Monday, September 15, 2014

Big Church, Little Church, . . . Good Church

Many of you are familiar with an expression of mine often said at the conclusion of our Sunday celebrations, “That was good church!” Especially when our worship has included some extra element: baptisms, blessing of scarves and blankets, blessing of Panda Packs, even a funeral has found me feeling that way.   
As well as worship there are ways we are engaged in making the world a better place, both near and far:  the aforementioned Panda Packs, Joseph’s Coat, Meals on Main, Matthew 25, the Boys and Girls Club, Twin Lakes, Île à Vache and on and on.  Outreach for us is also “good church.”
While we celebrate here another effort to identify “good church” is happening at the level of General Convention, and bishops, and executive committees.  The Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) has reported on the work they were given by the House of Deputies in Indianapolis in 2012.   Lots of reasons for this work could be listed but to be brief there was an obvious frustration with how “big church” didn’t match up with “little church.”  What TREC has proposed includes significant changes to General Convention, Executive Council, the Presiding Bishop’s office and other structures. 
Lots of church pundits have responded; some through scathing disapproval, others by luke-warm endorsements and still others with pride and celebration of a job well done.  In most opinions one caution is repeated.  It is this: unless there is health at the level of individual congregations all the good ideas about structure and process “at the top” are in vain.
There you have it.  No matter what the structure is, the big church needs the little church. It is OUR health that makes whatever re-imagining General Convention authorizes, worth doing.   OUR health, first known by how we worship and similarly by how we help those both near and far is so important that we can’t take it for granted ourselves. 

These Dinners with Dann are our TREC.  We are doing our own re-imagining and structuring for growth and health sake.   Thanks be to God we already have so much to call “good church.”  Thanks as well that we can consider ways to grow and to contribute to the health of the big church from right here in Madison. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Apologies to Kierkegaard

Some of you already know that I have a strong affection for the “melancholy Dane.”  Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855):
“the first existentialist philosopher. He wrote critical texts on organized religion, Christendom, morality, ethics, psychology and philosophy of religion, displaying a fondness for metaphor, irony and parables. Much of his philosophical work deals with the issues of how one lives as a "single individual", giving priority to concrete human reality over abstract thinking, and highlighting the importance of personal choice and commitment. He was a fierce critic of idealist intellectuals and philosophers of his time, such as Swedenborg, Hegel, etc. Thanks Wikipedia, ;-)
I’m apologizing so that I can describe a reality of our lives together here in Madison and can use a model attributed to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, as much as anyone Kierkegaard’s nemesis. 
Here’s the reality: we are growing in love with each other.  We have been, we still are, and with this change in my status to full-time can continue on a new scale.  Part of the way this is happening is a back and forth of call and response, of giving and receiving and giving back, of taking turns for each other.  Yes there is plenty that we are doing together, so the back and forth is not so obvious.  But most of what we are doing has a kind of respect built in to it so that we can be said to be “taking turns.” 
One of Hegel’s ideas was that things like Truth – capital T truth – were the result of a dialectic of ideas.  First there is thesis, then there is antithesis then there is synthesis!  And everyday in every way we were getting better and better. Kierkegaard’s rebuttal was that there was no abstract truth better than those lived by the individual in crisis, in decision. 
I love my Søren but I think he is more helpful here in partnership with Hegel.  To be brief, we are exchanging respect, honor, trust and in the back and forth there is something better to build on to which we proclaim, Thanks be to God! 
As long as we are clear about our limitations – Kierkegaard would want us to call it sin – then we know not to expect what grows to be the end of who we are becoming.  That would be to presume a version of things like capital T truth the reality of which can only be known because it comes first from God and has no need for the repartee of antithesis.    

So thanks Georg H. and thanks Søren K.  The dialectic your philosophies are performing for us is helping us see something about our lives in this moment in Madison GA.  We are growing in love through an exchange of willful decisions made by people who understand their limits and trust in God.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Sustainability for Advent, Madison

Throughout my years as a student at Furman I was active in several religious groups and hung out in the chaplain’s office.  My classmates will agree with me that Eugenia Cantrell’s “Russian tea” was often more therapeutic than any meeting with L.D. or Jim, the chaplains.  
My junior year I was elected president of the Chaplain’s Religious Council, the gathering of leaders from each of the student campus ministries.  It was our job to oversee the funding of each of the groups.  We also had our own budget for events and programs unavailable to those bound by denominational differences. 
We were aware mostly through our own involvement of the Collegiate Educational Service Corps, a student volunteer organization that directed more than half of the Furman community into Greenville area projects and programs.  Fellow student now Bishop Stacy Sauls, Chief Operating Officer for the Episcopal Church and his then girlfriend now wife Ginger headed up that massive effort. 
With me the Council decided that a campus–wide effort to make a difference somewhere else in the world was a perfect “foreign” balance to CESC’s “local” mission.  There was a severe drought in sub-Saharan Africa in those years and so we linked ourselves to the work being done through OxFam in Ethiopia.  What guided our decision-making was the writing of E. F. Schumacher.  The author of “Small is Beautiful” articulated for us the best way for mostly white, mostly southern, people of faith to attempt a “non-evangelicalized foreign mission.” 
We didn’t want to promote an Ethiopian dependency on western technology that could not be sustained by the locals.  We had seen the pictures of fairly new tractors and combines left to rust without western petrol. We also didn’t want to fund a one shot airdrop with bags of rice or millet then to be black-marketed by corrupt officials.   
Thanks to Schumacher and OxFam (and some Quakers) we found a way to help fund the construction of windmills from local supplies that could pump some of the water from the aquifers below the drought dried land.  We did some really cool fund-raising.  We had a T-shirt swap.  Students paid $1 per shirt and donated from their own closets.  We did the same with LP’s.  Then L.D. and I were interviewed on the local news and within a week we had raised over $30,000! 
The windmills, 30 of them, were built.  We had corroboration through pictures and reports from the Southern Baptist missionary parents of some of our students.  Little Furman made a big difference.  What we learned was irreplaceable.  And we know now that Schumacher was onto something much more “macro” than our little effort.  Then and now “small (I’d rather say “contextually-sized”) IS beautiful.”

What we have before us in this local movement, this becoming a parish in Madison, GA with a full-time rector doesn’t need to be small but it definitely needs to be a “contexually-sized” effort.  I imagine that it will be a almost entirely a local enterprise but how we scale our work so that time moves to our side and our results last longer than a single season or two will require the same sort of careful resourcing and shared effort used to fund and build those windmills 40 years ago in Ethiopia. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Affording Honor with Advent, Madison

I have never done what I am hoping to do with the people of the Church of the Advent in Madison.  That is to work through this priest in charge thing and become the rector.  Most of my colleagues and many of you think that I’m crazy, that I’m taking too big of a risk, or that I’m being unrealistic.  Thank goodness I’ve grown accustomed to my craziness long before I met you. 
This is my first – and given my age – most likely last chance to do what I’m choosing to do here.  Granted, it was not originally my idea to leave Athens this year. Everybody thought Advent being served by any priest on a full-time basis was something farther down the road.   Plainly and simply it was a question of affordability. 
Truth is I have never attempted nor was I expecting myself to downsize my life and expenses for the sake of making this arrangement affordable.  All of my previous transitions in ministry have at least been to bigger paychecks, bigger houses, if not loftier titles: assistant to rector, interim rector to university chaplain. 
So now the goal, the focus, the modus operandi I’m choosing is to afford becoming the rector to Advent, Madison, sooner than the later we thought it was going to be and still with some risk.  We have included semi-annual reviews so we can proceed nimbly and with care toward this shared goal, because it is risky. 
It’s OK, that this is not what I or we expected.  It is still and maybe especially because it has so many unusual pieces to it something that we can do. We can do well enough that we’ll be able to look back one day and say we were honored to do it.
In the meantime, thanks to Charlie and Janet Mason for use of their guest house and stay tuned for some unique ways you can help me make this transition affordable. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Feeding the 4000

Matthew 15:29 Jesus moved on from there along the shore of the Galilee Sea. He went up a mountain and sat down. 30 Large crowds came to him, including those who were paralyzed, blind, injured, and unable to speak, and many others. They laid them at his feet, and he healed them. 31 So the crowd was amazed when they saw those who had been unable to speak talking, and the paralyzed cured, and the injured walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.  32 Now Jesus called his disciples and said, “I feel sorry for the crowd because they have been with me for three days and have nothing to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry for fear they won’t have enough strength to travel.” 33 His disciples replied, “Where are we going to get enough food in this wilderness to satisfy such a big crowd?” 34 Jesus said, “How much bread do you have?” They responded, “Seven loaves and a few fish.” 35 He told the crowd to sit on the ground. 36 He took the seven loaves of bread and the fish. After he gave thanks, he broke them into pieces and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 37 Everyone ate until they were full. The disciples collected seven baskets full of leftovers. 38 Four thousand men ate, plus women and children.39 After dismissing the crowds, Jesus got into the boat and came to the region of Magadan. (CEB)


There's something going on when Jesus asks "Who do the people say the Son of Man is?" just a few verses after this second of the multiplication of food miracles. It has something in common with the moment he shared in that other distinctly unwelcome place (compare Tyre and Sidon with Caesarea Philippi

In the first instance he loses (let's call it) an argument.  And in so doing gives us this beautiful insight into his work and the hope God has maintained in continuing to choose Israel.  "I am your God, your are my people and you will be blessed."  Over and over God reminds Israel whose they are and what it means.  The argument Jesus has is exactly so that we can again be reminded that Israel's blessedness is a means to an end and not an end in itself.  "Even the dogs get to eat the crumbs."  

It was just a few verses back and the crumbs added up to twelve baskets full.  Israel is not just a vehicle of blessing but is blessed in being a vehicle.

So there's more to this feeding thing, this blessedness thing than Israel's turn at it.  Again Jesus walks off, this time he draws a crowd of broken people and calls his disciples to feed them. This time, 7 loaves and an undetermined amount of fish.  This time, 4000.  This time, 7 baskets full of crumbs.  

So when Jesus asks Peter and the disciples about their take on who he is we need to read with the same squint that we used for the woman from Tyre and Sidon.  What we saw the first time was a demon possessed daughter being healed.  What we see this time is Peter getting a set of keys.  

What we learned the first time was that Israel's blessedness was not an end in itself.  What we can learn from Peter is that having the right answers about who Jesus is and what God is up to in him assures us of a huge responsibility.  This responsibility is closely kin to the one we learned about Israel.  But this time its not enough to let a few crumbs fall.  This time the feeding is on purpose and the world gets the leftovers. A basket for everyday, full. 

Whatever you bind, whatever you loose.  You’re doing heaven’s work now.