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Saturday, January 28, 2012

The risk of being a brick

The Diocese of Newark, where I am canonically resident, is, at this moment, gathering in Parsippany, NJ at Annual Diocesan Convention.

Last night, Bishop Mark Beckwith gave his convention address. It is a great address. It is both passionate and inspiring. You can read it here.

He begins by telling the story of the Prophet Jeremiah.
The assignment from God to the prophet Jeremiah is a tough one. God asks, no God tells Jeremiah, that he has a prophetic sermon to preach: to “pluck up, tear down, overthrow and destroy – in order to build and plant.”
Bishop Beckwith goes on to say how "a variation of Jeremiah’s dissembling message is just what we have been hearing and seeing for the past several years" - in our economy as well as our educational, religious and social systems.

Yet, the bishop encourages the diocese to "Risk something big for something good."

I'm a risk-taker. I'm no stranger to it. I know it confounds and concerns and yes, annoys, those who have an aversion to risk - especially those who disagree with what I believe to be 'good'.

Oh, I'm sure I've been considered 'abrasive' by some - especially by those who like their women to be pink and soft, sweet and nice and, well, 'good' - by which they mean doing what others expect them to do. You know, like be a 'lady'.  Well, that's not going to happen any time soon, so just get over it.

I'd like to think that I've not be reckless. Rather, I'd like to think that I have been thought-full and prayer-full and care-full in my decisions.

Sometimes, those risks were small. Other times, those risks were big. In each decision to take those risks, I was not always certain of the outcome but I was very clear that God was calling me to take that risk for something good.

Whether the outcome has been good or not-so-good, I have found that 'je ne sais quoi' peace that passes human understanding in knowing that God has been with me every step of the way.

I have found comfort in knowing that, even if I didn't get what I want or that things didn't turn out exactly as I wanted them, it changed me and changed others.

Sometimes, we are God's bricks, building a road that brings us and others closer to catching a glimpse of the Realm of God.

This week end, across the miles to the "Left Coast", the good folks at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA are celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the first time their rector, George Regas, presided at the Blessing of the Covenant, this one made between Mark Benson and Philip Straw.

Susan Russell, so-called (by people who disagree with her) the "Archlesbian of the Episcopal Church" writes:
A 1992 editorial in The Living Church wrote of the service : “Undoubtedly similar events have taken place in clandestine circumstances but this is the first known “public” blessing in a prominent parish.”
Well, once again, The Living Church got it wrong. They often do. Mostly because they don't pay attention to things they don't want to see or admit.

Truth is, "public" blessings had been going on all over The Episcopal Church. It's just that this one caught the eye of the secular media. That tends to happen more on the Left Coast which is 'blessed' by the presence of lots of secular media.

Meanwhile, back - way back when - in Jerusalem, tomorrow's appointed Gospel allows us to witness another event of risk-taking. Jesus entered the synagogue in Capernaum and spoke and taught "as one having authority, not as the scribes".

He even healed a man with "unclean spirits" - a Schizophrenic, perhaps? - and everyone was amazed and kept asking, ""What is this? A new teaching - with authority!"

Clearly, Jesus did something good in healing the man with "unclean spirits".

The risk is that he did so without authorization from the local authority. 

In doing so, he also attracted the "media" of his day. Mark tells us, "At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee."

I'll just bet it did. And, I'll bet the 'living church' of his time didn't get the story right, as well.

Authority is a big issue in the church. In fact, it's huge.

I've told this story before on this blog, but it bears repeating. When I took General Ordination Exams, one of the questions was, "What is the difference between 'the good' and 'the right'?" One of my colleagues had a brilliant - and correct - answer, "God is good," she wrote, "and the bishop is right."

I think the issue of authority is often the biggest stumbling block to church growth. Bishops talk a good line about 'taking risks' but their job description to "guard the faith, unity and discipline of the church" often renders them highly aversed to risk.

Unless, of course, it is a risk which the bishop authorizes because s/he agrees that there is "something good" to be gained from the risk, and "cost-benefit" analysis is something to which s/he is willing to subscribe.

If not, you're on your own, pal. Which, I don't have to tell many of you, is a HUGE risk. It takes a mature, patient, wise and very courageous bishop to support and encourage her/his clergy (or laity) in endeavors which s/he may not see the good to be gained in outweighing the risks to be taken. Or, in an issue which s/he is in sharp disagreement.

It has been my experience that bishops often use the authority of their office in service of their vision. If your vision doesn't happen to fit in with that of the ecclesial authority, well, my experience informs me that you're in for a journey on some very rough baptismal waters.

Just ask George Regas about the fallout he got for blessing the covenant made between two men.

Or, ask the so-called "Philadelphia Eleven" and the "Washington Four" who felt called to priestly ordination even though it wasn't yet "authorized" for women in the Episcopal Church.

Or, ask The Rev. William Wendt who invited Alison Cheek to celebrate at St Stephen's and the Incarnation in Washington, DC., and was later charged, tried and disciplined for violating canons.

Or, The Rev Peter Beebe who invited Alison Cheek and Carter Heyward to celebrate at Christ Church, Oberlin, OH., and was charged and tried for violating canons.

Or, perhaps you might like to have a little chat with Jack Spong about his ordaining Robert Williams as "the first openly gay man" (tosh, of course) in The Episcopal Church and was formally 'disassociated' from his colleagues in the House of Bishops.

If Walter Righter were still with us, you might speak with him about his heresy trial for ordaining Barry Stopfel, another openly gay man, to the priesthood.

All of these people - and many, many more, too numerous to mention here - risked something big for something good. Each one has paid a very dear price because the highest risk they took was not so much the good they were trying to achieve; rather, the something good was also a direct challenge to the institutional authority of the church.

It has ever been thus in the church.

Just look what happened to Jesus.

The thing of it is that the decision about what, exactly, is "something big" is just as important as deciding what, exactly, is the "something good".

What seems a 'no brainer' for some can prove to be a monumental decision for others.

Here's the thing about authority: You have to claim it. Even when someone won't give it to you.

You decide what's right. You decide what's good. You decide what risk you're going to take for God as you know God to be revealed in Christ Jesus, having been guided by the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes, that's a bigger risk than the actual risk itself. 

And, the 'something good' it does your soul may be even better than the good you intended.

Sometimes, we are God's bricks, building a road that brings us and others ever closer to catching a glimpse of the Realm of God.

One brick at a time.


IT said...

You decide what's right.... you decide what's good.... just remember.... (in the words of Stephen Sondheim) no one is alone.

I dunno, just seemed appropriate.

Anonymous said...

A moving post Elizabeth. Thank you for all that you have done for others.

Turtle with an AX said...

Hey, I see no use in placating patriarchy...

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

IT - Ah, now that I hear myself, I hear Sondheim, even though I haven't heard "Into the Woods" in years.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Maria - I stand on some pretty amazing shoulders.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Turtle with an AX - I don't either. I'm not sure of your point.