Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Better to have loved LOST than never to have had Lost at all.

My kids and I started watching Lost on DVD this past summer, catching up from the very beginning and getting totally hooked on the series. There have been great moments of connection and discovery, like when one of my 8th graders realized that John Locke was the name of a real person (18th c. English Religous Philosopher) and my 4th grader recognized that Daniel Faraday was a nod to Michael Faraday, the scientist. Soon, we really started looking for the links and connections beyond the 'plain sense' of the storyline and noticed other interesting names, etc: Jack Shephard - the shepherd and physician who leads; Sawyer - wild like Tom Sawyer; Charlotte Staples Lewis - a nod to Clive Staples Lewis (C.S. Lewis).

It's a great show and has given us hours of imaginative conversations about faith, science, religious philosophy: Christian hope, Eden, Messiah/Sacrifice, Healing Power, The Communion of Saints (e.g. Time/Space Continuums), etc.

Last week's episode climax occurred in a church and Benjamin Linus tells Jack Shephard the story of Thomas the Apostle, whose painting is hanging in the sanctuary. Ben recounts how Thomas was the one who said to Jesus when he learned he was going to Jerusalem to die, "Let us go with him and die also." But that is not how he is remembered, Ben continues. Instead, Thomas is remembered for being the one who didn't want to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. He needed proof - had to see, wanted to touch the wounds for himself. At this point in the series, Locke is dead (we don't know exactly why or how) and Jack has a note from him, unread until a few scenes later, but which says simply, "Jack, I wish you had believed."

During tonight's episode I finally remembered to grab my copy of John Locke's "The Reasonableness of Christianity with a Discourse of Miracles" off my library shelf. Must admit, haven't looked at it since seminary days (thanks Dr. Edmondson!) but in turning a few pages quickly stumbled on these two points from Locke's main treatise:

"7. Adam being thus turned out of paradise, and all of his posterity born out of it, the consequence of it was, that all men should die, and remain under death for ever, and so be utterly lost."

"8. From this estate of death, Jesus Christ restores all mankind to life...whereby it appears, that the Life, which Jesus Christ restores to all men, is that life, which they receive again at the Resurrection. Then they recover from death, which otherwise all mankind should have continued under, lost forever..."

Now, I'm not confident that this is where the writers are going. According to the ABC Lost series website, (or was it another related website?) the writers did require the condition that the series have a supernatural underpinning to it, and clearly they have carefully chosen characters' names and made some strong allusions, if not outright references, to religion and science, miracles and the power of hope.

Regardless of exactly where this may be headed, it's more than just an occasional TV teaching moment - it's been season after season of great discussions, wondering, and just darned good writing, acting, and entertainment.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Edifice Complex

At what point does real estate and a building become more of a hindrance than a help to the life of the church?

Our buildings and their architecture say much about who we are and what we value in our worship life - where the people sit, where the pulpit and altar are located and how big they are, stained glass windows or clear, etc.

So, when we realize that our identity is shifting in some way - the times and culture have changed and call for a new response or a new modality; the neighborhood has changed and we need to reach out to a new deomographic; the liturgy doesn't carry enough meaning anymore because it has become rote so we need to make a change of emphasis - one of the best ways to accomplish that shift is by shifting the cues in our environment. This can be very hard to do, though, when those cues are locked in to the architecture of the building.

There is an old adage in the church liturgy circles which says that when you are trying to design liturgy and look for new forms, new expressions of worship you usually end up fighting against the architecture which was designed to reinforce a previous theology. And so the saying goes, "the building always wins."

I just wonder, though, how the church would be different if we took a more mobile/adaptable view of our buildings and architecture - much like families do when they decide, "This house just isn't working for us anymore" and so they either remodel or sell and move. Some churches do remodel - but not without great pain and grief usually. Rarely do churches actually move.

If we were more adaptable with our architecture, would we also be more adaptable in general? Or would the church still be as slow to change and to respond to the shifts in culture and in the lives of people who mostly today find the church to be irrelevant to their lives?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

What is God doing here?

This morning I ventured out to visit a little church I'd never been to on a Sunday before - just to check it out. They are currently without a rector (head pastor) but have an interim who has been with them since late summer while they are in the search process.

A visit to a church like this and you can quickly grasp the concept of 'churches in decline.' For all intents and purposes the place is pretty tired looking and seemingly not on a good trajectory:

  • The building's interior looks like it is straight out of the 1950's - cinderblock walls, linoleum tile floors, and windows that are opaque, cracked, and definitely not energy efficient.

  • 3 of us at the 8am service (why bother?) and about 26 at the 11am

  • Many of the folks are older and there are not many signs of children being present

  • There's a noticable lack of energy in the worship service, the liturgy was uneven and the sermon was a very 1970's psychobabble piece - ( don't think God was even mentioned)

  • Both services started late - as did the Bible study between service

But even with all the potential barriers and pitfalls this church had an amazing edge to it unlike any Episcopal church I've ever been in: It was diverse: Racially, educationally, economically, and age-wise. The later service reflected about 50% Anglo; 45% African American; and 5% Asian. Almost every age demographic was represented - minus teens and 20's. There were a couple of Harvard grads and a couple of folks who had barely finished high school.

And beyond that: The people were genuinely friendly, warm and welcoming but not pushy or needy. The music surprisingly in a place this size was very good - a wonderful young woman who played piano, organ and led the choir. And they are located in a prime area for growth: densely populated area of Northern Virginia in the DC suburbs.

This is the kind of place that can really capture my imagination and stir my soul in a way that few churches do. When that happens I am forced to ask not "What do they think they're doing?" but "Do they wonder and have they noticed what God is doing here?"

Saturday, February 14, 2009

So When is the Church NOT SUPPOSED to be SAFE?

Based on the posting below, one fb friend commented that the concept of the church being safe is a two-edged sword. Because when it is a truly safe place, you open the doors for every unhealthy, off-balance, manipulative, bully who couldn't find another place of acceptance in this world to walk in and be greeted warmly - at least at first.

This begs the question, "Is the church even always supposed to be 'safe' for clergy - or for anyone for that matter?

Well, let's follow a natural path of logic here: The church is the Body of Christ - the incarnation of Jesus in the world today. If that is so (and scripture and tradition say it is) then would Jesus always be a 'safe' person to approach and to spend time with?

Well, let's see....hmmmm...y-No.

Jesus did things like welcome tax collectors, prostitutes, and other notorious sinners to dine at the table with him. Not safe.

Jesus crossed over to the 'other side' and walked among the tombs and the swine, touched a mentruating woman and a dead body, breaking down all sorts walls and smashing purity codes. Not safe.

Jesus ended up literally crucified for taking the stances and making the proclamations he did - and guess what? So did some of his followers. Others died in jail, were fed to wild beasts, or mocked, scourged, executed, and/or tortured in some other fashion. Not safe.

Therefore, neither should the church always strive to be a 'safe' place.

Annie Dillard said it so well:

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”

—Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.

So it seems to boil down to this: The church should be a safe place in terms of providing an environment that is free from abuse from the institution itself - whether to employees clerical or lay or to parishioners or to anyone - and should absolutely be about preventing and curtailing abuse wherever it is encountered. That has everything to do with God's mission in the world of being a force for life and love.

But, the church should not be a place that keeps us safe from facing the hard realities of our own shortcomings and need for transformation and ongoing conversion of life. Or, in the words of the General Confession, the church should actually help us to "acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed..." [Book of Common Prayer, Holy Eucharist I, pg. 331] so that we can let go of the past hurts and disappointments and begin to move forward with expectation and wonder and the new life that God is working in us through Jesus in his Body, the church.

Can I get an Amen?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Safe Church For Clergy

So, I've been my particular faith tradition we put a lot of effort a few years back into making the church a safe place for children - and adults - in terms of sexual abuse/misconduct prevention. So much effort that we have mandatory training, awareness, procedures and the like that are highly effective. Consciousness and levels of care have been raised to appropriate levels. I'm so very glad we've done that work. It has paid off.

So, here's my question: Could we do something similar for our clergy and lay employees? Could we make the church a safe place to work? Could we initiate standard accepted procedures and practices for hiring and firing, and outline processes for what to do when things don't seem to be working out? Could we mandate HR training?

It seems to me that this is one of the biggest ongoing problems for us. And the degree of power imbalance and lack of accountability and transparency that goes along with these situations sets us up for creating undue hurt, trauma, and long-term scarring of clergy's and layworkers' vocations (not to mention that of their families), as well as confusing parishioners and damaging their faith in the institutional church.

Anyone disagree?

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Great Physician

Last week's Sunday Bible reading from Mark's Gospel (Mark 1:29-39) is a compelling take on the early stages of Jesus' ministry. He heals Simon's mother-in-law, and then 'they' bring to him all who were sick or possessed with demons - and Jesus heals the sick and casts out the demons and those who are touched by his healing are restored. To see this miraculous work, we are told, the whole city crowded around the door. Is it any wonder?

When was the last time you had to find a good doctor? Have you ever moved to a new town and had to go through the torment of trying to find a physician you can trust? Or maybe, you've received an unexpected diagnosis that has forced you to seek out a specialist - someone whom you knew was specially trained and practiced at delivering the kind of care you needed. You want to know what their credentials are and you want good referrals.

If this is a familiar situation for you, then you night be able to relate to the people in that city who crowded around the door - trying to see just how powerful Jesus' healing could be - just how trustworthy he was. Because, in fact, there is not a single one of us who is not in need of some kind of restoration. There is not one of us who is already perfectly whole, perfectly healthy in mind, body, and spirit.

"Everyone is searching for you," his companions say to Jesus. And where they find him - more specifically what they find him at - is the signal to us all of the power that Jesus can bring into our lives. "And while it was still dark, he went out to a deserted place to pray." Jesus' complete union with God, and his ongoing communion with the Father, is the sign to us of the power that Jesus offered the people gathered around that door, and those who were in the neighboring towns and villages.

And that communion with God is the path that Jesus offers all of us today who still are seeking for restoration and for wholeness.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Marketing God, Part Deux

So in the previous post (below), I mentioned that at the BNI meeting I had to get up and participate twice. Actually, the second time, I didn't have to get up. Truth be told (remember my mantra), they were going to by-pass me in this round. But seeing as how it was a pass-the-basket activity, how could I as a preacher not participate and maintain any sense of integrity or image at all?

The deal was that they were passing this little basket around and as each person got it, they stood up and said what they were putting in it; either a referral slip for another member, or a thank you slip with resultant dollars earned for a referral they had received and followed up on. Sometimes, someone would reach in and take out the referral that was intended for them from someone else who had recently had their turn and put it in there.

I couldn't resist. I just couldn't.

As my table neighbor began to pass the basket around me to the next person I grabbed it and stood up.

"Your customs are strange," I said. "In my tradition, if we made everyone stand up and explain what they were putting in the basket, we'd clear out the church in a big hurry. On the other hand, maybe if we let people reach in and take what they needed as the basket came to them, the church might not be struggling with membership decline."

I got a lot of laughs. But, hey - I was being serious.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Business Networking: Smells like Evangelism??

Early this morning I attended a business networking breakfast in McLean (BNI) at the invitation of my efficiency coach, Gerhard. This was the first time I had attended anything of this sort. He was making a presentation at the meeting about his service and I went to support and endorse his work.
I was caught a little off guard when at a couple of points in the meeting, each individual was expected to stand up and address the group. The first time members and then visitors in turn would give their 30-second "who I am/what I offer/the leads I need are ___" speech. For some reason I assumed that I would be exempt from this activity since, after all, I am not a business person but a priest...and one who is currently without a church. But nooooo......

The leader, looking around notices that everyone has had their turn - except moi. I look at him and with arm fully extended, eyes lasered in, he points directly at me like a birddog that has cornered a grounded pheasant. I stand up, mind racing. At that point the smile on my face is for cosmetic purposes only.

"Good morning. I'm Jennifer McKenzie and I'm an Episcopal priest. (pause) I market God."

I said more - I know I did. And it was true - I just don't necessarily remember it all. I know I said that I am particularly interested in helping people who feel disenfranchised from the church find community where they can connect to God - and I am. It's just that I wasn't quite prepared for that moment. Or, more accurately- I wasn't expecting that moment. In fact I was prepared, because as a priest who has served as an Associate for Evangelism, I have given this a lot of thought. I'm just not sure I had it down to 30 seconds. (Thanks for not dinging me at 'time's up'!)

Which is why I share this story with you. Sometimes - or maybe most of the time - it is in the most unlikely places that we are called upon to tell our story: who I am (Christian), what I offer (a life of radical hope and connection to God in community), and the leads I need are ___ (who do I think needs to hear my message?). We need to know our story, to be able to tell our story, and to tell it fast and to the point - but in a non-threatening way. I find that a little irreverent humor goes a long way in that department.

So, I'm Jennifer McKenzie. I'm an Episcopal priest. And I market God.

Smells like Evangelism to me.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Going Benedictine

Several years ago I went away to attend a Benedictine Experience. It was a peace-filled week spent in community where we found a balance of time together and time alone; time for silence and time for conversation; time for prayer, for work, for study, and for rest.

While this retreat was literally a mountaintop experience, held at Kanuga in the Blue Ridge mountains of western NC, the Benedictine Life can be an every-day sort of thing. It is an alternative way of being in the world that seeks to embrace the rhythm of the day and the seasons that God has given us for our own restoration, health, and wholeness. Based on an ethos of balance, moderation, and reasonableness, it is in a word, 'Salvation.'

But Salvation must be chosen. Benedict's way of living does not come naturally to us who are socialized to be hurried, harried, achievement and reward driven consumers. We must be intentional about embracing and protecting that rhythm if we are to continue in the dance.

As I begin a new pattern of life, I have decided to intentionally recover those Benedictine practices that keep me grounded, whole, and sane. After first being introduced to St. Benedict's Rule, I learned that it was possible, even in the hectic metro DC area, to live the Benedictine life. But it is also easy to lose touch with our very lives as we seek to chase after future goals and ambitions that may or may not have anything at all to do with our life in Christ or with Salvation.

My mantra continues to be: Secrets are the seeds of dysfunction.
My prayer for today comes from St. Benedict's Prayer Book, Morning Offering for Monday, week one: "Father, we offer to you this day all our thoughts, words and actions, all our sufferings and disappointments, and all our joys. And we unite our lives with that of your beloved Son, Jesus Christ. Amen."

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Time to Get Back to Blogging

For every thing there is a season, and a time for every matter under Heaven. So says 'Kohelth', the writer of Ecclesiastes in Chapter 3, vs. 1. That pretty much describes where I am right now - reconciling myself to the fact that I am entering a time for a change of season. Maybe it is entirely appropriate that life events would shift in the way they have in the midst of winter. Sitting here in the darkest season of the year with a layer of ice-covered snow on the ground seems just about right. But what that means is that it is also a time for nesting with my family, for sitting and thinking, and for giving great thanks every time the sun comes out with strength and begins the process of melting the snow and ice - even if it leaves things a bit muddy in the meantime.

Spring will come. For now the seeds sit in the dark soil of the earth, waiting.

My new mantra: Secrets are the seeds of dysfunction.

My prayer: God I know that this matter is 'under Heaven' and that as your light shines brighter, your truth grows stronger. Be with me in the darkness and cold. Help me to remember and more deeply know the truth of your Gospel: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." Neither shall the darkness overcome your light now. Amen.