The long and winding road that leads to your door
Will never disappear
I’ve seen that road before it always leads me here
Leads me to your door
I have spent the past couple of weeks continuing to muse on the road theme. A multitude of songs came to mind, including the song by The Beatles above. It’s amazing how many love songs can easily be addressed to God, as well. No doubt, that is the reason why Bernard of Clairvaux made the same connection with the Song of Songs. But, the above song seemed more fitting to my thoughts as I see it as yet another version of the wilderness road. In other words, the road to God is never easy.
This year, instead of doing the daily lectionary readings, my husband, Frank, and I decided instead to read the Bible in a year: the entire Bible, not just the sections chosen for us. We are now well into Isaiah with its prevalent imagery of wilderness and paths, and, reflecting back on Biblical history from Genesis through Isaiah, I realized that keeping creation focused on the Almighty had been a full time job for God and his prophets.The number of Asherah poles, alone, that were raised and thrown down is staggering.
Humans are exceedingly difficult to keep focused. This was something of which Jesus was acutely aware when he began his teaching. Thus the Parable of the Sower: the majority of the seed dies in one way or another. Only a quarter of the seed sown falls on good soil.
So, are we really surprised that the number of people in the pews has fallen? Has anything really changed? Even post Constantine, it has been a continual battle to keep people focused on God. From the desert monks to Benedict of Nursia to Francis of Assisi to Martin Luther and so on and so forth, those who believe are constantly looking for a way to “rebuild” the church, to call people back to God.
And yet, we continually create churches that push people away from God. We create the impression that the most important things are the number of people filling the pews not to mention asking those who attend to give as much as possible of their money and time.
In the Christendom era, church became a duty, a respectable “social” club. Where did that leave actual conversion? When people were baptized in the early church, it was possible that this act alone could lead to their death in a persecuation by the Roman Empire. Baptism in that setting was a serious commitment, a life changing event. Where once people were drawn to Christianity because of how different its followers were, now we go to extremes to try to prove how mainstream we really are.
Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
We attempt to gloss over the harsher things Jesus said in order not to frighten people off. And while I believe in a loving and compassionate God, I also believe Jesus meant it when he said, “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn–and I would heal them.’
So, the real questions are, if we want to partner with what God is doing in the world:
- How do we open their eyes? Their ears?
- How do we convince these distressed and distracted people that taking the long and winding road is really worth the effort?
The wild and windy night that the rain washed away
Has left a pool of tears crying for the day
Why leave me standing here, let me know the way
Many times I’ve been alone and many times I’ve cried
Anyway you’ll never know the many ways I’ve tried
And still they lead me back to the long and winding road
Last month, when chunks of plastic began to fall off of my car, my resistance similarly crumbled, and I traded it in for a used Prius.
It’s this last one that turns out to be problematic at times. The Prius comes equipped with a nifty computer in the dashboard, which tells you instantaneously, via bar graph, how many miles-per-gallon of gasoline you are getting RIGHT THIS INSTANT. The minute you press the brake, the bar graph shoots up and you feel a sense of righteous accomplishment, but step on the gas pedal, and it shrinks back down…along with the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of you, your children’s children, and no doubt, generations of polar bears living on shrinking ice floes.
This is a MESMERIZING computer. (And this is not just me. There are websites devoted to Prius owners discussing how to maximize fuel efficiency.) During the first weeks I had my car, I found myself staring at the computer, willing that magic bar to go up. It was all I cared about. Scenery, passing cars, angry semi-trucks behind me: all less important.
So, it strikes me that there may be some issues with instantaneous feedback. At the very least, these easily quantifiable statistics of usually-complex issues can prove addictive. (I unabashedly stalk Nate Silver online during election season and this is why.) They feed our human appetite for certainty, and stability.
But in the church, they can feed into our anxiety and tunnel-vision all too easily. It’s easy to get caught up in growth as a simple math game, and worry over immediate results. Will 5 new families come if we start this new program? If we play these new songs? We’ve made all these changes, where are the new people we were promised?! We start obsessing over the bar graph of growth in our minds, rather than where we’re meant to be going as a church.
Throughout Acts, the disciples gathered a community through an honest, and unflinching proclamation of what following Jesus meant, a lived-out gospel. They weren’t growing for growth’s sake. They were picking up the cross and following–to exile, to Antioch and beyond, regardless of personal cost, focused on their communities, and most of all, on the Cross of Christ. And this way of life drew others in like a beacon.
In a renewed, Spirit-drawn church, we need to let go of our anxiety about growth for growth’s sake. I pray for a church where we can expand our vision, look wider. I hope for a church where we can find the courage to proclaim, and live out, the gospel of Christ, and set our eyes on the cross. And may God give us the faith to believe that it will be more than enough.
Acts 8 has proven a fertile launching pad for blessed dreamings of where God may be leading the church. If we look at the beginning of Acts 8, as much of the church is scattering, the Apostles stay in Jerusalem. Stephen has just been stoned and more stonings are threatened. Apparently, the Apostles are ready to be die for their faith in Jesus and, if we can trust tradition, all but one eventually did (and John seemed spared to write Revelation while in exile).
In thinking about church restructure and the role of bishops (and other church leaders), Acts 8 might be a very important text to consider. Perhaps our bishops need to have the expectation that they will be martyred for their faith.
If Tertullian was correct, and “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” perhaps our harvest is so meager because we have planted so few seeds. In some area of the world, Christianity is growing by huge numbers, and many of those churches are being led into eternal life by the witness of their martyred leaders.
Imagine what walk-abouts would be like for episcopal elections if people really expected that their next bishop might not survive the term, and not merely because of a sugar-induced coma after too many visitation receptions. Instead of trying to figure out whether deanery-wide confirmations will be required or exactly how “inclusive” a new administration will be toward left-handed acolytes, a whole different set of questions might be asked of both sides. Imagine a candidate asking a diocese, “Who are the people you are ministering to that you love so much that we would give our lives so that they might hear the good news of Jesus Christ?” Or, “Who have you been praying and fasting for, and how much, that they would have their lives transformed by the Holy Spirit in preparation for the mission we will begin together?” Imagine a diocese that would rather answer those questions than prepare a chamber-of-commerce-esque profile listing the area’s golf clubs and major league sports franchises. Such a diocese would most certainly be growing, whoever they elected.
Our own difficulty in even conceiving of how a 21st century leader in the Episcopal Church could die for the faith is one of the most significant issues we face in re-imagining our church. The fact that so few of our current leaders would seem particularly prepared for the few ways we might think someone could be martyred is even more troubling. (By dying, I mean dying, not feeling badly that recalcitrant parishioners in a failing congregation where insufferably rude when told they had no one under 60 because they refused to welcome in, minister to, or pray and fast for visitors, new members, or their surrounding community.) If the convention wisdom is right that says that churches get the preaching they deserve, then we need to look squarely in the mirror and think about where we are and where we want our leaders to take us.
I think many people want the kind of church where we really learn how to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel so we can find them. But we are scared out of our minds and don’t know how to do it. However, the more we demand those kind of leaders in our prayers to God and our church councils with each other, the more we will begin to find them. In such a Church, we will be less concerned with how things were for people way back when, and more concerned with how they need to be for those we are about to welcome to the household of God. We will be less concerned with details of health care and pension funds (what do martyrs need with a pension fund?), and more concerned with the discernment of exactly where the lost are in our community. And we will be less concerned with what we can build for our churches and more concerned with what we can give away for the sake of Jesus and the good news, including our very lives.
During the first Acts 8 gathering at General Convention, I expressed my dream for a church that wasn’t ashamed to proclaim Jesus. The problem with dreams, of course, is that reality is much harder to live in. Since my return to parish life, I’ve given a lot of thought to how we “proclaim Jesus” on a regular and ongoing basis.
I found this Sunday’s lectionary to be particularly helpful, and I reflected on it in my personal blog this morning. Here’s an excerpt:
“Standing in the midst of Philip’s Caesartown, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter wastes no time. He is prepared to give an account of the hope that is in him. He is ready, willing and able to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, even if he hasn’t a lick of a clue what that really means. Peter is not ashamed to proclaim Jesus.
Of course, proclaiming Jesus in word is one thing. The rest of Sunday’s story is about how that word become action – how we move from students to followers – and it involves nothing less than denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus. It means losing our lives for the sake of the Gospel. It means giving up our luxuries so that everyone might come within the reach of Christ’s saving embrace. It means personal morality with corporate consequences.
It also means, and here’s the kicker for Acts 8, corporate morality with personal consequences. What does it mean for The Episcopal Church to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah? How do we act in light of that good news? How do we structure ourselves? Govern ourselves? Budget ourselves? How do we communicate? How do we share? How do we grow?”
I know, I know. Still more questions than answers. At the heart of the matter is that first, we believe Jesus is Lord. What comes next, well that’ll take some work, some study, and some prayer.
This last month, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) heard the first reading of a new document, “Together towards life: mission and evangelism in changing landscapes,” which will be presented to next year’s WCC General Assembly. One of the most interesting parts of this document is its discussion of what they call “Mission from the Margins.” Here’s paragraph 38:
Mission from the margins seeks to counteract injustices in life, church, and mission. It seeks to be an alternative missional movement against the perception that mission can only be done by the powerful to the powerless, by the rich to the poor, or by the privileged to the marginalized. Such approaches can contribute to oppression and marginalization. Mission from the margins recognizes that being in the centre means having access to systems that lead to one’s rights, freedom and individuality being affirmed and respected; living in the margins means exclusion from justice and dignity. Living on the margins, however, can provide its own lessons. People on the margins have agency, and can often see what, from the centre, is out of view. People on the margins, living in vulnerable positions, often know what exclusionary forces are threatening their survival and can best discern the urgency of their struggles; people in positions of privilege have much to learn from the daily struggles of people living in marginal conditions.
and paragraph 41:
The dominant expressions of mission, in the past and today, have often been directed at people on the margins of societies. These have generally viewed those on the margins as recipients and not active agents of missionary activity. Mission expressed in this way has too often been complicit with oppressive and life-denying systems. It has generally aligned with the privileges of the centre and largely failed to challenge economic, social, cultural and political systems which have marginalized some peoples. Mission from the centre is motivated by an attitude of paternalism and a superiority complex. Historically, this has equated Christianity with Western culture and resulted in adverse consequences, including the denial of the full personhood of the victims of such marginalization.
Looking at the history of mission, it’s easy to see this at work. Mission was and is often conducted out of a kind of Noblesse Oblige, assuming that those to whom the mission is being sent are receiving gifts that we already possess. This is harmful to both the persons and cultures being “missionized” and those conducting the mission, because it sets up the kind of distinctions the Epistle of James has been railing against for the last couple of weeks in the lectionary. It results in pride and hypocrisy, even if done with the best of intentions.
Those missions that have borne the most fruit of the Spirit in the past few decades have been those that recognize that in correctly-ordered work, both the missionary and the missionized are equal in receipt of a new grace. When mission is at its best, it’s not a transferal of knowledge, or a gift from the “haves” to the “have-nots”, but a new outpouring of the Spirit on all involved. In examples ranging from Latin-American base communities to Emergent churches in North America, mission really happens when it is indigenous and adapted to the local context.
As we consider ways to renew and transform our church, our first step has to be to recognize that we have been complicit in the “mission from the centre” that the document critiques. The Episcopal Church has only recently emerged from being considered exclusively the church of the powerful. We love missionary bishops, and organizations, and societies. We tend to hyper-organize ourselves before stepping out into mission. This could be considered prudence, but also could be considered a lack of trust in the Spirit. The “Nimbleness” that some have advocated as part of reform will not come easy to us, as we tend to be ponderous and make decisions from the top-down.
In paragraph 38 of the WCC document, it is noted that “People on the margins have agency, and can often see what, from the centre, is out of view.” How do we insure that we include the voices from the margins in order to make them part of the mission, rather than just those whom mission is imposed on?
“Can you hear me now?” was the theme of an advertising campaign a few years ago. If I recall correctly, it was a campaign for a cell phone company, showing people standing on their heads, leaning out of windows, hopping on one foot, etc., trying to get better cell phone reception.
Cell phone service is a bit better these days, but I think we are hearing each other less and less. The image of an aging movie star talking to an empty chair at a political convention is perhaps emblematic of the age we live in, no matter which political party you sympathize with. You can talk all you want to an empty chair, but you never have to listen to anything it says in return. In fact, if you want to, you can put your own words in its, umm, mouth, and have a conversation with yourself. God forbid you should have a conversation with someone you disagree with.
The gospel lesson we had on Sunday, Sept. 9 (Mark 7:24-37) surely has to be on every preacher’s list of her/his least favorite gospels to preach on. Yet surely, if we open our ears the way Jesus opened the ears of the deaf man, surely this gospel has something very important to say to our age of closed ears and closed hearts.
I’ve read various excuses for the way Jesus behaves in this passage – calling a poor, desperate woman seeking healing for her beloved daughter a “dog.” And I’m not satisfied with any of them. I don’t think he was justified in testing her – I don’t find that any more attractive than calling her names. I don’t think he was conspiring with her, winking at her as he called her a dog, while he tested the disciples to see what they would do. I don’t think he was calling her a cute little fluffy puppy. I don’t think he was telling her just to wait a little while and her turn would come.
I think he meant what he said – he believed that his mission was only to the Jews.
But then she spoke, and he listened. Jesus changed his mind.
And yes, lots of us have trouble with the idea that Jesus might have changed his mind. We want him to be all-perfect and all-knowing, from the very beginning. We want him to have sprung full-grown from the womb of his blessed mother, reciting the complete works of Shakespeare (which hadn’t been written yet, but that wouldn’t matter to the Son of God).
But Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, so what if he needed to go through life learning and discerning his mission, just like we do? What if he relied on the same cues we rely on to learn what God is calling us to do? What if he had to worship, and pray, and read the Bible, and spend time talking with the people of God, and work to listen to the surprising insights brought by other people, in order to understand his mission, bit by bit?
He would be like us. Because that’s what we have to do. We have to worship, and pray, and read the Bible, and spend time in Christian community, and work to listen to the surprising insights of the people around us, in order to understand the mission of our church.
Why are we restructuring the church? Why are our attendance and finances in decline? Why is everything around us changing, and why are we failing to change alongside it all? Why are we in an Acts 8 Moment?
Maybe we haven’t been listening to the people around us. Maybe we’ve been answering questions they haven’t been asking. Maybe we’ve been fighting battles they’ve already settled. Maybe they have been listening to the sheer deafening volume of noise coming from the church, and they have just gotten tired of our shouting.
So what if we tried listening for a change? What if we went to our neighborhoods and the people we serve and asked them what problems and issues are on their hearts and minds? What if we sat down with community leaders and asked them what are the biggest problems in our cities, and what could we do to serve the people in them? What if we asked our non-Christian neighbor where she finds God, or spirituality, or ultimate meaning, and truly listened to what she had to say? I believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life, but evangelism begins by meeting people where they are. What if we tried to listen and then discern what kind of emptiness God is calling the church to fill?
If Jesus listened to someone and changed the way he understood his mission, so can we. Can we hear them now?
Labor day. It’s a day that we generally think of as the last gasp of summer – the last chance to get out and do something before school season rolls in on those of us who have kids of that age. As a society, we take a day off to value the contributions of workers.
Manual labor has a special place in Benedictine monasticism. Section 48 of the Rule states,
“Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times, at others, in devout reading. Hence, we believe that the time for each will be properly ordered..”
Benedict certainly approved of rest, but he recognized that too much idleness left more room for “Murmuring,” – Idle negative talk – which he considered to be one of the greatest threats to Christian community. He felt that a balance of prayer, study, rest and manual labor was the proper life for a Christian.
In Benedictine spirituality, manual labor isn’t just about avoiding idleness. It has its own benefits. It involves the hands and the autonomic parts of our minds so that we can pray more clearly. It’s not uncommon to find people talking about how their most fruitful times of prayer are doing laundry, or washing dishes, or knitting. Having something to do with the “busy” parts of our minds gives the more meditative parts of our psyche room to work.
We are considering how to re-imagine ourselves as church. How do make real these dreams we have of our Christian community? Today we should consider what the role of the work of our hands might be. As Episcopalians, we tend to be “idea” and “program” people, but how would we order ourselves to bring our common labor into this balance?
Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ in his earthly life shared our toil and hallowed our labor: Be present with your people where they work; make those who carry on the industries and commerce of this land responsive to your will; and give to us all a pride in what we do, and a just return for our labor;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Serapion the Sindonite traveled once on a pilgrimage to Rome. Here he was told of a celebrated recluse, a woman who lived always in one small room, never going out. Skeptical about her way of life—for he himself was a great wanderer—Serapion called on her and asked, “Why are you sitting here?” To which she replied, “I am not sitting. I am on a journey.”
I’m not sure why that little piece of desert wisdom appeals to me but I believe it is because the word, journey, has always held such strong connotations for me. And, despite the fact that I spent six months backpacking from Georgia to Maine, I can also easily see that a journey can be taken while sitting quietly in one small room.
In the weeks leading up to the 77th General Convention, interest arose among three bloggers for The Episcopal Church to experience an Acts 8 moment. The deacon Stephen is martyred at the end of the seventh chapter of Acts. The eighth chapter is what follows as the Holy Spirit thrusts the church in crisis forward into mission. It’s an in breaking of the Holy Spirit. Those interested in taking time to pray and discern God’s will for the church met a couple of times to toss around some ideas for the types of things that could be done: praying together, Bible studies and dreaming about what the church can be, among other things.
During the second meeting, just before Convention ended, our Bible study centered on Acts 8:26 through the end of the chapter. As Susan Snook began to read, my attention was caught immediately: “Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.)”
Why, I wondered, did Luke find it necessary to point out that Philip was instructed by the angel to travel a wilderness road? My first thought was to compare a wilderness road (or path) to an interstate highway. In the wilderness, one must be constantly alert: the road can be rocky and uneven; snakes, lizards and other wild creatures are often present; there are no clear exit signs to mark where one might need to turn; there are no rest areas with their usual amenities.
Philip, naturally, would have been prepared for this. And perhaps that is why, despite all the obstacles, the early church grew. The Apostles knew they had to be on the lookout for every possible opportunity to spread the Gospel. So, when Philip met an Ethiopian eunuch who happened to be on a spiritual as well as physical journey, and on a wilderness road no less, he gladly accepted the opportunity to share the Gospel.
Have we traded the wilderness road for the interstate highway, breezing by all the “Ethiopian eunuchs” out there just waiting to have scripture explained to them? We’ve grown so accustomed to the way things are done that we’ve lost our way on The Way.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible notes that “get up and go toward the south” could also mean “get up and go at noon.” I am sure it is not a coincidence that in the very next chapter of Acts that Saul, also on a journey, has his first mystical experience with Christ. And like Philip, who opens up the Gospel to someone who, prior to Jesus, would not have been allowed to become a proselyte, Saul brings the Gospel to the gentiles.
It is my belief that in order to renew the church, we must return to the wilderness road. It is time to pull ourselves out of the “that is the way it has always been done” rut we have fallen into and actually begin to look at the road ahead of us.
I don’t have answers at this point, so much as questions:
- How might we leave behind the comfort of well-worn paths for the excitement, energy and promise found on the wilderness road?
- How might we put ourselves in a place to once more come in contact with the Ethiopian eunuch of today?
- What is preventing us from rising to the challenge of this new Acts 8 Moment?
A simple way to offer those who serve you in hotels and restaurants something in addition to the nice tip you will leave anyway. Offer to pray.