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?

Living a Prophetic Advent

Living a Prophetic Advent in Times Hungry for Prophets
Advent has come again: the season of prophets and promises, longing and hope. Living after Pentecost, we people of Jesus are always in a season of Advent, in a way. On the other hand, the promises and hope that we remember in the prophets and the story of Advent are fulfilled already. The Rule of God has come in the person of Jesus and is the lived reality of his church. (Or it is supposed to be.)

This year we in the United States have been starkly reminded of the “not yet” of our hope. In many ways the reminders around the world have been pretty stark: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, ISIL, Hong Kong, Ferguson, New York, Berkeley. We live in a moment that is hungry for a word from God. We live in a time hungry for God’s salvation and justice.

It is easy as a Christian to want to wrap a blanket of nostalgic theology and pageantry around our faith and settle in to watch the snow outside the window and maybe a little Charlie Brown or Jimmy Stewart. But this is a season of prophets: of holy wilderness rather than comfortable living rooms, of robes of righteousness rather than snuggies.

But I am not in Ferguson or New York. I am not in Syria or Bethlehem. How do I live into this season of prophets in my comfortable living room and the gentle snows of my northern Michigan home?

The Christian life, every Christian life, is a witness to reality, either God’s or the world’s reality. We bear witness with the choices we make wherever we are. I have to choose to bear witness to God’s Rule. It may not be great because my situation does not demand greatness, but it is essential nonetheless if the people here are to hear God’s Word spoken and have their world transformed.

I have a choice at the grocery store and in the library, in my practices of Advent and my driving as to what I bear witness to. In the Bible Jesus never demands that we believe in the virgin birth, rather he tells us how to live. We are to be humble and just, merciful and forgiving, loving and endlessly reaching out to others in grace.

This must be the essence of our Advent; to live this way must be at the heart of our worship and our practices. I am to tell the truth and love others. I am to speak wholesome words and build up those who are torn down. I am to be just and merciful in my business.

Imagine an Advent when black and Hispanic people were treated fairly and justly by white people in the United States, not just because of laws but out of real love and faith. Imagine being a police officer who tried to do his job and had people forgive them when they overreacted or failed, who was loved even as they administered justice. Imagine being forgiven at work and encouraged at home. Imagine being treated as a human being.

We have come such a long way in the last four hundred years as a nation, but it is very clear this year that we have a long way to go. What role can the church play in helping the United States move toward justice and mercy? I am not sure that the answer is going to be offered by our political parties or our political binaries? We may have to dream again, but I know that it will begin where Jesus did, in the hearts, souls, and minds of those of us who follow him being changed.

We have to bear witness to a God of grace and mercy and justice and provision in our everyday decisions and actions. This witness may be costly. We will probably get taken advantage of and ridiculed and challenged, but not much. Keep it in perspective. I bear witness in a really safe place. I have angered people and been called names, but I do not fear for my life or even my job.

One of our witness points for the church in my town, made up of all our different denominations and congregations, is in housing the homeless during the harsh winter months in our buildings. It costs us convenience and building maintenance, odors and space. Sometimes it costs us comfort and safety. It has cost us very rarely in theft and harassment. But every time we face some change in costs, we get anxious. Someone will question whether it is worth the costs, but it always comes back to a simple expectation. “I was hungry and you fed me.”

We house and serve the homeless and poor, the drunks and the hungry, the rich and the well off, Republicans and Democrats, the calm and the angry, the yogi and the banker, the believer and the wanderer. We are all of those things in our little church, and in our church we are none of them. We are the witnesses of a different world where God is calling us all to the table, to serve and love each other in worship to him who comes to us again in Bethlehem and Ferguson, and even in Traverse City. In our faithfulness we bear witness by living humbly and justly, mercifully and forgiving, loving, and endlessly reaching out to others in grace whether they can pay us back or not, whether they join us in this new world or not.

We are prophets of promises already fulfilled and still not yet.

None of this seems like enough when our neighbors are being shot or choked in the streets, when our incarceration rates and arms productions surpass every other nation, when extremists are taking over nations and our media, when we face wars and rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes and signs throughout the world. But this is the way of Jesus, to live a new reality as we hope for it, to risk the small costs and the large ones, to love our neighbor and bear witness as we pursue justice and mercy.

In our love we become bearers of the Word of God, like Mary on her donkey following Joseph to Bethlehem without a room waiting for them, displaced by an unjust act of government, and yet singing the song of God in the wilderness between dangers, pregnant with hope and a new reality.

We begin where we are, living bold lives of love and service, like candles against the night.  It may be your place to take to the streets and protest, but it is surely all of our time to reach out to our neighbors and have dinner with them, to stop and thank a police officer for their service in these hard days and offer mercy to those who don’t seem to get it just right, knowing how much forgiveness we have required of others and of God.  We all have to choose a prophetic Advent.

May our parties and our dinners and our worship services and our letters and presents and ministries this Advent be prophetic, declaring God’s wild and unmerited love in a world that is suffering again.

Coming to the Table – Remembering Christ with your Family and Friends

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In our last reflection we considered the Office as it relates to the Father, Abba, as we join in the church’s worship.  It is the cornerstone of the Anglican-Benedictine way of forming disciples.  I know that is counter-intuitive for Episcopalians and other liturgical churches.  We handed daily faithfulness off to the evangelical world through our low-church brothers and sisters and then forgot after the liturgical revolution of the past forty years.

We elevated the Eucharist to the center of our common life and after the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, we made the Daily Office difficult and frustrating to use.  I wanted to learn the Office as a Baptist convert in the 1990’s.  I wanted to learn.  I was motivated.  AND I was educated.  My undergraduate degree was Creative Arts in Worship.  I read Dom Gregory Dix for fun.  And yet I was utterly frustrated by the 1979 BCP and started printing off daily prayers from the internet!

Church Publishing, if you are reading along, I would love a BCP-based Breviary that is formatted for Daily Prayer.  I don’t want something all that new.  I want a simple formatted Breviary.  I will do it.  Just call.

But that isn’t our focus today.  Let’s go back to the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is the “great thanksgiving” in Greek.  It is called Communion or the Mass or the Lord’s Supper, and it is at the center of our communal life.  I love the Eucharist.  Don’t let the first couple of paragraphs fool you.

The thing is that we are in a funny place recently where we are trying to use the Eucharist in order to welcome people into church.  And that is like meeting a new friend as a couple by inviting them into your bedroom.  The Eucharist is the most intimate thing that disciples do.

We follow Jesus.  Jesus had his disciples, and on his last free night before facing trials and ultimately death, he had a meal with them that was remembered as a Passover meal.  This meal was the place where he took bread and wine and gave it to his friends and fellow brothers and sisters, blessing them and giving instructions to share the meal together to remember him.

The Greek word for “to remember” is anamnesis.  Plato considered the act of remembering as the only way that one could experience the real world beyond forms.  This is not necessarily what Jesus had in mind, but the concept is helpful.  When we remember we are bringing the fullness of our master to mind.

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If Jesus and his teachings are our master or king, rabbi, lord, then we are subjects who are defined by the master.  The master is not a popular concept in American culture, so we have lost some direct implications of what this means for us.  I discovered these ideas looking at the archetypes around king images and monarchist cultures.  These ideas are evident out as you look at the Mediterranean and Biblical cultural studies and early Roman and Greek literature.

The king defines identity for the subject.  The king defines ethos.  The king defines relationships, ethics, ways of interacting, what is acceptable and what is not.  The king defines the world within the kingdom.  (I know this language is masculine, but it is the most common. It is true of queens too.)

The ruler defines the ruled.  This runs directly counter to our culture.  I know.  So as a disciple we come to remembrance to recall our salvation, but also to re-enter the world of our Maker and Master.  We re-enter the space where the kingdom is present, where we are children of God, in direct relationship as brothers and sisters provided for and forgiven, healed and set free to love others as we are loved by God.

To step into such a world together is renewing and helps to make us whole.  We hear the stories of our faith, pray as the priesthood family of God, and we remember our Lord in the meal and prayer that is the Eucharist.  It is our internal reality, the reality that we trust in and believe in as we walk in the world that does not agree with those statements or that reality.

It is this that creates the tension around the open table movement.  On the one hand, we are remembering Jesus whose messiahship was modeled in eating at the table with people from all different walks of life, a model that the church picked up and was persecuted for in the early centuries as much as the idea of cannibalism.  On the other, the Eucharist is a re-enactment of this final meal and has a component of remembrance that defines our reality.

At the very least the church should be honest about what we are doing for our members and for visitors.  But I have come to rest more and more uneasily with the movement to make our sacraments a portable portal for all comers.  I don’t think that they are actually being brought in with any real honesty or fidelity because on some level we don’t take what we are doing seriously or we don’t take their participation seriously.  They are being asked to enter a different reality and accept ethos, ethics, and relationships that they may not be ready to take on, may not understand, and may not really agree with if they did.

Outside of the reality that we are remembering our sacraments don’t really make much sense.  Paul said that if there was no resurrection then he was a fool.  I would hold the same thing about the play acting we are doing on Sundays.  If we are not re-entering that reality in an intentional and prayerful way that involves our whole self, then we are just fools playing at images.

We remember Jesus and re-member Christ as we take our parts in his body and in the family as the children of God.  This is amazing and wondrous.  It is mystery and meal all at once.

When we come prepared, we enter that reality with less dissonance and greater clarity, we leave with more work being done on us, and we go back into the world to carry that reality with us.  We prepare by joining in the ongoing universal prayers of the church daily in the Offices.  We know the stories of our faith more deeply.

Our minds are trained for prayer, praise, and petition.  Our hearts are trained for compassion and trust and forgiveness.  Our brains can focus more easily.  And we are free to come and go lightly into the world we live in intentionally daily, so we can greet our neighbors and love even in transition, and we are less thrown off by the incidentals of our lives and our church community.

In this way, the Office makes the Eucharist more readily available and our experience more communal.  When we have done our office work we can do our work at the table with more joy.

At this table we are not strangers but family.  We are not alone in the city but walking in the Garden with our God and our family.  We are provided for and forgiven.  We are loved and set free.  That is salvation in the flesh.  That is what we are trying to live into as we come to the table of God.

Come prepared and go home renewed.  Remembering who God is in Jesus, what the world will be and what the kingdom is, and who you are, who your neighbor is, and how blessed the whole thing is, we come back to the sixth day of the new creation to enter our Sabbath anew.

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