Category Archives: Community Formation

Why Rush?

In 1847, Ebenezer Davies, a visiting Englishman, was invited to preach while in Cincinnati.  Later he wrote, “At the close of the sermon, having pronounced the benediction, I engaged, according to English custom, in a short act of private devotion.  When I raised my head and opened my eyes, the very last man of the congregation was actually making his exit through the doorway; and it was quite as much as I could manage to put on my top-coat and gloves and reach the door before the sexton closed it.”  Ebenezer Davies, American Scenes and Christian Slavery; A Recent Tour of Four Thousand Miles in the United States.  (London; John Snow, 1849)

Americans have always been in a rush.  Sometimes we notice ourselves hurrying through time; sometimes we are astonished to find time has gone past faster than we expected; somehow we are always surprised to discover that rush and hurry don’t make us more efficient, that speed affords less profit than we imagined, that we get a hint of some other value we might want, when suddenly we are forced to stop a moment.

I’d bet that most intentional Christians in their own places of worship have had a hard half year–hard years are a norm, even with joy and gladness interspersed.  Congregational leaders have certainly had a hard half year so far—most are working for most of the time with fewer members than usual; at any given moment some were surprised by the former music director’s taking a new job in mid-year; some have not been able to raise up new leaders for essential ministries yet; all have kept up with hard work of getting their congregational house in order—learning how to plan for building maintenance rather than letting the building reach emergency needs first; learning how to become good stewards of the members’ trust in them; getting  finances from a state of savings and funds in many coffee cans to a gathered, intentionally ordered unity of giving and resources, planning how stewardship and giving will reflect the whole church and provide for the whole church’s work in mission and ministry.   The heaviness of the half year thus far might have made some feel anxious or pressed on them a sense of falling behind, but I’d be surprised if most meet and work in this way every month.  Some leaders have been changed by taking up the habit of praying together at the close of each meeting; some leadership groups  have taken on praying each for the members they represent and care for, in some order of grouped names each month.  Praying for their work and the people they are keeping house for, changes leaders, gives them a vibrancy in the Presence.

Bishop Ronald H. Haines has proved one of the five most influential people in my life.  He was an extraordinarily busy leader, working steadfastly while under rather constant attack from many of his peers for his decisions, including his decision to ordain the first openly lesbian priest in the Episcopal Church while he was Bishop of Washington, D.C.  He never sounded rushed or hurried, anxious or angry as he went about his work.  I knew him in retirement.  I asked him once why all these pressures did not affect him in that usual way.  “You should ask yourself:  what’s the good in that?” he said.  “Remember: it took a long time for things to get into the state they’re in; it’ll take a long time to make them better.  You can’t get to the end before you start, and you’ll never begin if you rush.  Nobody can really think in a hurry.  When I drop things and I get angry, I know I’m going too fast.”

Here’s an interesting thing:  It’s hard to hurry through evening prayer, especially if one is using a liturgical service like Compline.  The rhythm and language of the liturgy opens time to reveal us as we are, where we are, when we are:  always moving and breathing in God’s presence, in whom there is no rush or hurry that overlooks details, drops things, inclines to forgetfulness or defensive anger.  True:  we can’t keep from being American, from holding an almost instinctive impatience with whatever it is that holds us back from going fast and even faster.   But we can grow more mature as Christians by practicing the virtue of patience until we find ourselves formed more closely as the people God can call and into whom God can pour increasing energy  for worship, witness and service.

Your session, vestry, consistory, council, meets on a regular day of the month.  Why not take time at the end of the evening on those days, throughout the rest of this coming year, and read Compline yourself, or some other service of evening or night prayer, wherever you are, joining your leaders in prayer and praying for them by name, once a month, as they do the work of leadership you have laid on them for 2013?

Leave a comment

Filed under Accountability & Leader Development, Community Formation, Intelligent Christians in the 21st Century, Leader Development, Prayer in Leadership Work, Spiritual Formation, Stewardship Year-Round, Uncategorized

Is “god” Dead–Yet? Now? Still?

William Hamilton died last week, aged 87.  While he was a tenured professor of church history–my father’s calling and profession–William Hamilton, who taught at Colgate Rochester Divinity School in the early 1960s, wrote a book with Thomas Altizer called Radical Theology and the Death of God.  Its publication in 1966 generated a Time Magazine review, and according to the NYTimes obituary, roused no great interest.  (Note: links to all articles and books mentioned in this essay are found at the end)  So Time went all-out and in the 8 April 1966 edition, published the single most famous cover of its history,  with a very long article inside that didn’t come to the main point until readers had gotten well lost inside an extensive church and religious history lesson.

The article was, I suppose, meant to offer an adequate context for the shocking question on the cover.  Even reading the article now, notwithstanding all the pictures Time included, I am as bored as I was then.   At the time I was both informed about and interested in church history up to the 19th century, but Time’s writers didn’t have the courage to make the point that church history underlined the theology of the cover’s question.  I needed then–and now–much more direct thought about the contemporary social and religious contexts for the questions Hamilton and his fellow theologians had been asking, ten years before the article was published.

Time Magazine fudged the real question being asked, in favor of sales and in favor of the status quo that the magazine’s right wing editors were constantly defending.  The writers weren’t up to framing a serious argument around the death of the gods who were male, anti-Semitic, anti-feminist, racist, dominating, violent, exclusively Roman Catholic or exclusively Protestant, and so on.  The right wing influence at Time Magazine wasn’t ready, even in 1966, to question Christian theology in light of current American society and the growing secularism in the nation’s heart and spirit.

Who is an intentional Christian now, and of the youth fellowship age then, who does not recall something about the impact that article had on religious communities at the time?  One of the theologians quoted in the New York Times obituary for William Hamilton,  Ellen T. Charry of Princeton Theological Seminary, asserted that “the call to action inherent in ‘Death of God’ ideas stirred an interest in social justice among liberal Christians and influenced the liberation theology movement of the 1960s and ’70s.”   She might well have added that we owe our 21st Century advances in feminist theology and gay and lesbian ordination, to Hamilton’s work.

But I think Professor Charry barely touches the hot topic of religion in a secular society.  That shouldn’t be a seminary professor’s job anyway–that articulation should be the work of any thinking believer in any religous setting today.  We Christians are too willing to respect that fact that we have beliefs; we aren’t willing to ask ourselves the hard and obvious questions that non-believers ask.  We rightly stand accused of fearing the answers, and no amount of doing good deeds for righteousness’ sake will help us erase that cowardice.  For instance, we don’t reckon the consequences of ducking the tough thinking about truths we can’t deny.  Instead, churches are willing to hang by the fingernails on crumbling walls and old, dry ivy vines of dogma and doctrine, hoping to survive by means of praise bands or interior decoration like big screens in sanctuaries.  In this case, we’ve all checked our brains at the door, as it is said, no matter what denomination the doors open into.

The Christian church in America anyway, whether Roman or Protestant, had pretty much been domesticated by American culture by the 19th century, and as a result, 2oth century Christianity in general offered a social setting very much out of step with society. In some cases, the Christian setting was deliberately against society, but by the 1960s, fewer and fewer families could boast that all their children were church members and attended regularly.

Listen to the lyrics of Billy Joel songs, or of most popular songs about the 50s and 60s written in the 1980s, and you hear the clash of church culture with American culture at large–the secular culture–in line after line.   Comedians and playwrights, sitcom writers and novelists, essayists and journalists all flocked into the very large, open, public spaces with their mocking, dismissive, critical voices knocking down Christian and Jewish religious culture from the privileged places of respect occupied for a thousand years without fear of secular opposition (even through the Enlightenment and the industrial and scientific revolutions of the 19th century).

Time Magazine missed its chance to be on the cutting edge of the end of the 20th century, because the writers and editors all thought they knew the answer to their question.  Of course not, they thought.  Even if I don’t believe in God the way my grandparents did, of course God isn’t dead.  Now, half a century on, if anybody self-aware enough to recognize the false shelter of personal defensiveness is still inclined to such cardboard theology, an hour watching Bill Maher or Ricky Gervase ought to shoot that paper tiger to hell and gone.

I began to follow Hamilton–unintentionally and unaware–in the spring of 1985.    Not from a doubt of God but from a conviction that the Holocaust demanded attention, I challenged myself to watch the Claude Lanzmann documentary Shoah.  It changed the ground on which I based my life.  In the cruel and bleak light of that film, the God of reconciliation and love in my theology and experience showed up as too small and insignificant and made of too much assumption, to encompass or defeat the evil exposed by the interviews of Holocaust survivors in that film.  A lifetime of listening to sermons had given me nothing at all with which to cope when that darkness came over me.

From then on, no answer of knowledge could be enough to meet the question “why, God?” and my following question, “where was God?” I began letting go of the certainties about God that were staples of my Presbyterian church and worshiping community at the time.  In fact, these certainties about God were leading the clergy of the denomination to argue violently with each other about abortion and ordination of gays or lesbians.  Nothing about sin or redemption could reach the horror of truth that went on showing itself–and has continued to this day–as total violence dominating so completely, and so reverently worshipped.  By the end of 1985, I was done with the God of certainty.  That god had long since died and I could see the idol standing in its place.  Was I really alone in this?  It seemed so.  All that arguing about proof of God’s existence in one social challenge after another turned on the pivot of the survival of churches, and rarely did I sense a struggle over true Christian integrity at issue.

I worked at the time for a parish with a sanctuary ceiling covered in dark blue paint and decorated with bright golden stars spangled about in no particular order–not even a constellation in view.  My metaphor for being Christian inside the church became that sanctuary–and I decided that I’d rather see the real sky and risk being blown to outer space and left to move alone in reality, than accept the ignorant and clergy-benefitting conventions of church life.  I wouldn’t leave the Christian community completely, but I would stay on the porch of any institution where I found myself–pitching a tent if necessary.

The adult who handed me (and my companions in the youth group) the April 8, 1966 issue of Time Magazine, was mostly interested in the way we all would react.  I regret that he was not more interested in the maturing of our thought.  William Hamilton wrote many decades later that he never talked about that April 8 Time cover without putting air quotes around the word ‘God’.  I think with regret of all the years I spent in intellectual cowardice because I didn’t know from the start that in the question’s intent, the word God was not an absolute.  I was not frightened or shaken in conviction when I thought about the death of the ‘god’ of the Reformers who killed each other over words indicating or denying transubstantiation, or the death of the ‘god’ that Tomas de Torquemada held supreme as he pursued heretics in the Inquisition.

Not until I came upon Thomas Merton’s tough little book, No Man Is an Island did I begin to move forward on my own.  While the clergy and staff of my congregation were occupying themselves with discussing butterflies as symbols for the Resurrection and the benefits of attracting legacies to the newly established endowment fund, I began reading Walter Wink’s life changing sinewy series, Naming the Powers, UnMasking the Powers, Engaging the Powers and The Powers that Be.    Walter Wink shot me into space from my safe space on the porch of the church.  Thomas Merton gently reeled me back in with his books on living in search of nothingness as Christianly as possible in whatever shape or size of community I found myself.

Why didn’t I just pack it in and depart, shaking the dust from my feet?  My brothers had done this.  Many of my companions from high school had done so.  I stayed among Christians because outside and beyond their communities, nobody I knew was curious about the questions that William Hamilton asked all his life long.  Instead of being bored by them, I wanted to work on those questions.  And I stayed, too, because something about the experience of the Eucharist didn’t yield to dismissal by intelligence.  Because I stayed, I was blessed by the gift of Walter Brueggemann’s work on scriptural texts of the Old Testament.  Many of the questions that William Hamilton asked seem posed in a Biblically textless world of society’s secular illnesses and technological highs.  Bruggemann puts the ancient texts into current settings that include the questions Hamilton asks.  So does Rosemart Ruether and Phyllis Trible and a host of women theologians raised up in the 2oth century.

What I notice here is that all the people whose work I was reading are theologians who were writing for seminarians.  The work is like fresh organic food found in farmer’s markets.  By contrast, parish clergy and churches are recycling canned goods, passing off bullet peas and tinned asparagus for the real thing.  And it’s only fair to point out that timorous but vocal parish members will rise up and point weaponry at any pastor or preacher who offers red meat or fresh vegetables in place of the fast food and preserved ingredients long past prime, that most people in churches are used to.

The reward is not in getting answers to questions like Is ‘God’ dead?  The reward is in asking questions like that and increasing the room for more and harder questions, bringing ever more challenging sources of understanding into play.  The reward for Christians is in being as fully intelligent as full maturity requires.

The clergy in our churches are not as courageous as they should be, in opening windows for air and doors for exit and entrance without dogmatic objections.  There is much that we in our worshiping communities would reveal to each other and to the clergy in place, that might well lead to a renewal of relevant Christian practice in today’s circumstances.   But if that is to happen, the clergy must let go of their exclusive control of practicing Christianity.  Christians meekly wander on in the illusion that the real Christians are the ordained clergy.  The concept of ‘lay’ people in the church remains in the way of any change in the church.  A lot needs to be done at that thick, gnarled and deeply buried point before any substantial effect of being Christian will be felt in history again.

I hope interest in William Hamilton’s work will be revived in the general Christian population.  Below is a link to an article about his ideas, written by Lloyd Steffan, then chaplain at Lehigh University, and published in the Christian Century in 1989.  Links to all sources cited in the essay follow.,9171,835309,00.html

Leave a comment

Filed under Church Tradition and Culture, Community Formation, Intelligent Christians in the 21st Century

Whose Tradition is The Best?

Recently I’ve heard people in church leadership saying things like, “What makes our tradition the best?”   Or “This is why I think OUR tradition is the best.”  In all cases, people are talking about tradition (“We have such great hymns,” and “We don’t judge people who come to worship with us,” and “We have such a wonderful burial liturgy,” and “The thing I like about being Episcopalian/Presbyterian/Lutheran etc. etc. etc. is that we use language so much better than the others!”).   They are also talking about culture–ritual, vestments, candles, all the rest of it. 

Culture and tradition are not faith.  It is a great mistake to confuse either of the two with the value and efficacy of faith. 

We are all inclined to admire ourselves.  We are all inclined to rest there in front of the mirror, oozing satisfaction in our identities and our heritage.  We all do this, and we do it with such satisfaction that we are less than one step from implying that we have the true faith because our traditions are better than others’.  Some people, of course, take that last step and stand firmly on the seemingly solid ground of opinion.  “My tradition is the ONLY one by which you will be truly saved–”  whether that means that you alone know how the Holy Spirit works, or you alone are privileged with God’s view of the goats and sheep in advance of the Last Day.

You can’t convince me.

It’s not just that being judgmental and exclusionary is not Christian in the least.  The great trap and betrayal lying in wait here is that inability leaders have to see in proportion.  Leaders and ordinary Christians MUST be able to distinguish between practice and preference, and stop acting largely on the latter.

Leaders in the church have to grow past the American cultural ideal of success and accomplishment (professional or personal).  When they have learned to really distinguish the self-taught, self-reinforcing blindness of self-deception, they will stop seeing others as valuable only inasmuch as they reflect their own values.  This behavior, not Christian at all, ends in worship of tradition, worship of one’s own cultural expressions of being human.  “Come here, we do it better than anyone else does; you’ll have a better experience of salvation with us.” 

Christians for centuries have been rightly accused and justly condemned for this behavior.  There’s no difference in the effect if is a declaration of superiority or a condemnation of a difference.  The claims of appreciative inquiry are bosh.  The claim of being super-right is equally ridiculous.  There’s no supportive need in the church’s early development or justification in the canon of Jesus’ example, (before the emperors claimed Jesus and the church weapons of their own).  If you carry on as though your own tradition is better than anyone else’s, you are clear about your tradition, and the rest of us are just lucky if we get to see Jesus in it.  People who claim their tradition and culture promote Christianity better than anyone else’s, are either converts or have never left home.   The core values of Christian faith have a larger platform of common ground.

It’s hard enough to put up with nations fighting each other to declare supremacy of values (since we no longer tolerate claiming each other’s real estate).  Let the leaders of churches and their professional helpers refrain from doing the same.

“As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

So–there’s only a modest point in being Episcopalian, or Presbyterian, Methodist or Baptist, Moravian or United Church of Christ, Copt or Orthodox. 

One’s best traditions are like good or beautiful choreography for some who are drawn to that way of dancing.  Or, traditions are like rooms full of decor that appeal to one person’s tastes and not another’s.    One can rejoice in the pleasant lines and heritage one has received, without claiming to have the best of anything.  If one is to boast, one should try to remember that the only valid boast is in Jesus Christ.

The text in Galatians quoted above does not conclude, “and if you belong to the Episcopal/Methodist/Southern Baptist/Anglican/Presbyterian… Church, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

Jesus’ words in John, quoting Isaiah, run thusly:  “This people knows me with their lips,  but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” These are words to wrestle with when we feel particularly satisfied with our own ways.  We rarely recognize it when we’ve become smug.    But we can look after ourselves (and our traditions) without prizing ourselves.  That way is the way of humility.  That way is the most winsome and Christlike.  Not easy, but plain; a low way and quiet, worthy of tradition.

Leave a comment

Filed under Accountability & Leader Development, Church Tradition and Culture, Community Formation, Evangelism

Madeleine l’Engle’s Birthday and Irrational Meaning in Advent

November 29th is Madeleine l’Engle’s birthday.  She’d have been 92 this year.   She made a big deal of her birthday, she said, because it was so easy for her own day of celebration to get lost between the communal celebrations of Thanksgiving and the start of Advent.  “I may be a grain of sand on the shore but I am a named grain!  And my name is known!”    Madeleine’s assertions of the reality of self against the general and inevitable cultural juggernauts cruising through November into December were sign posts for me:  “This way to a seat on the side of the road.  This way to get out of the way and off the road and look over the terrain and get some perspective.”

The week before Advent, my husband’s family had a week of gathering together over Thanksgiving in a lovely big, rented house midway down the Outer Banks, and we drove 9 hours to get home again afterwards.  When I woke up on Sunday morning I had trouble remembering it was the first Sunday of Advent.  I really didn’t want to haul myself out of bed and go to church, but I felt I was quite close to making a mistake if I didn’t stick with my interior discipline of starting the new church year in community.  So I prepared myself and went to church. 

The sermon made it into the exclusive category of the top ten worst I’ve ever heard (a list that currently has four empty slots at the bottom, since I can only remember five other worst sermons right now.  When I forget the sermon it drops off the list.  And yes–I have a list of the top ten best sermons I’ve ever heard, and that one currently has seven empty slots.)  The service felt like a set of discrete actions trying to get organized.  But more distressing to me than the poor execution of liturgy and the very bad sermon was the sudden feeling of isolation and loneliness that overtook me somewhere between the sermon and reciting the Creed.   As I began to say the ancient words–“We believe–” a door blew open in my heart and a strong, cold, winter’s wind blew across my mind, altering my inner landscape from indoors comfortable to the out-of-doors unknown.

Not even in Advent am I immune to the problems of going to church.  Every Sunday I encounter the 21st Century cultural problem of balancing between my individually named self and merging into a communal body of believers.  I find the balance is not gained by giving more attention to one than the other.  So, feeling exceedingly lonely, I stopped speaking, sat still in the service, watching and listening, letting my feelings rise and then recede.    During the Offertory,  I suddenly  remembered Madeleine and thought of her birthday perspective, her insistence on drawing aside from the crowd (or congregation) to feel and assert the value of her own name.  The preparations of Advent draw me away from my solitude at home and into communal rhythms, but unless I find my balance in going between one and the other, I get none of the expected comfort of family and I have no shared pleasure in anticipation or religious ritual that seems to be culturally expected in church, of church-goers.  The shared rhythms of Advent and Christmas  point up for me the seeming contradiction of isolation, self separated from other selves, even as we all say or sing the same words and move in unison.

In the late 1970s, for several years I lived close enough to NYC to go in for a day.  In those years, I always went in to visit Madeleine during Advent.  I would go on a Wednesday, and Madeleine and I would first share the Wednesday noon healing service in the Cathedral, and then share lunch at the Green Tree restaurant across from the Cathedral close on Amsterdam Avenue.  The first year we did this, while we were waiting for our food to be served, some frustration or concern of hers made her say with vigorous and cheerful irritation, “Right now I think it would be best for Christians if all the churches in the world burned down at once!”  I had felt that way before, and understood her without needing to ask why she felt that way just then.  We shared a perspective from our different places without the distraction of personal details.

This past Sunday, as I sat through what I hope will be the worst sermon I’ll hear in the new church year, and then sat through an unexpected heart-freezing chill of isolation in the midst of communal joy in the signs and songs of the new Advent season, I was blessed with a clear (unexpected) focus on the sight and smell of the Green Tree’s rich Hungarian goulash and then the blunt, energetic sound of Madeleine voicing her frustration with some systemic ecclesial (read: clergy) self-centeredness.  The memory made me laugh quietly, right there during the service; Madeleine had repented somewhat of her drastic judgment,  even before lunch was over.   “Well, that’s not a practical approach,” she said.  “Think of the mess we’d have in cleaning up before we could begin over again,” she said.  “We’re never free just to walk away and start something new somewhere else.  No one ever made a clean break and a new religious approach at the same time.  Trying it only amounts to littering the religious and cultural landscape as you drive on your merry way.” 

Being Christian today involves even fewer assumptions to be taken for granted than Madeleine and I were willing to make thirty years ago, about the church and the life of faith.  The frustrations for everyone involved are probably no greater, but I notice today that ecclesial types feel a greater risk in acknowledging real problems in the church and doing anything real about them.   Naming difficulties in being Christian, or being the church anywhere, seems too close to giving ammunition to the parascientists and other aggressive, antagonistic atheists.  This, I think, is to define ourselves by their beliefs and complaints.  When Madeleine l’Engle claimed the distinction of being named and known by name, she was asserting the power of creation, not just the fact of individual value. 

Churches in general don’t trust the power of creation–it’s too wild and unexpected if it’s really creative power at work, after all.  But creative power can’t be completely denied or controlled.  The wildness of Advent is more real than all the propriety of its liturgy and symbolism.  When I was overcome by loneliness in the midst of the congregation, I knew longing for an awareness of the sort Madeleine proclaimed–that my name mattered among all the other names, not more than all the other names.   Being in a congregation lets one  feel the difference as real and abiding and transformative.    I don’t have to fix things.  The best of being in the presence of God is being in the presence of God.  When I hold myself apart and separate as a church member–not feeling belonging or wanting to belong–I miss this experience of inner transformation entirely. This doesn’t make sense to me, but the surge of creativity and Life happen ahead of–and in spite of– the rational stuff in church.

I notice that I came to this intuitive sense of reality and Presence during a church service with a terrible sermon, and emptiness in the liturgy and disconnection between ritual, symbol and voiced expression of belief.    What came before clergy, theology and tradition, and exists before and without our choice, is the Wholeness that is both wild and provided for all of us, when we come together.  That Wholeness is still available to us,  coming as we move between our individual lives and our shared life in congregation.

Madeleine l’Engle emphasized celebrating her name and her birth day within the larger celebrations of Thanksgiving and Advent, illustrating how the particular gives meaning to the general, and the general sustains and cultivates meaning for the particular.  This amounts to knowing and celebrating one’s own life in the context of gratitude and the goodness of the future.    “The irrational season,” is her description of Advent.    I can sit and wait with that for four weeks.

Leave a comment

Filed under Community Formation, Spiritual Formation