Lifting their Hands – On not leaving pastoral ministry

Being a pastor sucks.  It is also wonderful in ways no other job is.  But there are days even years when the consolations of ministry are few and far between, and the critiques and mistakes form a flood that overwhelms the best of intentions.

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The Very Rev. Rebecca McClain asked me early on in mentoring me into the priesthood of the Episcopal Church what I thought it meant to be a priest.  My answer then is still one I am working out.  I said, “Being a priest means promising to be fully human, bearer of the  image of God and flesh and blood, broken and healed, in front of a group of people, no matter what.”  The vows of ordination are about the roles we play in the church.  But before all of the roles is this simple understanding that I hold about being a human being, a child of God in Christ, a Spirit-led person in front of a congregation.  To be honest about our humanity in its glories and failures sounds nice, but it is hard.  Rebecca and others have helped me to put flesh and blood to it, but it is often not supported and loved by the very people among whom we struggle to live it out.

To lead others toward their full humanity in God in Christ just makes it worse.  People don’t want to change, don’t want to take ownership of their life with God or others, much less practice self-sacrificial love.  People don’t want you to change them or their church, no matter what reasons you offer for doing so.  I know; I work in the church.

I was realizing all of this in the middle of seminary.  I was in my seventh year of ministry by then, having worked in churches and a diocese prior to seminary.  By the seventh year most people leave ministry, and I was ready to join them.  My life was ugly at the time, mostly due to my own shortcomings and sins, and plenty of both.  I was an exile from every community that I could turn to.  I was out of touch with my family, my home community, my various churches.

I was sitting in the dark.  I was actually sitting in the dark of a small chapel at a youth retreat preparing a Youth Encounter team that would be welcoming and leading other youth through a weekend experience of Christ a month leader.  I was a spiritual director for the youth and young adult commission of the diocese, and I was there at the request of the director,  whom we will call Julie.  But I was struggling with leaving ministry altogether.

I was sitting on the side with another spiritual director watching Julie lead the eucharist for the youth.  I don’t remember the sermon.  I was in the tunnel vision of struggle and doubt wondering why I would stay.  I was asking God, What is there in ministry that I would die for? What could I possibly do as a priest that would matter enough for me to give my life to it? Suffering and self-centeredness are natural allies.

As the service turned toward the eucharist, the most intimate and holy space for us as followers of Christ, Julie called two teens up to be the table.  One was this boy with significant developmental issues that made him socially awkward and sometimes very difficult, he was lovable and frustrating at the same time.  The youth had earlier in the day reached the point of excommunicating him and even cruelly pushing him away when one senior girl, a gorgeous popular teen, reached out to him and used her popularity to pull him back into the group and build him up.

Julie had these two come forward and be the table by holding the elements of communion, the bread and the wine.  And Julie, with her wild red hair and her effusive enthusiasm, began to pray the eucharistic prayer from the prayer book from memory.  I was engaged and leaned forward beginning to feel like here in this moment God was answering my questions.

When she reached the place in the prayer where the priest would normally take up the elements and elevate them, she instead bent down on her knees and lifted their hands.  In the moment when the profane becomes holy, she knelt and lifted their hands.

She lifted their hands!  They became more than sacred furniture.  She made them priests, the hands of Christ, bringing their full and broken humanity into the divine act of God in Christ.  It was holy.  It was priesthood.

Now I don’t know if one person there saw what I saw.  But I just began to sob there in the darkness.  I might have said, “Amen.”  But I know I said, “I will die for that.”

So I stayed, and I stay to lift up other people’s hands.  I am still pretty broken as a human being.  Mississippi pastors say we are all dirt and divinity.  I can’t say that I have Julie’s flair and instincts or Rebecca’s maturity, but I know why I am here, why I am still trying to do more than just preach and preside as a holy person doing holy things on holy furniture.

I am heir to that moment when Christ chose to call his disciples brothers and sisters, to take up the cross and set us free, to redeem human beings to be what God made us to be: a royal priesthood of sons and daughters, heirs, and stewards of the creation and each other.  I am heir to the God who comes and lifts us up, who loves us and commands us to love others, who kneels when we expect him to stand.

You are more than sacred furniture to God.  You are his daughter, his son, his beloved heir to the rule of love and grace.  Despite myself, I am still a pastor, and I will lift your hands until you hold them up yourself and make the world holy.

 

 

“The creation waits in eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”  from Paul’s letter to the Romans

Giving Authority Away – Technique

Too little leadership material actually gives important tips for actually doing subtle things.  So here are a few vital tips:

Leaders are not on their phones.  We all know it happens.  But stop it.  Bad human.  Pay attention.  I am guilty and so are you if you have a smartphone.  None of the subtle work of leadership is ever going to get done inside you when you are on the phone.  Grow up.  The lack of discipline in public and private settings around computers and phones and tablets is horrendous.  People who would never pull out a novel in a meeting are playing games, checking social media, and emailing in the middle of meetings.   I have heard stories of pastors posting to Facebook while with dying parishioners and have watched people play games during a family member’s funeral.

Now that you are not on your phone, pay attention to who is watching whom in a meeting.  One of the biggest techniques to using (and building) credibility, trust, and authority in your work place or home is presence.  Mental and emotional presence is shown in the eyes.  Are you watching the person talking? Are you watching the person in power to see how they react when others are talking?  We give authority with our eyes.

Attention and presence are active.  They are done things.  We say you “are present” or “not present,” but what we really mean is you are “actively present” or not.  Actively indicates that we are talking about the expenditure of energy or being, one of the most precious things on earth.  To actually be present to a meeting is work that requires discipline, focus, and defense against distractions inside and out.

Everyone knows this at a gut level, so when we see someone that we give authority by placing their attention on someone else and being attentive to them, we move up the ladder with them, giving authority to the person they are attentive too.  But the sum authority is not additive, it multiplies.  Attention ups the amount of authority in the room.  Capable leaders know that and work to raise, maintain, and give attention to others carefully.

The eyes give authority or take it away.  Yes, people are watching.  I lecture my teenage daughters that everyone is not looking at them.  They can relax.  The lecture for adults is the opposite.  People are watching, but they don’t care about your jeggings as much as your eyes.  Set aside enough self-care and down time to not need to take it when you are with people who matter.  And if they don’t matter, don’t show up and pretend.  You have only added offense to offense.

Public statements of support are a vital technique to loan someone authority, but they have to be followed up on.  Otherwise they become destructive.  Go to meetings, grant permissions, find the money, follow through.  Everyone in a hierarchy has had a boss who would verbally support in the office and then kill projects in practice, all while smiling.  The euphoria of the smile passes, and what is left is poisonous.

Finally giving authority to someone else sometimes demands and almost always needs closure.  In a meeting it may be looking around after an important statement you agree with and nodding to show support or acknowledge a valid point.  In a larger communal setting it may demand that you stand up in front of the community and recount the deeds done and celebrate the person who actually did them.  Do NOT point out your support.  You are doing that by giving them the credit.  Pointing it out should only be done when public acknowledgement of failure is necessary.  This is almost never the case, but it does come up.  In that case, take the blame, take the authority back, and take responsibility for doing whatever is necessary to correct and move forward.  You are the leader.

In yesterday’s post we placed these considerations of authority under the considerations of values that lead us to use our authority for goals and objectives.  We return here to say that our values are what actually give us meaning and purpose.  For Christians understanding our values is one of the primary steps in translating love of God and others into goals and objectives that actually change things and give flesh (incarnate) to our theology.  Love is meaningless until the hungry person is fed.

So look up, speak up, and give away freely.

Giving Authority Away

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In this series of reflections, which are far from complete, we turn next to giving authority away.  To underscore two important points to be held in mind: every member of a healthy community has authority, and every member who has authority is responsible to God for how that authority is used.

Considering authority we have assumed some measure of self-reflection, honest self-assessment, and humility.  This next topic requires an even greater measure of all three.  In order to give our authority away, we must be honest about having it and consider our responsibility, but we must also be submitted to a higher authority than our own self-interest and beyond our self-interests, even altruistic self interests.  This is when Jesus’ teaching about hating family for the sake of his kingdom begins to make a whole lot more sense.

What do you value more than your own self?  What do you value more than your family, your nation, your tribe, your sports team?  This is a vital question for many Christians that goes unasked and unanswered in many churches because we, your pastors, already know the answers, and they are not godly.  We know your answer because we know our own.  Or at least we think we do.

It is the answer we see lived out in our choices about faithfulness to attendance, to charities, to causes.  It is the answer we hear behind the complaint about sermon or service length, behind the excuses, prejudices, and functional atheism of our talk, and its what we hear in our own self talk about why we feel burnt out and run over in doing things for “them.”  When we can honestly say that God’s Rule in our lives is our first priority and our first value, then our children can have a parent rather than a worshiper, our time is held in wholeness as well as holiness, and we aren’t wasting time in worship, or living lives that are overwhelmed with the secular world and its values.

I am writing all of this and honestly trying to live it out with this one stark memory from almost ten years ago when our girls were little.  My wife and I were in the front seats of the car, and our girls were in the back.  We were driving past Bell Road and  32nd Street when we drove by a homeless woman holding a sign asking for help.  The girls, both under seven, wanted to help, but I was in a hurry.  I don’t even remember why I was in a hurry.  They begged me to help her with money, food, water, anything.  But I argued back that I was too busy, that I had to get back to wherever it was that I was going.  I am still haunted by that sin.  I had an answer to whose rule was important just then, and it was not God’s.

The value set and getting that right is vital in a community before crisis or even just conversation.  We set values and priorities and reinforce them all the time.

There are times when we want to accomplish something that is bigger than ourselves and the authority we hold in a community.  We have to pool our authority with others in order to have enough to call others to the work at hand.  We have to give away our authority intentionally.

We often give away authority unintentionally.  This is often done in the silence when someone has called the community to do something that is not in keeping with our values or when they have asked us to do nothing in the face of our communal values.  In that silence, when we do or say nothing, we give them our authority as we seem to consent.  In the silence often people have consented to terrible things because they were unintentional about their authority.  They may think that saying nothing is objecting or just could not muster the courage.  They have just waited for someone else to say something, until nothing was said.

There are all sorts of little post-it note philosophical whimsies about the evil of unintentional silences after the Holocaust of World War II.  But there are millions more examples of smaller injustices or inactions that have gone unphilosophized but don’t go unnoticed.  We are accountable for our words, but I think we may be accountable for what our silences say too one day.

So, we hold a value that is bigger than ourselves.  We don’t have enough authority in the setting to accomplish a goal in keeping with the values we have, but someone else in our sphere of influence does.  This is when we practice giving authority away.

It may be upward.  If a boss or superior in the hierarchy can accomplish things we value, then it is fairly easy, respectable, and rarely controversial to simply “throw our weight” to them.  My bishop has a very similar vision for the diocese to my hopes for our church.  He can accomplish things that I cannot because he sits in a different chair with different influence and relationships.  So I give him my authority.  He has it naturally enough formally, but most people today do not assume that authority is given, so we must be intentional about giving those in higher authority the support we can intentionally by verbalizing those formal and giving witness to our shared values and goals.  It helps that we are simpatico, but it is important to have honest and transparent relationships with those in formal relationships with us so that shared authority is not just implied, but used in ways for which we are willing to stand accountable.

We may give authority away to those below us in the systems in which we work.  I have employees under me that are doing things that I value.  I loan them my authority by hiring them, but I also verbalize my support publicly and am willing to be there when called upon to stand with them and give them my authority to do what they need to do, without taking over their work.  This is more tricky than the vertical move upward.  Giving authority to our superiors is fairly easy, but when giving our authority to those under us, we have to be very self-aware of motivations and very clear about what our values are in stepping in.

If I value what an employee is doing, I express it by calling to the shared value their project and giving voice to their work and accomplishments, or at least their hopes and goals.  This allows them to borrow my authority while keeping their own and staying in command of their own goals, hopes, work, and accomplishments.  They are still the ones accountable for their own success or failure.  This is giving authority as opposed to taking authority, which is only to be done when someone is in desperate need to be saved or has completely failed.  Taking authority is devastating to the person who has it removed, even when they are grateful, and it should be avoided at almost all costs.  One of our primary values is the dignity of every human being from our baptismal covenant.  We preserve their dignity when we give them our authority without taking theirs away.

Have you seen a boss take authority that did not belong to them? How is that different from taking credit for others work?  They often overlap in unscrupulous cases, but let’s assume good intent.  Have you ever taken authority unintentionally or given it away?

We often pass authority to others without thinking horizontally.  We loan our word, our voice, our credit to others in subtle and overt ways.  It is important to be careful when we do this because we are the ones responsible for that authority given to us by God and our fellow brothers and sisters.

Holding Authority in Community

So the secret is that you have authority and that you give authority to others.  This true whether you think it should be or not.  It is true whether you like it or not.  It is a social principle that is reliable.

The moral principle that is corollary to the secret is that you are responsible for that authority.  We are made, in our Christian understanding, to be stewards for God on earth, caretakers of creation and one another.  This is central to what it is to be a God worshipping, Bible believing, human being.  We are made for this task.  No other creature of God is given our role, calling, vocation, or gifts.  The dolphins are smart, but they cannot manage ecosystems.

Human beings are made to be God’s stewards.  A steward is a house manager who manages the affairs of the master of the house.  They are to act in the master’s stead.  They are expected to act as the master would act if the master was present.  They are to care for the people and things of the master’s household and property and to be ready to serve the master by overseeing all that belongs to the master.  This is stewardship.

Human beings are gifted to do this work.  We can understand, study, imagine, create, and manipulate whole systems and subsystems within the world.  This is both wonderful and  terrible as we see almost every time we turn on the news.  We use our gifts in amazing and terrifying ways.  We are blessed to be a blessing, and we are fallen from grace, going on our own way, serving ourselves alone, which is one definition of evil.

Okay, so what does all that have to do with holding authority?  If we don’t know who we are and what we have, how can we be responsible stewards?  We have been given tremendous authority by those around us.  When we ignore this and act powerless, we betray them, our vocation as human beings, and God.  When we manipulate that authority to our own gain above others, we betray them, our createdness, and God.

We hold authority humbly when we are honest that we have it, when we tend to it, and when we use our authority to further the work of God to create, redeem (set free), and make new.  If you are sitting in a meeting as a Christian, whether anyone else knows you are or not, you have a duty to be honest about the authority and trust that others have placed in you, to speak honestly and call the gathered community toward that which is good and creative, redemptive, and that gives life to others.

There are those who deny that they have any authority.  This is either cowardice or avoidance or the truth in an unhealthy system of relationships.  I have rarely found it to be true.  What I have found in systems is that when I have no authority at all, I have either given it away and sometimes rightfully so or it has been taken.  The other reality is that we may face and often face times when our own authority is not enough to accomplish the creative or redemptive work.  We must then either make allies and pool authority or we must persuade others through appealing to higher authority within group norms.

I may not have the personal authority in my parish to make deep changes to our common life even after five years of pastoral work.  This may be due to squandering my pool of authority and trust on other projects or goals.  I have lost authority due to poor planning or results, poor communication, or past infidelities to our common master.  In that case  I must appeal to the higher authority of either God, in the case of the church, or to the Bible or our commonly held values and goals.  This must be done carefully, and I would add prior to the need being desperate.

Authority is really a form of trust. Thought of this way, it is easy to see how it relies on integrity, honesty, and honor.  We have to prove trustworthy.  The past matters.  It is not all that matters.  Honesty and integrity are always present tense, but built on the past.  On the other hand, a vision of where you are leading the group is vital.  The future needs to be as clear as possible, at least in the form of intentions and plans.  This is part of what makes authority.

Appealing to other people’s shared authority requires really clear communication about what is presented and how far the commonality of the common purpose really goes.  My associate pastor and I are lock step on certain communal values.  Either of us can state with integrity and honesty that we agree and support certain positions, and everyone can see the truth of that in our history and current practice.  They know our vision and plans and can judge how far to trust us.  And if we are talking about the areas we hold commonly, that trust and authority can be given freely and held honestly and used to further our community values.

But there are areas where we don’t see eye-to-eye.  We are different people after all.  For the most part, these things are not central to our common mission and vision.  They do not deeply affect our community.  If we were to pretend to hold a common set of values there, we would have to either agree to support one another despite differences and work out whose values were to be presented, or we would have to be honest about a disagreement on values and work out what values would serve as the communal norm.  These negotiations are vital and vitally done privately and hopefully before a breech in the image portrayed to the community.  It can be handled well and honestly, and relationships can be saved with integrity and communication, but it must be honest.

To appeal to higher authority seems tricky and can easily slip into manipulation.  We are made to manage systems after all, and it is all too easy to manage the system to get what we want in the short term rather than attending to the health and vocation of the whole system.  This quickly leads to institutional sickness and even death.

We have to return to our original vision.  We are stewards of God’s house, and God’s hope as I understand it is that his children would all be in direct relationship with God, not dependent on other “fathers.”  So we have to use our authority in such a way that assumes other’s direct access to God, provides avenues for access, encourages use of those avenues, and then doesn’t short all of that out in order to get what we want in the short term that is of lesser value.

So, in the Benedictine model we assume everyone has access to God’s Spirit, so we call the whole community together.  We provide avenues for accessing both the situation and its reality and God’s Spirit.  We may do that by clearly explaining the relevant parts of the situation and giving people time to understand and to pray.  We then encourage prayer and give time for people to pray.  In our parish that has meant months before some major decisions, but sometimes it may mean a few minutes right then.  It depends on a number of factors, but I would advise going long rather than short, but short enough that you can be accountable to actually making a decision.  Time is a vital component in any significant time of discernment.  It should not be too little, but then it rarely is these days.

Practically the appeal to higher authority should be a part of every meeting and it should be democratic in that the appeal is to an authority to which everyone is obedient equally, including the leader, and it should be normalized so that everyone remembers what the overseeing authority is.  That is why it is vital to have a mission, a vision, a purpose to exist that is short, memorable, and should be direct enough to make you grow up to hold on to it.

If you are going to appeal to a higher authority, everyone should have access to it and be held accountable to it.  That means that the priest is not the only one who can read Scripture, and the priest may be called up short to by Scripture.  It is important then that people be hold what higher authorities hold sway in a meeting and that these higher authorities be agreed upon in order to belong to the group.  Every cop and congressperson has to swear allegiance to the Constitution.  If they did not there would be no check on power.

If you want to grow your own sense of responsibly holding authority, acknowledge your given authority, explore your vocation as a human being, tell the truth with love, be honest about what your vision and mission of the group and yourself is and communicate that to the group, and use your authority to do creative and redeeming work.

We all hold authority.  Hopefully these reflections will help you hold it with a little more self-reflection, honesty, integrity, and responsibility.

Who Has Authority in Community

In my last post I questioned the profiteer from the past who attempts to hold authority by claiming it from some external place.  So who do we give authentic authority to in community?  This may be one of the  make-or-break questions of church leadership.

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Some people take the room the moment they enter it.  This couple in my first solo parish had that power, or rather the wife did.  She was a presence in every room she entered, and everyone responded to it.  She could build up and destroy.  And usually she destroyed.

My parishioner was a natural born leader with charisma.  She drew attention and people to herself.  She was truly magnetic.  But she used it constantly to complain and control through negative talk.  Every story was negative unless was about her.  Every opinion was negative unless it was about her.  It was real power, and it was totally unconscious.  She destroyed community, and it was only through the balancing presence of other more positive leaders in the church community that her effects were not more devastating to the long term health of the church.

She had power, but she was given authority by those who responded to her.  In the past, I and other leaders had given her additional authority by putting her into responsible positions, thinking that this would somehow cause her to be more self-reflective and responsible.  But her power was unconscious and her ability to therefore wield it responsibly was simply missing.  I loved her, but I began to cut her off intentionally and to build insulating walls around her with people who did not give her authority until over time sickness took her out of the community.  It was passive aggressive to be sure, but I followed up with direct confrontation one on one of specific behaviors when they arose.

One person with a great deal of power can truly stop a community’s development and growth in the Spirit cold, at least for a time.  She was powerful, and we made it worse by giving her authority.

In communities, it becomes important to think seriously about authority, especially as leaders.  A natural leader has real power whether acknowledged or not.  Everyone has the potential to be a leader, but some people are just born magnets.  It is important to be self-reflective and humble enough to be honest about your gifts.  If you are born magnetic, you then have a real responsibility to be careful in community in regards to the influence you have.

Authority though is something no one is born with.  Authority is given.  It is part of the social realm that is negotiated consciously or unconsciously.  We give authority either formally with titles or roles or informally by habits and deferences.

Formally authority is given by title or role.  Because I am a priest, I have certain authority within my church community.  It is given.  I also have some remnant of authority within my larger social community, though it is not as certain as it was in the rumors of the past.  I also have some powers because of my position within the hierarchy and institutional structures, but our focus today is authority.

It is my thesis that in healthy communities we give authority to each members as they take on responsibilities.  This begins from the time a member begins to take responsibility for regular attendance and participation in the story-making of the community.  Once you begin to ask questions and show up weekly, you have begun to accrue a certain store of authority among the members.

We are in an awkward place in the institutional church today because we have regular attenders who are helping to write our communal story but are not members.  This is dangerous because without the responsibility of formal recognition we are allowing people to determine our future with us.  Dangerous does not always mean wrong or even bad, but we have to be self-reflective and intentional about how much we allow those without a stake to play key roles in our communities.

In the Episcopal church, we have traditions that are supposed to mediate this danger by insisting that people be members, baptized and confirmed and in good standing, in order to hold key offices and even perform key tasks.  In these later days, many of our churches though, hurting for active members, have allowed active non-members to step in without asking for the formal declarations and rituals of belonging.  This is understandable, but in my recent work around the church and Benedictine ethos, I have begun to question the risks of these dangers.

First off, we are not talking about hospitality.  Everyone is welcome.  The doors are open.  Come on in.  We love you.  We have to love you if we are to be Christian, much more so if we are to be Benedictine.

Secondly, we are not talking about rights.  Certain things should be true about how we treat everyone without regard to their behavior or gender or class or other distinctions.  The church has fallen down on this to be sure, but let me give a couple of simple examples so we can move on.  Anyone who comes into church should be able to expect to be welcomed, loved, and given a seat.  They should be safe and free from ridicule much less violence or mockery or hate.  This is not based on them, but rather on the ethical code of followers of Jesus.

These things are true and should be reliable in church because of what Jesus told his disciples to do and be.  It is shameful that some populations of people feel hated by the church because of our words and actions of hate or ridicule.  It is natural that some people will disagree with us and even hate us for what we say and teach, that is not the same things as actively singling out people because of who they are or what they have done.

What we are talking about is authority.  As we begin to participate actively in a community we begin to accrue authority given by the members because we are taking an active role in writing the story of the group.  This is natural and reliable in healthy communities.  That deposit of authority grows when we add formal participation and belonging.  It grows as we develop and deepen relationships and responsibilities.

In the Rule, Benedict recognizes that God may speak and often does through the youngest members or in our vocabulary the newest members.  We should be listening for God’s voice then and setting up systems and habits as formal leaders to communicate with and listen to those voices.

The question that has haunted me on my travels and reflections on the architecture of Benedictine communities is, Are there people who should not be in our chapter rooms?  I believe there are.

I have never been into the chapter room at Saint Gregory’s in Three Rivers, Michigan, though I have been on retreat there.  I am a priest in good standing in the church they belong to.  I am love them.  They love me.  I think they do anyway.  I have eaten with the brothers.   I have prayed with them.  I have sat in long silences and read their books.  But I have not been in their chapter room.

The chapter room is interior space.  It isn’t for everyone.  It is not exclusive.  It is intimate.  It is a place for the community to do its business.  In the current state of the church, we have let people who don’t have formal belonging act and live as though they do because we have no boundaries.  And so we have mistaken access and authority for love.

I am loved by the brothers of Saint Gregory’s, but they don’t give me authority.  They don’t cut me off, they just don’t let me in.  It would be a mistake for them to do so.  It would be a violation of their community norms and would bring in dangers that are too great over time to excuse.

This all seems pedantic, I guess, except that it is very relevant to our situation in the Episcopal church today.  We have left the doors open to our chapter rooms, and we have let in those who though we may love them, may agree with them, we should not be letting them write our future.

That statement seems at odds with a Western world that demands openness to all comers, and at a time when government and institutions are taking active steps to force open all doors even in church groups.  Recently colleges have begun to deny access to campus to groups that insist on a dogmatic statement to lead.  The spirit of the age is inclusivity, but when have we gone too far?

It is vital to think and act carefully as stewards of God’s world and Christ’s community.  Here we must carefully discern whom we allow to hold authority.  Can we draw lines carefully? Or must all lines be erased?  More and more who the church is and what our future will be is being written by those who have not committed to Christ or the local community.  I am the first to say that as a pastor I have members who are central to our community who are not members.  But I am more and more deeply troubled, not because I need to control who becomes members, but rather that those who have not committed to the future are helping determine it.

In the larger Episcopal church we have let advocates and supporters write legislation and underwrite controversies with little reflection as to where the money comes from or who is holding the pen for our tomorrows.

If we are to live into a Benedictine vision of leadership we must lead by being willing to commit to people, to loving wildly, and to creating places to hear the voices of our communities, and communicating how to become members, giving authority liberally to those who commit, and to closing the doors that need to shelter those who are trying to hear the voice of God.

 

 

Walking around Whitby Abbey with Hilda and a Camera

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It was a perfect photo day in Whitby.  We drove over to see the monastery that held both Hilda and Bede, not to mention the great poet Caedmon.  It was founded originally in 657 by the Northumbrian king who appointed Hilda as abbess of the dual monastery, serving both men and women.  This was not uncommon in Celtic monasteries.

IMG_2243The monasteries founded in Scotland and Ireland between the late fifth and seventh centuries primarily came from Ireland, most by way of Columba’s monastery in Iona.  Aiden had already founded the community on Lindisfarne, which produced holy Cuthbert.  These holy islands belong to a massive missionary movement from Ireland.  From the islands the monks converted the locals to Christianity in a wave that would startle and possibly scandalize the church today.

 

 

By the time Hilda became abbess of the dual monastery at Whitby, she was expected to serve as more than a small religious community leader, she was expected and did become a force for local governance.  This expectation was surely helped by her heritage as grandniece of Edwin, king of Northumbria.  Her family certainly showed her noble heritage, but she was more than an heir of good breeding.  Bede describes her as an able administrator and teacher who seldom rested.  Her administrative skill was matched by an ability to spot and encourage others gifts, notably the aforementioned shepherd poet Caedmon.

Her baptism though in 627 had been by a Roman bishop-monk Paulinus who had come to England with Augustine and had baptized Edwin and the rest of his household.  Did that connection then effect the outcome of the Council of Whitby where the Roman system of calculating Easter and establishing Roman norms in Northumbria and later England?  There was already a strong influence through earlier Christian influences going back to Roman occupation, from which Patrick was converted and returned to Ireland two centuries before.

 

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The ruins around us on Whitby’s hill are not from Hilda’s time.  There are very few artifacts from the later monastery, easy to understand when one considers the nature of early monastic settlements, more like rustic wooden towns than the later massive stone structures of later building periods that we more often associate with monasticism.  The Benedictine monastery of the eleventh and twelfth centuries that left the beautiful ruins was not of the same character as Hilda’s abbey.

IMG_2284The later settlement by Reinfried was Benedictine and based on the gift of the site by William de Percy and included the town and port.  The port and town remained small though the influence of the newly re-founded monastery reached across Christendom because of its relics.  In the eleventh century as the church began to rely on pilgrimage and the power and pull of relics to improve both religious and economic life, the abbey was susceptible to the same temptations as the church at large.  They charged heavy fees and build magnificent buildings, driving the monastic community into debt to feed the ego of a couple of more greedy abbots, according to the English Heritage headphones we were wearing.

 

 

We come then to the growing lesson of my first few weeks in England.  The holy sites of English tradition often show this double-founding, the first founding being based on a legitimate desire to create a holy community based in a life of discipline and right-living often based in a monastic ideal, but not always strictly based on Benedict’s Rule.  St. David’s, Caldey, Lindisfarne, Iona all began in slightly different ways, but with the same marks of discipline and holiness, based in character of life.  The examples extend outward through countless other communities, early Roman, Norman, Benedictine, Augustinian, Cistercian.  They are born out of mother communities in Rome, Ireland, Scandinavia, France.  The initial foundlings are based in a genuine motivation for evangelism, holiness, and missionary motivation.

IMG_2176The success of these communities varies widely in terms of influence, wealth, and even survivability.  The rule or character varied quite a bit as well depending on who founded them and what tradition they inherited.  But they did have incredible reach in terms of the Gospel.  It is an amazing time, especially when you look back through history.

On the other hand the eleventh and twelfth centuries are marked by new monastic settlements, too.  It is remarkable the reach that those monasteries and priories had.   But what becomes clear in a few places is the greed and power-lust that accompanied certain sites, especially those re-founded on sites previously considered holy.

 

 

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The Western world could be said to relate to either time.  That is one of the tricks of writing about history.  Christianity is in decline, according to some numbers.  The world created by Christianity in the west is rapidly changing, either becoming decentralized away from its Christian center or decentralized globally becoming less central to how we view the world.  In both of those scenarios Christianity is diminished in terms of the West, either because it moving away from being a Western religion or because the West is just less religious.  In global terms, it is also true to say that just as Christendom moved from a Mediterranean center to a more northern one, so we could say that Christianity is moving east and south again and not diminishing much at all.  In that case, it just seems like it because we are no longer in the center where our faith is located.

Christianity was moving in both the fourth to sixth centuries and in the tenth to twelfth.  The question that ruins of Whitby asks of us is “What will we do here and now?”  We can claim this time as a time for holiness and evangelism to our own people and culture, or we can look back at the past and mine it for current profits.  It is remarkable to see how England and Wales have preserved the past and make a decent profit off our secular pilgrimage.

The ruins of Whitby mark a thousand years of profiting from pilgrimage.  There was a time when the monastic community could rely on the faith of the people to impel them to give almost any amount to be close to holy things.  That holy past also guaranteed a certain amount of political power that was drawn on for profit as well as to do good.  We certainly see both in our day.  In the United States we tend not to charge admission to our churches, but then we don’t have the relics to draw in the faithful.

IMG_2177But it isn’t that simple either.  We have movements within Christianity that look to the past for current holiness.  That is a similar impulse I think to the pilgrimage impulse.  Only it may be a three hundred dollar leather Bible that relies on its stilted language to convey a sense of holiness. (I am susceptible, though I can’t afford the best that Allan Bibles has to offer!)  It may be a claim back to the Westminster Covenant or the XXXIX Articles that gives us our authority, or it may be the bones of Hilda.  The pilgrimage impulse is the impulse to look to a holy past for current hope.

I am not opposed to the pilgrim, but rather to the profiteer of religion.  He uses God’s name in vain, and sublimating blasphemy through the saints is no better.  The religious profiteer turns God’s house into a den of thieves and needs exorcism in our day as well.  That is what Jesus was doing in the temple, a good old fashioned Galileean exorcism.

As a pastor I am leery of the lurking tendency to claim authority based in the past.  I have been told dozens of times in the last decade that we had to preserve history.  Now clearly, I love history.  But preserving history it not my job.  Neither is it my church musicians’ or my worship team’s or the Episcopal church’s.  It is tempting to preserve the past and sell it in decorative heritage jars.

But that temptation is satanic.  It takes us away from the true call of our day.  We are called to serve God in our day.  To be holy in our times of unholiness and rot.  To evangelize our culture.  To heal our sick.  To welcome our stranger.  And all for free.

IMG_2220Jesus was asked by the woman at the well whether it was right to worship God on this mountain (the holy site of her ancestors) or in Jerusalem (the holy site of Jesus’ ancestors).  Jesus replied, But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. (John 4, NRSV)

How do we worship God in spirit and truth?  The hour is coming and now is.  It is present time, our worship, and always must be.  We have to be really careful to tend to the holiness and love of neighbor of our day.  There is a shepherd composing poems right now in your church yard, and probably in Spanish.  Attend to his gifts, encourage his success, and celebrate his use of God’s grace in this time.

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I don’t have Hilda’s heritage of nobility.  I don’t have the support of the Northumbrian king, but I have this day.  And my job is to lead my community to worship God in it, to be holy in this hour, to love and reach out to our neighbors, secular and heathen alike.

In Whitby I was struck that the church that sold its birthright to pilgrims, fleecing those who came rather than going out to those who were in need, was the one that left such beautiful ruins and so few saints.

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