Synchronicity, by Frank Logue

As God is doing a new thing in and through The Episcopal Church, we shouldn’t be surprised to see many people reaching similar conclusions all across the church with no evident common source other than the Holy Spirit. This summer at the General Convention, the move for an Acts 8 Moment—in which we stopped to pray, to study the Bible together, to discern, and to dream—was not the only outward and visible sign that something is afoot. The Episcopal Evangelism Network was also present at the General Convention for the first time and there is definitely a connection between the groups. Here is a brief description of EEN from the group’s website

EEN is a network of Episcopalians and friends called to the practice of progressive evangelism and contextual mission. Our passion is for equipping, supporting and networking individuals and congregations desiring to start new Episcopal spiritual communities, to renew existing ones, and to develop new forms of and approaches to evangelistic mission. We have faith that the church’s desire for such renewal and growth is part of a broad-based missionary movement that the Holy Spirit is kindling in and through the Episcopal Church.

At one level, I share in the connection as I was at Trinity Wall Street in May for the Episcopal Evangelism Network’s Missional Development Consultation. I came to the convention excited that others would experience the breath of fresh air that is the work EEN has been doing in progressive evangelism. This was covered well in a recent Episcopal Digital Network article ‘Want Prayer?’ Progressive lay evangelists take church to the streets. EEN is also moving forward with a Missional Development Conference to be held September 20-22 at General Theological Seminary in New York.

In another odd connection, I read with interest the last inerview of Cardinal Carlo Martini who challenged his own Roman Catholic Church saying in part:

Where are the individuals full of generosity, like the Good Samaritan? Who have faith like that of the Roman centurion? Who are as enthusiastic as John the Baptist? Who dare new things, as Paul did? Who are faithful as Mary Magdalene was? I advise the Pope and the bishops to look for twelve people outside the lines for administrative posts–people who are close to the poorest and who are surrounded by young people and are trying out new things. We need that comparison with people who are on fire so that the spirit can spread everywhere.

Synchronicity was Carl Jung’s term for the experience that events which seem to be unrelated, serendipitous or random, may be meaningfully connected. I see this in Acts 8, the Episcopal Evangelism Network, and even these words from Cardinal Martini and so am looking to find what else the Holy Spirit is bubbling up out there across the church. We don’t have to create the new thing. We just need to notice where the Holy Spirit is bubbling up, pray and discern our place in it and hop on board.

For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun!
Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness.
I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.
—Isaiah 43:19

What the world sees, by Megan Castellan

This summer has been a season of reflection and consideration, not just for the Episcopal Church, but across the Christian spectrum.  Voices across the Mainline spectrum have united in calling for a renewed focus on our mission and ministry to the world.  And so, we, in the church, have been quite preoccupied with what this new thing that God appears to be doing will look like.  Where are we called?  What are we to do?  What committees shall we form?

But, lest we forget, while we’ve been bustling around inside our churches, the unchurchifed world has twirled merrily onwards.  This summer, Hulu started showing a British show called “Rev.”–marking the first time this show has been made available in the States (legally, cough cough).  The show follows an up-and-coming Anglican priest who is appointed vicar at a tiny inner-city London parish (played by Tom Hollander).    He struggles with disillusionment, odd parishioners, and pressure from the diocese to fill the seats at any cost, all the while wondering if what he’s doing makes any sense in the rapidly-changing world around him.

The show is brilliant as an examination of church life, so go watch it and cringe and laugh appropriately.  (It’s here.) But what’s really been fascinating to watch is the critical reaction in America.

The AV Club, the Onion‘s serious, culture-discussing sibling, has been reviewing each episode as it appears, and has fallen in un-ironic love with the show.  Each review has prompted the critic and the community of commenters to discuss themes of faith, doubt, God, and what it means to be an ethical person in this day and age.  This went so well, in fact, that the AV Club interviewed the creators and writers of the show about their perspective on faith.

One of the unique hallmarks of the show is that it depicts people struggling with being faithful, and struggling with being Christian, but at least making an effort in the struggle.  The protagonist, Adam, is frequently depicted praying, but never gets a response, at least directly.  But he does keep talking.

When we talk about evangelism and mission, it is at least as important to clarify how the world sees us, before we figure out what we want to say to the world.  The temptation is always to pass ourselves off as Brilliant Experts in Life, Faith, and Everything by virtue of our Church Attendance Excellence! Somehow, we think this will make people want to be like us, for we have, after all, achieved Excellence in Everything, and who wouldn’t want that?

But I don’t think that’s either believable or attractive.  Reading through the comments at The AV Club, I don’t have the sense people long for a Stepford community to make them all perfect.  I have the sense that people want to know that others struggle with the larger questions, just like they do.  They want to hear the hard-won wisdom of others who’ve been through some similar struggle.  They’d sort of appreciate it if they could see the put-together churchy folks laugh at ourselves once in a while.

And the good news for us is:

We can do all of that.

Standing in the Presence of God, by Susan Snook

In the sanctuary of Church of the Nativity, Scottsdale, where I serve, one of our most cherished items is our icon of the Annunciation.  This is a true icon, written by Laura Fisher Smith, a noted iconographer (as well as the wife of +Kirk Smith, our diocesan bishop).

This Annunciation is different from most traditional depictions of this event, because we don’t see the angel. We see Mary, a simple peasant girl, at the moment when the angel comes to her.  Eyes closed, hands uplifted in an attitude of prayer, we see her experiencing God’s call to her.

Laura created this icon after a great deal of prayer, and after she and I had discussed our vision for this Annunciation icon.  We made the conscious decision not to depict the angel Gabriel, for who can really say what an angel looks like?  Surely all the gold and halos in the world cannot depict the sheer power and terror of standing in the presence of an angel.

But if we cannot imagine the appearance of an angel, surely we can imagine what a human being looks like who is open to the news an angel brings.  Mary, in our icon, is praying, open, humble.  She seems to be bathed in light from above.  She is preparing herself to say, “Let it be with me according to your word.”

I thought of this icon last week as our diocesan clergy attended a seminar on preaching as spiritual direction.  Our keynote speaker, Kay Northcutt, has written a book called Kindling Desire for God: Preaching as Spiritual Direction, in which she says that the true task of the preacher is not to explain, counsel, or entertain, but to act as spiritual director to the congregation.  In this role, we should help people who are yearning for God’s presence to begin to experience it.

Northcutt says that in our over-busy world, people are hungry for an experience of God.  How do we provide that in worship?  How do we help our congregations to learn spiritual disciplines that will open their hearts and minds to God’s voice?    I interpreted Kay’s model of the preacher as spiritual director as meaning that in preaching, we help people to ask questions about real-life experience like, where is God in this?  How is God calling to me right here and now?  The preacher then becomes the one who teaches spiritual disciplines to open our minds and hearts, and who calls the congregation to a life of noticing God’s presence and handiwork.

In our Acts 8 gatherings at General Convention, I think that many of us experienced an openness to God’s presence, through Bible study, prayer, and dreaming together about what the church could be.  Now that we are home, how can we call our congregations and our church into a practice of openness to God’s presence?  How can each of us act as spiritual directors to a yearning world?

Restructuring and Reawakening, by Susan Snook

I’ve been fairly silent since returning home from General Convention – partly because I came home, did my laundry, and headed out the next day on my family vacation.  We made it as far as St. Petersburg, Russia, this year – here’s a photo for you:

This is the interior of the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg.  We got there as a service was going on in a side chapel: incense burning, heavenly chant by the choir, priest arrayed in vestments of finest gold, people gathered, standing, silently bowing and crossing themselves and lighting candles as the service went on.  Of course the church in Russia was nearly dead during the Soviet years: 1,000 churches in St. Petersburg at the time of the czars had been reduced to about 5 or 6 still open by 1990.  Other church buildings were demolished, or turned into warehouses, military training facilities, or even (in one case) an indoor swimming pool.  Now, the church is coming back to life.  Five hundred churches are now open in the city, and in each one we entered (on weekdays), there were worshipers gathered for the Divine Liturgy in progress.  Christ is risen, indeed.

Which brings me to wonder why we are so concerned about the future of our church.  Amidst great anxiety about declining numbers and tight finances, The Episcopal Church gathered in General Convention this summer.  It was my second Convention, and after my first, in 2009, I wasn’t sure I would return.  The anxiety, conflict, and stuck-ness seemed hopeless.  We made some good decisions, but seemed unable to address the vital issue of how to reverse, or event confront, the church’s decline.

This year was different.  Not only did we address the issues before us, we did it with excitement and a sense of positive vision and hope for the future.  We created Enterprise Zones to encourage evangelism with new populations.  We agreed to move our church headquarters away from 815 Second Avenue.  We created a Task Force for Restructuring the Church. (By the way, if you haven’t yet applied to serve on the Task Force, the deadline is Thursday, Aug. 23, and the application is here.)

Like many people, I hope that “restructuring” is about more than, well, restructuring.  I hope this is not just another organizational quick-fix that changes a few lines of authority and re-draws our church’s flow chart.  I hope that instead, this “restructuring” becomes a reawakening.  I hope that we pray together, discuss together, gain insights from people not otherwise heard, and learn from each other.  I hope we follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  I hope this becomes a new beginning for our church, the start of an explosion of new energy, new ideas, and new people.

In the meantime, I have been elected, along with 37 other people, to serve on Executive Council, our church’s Board of Directors.  Members of Executive Council recently received a request to write a one-page introduction and name what we see as the three top priorities for us to address this triennium.  We also were invited to ask any questions we have about how Executive Council works.  For my priorities, see my blog post here.  I would welcome your comments and additions.

For Acts 8 folks – how should we be praying for this restructuring and reawakening to unfold?  How can we spark a renewal movement, through the kind of prayer and Bible study and vision for the future and dreaming that we shared at General Convention?  How can we begin to share what we have experienced, and what we long for, with people throughout the church?  It is my honest opinion that without prayer and reawakening, this restructuring will be simply a restructuring.  And that would be a loss for all of us.

I believe the most vital thing for us to discover is, how is the Holy Spirit leading us into a new era?  Difficult times have beset the church from the very beginning, and Holy Spirit has always led us into new possibilities we never would have imagined on our own.  Re-read Acts Chapter 8 if you have any doubts about this.  Or, if you still doubt that a declining church can be reawakened, maybe the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg will inspire you.  The refurbishing is almost complete.  The smell of incense fills the air.  The sound of heavenly chanting fills the hearts of the worshipers who gather to pray and hope and share the Eucharist together.

Christ is risen, indeed.  Alleluia.

Mainline Summer, by Frank Logue

This summer, the Holy Spirit has been moving in and around the old mainline Christian denominations. During conventions of the United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches Twitter.com feeds for #dreamUMC, #dreamPCUSA, #acts8 and others such as #dreamCCDOC and #dreamUCC have talked about a new way of being the church. Each movement has grown out of unique circumstances and will result in different responses in different places, but it is hard not to notice what God is doing this summer.

What is holding us back from taking action within our denominations? What can we begin to do to incarnate the change we wish to see without the denominations’ formal backing? How might we be increasingly faithful to the Gospel?

Eldad and Medad—an Acts 8 Moment

The following is a reflection of restructuring the church from outside the camp which was written by the Rev. John Ohmer for Center Aisle, a General Convention newsletter created by the Diocese of Virginia. The original article is online here: What If the Real Purpose of General Convention Lies Outside Its Structure?

The unanimous passage of the resolution to create a Task Force to restructure the Church may be the clearest sign yet that the real work of God takes place outside the official structures we’ve inherited. Indeed, the Holy Spirit seems to be most active and alive in what I’d call “Eldad Events” and “Medad Moments.”

Remember the story in the Book of Numbers about Eldad and Medad? God gives official prophetic powers to 70 people whom God has asked Moses to assemble at the Tent of Meeting. Two men, however — Eldad and Medad – have remained behind in the camp, and are not present when God commissions the 70.They prophesy anyway.

When someone complains about it, Moses says, “Don’t stop them – I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets!” In other words, what God is doing outside the official structures is often every bit as important, or even more important, as what God is doing inside, or through the structures.

Continue reading Eldad and Medad—an Acts 8 Moment