it was set up than with the actual ministry of the committee.

Outreach comes from the sense of reaching out a hand to help others.  Sometimes it is specifically tied to the “works of mercy” described in Matthew 25:35-36:  feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoner. Sometimes it is defined by something like the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.  And sometimes it seems to mean everything that the church does other than worship:  I have seen “outreach” applied to activities that would be more accurately called publicity, community relations, prophetic witness, and pastoral care.

Outreach also can carry with it a sense of reaching out from the center to the margins, which in turn implies that we are at the center, we are the establishment with the resources, the power, and the knowledge of God, which we are graciously willing to share with the less-fortunate folks “out there.”

Evangelism literally means good news, and specifically means preaching the Gospel, proclaiming the resurrection of Christ and the Kingdom of God, and what those mean for the liberation and reconciliation of the world. Inside the church, though, Evangelism seems to mean getting people to come to church, specifically our church, and if possible to come back and sign a pledge card.  Ministries such as welcoming visitors and incorporating new members are important, but there is so much more to Evangelism than these.  And “the E word” sometimes carries uncomfortable connotations of professional Evangelists in the media, with their forceful insistence that they have all the answers and that we must be one of them to avoid damnation.

Mission also has some awkward associations with the great missionary project of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and its baggage of colonialism, cultural imperialism, and “converting the heathen.”  A more recent version of this condescending attitude is the “mission trip,” on which a group of first-world teenagers or adults drops into an economically disadvantaged community for a week, then comes home to post sanctimonious humble-brags on social media.

Until recently, if many churches dealt with Mission, it was to spend a lot of time crafting a mission statement:  a one-sentence capsule intended to explain why we’re here and what we think we’re supposed to be doing.  But Mission means sending, and theologically means the sending of God.  One who is sent does not set his own mission.  How does it change the way we think about it if we stop trying to craft our mission, and instead recognize that we are talking about God’s Mission, and that the Church is one of the instruments that God is using to fulfill God’s Mission.  Mission is not something that the Church does; it is something that God is doing through the Church:  the consummation of creation that we like to call the Kingdom of Heaven.

A brick doesn’t need a mission statement, but if a brick is willing to participate in the Builder’s mission along with mortar and wood and glass, together they can accomplish something greater than any of them individually could have imagined.  If the brick insists that everything must be brick, and in fact that the bricks must be in charge of drawing the blueprints, it’s unlikely to end up with anything other than a pile of broken bricks. 

Being an instrument of God’s Mission is as much about listening and watching and learning as it is about talking and doing and teaching.  We are not the only tool in God’s toolbox, and we need to be humble enough not only to listen for God’s plan, but to recognize that God may be using other people and other institutions to fulfill God’s mission, and that sometimes we just need to get out of the way.

Looking at Mission from the viewpoint of God’s Mission, the question is not “What can we offer the less fortunate?’  The question is not “How do we get more people to come to church?”  The question is not even, “What should we be doing?”  The questions that I believe will lead us to be the Church is “What is God doing in the World?  What is God doing in our neighborhood?  And I wonder if we can get in on that?”