Sunday, September 25, 2011

Kinotic Living

Presbyterians, occasionally, get a few things right!

With all the hammering and yammering about this or that amendment or form of government it’s easy to get frustrated with the general state of affairs in our stoic denomination. As a small example, in the recent few days I’ve been reading emails from colleagues as we continue a conversation started over dinner a week ago as we share our impressions, hopes, and dreams for this brand of the church.

One of the younger pastors in our group expressed that he hoped for a more “missional” church, one with “organic” relationships, and claimed that he and his generation are less loyal to the denominational structure as his predecessors and wonders, in fact, if there’s room for him and his ilk in the calcified system of the PCUSA.

Another colleague, this one closer to my age, referenced his struggle to be ordained into a system that openly and loudly didn’t want him and his ilk and how they have striven to remain part of a church that up until a couple of months ago, made no bones about shoving him as close to the door as it could get.

If one were to form an opinion of the Presbyterian Church based solely on news reports of internal bickering and threatened schism, the PCUSA would appear to be one of Ezekiel’s bleached, desert, skeletons – but alas, there is flesh and sinew and muscle and skin on this expression of the Body of Christ – and with God’s spirit it lives in vibrant and vital ways – almost in spite of itself!

Presbyterians get a few things right – things like...
Our “connectional” system – churches aren’t free-standing MacDonald’s-like franchises open to doing whatever we want whenever we want; nor are we “company stores” exact clones of each other with a hierarchal corporate structure. We have freedom within a system, a linkage that holds us together allowing for variance and conscience.
Our constitution – we write down what we believe and take the time and energy to argue about it. Change in our system is hard to accomplish because it requires deep and wide buy-in. In theory – that makes is more permanent. Our core beliefs are published and have withstood controversy.
Our disaster relief system – the PDA is often the first group on the ground when disaster strikes anywhere in the world and usually the last to leave. FEMA could learn a few things about responsiveness, training, relationship, efficiency, and compassion. We do, on a regular basis, “a heck of a job.”
Our training and education of clergy – clearly we are among the most over-educated bunch in robes anywhere. From the beginning of Presbyterianism in America, public education, from cradle to grave, has been a proud hallmark of our denomination.
Our insistence on the use and employment of interim ministers and the whole transition process that churches are required to undergo when pastors depart. It’s probably one of the most despised requirements among congregations, who are mired in the call process, but it works and we should continue to require it.

Congregations, like the stock market, don’t like uncertainty. We protect and preserve stability even to the point of stagnation. When change is inflicted on a church through the resignation of a pastor, the most visible symbol of consistency is gone. Our knee-jerk reaction is to want things back the way they were and so let’s elect the pastor nominating committee and have them get us a replacement quickly!

Not so fast, says the nagging and insistent Committee on Ministry – first you have to undergo a mission study, the equivalent of an ecclesiastical colonoscopy, and you have to hire an interim minister and put up with them for at least 18 months.

Now, an interim minister is not merely a substitute teacher or a retired pastor double-dipping. An interim minister is one who is specially trained and has a very specific task that’s not always loved and appreciated by a congregation feeling somewhat awash. They encourage, even cajole, a congregation to do things like…
  • Coming to Terms with History
  • Discovering a New Identity
  • Recognize Shifts of Power/ Encourage Leadership Changes
  • Rethinking Denominational Linkages
  • And eventually, and hopefully, with the result of Committing to New Leadership and to a New Future

In a word, kenosis! Emptying out, making room, purging.

At Interim Ministry training a decade ago, our class was asked to think up a “symbol” for the task of an interim. Folks thought of things like a bridge, others a shepherd’s crook and still others thought of a variety of tools – for building up or rebuilding the church. Mine came to me instantly and easily – a huge, heavy-duty, black trash bag.

How many of us really need to spend a day, or week, or month, cleaning out our basement, attic, garage, or a even just a few closets? Places where we stash stuff or store treasures or put things we don’t know what else to do with or hide the flotsam of our lives that we don’t want to deal with? Being crammed full not only make the areas unusable and inaccessible, it’s paralyzing and energy depleting.

Churches are depositories for all kinds of useless stuff – tangible and otherwise – where junk becomes “sacred artifact” nearly instantaneously. The task of that in-between time is to clear out the clutter with a ruthless, objective attitude, and make room for a new beginning.

Sorting, cleaning, purging – kenosis.

That’s what a good interim minister will help a congregation do while they’re in-between called pastors. Frankly, it’s also what good pastors should do in-between interims, and it’s what Paul is calling the congregation in Philippi to do. The odd thing is that that church is brand new and just getting started!

One theologian notices two remarkable aspects about the early church in the New Testament
  1. That it’s clearly God’s chosen instrument for accomplishing God’s mission on earth.
  2. It’s equally clear that from the outset, something has gone terribly wrong with that instrument!

If God values perfection as much as we say, especially here at First & Central, surely God would have found some other way to get stuff done then using the likes of us.

For the record, God does not seek or expect perfection from human beings. God knows better!

God does, however, expect human beings to strive toward loving each other and loving God. Kenotic living. Emptying ourselves of our own junk, worries, problems, concerns, accomplishments, wants, and prejudices – dumping all of that into a huge heave-duty black trash-bag and setting it on the curb.

You know what happens next.

Assume that you have spent a day cleaning that basement, attic, garage, or closet – and when finished you admired and beamed over your tidy workmanship – wiping sweat from a very satisfied brow.

A week, month, year later…and? Still cleared out, pristine, airy, and organized?

Holds true with us as well.

Kinotic living isn’t only the emptying out – it’s the filling up as well.

Kinotic living is when we are emptied of our selves to the degree that we are overcome by the needs, pains, hopes, and desires of others; when concern for others takes us utterly beyond self-interest.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

Gandhi is quoted as saying, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ – be imitators of Christ – live in a way that allows others to see Christ in us, which, may indeed be something different than folks might expect from Christians.

To be a reflection of Christ? The first thing that means is not to be honest with ourselves and understand that God is doing something unique and special in us and in others.

Kinotic living – clearing away our own stuff and then being filled with the needs, hopes, and dreams of others. Kenotic living is when concern for others’ well-being takes us utterly beyond self-interest.

Kintoic living – letting go of  that which stifles and frustrates and instead recognize the gifts and graces in our lives, in the lives of others, even in this imperfect instrument of God’s transformation we call the Presbyterian Church.

Kinotic living – a trash bag of prejudice, preservation, and pride purged and emptied –– imperfect and flawed though we may be – yet loved by God, empowered by the Spirit, and filled with the love of Christ – who shows us how to serve the neighbors we have from him.


Sunday, September 11, 2011

Dead on the Seashore

Two events that define them more than any others: The Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE and the Exodus, 600 years earlier. No other event prior to the 20th century compares as to magnitude or impact on the Hebrew identity.

The vast majority of the Hebrew text is written in response to either the Exodus or the Exile and while a handful recount the events from semi-historical point of view and posture, most, including the Psalms, muse and wonder about God’s activity, humanity’s complicity, meaning, outcome, and influence on future and identity.

The text today attempts to do much of that.

The Hebrews were slaves in Egypt. They were a minority race, they spoke a different language, wore distinct clothing, kept to themselves, maintained cultural separation. The dominant population was threatened by their non-conformity and their strange worship practices, and consequently, sought to corral, oppress, and enslave. All of that they accomplished and for hundreds of years the Hebrews never knew freedom.

Then, among the people, a leader arose—an unlikely pick—yet he led the people out of bondage to the cusp of the Promised Land. We hear of their treacherous beginning today when they overcame their first significant obstacle: crossing a marshy body of water with the Egyptian army in close pursuit.

Through some fantastical combination of God, Moses, nature, and paranoia—the Israelites escaped and lived to witness the Egyptians’ drowning – dead on the seashore.

There is, of course, great rejoicing and songs of affirmation that God was clearly on the side of the Hebrews and they witnessed to God’s awesome powers to smite Pharaoh’s army.

Those are the delicious moments of our lives. We right a wrong, we outfox the opponent, we witness comeuppance, and our side emerges unscathed while the opponent is decimated. It’s lovely to be a gracious winner, to demure accolade, and deflect praise to a Higher Being. Such is the dance of the victorious.

There was no dancing in America ten years ago today. By the 11 o’clock hour all four planes had crashed and both towers had fallen. The skies were being emptied of aircraft, citizens were glued to radios and TVs, families were making contact, and the country was piqued fearfully wondering what was next. No one breathed for hours. An eerie still overtook the country from the Pacific to the Atlantic as the dead on that seashore were being counted. Washington DC, a field in Pennsylvania, and lower Manhattan were sites of gaping, bleeding, smoldering wounds. America was under attack, and yet unlike the Day of Infamy that marked a previous generation, 9/11 was not a declaration of war by a sovereign nation; it was rather, the most pernicious act of terrorism inflicted on the United States.

As I mentioned in my weekly email, the media is obsessed this week with reliving that terrific morning. Images, stories, interviews, reflections, op-ed pieces, and what-if’s permeate the news and saturate our awareness. Most everyone has a 9/11 story and the 10-year mark appears to be the time to tell it.

But as we gather in these pews our focus is not on our stories, but rather, on God’s story and our part therein.

In times of distress, danger, and oppression, believers in every religious tradition look to God for support and help.  In times of crisis, in combat, and when confronting death, even non-believers will turn to God for help.  And time and again, they find deliverance in ample measure.

Our God is, clearly, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.

But conversely, the scriptures warn against reliance on one's own power, allies, or wealth to prevail in the fight when the true source of power is available through faith.

Some may disagree, but I believe us to be first and foremost, a people of faith, and that faith takes the form not of doctrine or polity or creed, but of relationship. As a community we build stories around that relationship in an attempt to give it substance and material, to make sense of God’s interaction with us—not just today, but from the beginning of time and to the end.

9/11 is a part of our story – to some it may be the defining moment of their life, to others, something they’d like to forget and move on from. For us, I believe it provokes a response and certainly not an easy one.

It’s easy to go to hate, and war, and suspicion, and enmity. It’s easy to seek out targets, to track down perpetrators, and seek revenge under the guise of justice. Yes, clearly, those who would do harm to this country must be held accountable and punished. Yes, I was strangely relieved when Bin Laden was captured and killed.

A response as a follower of Jesus, for me, demands so much more and it is to that level of spiritual awareness and discipline that I aspire. Is there a way to trudge through the rubble of Ground Zero with the intention to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk through the destruction with humility? Is it possible to follow Jesus’ admonition to love our enemy? To love our neighbor in the same way that we love ourselves? To serve and love God with our entire being—body, mind, and spirit?

Can we emerge from the burning Pentagon heeding the call: “blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God?”

Can we climb out of the crater in a Pennsylvania field in the confidence that Jesus truly is with us to the ends of the earth and till the end of time?

Dancing with the Israelites as they traversed the dry riverbed to freedom while their oppressors were dead on the seashore – then, we can proclaim God’s goodness from Psalm to Psalm; but when our loved ones, our fellow citizens, our friends are dead on the seashore—to proclaim God’s grace and love—that is an act of faith.

But don’t listen to me for on the topic of 9/11, I have no objectivity and am filled with more bias than usual for in my vocabulary, September 11th will never be anything other than a day of joy, happiness, and amazing good fortune. For it was in the evening, 29 years ago today, on the upswing of the clock, we said our vows. Believing that God is good, that God does provide, when I remember that day—is not an act of faith, but a living, breathing certainty.

I tell you this to give light to the option we face: Events happen to us, our response we control. Two different perspectives on the same calendar. Regardless of impact, how do we, against not the backdrop of smoldering towers nor the flickering candles of a wedding chapel, how do we, as Christians, against the backdrop of Jesus—child of God, Suffering Servant, Prince of Peace, healer, teacher, Savior—how do we find ourselves in God’s story, in the embrace of Christ?

Therein lies our faith.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

Luster Undimmed

Ever since John Locke introduced enlightenment philosophy the church has become, in many, perhaps most, cases, a "voluntary association of autonomous individuals." In the United States we revere individualism, self-reliance, and individual accountability and authority. Clearly, these are not bad things—especially to a bunch of Yankee Calvinists! Yet they come at the expense of something the Jesus apparently highly valued and something that Paul preached in nearly all of his letters: community.

For Jesus and Paul, the church was so much more than a club, it was a body, an interconnected, mutually dependent, intentional gathering of people, each of whom recognized that they were incomplete, one without the other. The suffering of one is the suffering of all, and therefore onflict within the church was not limited to those persons directly impacted.

Conflict in the church is painful. We know that, but it’s not something to be avoided or glossed over.

We do a lot of weddings here and consequently I spend a fair amount of time counseling. I use an "awareness inventory" as part of that process and the the first question in my pre-marital questionnaire is this: "Conflict in a relationship is not a good thing. Agree or disagree." The only correct response is to disagree. Conflict, in any relationship, is a given. Learning how to resolve, learn, grow, and thrive in the light of such conflict is the challenge.

Even Jesus, the Prince of Peace, assumed conflict. His instruction was not to avoid it all cost, but rather how to address the inevitable when it arises. What makes us Christian is not that we live without conflict but rather how we resolve our differences.

Jesus calls us from the quagmire of slugging it out, either privately or publicly, or the other extreme, of taking our toys and going home, and prods us to the higher tasks of resolution and reconciliation:

The process in Matthew begins on the initiative of the one wronged and with the goal of regaining the relationship through a private confrontation and discussion.

Should that not lead to resolution, then the entire fellowship is involved but the intervention is held only within an ethos of care. The language throughout the process is built around
·         Confession
·         Restoration
·         Reconciliation

As a last resort the offending party is removed from the community as they have, in essence, renounced their membership or willingness to be bound by their vows of upholding the common good.

The overarching standard for Jesus in facing conflict is that we seek to care for one another even when injured or offended.

This is not a congregation immune from conflict, for while it was born out of the desire of two congregations to merge efforts and "do bigger work in a better way", in its relative infancy First & Central was stricken with a most pernicious infection which has become known as the “Laird Era”. The genesis of the conflict arose from an increasing tendency for Presbyterians to subscribe to what was becoming known as “fundamentalism.” In the small book, “Delaware History,” Mr. Laird’s arrival to First & Central is chronicled as thus:
In 1933 Laird accepted the call to be pastor of First & Central Presbyterian Church at Eleventh and Market streets, next to the Hotel du Pont in downtown Wilmington, which presented a fertile field. First & Central was staunch in adhering to fundamentalism and, in that era of doctrinal controversy, fervently desired a fundamentalist pastor of Laird’s spirituality and ability as Bible teacher, preacher and church builder.

In its nascent years, First & Central saw membership of over a thousand fairly consistently. At its peak, the rolls boasted 1,296 souls (that was in 1932). The records indicate that in that same year the congregation received 154 new members – an all-time record. The founding pastor, Dr. Webb left First & Central at the end of that year and a year or so later, Mr. Laird was called. He is the only minister whose image does not grace the vestibule in which the church hangs its pastors. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that under his leadership the rolls plummeted to a low of 464 in 1936 – the year in which the Presbytery, as the result of a disciplinary action, suspended his credentials.

Mr. Laird was among the men leading a mutinous boycott against the Presbyterian Church. They did it the same way folks do it today – they attempted to restrict giving and thereby starve the church into submission. The denomination didn’t tolerate that from pastors then any more than it does today. Clergy take vows to uphold the “peace, unity, and purity” of the church. As a result of his disagreement with the direction of the denomination, Mr. Laird and a large chunk of the congregation left on June 18 of 1936.

The small, but viable remnant of members who remained did so with a relatively new building and a sizable wad of cash that was the residual from the sale of the previous two churches. The best part of an endowment is that no one can hold the church hostage. A skeleton crew with a captain-less ship weathered yet another dark and stormy night.

And then, the light of dawn brought the patron saint of Rodney Square – the Rev. Dr. Willard Purdy. He served the church from 1937 until 1957 and once again the membership climbed over the 1,000-person mark. Dr. Purdy presided over the restoration of fortunes that this and most other mainline churches enjoyed in the post-WWII “baby boom” years. Very early in his tenure, in 1937 as the church was celebrating the 200th anniversary of the founding of First Church, Dr. Purdy wrote in the preface to the small history published for that occasion:
A sacred trust has been committed to our hands which must be faithfully discharged and transmitted to future generations with luster undimmed. If we face our tasks, our responsibilities, and our opportunities today, with the same spirit of faith [in Christ] that our forebears possessed, then, our achievements will be worthy of [the One] we love and whom we serve.
One might ask then that although this is a heartwarming tale and one with a happy ending, what relevance it might have today? Well, my friends, history is poised to repeat itself.

With the passage of Amendment 10-A and the ratification of the new Form of Government, a handful of our more conservative congregations will contemplate and even execute departing from the PCUSA, even here in our presbytery. Our polity doesn't allow for congregations to does have process for pastors to transfer credentials, renounce jurisdiction or to be defrocked, and it has clear steps for members wishing to transfer or delete their membership in a local congregation; but it assumes, and is predicated on the principle, that the assets of the congregation are held in trust for the presbytery.

Churches leaving are an anathema to the foundation of the church and should a sister congregation attempt such an action, the story of First & Central should and will be told often for it demonstrates that a faithful remnant, with passionate leadership and financial assets, can rebuild with "luster undimmed" the sacred trust it carries for generations to follow.

There will always be those that for whom this flavor of Christianity does not meet either their needs or expectations, and thanks be to God, that plethora of options exist; but that does not give them, or any of us, license to take a scalpel to the body of Christ.

Conflict in a relationship is not a good thing. To that we disagree – but to that we also apply the Rule of Christ and do so in an ethos of care, and under a rubric of Confession, Restoration, and Reconciliation.

We do so in hopes of relationship maintained, trust growing, common purpose solidified within a recognition that we may come to the table from very different places and points of view – but that the we share the table in common – recognizing our mutual dependence and the conviction that… “If we face our tasks, our responsibilities, and our opportunities today, with the same spirit of faith [in Christ] that our forebears possessed, then, our achievements will be worthy of [the One] we love and whom we serve.”