Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Monday, June 13, 2011

Identity. Mission. Evangelism.

My post a few days ago, "Giving Up Father" has produced some interesting responses and discussions, both here as well as on HOB/D - the listserv of the House of Bishops/Deputies.

I have been watching this discussion with obvious great interest.

Some of the responses have been predictable, some surprising, many edifying. I am particularly grateful to one person's exegesis of the teaching of Jesus about "Call no man Father." (Mt 23:9)

I did get a few very angry offline comments from a few folk - one from a man who said he was 78 years old and had always been known as "Father" and, while I could call myself anything I wanted (followed by a few uncharitable suggestions), he didn't intend to change now.

Obviously, my question has pulled at a tender nerve. Imagine! It's still tender after 37 years.

This discussion began with my challenge to consider moving away from the paradigm of 'church family' to a model of 'community of faith/prayer' - the language of "Father/Mother/Sister/Brother" not being helpful to the edification - at least in my 25 years of ordained service to the church.

I've known more "real" families who treat their members better than most "church families". And, I'm not just talking about the hot-button issues of gender, sexuality, war, or other national politics. It's pretty shocking and deeply disturbing to me to see how "Christian" brothers and sisters treat each other.

Yes, it has to do with evangelism, but only because my question strikes at the heart of the question of identity. We say that we are 'representatives of Jesus". We say the Church is 'the Body of Christ".

Jesus posed this question to his disciples: "Who do you say that I am?"

Not "they". "YOU"!

It's a question each disciple has to answer for her/himself. It's a question that The Episcopal Church, as a richly varied consortium of diverse bodies of Christ, is struggling with today.

I believe that, unless and until we are able to clearly articulate that identity, we are not going to be able to develop an effective mission/evangelism strategy that will touch people's hearts and inspire their souls to begin or continue the journey to know and love God and serve the people of God through Christ Jesus.

I suspect that, beyond the issues of gender equality, this is why the question of "Father/Mother/Sister/Brother" is such a hot button issue.

We can say, for example, that "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You" and that we stand on the side of the angels in terms of the prophetic call to peace and justice, but that doesn't exactly ring true in all of our congregations and dioceses, does it?

We welcome you to join us - BUT - we don't want any controversy here about the War(s) or the national deficit. We are a 'warm, welcoming community who take care of each other'. See?

We welcome you to join us and help in our soup kitchen or food pantry because it will make you feel so good to help "others" - BUT - we don't want to deal with systemic issues of poverty and hunger. Too much controversy. See?

We welcome you to join us and help us on the altar guild or buildings and grounds committee or the Vestry and, yes, please, give us your pledge/tithe - BUT - if you feel called to ordained leadership and you are a woman or a Queer person, well, let's talk about "empowered lay ministry" - OR - if we do agree to ordain you, you've got to be willing to take less pay for equal work because, well, you know, we're all about justice.

Which is why we want you to call our clergy "Father" or "Mother". See? We're just one big happy, warm, welcoming church family.

It doesn't work. Some folks can stiff that out in less than a NY minute.

What was it that Tennessee William's character, Big Daddy, said in "A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"?
"What's that smell in this room? Didn't you notice it Brick? Didn't you notice a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room?...There ain't nothin' more powerful than the odor of mendacity...You can smell it. It smells like death."
I know. I know. The Anglican Covenant tries to clarify that identity for us. I must say that, as I read that description, some of it rings familiar, some of it causes my left eyebrow to rise in varying amounts of amusement or confusion, and some of it, frankly, makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit.

In the main, I am left astonished that the Church of England, which, by all reports, is in MUCH worse shape in UK than any Episcopal Church in the US, is trying to dictate to us what it means to be Anglican. Talk about being 'cheeky'.

One last thought - Do you suppose it was Tuesday or Wednesday after the Resurrection that Peter looked around that Upper Room and slapped his hand on the table and said, "I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm going fishing."?

One account says that he and some of the apostles went back to doing what they knew how to do. They went fishing. And, in the process of moving from a position of their own personal strength, found Jesus.

Another account says that he and some of the apostles were on the Road to Emmaus, just talking about the events of the past few days and comparing that with what they knew in Scripture with someone they thought was a stranger, and, lo!, they discovered Jesus in their midst.

I think the discovering of our Christian identity will come when we're out doing mission from a place of strength in our own lives. Or, just talking with some fellow companions about what's going on in the world in light of what we know in Scripture.

Jesus tends to show up right in the middle of the common, everyday events of our lives. I think the biggest mistake we make is trying to do what we "should" be doing rather than what we know we "can" do well.

Jesus comes to us in those moments, when we are discerning and learning, or using the gifts we've been given to the glory of God and in service of others and, just like a powdermilk biscuit from Lake Woebegone, shy persons are given the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.

Evangelism follows mission, in my experience. And, Christian identity becomes clarified and edified in the process of mission and evangelism.

Sorry, I know I'm not giving easy answers. No Top Ten list of "Do This" or "Don't Do That". All the instruction I ever needed was in my Baptismal Covenant. (Oh, no, not the Baptismal Covenant again! Will she ever stop?).

Sorry. The Baptismal Covenant is a wonderful description for me of what it means to be Christian and an Episcopalian who is a member of the world wide Anglican Communion. It's my starting point for identity, and mission and evangelism.

No, I'm not talking about producing a document that tells us what it means to be Episcopalian, much less what it means to be an Anglican that we can all sign on and feel right with the world.

Neither am I calling for a resolution at General Convention, with lots of "wherefores" and "be it further resolveds" as a solution to everything that ails us.

What I am calling for - in this Age of Uncertainty - is not answers. Indeed, I am calling the question, as it were. I'm asking for us to begin to take seriously the question of Jesus, "Who do YOU say that I am?"

How does that square for you with the title you bring to your office - lay or ordained - and what are you doing about who you think Jesus is and how that gives shape and form to your own sense of self and your identity as a Christian?

How does the answer to that question impact and inform your church's identity as a Body of Christ?

Answer those questions first and we just might all find ourselves on the beach, eating with Jesus, and distributing the rest of the catch to those in need.


walter said...

The task, Elizabeth, SimplySuzi, Daisy and whiteycat, is not easy. But if we believe we received the Shekinah in this Pentecost 2011 we might as well forge the iron while it is hot. We are a community of faith because we experience and thus believe in the inherent logic of what binds us together. And what binds us together is Elizabeth’ thankfulness of which we are inherent logic. Her faith and our faith is One. We are in the God of Life Inherent and we may pray the God of Life Inherent. The opportunity is at end for the birth of a community of faith that makes no logical sense: a community, for some the first community, of inherent logic, faith that is. Are we on?

Walter Vitale

Matthew said...

This post has hit a nerve. I fear too much of evangelism has been equated with new bodies in the door -- new members. My own evangelism has not been like that at all. At too, too many times in my life I have disliked the Episcopal Church I attended, and actually, disliked ALL of them within a 200 mile radius. So, when I talk about Jesus with an unaffiliated person, sometimes we get around to what church I go to. Then they ask if they can go to my church with me on Sunday. On more than a few occassions I have said, "No, you don't want to go to my church -- its no good." In my life I have probably brought more non-Christians into the United Church of Christ than TEC. I have my own reasons for being in TEC (liturgy, for example) but I don't want a non-Christian to feel unwanted in my church. Then I feel ashamed. And my church is GLBT friendly, but frozen chosen in lots of other ways. I could really relate to Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church though I am still in one.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - I understand completely.