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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Unexpected Lessons from the Parochial Report

I didn’t listen to the live web cast of our Presiding Bishop and Primate.

I still haven’t.

I will later tonight, when I’ll have time to give it my undivided attention.

I was busy finishing my Parochial Report. They are due every year on the Feast of St. David, March 1, for those of you who, like me, tend to procrastinate.

Well it’s not so much that I procrastinate as I hate the task.

I know. I know. They’ve been made so much easier these days. It’s true. The hardest part is still the financials. Well, it’s not that the financial section difficult, but only that it’s one more damn thing the Treasurer has to do in an already Herculean and thankless task.

I’m convinced that there is a special place in heaven in recognition for the incredible amount of work done by Parish Treasurers. The Rector, Wardens and Vestry tend to be the stars in the constellation of parochial leadership, but it’s the ‘elbow grease’ of the hard working Treasurer who make all of us shine.

I hate the Parochial Report because numbers do not tell the whole story. They can’t possibly.

Okay, so there were 13 confirmations under the age of 16 last year at St. Paul’s, but that doesn’t tell you about ‘Abby’s’ journey. ‘Abby’ is an incredibly bright young woman who brought challenging and discriminating questions about her faith to the class.

Like the time she had attended the Bat Mitzvah of one of her classmates. She came back and said, “A lot of it was in Hebrew, and I got bored.” she said, “So I started to read their Prayer Book. Reverend Elizabeth, do you know what? Jews don’t believe in life after death! They believe that mortality is the price we pay for free will.”

Then she looked at me and said, “What do Episcopalians believe?”

Therein followed a wonderful discussion about resurrection; ‘Abby’s’ face positively lit up and said, “Oh, and that’s the REAL gift of Jesus, right? And then she added, “Resurrection changes the whole way you look at life – and the world – doesn’t it?”

Okay, so there was one baptism over the age of 16 last year at St. Paul’s, but that doesn’t tell you about ‘Sari’. Born 32 years ago in Hawai’i of Chinese parents, ‘Sari’ grew up in the kind of religious climate that is reflective of the gracious Hawai’ian spirit of accommodation and assimilation.

She considers herself Christian because she tries very conscientiously to follow the teachings of Jesus. Until her marriage to an Episcopalian, she has attended a non-denominational, evangelical church all of her life with her parents and siblings, but, like many of her contemporaries, she had never been baptized. “It just wasn’t considered a priority,” she said.

Because she is a member of a very active family in the church, I had never considered that she wasn’t baptized, but a comment I made during a sermon about the canons of The Episcopal Church with regard to the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist brought forth her “confession.”

“Are you telling me that I’m not going to heaven if I’m not baptized?” Sari demanded, “That, in the end, all the good work that I do, or that my parents and sisters and brothers do – the good people we are – will count for nothing?”

We had a series of crucial conversations about baptism, membership, privilege, accountability, the unconditional love of God and the difference between the Body of Christ and the Institutional Church.

She came to understand the uniqueness of her identity in Christ and the requirements of her Baptismal vows within the context of the gracious spirit of Anglican Accommodation. She says she feels “home” at last in The Episcopal Church.

I could go on and on and so, I suspect, could many others.

I suppose we have to have some way of measuring the growth or decline of this church we love.

I suppose this provides at least some measure of accountability.

I suppose in the time it took to write this reflection, I could have filled out another Parochial Report rather than complaining about it, much less missing the Presiding Bishop’s web cast.

The measure of health of any body – even the Body of Christ – is not simply a matter of externals. We need to be able to do a “complete Blood analysis,” and see the results of an EKG of the Sacred Heart of the Body of Christ.

We need to consider the complete picture and get all the data in front of us before we can make any kind of analysis, much less accurate diagnosis.

There are some in this church who make the odious claim that the faith of congregations like ours is “bankrupt” because we read a “counterfeit” bible.

I warmly invite them to come to this church and see the vibrancy of the lives of faith in this congregation.

Indeed, the “great troubles” in The Episcopal Church seem very far from the reality of most of the folk who sit in the pews on the right and the left of The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, which is right smack dab on Main Street in Chatham, NJ. You know, it just doesn’t get more ‘normal’ than this community of faith.

Truth be told, when taken in context of this Northern New Jersey affluent suburb which is 70% Roman Catholics, where people move here for the stability of the affluent suburban life, the numbers on our Parochial Report are not insignificant.

It’s not that I’m not pleased with our success this past year. It’s just that those numbers do not tell the story of the real growth – the spiritual maturity – of people whose souls are growing in leaps and bounds in their relationship with Jesus.

I’m thinking that there has to be a better way to measure the depth of our growth – you know, take a ‘sounding’ of our baptismal waters every now and again. I’m sure I don’t know what that would be.

I’m also sure – sadly so – that we won’t be concerning ourselves with that project any time too soon. We’ve got deadlines to meet, and recommendations which have become ultimatums with which we must now “comply.”

Come to think of it, perhaps my time was better spent working on the Parochial Report and reflecting on these things.

Goodness knows, somebody has to.


Spiro said...

Dear Rev. Elizabeth:

Did you tell your friend that all she had to do was be baptised ?

What assurance do you have that baptism in and of itself saves us from God's judgement and grants us membership in God's eternal family?

By the way, I might be a neo-puritan!

God bless all you do.

Bill said...

The young lady is quoted as saying “So I started to read their Prayer Book. Reverend Elizabeth, do you know what? Jews don’t believe in life after death! They believe that mortality is the price we pay for free will.”

Now I have to do some research. I spoke about this with my psychologist. Her opinion is that they did believe at one time. She said that it was the "holocaust" which changed that. That they felt that God had deserted them. What a horrible thing to happen if it is indeed true. To be so demoralized that life after death is taken away from the belief system of an entire people.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Elizabeth, your tribute to parish treasurers is absolutely correct, and I am not the treasurer of my parish. God forbid that I should be.