Monday, June 27, 2005

Looking Back and Looking Forward

Birmingham, England

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Often we do things because we know they are right and only after we have done them do we gradually recognize the reasons behind our actions. Several years ago I intuitively knew the time had come for me to step back into parish ministry, and I knew it was right to go somewhere or take on something that was "obscure," maybe to take on a challenge that no one else would be willing to accept.

Thus I ended up pastoring a disspirited handful of people whose brand new congregation had experienced a tragedy of vast proportions -- and which almost everyone believed was doomed. The for the congregation's survival got even longer when the Episcopal Church exploded in 2003, and then there were further ricochets that had us tottering in despair in 2004. The only thing I have been certain of in the midst of all this has been that God called me to be the pastor of the Church of the Apostles, although there have been times when it has felt as if the work
was destroying me.

Yet even as I had done the job, the objective reasons for my presence in this congregation have clearly presented themselves, and amidst so much thanklessness there has been stellar moments of great joy. Today, as I sit in a midsummer English garden and assess from a distance progress and failures, delights and disappointments, I have a growing list of good reasons why God called Rosemary and myself to that particular place for this particular season.

We have gone around some horrendous corners in the last few years, and we are still extremely vulnerable. I am already waking up in the night and worrying about the fallout from the General Convention in 2006, whose likely decisions seem almost certain to do further crippling damage to the mission to which God has called us, and we have the election of a new bishop in the midst of all this to worry about too.
If we get the wrong person (or if the General Convention refuses to confirm the bishop elected), then the fallout will be even more horrible.

It is tragic that most of the clouds on the horizon come not from the obvious enemies of a fallen world, but from our own denomination and its corporate blindness, and a folly that seems bent on self-destruction. Yet there must be meaning in even this mystery if we could but recognize it. As the old saying goes, God is good at drawing straight lines with a crooked stick.

As pastor of the Church of the Apostles, I feel as if I am on a high wire without a safety net. I feel as if every decision we make could have both painful personal consequences, as well as enriching or threatening the life of my small (but slowly growing) congregation. Yet one of the reasons I believe the Lord put us there is that we have spent much of the last 30 years in this mode, because most of the ministries in which we have been engaged have lived on the edge. The result is
that our spiritual muscles and sinew have been trained up for such a time as this.

My companion-in-book-form on this sunny English afternoon has been my old friend and mentor, Eugene Peterson, and in his most recent book he speaks of Israel at the time of the Exodus as having had "generations of slave-identity bred into them." Breaking that self-recognition "was not going to be easy, and certainly not quick -- no easier and certainly not faster for them than it is for us" (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, page 113).

What happened at Sinai was that a blue print for feedom was laid out for Israel, yet before Moses could even get to them with instructions from the Lord they had already swapped God's extraordinary hope for the golden calf. Their worship of the golden calf was "self-defining and self-serving" (p.114), and it nearly destroyed them.

I found myself as I read this musing that this was possibly a description of the emerging post-Christendom church situation. Israel would not shed the slave-image that had shaped its identity overnight, and nor shall we be released from our yearning for the Christendom years or the "good old days of ECUSA" in the twinkling of an eye. Yet is is on the fringes, in unlikely places like the Church of the Apostles in South Williamson County, Tennessee, that something new is happening.

Which brings me to Peterson's musings on the resurrection narratives, that things "start emerging with clarity that are significant for us as we ponder our cultivation of the wonder that is inherent in living well in creation" (p. 120).

One of the significant things about all this is that "marginal people... play a prominent role in perception and resposne" -- and the first resurrection appearance was to the most marginal of all Jesus's followers, none other than Mary Magdalene. As Peterson points out, we live in an age of media attention and celebrity endorsement where "fear-of-the-Lord wonder" is most likely to be cultivated by those on the edge of things.

"Bright light and amplification are not accessories to the cultivation of wonder" (p. 121), and I have learned this anew in a little congregation that meets in a worn out factory that once distributed boots around the world. We have no endowments to cushion and protect us from the harsh realities, we possess no glorious builing in which to perform magnificent liturgy, all we have is the Gospel, and discovering
how to speak that Gospel meaningfully into the chaos of an urban area being born, in the midst of the cultural chaos of these postmodern times.

Perhaps it is in congregation's like ours from which the tomorrow of American Anglicanism will emerge. We are on the fringe, and have nothing but the Word to speak, and the Spirit to guide and protect us.

Many of the gurus of the last 20 years have repeated the mantra that change comes from the periphery, and I believe there is some truth to that. But I also believe James Davidson Hunter's assertion that it is only by recovering the center and the structures of influence that change is enabled. I think that Hunter's position has a great deal of rightness about it, but it is at the periphery, on the edge, that we
experiment what it means to be fear-of-the-Lord believers attempting to witness to Christ meaningfully in a world and a denomination that finds us embarrassing, narrow-minded, believes we are unreflective, dense, thoughtless, unwilling to change with the times, or whatever other accusations that get thrown at us.

I confess as I sit here in the English sunshine that I have not enjoyed much of the last couple of years of ministry, for like St. Paul, the care of the churches, and my own church in particular, has rested heavily upon me (2 Cor. 11.29).

Yet I do feel as if we have been doing some momentous things, and setting out upon a momentous (and agonizingly burdensome) journey. With others we have, in effect, been re-designing and beginning to make the tools that will break the rocks of blindness and intransigence, and will lead us (as well as our successors) into the business of remaking the tired, corrupted, ethically compromised, Christendom-trapped church into something God can use in a different kind of world.

Even as I sit scribbling in the garden I can hear in the distance the shape of that world, for on this English Sunday an Islamic festival is in full swing in the park not a thousand yards away from where I sit. Meanwhile, the secularized English population goes about their lives thinking little of the needs of their souls, much like many Americans. In this multicultural city it appears that the Christian faith is struggling to keep its head above water.

However, this world craves to wonder at the risen Christ as much as any age before it, whether it is prepared to realize it or not. Being marginalized in my denomination I am now much more able to identity with the out-of-the-wayness of Mary Magdalene and accept her as a model in postmodernity.


The Common Anglican said...

Wow! I love your blog. I hope you don't mind me adding it my list of links.

It is good to see laborors for the Gospel, such as yourself, who are well down the road I plan to embark on shortly. It is good to see you are remaining in ECUSA to contend for the faith that was handed down to us.

Soli Deo Gloria,

Alan said...

From time to time I see some cryptic references to the "tragedy of vast proportions" which took place prior to Fr. Kew's arrival. I was wondering if someone could explain, in general terms, what happened? I am not looking for gory details, but knowing might illuminate some aspect of Fr. Kew's posting.


Richard Kew said...

I would be happy to share the tragedy that happened at Apostles. My predecessor is a gifted man and began the planting work well. He had a history of drug abuse earlier in his life which, alas, reemerged and resulted in the congregation blowing apart and him spending time in jail. His marriage folded, he is still on probation, and he has been removed from the priesthood. A thriving congregation in a very short time was reduced to 18-24 people, disspirited and downcast. As a friend has said start up is difficult, pick up is difficult, put the two together and you have something that is very demanding.

Richard Kew

Alan said...

There is an old saying that in a family with an alcoholic, everybody has a drinking problem. The same of course applying to any sort of substance abuse. Having experienced the first, I can, just, imagine what it would be like to help such a large and seemingly betrayed family. Thank you for sharing that with us, and for your ministry in seeing them through.