What Makes a Church a Church?

Installed newly (again) as the rector of a new congregation in the Episcopal church (it was a glorious celebration), I am troubled as usual by a question that seems to be so basic that I have to wonder about my own capacity to be in charge of anything, especially a wonder-filled community of saints. Yet here I am writing again about the most basic of concepts.

I would like to claim that being simple makes it possible for me to explain simple things. The truth is I love lofty ideas and build castles of them in the air, but then I fear that such ephemeral architecture cannot contain the wonders and the griefs of real lives and people.  So I seek the foundations of things, the grounding concepts that guide the building I am charged with, often four stories up the temple.

Okay.  So, what is a church?  What makes a church a church?  In the Episcopal tradition  we obsess a little over the idea of The Church, sometimes called “catholic” or “universal” to distinguish it from the local and temporal reality that most of us spend our lives trying to keep, build, survive, and fund.  We talk about apostolic succession and kerygma, or we put our head down and just work away at the keeping and the funding end that occupies our times and don’t ask about the basic questions because we fear that if we dropped a plumb line we might discover that we are not building square on the foundation.

The word church [ekklesia] only appears twice in the Gospels, in Matthew 16 and 18.  It shows up far more frequently in the book of Acts and the Letters of the New Testament because that is what those books are about.  Although I have spent a few weeks obsessing over word study, here we are just going to consider a distillation, so feel free to kvetch in the comments about what is left out.

Jesus seems to assume that the apostles will lead a community or communities based in the proclamation of the good news of God that Jesus proclaimed: “Grow up, change your mind/life; the Reign of God has come near to you.”  This reign would be known in a particular holiness of the apostles, in their living out of that reign, and in healing and miracles offered as signs.

A word about the word holiness: what we mean by holiness is set aside to a particular way of being in direct relationship to God’s way of being.  In Christ, holiness might be thought of as an ethical way of life that frees one to love well in the way of God.  It wouldn’t make sense to say, “I am holy because I don’t play cards.” However one may display holiness in not playing cards because they refuse to take unearned money from another or take chances with the blessings of God for no purpose.  A man is not holy because he does not drink alcohol, but abstaining from alcohol because it may lead another to fail is holy. Not doing stuff doesn’t make you holy.  But you might not do stuff because you want to love well and are therefore being holy.

Jesus sums up this ethic of his disciples in the word agape that we translate usually as “love” today or “charity” in the King James Bible.  It is helpful in our day to distinguish a little here.  It is commonly stated, even from pulpits, that it should not be illegal to love someone, by which we usually mean something about sex and marriage, or at least, romance.  Whether we agree with that statement or not, it is important to point out that when Jesus commands his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you” he is talking about something tied deeply to service or charity, the self-giving love that one person pours out for the good of someone else, not feeling but action.  It is a love that costs the giver something, not a love that is getting something.

We are to be a people who wash each others feet, or as Paul says in slightly more relatable way, Outdo one another in showing honor.  We are to forgive freely, give openhandedly, and to pour out ourselves for each other.  By this the world will know that we are his disciples.

So let me summarize what I have learned from Scripture:

  • A church is made of disciples of Jesus.
  • Those disciples love each other; they fellowship and serve each other.
  • A church proclaims the reign of God in love and service, and in miracles and healing.

If you want to be a member of the church, you must be a disciple of Jesus.  Anything else is fraud.  We are sometimes nice to the point of being liars about this.  The last twenty years of my life have confirmed that when the church is made up of anything less than disciples of Jesus, we toil away trying to be something like a church, but we are always toiling and always coming up short, sometimes horribly short.

The church today is often made up of worshippers rather than disciples.  Let’s blame someone else for that, O Sons and Daughters of Adam.  In my experience it is harder to convert a worshipper to a disciple than it is to convert a lost person, even a really really terrible lost person, to being a disciple.  The good is the enemy of the great, as the saying goes.  We become satisfied with worship, which is a good thing.  But then we don’t follow Jesus in the details of our non-worshipping life.

When I worship I feel good.  I know that it is a good thing to do, and I sincerely believe that God made us to worship.  But our worship in the church is to be simple and direct, not being too wordy, “because your Father in heaven knows what you need before you even ask.”  And worship is never wrong: God is always worthy.  But throughout the Bible we read that our worship is not always worthy.  And when it is isn’t worthy it is for two reasons, insincerity and injustice.  When we praise God but then do not grow or act on the law, our worship confirms our condemnation.  (That sounded really reformed.  Sorry, just being Biblical.)

Jesus never really commands us to worship.  He commands us to pray and assumes that we will worship.  I think he can safely assume that because we are made for it, but he commands us to love God and our neighbor as ourself, and to love one another.  He commands us to serve one another, forgive sins, and to proclaim the Gospel.  He points time and again to true worship being care of the least, just like the Law and the Prophets.

I am a remedial priest, as I said above.  I admit it.  Two churches ago, I was caught up short when I realized that I assumed that my parishioners were faithfully praying and studying the Bible and getting to know Jesus.  I assumed that they were disciples and that they knew how to be disciples.  I was wrong, and it was terrible to me to realize it.  In my last assignment I began to realize that I suck at fellowship.  I assume that people love each other and spend time together.  I am classic introvert who serves in a public role.  I can be present for a reason or for a greater good, but then I have to recharge.  I never think, “O we should just get together and be together for fun.”  For fun I go run in dangerous places, camp alone in the wilderness, and read books.  (Nonfiction, of course.)

I completely undervalue fellowship.  My mentor in the priesthood, the Very Rev. Rebecca McClain is a masterful hostess who tried to pass along to me that a good priest is a great host of meals.  Crap.  Sorry, Rebecca.  I am still learning.

Our family eats together.  It is religious to us, our keeping of mealtimes.   No phones, no television or media, except once a week when we have pizza night and watch a show together.  But outside of our family, we live a very American home life, isolated in our enclave of a home.  Two introverts plus children trying to counterbalance a very public ministry existence means we protect our homespace.

My grandfather, on the other hand, negotiated with my grandmother that he didn’t care what she made as long as she always made enough to share in case he brought someone home with him, which he often did.  That is good church.

A healthy church fellowships together. The disciples of the church eat together and hang around each other.  They have fun together and learn together.  They pray for each other and study together.  They know each other and love each other.

I always considered this a bonus, icing on the theological cake of the ekklesia.  I was wrong. Agape assumes knowledge of the other. Jesus commands his disciples to abide in him and so in the Father.  If we are going to live in Christ together, we must fellowship for that to have reality.  Think of fellowship as purposeful hanging out to the glory of God.

Finally that brings us to purpose or mission.  What is the mission of the church?  This is one of those million-dollar questions with a ten cent answer.  The mission of the church is to be the community of disciples of Jesus and to equip the believers to know, love, and serve each other and the world in Christ.

I cannot justify anything else from the Bible.  We have this page in the catechism of the Book of Common Prayer:

The Church
Q. What is the Church?
A. The Church is the community of the New Covenant.

Q. How is the Church described in the Bible?
A. The Church is described as the Body of which Jesus Christ is the Head and of which all baptized persons are members. It is called the People of God, the New Israel, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, and the pillar and ground of truth.

Q. How is the Church described in the creeds?
A. The Church is described as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

Q. Why is the Church described as one?
A. The Church is one, because it is one Body, under one Head, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Q. Why is the Church described as holy?
A. The Church is holy, because the Holy Spirit dwells in it, consecrates its members, and guides them to do God’s work.

Q. Why is the Church described as catholic?
A. The Church is catholic, because it proclaims the whole Faith to all people, to the end of time.

Q. Why is the Church described as apostolic?
A. The Church is apostolic, because it continues in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles and is sent to carry out Christ’s mission to all people.

Q. What is the mission of the Church?
A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Q. How does the Church pursue its mission?
A. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.

Q. Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
A. The church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.

This wonderfully summarizes what I found in Scripture, except with that The Church focus I mentioned earlier.  The mission of the church is restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ, and it does this as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.

I have two critiques of this statement, which I also really appreciate.  One, there is no mention of the Reign or Kingdom of God, which has a reality to it that unity depends upon.  We are one because we are living into the Reign of God.  It is not mere unity. Our unity has an ethos, a way of being that is demanded in the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament.

And the second criticism is that it says “promotes” which is a sloppy word that has lead us to hypocrisy, or maybe it just codifies it.  We are not to promote but to be just, peaceful, and loving.  Only then can we promote anything.  Otherwise, we can be horrible people in our promotion of something we call justice or peace or love.

We are not to promote, we are to proclaim and be the Reign of God by being disciples in communion with each other, loving God and each other, and serving as he served us.

At Christ Church of the Ascension, I am working to articulate this in clear and accessible ways and to put in place concrete “holy habits” to embody the truth in actions.

  • We are disciples of Jesus who know him through Lectio Divina and prayer lives centered in the Daily Office
  • We are disciples of Jesus who love him by worshipping him and by loving each other in fellowship.
  • We are disciples of Jesus who serve him by serving one another and our neighbors in generous acts of giving and manual acts and by proclaiming the reign of God in our being just, peaceful, and loving.

So I keep and teach the Daily Office and traditional worship, read and study the Bible and teaching and modeling Lectio Divina, and am open to fellowship after services and at weekly teas (even taking up golf as a chance to be with other believers), and serving others, especially in being generous with the poor and needy and other members of the church, any church, because God is one, even if we are many.

Am I missing something?  Someone will say “salvation,” I suppose.  But that belongs to the Lord, at least for today.

In Christ,



Thanks for reading and sharing.

Being Installed as Rector (again)

On Sunday, I will be installed as the rector of Christ Church of the Ascension in Paradise Valley, Arizona.  This is my twentieth year in ordained ministry – if you count my Southern Baptist ordination.

The Bishop will come and read a letter of institution and then, because this church is cool, he will confirm five teenagers and an adult before I receive the signs of my vocation and ministry in this place.

We are an ancient church, and so we sometimes do things in an ancient way.  We kneel and bow, we wear layers of fabric, some of it embroidered, and we speak to each other in prescripted ways.  Watching the installation/ordination of a bishop a few years ago in a gymnasium, it all looked so preposterous.  On Sunday we will be in a sanctuary that will make it feel far less so.

Yet it is preposterous isn’t it?  It is an odd thing to do things this way in an age when we could tweet out an announcement and make it official.  We could just say, “it is so,” and it would be so.  I know a lot of pragmatists who would vote for that.

But the ritual does something, doesn’t it?  I mean, I don’t think that God needs the ritual.  We need it.  We need the movement and the spelling out of roles and responsibilities, a community entering into vowed relationship with a leader in a way that spells out somethings about how we wish to be together and what our roles are in that being together.

This is neither of our first marriages.  This congregation has had strong leaders before me and will have more long after me.  I have led other communities, and there is no guaranty that this will be my last one.  (I am still not too old.)  But here we agree to enter into vowed relationship, a covenant of ministry and service.

Like a marriage or a baptism, we are making promises and trading symbols.  A Bible, prayer book, stole, water, bread, wine.  I promise to proclaim the Gospel again to them, and I hope that they will hear it and see it in my life.  I promise to pastor them and lead them in sacramental moments.  And I do all of this under their eyes and the bishop’s eyes.

We do all of this before God.  I have come to take more seriously over the years the power of promises and vows.  They have the power to shape and transform our lives in their keeping.  Yes, we all fall short of them.  But we stand back up, and begin again.

We are promising on Sunday, we these newly confirmed, to keep our baptismal covenant, to be ambassadors for another country, where peace and justice are a way of life, where God-in-Jesus is king, and where we treat every human being as a brother or sister, fellow heirs of Creation and caretakers of the world.  It is a strange job to be a church, and a strange job to be the pastor of one.

Pray for us on Sunday and come join us if you can.  It will be glorious and odd, ancient ritual in a contemporary world.  If you come a little early, we can practice bowing together.

Juggling Chainsaws on a Treadmill

SEARS Chainsaw

Craftsman 42cc

I hate treadmills.  I kicked the front off of the first one I ever tried in a box gym years ago, and I have since struggled to find my stride on them.  Give me the danger and the dance of the trail anytime over the mundane plodding of the endless rubber mat.

This week is a treadmill week.  The rubber mat of my week keeps coming like the tread on the mill continually renewed and refreshed, while I keep bouncing along trying not to kick anything over.

Acedia is one of those underused old words.  It means spiritual sloth or apathy.  The danger of treadmill weeks is that we keep putting in the work without the spiritual self investment that makes the work worthwhile.

Our work, even holy work, becomes toil, endlessly chasing that which will never satisfy. And the wiser my soul gets the faster she realizes that I won’t be satisfied, but neither can I get off the treadmill.  I cannot walk away from the work on weeks like this, because the work is both mine and meaningful to the people I serve.

Whether your work is church work or parenting, banking or grave digging, you have had weeks like this.  It is one of the afflictions of life.  I want to write “modern life,” but the truth is that acedia has been a popular affliction for a long time.  The spiritual masters write about it as often as sexual temptation.

Benedict’s prescription is two-fold: love and humility.  These two are embodied in our service of others and in our tears in prayer.  On weeks like this, I have to be diligent in my focus on serving others.  The moment my internal eye turns inward, I am caught in bitterness rooted in pride and self-pity.

But when I can keep my attention on my wife and children, on my parishioners, the poor and needful, even just on the waiter who brings my food, the more easily my perspective slips back to divine alignment. My motivation returns to love of others.

Humility is mid-wife to happiness.  This is not an idea I could have even articulated earlier in my life.  I often turn to God in tears over my shortcomings and sins.  I know my limits all to well and turn to God in prostration and tears.  Benedict has several references to tears that shocked me at first encounter with the Rule.

Really, how often do I cry in prayer?  But over the years as my realization of the reach of our lives and our potential as God’s children has become more real, so has the weight and pain of my failures.  And as counterintuitive as it may seem, nothing cures acedia as quickly as humility and tears of compunction.  I rise from the floor ready to go back to work, seeing others as holy and godly despite their faults and mine.

So what do I mean by chainsaws?  Beyond the danger of acedia, some weeks throw chainsaws at you.  This week it was a young woman’s death and another homeless person whom I simply can’t reach.  It is a budget shortfall and a visit with the bishop.  These moments require acute attention and focus that seem beyond my reach on a treadmill.

I want so badly to stop the flow of life and deal with each of these vital issues, but what I do instead is learn to focus on the run.  I catch and let the momentum throw the chainsaw back into the air, so I can let it go and catch the next one.  And let it go and catch the next one.

And learn that love sustains us for a while, a long while beyond the limits of what we think we can do.  Slowly these chainsaws will get set down one at a time, and there will be a time of rest.  Soon.  Soon.

Bless the runner, Lord, with an end to the trail in green pastures and beside still waters.

What we leave in our wake

The last six months have been filled with changes for my family and me.  In August we went from having a resume out but assuming we would be in Traverse City for another few years to getting one call back after another to return to the deserts of Arizona.

Those calls turned into visits, an offer, affirmation from the bishop, quick sell of one home and purchase of another, packing, discarding, and driving.  We celebrated Christmas in Phoenix for the first time in eight years with my family and began a new ministry at Christ Church of the Ascension.  I am writing from my office overlooking desert and our memorial garden and parish hall.  Surrounded again by books and icons, I am beginning to get enough traction to stop and process.

Leaving a parish is always hard.  I did it very poorly when I left Phoenix all those years ago, and I was determined to do it right when I left Traverse City.  Then the call came.  There was misbehavior at the parish before I arrived, and it had not been handled well, so we spent a year behind the scenes trying to see justice done and protect victims.  It was horrible.  But in the end, justice and mercy seemed to kiss, and we began to move forward. Between my announcing my leaving and actually being gone, the man involved was reinstated to ministry and moved to a nearby town.

Meanwhile a ministry bought our home that provides housing for those in recovery.  I had supported the ministry in its inception because it was so sorely needed in our area. And we have watched the absolute devastation that addiction leaves behind.

We drove away as we had planned for two months leaving in our wake two forest fires, one I had done everything I could to put out before and prevent from ever happening again and one we believed would be good for the place we loved but left.

Our lives leave wakes, and the deeper we run our boats the deeper and more lasting the effects.  My wife and I have lain awake at night praying for and hoping for good to come out of these events that we had important but only partial roles in.  We both worry about the legacy we left behind.

As a priest and pastor, my one calling is to build to Rule of God as best I can through preaching, teaching, and pastoral care.  Did I make disciples? Will they last? Will the community that I shepherded these last seven years stay together until a new shepherd comes?  What will their work be?  And what work did I leave them to do?

What is my wake?

I want to say that I can act without thought of consequence the way that Patanjali advised in his yoga sutras, that somehow I can act purely and in perfect trust in God’s greater providence.  I try.  I comfort myself that I pursued justice and mercy and sheltered the victims, that I acted in best interest for all and not merely for my self or my family.  I comfort myself with memories of what was said and what was meant, what was actually done and what I could not do.

But then I sit on the trailing edge of my perception and watch the wake of my work wash over the shores of people’s lives and pray that I got it right and that I can be forgiven for what cannot be undone.

In the wake of our lives is where so much of the effects of who we are and what we have done actually takes effect, yet so often we watch the bow of the boat cutting the waves in front and spend our hours navigating the way ahead, attentive to storms and enjoying the calm waters but rarely turning around to see what we are actually doing.

Transitions give us a chance to meditate on the long term effects of our decisions.  I lament the people in Michigan I won’t get to baptize or bury, give communion to this week, or send off to college in a decade.  I miss people desperately. But more, my pastoral heart hopes that the wake I have cut through the church will not erode the best of her people nor simply dissipate without a trace.

How do you plan a wake?  I am not sure after all that you can plan a wake.  I looked back with some pride that after that first year we had salvaged relationships and kept people safe, instituted changes to prevent any new abuses, and created a culture of welcome and safety, while protecting a sense of service to the stranger.  I could not plan for what I did not see coming, though maybe I should have.

The problem is that, by definition, you can’t attend your own wake.

We have to act as purely as we can, acknowledging our limits, but also charting carefully where we go.  Our lives after all leave a sure wake, just as a boats does in the face of the sea.

I think the appeal of a rule like the Rule of Benedict is that we have guidance for the mundane decisions and practiced line for the uncharted waters.

Many of the wake-leaving decisions of the last ten years of ministry were mundane decisions about time and attention.  There were quick decisions, unplanned answers to on-the-spot questions that may not have seemed important until much later.  This is where guidance is so necessary and hard to find.  In ministry, as I suppose in most intentional callings, we work in the depths or at least over the depths of people’s lives and relationships with other people and with God.  The mundane questions, even secular ones, have the potential  to have deep repercussions that we cannot afford to ignore.

We also cannot afford to slow ever tie-down of a sail down to a group discernment process.  We have to make decisions and make them well.  So having guiding principles and practices makes it far more likely that we can stay on course and keep the sails in the Spirit’s winds.

Two quick examples from the Rule.  As abbot, always consult, and always make the decisions that are yours to make.  I like to take my time and think about things.  The problem is that no matter how long I think, I only have one brain, one set of ears, one life of experience.  But, when I consult with others, I open up whole new avenues of thought and wisdom.  Even if it is just asking my wife what she thinks, or even asking the person presenting the question for their thoughts, better always involves more perspective.  And yet, the decision is mine to make and mine to own.  Better to be a sinner who repents than a righteous person who makes everyone’s life hell in the office.  I often think blame is what got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden.  Given the rest of the book, if they had just taken responsibility, God may have relented.

The second example is stability. Benedict insists that we are stable, not moving from place to place.  This principle of the Rule extends down into regular decision making.  I default to staying the course unless strongly guided to do otherwise.  It is not always right, but it is really helpful in rough waters.  I have rarely seen a wise path, well tested, lead astray.  It is usually when we look for an easier, less disciplined approach that we go wrong.  If the path we are one is good, then it should only be left for something demonstrably wiser and better to get us toward our original goal.

In the two issues above, both the church and home, I consulted all the people I could in both pursuing justice and in selling our home.  We kept to the course of protecting the innocent and speaking the truth.  Now some seem to think we could have done it better or differently, and they may be right.  I really don’t know.  But I know that I did all I could at the time.  We stayed within the law, but I was not afraid to speak difficult truth to those involved.  In selling our home, we consulted with others and prayed for what was right, but we also chose to keep our family out of the controversy.  I put them through enough this last few months.

We make our choices, we set our course, and then we have to watch our wake from the boat pulling away and pray that the grace we have shown to others will be shown to us, if not in this life, then in the next.