Welcome, Worship, Study, Serve plus Witness and Stewardship

A Model for the Christian life both individual and communal.

Over the last decade I have struggled with how to teach a model of the Christian life that is useful both for catechesis and for community life.  I have struggled too with a national church church that simply seems to be more interested in being a cultural lobby than being a support for the disciples on the ground of faith.  We produce far better statements on social issues than on theologically meaningful materials for our parishioners.

And yes, I mean parishioners.  We serve a parish, but we are a congregation.  We say almost nothing to the world outside our doors as a church institution, but maybe in an age of personality it is a better witness to be silent and let our character speak for itself.  My fear is that we are ashamed of our character and fear who may speak for our personality.  How is our character shaped as a people of God?  How do we become people of God, and how do we become a people of God?

This frustration really came to a head on a Wednesday night in Phoenix when a leader, vestry member later senior warden, sat in a How to Lead a Prayer class, which I had to fall back on my most basic notes for due to an afternoon that fell apart.  So I used the Lord’s Prayer as a simple model of personal prayer, and then looked at how to lead others for maybe five minutes at the end.  In wrapping up, Christine looked up at me with wet eyes and said, This is the first time in my life that I feel like I actually know what to do when I sit down to pray tonight.  Now I had been her priest for more than a day.  She had grown up in the church, but she was a regular member.  And no one had taught her to pray.  I hadn’t taught her to pray.

I realized something that has become a hall mark of my ministry.  We don’t know what we are doing.  Richard Rohr says the problem with the church is that unconverted people are trying to convert people.  Amen, right?  But it is larger than that.  We are not disciples of Jesus, and we are not teaching other people to be disciples of Jesus.  We are worshippers.  We are people who serve other people.  But we are not disciples.

Or I should say, “were not.”  Over the last six years here at Grace, Traverse City, we have been working out of a model of ministry that took our existing functions as a church and looked at them through the lens of discipleship.  I took the ministries of Grace on Post-It notes on a board and moved them around and around to find a way to tell our story.  Then I took those categories and prayed about a Christian life.  We rolled it out in our children’s program first, then the Vestry adopted this proposed ministry statement.

As Episcopal Christians we
Worship at home daily and together weekly;
Study the Scriptures, our tradition, and what it means to be a disciple today;
Serve our families, our parish, and our world in the name of Christ.

Everything we do is done with an ethic of Welcome
because we are only here by Grace.

Now, almost immediately, I wanted to add that “We Witness to the Gospel of God in Jesus in our lives, with words if necessary, and we Steward this place of resurrection and new life in Christ’s name.”

As I teach what it means to live a Christian life, and I begin to look at a model for teaching churches how to be a blessed community of faith, I have come to see these six categories as encompassing a pretty complete model of the Christian life.  No it doesn’t cover fellowship, but I think if we do these things fellowship will happen.

This is the six things I think every member of the church should be able to explain how they do them in their own life.  It is the model I hold up for myself and our staff.  It is my family’s model, even if we fail at a couple of those things.

I am coming to see that welcome is not enough.  This can be a cover for some other statement, but I think it is imperative that the Christian community go out and seek the lost.  We cannot love our enemies in any real way from over here on my couch.  But it is a creepier mission statement to say “We stalk the lost.”  But it sounds good now that I write it.

What do you think?  Does this model cover the Christian life?  Does it cover your church community’s life?  I can tell you that we are growing and have year over year these last six years, and I don’t think it has all that much to do with me.  The model points to a reality that the church has to come to terms with: we are only as healthy as our community is a community of disciples.  Our faith as a community in only as real as the Gospel lived in our members lives.  Our witness is not made on marches but in the marshes where we live our lives.

I am coming to see more clearly that the national church, if such a thing matters at all, has to look to the pews for its purpose and meaning.  Lobbying can do good things, and it can do them while the church that makes its name matter dies around it.  We have to live a real faith that will change our country and our world.  I know our church is international, but its character here in the United States is really definitive here.  And we need to address our character before we pretend to have a personality that can show itself in the world.

Character is made in the quiet places where we gather to worship, read our Bibles, and serve soup on a cold day.  Character gives up the seat to the poor man and rises on the bus for the woman who just doesn’t want to sit in the back anymore.  Character says I would die for you, even while you kill me.

This Rule is Only a Beginning of Perfection

The reason we have written this rule is that, by observing it in monasteries, we can show that we have some degree of virtue and the beginning of monastic life.  Ch. 73 of the Rule of Benedict

Where would we begin a Rule for the local church?  I think this question is vital for our time.  Benedict begins his prologue with “Listen, my son, to the instructions of a master . . . ” but his first chapter begins with a description of the kinds of monks and so what kind of life he is addressing.  What equivalent place would we begin?

I think I would begin the instruction to any church with a basic orientation to the Rule of God revealed in Christ.  But again, so large a thing must be taken in bites.  I would begin the Rule with God, who is this God revealed in Christ?  I have written about that here on Hidden Habits several times.  But I think with that basic theological statement must come the two anthropological statements of Scripture, that God loves humanity and that we have a calling in the world to be God’s image, God’s children, emissaries.

In the Christianity of our day, those two statements seem most important for unity and clarity.  Unity because, whatever else we may define ourselves by, we are all claiming by the name that we are following Jesus.  Clarity because we must define carefully who we are talking to and what we assume behind our talking.

Christians are baptized into the body of Christ, into the Spirit of God, given new life, new humanity, and new covenant.  But we are called into the world that God loves and that Christ died for, that the Spirit created and will someday renew completely.  We are not enemies of the world.  If the world does not love us, it is because it does not love Christ, but that doesn’t change that Christ died for it and rose again.  We are to love the world doggedly, relentlessly, because we belong to Christ, because we have faith in God, because we trust the Spirit to provide all we need.

Our Rule is only an agreement of how we will work together, how we will give flesh and goals to this way of living.  It does not guarantee perfection, in deed it cannot.  We will fail.  That is okay.  The love of God is not dependent on our ability to meet expectations, thank God.  What else could be meant by,  “. . . while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  But we are not to remain as we are, but rather to be transformed by the Spirit at work within us, and the Rule at work without.

So with these parameters, let us begin our Rule:

There is one God, the Creator who made us and who is made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.  God loves the world and has set us free in Christ and is renewing us in his Spirit to be a royal priesthood, a people set apart to bear God’s image of love, grace, forgiveness, justice and peace in the world.  We are to be a people of prayer who know and love God and serve the world calling the whole creation back to the Creator, living in the resurrection that has begun in our Lord.

There are seven activities for every one who would follow this Rule with us as we seek to live into the Rule of God as revealed in Jesus and held by the church.  We are to be a people of witness and stewardship, who welcome, worship, study and serve in the name of Christ, living not for ourselves alone but for him who died and rose for us.

Here at Grace, we are a congregation within the Episcopal branch of that great mustard plant of the church.  We are shaped by its worship, doctrine, and discipline, and we hold that this church is and must be in continuity with the root stock of God in Christ and the teachings and fellowship of the apostles.  We affirm baptism in water and the Holy Spirit as the only entrance into the church and the eucharist meal as the sign and seal of our life and discipleship in Jesus the Christ.

So what do you think?  What would you change?  How would you begin a Rule for a community in our day and age?

Why Study Theology as a non-Specialist?

Theology is not popular.  It is not a subject that elicits dinner invitations and offers for a beer, at least not outside of my circle of pastor and theologian friends.  I was called a god-geek once by a friend, and I was devastated.  I really thought everyone cared about third century christological statements.  I was wrong.

But you should care about theology; you have one.  A theology is a framework of information or a lens that you wear.  You may not think too much about it, but you already see the world through a framework or lens that has God on it.  The word “theology” means “thoughts about God” or “logic or structure about God.”  Logos is one of those helpful words to know.  It gets interpreted as “Word” in the beginning of the Gospel of John, but it means something much larger.  It is a big idea, an organizing principle, an order, a way of being or understanding.  The world is ordered and understood through this “word.”

A brilliant physicist and friend, also poet, philosopher, and theologian in his own right, Ke Chiang Hsieh, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Arizona, gave me a gift of calligraphy.  After a sermon in which I compared the concept of the logos to the tau, he wrote out the first verses of the Way of Chuang Te with the word logos in the place of the word tau in Chinese.  It is the way that makes the walker.

An example is coffee to the connoisseur.  The connoisseur loves coffee, to the point that he understands the world through it.  He learns to drink wine by cupping coffee, to understand terroir by how understanding how different plants in the environment and procedures of processing affect the final cup.  He thinks of the church in terms of the cafe.  He thinks of mission in the church . . . You get the idea.  Everything gets filtered through the lens of the one thing.  That thing is a logos.  It is a word, “coffee”, but it is also a way of ordering and understanding the world.

So theology is essentially seeing the world through one word, in this case, God.  In particular for Christians, God as revealed in Christ and made manifest in the Holy Spirit through the stories and writings, histories, poetries, and letters of the Bible.

So why work at theology if is such a natural thing? You already see the world through a God lens right now.  The problem is that our lenses get easily distorted by events and natural wear and habits.

For example, God is often understood as “father.”  This is true of our teachings from Jesus, but even more so just naturally in a world where fathers have often been in charge and the title is used for the ones who are influential.  It was true in Jesus’ day.  When a father-figure fails, especially our biological father, it usually distorts our image of God, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, even physically.  To do a little theological work to separate our image of God from our experience of fathers is to delve deeply into the multi-faceted importance of theology.  We may still use the image of father as a way of talking about God, but not use Father as a proxy for God.  Or we may have to say we cannot use that image anymore.  We could spend years on this one topic.

There is a natural wear and tear to the lenses that we have.  I am a runner and a physical person.  I think about running, I obsess about my next pair of shoes, I plan runs.  I have opinions.  Those thoughts, obsessions, and opinions about running may seem unrelated to my thoughts about God, but they wear away at my theology.  I see God through my running too, and as my running self gets beat up or more in shape, my running thinking is changed, and that can wear on my vision of God.  I have gotten in better shape over the last ten years, and it would be easy to say that God is in getting in better shape because I have an easier time seeing God when I am not struggling with my body.  Or worse, I can let my being in shape be an idol to replace God.  I can let having better abs become more important than seeking the Rule of God.  In every case, it is theological work to separate and see clearly, then speak clearly a word about God that is more true.

Finally opinions.  I have opinions about lots of things.  My teacher when I was young used to say, Your recognition of the essential nature of the universe does not change the universe or its essential nature.  You ability to name the tau does not change the path, only your ability to walk it and enjoy the journey.  My opinions do not change things.  They are important to recognize, but they are not the thing itself or even reflective of it.  They are rarely really important.  The buddha would call them suffering, and these days I mostly agree.  Jesus would say, Do not judge, and I am trying more and more to submit.  Theology is not about having more opinions.

We learn theology.  In Owen C. Thomas’s and Ellen K. Wondra’s Introduction to Theology they begin the first page with a reminder than in the Anglican tradition, the Christian tradition, theology is about the Bible and the actual story and history and writings of the Hebrew and Christ-following people of God.  We are people of a way, and we are trying to name the way.  Ultimately all words about God fail, more surely than my words about my wife fall short of one smile from her.

But we do theology so that we can see clearly and speak clearly and walk the path with less stumbling.  I am deeply indebted to teachers and writers, pilgrims, travelers, and saints who have walked the way before me and left signs and markers, creeds and writings, that keep me on the way to the Rule of God.

That is the landscape we travel in and our hope, is it not?  To live in the Rule and Reign of God, the God revealed in Jesus to be love and shalom and justice.  To speak of that home that is our home and is not yet our home?

I love theology like I love poetry.  They both teach me what can be said in the space between our beautiful utterances show me glimpses of the places where others have been, where I have been, and where we can go.