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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Words Fail

Rob Petersen
I've always had a love of languages - especially but not exclusively the English language. I am amused by the fact that the British use a word one way and we use it completely differently.

The first time I heard a heterosexual Englishman exclaim, "Oh Lord, I'm desperate for a fag!" I had no idea he really, really wanted a cigarette and not a gay man.

I love that the British have words and phrases that we don't. They have the "The WC," the Water Closet. Why do Americans call it "The Restroom"? I mean, we really don't 'rest' there, do we?

Funny, that.

I love the way words sound. I love literature and poetry, rhyme and meter.

Which is probably why I love the Book of Common Prayer. While I understand the increasing tendency to produce everything necessary for worship in a booklet, eliminating the juggling back and forth between service bulletin, BCP and Hymnal for those who aren't familiar with our worship, I do lament that we no longer get to put that magnificent book in everyone's hands for them to wander through and discover.

There are some words that just make me giggle. I like the way they sound, is all. Like, "obfuscate". Or, "antiquity". Or, "hermeneutic". Or, archiac  words like "pusillanimous". Or "anon". Or "chasmophile". Or, "betwixt". Or, "forsooth".

There are words or phrases that, when they are used, are clearly "code" for something else. Don't you just love it when people call for "transparency"? It's very close to saying, "We think you've been lying/hiding something and we want to know"- but that's not what they say. They say they want  "transparency" instead.

I recently heard from a clergy person who said he had been involved in a "church planting" but left after five years because, he said, they had grown "complacent". "Hmm . . . 'complacent'?," I thought. That just made me curious, so I asked if, in fact, they had just reached a "plateau" in growth cycle.

There was a long pause. "What you're saying, then," he asked softly, "is that it may not have been all their fault?"

"I'm just saying," I offered, "that there are many reasons for a congregation to 'stall' in their growth cycle. It's often hard not to see all the reasons when you are in the midst of it. So, it's really hard to figure out how to address the problem so you can figure out an appropriate strategy."

Which brings me to the term "church planting". It's all the rage, but what does it mean, really? I mean, other than the obvious creation of a new, physical church facility and the evangelism of new members.

We used to call this "mission". Cathedrals and large parishes used to begin new "missions" in neighborhoods or follow changing demographic patterns to build churches where people lived. When the congregation was stable enough to be on it's own, it became an incorporated, independent parish - or, 'church'.

'Parish' is something very Anglican and Roman, which was used to describe a geographical area - a word which carries with it the intermingling of church and state. In England, the Wardens and Vestry often act as the "City/Town Council" of the "parish".  We have more "churches" than "parishes" in the U.S. that are increasingly referred to as "communities of faith" - which, actually, I prefer.

So, we've gone from 'mission' to 'church planting'.  What happened? Why the change in language? What new reality does it reflect? Because, you know, I think it does reflect a new reality.

Here's another word that gets used a lot these days: "Vision". Every leader is supposed to have one, right? Especially in church.  "Without a vision, the people perish," we learn in Proverbs 29:18, so by gum and by golly, our ordained leaders had better have vision, right?

But, look at the folks we are ordaining, who later form the pool from which we elect bishops.

Nice people. Smart, well educated people. Most of whom have a very well developed spirituality. Clearly, they love God and Jesus. But, do they have a 'vision' of the church that can energize and inspire? Can they lead? I mean, see where it is they want the church/diocese to go and call together the people with the skill sets to help get us there?

Actually, do we want them to?

Vision and leadership require risk-taking and courage - not only for the leader, but for those who say that want to make vision a reality. 

Sometimes, when I listen to some congregations talk about how their vision is that they want to 'grow', I want to ask them "Why?". The answer is a predictable, befuddled, "What? I mean, isn't that what we're supposed to want to do?"

Well, that's not a 'vision'. That's a 'should'.

I once asked a Vestry, "Suppose this is it? Suppose this is the 'critical mass' that God has sent you to do what Jesus asks us to do? What can you do? What will you do? What is your 'vision' of what can be done?"

The response? Radio silence.

In those situations, I often feel like I'm in the midst of the fable about Henny Penny who found a seed of wheat and wanted to plant it so that she could make bread. She saw the seed of wheat and had a vision that it might become a loaf of bread.

She planted the seed by herself, reaped, threshed and ground the wheat and, by herself baked the bread.

All along the way to achieving her vision, she asked who would help her. No one did. However, when the bread was baked, everyone wanted to enjoy the fruits of her labor.

Or, as the aphorism (another word I like) from the visionary community organizer Saul Alinsky goes, "A leader without a following is just a person out for a walk."

I suspect 'church planting' is code for 'mission' and 'evangelism' because those words have become so 'loaded' - mostly with failure - that we don't really know what we mean anymore when we say them.

Besides, 'planting a church' is a very tangible and visible task. That being said, it's often another exercise in Henny Pennism, creating or demanding leaders who are 'lone rangers' who end up doing most of the heavy lifting by themselves.

And then, we criticize the leader for "not knowing how to ask for help" and being a 'lone ranger'. 

See also "complacent" as code language.

I'm also fascinated by the shift in our language from "global warming" to "climate control". I suppose we've all had enough of the idiots who, when there's a a snow storm in early April, grin and loudly proclaim, "Well, so much for global warming."

'Climate control' is an interesting shift. I understand. What we do - the gas we use, the garbage we produce, the pollutants we add to the air - all affect our environment which has a direct impact on the climate. But, 'climate control' is an interesting way to phrase it, don't you think?

I'm liking the shift from "gay marriage" to "marriage equality". I remember talking about this in the early '80s in terms of "homosexual behavior". I mean, because I'm Queer, if I scratch my nose, or sip a cup of tea, or pay my taxes or mow my lawn, is that "homosexual behavior"?

When I go grocery shopping, is that "gay shopping"? When I go to church, is that "gay worship"? I'll stop, but you get my point, right?

So, about "Queer". Yes, I'm using it almost exclusively now instead of LGBTQITS. That would be "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Two Spirit".

In my experience, "Queer" helps us move away from binary (one of my favorite words these days) thinking, and moves us into considering the 'spectrum' of realities and experiences. 

I think the point is that there are many of us - heterosexual people, included - who do not fit neatly into the dominant social paradigm. The point is that the issues many of us inadvertently challenge our culture with include sexuality and sexual expression, gender identity and expression, dress and physicality, and ethnic differences and expressions of ethnicity and race.

That makes us "queer" - meaning out of the ordinary, unusual or strange. I'm using "Queer" - with a capitol 'Q' - to define a group of people which includes me.

Yes, it has been used as a deroggatory word to describe homosexuals. Indeed, it is still extremely offensive when used as an epithet.

However, many LGBTQITS people - as well as our heterosexual allies - are reclaiming the term for ourselves, much the same way that African Americans reclaimed the pejorative "Black" for themselves, to take away the negative power of the word.

Words do have power. Lots of power. And, sometimes words fail to describe some of the amazing things in life. Like being present when a baby is born. Or, being in the room when someone draws their last breath. Or, stumbling upon a flower growing in the midst of a desert. Or watching a Great Blue Heron spread its wings and fly over a marsh.

Lunar Eclipse
Like, the full moon last night. Did you see it? It was . . . . um . . . incredible? Beautiful? Amazing?

I am told it was a lunar eclipse in Sagittarius - whatever that means. It is, apparently, the second of five eclipses for 2011, the first one having been on June 1 which was a Solar Eclipse in Gemini - which, interestingly enough, was about 'communication'.

Sagittarius, I'm told, is all about truth.

When Pilate asked Jesus, "What is truth?" Jesus didn't answer. (John 18:38)

Sometimes, words fail.

Other times, a picture really is worth a thousand words.


Julia Bertaut said...

In my diocese (the Diocese of Spokane), we use "mission" to mean "a church that cannot support a full-time priest." So you can be incorporated and self-supporting and all that, and yet be a mission and not a parish. I think about half the churches in the diocese are missions, and I don't think any of them are recent church plants. One (mine, actually) was restarted a few years ago, after nearly dying off, but that isn't the case for most of them, most are more well-established. So for me, "church plant" and "mission" convey very, very different things. I'm not sure if that's true in the rest of the church though?

walter said...

How can, Elizabeth, a Queerful online Christian community such as ours experience the resurrection of the God of Receiving? There are not gifts coming from the outside of our Queerful Christian community that could compensate our giving which is excitedly in our being a Queerful Christian Community! In the resurrection of the God of Receiving we understand and we believe that the giving is always in the being-offering and the resurrection of the God of Receiving is in my memorizing-remembering of having offered just about the vision of being Queerful that you suggest. But wait a minute? Did I offer it to you or did I offer it to the God of Receiving? In the resurrection I know now I offered it to our God of Receiving because God of Receiving is, just is.

Walter Vitale

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Julia - We had the same situation in the Diocese of Newark. Indeed, we had a "Department of Mission" which was designed for "new church plants". It became the "Emergency Room" and "ICU" for churches that had "fallen back into mission status". The last time we "planted" any churches was in the 80s. Three of them. In the rural areas of NJ. Today, one is solvent. The other two are limping.

I think we need to take back and reclaim the language of mission so that it is, once again, associated with Jesus and growth and transformation and evangelism - not failure and the road to congregational death.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Walter.

Anonymous said...

Queer has a derogatory meaning. Could you please find a word that has a nice meaning to describe the community, i.e. family.

I equate it with a woman calling another woman the "B" word. Or a a black person using the "n" word.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, I find the fact that you have posted anonymously to be, well, rather queer. I think Queer is a lot "nicer" than LGBTQITS. I think Queer carries a lot less "baggage" than lesbian or "that's so gay" or . . . I'll let the other representatives of the alphabet soup speak for themselves. You can call yourself anything you want you think is "nice". But, please call yourself something if you post here again.

Keep the Gold said...

Hey I loved the Little Red Hen story since childhood. And it is a profound fable of women's power. If women do all the work, they get the fruit of their labor, and since no one offered to help the little red hen, she of course kept the fruits of her label. WOW, a woman that just doesn't self-sacrifice herself! Women be selfish, stop sharing, stop giving away your labor to patriarchy --- and women feed yourself first!!