Saturday, August 27, 2005

On Turning Sixty

It is a dreary, sticky, overcast day here in Middle Tennessee. Last night we got the first measurable rain that we had seen at our house for weeks, and today the grass is turning several shades greener, while the trees look a great deal more perky. Weather patterns seem to be changing, bringing a welcome relief after an exhaustingly hot, dry summer.

Tomorrow, on the Feast Day of St. Augustine of Hippo, I cross another of those human thresholds and turn sixty! I have been sitting here quite a while trying to see what sense I can make of it. As I look back over the course of my life it has always been the years ending with a nine that have been the most challenging, and certainly this is true of much of the last twelve months -- and the twelve months prior to that.

But Rosemary and I have weathered the spring and summer better than could have been anticipated, both as individuals and as a congregation. Tomorrow I intend to cast the vision for the Church of the Apostles for the coming year, confident that after many trials we are ready to move forward. I have found myself saying of late that the Church of the Apostles is about where I wished it had been when I was parachuted in to pick up the pieces several years ago.

Yet there is a destructive potential akin to Hurricane Katrina looming in the not too distant future as the Episcopal Church stumbles toward its next Convention in 2006. However, for the moment, that is in the future. Closer at hand on the ecclesiastical scene is the business of electing a new bishop in Tennessee, and surviving our own diocesan convention. I never thought events like these would become such horrifying punctuation marks sent to try God's faithful people to the limits!

When I was in seminary and then first ordained the life of the institutional church was one of those necessities, as it were, that went with being Christian. Through the middle part of my life, the institutional church may have loomed too large in my estimations, but I truly believed (as I copiously wrote) that it might somehow be turned into a blessing rather than being either neutral or a curse. As I move toward senior status my thinking has reversed again, so that today I see it as the least unappetizing aspect of the Christian journey, getting in the way of our mission -- especially the national church.

In many respect, however, I am no less excited about the redeeming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ than I was more than forty years ago when this journey began. With all the experience now under my belt I can still say with all my heart that as far as I am concerned it is the power of God unto salvation for those who the Lord is calling into his Kingdom, and the games-playing of regiments of ecclesiastical politicians are so much dross when set alongside it.

While I believe it vital that we seek to understand and explicate the Good News with every ounce of our intelligence, I happily join Karl Barth in repeating the old chorus that "Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so!"

I am also excited by the task that lies ahead of us of translating the Gospel into the language of today's post-Christendom culture. I first came across the words of Dean W. R. Inge when I was in seminary. The good dean said that "he who marries the spirit of the age will soon become a widower." This pithy little saying made good sense to me then, and today it makes even more sense.

During my ministry I have had ring-side seats to watch this remarkable slide away from any pretense of Christian values within the wider culture, and have looked onw ith distates as the church, like an eager puppy dog wagging its tail, has gone right along with that fall from grace. As Graham Leonard, who ordained me to the diaconate said when leaving the Church of England for Rome, "The Church today, having lost her nerve, shows at times an almost pathetic desire to be loved by the world."

Yet as morose as all this sometimes makes me feel, my whole being seems to brighten when I realize the extraordinary privilege that God has entrusted to us of discovering how we might make the story of the central event of all human history, the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, meaningful to a band new kind of culture. I know that in this there is a role for oldies like me to play, perhaps rather like the defense in a soccer game, but we can no longer be the forwards scoring the goals, that is for the next generation.

So, on this murky late summer afternoon, I am heartened by the grace and wonder of the Good News that has been committed to us, and I want to walk in the footsteps of the Apostles. I find myself encouraged that I am called to serve the congregation that I do, and within the diocese in which I am situated. I look forward to finding exactly what role the Lord would have me play in the years ahead, and I pray that God will give me the grace to play that role wisely and well.

Yet this sense of delight is tempered by the distress that has dogged so many faithful Episcopalians during the last couple of years. That sense that we have allowed our denomination to be hijacked, and that in human terms we do not have the capacity to do anything about it, and our voices are being ignored.

But hope springs eternal. I have been pondering something I read not long ago that 50 passionately committed people can change the world. I think that there is more than a grain of truth in that. The Gospel is about this world-changing business, not the tawdry relativism that is being hawked around as the church's business. Perhaps what we are looking for is those 50 passionately committed people to step up to the line and take up the challenge. If that is the case then, aging as I am, you can count me in.


Anonymous said...

I am also a Christian and while I agree with your spiritual tenets I find your language somewhat pretentious, not quite real. Say what you really think and feel, not what you think you should write in a politically correct, almost Pollyannish manner. When Christ was despised and rejected of men, it was for a reason. He spoke wisedly, harshly, and almost crudely to the Pharisees and others. He called them names like "Hypocrites and vipers," and didn't aplologize. He knocked over tables. So why don't you do that linguistically too? Have some power, not poetic niceties, behind your language. I do not believe you as you write this way although I believe that your heart is sincere before God and man.

Anonymous said...

When I look at the sunlight on the ocean, the facets of the waves gleaming, I am reminded of Transfiguration Light. I don't want to quote Romans 1:20; I want to live it. Likewise, write what Christ's teachings really mean to you. Don't try to please your audience.
Don't you love the simplicity of the Beatitudes? " Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." Imagine Christ's hand upon the head of a child, then think of purity in that context. What would happen to your writing if you became like a child?
Peace be with you.

Anonymous said...

So who do you think I am that I can utter such blatant advice to a complete stranger and not even give my name? Well, I do not matter, but your words do. Don't be pedantic; just be sincere. I resent Pastors who arrive and say, "I'm delighted to be here with all of you," sort of like yawning in the house of God. I'd rather be like David weeping for the House of God when he was far away from it. Wouldn't you?

Richard Kew said...

I always find it interesting that those who want to castigate the most are unwilling to identify themselves. This, quite honestly, is less than honest!