I have a new post up today at Building Faith, an online Christian education community. Here’s the first paragraph:
The Pew Forum’s recent report “None’s on the Rise” has caused much commentary about the current state of American society and the loss of trust in the institutional church. Many commenters have analyzed the trend rationally, or issued a call to greater evangelism as a result of these numbers. But as I read the report, I found myself heading in a different direction: becoming more aware of the many emotions behind the numbers.
I am posting a sermon manuscript. I believe that sermons are meant to be heard rather than read, which is why I’ve never posted one before, and I don’t intend to post them in the future. HOWEVER, this week I made the strategic error of posting a Facebook status update prior to preaching:
At St. Andrew’s we have three services every weekend. Being a somewhat fallible preacher who has the tendency to wander off-text, at the 10 AM service (which was recorded) I did not work in all three references. Which was duly noted on my FB feed:
So, to set the record straight, and for the .25 of a person who is curious about how Ben & Jerry’s related to last Sunday’s readings… here’s the manuscript. And now I will post this link to my FB comment thread, and all will be well
Sermon for Proper 21B
September 30, 2012
The lectionary delivers us the Book of Esther only once every 3 years. The last time we read it was 2009; the next time won’t be until 2015. And this is all we get: just these ten verses. But that’s not because Esther isn’t important. Her story is read annually by those who follow Moses. Every year, Jewish people celebrate the holiday of Purim, which commemorates God’s work through Esther. It’s a huge party, the kind where it’s your religious obligation to drink heavily–the kind that we 21st century American semi-Protestants can barely imagine.
Esther deserves more attention than 10 verses once every 3 years–not least because her story is a perfect illustration of the gospel lesson for today.
Her story is set about 2500 years ago. It starts with an unhappy royal marriage. King Ahasuerus sends a message to his wife, Queen Vashti, to come to a party. She refuses to attend; we never know why. She is quickly deposed as queen, and the king goes in search of a new wife. What happens next could be a scene from The Bachelor: All the most beautiful women in the land are brought before the king, including Esther, one of the most beautiful of all Israelite women. Without revealing that she is bound by God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants, Esther makes it to the finals and wins the rose. King Ahasuerus makes her his new queen.
Like a Toddlers and Tiaras parent, Esther’s Uncle Mordecai is waiting at the palace to learn the outcome of the contest. While there, he overhears two men plotting to kill the king. As soon as Esther becomes queen, he reveals the conspiracy to her, and she passes it on to her husband. The two men planning to kill King Ahasuerus are investigated, found to be guilty and executed as traitors to the state. Of course, all this is documented in the palace records.
Esther is now queen, but there is a cloud on the horizon. Haman, one of the king’s top advisors, has noticed that her uncle Mordecai refuses to bow to him when he passes by. Haman figures out that Mordecai is one of the people of Israel. His religion teaches him to reverence God alone. So Haman decides that all the people of Israel, all those who worship God rather than the king, must die. He convinces King Ahasuerus to write an edict that on a certain day, his subjects must destroy, kill, and annihilate the people of Israel – young and old, even women and children.
It is a declaration of intent to commit genocide. Not the first such declaration made against the Jewish people, and as we know to our sorrow, also not the last.
No one inside the palace knows that Queen Esther is one of the people of Israel. Her uncle comes to her and asks her to help her people. He urges her to go to the king and plead for the deliverance of her people. But she knows that if she goes into the king’s presence without being summoned, she could die. At first she refuses, seeking to save her life. But finally she agrees, saying, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”
It is at this point that the story of Esther connects with the teaching from Jesus for today: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off… if your eye…, tear it out… ”
In this lesson, Jesus is teaching us what really matters. Jesus wants us to know that nothing matters more than loving God. Not even a hand, not even a foot, not even an eye is more important than a relationship with God. Not even life itself matters more.
When we reach out our hand for what we should not have, when our feet take us where we should not go, when our eyes look at what we should not see, that is sin. The word “sin” means missing the point: missing that we are created by God for God. We sin when our ego’s desires matter more than God’s desires for us. “But I want to!” is the cry not only of every two-year-old but also of every adulterer, thief, and murderer who has ever lived – and when I look at a pint of Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk, it is my cry too. When we sin, we miss the point of our lives: to use our limited time on earth for good, for the glory of God.
Esther decides to live the will of God, even at the risk of death. She goes to King Ahasuerus and invites him to a party. That night, the king can’t sleep. What do you do when you can’t sleep? Read something boring! So he asks for the records of the palace to be read to him. Listening, King Ahasuerus discovers that the man who saved him from an assassination plot was never honored. He determines to give Mordecai the highest honor in the land.
The next day, he asks Haman for advice on how to honor someone. Fixated on his own vainglory, Haman thinks the king intends to honor him. He thinks of what he wants and says, “Let him wear the royal robes and a royal crown and let it be proclaimed, ‘This is the man the king wishes to honor!’” Fine, says the king, go do this for Mordecai, right away. Haman, whose hatred for Mordecai spawned a genocidal plot, finds himself leading Mordecai through the city square and honoring him as the man who saved the king.
At the party that night, King Ahasuerus says to Queen Esther, “What would you like? What can I give you?” She asks simply for her life and the life of her people, telling him that they have been sold to be destroyed. Ahasuerus asks who plotted her people’s death, and Esther points to Haman. By the end of the story Haman is swinging from the gallows on which he had planned to kill Mordecai, and the people of Israel are free to worship God in peace.
All this happens because Esther risks her life. She puts aside her fear for her mortal flesh. Though she is the highest woman in the land, she places her faith not in her position, but in her God. She demonstrates her love of God by boldly speaking truth to power, no matter the cost. This is our call as well – as James reminds us, our sins are forgiven, giving us the chance to begin again. We are to do as Esther does and more besides, remembering that Christ came for us, giving up his mortal flesh for our eternal life.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s halfway through September, and clearly I haven’t been writing on this blog. It is not because I haven’t been writing! On October 8th, the diocesan profile for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Michigan’s bishop search process is scheduled to go live on our website. I didn’t write much of the profile, but I am deep into final edits. (Want to guess which section I wrote? Let this post be your clue.)
Meanwhile, our current bishop is on sabbatical. I am honored to have been one of the people invited to contribute to his weekly teaching series in his absence. Today my first contribution was published. Especially since it won’t be up at this link very long, I thought it was worth reproducing here.
There is no doubt that, as Susan Brown Snook recently wrote, it is not restructuring that will save us, but reawakening. Indeed, in Jim Collins’ book How the Mighty Fall (relevant reading for mainline clergy), he notes that restructuring initiatives are often part of the process of decline.
Reawakening means recognizing that even though we do need to restructure, our life in Christ depends on much more. It includes a certain level of holy indifference: If we live, we live to the Lord… if we die, we die to the Lord… so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14:8)
Until I get back to writing a full blog post (likely after the profile is published), I send you this. Though meant for the Diocese of Western Michigan, I hope it is relevant to the wider church and to the world.
* * * * *
For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:8-10)
Our diocese was founded in 1874. In the 138 years since, laity and clergy have continually praised God, led people to discipleship in Christ, and ministered in His name. Half the state of Michigan has been blessed by the ministry of this diocese.
As a member of the search team for our next Bishop, I’ve been studying the data about our diocese. When our profile is published early next month, our major findings will be shared with the world… including our next bishop, whoever he or she may be. At this point we’ve completed our analysis, pending independent confirmation that all our calculations are correct.
Our data includes some challenging facts about our life together. Just about half of our churches struggle to afford a full-time priest, if they can afford one at all. One in five congregations reported that they had no church school students in 2011. Even our largest congregations are not the size that church consultants generally consider “resource parishes” – large enough to have resources to share. Bringing these facts into the light can make us feel anxious.
Our data also includes encouraging facts. Despite the recent financial downturn, average giving to annual operating budgets of churches held steady across the diocese. Most of our congregations have at least six months of operating funds in savings. Some of our congregations have endowment funds; of those that do, a majority are using them in a way that is sustainable for the long term. Bringing these facts into the light can give us hope.
As I’ve studied and analyzed this data, I’ve been asked if I am a “numbers cruncher” or a “NT” on the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am an unabashed sensitive soul who weeps in movies and avoids even fictional accounts of violence. I haven’t taken a math class in twenty-five years; I structured my college education to avoid all exposure to the hard sciences (and lived to regret it).
But I am also a disciple of Jesus Christ, who asks us to walk in the light and speak the truth. It seems to me that figuring out facts about our life together is part of following that call. All of our congregations have numbers… in the operating budget, in the parochial report data, in the balance sheet. When these numbers are tracked and reported accurately, they are facts.
Facts matter, because without facts we cannot make wise choices. It is by wise choices, “pleasing to the Lord,” we may thrive to minister for years to come. Facts serve us well when we see them in their proper place: as servants of our mission to make disciples of Christ and minister to the world in His name. We may not always like the facts before us, but as disciples of Christ we cannot fail to acknowledge them, recognizing that no fact – indeed, nothing at all – can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The Rev. Nurya Love Parish is Associate Priest at St. Andrew’s, Grand Rapids and Communications liaison for the Bishop Search Team. She blogs for buildfaith.org, an online Christian education community, and at her own blog, www.plainsongfarm.com. She welcomes your thoughts in response to this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I love blogging. I plan to get back to it after my kids are back in school… which is only a few weeks away. I won’t be posting frequently then, but I do plan to post regularly.
This summer, however, it’s been a different story. Posts have been few and far between. Most of my online discretionary time has been spent as communications coordinator for the Diocese of Western Michigan’s search for our 9th Bishop. I am honored to have been appointed to the search team and I am committed to giving that work my best effort. Thus, this blog has moved down a notch in my priority list.
For now, consider that Plainsong Farm is on pause. I’ll be back in September, and I look forward to it.
May this last taste of summer bring you joy.
It’s been an interesting few days since the end of The Episcopal Church’s General Convention. Media coverage of Convention has sparked almost as much online discussion as Convention itself. As I’ve watched the conversation, one thing has become clear to me: right now, words are necessary to preach the gospel.
For a long time, I loved this quotation from St. Francis of Assisi because it reassured me that I could preach the gospel with my life. Growing up non-Christian in the 1980′s, I was completely turned off by Jerry Falwell. His gospel seemed to be that unless I believed exactly as he did, I was condemned to hell for eternity. If he represented Christianity, I wasn’t interested. Even after I became a Christian, I hesitated to talk about Jesus. Ironically, I feared that talking about Jesus would turn people off from wanting to follow him. After all, that’s what happened for me.
I was wrong. Living for Jesus without talking about him compromised my integrity. It was intellectually and spiritually lazy. I may be going out on a limb, but I believe a generation of mainline Christians who tried to live for Jesus without talking about him led to the epidemic of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that passes for Christianity in most of our churches. As a Christian educator, I believe I am part of that problem, and it is enormous.
The fact of the matter is, this is not the gospel:
It is somewhat truthful theological statement: no matter what, God seeks us and desires relationship with us. But just as Jesus never mentioned homosexuality, so also did Jesus never utter the words “God loves you.” On the contrary: when Jesus sent out the apostles, the message they carried was “The kingdom of heaven is near…” ”change your lives!” (Matthew 10:7; Mark 6:12)
There are those who say that the Episcopal Church has lost the gospel. I’ve even seen comments on blogs that state the Episcopal Church is now the rough equivalent to the Unitarian Universalism, just with fancier clothing. (That’s completely untrue, but it’s a matter for another post.) In this moment, I believe I need to find the words to talk about Jesus. I need to find a way to tell people what I believe and why, without shoving my beliefs down their throat. I need to study the Bible, pray, and understand my religion ever better. I’m not alone in this quest. The Acts 8 Moment in the Episcopal Church is seeking exactly this type of renewal. Twitter conversation about Mainline Summer is indicating that this is an ecumenical movement.
Fortunately, I knew when I was baptized that this would be the journey of a lifetime.
The run-up to the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church was full of drama. There was one proposed budget. Oh-oh, the proposed budget was in error. There was another proposed budget. The fact that the new proposed budget was from the Presiding Bishop was unprecedented. It was like a soap opera, except (for those of us who care about these things) infinitely more frustrating, because it was real life.
But we give thanks to God even in our trials (Romans 5), because what causes pain also brings endurance, courage and insight. In this case, a trio of bloggers (Susan Snook, Tom Ferguson, and Scott Gunn) decided to convene a new gathering at General Convention. (Here’s Susan’s original post describing the Episcopal Church as experiencing an Acts 8 Moment.)
I couldn’t go to the first Acts 8 meeting, because I wasn’t in Indianapolis yet. But as I followed the legislative conversation online, I had no doubt that Susan, Tom, and Scott were accurate in their description of the current state of the church. Approving a task force to review and recommend restructure of the church, approving a move of the Church Center, and approving same-sex blessings… all were signs that the Episcopal Church is in a new moment.
I did attend the second Acts 8 meeting, which was held last night. As before, the agenda began with the study of Scripture (Acts 8:26-40). It continued with people finishing the sentence “I hope the church will…” And finally, there was open conversation on where to go from here. A suggestion for a corporate Bible study on Acts was greeted with enthusiasm, and a commitment from Scott Gunn that Forward Movement could provide one. A summation of the conversation by Susan Snook produced the tweet: “What we want: spiritual renewal, prayer-led and Bible based.
As in every gathering, there was the meeting and the after-meeting. As people dispersed, there became two unconnected groups of people talking in two different corners of the room. As we overheard one another, we realized that with no (human) coordination, we were both talking about the same thing: developing a common Rule of Life.
At the same time we realized that Acts 8 met for the second time on the Feast of St. Benedict. (This wasn’t intentional, but it was certainly a happy accident.) St. Benedict was the person who developed a lasting rule of life for monastics, beginning with the words “Listen with the ear of the heart…” and continuing to prescribe prayer, stability in community, and conversion of life.
Here’s what I hope for Acts 8: I hope the Acts 8 Moment we’re experiencing turns into an Acts 8 Movement. I hope that movement is characterized by the values of discipleship to Jesus Christ and accountability in community. I hope there are others who would be willing to join me in these commitments:
- Daily prayer and reading of Scripture
- Weekly corporate worship, preferably Holy Eucharist
- Monthly online gathering (via twitter or Google+ or whatever works)
- Ongoing work for spiritual and corporate renewal at every level of the church
The aim of these commitments would be allowing ourselves to be used by the Holy Spirit for the renewal of the body of Christ. This is scary stuff. It leads us by a wilderness road. It means taking risks and it probably means failing along the way. That’s why a community of support and accountability, as we work in our parishes and dioceses, and at the national level, is so critical.
St. Benedict’s genius was recognizing that Christians needed to come together to share a common life in Christ and making a way for them to do so. My prayer is that Acts 8, inspired by his spirit, can do the same.
(I am sure Susan, Tom, and Scott will be blogging about Acts 8 soon… Scott and Susan are both delegates still on the floor at General Convention and otherwise occupied. And Tom couldn’t be at last night’s meeting, so he may be waiting for a report before writing a post.)
What do you think about these commitments? What do you hope for from Acts 8?
This morning brings news of the discovery of a subatomic particle that resembles the Higgs boson. I last studied physics in 1986, so I confess that I am not entirely clear on the magnitude of this discovery. As I read the New York Times article, these two sentences stood out:
Confirmation of the Higgs boson or something very like it would constitute a rendezvous with destiny for a generation of physicists who have believed in the boson for half a century without ever seeing it.
And it reaffirms a grand view of a universe ruled by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws, but in which everything interesting in it, such as ourselves, is due to flaws or breaks in that symmetry.
Point #1: A generation of physicists have believed in the boson for fifty years with no visual evidence. As a person of faith, I know something about how that feels. I didn’t realize that the disciplines of science made room for belief without evidence, but I’m not surprised. The human condition seems to require that we hold faith in that which is invisible: God, love, the Higgs boson.
Point #2: The idea that the universe coheres with elegance, but we human beings are a break in its symmetry, is a nice fit with Christianity. The Christian story teaches:
- An invisible Creator brought all things into being in a universe of beauty and order;
- Human beings, because we wanted to act as if we were God, through our own choice created disorder;
- Our Creator did not abandon us, but inspired people (prophets, sages) to teach a way to live in alignment with all creation;
- When we persisted in our poor choices, our Creator loved us so much that He took on human form to teach us personally;
- Flawed and broken people that we are, we killed Him. But, because He is Life itself, He rose from the dead.
- He now invites us to rise from the living death of an ordinary broken life, and become agents of grace in a world enslaved to sin and death.
Good religion tells the truth about life and provides a way for people to pass wisdom from generation to generation. For instance, the Christian story basically sums up these facts of life:
- Human beings like to pretend we have more wisdom and power than we really do
- We seem to be the only disharmonious and destructive element in an otherwise elegant and sustainable world
- We need a remedy for this situation which is greater than ourselves
Seems like the new physics reinforces these truths… maybe I should be paying closer attention!
7/5/12 UPDATE: This post, which I expected to fade quickly into obscurity, is showing up in search results for “Higgs boson Christianity” and the like. If you found this post through Google, welcome!
I’m noticing in the comments that there is a presupposition among some that the claims of religion and the claims of science are mutually exclusive. I think that’s a false opposition. If you’d like to read about the respectful co-existence of science and religion, I recommend this interview with the Rev. Dr. Rodney Holder, an astrophysicist and priest.
Here’s a new resource: The Church Army‘s Sheffield Center Online Library of Evangelism Research. Free papers on evangelism and fresh expressions. Finally, a research hub for thinking about new ways of being church. Granted, they’re in the United Kingdom, which they describe this way: “Britain after Christendom is becoming a foreign mission field.”
I wasn’t raised in the church. As a child, I had no notion that there were real people who gathered, Sunday by Sunday, to worship God. The idea that I might do such a thing never occurred to me. Even today, my circle of friends includes both those raised in the church and those who can’t imagine darkening its door. Was the landscape of my childhood a foreign mission field? Well, yes. Yes, it was.
The situation in Great Britain has changed even more significantly than in the U.S. From the page Evangelism after Christendom:
For the past 1,000 years in Britain, whilst at no time could one count on the church attendance of most of the adult population, children by and large had an upbringing in which experience of church and Christian faith would have been a part. During the 20th Century however all this changed. At the start of the century about 80% of those under 15 had at least monthly contact through Sunday school, church attendance or some form of Christian youth work. By the end of the century this had fallen to 12%.
In the light of this it is not surprising that church populations are aging far faster than the population at large and many churches have almost no members under 40. If we carry on doing evangelism the same way this situation only looks likely to get worse. We need to find a new way to do evangelism as Christendom fades.
The situation in the United States is different — the numbers aren’t in such stark decline — but the reality is that we also need to find a new way to do evangelism as Christendom fades. It’s good to have another resource in that effort. I only wish we had something similar on this side of the pond!
Check out the whole Sheffield Center site; it’s both encouraging and challenging. Is anything like this happening in the United States?
I wrote earlier that I had neglected my blog because I was sick for most of June. That is true.
Note the scenic location of my recent vacation:
But that’s not the only reason I haven’t been blogging lately. The other reason is that I am spending online time another way: as a member and communications coordinator of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Michigan’s Bishop Search Team. Among other things, I have learned how to design and build a better website. And of course, the Bishop Search website requires regular posts… which are taking priority over posting here. It’s been a huge learning curve and a lot of fun. (For those who are curious: we’re still developing our Profile. But we definitely want to hear from you this fall.)
Along the way, I’ve come up with a question. Let me show you another picture, and you’ll probably see what I mean:
This is a page from the “Education” section of the manual our search team received as we began our work.
Please note: although I am about to criticize this manual, I have the greatest respect for the work of this office. They have many urgent priorities and only two (or three?) staff people, one of whom appears only to focus on diocesan reorganization. Here’s their most recent report:
This appears to me to be the type of office that is constantly responding to situations which can only be described as emergencies. Having once served as the only pastoral care minister for a congregation of more than 600 ASA, I am all too familiar with emergency-oriented work environments. I have only compassion and gratitude for the Rt. Rev. F. Clayton Matthews and Linda Emory’s ministries. I have a feeling they are putting out fires every day and don’t get a chance to do much more. (Why is this office so short-staffed? General Convention is coming right up… someone could do something about that. I’m just sayin’.)
Nonetheless, as someone currently engaged in discerning God’s call for the episcopacy of our diocese, I am disappointed in what I’ve got here. The page above is a list of resources that search teams should use to educate themselves and their dioceses about the life and ministry of a bishop. Notice:
- This is a three-ringed binder. No electronic copy of this resource is available.
- The resources are largely from the 1990′s… twenty years ago.
By contrast, you are viewing this page through the internet which enables me to hyperlink you anywhere I like in an instant. It would be infinitely more useful to have a “Raising Up Episcopal Leadership” manual that could do the same. A video that explained the history and purpose of the episcopacy and could be used in parishes as an educational tool would be good too. Much better than this:
The College of Bishop’s Episcopal Transitions and Elections Project says the process for Episcopal elections and transitions is reviewed once per decade. According to that schedule, the next significant review will occur in 2017. My three-ring binder was last revised in 2007, during the most recent review.
This postcard made me think. For Episcopalians, the processes through which we discern a call to the episcopacy are critical to our vitality. Taking good care of them is a commitment to our institutional health.
So much of our ministry is a commitment to the health and well-being of others.
Isn’t it time we made that commitment to ourselves…
by updating the materials we provide Bishop Search committees BEFORE 2017?
I’m headed to General Convention as an observer and volunteer next week. I’ll be there from July 9th through the 12th. (I certainly hope the Acts 8 Moment we’re praying for will be in process.) I will be asking whether these resources are headed for a digital update (assuming I can find the right people to ask).
I hope that this decision has been made and the work is in process. There’s no reason I would know about it, if so. Do you? If you do, please tell me in the comments. There is nothing I would love more than to have egg on my face because a new version of the manual is about to be released and this whole post was mere blather.
Meanwhile, would you pray for the discernment of the Diocese of Western Michigan and our–as yet unknown to us–next bishop?
When I pushed “publish” on my last post on May 16th, I never anticipated that it would be more than a month before another post was up. But my house was visited by a viral illness that took down my daughter first, my son next, and finally me. (My husband escaped unscathed.) Add that to the normal chaos of the end of the school year, the end of the church program year, and the beginning of summer… and the blog went so far on the back burner, it wasn’t even on the stove.
It turns out that this down time gave me the opportunity to rethink the blog. Because I am an Episcopal priest, the blog turned into a place to think out loud about the future of the Episcopal Church. I don’t regret that, and it will continue. However, at some point the blog became primarily focused on the future of the Episcopal Church. Just look at that tag cloud! That was never my intention.
While lying on the sofa with a temperature above 102°, I was visited with the recognition that Plainsong Farm is a vision I’ve carried for a long time. It’s the name of our home and ten acres, but it is also a dream for a way of life that gives glory to God. This blog is the first fruit of that vision–or rather, it can be. It isn’t yet.
As a small beginning, I’ve added to the sidebar a link to the Mission of St. Clare. I downloaded the Daily Office from them a long time ago. I’m not always faithful to it, but I always want to be. It’s on the sidebar as a witness to the kind of place I want this blog to be: a virtual home for prayer and the fruits that prayer can bring.
There will still be posts about the Episcopal Church and the future of Christianity in the 21st century. But I may finally get to posting about those chickens too.
If you’re still reading, thank you. I look forward to seeing you again soon.
Good to meet you! I’m Nurya…
Welcome!Here, a mother and priest chronicles her attempts at practicing resurrection. This sometimes involves small children and organizations known as "church." Other times it just means telling the truth. Occasionally chickens are mentioned. Click "About" for more...
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