Do Not Go Gentle: The TREC Report, Part One

First things first – let’s give thanks for the work of the intrepid souls on TREC, who have labored long and hard to learn about the issues facing the church, and to figure out how to address them. I have been plenty critical of TREC’s work in the past, but I do appreciate their work and their love for this church. I even appreciate much of what they have recommended.

doctor_patientThe problem is – and this is a common problem in the church – that they are better at diagnosis than at treatment. They are absolutely spot-on with their recognition of some of the problems facing the church. And their prescription that we need to “Follow Jesus, into the neighborhood, traveling lightly” is truly inspiring.

Let’s take a look at the problems TREC is trying to address. Two research reports recently released by TEC’s Research guru Kirk Hadaway highlight the issues: Domestic Fast Facts 2009-2013 and  Episcopal Congregations Overview 2014.  Membership is falling, attendance is falling, the median attendance at an Episcopal congregation is 61. These are not sustainable numbers. At the same time, we are closing many churches and failing to plant new ones. According to data that Kirk Hadaway gave me, in 2012 we had a net loss of 69 congregations; that same year, there were only three new congregations (filing parochial reports) across all of TEC.   And if you look at the Episcopal Congregations Overview for 2014, the problem is thrown into stark relief when you see the racial/ethnic composition of TEC: 87% White non-Hispanic, 6% Black or African American, 3.6% Hispanic/Latino, 1.3% Asian/Pacific Islander, 0.9% Native American, 1.3% Multi-Racial. This in a country where Whites will soon be a minority and where Hispanic/Latinos will soon be more than 30% of the population. We Episcopalians are older than the American population, too. I don’t have to rehearse all this stuff – you can see for yourself, and probably already have.

Given the stunning situation of decline we find ourselves in, I guess our church has two choices: we can Go gentle into that good night (as Dylan Thomas would say), or we can Rage, rage, against the dying of the light. Me, I’m not ready to give up the ghost yet.

bedside-mannerjpgWhat worries me is TREC’s apparent prognosis. They don’t name it specifically in the report, but many of their recommendations seem to be aimed at providing palliative care for a patient that has entered a long, slow, inevitable decline. What do you do with a church that is dying? You make arrangements for clergy to find other ways to make a living, you think of non-church ways to use the buildings to keep them open a bit longer, you try to find ways to provide pensions for people who can’t actually make a living in the church, you try to get seminaries to educate people for less money with more practical skills they can use elsewhere, you ask dioceses to consolidate, you discourage parishes from spending down their endowments in hopes that some future generation will find more productive uses for the money. And maybe, in addition to all that, you find ways to make governance more efficient.

These are all good things to think about, and some of them are inevitable. But I’m a church planter, and I look at things differently. I think we should not be restructuring for decline. I think we should be restructuring for growth.

If we actually wanted to revive the church, we would be looking at ways, not to manage decline, but to spark new life. We would be prioritizing evangelism and planting new congregations of every kind. We would be proposing to create a school for church planters and for bicultural/bilingual missionaries. We would be urging and training bishops and Commissions on Ministry to approve for ordination, not the folks that they would like to see at their bedside when they breathe their last, but the folks that both inspire and alarm them with new, risky ideas for reaching new people. We would be encouraging congregations with buildings not just to provide them for community use (always a good thing), but also to use them to plant congregations that actually do reach new kinds of people in their neighborhoods with the good news of Christ, in culturally relevant ways. We would be looking at our church-wide budget (the lever that moves the church, as my friend Frank Logue says) to strip away deadweight that does not encourage these priorities, and putting our resources behind life-giving ministries instead. We would be saying, yes, there are buildings and congregations in declining areas that have no hope of revival, and we would be making tough decisions and considering how to use those assets (or the money we could get for them) to reach new people. We would develop leaders for and pour money into youth and campus ministries. We would believe that Christ is not through working in our church yet.

By the way, TREC agrees with me, I think. They said very similar things on page 4 of their report (along with a very kind shout-out to the Acts 8 Moment, a grassroots network of which I am a founder and board member). They seem to agree with what I am saying in concept, but in their concrete recommendations they revert to managing decline.

I wish TREC had focused instead on sparking new life. It’s almost Christmas. Let’s not talk about decline and death. Let’s talk about new birth, new life, and how Christ is continually coming into our world.

Next Post: A look at the specific recommendations.

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Sermon for 11.9.14

Lessons for today are here.

$(KGrHqJHJD!E8fYS9T9MBPLq31Wjhg~~60_35You’ve probably seen the bumper stickers: “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” Or: “In Case of Rapture, Car will be without Driver.” Or my personal favorite: “After the rapture, can I have your car?”

There’s lots of talk out there about the Rapture, the Second Coming of Christ. For instance, there’s the “Left Behind” series – 12 books based on a particular interpretation of Christian end-times prophecies. The series has sold millions of copies, and has recently spawned a high-budget movie starring Nicolas Cage. I will admit that I am not an authority on these books – I got about two chapters into the first one and found it so disturbing I had to stop reading. But from what I gathered, these books begin with the Rapture: people are caught up into heavens to meet returning Jesus – which is one interpretation of the Thessalonians reading this morning. All the good people vanish, leaving piles of clothes and personal effects behind. Planes crash, driverless cars cause chaos, the world is in flames. Only “saved” Christians are taken; sinners and people who are the wrong kind of Christians (such as many Roman Catholics, and I’m sure, many Episcopalians) are Left Behind.

left_behind_nicolas_cageThe rest of the series involves the tribulation, as a few people belatedly realize their mistake in not being saved before, and valiantly fight against the anti-Christ and his minions. Eventually, around the tenth book or so, Christ will return to earth and will start an absolute blood-bath of blowing up his enemies. One commentator calls this blood-bath the return of the “Christ-inator” (similar to the Terminator) and wonders how Christ went to heaven and got a complete personality transplant. I mean, is this the same Jesus who said we need to love God and love our neighbors? The Jesus who forgave his enemies from the cross?

But there it is: it’s one interpretation of what Christ’s return will look like, very popular among a certain set of American Christians (not a well-known interpretation outside the US). It is based on a particular interpretation of the end-times that is distinctly modern – it was not even thought up till the 19th century, and it is certainly not traditional Christian theology.

What is so disturbing about it all is the absolute gleefulness that Christians feel as they read about (or watch in movies) people who aren’t Christians – or who are different kind of Christians than they are – meeting death and destruction. And question becomes: would Jesus really do this to people he came to save?

parable-of-the-ten-bridesmaidsThe unfortunate thing is, if you read today’s gospel a certain way, it seems he might. In the parable we read today, ten bridesmaids are waiting for the bridegroom; five are wise and have plenty of oil, but the other five are foolish and, right when the bridegroom arrives, they discover they’ve run out of oil and have to go run off to find some. The bridegroom lets the wise ones in, and locks the door against the foolish ones. And when they come and pitifully start banging on the door, he refuses to let them in – I don’t know you, he says. Devastating.

If you’re of a “Left Behind” frame of mind, this story is really easy to fit into your scenario – the five wise ones have already been saved, the five foolish ones didn’t prepare by repenting and being saved, and oops! They’re left behind. It’s pretty cut and dried, rule-based, theology based on who’s in and who’s out. Problem is, Jesus really didn’t seem to operate like that. Jesus included everyone, especially the foolish ones, the ones no one expected God to like, the prostitutes and tax collectors. No one was left behind or left out by Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus says over and over that we are supposed to share what we have with others, not hoard it as these “wise” bridesmaids hoard their oil, refusing to share because there won’t be enough left for themselves. How is this a Christian way to act?

Preacher Anna Carter Florence did a small rewrite of parts of the Sermon on the Mount in light of this parable, that goes like this: (Matthew 6:19ff) “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, although to get there, you will need large oil reserves, so forget the first part of what I said; store up for yourselves oil on earth, so that you will have treasure in heaven.”

Or (Matthew 6:25ff) “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body what you will wear. Worry about your oil; that’s the main thing. Worry about whether you have enough for you, and forget about everyone else; they are not your problem.”

Or (Matthew 7:7ff) “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you, unless of course you’re late and the bridegroom answers, in which case, you might as well forget it.”

And so on. The point is, this is a very curious parable – it the light of the rest of the gospel, it makes no sense. This bridegroom who won’t let in a few foolish bridesmaids – is this the same person as the Jesus who said he was the Good Shepherd, who would leave 99 well-behaved sheep just to chase after one lost sheep? This bridegroom seems never to have heard of that Jesus. This story seems to be just about punishment for small missteps – like in “Left Behind.” Punishment that glories in the misfortunes of the ones who are left out of the party.

But I don’t think Jesus was the “Christ-inator” – the one who comes to punish his enemies. I think Christ was the Savior – the one who came not to condemn, but save world. (It says so in the first chapter of the Gospel of John). So let’s look a little more closely at the parable.

All ten bridesmaids were invited to the feast; all ten accepted the invitation. But the bridegroom was late in arriving, and all ten fell asleep. At this point, we need to note that Matthew’s gospel was written around 80 AD – 50 years after Jesus died – at a time when Christians were very concerned that the Second Coming of Christ hadn’t happened yet. The bridegroom being delayed would be a matter of high anxiety for them, especially in light of what was going on in their world. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, both Jews and Christians were driven into exile, both were being persecuted, and they were both trying to figure out if they were one religion or two, and were busy separating themselves from each other and excluding each other. These Christians of Matthew’s time, surrounded by all this anxiety, would have to be wondering how to act until Christ appears.

Back to the parable: then someone catches sight of the bridegroom, all ten bridesmaids wake up, but five of them get all anxious about a trivial detail – their lamps – and run off before he arrives, while he is only steps away. In essence, the bridegroom in in sight right there, but they decide that there is something more important than him to concentrate on. That’s why they are shut out – not by his choice, but by theirs – because when the bridegroom arrives, you need to be ready to greet him with joy. The arrival of the bridegroom – Jesus – needs to be the most important thing there is. Nothing else takes precedence.

Which leads me to ask: how are we preparing for the bridegroom’s coming? If the people of Matthew’s time were concerned because Jesus had been gone for 50 years, well, for us, he’s been gone for 2,000 years – and it sure is easy to get distracted and begin to believe that trivial details of our lives are more important than he is.

So how do we prepare for the fact that Christ is real, and that someday we will meet him? I’m not talking about something as simple as whether we’ve been saved, whether we consider ourselves Christian, whether we think there is such a thing as the Rapture, whether in case of rapture our car will be driverless! I want to know, is our spiritual health, is our love of God and our neighbor the most important thing in our lives? Are our lamps lit, are our eyes open to see Christ in action and join him wherever he is?

If not, what has become more important? What distracts us from God? What takes our attention off the things that really matter and redirects it to things that don’t? Like foolish bridesmaids who run off to take care of one last detail when the bridegroom is in sight and the wedding is about to begin?

This world has many distractions – busy schedules and worries about money, and family quarrels, and work that absorbs all our time and energy, and politics and entertainment and the internet – and it’s easy to neglect our spiritual lives. We have so many choices that it’s hard to put them in order. Should I pray, or do Facebook? Should I go to church, or clean my house? Should I take my kids to Sunday school, or should they go to soccer? Should I give money for God’s mission, or should I let someone else take care of it? Should I do an act of service for someone, or should I go to work?

We have so many priorities in our lives, yet all of them, potentially, are distractions from the bridegroom. Like the five foolish bridesmaids, we are in danger of spending way more time on anxiety over details than on concentrating on things of ultimate importance. While the things of ultimate importance are neglected, like daily prayer, like worship, like asking God for guidance, like doing intentional acts of service. Like opening our eyes to the God of the universe who loves us and wants to remake us into the glorious people we were created to be.

So many of us have settled for way too little in life, when God wants to give us everything. The cares of this world have deceived us and beckoned us. So we pour ourselves into them, we stress ourselves out, we forget to nourish ourselves spiritually, we don’t keep our lamps lit, we close our eyes and miss the presence of Christ, the bridegroom, right here. We forget who we are.

Who we are is children of God, made in the image of God, created to be in communion with God through Christ. And Christ is coming. Christ is always coming.

Christ is coming to this church, in this holy communion. He will be here any minute now. Indeed, he is already here, where two or three are gathered.

Jesus says to wait, with eyes wide open.

To wait with longing for the thing that is most important.

The bridegroom is coming, and indeed, he is almost here. Alleluia.

The TREC Webcast: More Questions than Answers

More questions than answers! That’s what I have after TREC’s (the Taskforce to Re-imagine the Church’s) webcast last week. Maybe that’s appropriate, because it is clear that restructuring work will continue long after this triennium is over. Some initial observations:

  • The setting, in a place of worship, and Bishop Michael Curry’s opening sermon, reminded us that church is really about following Jesus.  The structures we create to do this just help us organize ourselves to follow him more closely.  Let’s hope we all keep our focus on Jesus, no matter how much we disagree on structure.
  • The presentations were engaging, inspiring, and passionate –Michael Curry, Dwight Zscheile, and Miguelina Howell were all terrific. It was a delight to hear them speak. They show great insight into the large issues facing the Church, and I am very pleased to see evangelism prominently recognized in our church as a top priority. The webcast was much better when the conversation turned to evangelism than on any other topic.
  • The TREC members did far more speaking than listening – thanks to Scott Gunn and Crusty Old Dean for timing it at TREC 2:00:37, everyone else 17:31. I found myself frustrated because the format allowed me only to ask questions, and not express opinions. Do they really want to hear the thoughts of others, or do they simply want to share their own wisdom? Of course, we are assured that they are reading all our blogs, so maybe they are hearing some opinions.
  • Direct questions were not answered. Especially in the first part of the program, TREC showed a distressing tendency to answer specific questions with platitudes.
  • Some questions were treated dismissively. My question was: Is TREC planning to address the way we spend money and what our staff should be doing? The second half of my question (about staff) was ignored entirely. The first half, money, was labeled a “detail.” One member opined that it was important to have the data in front of you when you talk about how we spend money, because if you do, you will know that lots of our money is spent on mission. Actually, I chair Executive Council’s budget committee, have the data at my fingertips, and am deeply familiar with how we spend our money. Please don’t assume your listeners are ignorant.

Another TREC member said that the DFMS’ spending habits are insignificant in the scheme of re-imagining, because they are only 2% of the church’s total resources. Let me just say that (a) I have no idea where this statistic comes from, (b) whether it is true or not is really not important. The fact is that DFMS’ budget is over $112 million this triennium. Of that amount, $77 million comes directly from the dioceses.

Seventy-seven million dollars is not a “detail.”

Another TREC member said that our church-wide structures are not impeding local mission. I have to disagree: this is not necessarily true (nor is it necessarily false). If our church-wide structures are absorbing $77 million of our local resources, and that money is not being well spent, then indeed they are impeding local mission by redirecting local resources to other uses. Figuring out how to spend money effectively is a huge mission issue.

  • After much lofty discussion of the big issues facing the church, correctly diagnosed and inspiringly described, TREC zeroed in on a few very focused questions, such as the staff reporting structure, ignoring many others of greater importance, including the money-and-staff question I asked. Evan Garner tweeted: “I’m genuinely discouraged if members of TREC think their work is to define an organizational chart for 815 staff.” I’m with you, Evan.
  • And by the way, as a member of Executive Council, I find myself exceedingly puzzled that TREC apparently interviewed the PB, President of the House of Deputies, and 815 staff in detail, but as far as I know, did not extend the same courtesy to any members of Executive Council. Perhaps their suggestion that Council’s significance should be reduced while the PB’s is increased is traceable to this up-front decision to limit the perspectives they heard. Did they start this work already believing that Council’s experience is unimportant?

I will talk more about the balance of power later, but let me first address what I think TREC should have been doing, and what it has actually begun to make strides toward achieving.

The Mission of DFMS

I have paid a whole lot of careful attention over the last three years to how the church-wide structure of The Episcopal Church (let’s call it DFMS, short for the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society) spends its money. (Yep, the data are at my fingertips!) Just so we are clear, the decision about what our staff should be doing is intimately related to the money question: over one-half of our budget is spent on staff salaries and benefits, and we spend additional money on staff office, travel, and operating expenses.

I think for any organization, decisions on how to spend money should be based on much larger, prior decisions about mission. In DFMS’ case, what can we do church-wide that local dioceses and parishes cannot do?

As chair of the budget committee, I was hoping that Executive Council would begin its term by having discussions about the mission of DFMS, and beginning to identify church-wide priorities. This did not happen. One of my frustrations with my church-wide work, in fact, has been a lack of high-level discussions of mission. We are groping in the dark. Yes, we have Five Marks of Mission, but they are rather vague and not necessarily good guides for church-wide mission. For instance: care for creation is one of the Five Marks, but is this a mission that is appropriately undertaken at the church-wide level?

Since Council has not been able to have discussions on mission, let me try to address the question personally. What is the mission of DFMS?

Dwight Zscheile’s presentation about the mission of the church was terrific. Derek Olsen has a great summary of what he said (as well as the rest of the webcast).  Dwight’s statements about church mission are all true for every local congregation.

But I think the more relevant question for TREC is: what is the mission, not of the local church, but of the church-wide structure?  TREC has been attempting to answer this question by describing the Four Cs: Convener, Connector, Capability Builder, Catalyst. But as Crusty Old Dean points out, these terms are rather vague and undefined. Let’s try to answer them more specifically.

What is the mission of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society?

I think it is:

To support Episcopalians in doing Christ’s work in the world, including:

  1. Fostering collaboration, building networks, and bringing people together for shared support and learning opportunities, to support the mission of local congregations and dioceses. (Connector, Convener, Capability Builder)
  1. Carrying out strategic initiatives for the benefit of the church that can be done best at the church-wide level, as decided by our representative governing structures. (Catalyst)
  1. Making decisions about matters that affect the whole church, including liturgy, ordination requirements, disciplinary proceedings for clergy, etc. (Catalyst, Convener)
  1. Serving as the church’s bridge to the outside world, including collaborating with partners in mission (the Anglican Communion and ecumenical partners), communications and marketing, and speaking in a prophetic voice on matters of public policy. (Catalyst, Connector)
  1. Administering responsibly assets entrusted to the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. (TREC’s four Cs did not address this function.)

You may disagree, or think I’ve left something out. If so, let me know!

I believe that:

  • All of our activities at a church-wide level, including staffing and budget, need to be carefully re-designed to meet these mission priorities and to exclude activities that don’t fit them.
  • The second item, carrying out strategic initiatives, needs to be carefully limited to a few major activities each triennium that will support the development of the church, based on a high-level strategic visioning process.
  • We need a ground-up redesign of our staff structure and our staff’s job descriptions to make sure they are designed to meet these mission priorities.
  • We need to begin taking very intentional steps to reduce the amount of money DFMS absorbs from local mission, moving from a bureaucratic, hierarchical model toward a much more networked and supportive model. (TREC agrees with this language, but ironically moves in the opposite direction in their recommendations for authority structures.)

I wish that TREC had addressed these issues. I hope that General Convention, a new Presiding Bishop and the next Executive Council will take a hard look at them.

Authority and Governance

TREC members were vague in the webcast about which direction they were moving on authority, though their September 2014 letter to the church proclaimed that almost all power should be vested in the Presiding Bishop. In the webcast, some members insisted that the issue was not yet decided, while some appeared very defensive and tried to support this model against significant opposition. These differences probably reflect real differences among members of TREC.

I have previously critiqued this idea of vesting all power in the PB. First, because it’s pretty much the same as what we have now, and our system is currently not particularly effective. (Hence: TREC.) Second, because it ignores our long history of balancing the powers of all orders of ministry. Third, because the Presiding Bishop has very little accountability to the rest of the church once elected. It is easy for the PB and staff (on one hand) and Council (on the other) to get isolated into silos that don’t work well together.

TREC previously considered a “General Secretary” model, where a separately appointed or elected official would manage staff. One TREC member told me that the concern with this model is that it sets up two separate power structures and visions. Another friend mentioned that some people misunderstood this model as indicating that the staff would begin reporting to the Secretary of Convention. Neither of these is what I am looking for.

I think the solution is actually rather simple.  DFMS is a very large non-profit organization with a very large budget and staff.  Treat it like one.  Appoint an Executive Director, someone experienced in finance and personnel management, to lead that staff and manage that budget. Have the Executive Director report to the board, with the Presiding Bishop as chair of the board. This structure gets everyone on the same team, pointing in the same direction with the same vision and priorities. This is the way normal non-profits operate. It is a widely understood and effective model.

TREC seems very concerned that staff members feel like they have multiple bosses. I find this puzzling, because no Council members I know believe that they supervise staff: it’s quite clear that staff report only to the Chief Operating Officer, who reports only to the PB. If there is some misunderstanding or problem here, it could already have been handled by the PB and COO. They could simply explain the staff reporting structure to both Council and staff, and create a process by which requests for staff time are channeled through the COO’s (or Executive Director’s) office. Mischief managed (as Fred and George Weasley would say). We didn’t need TREC working for three years to fix this problem.

Where the Real Reform Will Come

I give TREC members a lot of credit for hard work and great insights about the direction the church needs to be moving in mission and ministry. Their list of issues the church needs to be addressing in coming years (church planting, seminarian debt, leadership development, etc.) is right on target. If nothing else, TREC’s “bully pulpit” will highlight these important challenges we need to face.

I don’t think that TREC’s legislative proposals will fare as well. I think the big decisions ahead of us, which we will address via our regular governance structures, will really determine the future of the church:

  • Who will be our next Presiding Bishop, and what will her/his vision be?
  • Will that PB be able to lead Council and staff in a way that gets us all working on the same team and focusing on the vital challenges before the church?
  • What are we going to do with our money? Will we lower the diocesan asking to 15%, or to some other number? Will we restructure our staff to meet new mission challenges? All “restructuring” since I’ve been paying attention to church-wide affairs has happened through unhealthy budget processes responding too late to financial crises. Will we manage to do it this time in a better, more mission-focused way?
  • What are we going to do about the building at 815 2nd Avenue, New York, a symbol of bureaucratic hierarchy? Will we hold onto this real estate, or adopt a new model of church-wide support center?

These issues are not in TREC’s hands – they are in the hands of the House of Bishops, Executive Council, and General Convention. I’m eager to see how they have worked out a year from now. Whether TREC is the agent of change or not, change is coming to the church. And that’s a good (and joyful) thing.

Sermon Notes for 10.5.14

The scriptures for today are here.  I am preaching on Philippians 3:4b-14.

Years ago, when we lived in Texas, long before we had children, my husband Tom and I used to take a vacation each year, right after Christmas, to Big Bend National Park. The park is on the far southwestern edge of Texas, where the border with Mexico makes an elbow shape. That border is formed by the Rio Grande River, which is deep and wide there.

santa-elena-canyon-big-bendOne day we took a hike right along the banks of the Rio Grande. At this place the river carves a deep channel through a mountain, so you can hike along the US side next to the river and walk deeper and deeper into a canyon formed by the mountain walls rising on both sides of the river. To get to the canyon, you walk across a tiny little stream, three feet wide, just deep enough to splash water two inches high on your hiking boots, that runs from way high up in the mountains down into the Rio Grande half a mile away.

We walked across the little stream, into the canyon, and deeper and deeper into the wild, beautiful channel cut by the river over thousands of years. As we were walking we heard a little thunder, way far off, but it was sunny where we were, so we paid it no attention. Then, as late afternoon came, we finally turned and headed back.

And then we came to little stream. Only, there was no little stream any more. That thunder we had heard way far off was rain, up in the mountains. And the rain had turned that tiny little stream into a giant rushing river. We stood at the edge of it, watched the dirty, churning, turbulent water rushing by, thought about camping out for the night – but we had no food, no blankets, no flashlights, no shelter, no one knew where we were. So we thought – hey, we’re young, we’re 25 years old, what could happen to us? And we waded into the river. Which was a very big, very dumb mistake.

As we walked in, the river quickly rose up to our chests – and it was moving fast. You couldn’t keep your footing in water like that. Water, I had never been afraid of – I had been a swimmer all my life. I knew how to control myself in water. But this water was something new and frightening. This water was a power I had never felt before – a power that was far stronger than my willpower or my training. It swept me off my feet more than once – I couldn’t grab for Tom, he was having just as much trouble as I was, hauling himself across the river.

This is the time when, no matter your personal beliefs, you need to pray. I discovered the best I could do was “God, help!” And somehow, God helped. For a few minutes, as I struggled across that rushing water, I was truly afraid that one or both of us wouldn’t make it. But step by step, with the water pushing us steadily downstream toward the Rio Grande, we hauled ourselves across the water and pulled ourselves, soaking wet, out on the other side. And we looked at each other, astonished and shaken, with new respect fort a force of nature seeming so benign and friendly, like water, yet so strong that it could sweep us out of control.

Sometimes I wonder if that’s exactly how the apostle Paul felt when he met Jesus. Paul had plenty of experience with God, with religion, with knowing how to act as God commanded in the Ten Commandments and other 603 laws. He tells us about it in the reading from Philippians today. The context of this reading is, there are teachers who have come to the Christians in Philippi and tried to convince them that in order to be true followers of Christ, they must live as true Jews: circumcised and following all 613 commandments of Jewish law. Paul is very clear that living as Jews is a good and right thing for Jews, but not for Christians, especially Christians who were born as Gentiles. For Christians, Paul says that marking our bodies as members of God’s people and following intricate rules that set us apart is not what is required, because these things rely on our own personal skills in being holy.

If personal holiness were enough, Paul says, he would have been a champion at holiness (Paul is never particularly humble). “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh,” he writes, “I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

In other words, Paul had a PhD in holiness: he studied at the feet of one of the most famous rabbis of his era, Gamaliel, a rabbi so famous that he is still studied and revered today. Paul had plenty of training in how to be holy: he had all the credentials; he had developed his religious muscles through years of careful obedience to the law. But he discovered that personal religious training was not enough, because learning the skills of religious holiness means relying on personal power. And he discovered that personal power was nothing compared to the awe-inspiring, irresistible power of God.

One day, as he traveled to Damascus to find and persecute members of the upstart sect of Christ-followers who insisted Jesus was raised from the dead, the divine force of God overtook him and swept him away; he was confronted face to face by the living Christ; he was struck blind by power of Spirit and was led, groping and shaken, to Damascus, where a loving group of Christians nursed him back to health and taught him the truth of the living God. He was blind, but he learned to see. And his whole life changed by the amazing grace of God.

All that training, all that background, all that personal skill in holiness he had developed over a lifetime of exercising careful religious muscles, he learned to count as nothing, as rubbish, as he says today. He learned that his own righteousness wasn’t what mattered: what mattered was Christ. He yearns, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” In thanksgiving for gift of God’s holiness, he presses on; he travels around the known world, risking his life and his health and his possessions to tell others the good news of salvation and lead others into relationship with living God.

To Paul, the awe-inspiring, uncontrollable, overwhelming power of the living Christ required him to give up everything he had learned on his own, to let go of personal power, and give himself up to the rushing river of God’s holiness. And it is probably because of Paul and the transcendent gift of salvation he received, and his determination to press on, that you and I have heard of Christ and have the chance to stand in awe of that same holiness today.

And oh, how we need that gift of holiness that comes to us from the living Christ. We live in a culture that glorifies personal achievement: that pushes all of us to work more, try harder, push ourselves beyond our limits, be the best. And while I’m all in favor of learning and working and achieving, there are times when all of us find that our whole identity gets caught up in what we can do under our own power – and we forget about who we actually are. Who we are is children of God, members of the living Christ, people who regularly, through no fault and no deserving of our own, stand in the presence of the awe-inspiring God of all creation.

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection,” says Paul, “not that I have already achieved this goal, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”   In Christ Jesus, God has made all of us God’s own; in Christ Jesus, God has reached out to us and grabbed onto us for dear life- for our own dear lives. And in Christ Jesus, we stand regularly in the rushing river of God’s holiness, whether we let ourselves get swept up in it or not.

If we’re lucky, sometimes, just sometimes, if we open up our hearts, we can detect the presence of that holiness. I spent most of my life relying on my own power, until the signs of God’s presence and overwhelming power and holiness in my life became unmistakable. It has happened at odd moments: at the altar rail, on a hard day, when a priest stopped in the middle of handing out the Bread of Life in order to give me a blessing, because she saw I needed it. At the baptism of a child, when all of us there suddenly, separately became aware that we were standing in the presence of saints and angels. In an ordinary worship service, when for just a moment, everything around me changed and I saw the people around me glowing with heavenly light.

The truth is that we stand right here in the presence of divine holiness today. It’s easy to ignore, to simply keep our minds on the small streams of own thoughts. But occasionally, if we open our hearts, we can be swept away by the power of God’s presence. The Eastern Orthodox say that the divine liturgy, the celebration of holy communion, goes on at all times and all places, with all the angels of heaven eternally singing with joy: Holy, holy, holy. And when we come here to church, celebrate communion, we simply join in. We sing that same song too, in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer, to our own tune, but when we sing it we join in with saints and angels who are singing that song to all the tunes that have ever been composed by the universe.

For brief moments of our lives, as we worship, we can open our minds to the deeper reality of holiness that we usually ignore, a deeper reality that surrounds us all the time. That deeper reality is the reality of Christ’s resurrection, the truth that God has raised him from the dead and therefore we are raised to eternal life. And that means that we have entered resurrection life already: the living Christ is here with us; and every now and then, if we open our hearts, we can let that overwhelming power and beauty and transcendence sweep us away. Living not under our own power, not according to our own achievements, but in the secure knowledge that we are borne on the rising tide of God’s love. Safely held, for all time, by the power of Christ’s resurrection – the prize we have already gained as our own, through our baptism into Jesus Christ our Lord.

Just the Same, Only More So: TREC’s Letter to the Church, September 2014

My first reaction to TREC’s latest letter was: Lazarus? Really? Does that mean the Episcopal Church stinketh? My second reaction was, We’re not dead yet! We’re feeling much better!

My third reaction was a sigh of frustration. Way back in the halcyon days of 2012, when we passed that resolution on restructuring, and sang a hymn, and left Convention feeling uplifted and hopeful about the future of the church, in a few places you could hear a quiet little cautionary voice: Everyone’s happy now. But just wait till somebody starts making some actual proposals to change things. Then watch all the forces of keeping-things-the-same in the Episcopal Church rise up and sabotage any actual change that might occur. (Religio-leadership wonks have a fancy word for this – homeostasis: the tendency of any system to sabotage change that might threaten an unhealthy system with health.)

It’s not too surprising that the forces of sabotage have risen up this early in the restructuring process to prevent any change. What’s surprising is that resistance to any real change seems to be coming from within TREC itself.

Wait, what are you talking about, Susan? TREC did propose some changes. Yes, it did – but on the most important issue it has addressed so far – the role of the Presiding Bishop and the balance of power within our system – TREC has decided that we should remain the same as we are now, only more so.  Way more so.  

What’s funny about this is that earlier in its thinking process, TREC really did come up with some creative ideas to change the system for better health and functioning: it proposed alternatives to the almost unlimited power of the Presiding Bishop. These alternatives would create a General Secretary or CEO position responsible for administrative leadership, would appropriately allow both the PB and the CEO to exercise separate sets of spiritual gifts, and would clarify a better balance with the governance role of Executive Council. These were good and creative ideas.

But reading between the lines and with no inside information, it looks like the forces of homeostasis within TREC itself rose up, fearful of change, to sabotage these creative alternatives, and the solution they are proposing is: to keep things just the way they are. Only more so.

Gosh, maybe we really do stinketh.

I’ll talk more about the balance of power in our system in a minute. But first, let me give credit where credit is due and say what I think TREC got right.

  • Times are changing and we need a church-wide structure that is a spur and support for local innovation, not a regulatory agency. Yep.
  • The roles of staff, Executive Council, Presiding Bishop, and General Convention are sometimes overlapping and unclear. Yep.
  • We need to move toward a networked model for supporting each other in ministry. Yep.
  • We need better leadership that sets visionary priorities, develops goals and objectives related to those priorities, and creates accountability to make sure those goals and objectives are met. Yep.
  • The highest visionary priorities for our church to address, which TREC identifies toward the bottom of its letter, include evangelism, community leadership, non-traditional parish formation, and so on. Yep.

So – TREC has correctly identified many of the issues before the church.

treehouse

Having given praise where praise is due, let us now return to TREC’s incomprehensible support for keeping the most important church structures Just The Way They Are (only more so).

Did we set up TREC to re-structure the church, by the way? Or did we just want them to hammer harder at the current structure to keep it standing a bit longer, however rickety it might be?

 

 

The Role of the Presiding Bishop

Here is what TREC has proposed: have the Presiding Bishop also act as Chief Executive Officer, in charge of nominating a Chief Operating Officer, Treasurer/CFO, and Chief Legal Officer.  The PB could fire any of these people at will.

Guess what: this is almost exactly the structure we have now, except that it increases the power of the PB in some small but significant ways.  For instance, now the PB and PHoD together nominate the COO and CFO.  TREC proposes to take the PHoD mostly out of it, centralizing this power in the hands of the episcopate.  And in reducing the role of Executive Council, as TREC seems to suggest, they would also be strengthening the office of PB – the same as now, only more so.

It’s an unhealthy structure. Here’s why.

First, for the most part in the church, we love our bishops, and our Presiding Bishop, and we are glad to have them as partners in ministry.  But we can’t by any stretch regard the election of the PB as a process that represents the whole church.  She/he is elected by the House of Bishops, which is one hundred percent clergy and is not even close to representing the diversity of the church (it is overwhelmingly male, white, straight, and middle-aged or elderly, counting the retired bishops who vote, for instance).

Most important of all: barring a disciplinary offense, the PB has very little accountability to anyone.

That means that once the PB is elected by the most exclusive club in the church (the House of Bishops), the rest of the church has very little input or say in how she or he runs the office, manages the staff, follows the priorities set by General Convention, leads the governing structures of the church, or anything else. The Presiding Bishop has all the power.

That is not a healthy balance for any church. Not even Rome. And I do not believe it was the intention of the original founders of the Episcopal constitution, who set up a careful balance of lay, clergy, and episcopal power. Since that time, as a corporate bureaucracy has developed, more and more power has accrued to the office of an unaccountable Presiding Bishop.

To be clear: I’m fine with the Primate and Presiding Officer of the House of Bishops being mostly unaccountable to the rest of the church.  That’s appropriate, given our view of the episcopate.  What I’m not fine with is having that Primate also be the person who sets all the priorities and rules the staff, with no accountability to anyone for those decisions.  We have carefully set up a governance system that involves all orders of ministry.  Now TREC is proposing to undercut that system.

This restructuring process is our chance to change that unhealthy balance. And TREC has retreated in fear from any change; in fact it has capitulated to the forces that say:  choose one heroic leader to save us!  Give us a king!  With no explanation as to why it abandoned its earlier, more creative proposals.

Look, maybe we’ll keep things the same and the next PB elected will be perfect. She or he will guide the governing structures of the church in setting visionary priorities, creating goals and objectives, and holding staff and others accountable. That’s what TREC says a PB should do. And by the way, there is nothing preventing the PB from doing exactly that now. They don’t do it, but they could.

But do we really want to legislate the PB’s leadership style? And do we believe that an unaccountable PB would pay any attention, after a couple of years, to the leadership style we legislate?

We have no idea whom the House of Bishops is going to elect next summer.  He/she could be a panacea – a great leader who will take all the right actions and solve all our problems – or he/she could be a disaster. But since the probabilities are that over the next 100 years, the PBs elected will average out somewhere in the middle, I think we should create a structure that improves our odds of good leadership, empowering people to use the spiritual gifts God gives them.

And here is what I see: we should have the House of Bishops elect a PB who will be a great spokesperson for our church to the world, and a great connector to the Anglican Communion and other faith groups.  That’s enough of a job for any one person to take on, and it’s the job of a spiritual leader and a bishop. I don’t think anyone could argue with the House of Bishops electing this person, who would preside over that House and serve as Primate of our church.

We should have a second person, a CEO or General Secretary, accountable to both houses of Convention and to all the orders of ministry.  (Specifics of who selects the person and how they would be accountable to be determined – suffice it to say that all orders of ministry should be involved.)  This person’s job would be to manage the staff and help set vision, priorities, agenda, etc., according to priorities set by Convention and refined by a vision-setting process shared among PB, CEO (or whatever we call it), and the rest of Council.  It is entirely appropriate for the person who oversees staff and sets their priorities to be accountable to the governance structures of the church, which means accountable to all orders of ministry. Which the Presiding Bishop is not.

These are two different sets of gifts, and I think it is rather unusual to find both sets in one person.  That’s why we should have two different people exercising them. And by the way, that’s why many other provinces of the Anglican Communion, including the Church of England, operate in exactly this way.

Executive Council

I’m a member of Executive Council – I was elected at the 2012 General Convention, probably as a result of my blogging about the financial issues facing the church. I now serve on the Finances for Mission committee of Council and am the leader of the budget process that will recommend a budget to the 2015 Convention. Pray for me, and for us, for a healthy budget process!

OK, that said: I honestly can’t get too worked up about reducing the size of Council from 40 to 21. (Although did anyone on TREC actually count the number of people they were proposing? It actually adds up to 22, or 25 if you count the non-voting members. You just have to laugh when TREC can’t even competently count the heads in its own “reimagined” structure.)  Having 21, 22, 25, or 40 people exercising power as a body is helpful or not, depending on what powers are given to it.  It’s true that a board of 40 people acts more like a legislative body than, say, a vestry. If we want whole-group discussion, a smaller group might be helpful.

(I do think TREC needs to think a bit harder about how to make that body representative.  I’m not crazy about the provincial structure, but I think, for instance, their proposal would prevent anyone from ever getting elected from Province IX again.)

The fact is, however, that the real work on Council happens in committee. My own Finances for Mission committee is pretty busy, and is stretched pretty thin, with the seven members we have. Want to reduce the numbers on Council? Okay – let’s make sure we elect good ones, because they are going to be swamped.

What I am puzzled about, and what I actually can’t respond to because TREC is so maddeningly unclear (see Crusty Old Dean on this unclarity), is its statement that Council’s role should be clarified as a “governance” role, similar to a non-profit Board of Trustees. TREC’s last communiqué at least displayed a more complete understanding of what Council does:

Executive Council has two distinct functions: (a) the board of directors of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, the Church’s operating nonprofit corporation, and (b) an interim legislative body when General Convention is not in session.

Is TREC proposing that we do away with (b)? Then who would do interim legislative work – the PB, by fiat? I guess that would be in keeping with TREC’s exalted view of what the PB should be.

Or, as I’m guessing is the actual case, is TREC trying to clarify that Council has no direct supervisory authority over staff? That staff should be supervised through the CEO or COO’s office? If this is what they are trying to clarify, then they should come out and say it. None of the members of Council that I currently serve with would argue with that perspective. We know we don’t and shouldn’t supervise staff.  We do find that staff members are generally helpful and responsive, supplying us with information we need to do our jobs, and we appreciate it.

Here’s the point: Executive Council serves a very important function. Yes, we are the Board of Trustees, AND we include all orders of ministry. Previous Councils have been involved in conflict with staff, or with presiding officers, I hear. That’s not the case this triennium – we have low levels of conflict among Council members, between Council and staff, and between Council and the Presiding Bishop. If clarifying that we don’t supervise staff makes someone happy and prevents future conflict, go for it.

If TREC is trying to propose more reduction in Council’s governance role than that, then they’re going to have to explain what the heck they’re talking about. And also explain why they think the role of lay and clergy people should be reduced while the powers of the PB are correspondingly increased. They haven’t, yet. And I seriously doubt that such a sharp turn in the direction of arch-episcopal power would make it through the House of Deputies, and quite possibly not the House of Bishops, either.

Church-Wide Staff

TREC has proposed that church-wide program staff be eliminated, and replaced by contractors hired for specific time-limited projects. Administrative and support staff would remain as employees.

They have proposed this without giving any reason why it would be a good idea. Would it save money? Would it increase efficiency? Would it guarantee a better mission focus? Would it help us move toward a networked model? Should we set up a list-serv? Inquiring minds want to know. TREC doesn’t bother to explain.

Let’s just start by mentioning the justice issues of moving people from employee to contractor status. I won’t re-hash them. You can read the Crusty Old Dean on that – he says it better than I could.

Let’s also mention that the majority of staff at 815 are actually administrative and support staff. According to COO Sauls, we have approximately 22 “program staff” out of approximately 130 FTE total staff.  Firing the program staff won’t save us that much money, even if we don’t immediately hire them back as contractors.  Has TREC looked at the actual data for what we spend our money on?  I have previously pointed out that no, apparently they haven’t.  If they were, they wouldn’t be majoring in the minors.

I actually think that we DO need to take a very careful look at what we spend money on, staff-wise – because we spend a LOT of money on staff.  Tens of millions of dollars every triennium, a very large percentage of our budget, and way more than what we spend on our governance structures, which TREC has fixated on.  But TREC has not explained what it is trying to achieve with the contractor concept.  The problems it has identified are not solved by the solutions it proposes – they have not laid out any logical train of thought.

What I don’t understand is how this out-of-left-field proposal meshes with the church-wide priorities TREC has correctly identified: church planting, evangelism, Christian formation, community leadership, and so on. If those are our priorities, then how will church-wide contractors hired for short-term projects in these areas help us achieve them?  Wouldn’t we want rather to support long-term, sustained work that we could supervise?

This is not an argument – it’s a real question.  What are your reasons for proposing this, TREC?

I really want to understand what TREC is thinking, but they throw out a bombshell, plunging church-wide staff into anxiety, I’m sure, and then don’t explain why it would be a good idea or how it would help us achieve our goals. Color me frustrated.

General Convention

I will just point out that TREC’s seems fairly clueless in its proposal to reduce the number of legislative committees. Let’s make sure we are clear that legislative committees are not the same as standing commissions. I’m all in favor of getting rid of most standing commissions, as TREC has proposed.  (Yay, TREC! You got that one right! We can quibble with the ones you chose, but in general this is on target.) Task forces seem like a better approach.

Legislative committees are different though, because they are in existence only during Convention. They do not decrease efficiency – they increase it. They do not create work – they respond to work that others create. Reducing the number of legislative committees would just increase the work assigned to each, taking longer for resolutions to come to the floor, reducing the efficiency of Convention overall, and severely under-utilizing the talents of all the deputies who don’t get assigned to a committee.

Actually, TREC doesn’t need to be worrying about the number of legislative committees at all. The presiding officers have already revamped the committee structure to increase its efficiency.  Mischief managed!  That’s what presiding officers are there for. Let them do their jobs.

A couple of members of TREC have indicated to me that what they actually want is to increase the power of legislative committees to dismiss resolutions and whatnot. Great – let them say so, instead of proposing a senseless solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

Reducing the length of Convention? Okay, let’s try it and see if it works. We tried it already and changed our minds about it, but hey, let’s try it again. It would certainly help working lay people who want to attend. And working clergy, for that matter – it’s hard to get away for that long when you’re trying to lead a church.

Make Convention a Missionary Convocation?  I can’t respond because I don’t know what they mean by this.  Again, they haven’t bothered to explain.

Reducing the amount of minor and unnecessary legislation that we have to sift through at Convention? That would be a good step, if we can find an equitable way to do it. But TREC hasn’t explained how they plan to go about this, so I can’t respond.

Where the Rubber Hits the Road

From what I’ve seen from TREC so far, I think a few of their smaller suggestions will be implemented. Their bigger suggestions will go down in flames. Deputies and bishops who don’t agree with TREC’s proposals will come up with their own, and a whole different set of restructuring resolutions will pass. But it won’t make much difference to the true issues before the church anyway.

Recall that the true issues before us involve our declining financial resources, and the declining membership and attendance that have caused them, and our need to do evangelism with new generations and new populations. TREC’s suggestions don’t address these problems at all. And it was probably always a pipe dream to sing a hymn and think that “restructuring” could actually “reawaken” the church. (Don’t get me started on “resuscitation” – Lazarus notwithstanding.) Restructuring the church is not going to get us out on the streets, serving our communities and telling the good news of Jesus. At best, restructuring might save us some money that will allow us to do more of those things in our local communities.

And there’s where the rubber will hit the road at the church-wide level.  Given that our church-wide structure is not ever actually going to be out there doing evangelism, the true restructuring will happen in how we decide to spend our money, and where we locate our church-wide headquarters (for lack of a better term), and what we ask the staff we place in it to do. We effectively restructure the church every time we create a budget, in far more immediate ways than TREC’s structural tinkering will do. Sure, let’s fiddle with the church-wide structure and try to get it right. But let’s work harder at putting our resources to work revitalizing this church and helping our local churches tell the good news of Jesus to a world that is starving for good news. Now that’s a mission worth supporting.

 

Sermon for 9.7.14

Scriptures for today are Here.

It’s great to see you all again! I’ve missed you this summer but I had a wonderful sabbatical! I traveled a bit with family, relaxed, read novels, wrote most of a book, and in my spare time, I went to see movies, which I don’t do very often. Sadly, if you’re not into superheroes or horror or thrillers, your movie choices are limited this year. Because of various friends who wanted to see it, I ended up seeing “The Hundred Foot Journey” three times. I also saw The Giver, based on a classic YA novel I read when my children did, when they were in middle school. The story is set in a dystopian future in which the authorities have done away with all conflict and pain: but in doing away with conflict and pain, they have also eliminated kindness, joy, compassion, and love from the world – even color. In this world, everything is in black and white, every day is the same, and every action is predictable.

Things come to a head for the young hero when he realizes that this society maintains its sameness and colorlessness at a cost: it secretly kills people it doesn’t think will be productive, including babies who are too fussy – and a baby he has come to secretly love as a younger brother is on the list to be “released to elsewhere” – so the hero rebels. He goes on an adventure that will bring the full range of human experience back into the world. It turns out that releasing love, kindness, and compassion back into the world will also mean bringing back pain and conflict – some of it unbearably sad. So the movie leaves you with a question: would you rather live in a literally colorless world, where every day is the same as the one before, all things are predictable, and authorities carefully control your thoughts and emotions and decide when it’s time for you to die because you’re no longer useful? Or would you rather live in a world where people experience the full human world: the heartbreak of suffering and the joy of heartfelt love? The movie leaves no doubt about what it thinks is the right answer: it is better to live in a world where humans experience the full range of emotions, the complete human experience, in all its joy and pain.

For us, in our world, there is no question of preference: we don’t have a choice – we do live in this world of love and suffering – but what I realized on the way home was, we don’t have a choice, but Jesus did. And it turns out that Jesus did not choose to enter, or to leave behind, a perfect, painless world. He chose this world and these people to live among and to love. And because Jesus was intimately familiar with the joys and sufferings of this world, because he knew the human predicament inside and out, because he knew the ordinary human beings who were going to fill this earth after he was gone, he left behind him a church.

The Book of Common Prayer (Catechism, p. 855) says “the mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” Or as Paul puts it in today’s Romans reading, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Paul goes on to say, “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”

In other words, the church’s mission of love & reconciliation – restoring all people to unity with one another and God in Christ – this mission is urgent – there is no time to lose. We have to get to work on loving each other, and teaching the world to love, now.

Well, surely if there’s a world that needs to learn how to love, it’s this one. This summer has been full of disturbing conflicts, from Israel and Gaza to Iraq and Syria to Ferguson, Missouri. It’s a world full of people who divide ourselves into “us” and “them” and create sharp lines of conflict between the two sides.

In this world of conflict, the church has a clear vocation – to love, to reconcile, to restore people to unity – yet we have our own trouble, loving. Jesus knew this would be the case: even during his lifetime, long before there was a church, Jesus knew that there would be a church, and that the church would be composed of ordinary human beings, and that those human beings would sometimes disagree.

There’s an old cartoon: a man who has been stranded on a desert island for years is finally rescued. He stands on the deck of the ship that rescued him with the ship captain, and the captain looks at the shore of the desert island and asks about all the buildings the stranded man has built during his years there. Oh, says the man, there’s my house, there’s my recreation center, and there’s my church. Okay, says the ship captain, Well, what about that building over there? Oh, says the man, that’s where I used to go to church.

Yes, sometimes people in church disagree. The church is a human institution like any other – Jesus knows people will disagree – and note, this doesn’t just happen in church, it happens in families, workplaces, friendship, anywhere there are human beings in relationship with each other. Because conflict is part of life, Jesus outlines a model for reconciliation in our gospel today.

This model is important for any of us to pay attention to, because the Christian life is a life of learning to love, to deal with conflict constructively. The fact is that most of the time, when we are in conflict with someone, there are two important viewpoints, and if we can take the best from both, we will end up with a much better solution than either of us could alone. That’s not always true – it’s not true in Iraq and Syria, where there is a clear wrong side – and it’s not true in cases of abuse or crime. But most of the time, where there are two people with two different viewpoints, each has something important to offer the other.

So Jesus outlines a process for how to deal with disagreement. The process is to first go to the person and talk to them directly. You don’t talk to everyone else around you about your disagreement – that’s just gossip. You talk instead to the person you disagree with, one on one. This is hard work because you have to express yourself with kindness and generosity, when we’d sometimes rather keep our hurts hidden – but Jesus says relationships between people are important enough to try to reconcile.

It’s also hard work to talk directly because you can’t just talk – you have to listen too. And not listen so you can figure out the next point you’re going to make to prove that they’re wrong and you’re right. Listen so you can really understand what they are trying to say, and learn from them. You do this because the goal is reconciliation: as Jesus says, if it works, you have regained that person, you have restored your relationship, you have offered forgiveness. This is a requirement of Christian community, a requirement of loving our neighbors – we respect them and we try to understand them, and we learn from them so that the solution we come up with together is better than either of us could have come up with alone.

Well, this is a hard thing to do. Years ago, before I started working in the church, when I was working in the business world, there was a woman in my office who drove me crazy. Every single day she would do something that made me angry, till I didn’t even want to go to work any more. But Lent was coming that year, so I decided to make a special Lenten discipline: to pray for her every day. Now this is hard to do, to pray for someone you don’t like and are furious at – it’s hard to come up with words that are acceptable to you AND to God, if you know what I mean. But I did it – and I am not kidding, only three days after I began praying for her, a miracle happened – we were reconciled, and not only that, we began a friendship that lasted a long time. This, to me, was a miracle, one that wouldn’t have happened if it had been up to me, with my stubbornness and belief that I was always right. It took God, and it took me being willing to approach the conflict in a Christian way, to allow this miracle to happen.

So this first step Jesus gives us makes perfect sense. But I will be honest with you: I have a problem with Jesus’ 2nd and 3rd steps. The second: take 1 or 2 other people with you; third, if they still won’t listen to you, take the whole church, last, if they still won’t listen, treat them as Gentile and tax collector. The process Jesus outlines seems to assume one side is clearly right, one wrong. And I would agree that this process works if that is the case – in cases of abuse or crime, for instance. But our side is not always clearly right. We certainly prefer to assume so, believe that we are entirely in the right.

But I think when reading the Bible, what we have to be careful of is our tendency to seize on one passage at a time and forget the rest of what the Bible says. I don’t think you can read this passage in Matthew 18 without also reading an important passage in Matthew 5: “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and then remember that your brother or sister has something against you, first go be reconciled with your brother/sister, then come and offer your gift.” In other words, being able to worship with a clean heart means asking for forgiveness when you have wronged someone else.

Christian life means not just being vigilant to point out the sins of others, much as we enjoy doing this! We love to look at the speck in other people’s eyes while ignoring the log in our own, as Matthew 5 says. Christian life also means being even more vigilant of our own sins, and being ready to ask forgiveness, from God and from other people. As Christians, we both seek forgiveness and offer forgiveness. When these two attitudes of the heart are combined, people can reconcile, true Christian community can flourish, people can understand and learn from each other, people can truly learn to love even those they disagree with.

And when Jesus says, if you can’t reconcile with someone, treat them as a Gentile and a tax collector – well, let’s just remember how Jesus and the earliest church treated gentiles and tax collectors. By the time Matthew’s gospel was written, there were many, many Gentiles in the church – thank God, because most of us here are Gentiles too. The discipline that Jesus gave the church was not to expel people, but to reach out, to keep loving them, to keep inviting them in. And Matthew himself, the author of this gospel, was a tax collector. Jesus called him to leave it all behind follow him. No one is beyond the love of God.

Which highlights what Jesus was all about, in his life and in his death. It wasn’t some conflict-free, colorless world Jesus chose to love and to save. It was THIS world Jesus chose to come into, THIS world that Jesus chose to experience, THIS world of color and love and heartbreak that Jesus immersed himself in, THIS world that subjected Jesus to the ultimate suffering, and THIS world that allowed him to pour out the ultimate love, God’s love for us. And it is THIS world that Jesus still loves today, because right here, where two or three are gathered in his name, he is here in the midst of us – this blessed Christian community.

 

Jerusalem

I am in Israel with a group of Episcopal clergy plus one Episcopal layperson, led by a Roman Catholic nun named Sister Ruth Lautt.  We will be learning about issues of peace between Israelis and Palestinians while we are here, but I won’t be blogging about those things until after the trip is over, by agreement with the other trip participants.  Just a few general observations as we begin our first full day in Jerusalem.

DSC00142Jerusalem is, famously, a city on a hill.  Driving into Jerusalem from the Tel Aviv airport yesterday was impressive, as we gradually ascended from sea level up the rocky slopes to Jerusalem.  We drove through the kind of desert familiar to an Arizonan like me – a green and rocky desert – through a very modern traffic jam.  I imagined centuries of pilgrims doing the same journey, on bare feet and in chariots and in automobiles.  I heard in my mind the voices of all those pilgrims singing the songs of ascent, such as the one we read in the bus as we climbed – Psalm 122:

1 I was glad when they said to me, *
“Let us go to the house of the LORD.”
2 Now our feet are standing *
within your gates, O Jerusalem.
3 Jerusalem is built as a city *
that is at unity with itself;
4 To which the tribes go up,
the tribes of the LORD, *
the assembly of Israel,
to praise the Name of the LORD.
5 For there are the thrones of judgment, *
the thrones of the house of David.
6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: *
“May they prosper who love you.
7 Peace be within your walls *
and quietness within your towers.
8 For my brethren and companions’ sake, *
I pray for your prosperity.
9 Because of the house of the LORD our God, *
I will seek to do you good.”

I imagined Jesus and his parents ascending to Jerusalem three times a year for the great festivals, singing that same song.  I imagined Jesus and his disciples, later, ascending to Jerusalem praying for its peace, Jesus knowing the turmoil that awaited him there.  I prayed for the peace of Jerusalem and for all the people who gather there to worship and to live.

More later.  Blessings – and pray for peace in this city and this world.