Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Religion is Connecting: Part 8

I wrote this this morning and have already published a version of it for my parish, Advent Madison. But my heart will not sit still and I am working with lots of stuff from lots of other places in my life.  The underlined pieces are what I've added since this morning and they reflect the continuing influence and learning from those "other places." 

I've had more than one train of thought behind my writing these entries about religion and connecting.  Please allow me to admit one of those to you as having very timely relevance to our life together at Advent.

I’ll start with saying that my membership in the Episcopal Church began and ended at Christ Church in Greenville, S.C.  I have never been a member of another parish in our beloved denomination.  

When a priest is made so by the vows spoken, the laying on of the bishop's hands, the invocation of God's Spirit and the pronouncement and all the years of service that follow, a new way of being connected is established.

Upon my ordination I became "canonically resident" in the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina.  Through the transmission from one bishop to another of "letters dimissory" I have changed residencies twice and am now a priest of the Diocese of Atlanta.  I am not nor have I ever been registered in membership, as baptized or as communicant in any of the 5 locations I have served.  

That's the technical or “regular” part of my connectedness.  There is another part of my connectedness that is highlighted for me by the decision of the vestry to call me as rector.  This peculiar sense of connectedness is ALWAYS with me, always in the back of my mind, always moving through my heart, always framing and directing my work, my calling, my priesthood, my life.  

In a few words this is it: I will always covet permanence but must always honor portability.  

I will always hope to connect and grow into a strength and trust and authority with the people of the parishes and chapels I have served; with you!  I will always hope to be a rector or a chaplain with all the “privileges and responsibilities thereto appertaining.”  

I'm not alone in my aspiration to the vestry’s calling here. Their vote proves that we want that confidence and solidity in our relationship. If nothing else, calling a rector acknowledges the vitality and strength that God has led us into.  We are here by God’s grace.

And we are grateful, indeed we understand that calling in the same way that we understand Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist and Marriage and Confirmation, etc.  

Just like when we say "the gifts of God for the people of God" about the very bread and wine that we have just minutes before placed on the altar, when we call a rector we are calling something to be broken and moved and shared and released into the lives of any who will join the communion with God's people for God's mission.

It sounds like a contradiction but honoring portability is how I protect you and me and perfect the calling to be rector.  Otherwise I’d think of myself and us as done and never risk being vulnerable again.  Otherwise everything can be delayed.

Honoring portability means connecting: by putting my heart into each moment I have now because God may ask me to leave tomorrow.

This is not an easy realization for me.  One of those "other places" is lost into my past now because I failed to honor that very same principle of human connection that portability demands here.  I did not live as if each moment was my last chance and I cannot go back.

Now, I am here and I must honor every moment we have left with the hope that God can still call me to be broken and moved and shared and released to this and other missions with others who are joined in our communion.

So please understand me. I am saying yes to your vestry and to you in response to their hopeful and courageous calling.  I want to be the rector, the one who honors the very portability I vowed to practice January 21, 1994. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Religion is Connecting: Part 7

In an earlier piece about barnacles and their clinging, I wrote about them as examples of connections that were not mutually beneficial to both parties.  I used them as metaphors for being satisfied with merely surviving.

In writing I came close to saying something about addiction and how it is the frequent result of that kind of clinging.  You could just as much say that addiction is the cause.

Early biblical writers criticized the idolators for "clinging to their idols." Jonah 2:8 and Psalm 31:6 but what made the idols idols was they were not the one true God.  So clinging was about the only action available when all you had are idols, substitute gods.

Many of you have heard me say that "addiction is a natural response to a life lived on substitutes." Here's what I mean: when we are seeking some sort of satisfaction, attention, affection, or nourishment; really anything that can be a source of comfort or meaning, anything that will make the pain go away or meet a need we often stop at the next best thing.

And the substitute is never good enough.  It never finally or fully satisfies.  But we know where it can be found.  We can repeat those steps.  And for a minute, a night, a season, a life we can forget our hunger, our hurt, our shame, our weakness, our brokenness.  And when the dose is gone we find another.  In many cases it just gets worse and worse because second best is never good enough.

Sadly this describes so much of our lives, all of our lives and not just the lives of those we can recognize as addicted but also those whose lives have a kind of permission to settle.

Let me propose that it is because we are all addicts of one kind or another.  We are all in some way seeking to satisfy ourselves and ending up with second best answers to the questions and troubles of our lives.

Please don't read me as a cynic or pessimist.  There is still the one true God who has shown a love for us like no other.  Who has done everything we need to break our addictions, to end our clinging, to set us free.

It is worth admitting that not all bear the same blame or responsibility for their addictions.  If you are really hungry and you can't find enough to eat, your addiction is not all your fault.  If you are lonely or ashamed and struggle to find true love you may not even know why.  There are all kinds of reasons our hopes won't always take us all the way.

A really sad thing about this addiction epidemic is that so many of us don't know even we are addicted.  We must think that this second-best-ness of life is the way its supposed to be.  We say things like, "get it while you can."

Why else do we allow greed -- an addiction to the power of money -- and why do we tolerate the rhetoric and behavior of our current political culture except for our own thrilling?  Why do we go from relationship to relationship?  Why do we make church into a place we go and not a people we are called to become?

But in every case where someone has settled or been caught or trapped in an addiction there is a way out and because of what God has done in Jesus' life, death and resurrection that way is with every other person in the world.

Thank God for those fellow addicts who are able to break away even if only for a minute.  Especially when their cries "no more!" wake us up to our own enslavements.  And thank God, especially for the people we love that there is more to life than accepting our second bests.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Religion is to be Connected: Part 6

We are a sacramental people.  We make offerings to God of the stuff in our lives - bread and wine, water, oil, and all sorts and conditions of people.  Then we do this audacious thing of claiming that God has changed those very things we have just presented into something else.

In Holy Eucharist bread and wine become Christ's body and blood; we baptize and a human believer becomes a member of Christ's body, the church; a man and women make their vows to each other and we pronounce them husband and wife.  If nothing else the stuff we present is us. 

The beauty and significance of these and the other sacraments engages us so that we have even expanded the ways in which we make offerings of ourselves and pronounce those vowing as married regardless of their biology.  

Most of what we do when behaving sacramentally relies on an understanding of God and God's grace.  I've already called it audacious but it is also hopeful, honest, risky and intentional.  

We are crazy but faithful when we count on God to make a difference.  But the basic promise "to be with us" that God makes and keeps in the person of Jesus of Nazareth can't be real AND inert at the same time.

So when we are worshipping in baptism, eucharist, confirmation, marriage, ordination, extreme unction and reconciliation we are trusting God and as far as the world can tell foolishly thrusting ourselves into the promise of God's life changing presence.

For many that is enough.  Many of us are glad to be deemed worthy, to receive the elements, to be married, ordained and in the end made right with God.  Even I have presented this series with a title that is also about being connected.

It is worth it for us to consider that the very same condition that makes it so that God's presence changes things -- that Jesus of Nazareth can't be real AND inert at the same time -- should be the automatic next step in our sacramental lives as well.  That is to say that religion is connecting not just being connected.  

Early arguments about the bread and wine once blessed and broken that used a definition like transubstantiation very often left those asking good questions about "what difference it makes" thinking that Holy Communion did more to the bread and wine than it did to those taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing.  

If religion is just as much connecting then our sacramental living is just as much or more doing than being: more offering, blessing, breaking and sharing continuously than mere status changes to be celebrated, certified, and protected.  

So let me revise my title: "Religion is to be Connecting" and let's see what difference it makes. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Religion is to be Connected: Part 5

Church going is loaded with opportunities to connect.  We especially connect to each other.  Each person we see regularly becomes a way for a connection that offers assurance and comfort.

These connections matter so much we even attend to the habits and comforts of those around us.

Think about those Sundays when your friends are NOT in their usual seats.  Or even worse when your friend's seat is taken by someone else.

Our habits: where we sit, with whom we sit, how we come and go are formed as we connect and as we learn to respect and care for those connections.  The formation of our habits is an incremental process that like a feedback loop promotes or not our connections.

Sadly for many of us the process eventually stops and we settle into routines that feel more like surviving than thriving. So it is worth it to consider that some of our connections may be calling us to unfamiliar places and people.

Most of us seldom move outside our "comfort zones" by our own choosing.  Instead we are made to go when something shocks or constrains us to go: the death of a loved one whose seat is then always empty, or in a milder way the change of a liturgical practice.

Remember when the altar was tucked against the wall?  Or think of how many of us are yearning for a return to the kneeling we do outside of the Easter season.

For those who have lived through these sorts of "dis-connections" we all could have a new appreciation for our comfort zones.  We know to enjoy them but we can also learn to trust them as we come and go.  As we grow our comfort zones can change from places to settle and stay and become more like rest stops on a long journey.

Most of you know that I have joked about telling confirmands that as soon as the Bishop lays hands on them they are eligible to pick their permanent seat in church so that God no longer has to go looking for them.  So let's not forget that our connections and their comfort zones may not be easily recognizable as such and may be hard to share with a stranger.

I guess now I need a joke about how trusting AND movement can help our connections and even help our sharing of our comfort zones.

There is one about churchy types taking a friend of another denomination fishing and amazing the friend with what appears to be walking on the water?  Isn't the punchline something about knowing where the rocks are?

That's a start but all of this stuff about comfort and connection really boils down to being intentional about change and adaptation, about trust and vulnerability, and about how the God to whom we hope to connect already knows where the rocks are.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Religion is to be connected: Part 4

The kayak that I've been paddling the Oconee was used when I bought it.  The hull was not badly damaged but it was scratched.  It’s hard to paddle anywhere in this part of the world and not scrape a gritty shoal or bump a boulder every now and then.

I am not worried about my recreation on the river.  It is exactly that, recreation not competition and so I do not require a pristine streamline to make my way with high efficiency.  Still I've thought about the hull slipping through the silty runoff into the lake to our east.

When I lived in tidewater Virginia there always be a boat or two lifted out of the Rappahannock at the nearby marinas so the hulls could be cleaned of the barnacles that had attached in those brackish river waters and the even saltier waters of the Chesapeake and Atlantic.

One might be inclined to see some virtue in the clinging of those accreted crustaceans.  "Oh that we could hang to God as fervently."  "Oh that our faith were as constant as the cement they secrete."  "Crafty little creatures to make their lives so simple."

But it is worth being reminded that not all connections are healthy for the "connected." There is only a less than ideal benefit for one part in those connections and the other just suffers. Barnacles are carried through the water from which they feed but the boat's hull is slowed by the loss of its streamline.

You might want to say, "Take it easy FrDann, they're just barnacles."  But the way these varmints connect can be a caution to us all in our lives of faith.  Our relationship, our connection to God always risks our being the barnacle.

We are the dependent ones, we have needs that we most often meet at the expense of others, we are limited by our self-image, our fears, our lack of trust and so we attach in ways that put others at risk.  We attach in ways that seldom go beyond survival.

I'll admit to failing to "give it all to God" on most of those occasions when that felt like the right or the good thing to do.  I always have found some compromise so that I can stick around and at least look faithful.

I'm sure God appreciates the attention but I'm just as sure God intends more in our relationship than clinging.   The connection God has won for us calls for something other than my resolve or my strength or even my ingenuity.  The connection God has won for us calls us to trust and not to cling.

We say "Alleluia, Christ is risen!" because our connection is perfected for us, not preserved by us.  God raised Jesus from the dead after he -- with trust in God -- let go.

The model for us is not Jesus hanging in there to avoid dying like a barnacle but his trusting in the One who knows us and has promised us to be there when we – obedient unto death -- do our own letting go.