Monday, September 19, 2005

Something is Stirring

Something seems to be stirring deep within me. I tend to find that when some kind of inner rearrangement is taking place, the discomfort is at times almost physical. I continue my daily round and appointed tasks as vicar of a small, but beginning to grow, congregation, as well as the various responsibilities I have in the diocese, but the stirring does not go away. I have abandoned any work in the wider church, or perhaps it is fairer to say that the wider church, especially the denomination, has abandoned me; yet now able to stand back from the whole sorry picture I find that an immense task of reassessing going on.

Somewhere at the root of all this is what I would describe as yearning for spiritual integrity: a consistency of life and faith that is more than just a few small successes in the on going quest to narrow my own personal hypocrisy gap. What I think I am feeling after is a manner of life as a Christian that has a cascade effect outward from the re-formation and renewal taking place within.

I know that my life is confronted by constant transition, and that if I am to grow I must engage that transition that the Spirit through the circumstances of existence are pressing upon me. Yet I also realize that the place I have reached in my development as a human being is one that demands thought and prayer that I might be generative in this later chapter of my allotted span. This is something of a wrestling match because for the first time in my life I can hear the siren song of retirement, and there are moments when it is enticing.

The question behind this is whether I want to retire, or whether that is, indeed, a faithful thing to do. Besides, if the actuarial tables are anything to go by I could still have a good few thousand miles of servicabilty before me yet. I have watched far too many priests and pastors during my years of ordained life reach their sixties and then slow down and begin to prepare for retirement while they are still on the job. As I think and pray I believe God has something more significant for me to do than that.

And yet during the last couple of weeks I have found myself in the presence of enthusiastic young leaders from other traditions. Watching and listening to them talking about the new ministries they had launched has been exhausting, because although this is something that has been a hallmark of my ministry over the last thirty years, I know that I no longer have the resources to take the world by the scruff of the neck and attempt to have visions and dream dreams that would require me to build something new. Exciting as it is to watch younger men and women who are so in love with the Gospel that they will go to the ends of the world, that door is now closed. It is no longer my calling.

Sure, I work in a relatively new ministry, and long for the Church of the Apostles to acquire land (something that looks as if it might be happening), construct our first facility, become a self-sustaining congregation, and then call into leadership a younger priest who will be able to take the reins from me and lead this fellowship forward. However, doing that is the task to which God called me several years ago, and I am merely doing my duty to the Lord who invited me to take up this challenge. It might take two, five, or seven years, but we will see.

Meanwhile, against this backdrop the inner work goes on, and what I am finding is that I am being attracted to folks who, like myself, are discomforted by what the future holds for our culture and our church, but who are engaging the possibilities constructively and without rancor. Much of what I see in the churches in general, and our denomination in particular, is the triumph of various self-interests over collective responsibility, which is a recipe for a slow, drawn-out death. We need real change, but most of us do not seem willing to engage the change necessary, and instead hold onto past forms and past resentment. Of course, that change begins within the heart, which brings it back to my own inner spiritual work to be done.

The couple of years since August 2003 have been for me years in which I have been in mourning, and as Shakespeare put it, "He that lacks time to mourn, lacks time to mend." I have been mourning in order that I might mend. While romantic longings about an idyllic past that never existed within the Episcopal Church are immensely attractive, such notions are neither tenable nor relevant any longer. We have been asked to adjust to new circumstances, and then to make something beautiful for God out of those circumstances.

Right now, none of this is taking place. The underlying reason seems fairly simple, on the political left of the controversy that has torn us apart is a triumphalism that seems determined to push forward with an agenda that is having the domino effect of pulling both ECUSA and the Anglican Communion apart. While on the political right of the issue is an anger that is either forcing people to give up and leave (which is what the left wants), or to dig in and be obnoxious. Now, I realize this is an over-simplification, but anyone with any sense of reality must be able to see that this is a pitched battle in which there can be no winners.

If we take seriously the observations of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross on the grieving process, those of us on the orthodox side of this conundrum have not done the work necessary for health because we have not yet got beyond denial, anger, and depression, and to move into acceptance. Meanwhile, those on the left are oblivious to the fact that they might have done anything amiss. While two armies are dug in like this, death and destruction are the guaranteed outcomes.

Now here comes my confession, and it is one that might alienate me further from my conservative brothers and sisters, and that is that while I believe it vital to stand firm upon Scripture's revelation, it is an issue of how we stand. I am either too old or too stupid to want to continue being mad at the revisionists, not because I think they are right but because I do not believe this is the way to build for the future. As Robert Quinn puts it, "When internal and external alighment is lost, the organization faces a choice: either adapt or take the road to slow death" (Robert Quinn: Deep Change, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996, page 5).

Quinn goes on and says, "Usually the organization can be renewed, energized, or made effective only if some leader is willing to take some big risks by stepping outside the well-defined boundaries. When this happens, the organization is lured, pushed, or pulled into unknown territory. The resulting journey through the unknown is a terrifying experience, with the possibility of failure or death a reality rather than a metaphor. At such times, organizational memebers face wicked problems, problems for which there are no existing answers" (page 5).

Now, if that does not describe the situation in which we find ourselves, I don't know what does. The truth is that if we are to take such a journey, then we need to be prepared for deep changes to take place within us personally. The question is whether we are prepared to open ourselves to such changes, or whether we want to dig comfortably into our present destructive pattern. The time has come to lay ourselves on the line, to step outside the safety of our traditionally prescribed roles and strive for the new birth that is inherent in faithful Christian believing and living.

Thus the inner struggle goes on. The choice before us is to make significant changes based upon the wholeness of the Gospel, or alternatively to commit ourselves to a pathway whose end result is death, entangling us in a web of fear, anger, helplessness, while we inexorably move toward what we fear. The future does not belong within the boxes in which we still live, boxes that were constructed in the past. The challenge before us is to go back to the roots of what it means to be a Christian, which is what happened at the Reformation, and then to see how that rooted faith propels us into a different, more Christlike and generative kind of tomorrow.

What I guess I am saying is that I find myself uncomfortable with the stance of just about everyone. I find my inner being want to dive back into the faith of our fathers (and mothers), and then to see what we can make of this under God. As I have scratched my way deeper and deeper into 2 Corinthians this year, I find in Paul an instinct both to affirming the truthfulness of truth, while at the same time seeing within Christ and his redeeming death a focus for reconciliation.

Those on the left who have been shouting for reconciliation have done so on terms that are unacceptable to orthodox believers, because they want us all to finesse revealed truth, while those on the right who affirm truth seem determined to do all they can to avoid any kind of reconciliation. In all this I have to confess that I do not find myself looking into the face of Christ.

As I have already intimated, however, I find that there are a handful of fellow-travelers who share my angst, but right now few want to walk this road. The reason is simple. If we are to remake the church, we must first allow Christ to remake who we are. Going in this direction will be a difficult, even terrifying journey, that is why I find myself almost in physical pain over this for we are, as Scott Peck put it, "traveling naked into the land of uncertainty." I have gone this way before, and, quite honestly, it is neither easy nor nice. It is, however, only by getting lost and losing those landmarks that are so familiar to us that we will be able to explore our way into a new kind of future and ecclesial organization.

Clearly, this is the place where the inner journey of the individual and the outer journey of the fellowship meet and merge. There is a lot of hollering and finger-pointing going on, and I have done my fair share of it, but this solves no problems. This is the place of discomfort beyond which we need to be prepared to move if something new is to emerge. The alternative, as I see it, is both a spiritual dying and an slow institutional death.


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Rosemary said...

Thank you. I’ve been feeling much the same myself .. chuckle .. and I’ve just hit sixty.

I think above all else, Our Lord would have us succeed in ‘relationships.’ That’s quite clear when it comes to parents and children, husbands and wives .. it’s everywhere in Scripture. It’s also there with regard to ‘brothers and sisters’ .. so we solve that niggly problem by saying .. “Oh they can’t be my brother or sister, if they believe that.” No? Are they enemies? Jesus told us to love our enemies!

Richard Kew said...

There was a guy I was in seminary with whose great watchword was always "balance." He meant that we balanced things against one another, which would ultimately result in things being played off against one another. Yes, relationships are important, and so is truth. We cannot balance them against one another, but we can work for them to complement each other. Our goal should be to aim at reflecting Jesus as represented by John in the Prologue to his gospel, "full of grace, and full of truth."