Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Missionary Vision Talking Points

If you happen to be a rector, vicar, or priest-in-charge in the Diocese of Springfield, you will be getting this by email in a day or two. (It's a list of talking points that may be helpful at your annual meeting next month.) But I know there are others who are interested in the emerging missionary vision of our diocese, so I share it here.

  • We need to make some deep changes. There are a lot fewer of us than there used to be, and we're getting older. Do the math. This is not sustainable.
  • We don't have any time to lose. The rate of decline is alarming. We've already closed two churches this year. More are on life support. Yes, we need to make the right changes, but we need to start now.
  • Our challenge is to become mission-driven at every level. Ironically, if mere survival is our goal, we are guaranteed not to survive. If true mission is what drives us, nothing can stop us! This change of attitude has to happen among diocesan leaders, in local congregations, and in the hearts and minds of all our members.
  • The text of the Vision Statement:  The Diocese of Springfield is one church, organized for mission into geographic parishes, manifested in Eucharistic Communities and communities-in-formation, with a goal of being concretely incarnate in all of the 60 counties of central and southern Illinois.
  • New way of thinking: We go to "them" rather than expecting "them" to come to us. The world around us has changed. Christianity no longer enjoys the privileged position in our society it once did. We must learn how to operate as a minority in a hostile environment. This means being able to engage unchurched and dechurched people at the level of their felt needs, and show them how knowing Jesus can make their lives and the world better.
  • A common vision reflects our theology as Episcopalians (Anglicans, in the Catholic tradition): The diocese, under the leadership of the Bishop, is the basic and essential unit of the church. We are all for one and one for all.
  • The geographic parish now becomes the organizing principle of our missionary work. Having a defined territory helps us raise our sights where they need to be raised and focus them where they need to be focused.
  • A Eucharistic Community is a group of baptized Christians who regularly worship together at the same altar. (For present purposes, of course, the assumption is that a Eucharistic Community is part of our diocese and under the leadership of our Bishop.)
  • The Eucharistic Communities in a given geographic parish are responsible for discerning, planning, and executing missionary activity in their parish. The Mission Leadership Team (current term: Vestry or Bishop's Committee) in each parish will develop a plan, in consultation with the Bishop and other diocesan leaders, and provide periodic reports on the implementation of the plan. Accountability and transparency are essential parts of a healthy community. 
  • A community-in-formation is a group of people who are coming to Christian faith for the first time or rekindling a prior faith. The assumption is that they not currently celebrating the Eucharist, but are being formed in preparation for baptism or confirmation, and toward becoming a Eucharistic Community.
  • Diocesan leaders will create structures and provide resources that will enable Eucharistic Communities to pursue their mission. The goal is to make the work of mission less intimidating by training our members to a point where they are confident and joyful about doing what they are called to do. 
  • The whole process of change must be constantly surrounded by prayer. Spiritual warfare will follow every phase of the implementation of this vision. We need a cadre of experienced and faithful and courageous "prayer warriors."

Wednesday, December 07, 2011


I love Advent.

Liturgically, it is the most "interesting" season of the year. It has a shape that is completely irrational, but, somehow, when it all plays out, works beautifully. We begin at the end, with eschatology, Last Things. Then we're shot as though from a sling into a strange bifurcated dimension of time, with one foot in the messianic prophecies of Isaiah, and the other in the "rude and crude" figure of John the Baptist, preaching on the eve of the adult Jesus' debut into public life. Finally, on the fourth Sunday, we step back another thirty years or so to overhear the angel Gabriel's utterly outside-the-box exchanges with the Virgin Mary (Years B and C) and Joseph (Year A). It's a strange ride, but at that point we're actually ready for Christmas.

Spiritually, Advent is particularly compelling because it's so honestly real. It's about waiting and hoping and preparing, all in the context of simultaneous repenting and rejoicing. Doesn't that sound pretty much like ... life? The passage of a human soul through this world is one long Advent. The spiritual observance of a four week season each year never fails to connect me more deeply to some aspect of my "real" life that is very Advent-like, very much about waiting and hoping and preparing in an environment of simultaneous repenting and rejoicing.

The fly in the ointment, of course, is the degree to which Advent clashes with the larger culture's observance--both secular and religious--of the season, the "holidays." It makes me more than a little crabby, which gives me that much more to repent of!

There are two dimensions to this clash. The first, ironically, is with the premature Christian celebration of Christmas. "Back in the day," the weeks before Christmas were a time of preparation and joyful anticipation, but not of unrestrained celebration. That was saved for the actual arrival of actual Christmas, which then ushered in a twelve day period of festivity, concluding with the celebration of Epiphany on January 6. Now, even Christians, even liturgical Christians when they are outside a church building, tend to think of December as "the Christmas season." I've pretty much given up trying to actively resist this, but it does make me sad, because it creates an incoherence between what we do in church these four Sundays and what we do when we're out of church, and because we've lost something very beautiful. (For the record, I primarily blame the retailing industry for this.)

The other dimension is more obvious: We're now seriously into a post-Christian era in western developed society. There is a rapidly diminishing attachment to the notion of "Jesus is the reason for the season." Yet, there remains a critical mass of desire to keep this time of year somehow "special," and there is an array of cultural and economic forces lined up to fulfill that desire. Our society cherishes the echo of Christmas, the shadow of Christmas, if not Christmas itself. But if all you're after is a dose of nostalgia, a sentimentalized illusion of what once was, precision in timing is not so critical, and Advent gets quickly lost in the shuffle.

Like I said, this all makes me sad. And I try to avoid all that ... stuff ... as much as I can, which is to say, not very successfully. I have a completely Advent-compliant playlist in iTunes (including some wonderful choral settings of the Great O Antiphons), but it's generally not stuff most people would think of as very ... seasonal. And I really do try not to shame anybody who sees things differently. "Try" is the operative word here!

In the meantime, here's the Magnificat Antiphon for Advent, up until the 16th, when the O Antiphons take over: "Drop down, you heavens, from above; and let the skies pour down righteousness; let the earth open, and let it bring forth salvation."

Monday, December 05, 2011

God is Not Enough

Here's a look at the Bishop's article for the December edition of the Springfield Current. For those who get the hard copy, it should be out any day now.

The first article of both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds is “I (we) believe in God…”. It seems entirely appropriate that we begin our confession of faith with such an affirmation. Whatever else we might believe, it stands or falls, after all, with the existence of God. The Bible, the sacraments, prayer itself—it would all be empty superstition if God were not there it give it reality and life.

If the surveys are to be trusted, while professed atheism is on the rise in our culture, belief in God is still remarkably robust. Atheists can be found, but you have to look for them. It is neither remarkable nor controversial to believe in One Supreme Being who is responsible for the creation of the material universe and continues to be involved with it in one way or another.

It is, therefore, easy to overlook the fact that monotheism—the notion that there is, by definition, only one Being who can legitimately be called “God”—is a relatively recent intellectual development. When we read the Old Testament, it is clear from the sweep of the narrative—from Abraham to Moses to David and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah—that the Israelites believed that while YHWH (rendered “the Lord” in most translations of the Bible), their particular god, was definitely superior to the gods of “the nations” (Hebrew–goyim: heathen, gentiles), He was not completely without competitors. The prophets continuously warned the people not to forsake YHWH, the one who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt, for any of these competing deities. It was only later in the history of Judaism, almost at the time of Christ, that a truly monotheistic theology developed.

So, polytheism (belief in many gods) seems strange to most of us—at least on the surface. When we look a little deeper, though, it’s all around us. We’ve just refined the way we express it, from “belief in many gods” to “many beliefs about God.” There is a generally accepted hierarchy of belief: To affirm “God” is considered virtuous, even necessary. On that level we expect uniformity. But the next level is another story. What we say precisely about God is optional, a matter of personal opinion. On that level we expect diversity. And it feels admirably “tolerant” to do so. But we delude ourselves, I fear. To accept limitless diversity in what we say about God is tantamount to accepting belief in many gods. It is latter-day polytheism.

Simple belief in God seems such a virtue in itself that we are reluctant to expect anything more. It seems downright impolite. Well, the Christian creeds, by that measure, are not very polite, because after “I believe in God…”, they go on to say a great deal more. Specifically, they go on to say that this God who created heaven and earth did a scandalously un-godlike thing: He assumed human flesh, was born of a woman, and walked this earth as a man. Of all the world religions, only Christianity is bold enough to make that claim. Our belief in the Incarnation (God becoming a man) changes everything. It leads us from the intuitively appealing notion of one “simple” God to one “complex” God—as classical Christian theology expresses it: unity of being in trinity of persons. The God whom Christians worship is Triune: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a far cry from the generic God that our culture approves of. We would never have invented a God like this; we only know Him because He has chosen to reveal Himself to us.

The Incarnation also changes the way we view the material world. God took on flesh; God, who is by nature spiritual, became material for our sake. We can therefore never, in good conscience, despise our flesh. We can no longer see our bodies as mere “vessels.” To be a human being is to have a body; a disembodied spirit is not “free,” but less than fully human. The Christian hope is not the immortality of the soul, but the resurrection of the body. The whole physical world, and everything we do in it, is invested with the potential to carry deep meaning. This is the sacramental principle, that the common things we do with our bodies—eat, drink, bathe, touch, see, hear, speak, etc. etc.— can be instruments of grace, media through which God makes us like Himself, precisely because He first made Himself like us.

One of my sad observations about the Church in these times is that we have a tendency to reduce Christian faith to the lowest common denominator. For many people I meet—and I’m not talking about people off the street, but people I met in my role as a priest, and even now as a bishop—their religion can be summarized as “believe in God and be good.” That’s not enough! That’s settling for way less than the fullness of Christian truth. We have become disconnected from our own tradition, our own inheritance. We do not believe simply in “God”—some vague First Cause. In fact, the notion of such a generic god has absolutely no meaning for a Christian. As far as that kind of god is concerned, I am an atheist! No, Christians believe in a particular God—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who makes Himself known to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God who unites us to Himself in Word and Sacrament through the ministry of a particular organism and institution: the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, the society that commands our allegiance and affection before any other association.

I love how Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson puts it: “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel out of Egypt.” So as we prepare for the celebration of the Great Scandal on December 25, let us raise our awareness beyond the sentiments of “the holidays,” and even beyond mere “believing in God and being good.” Let us worship and adore the Father of lights, the Word who was made flesh, and the Holy Spirit who fills us and guides us.