Holy Scripture enjoins us to lay up treasures in heaven and not on earth, and there are more than a few parables in which the bad guy is the rich guy. It has led generations of Christian preachers to wage war against mammon, romanticize poverty and declare the high virtue of being prudently middle class. I’ve often wondered if we’ve used Jesus’ words mostly as ammunition to cover our own envy of those who have come to know an abundance of material wealth. Among the few truly great men I’ve known, my dad first and foremost among them, some have been men of considerable wealth. One, my friend Carl, died rather suddenly and unexpectedly a few days ago. By the good fortune of his business successes he was able to afford whatever his heart desired for himself and his family. Indeed he loved his toys, and had a large collection of them. But they were never more than toys, and he took as much delight in sharing them with his friends as a young boy takes in showing off a new football or bicycle. Occasionally wrong, but never in doubt, he could be loud, boisterous and publicly demanding on political issues he deemed important to the community. But he was always quietly and anonymously generous in supporting works that revitalized neighborhoods, saved historical buildings, provided low-income housing and helped build churches. In other words, he was a rich man who was not owned by his riches, a wise man who was not owned by his wisdom, a generous man who was not foolish in his generosity, and above all a man of godly integrity. I suspect that he always knew he was but a steward of all that God had put into his hands. To whom in scripture might we compare such men? Perhaps Abraham, Jacob of his later years, his son Joseph of Egypt, possibly Isaiah or Jeremiah, certainly Joseph of Arimathea, and maybe Lazarus. How about some of those who offered their homes to Paul to get congregations started?
Anybody who has watched National Geographic television knows that a reef is a living thing pulsing with the life of coral, colorful fish and a variety of critters large and small. The problem is that they only show those beautiful reefs that are popular with divers and snorkelers. I like those places too, and have spent many an hour happily swimming around near them. But our reef is different. Our shallow bay is pinched off at both ends by lava rock intrusions into the sea, and a half moon reef encircles it to protect about a quarter mile of beach. Here the water is a bit sandy, visibility is limited, and the waves and swells over the reef mean that it is never still. In other words, it’s not an aquarium. So the trick is to swim slow and be patient. Just hover over a coral encrusted boulder for a while and wait. In time the fish come out. Two arguing over territory, a small one evading a big one, urchins hiding in crevices, sea weed waving back and forth, eels popping in and out, and maybe, if you are lucky, a green sea turtle or two. It saddens me when I hear someone come out of the water exclaiming that there is nothing to see, that it’s all dead out there. The same is true when walking along up in the hills and mountains at home. You have to be patient and wait for nature to reveal itself. Even in our backyard it is only through quiet patience that the enormous life it holds becomes evident. Lent can be a time of patient waiting that will allow our inner vision and hearing to become focused on the abundance of holy life that exists all about us, the true miracles of daily life, and the incredible variety of forms in which God’s presence is made known to us. It saddens me when I hear someone exclaim that they have looked for God and found nothing, no sign of the holy anywhere. You need to go slow, be patient, be quiet, wait. God will be revealed in more ways than you thought possible, even in the limited visibility of waves breaking over you.
This morning I got up before sunrise to watch the full moon’s slow descent into the waters of the Pacific, framed by a few clouds illuminated in its own reflected light shimmering off the waves. What is it about a big chunk of space rock shining in the night sky with a light not its own that is so powerfully mystical? Simple laws of physics describe it all, so there is no mystery, but the mystical remains, untouched by science, and it bespeaks of the holy. So too with the readings from Mark’s gospel for Morning Prayer today. There is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, nothing secret that will not come to light. And yet there remains the mystical awe at watching the seed grow into something of magnificent natural beauty, the mystical awe at recalling the small and insignificant acts of God that turn the entire universe in new directions – even through the small and insignificant work of small and insignificant people.
Each month a small band of well meaning (and rather fundamentalist) clergy gather to pray, earnestly pray, for something big to happen in our valley, for the power of the Holy Spirit to rush in like a mighty wind to chase out the devil, that a revitalized holiness might grow in its place. I think they need to spend more time looking at the moon and wondering about Mark’s record of Jesus’ sayings. As it is, I’m afraid they will become discouraged and figure the devil has too firm a grasp on the sinful people of our valley. They will have failed to see the reflected light of Christ shining in dark places, God’s word being revealed in new ways with new words, the seeds growing, one-by-one, into a rich, abundant harvest, and many small works by persons of no real standing building foundations for big things to follow.
OK, the curmudgeon is back. Blundering corporate incompetence can raise my ire even on a sunny day on Maui. How do you like your cell phone provider? Mine’s Unicel, and I’ve liked them well enough because they have decent service in our rural areas out west. A couple of months ago my wife changed her service to AT&T because Santa brought her one of those iphone things. Now, two months later, Unicel decided on their own that since her service with them had been terminated, they would terminate mine also, and, apparently, for no reason other than some idiot thought it sounded like a good idea. All of a sudden, Bam!, no service on the only phone I really use. I got through to their help desk, and frequently, without too much problem. They were frequent calls because I kept getting agents who serviced only Maine, Minnesota or Missouri. They must have been on an ‘M’ kick – you know, on Tuesdays only serve customers in states that start with ‘M.’ Finally getting someone who knew that the USofA also has lands west of the Rockies, I went through three different agents, each of whom promised to help if they could just put me on hold for a moment. Do you know that their system times out after about four or five minutes of being on hold? Then it disconnects you, and you have to start all over again talking to some guy in Michigan or Maryland. The last guy I talked to said he knew what the problem was and could help, and then, pulling out his corporate “cover your ass” laundry list, started lecturing me on why it was all my fault, and that I should not have authorized the termination of my service. It’s not a priestly thing to go ballistic, especially during Lent, and it’s not pretty either. Canticle 14 may have to be my personal mantra for a while. That’s the Prayer of Manasseh, for those of you who may not be Episcopalian, and it’s in the Apocrypha for those of you with incomplete bibles. After a day of waiting I called again late this afternoon. Whoever Eric is, he’s the one who finally did not hang up on me and restored my service. I’m relieved – but not happy. So where is the sermon topic in this? Maybe something on one of Jacob or David’s hissy fits? Jesus finally blowing it with the temple merchants? The folly of being so reliant on modern technology and the need to return to a simpler way of life (keep in mind that you are reading this on the Internet)? Paul getting testy with the Corinthians and Galatians? The appalling arrogance of comparing one’s momentary discomfort with Jacob, David, Jesus or Paul?
I’m going to take a break at honing my skills as a retired Episcopal curmudgeon. For one thing, we are still on vacation on Maui, and it’s just so doggone hard to work up a good steam of ire as tropical breezes waft through palm trees over our lanai. The thing is this; I really love our church, and get so tired of hearing nothing but clerical complaining about how bad things are when there is nothing but opportunity spread out before us like a banquet just waiting for us to come in and dine. And now, I’m going to get ready for a dinner of suhi and fine wine.
Have you been listening? If you have been listening well you have already heard a request for more. You have heard a request for an invitation. It may have been tentative, uncertain and doubtful, but it was there just the same. Most requests for an invitation are disguised in an attempt to avoid embarrassment. They follow the old familiar sales pitch: “You don’t want to buy any Girl Scout Cookies do you?” accompanied by a look that fully expects disappointment. The correct answer, of course, is, “Why yes, I’ll take four boxes.”
“Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” After a long conversation during which Jesus listened with patience and understanding, they said to him, “Rabbi where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came, they saw, they stayed for more.
“What are you looking for?” That’s the first invitation. It’s an invitation for the other to put into words of some kind a sense of what kind of hunger is in his or her heart and what kind of nourishment she or he seeks. Remember, it’s not your hunger for a particular kind of nourishment that counts, it’s theirs, not yours. If you’ve been listening you’ll can begin suggesting possible ways in which, through your congregation, God in Christ might feed their hunger, and, if not through your congregation, perhaps another. A young man came to see me not long ago to talk about his own hunger. It took him six full months to get up the courage to talk, and, after listening to him, I suggested he might find what he was seeking at the nearby Methodist church.
“Come and see” is the second invitation. It is an invitation to come with you to the place and among the people where you are fed. Come and see can be said in different words in different ways, but in the end it means “Why not come to church with me” in a way that minimizes the anxiety producing strangeness of church.
• All kinds of people come to our church.
• You will see every sort of dress.
• You don’t have to do anything; just sit and watch.
• We will sing, pray, hear four pretty substantial readings from scripture, listen to a fairly short sermon, pray a little more, and then comes the big thing for us – Holy Communion. For us, Holy Communion is the centerpiece of the whole service, and you may have a lot of questions about it so just ask away.”
It’s about as simple as that. So what’s the big deal? Get up off your fat butt and go do it! OK, OK, I’m sorry I said you had a fat butt. I recant. Get up off your lazy butt and go do it!
The problem with this series of posts is that the one on top may not make much sense unless you’ve read the two or three preceding it. The subject of this post is the listening part of listening and inviting as the way of Episcopalian evangelizing.
Episcopalians are, for the most part, uncomfortable being too public about sharing their faith. More often than it should that is because they are not all that sure what their faith is, or at least not sure what words to use to describe it. My answer to “I don’t know what to say” is to say nothing at all. Just listen. Listening is harder than it sounds mostly because we are lazy listeners. We don’t really want to put the effort into actually hearing what someone else is saying, but the fact is that sooner or later, in almost any conversation, the other person is going to say something that just begs to open up a deeper conversation about the ultimate questions of life. Pay attention! Listen! At least once or twice a day someone, maybe a stranger, maybe the clerk at a store, maybe your best friend, will say something that could open the door to a deeper conversation that will lead toward God. When that door opens do not rush in. Do not start talking. If the time and place are right, ask a question, a simple question inviting them to say more and then SHUT UP AND LISTEN. What kind of question is a simple question? How about: Are you comfortable saying about that?; Can you tell me what you mean?; Why do you ask? Don’t complicate matters. Just work on listening, and if you are up to it, start making a list of comments that might have opened up a conversation in a Godward direction. I guarantee that they will come every day: comments about days at church camp, recent deaths in the family, questions about good and evil, complaints about churches, wondering about happiness and sadness, anger at God. You name it, someone will say it, but you won’t hear it unless you are listening.
By the way, I once had a parishioner quit the church in a blaze of anger that included a letter to the vestry accusing me of being the worst listener and without an ounce of pastoral counseling ability. Hey, it happens.
Got any thoughts on listening? If so, post them. The next subject will be inviting.
I’m not sure why we make such a big deal out of evangelism. On the one hand we joke about it as if a slight but knowing chuckle absolves Episcopalians of getting anywhere near it. On the other hand we write book upon book about how to do it that no one reads and issue training materials ad nausium that no one uses. If the point is pressed, our fall back position is that we don’t know how and don’t want to look stupid or be humiliated in trying.
Being Anglicans we also have a third hand, and that is our theology which points in the direction of universalism, and therefore we are not personally responsible for seeing that the “unsaved” come to know Jesus. That’s a real handicap. Conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists are generally of a mind that unless they aggressively witness to the Lord Jesus Christ among those who are not saved they will be called to account for the lives damned to eternal hell because of their inaction. A local preacher whose services are broadcast each Sunday recently announced the several hundred thousand souls that had been saved through the efforts of their missionaries in Mexico City among the unsaved, damned Roman Catholics. Another local pastor explained to me that he needed to make an annual tally of the souls saved through his ministry for his superiors. My friends, that is heavy business. If you buy it you become responsible not only for your own eternal life, but for the lives of countless others as well. You had better get busy or risk burning in hell.
Guilt and threats of eternal punishment make damn good sticks, and the promise of a heavenly eternal life dangling out in front makes a divine carrot. We Episcopalians don’t buy that theology and don’t have those tools to work with, but we are very good at sitting back on our fat butts to observe and criticize. What we can do, what we should do, and what is consistent with our theology is to listen and invite. Listen and invite will be subjects of a post to come, and perhaps you would like to offer your ideas about that now.
In many parts of the country those who left the Episcopal Church in anger over the homosexual issue are trickling back into their beloved parishes to discover that: 1) they are warmly welcomed and no one expects any explanation; 2) most in the congregation never felt they left, they were just absent for a season of healing; 3) apart from the gay issue, almost everything the returning expatriates had been told about the “direction of the Church” and the horrible things it was teaching were either an outright lie or a gross distortion of the truth; 4) we can tolerate a wide range of comfort and discomfort on the gay issue and still be faithful followers of Christ and friends with each other.
It appears that no matter what, the separatists are going their own way to form a new denomination that will be almost fundamentalist in dogma and hierarchically authoritarian in polity. Now it is time for those of us who continue in the Anglican traditions of our Episcopal Church to stop being so defensive and begin celebrating the joy we share with each other as followers of Jesus Christ in God’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. It is only through that enthusiastic celebration of joy with each other that we can become a bright beacon of light for others and bearers of the Good News. Of course that means evangelism, and that will be the subject of another post – or two. But I’ll give you a hint. I’m tired of wimpy Episcopalians who run from the “E” word or equate it with television, street corner and weird sect hucksters. My prescription: You’re grownups; get over it and get on with it. Quit making excuses.”
Exploring the dimensions of discipleship has been a constant theme in my sermons for the last several years. The emphasis has been on the idea that we are being, and have been, prepared to go out and do the work that God in Christ has given us to do. I have encouraged any who would listen to be like the sower in the parable who promiscuously tossed out valuable seed as if there was no end to the supply and without care as to where it landed. I would not say that I have had a lot of takers. There are many and complicated reasons for that, and among them is a truth that dawns slowly and grows brighter as one matures in discipleship as expressed through our Anglican traditions: our God and our Anglican ways do not make much sense, especially when the world and most lives appear out of control. So exactly how does one go about being a sower without looking stupid or end up imitating those bible thumpers we all detest? After all, what good is a God who will not correct the obvious problems in the world and in our lives, and who allows such horrible, tragic injustices to take place day after day? And what good is a religion whose rites do not result in any tangible change in our environment? What are we if not a bunch of wannabe wizards who flunked out of Hogwarts?
The idea that, in Christ, our humiliated human bodies and human condition will be conformed to the glory of Christ’s resurrection body (see Philippians 3) doesn’t have much currency in a world where decay, corruption and death rule. More helpful by far is a regimen of diet, exercise and the attentive care of a good cosmetic surgeon. The preposterous idea that we should “let go and let God” seems like the last desperate hope of a loser, which is precisely why it is the centerpiece of AA and other twelve step programs. As for the world at large, better to be a Machiavelli than a Gandhi or King, Jr. Why mess around seeking peace when it is a more sure bet to be safe and rich by making others weak and poor?
So I suspect that we, as Christian disciples in the Anglican tradition, will continue being a rather small group. With Habakkuk we will continue to foolishly rejoice in the light of God’s presence even amidst destruction and chaos. And I also believe, perhaps foolishly, that, in time, there will be many others who will see and wonder about the light we appear to walk in a light that seems to come from somewhere else and that reflects through us into the world about us and want to know how they can walk in that light too. It’s a sort of passive evangelism that would appall our conservative evangelical friends but I like it. In the meantime, I believe that we are also called to work tirelessly for the good of societies through policies that reflect the teachings of God in Christ, and for my thoughts on that you can check out my brief essays on judging candidates and platforms among the older posts on this site.