Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Who are we?

Thanks to Rick Crown, Julie Jenkins, Brian Easton and Nancy Bush for stepping up and agreeing to serve our parish as leaders for the Rector Discernment Team.  They will soon be enlisting several others to help them with the particulars of identifying Advent's hopes and dreams and helping us all to know if and how Fr. Dann is the priest best suited for that future.

One very important task for this team will be to provide a picture or profile of our membership.  I am really excited about this part of the process.  Perhaps it is the lazy anthropologist in me.  Maybe I just -- and I do -- like data and spreadsheets and charts and all that demographic stuff.  

There is something about "seeing" the information, clarifying distinctions, naming differences, and understanding who we are in ways other than those we gain from our intuition or experience.  

For sure we are more than numbers and averages, more than categories and classes but knowing some of what we'll learn may help us to choose better and more readily become the church God is calling us to become.  

This sort of information may surprise us.  I remember when I first realized that the average Anglican wasn't like us at all.  First I was told that Anglicanism, of which the Episcopal Church is the largest part in the states, is the second most dispersed Christian body on the planet.  

Think "the empire on which the sun never sets." 

Only Roman Catholics are in more places than Anglicans.  Of course for every one Anglican there were probably 15 RC's but at least we were represented.  It also surprised me to find out what was the "average Anglican."

This is from Gregory Cameron, now Bishop of the Diocese of St. Asaph in Wales, in his keynote address to the Anglican Covenant Conference at General Seminary in 2008:
‘The average Anglican is a black woman under the age of 30, who earns two dollars a day, has a family of at least three children, has lost two close relatives to AIDs, and who will walk four miles to Church for a three hour service on a Sunday.’
You can't say this sort of thing without doing some research.  Here's another insight from some other research:

In the next months we'll be gathering similar data in several ways.  Please don't despair that we are digging a little and asking for information about each other's backgrounds and characteristics.  

My intuition is that we are close to "average" for single Episcopal parishes in county seat towns in the southeastern U.S.  But what are the other categories and classes that we fill and what are the numbers and averages that will provide us insight and vision and become food for our journey?  Who are we?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Asking Good Questions

I know I frightened some of you when I wrote a few weeks ago about "Official Steps."  Some of you thought I was fashioning a poorly veiled exit from service in this parish.  That was not my intention.  I am sorry that I scared any of you.

I did intend to speak openly and honestly about the work we have to do in order to continue and move into the next phase of our lives together.  Not only must we meet certain standards we must do so with a kind of vulnerability that I will not manufacture by directly or indirectly threatening to leave.  It is just that there are several possibilities we must consider.  Choosing one will be in effect saying "no" to the others.

And we know how to say "no."  In our sacramental rites, when we are celebrating and blessing a commitment -- be it baptism, marriage, confirmation or ordination -- we make sure the people who are about to say "yes" have a chance to say "no."

For example, when we baptize we ask the candidates "Do you desire to be baptized?" we prepare them to say "I do," but that moment is meant to allow them to say "no" if necessary. (BCP 301)

Once in a parish I was serving we invited a retired priest to join us in baptizing the grandchildren of parents AND grandparents he had baptized in years past, frankly many years.  The candidates for this occasion were two brothers, aged 6 and 1.

The retired priest was not able to attend the rehearsal and so we did not fully practice all that would happen in worship on the day of the baptisms.  Quite frankly as much as rehearsals help there is always the difference that a full house and fancy clothes will make to a young impressionable mind.

Think stage fright.

So when the time came to baptize these boys the older one was not at all comfortable with this strange old man in a robe that smelled of moth balls in front of a large collection of other strangers.
Since there were parents and godparents sufficient, the elder brother wasn't given the chance to answer any questions before he was being clumsily scooped up and swung toward the substantial marble font.

As the guest priest held the brother his feet were in just the right place to provide all the resistance he needed.  So he pushed back on the font and yelled for the whole church to hear, "I don't want to be baptized!"

Thank goodness there were others in position to steady the old priest, but that only allowed him to try again to move this "non-candidate" into a position he did not intend to assume.  The boy now more frightened than ever, pushed and shouted a second time, "I don't want to be baptized!"

Well, we were smart enough at that point to stop fighting and we moved to the younger brother who was amazingly fine with all that was happening and went to the font happily and returned to his mother's arms with a great sigh shared throughout the church.

No sooner had that happened than the older brother said "OK, now I want to get baptized."

That was twenty years ago.  I hope the older brother is able to present his children for baptism.  I also hope he doesn't wait until they are 6 years old.

Making room to consider all the options --- not just "Yes" or "No" -- is what we want.  To provide for all the possible answers we must formulate as many of the questions as we can think to ask.

That's what I have invited Rick Crown,  Julie Jenkins,  Brian Easton and others to help us to do. They will lead us in asking as many as we imagine of the right questions about what God is calling Advent to become and how I need or not to be included in that future.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Ready, steady, go.

The calendar for the coming year is filling up fast.  With the Sunday of September 13 we are kicking off lots of familiar functions as well as beginning a season of new items on the schedule.

That evening we will renew our alternative service for meditation and contemplative prayer using the the form for compline from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer, Night Prayers.  No other church in town offers this sort of opportunity for quiet, deep prayerfulness.

I apologize that the lateness -- the service begins at 8:00 PM -- of this makes it inconvenient for some. The hope is that those for whom Sunday morning precludes any sabbath rest may find a small dose of it in the silence and closing darkness.

If you are new to this practice, do not fear.  We will take the rest of the month to get -- back for some -- into the habit of 20 minutes of silence.  For "Night Prayers veterans" be ready for some changes that will allow visitors and newcomers options as they become accustomed to this unique liturgy.

Tuesdays will continue with our gathering in a Public Service of Prayers for Healing -- at 7:00 PM during Daylight Savings Time and 5:00 PM when we're on Standard Time.  We have tweaked the liturgy (somebody warn the Altar Guild!!) so that more occasions will be observed in Holy Eucharist.

The biggest change to our living week to week will be in how we begin to use Wednesday nights.  It's so big we're beginning BEFORE Ministry Fair Sunday.  Each of September's 5 Wednesdays at 6:30 and two of the Sundays (September 20 and 27) following worship we'll gather for conversation, prayer and pot-luck meals to look ahead in hope of discerning even more of what God is calling our beloved community to become.  Under the title Food for the Journey the September sessions will fill the space opened by last year's Dinners with Dann.

After September we'll continue to use Wednesdays in a variety of ways:

Advent-ures will meet more frequently this year and use Wednesdays for many of their meetings.

We'll be hosting community meetings under the banner Civil Religion and inviting our neighbors to join us and our elected officials for sharing and mutual support.  That schedule is still developing.

On other occasions we'll just turn on the big TV and watch a family friendly movie or one that might generate deeper questions and discussions.

So hold on to you hats!  Its going to feel like we are about to run down the road we've been walking up to now.  Ready, Steady, Go!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Summer was "ON"

Few community events bring us to the place we find ourselves thanks to the starting of another school year.  I am at a loss to find something comparable. From my own first grade year I have been living my life August (it used to be September) to May (it used to be June) with summer in between.

At less than half the normal census the summer's 12,000 students kept UGA and Athens busy and my work at the Episcopal Center fully scheduled.  Then it would be filled to over-flowing with all those extra events and conferences and retreats and projects that I thought I'd have the time and space to accomplish.  Those 10 to 12 weeks always ended in regret.  Regret that I never finished all those extra things.

I was in denial -- I think as an adult, I have ALWAYS been in denial -- that summer is already full. I did it again this summer!!!  The two Sundays I was missing from the altar were both Sundays of travel to and from extra work: a church-wide conference at Kanuga and a wedding on Cumberland Island.  Good thing I like to drive.  The six hour trek between Kanuga and Fernandina Beach was the closest thing to not working during that time away.

So now when school starts I can breathe a sigh of relief.  The pattern returns, the routine begins again and each day moves again at a familiar and embracive rhythm and pace.  Maybe I'll take some vacation time in October!

Perhaps you've already seen my remarks about this idea of rhythms and rests.  It seems to me that we are in the midst of a profound moment that affords all of us new chances to return, restart, recalibrate, and re-engage.

In our lives as fellow worshippers the most obvious sign of return is attendance on Sunday morning. I'm glad to report that our summer attendance was the best I've witnessed in the 5 plus years I have served here.  Maybe with school starting we'll see increases continue into the fall.

Another returning element will be our Sunday Evensong events and the steadier, quieter gathering in prayer late on Sunday in Night Prayers.

Another sign of return is a new calendar for Adventures.  And before I go another step let me encourage you to join me in thanking Kerrie Sampson and Erin Garrett for seeing to a year of Adventures.  I'm still "impressed" with Kerrie's portrayal of Mary greeting the newborn Jesus at the Christmas bonfire.  The new calendar is part of how we will structure all of our Wednesday evenings. (More on that later.)

Some old and new faces are helping us this year as we also look to provide opportunities for a growing number of children who have "aged-out" of Adventures.  Leading our middle and high schoolers to an August 29th rally and retreat at All Saints, Atlanta are Emily Buck and Doug Adkins.

And before you know it we'll be gathering again on the second Sunday in September for our annual Ministry Fair and Picnic.  Mark your calendars for September 13th and look for ways to represent the ministries that are important to you so that others may consider joining you.

There's bunches we could have done.  There's just-as-bigga bunches that we have done.  In this "back-to-school" moment we have more opportunities to "return, restart, recalibrate, and re-engage" then to seize with renewed vigor and gratitude in our hearts the momentum by which God has joined us "in between."

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Miles to go . . .

It's a different season but a sentiment similar to Frost's on that snowy evening  accompanies this mid-term of my tenure as Priest-in-Charge.  In order for us to do what is required when there is still nearly a year to go, stopping and listening even to the near silence seems almost like a mistake.

"Let's just keep going" some would say and "It's all good."  Others have particular interests but still are inclined not to examine or question our basic intentions.

However, stopping with miles to go may help us to understand and focus more sharply, to listen more intently, and to ask better questions.

In order to do this work of asking better questions we are forming a team of parishioners young and old,  long-time members and people fairly new to worshipping with us.  As the team comes into shape we will present them to the parish and pray God's blessings on their work.

Before they have their first meeting there is already on my mind a question that they'll need to help us all ask and answer.  It is a tricky consideration because it has to move through some more immediate and automatic appraisals.

Here it is:  Is the church God is calling Advent to become best served by a priest with Fr. Dann's gifts and talents, skills, habits, strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, etc, etc.

The more immediate or automatic question is do we like each other.  From my perspective the answer is yes.  Do we love each other?  Again the answer is yes!  Thanks be to God the answer is yes in both directions!  We shouldn't go another step unless we felt this way.

But our continuing in ministry with each other can be -- some have said should be -- chosen from a larger context.   We need to ask in as many ways as we can questions about Advent too, beginning with what God is calling us to become.  Perhaps more specifically, who God is calling each of us to become, together?

Asking that opens up an even larger set of considerations and pretty soon we're having the same "what is our purpose?" kind of conversation Bishop Wright has been hammering for most of his episcopate.   To some degree we've already been having our own parish-wide version of this since the Dinners with Dann.

Those conversations rendered answers more in the program and activity direction.  These new questions will want us to look at our history, the healing we've experienced and the strength and renewal we are recovering.

So . . . who is God calling us to become and IS frDann the one best suited to walk with us and lead us as we make this new road?

Don't be afraid.  We want our "rector letter of agreement" to be drafted from a place better than the Facebook standards of friending or liking.

We also want to acknowledge that the way in which we have served with each other has already brought us at least a mile or two. To say it another way, we are not at the beginning of our journey with each other.  Yet what remains may need something else from us and with miles to go we may need to re-solve those promises in order to keep them.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Agonists, Instead

I know I took a risk last week using "protagonist" as the category to name our part in this mission and ministry God is calling us to share.  Really, God -- and especially God as revealed in the life, death and ressurrection of Jesus of nazareth -- is the protagonist.

I was working through Brian McLaren's thoughts about our "making the road by walking," and I was hoping to motivate us to keep moving even when we are dissuaded by obligation or pedantry, by standards and forms that seem to reduce our lives to the most common denominators of one size fits all reports and records.

The risk is important to note because we have to be honest about the other roles we play in this pilgrimage with God.

Sometimes we are just agonists, struggling no matter whose bidding we follow.  Life does that and we know it when we say things like "getting old ain't for sissies."  Most of us are able to at least be grateful to be IN the struggle.  Like many of us say when asked "how are you doing?"  I thank God for getting me up this morning.  Or when others share their insights or epiphanies from learning to live in the world in the present and not some fictionalized past or future.

These and the other "agonists" who are the Church of the Advent are not IN agony at all times. Indeed most of us are on more of a steady march than a limping trudge.  Yes there are plenty of challenges but there are also plenty of joys and lots of neither in between.

The root word "agon" comes through Latin from Greek and originally meant contest or competition.
So before we break it down too much let me share this.  I am competitive.  I love competing and loved it even more when I was younger.

In high school I was more jock than prep or nerd. Until I broke my leg in a game my junior year, football was my prefered fall sport.  Basketball got me through the winter, then spring was a balancing between track and golf.  In college I competed for Furman's Cross-Country and Track & Field teams all over the southeast and beyond from Gainesville, FL to College Park MD. to Columbus OH.  I have the scar tissue and bad knees to prove that I trained hard and raced when I shouldn't have run at all.

I learned something during all those laps on the track.  I learned that the competition in running is different than in most other sports like football, baseball, tennis.  The other sports I loved were the ones where my opponents were more fellow agonists, and not antagonists.  Their efforts and my efforts did not obstruct or limit each others' but promoted the whole to a better result.  We ran in the same direction and the faster runners helped us all be faster runners.

So maybe instead of holy protagonists -- I'm feeling that's Jesus' role -- we should think more in terms of those struggles as a shared striving WITH each other.

There are plenty of difficulties along the way and we needn't create extra obstacles for each other.  Instead we can share the loads and keep each other waking up and help each other see the light we see and continue to "make the road."

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Holy Protagonists!

The joke goes like this:  Q. Why did it take forty years for the children of Israel to get to the promised land? A. Moses wouldn't stop and ask for directions.

But before we forget we should admit that the sojourn was made as long as it was because of the people's AND Moses' lack of confidence in God.
“Then the LORD said, “I have pardoned, according to your word; but truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs which I wrought in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the proof these ten times and have not hearkened to my voice, shall see the land which I swore to give to their fathers; and none of those who despised me shall see it. But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it.” Numbers 14:20-24, RSV.
And so for 40 years a new people were made by their walking.

This comes to mind because I have been rereading portions of Brian McLaren's "We Make the Road by Walking."  Right at the very beginning McLaren says
"I believe that all of us play a role in choosing and creating our futures— as individuals and as communities. We don’t need to wait passively for history to happen to us. We can become protagonists in our own story. We can make the road by walking." 
It's OK for both to be true at the same time but it seems like the Exodus was a lot less "McLaren-ish road construction" and much more "God's people forming."   It's OK for us to say we make the path by walking as long as we also say that while walking together, the path makes us.

It is especially OK as we are at the mid-point of our two year long agreement to walk together.

The review for which our agreement calls is kind of like asking for directions AND sending spies AND trusting God AND doing our part.

So I like how McLaren talks about us being "protagonists in our own story."  Sometimes more Joshua and Caleb than even Moses.  He's also talking about a kind of energy as much as he's talking about particular roles.

That energy, the energy of a protagonist, can be our energy.  That energy is an energy of resolve.  We can want it.  We can choose it.  Once chosen, we can act on it.

You can probably count on us responding to this mid-term review with a tweek in our direction or effort.  We may even have to make some bigger changes.  But do not think us lost or punished.

We are making the road God is calling us to make by walking and trusting God together.