Thursday, May 14, 2015

Ascensiontide -- Risen, Ascended, Glorified!

The period from the Eve of the Ascension to the Eve of Pentecost forms a special part of Easter Season, with its own character and gifts for contemplation and refreshment in the faith we proclaim.

Ascensiontide commemorates a number of things. First, it recalls Christ's bodily ascent to heaven--something found in Scripture, affirmed in all the Church's Creeds from the start, and often indicated in the Liturgy by moving the Paschal Candle from its place near the people to a position next to the altar from Ascension Day through the Day of Pentecost. 

The Ascension, on top of relying on the Resurrection as a physical phenomenon for its meaning, uses imagery speaking of heaven in a physical and directional sense (e.g. beyond and above us). Perhaps because so many have imbibed the simplistic and childish contemporary materialistic mindset that texts must be limited to only one level of meaning (either absurdly literal or vacuously figurative), the Ascension has become difficult for many to accept. With so many--even in the Church--trying to turn the Resurrection into something akin to a mere resuscitation or a shadowy "feeling amongst the Apostles,"  the Ascension is likely to be viewed almost as a reverse form of parachuting. But, it is not.

The Ascension is a revelation of how God is saving us: not by rejecting our physical world and bodies, but by drawing all things up to heaven and his presence in Christ and there enthroning it. This is completely unexpected. Our era, with its continuous drumbeat of depressing and negative messages about the state of the Creation, needs the news that Christ is the vanguard of a universal renewal and healing in which we may participate. 

By being "in Christ," we begin to share--in the here and now--that glorification and dignity, that renewed purpose and identity he has declared through the Paschal Mystery. Such an identity and purpose may be assaulted and may undergo trials, but it can never be taken away; it is a birthright given in baptism and treasured by its recipients. Such people see the holiness of God in the Creation, in the Sacraments and sacred places, in other people, and in God's work within us. This is one way to tell those who understand the Christian faith from the inside from those who either do not understand it at all, or whose understanding is only external.

Ascensiontide also commemorates the Session or seating of Christ at the Right Hand of the Father. Here, once more, we enter into language of profound power that has multiple--not just one--level of meaning. Its literal meaning is derived from royal courts and ceremonies conferring authority. Its spiritual meaning focusses on Christ, our Great High Priest, making intercession continually (and knowingly, compassionately) for us and the whole Creation. 

Our prayers find their meaning in his prayer before the Father. Our weakness grows powerful in his strength; our limited affection becomes generous in his Love. Such is the power of the heavenly worship as seen in the Book of Revelation, Chapter 5, where only the Lamb of God, whose self-giving love has been offered for the whole world, is worthy to bring about the final reconciliation between God and Creation. Indeed, the whole of Ascensiontide is soaked in the significance of worship.

And this matter of worship is the final point I wish to make. The lessons from Scripture used in both the Daily Office and at the Holy Eucharist for Ascension strongly emphasize transcendent, glorious, unitive experiences in worshipping God. Christ ascends to the Father blessing his disciples--a "present continuing" experience of blessing and communion that continues today in the Church's relationship to its Risen Head. He tells them to await the gift he has prepared for them so that they may do the work he has commissioned them to do "clothed in power." Their response is to return to Jerusalem "in great joy" and to worship God in the Temple, blessing him and thus being blessed by God.

This centrality of worship to the Christian never changes. Our ability to speak "truth to power," or give comfort to the afflicted, or to serve Christ in our midst, or even to grow in sacred knowledge and love, is always the direct result of divine grace, and that grace is most powerfully experienced in the two-way street of worship. The disciples set the pattern: led by Christ's command, they worship God in community and await divine guidance; the Holy Spirit acts upon the assembly, and they are sent out to proclaim the Kingdom and do works of power in Christ's Name. The connection between worship and ministry is solid and unbreakable.

Like the long span of a beautiful bridge over a deep gorge or a wide bay, Ascensiontide speaks of the ongoing connection between the Church in heaven (completion, perfect communion, perfect doing of God's will) and the Church on earth (with all its imperfection, trials, and struggles). Worship is the central and most important means by which that connection is sensed, experienced, and shared. We need to be unapologetic about this in our output-focussed, utilitarian culture.

So, we gather to worship God on Ascension Day (in those few places that still do during this tepid, distracted era) and during the nine days of Ascensiontide, not as a quaint practice inherited from another era, but as a counter-cultural challenge to a world of disconnection, "do-it-yourself" spiritualities prone to becoming messianic ego-trips, and materialistic accounts of being that exclude beauty and transcendence. 

Ours must be a faith opposed to so many of the currents of the society around us; but opposition for the Christian is not a decent into an ugly bitterness; rather, it is an ascent into the risen, ascended, and glorified life our Lord lives still, and through participating in that life at each and every Eucharist, we are able to show forth--"clothed with power from on high," where he makes intercession for us continually--that life which alone is truly Life.

The Collects for Ascension Day

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Rogationtide: Old, New, Eternal

A Collect for fruitful seasons

Almighty God, Lord of heaven and earth: We humbly pray that your gracious providence may give and preserve to our use the harvests of the land and of the seas, and may prosper all who labor to gather them, that we, who are constantly receiving good things from your hand, may always give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Rogationtide is a mix of the eternal, the old, and the new. It is eternal because it connects with God’s nature of love. It is old because it reminds us of our ongoing connection to and reliance on the earth for our sustenance. It is new because it re-awakens us in the post-industrial West to dimensions of life essential for the well-being of the earth and all living things. Few parishes in our nation still keep Rogationtide; but that must change. Here are some thoughts why, by way of the first Collect (prayer) for Rogationtide in the Book of Common Prayer, 1979.

This first Collect of Rogationtide addresses God in a way very familiar to our ancient Hebrew  and Christian ancestors…as well as to so many around the world who preserve honor, reverence, and wonder for God and the Creation. God is Almighty, Lord of heaven and earth. It is this gutsy, earthy-yet-spiritual mindset that marks authentic, biblical, faith—and all meaningful Christian environmentalism. This has become an unfamiliar language to many today, drunk with our supposed technological power and superiority.

In this prayer we are not addressing a concept, an opinion, or an ideology: we come before the living God, and the God of all things (living or not). Knowing God this way leads naturally to humility, a realization preserved in the collect by the old phrase “we humbly pray…,” a manner of address so tellingly absent from most of our modern, tepid, hipper-than-thou prayers. 

Humility! Imagine: the “masters of the universe” who today play willy-nilly with the very building-blocks of life, doing anything humbly! When was the last time you heard being "humble" praised in your sphere of life, or even in the Church? Yet, this is exactly what Christ Jesus models to us: humility and service. What woe we could save ourselves and all the planet if we really followed in his steps?

The Collect then goes on to ask (the root word for Rogation) from God the provision of harvests from the land and the seas for our benefit. We, the inheritors of a scientific view that has reduced the planet to a kind of giant terrestrial factory utilized to meet our needs and whims, may find this hard to say honestly. And we should stop and ponder this for a while.

Do we really believe this? Can we actually accept that the sea is not just a pool of resources we may use as we wish, but a magnificent, complex, and mysterious cosmos having a life and value apart from us? Do we truly view the land as responding to God’s initiative, providing us the good things we and other creatures need, or do we still believe—in nineteenth-century, benighted style—that we are the owners of it all, and make the earth do our bidding? This prayer will make no compromises with our artificial and control-obsessed vanity; and neither does God.

But, the prayer goes on. It asks that God will prosper those who gather the gifts God gives; notice, they are not mere “products” as we would likely call them today, but gifts that we receive from our God. The prayer ties together a right belief about God, Creation, and neighbor in justice, humility, and gratitude. It connects the dots between the food we eat the hands through which it has passed; between the God who gives life, and the earth that responds to this gift and brings forth what we must have.

The just treatment of those who bring us our food—constantly being lost and rediscovered in our industrialized, de-personalized food empires—is central to this prayer’s understanding of stewardship. You cannot have proper stewardship of the earth if you aren’t being a faithful steward of the people. Rogationtide knows this. The Church knows this—if it but uses its own prayers and traditions.

It turns out that seeing the web of all these interrelationships, far from being an invention of modern journalists or food purity crusaders, is part of the ancient and ongoing inheritance of the Christian faith. The stunning interconnection of all things, something modern people are only now beginning to appreciate once more, is all here in this prayer with one foot in the computer age and an other in time immemorial.

The Rogation Days, which have largely been phased out of our common life because the agrarian world the come from was swept aside by a plastic, disposable, and earth-denying consumerism, need to be reasserted once more. We need more outdoor Eucharists at farms and gardens. We need more Rogation Processions with blessings of community gardens, hand-made Rogation Crosses, and parish/community food pantries. We need more sacramentally-rich and clearly-prioritized events featuring processions through neighborhoods where injustice reigns. We need more prayers and activities that call for resource equity, good stewardship, just labor practices, and acknowledgement of our dependence of God, the earth, and each other. All of this is part of Rogationtide, if we care to use it.

Beyond liturgical romanticism, beyond idealized pictures of the past, Rogationtide has a profound message for us today: we cannot be truly Christian, truly human, without a reverence for God as the author and giver of all things, the understanding of the earth as the divine sacramental gift of love it is, and our own role as priests.

For, this prayer proposes that it only when we are living as priests—all of us—that we are fully ourselves in the Christian faith. The prayer notes that we “are constantly receiving good things” from God’s hand, and are always to give God thanks for these blessings. In its most elemental form, this is what a priest does: receive from God in reverence, and offer thanks in humility.

Jesus Christ, who was constantly receiving and sharing the Father’s love for humanity (and does so still from the Throne of Glory), in turn offered to God the supreme act of priestly thanksgiving by offering his own life on the Cross for “the Life of the World,” as the Gospel according to John so faithfully and beautifully puts it. For Christians, it is all about priesthood, all about receiving and offering, being in relationship with Christ, sharing, and loving as we have been loved.

Every Eucharist, no matter when or where or for what occasion, is a head-on encounter with this priestly life and identity. We offer the whole of Creation to God, along with bread and wine, to be revealed as the holy encounter, the holy gifts, they all are. The Eucharist is a reaffirmation that Christ, the Great High Priest, has given us the Holy Spirit by which we may know him and live in him, and share in his priestly work in every venue, every encounter, every relationship. That means bringing these concerns before God in worship. That means giving thanks for things great and small. That means working for equitable, safe, and wise treatment of land and people alike—at every stage of life, at every corner of the planet. There can never be a division between worship and life for the Christian.

Rogationtide, where still observed, is a distant and yet present call to live as the priests we are. Alongside movements promoting home and community gardens, new initiatives in food cooperatives, exposure of unjust, dangerous, and destructive agricultural/fishery practices, and “farm to table” initiatives, this season-within-the season of Easter is an essential part of how the Church pursues God’s mission to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” by recalling our most basic human needs before God the Creator—and our priestly duty and care to offer it all back to the God who made it.

“All things come of thee, O Lord; and of thine own have we given thee.” (1 Chronicals 29:14)

Monday, May 4, 2015

Some Thoughts on Why Episcopal Parish Clergy Keep Failing -- Part 2

This is another entry in a short series I am writing on some of the apparently more common problems that are contributing to the failure of a number clergy in congregations. Please see the first in this series for the background and context for these comments.

3. Lack of Biblical Knowledge

What is the primary source of authority in Anglicanism? What is the touchstone, as it were, of authentic Christianity for us? Where is the guaranteed spring of renewal for the clergy? Where do we first go for sacred knowledge, insight into pastoral matters, and personal study of God's revealed will? 

If the Bible isn't our answer to these questions, we are evidence of the problem at hand.

The Bible is at the heart of our life as Christians and as clergy. The ability to draw from it freely in preaching, teaching, pastoral care, and leadership is essential. But years of over-using the Historical-Critical Method has weakened us. The gift of a faith liberated from the tyranny of our consumerist society becomes impossible when even the Scriptures have been conformed to that society, its prejudices and blind-spots. Too much reliance on only one way of "knowing" the Scriptures has cost us dearly.

In our rush to avoid being Right Wing Christians, Episcopalians have often ceded the Bible to our “adversaries.” The result has become a sad caricature of a religion of fear v. a religion of ignorance….with both extremes really being much more alike than different. Too many times, our clergy simply don’t know the Scriptures well enough to gain the strength they have to offer. This shows in our relative inability to draw from the Scriptures in teaching and preaching, aside from a few choice parts that we reference again and again because of their usefulness in emphasizing issues we support.

Episcopalians have, in the Daily Office and the Holy Eucharist, a splendid encounter with Scripture in the context of worship and personal devotion; indeed, we use a great deal of Bible in our common life and the Prayer Book is almost a tissue of Scripture. What seems to be missing for many of our clergy (and perhaps laity) is an ongoing spiritual immersion in Holy Writ in a way that leads to greater inner knowledge of God’s presence and will in our life. Without that inner and ongoing knowledge, the tendency is to base our life on what is popular, what will “sell,” or what others are saying. This means a faith that isn’t particularly resilient or deep, and it comes out in preaching, teaching, and pastoral care.

I believe that our formation for both lay and clergy members needs to undergo a major renovation of how we live with—and in—Holy Scripture, as well as the foundational theologians and mystics of the Christian faith (who themselves always are deeply knowledgeable in Sacred Scripture). We need more Bible knowledge (in an authentic Anglican manner) and less talking around the Scriptures.

4. Lack of knowledge about how to manage a small business

Most congregations function at some level as businesses. With so many Episcopal clergy having either no experience with or a very negative view of  business, it can be easy to dismiss this fact and try to treat the parish as something like a government office or an academic entity, where the sources of income and the plans for operations are remote and the administrative responsibilities fall on someone else.

I have often been grateful for the modicum of understanding I gained growing up of how a business relies on the goodwill of its staff and customers, as well as its relationships with various vendors (once more, we are back in the realm of how to make and sustain relationships). I also have found it very important to listen to those parishioners who are involved in business and what they do in order to make operations efficient, transparent, renewed, and healthy.

It has always been a temptation to try and wash one’s hands of the “dirty work” of dealing with staffing, monitoring finances, understanding budgets, looking for ways to cut overhead where possible (yet not damage the primary mission), etc. But this doesn’t work for long. Inattention to this dimension of parochial life will lead to crippling disorder in a short time.

It is often noted that most types of clergy training in the Episcopal Church contain no actual teaching or practicum in the administration of a parish or the running of business operations. This is just plain foolish. I remember suddenly having to deal with forms, budgets, planning instruments, and various decisions related to maintenance of a building and grounds. There were skilled people in the congregation to help, and I tried to remember that it wasn’t all up to me…but being a leader means, at the least, one must know how to delegate appropriately and to lead folks as a team towards a decision or a plan.

Shared ministry and an emphasis on The Ministry of All the Baptized has often been used as an excuse to avoid making the issue of business management a part of clergy training. I see this as a cop-out. When things go sideways in a congregation (the death of a long-time member who “did everything” about the building, the loss of a treasurer who alone understood the ins-and-outs of church finances, or the suspicion that someone in the parish is embezzling funds), it won’t do for the cleric to say “that’s not my department.” While the clergy cannot (and should not) solve every problem and control each outcome, abandonment of leadership is not an option and contrary to our ordination vows. Just knowing where to turn for help is often the most important step.

I am personally pretty weak in this area. But, knowing this means I have to work hard to find the best people in the parish to help, talk to people in other parishes or church settings about how to manage effectively, and accept responsibility when things go wrong. Most people do not expect clergy to be great managers or administrators…but they do expect us do our part and not act like it is beneath us.

I would recommend that some part of clergy discernment and formation be focussed on this aspect or ordained life...even if a person does not currently feel called to parish ministry. It is simply too pervasive a part of Church life to be ignored as we do currently. The costs, in terms of people, parishes, and dioceses, are too great when this dimension is undervalued.

5. Preaching canned sermons

Preaching is a hard art. It takes years for most clergy to come to a way of preaching that is authentic to themselves and yet effective for the congregation. For some, it will always be a real chore to give sermons (and for many of our victims, a real chore at times to hear them). Yet, there is no denying that preaching is one of the single most important and instrumental ways clergy lead a community and grow as disciples themselves. This is why preaching “canned” sermons from a book or a web site is a dangerous practice.

Preaching a simple sermon on the Scriptures of the day issuing from one’s own personal spiritual struggles and experience is far better than a tour-de-force by a Big Name Preacher read straight from the Internet (or tweaked here and there and read as one's own--which, sadly, appears to happen). What most people want is an encounter with God in Word and Life. Preaching from someone else’s writing over and over tells a congregation that the clergy’s faith is essentially second-hand. It undermines that cleric’s ability as Jesus's servant and speak “with authority,” “not as the scribes.” Indeed, I have heard some clergy speak about preaching another's work in a way that seems little short of plagiarism. We have to do better.

I’m not talking about becoming some sort of Star of the Pulpit—actually, far from it. Many of our sermons will end up being effective for only a few people in church that day. Sometimes our sermons are just plain duds (leading to some humility, perhaps?). Yet, occasionally, our spiritual wrestlings with the texts and prayer are blessed by God and lead to insights that bring us to an exciting new place, a realization of God’s love, power, forgiveness, holiness, call to action, and much more. The sermons that arise from this personal struggle in faith are what speak to most people, inviting them into just that activity themselves, connecting their own journey to the wider life of the Church, helping heal old wounds, encouraging repentance, stoking hope and faith when it is running low, offering new tools for living and sharing the Christian witness…the list is endless.

The point is that being even a fairly mediocre preacher from our own experience is almost always better and more inspiring than being a peddler of other’s work. Reading and listening to sermons by others is a great and time-honored way to deepen, expand, and challenge our own way of preaching: but real preaching is a real labor: it is not meant to be easy, systematic, or "neat." It issues from God's love and yet also a trial of the soul. 

Using canned sermons—or developing a cycle of sermons once and then trotting them out for recitation each time those texts are used again—is a practice that should be confined to emergencies. The congregation comes to worship the living God through the living Word, part of which is interpretation by a living ordained disciple. Fresh, not canned, is best: this goes for preaching as well as eating.