Monday, March 16, 2015

Old signposts that can signal future actions

In my retirement reality I am looking around for guideposts and guardrails, principles that can guide as  I look at where I am going from here. I wrote this for our diocesan synod several years ago and it still serves me as a template of where the institution might go, what it can look like, although I am not sure how and where it might fit in my own future ministry. I note it here as a reminder.

In 1977 I went to visit a monastery in Santa Barbara California because my life was at a crisis: as a student, as a worker, as a man trying to figure out what my place was in the world; what I had to get and what I had to give.  I had no answers and I wasn’t even sure how to ask the questions. And something happened to me. If you’re interested, I can talk to you about it another time, but the end result was, I found the God I believed in believed in me more. And that made all the difference. 

After that it was time to return to my life, my work, my studies, my wildly open future. As I was preparing to leave the monastery that morning I  saw the oldest monk  walking outside the chapel: a monk for 70+ years, Bishop Campbell had retired as a bishop from Africa,  was around 92  at that time and still going strong.  I went up to him and I thanked him for his presence during my time there, then said, "and now I’m going back to my life.” He looked at me steadily for a moment, then he said, “Yes, another beginning!” And I’ve always remembered that. A great one liner.

I've also been very fond of another one liner from a Rhodes scholar who went in a different direction. Kris Kristofferson, in the song, “Me and Bobby McGee”, said, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” and there’s a real wisdom there. 

Now we’re in a funny place as a church. We were a cultural necessity for so long, part of the official definition of the good life, had some real glory years, and now they seem to be gone. There may be some sadness that so many things that seemed to be eternal have come to an end; but as a 92-year-old monk said to me some 36 years ago, it is another beginning.

I am no longer a young man, Bishop Campbell is long gone, even the monastery burned to the ground a few years ago and a smaller number of monks have renewed the ministry in an disused convent closer to the center of Santa Barbara. And we are no longer part of the official definition of the good life, we're hardly fashionable anymore. But we have good memories as we look for another beginning where the old answers might not fit, and the new questions are just coming into focus.

And there is a tremendous freedom in the beginning again, in looking around and wondering what the gospel will look like in the 21st century, as long as we keep fast to the graceful hope that God believes in us more than we believe in ourselves; that God holds our church in love; then by God’s grace we have nothing left to lose and a new beginning to gain.

So where do we go from here? My personal hunch is that we have lost the battle of Sunday morning. 40 or 50 years ago, the market was closed, the playing field silent,  and sleeping in or taking brunch was not such a popular option. That world has changed and there are new and noisy gods on the horizon; with the mall or the web, the media and big business, sex and popularity and money are so often the new meaningful icons. 

And while most people have left religion behind, some others stick to a strident fundamentalism, a conservative evangelical fervour that often strikes me as a defense mechanism against the possibility that God is calling us to something new, something larger than vision of the church we found such comfort in so many years ago. That gives me hope too. I think it must’ve been like that when the Christian community left its Jewish parentage and went among the nations; it must’ve been like that when Christians started to speak out for pacifism, against slavery, for women’s rights, even now against multinationals and ecological outrage. Perhaps another beginning for God’s people is growing in the heart of the church. And where do we go from here?

I think the best thing is to start small. A few years ago we started a four-year program with the bishop's certificate and over 40 people have now enrolled. But I think that most people are not ready or able to make that kind of time commitment. So in my ministry for the diocese I’m building 4 week templates, weekend templates, one day templates, even online classes that can happen any time for anyone, anywhere. 

We’re meeting people where they are and when they can join us  by offering options for Tuesday nights or Thursday nights, Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon: short sequences that can awaken curiosity and hope, seed community and commitment, so that we can  remind people that we stand offering a tradition that carries the greatest hope of justice, mercy, community, that the world has ever seen. 

But this is not easy and there is a danger that we are so caught by our history that we could almost lose hope, we’ve already lost so much, but “We are the body of Christ” and God believes in us so much more than we believe in ourselves, so carrying this hope can be such good news, this freedom of nothing left to lose gives us everything to gain as a gift from God.

So we’re starting small from here. If you are a small congregation, 3 to 12 people meeting every week or once or twice a month, I ask you to consider  having a one-day program once or twice a year. We can do it as part of the Sunday service and try to nurture your existing membership and maybe bring in a few new people. If you’re a medium sized congregation, think about having a few four-week series on Bible study, on meditation, on faith and films,  on making your own rule of life: come talk to me about who you are and what you like and we can try to make a program that fits for you; and if I can’t do it, I can help you find somebody who can.  

if you’re a larger congregation this offer stands too, but I would also ask you to look at your own membership, clergy and laity, and think about, what talents or community you might share from within your congregations, amongst your sisters and brothers in the diocese, what gifts you might have to give. 

This can be a very rich moment to be in the church, a lovely time to think on these things, and while there is much that may be ending, it may well be that we are privileged to witness a new beginning, an opportunity that comes to us with a great freedom and an equal responsibility. But I am convinced that we are under an obligation, under the gift of grace, to recall who we are, what we carry, why that matters, for God believes in us, and that shall always be our heritage, our heart, and our hope.

Rob Whalley + 

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