Real Faith in a Real World

This coming Sunday I’ll begin a series of sermons that I’m entitling “Real Faith in a Real World.” For some time I have wanted to explore the significant gap that exists between “organized religion” and “personal spirituality.”  Recent research has shown that many of those outside of Christianity, especially younger adults, have little trust in the Christian faith, and esteem for the lifestyle of those who claim to be Christ’s followers is quickly fading among them (see Dave Kinnaman’s recent book unChristian).   Many believe that congregations no longer represent what Jesus had in mind and that Christianity in our society is not what it was meant to be.  The gap between what we say we believe and what we practice in daily life is distressingly wide at times.  If only we could humbly admit this, I think many of those who have lost confidence in the Church might look at us again.

The irony here, as author and Anglican priest Dave Tomlinson points out, is that people are no less spiritual today than they were in the past, but they are a lot less religous – at least in a formal membership sense.  The Church in the 21st century has an image problem.  Tomlinson writes:

A disconnect has occurred between religion and spirituality: people no longer see religion or Church as the natural setting in which to explore or express their spiritual aspirations.  So they are drifting from churches in droves.  However, they are not doing so because they no longer believe in God, or because they have no hunger or interest in the spiritual aspect of life, but because, in their experience of Church, they are neither finding a faith they can believe in, nor an existential spirituality that can sustain their souls in an age of anxiety and estrangement.  Many people long to reconnect with the sacred mystery of life, to discover their place in the cosmos, but they don’t see Church or religion as a way of achieving this (from Re-Enchanting Christianity: Faith in an Emerging Culture).

The challenge is to be open to new ways of interpreting and living our faith as we undergo the rapid shifts of the emerging world of the 21st century.   Real faith requires an honest engagement not only with the incredibly rich historic Christian tradition but with challenging questions that people are asking about the nature of God and the relevance of the Christian tradition for their lives today.   The practice of radical welcome implies that we be open to the questions that sincere people are asking, and that we don’t fearfully close down our own.  Tomlinson includes this wonderful quote by the writer Madeleine L’Engle:

It my religion is true, it will stand up to all my questioning; there is no need to fear.  But if it is not true, if it is man’s imposing strictures on God (as did men of the Christian faith establishment of Galileo’s day) then I want to be open to God, not to what men say about God.  I want to be open to revelation, to new life, to new birth, to new light.”

Exploring how Christian faith can flourish and grow and make sense of today’s world is a critical imperative, it seems to me, of those given the privilege of teaching and preaching in the Church today, in fact of any Christian worth their salt.  What a daunting and yet thrilling task!

Holiness Abides

bishop_leem The 214th Annual Council of the Diocese of Virginia has adjourned  sine die – without a day specified for its next session (though we know it will most likely be in late January next year).  It was a memorable Council on several fronts.  The most significant, was Bishop Lee’s announcement that he intends to resign his office as of October 1 this year.  Bishop Lee spoke of the many privileges of his ministry as our Diocesan Bishop summarizing it this way:

As I enter these last months of our active ministry together, I am increasingly aware of what is unfinished.  At nearly every church I visit, I think of ways that I might have been a more effective bishop and pastor.  I would like to finish this ministry with a sense of accomplishment and completion.  But that human desire to finish exposes the distance between what we want and what our faith requires.

By placing the cross in the midst of life, Christian faith says that God is met in wholeness and in love just at the places we experience brokenness, incompleteness and alienation.  Christianity goes further and says that unless we walk along paths that take us through these valleys of the shadow, we cannot learn that the way of the cross is the way of life.  Our desire for neat and tidy endings can trap us in a past that becomes illusion and that same desire can blind us to a future that could become a promise.

(See his announcement on You Tube here).

The Annual Council had its share of difficult resolutions and debate over the place and ministry of our gay and lesbian members, yet another report on the Windsor Listening Process, the reality of ongoing litigation over property currently occupied by non-Episcopal congregations, and the challenge of creating a balanced budget in a climate of economic fear and uncertainty.  There were no “neat and tidy” endings at the end of this Council, but there was an unmistakable reminder of the gift of tested faith and unyielding hope in the figure of a man who has given his all in service to the Diocese of Virginia for the last 25 years.

It has been said that a person’s greatest legacy is not found in the outward signs of accomplishment, such as programs, buildings, and organizational reforms (and admirers of Bishop Lee can legitimately point to these).  In the Christian community what abides is holiness.  We are given the rare privilege of seeing the kingdom alive and real in a person, in the way they have served others, in the way they have met hardship, in the ways they were tested and still persisted in the work of forgiveness and reconciliation.  This is what I have  known and seen in the leadership of Peter James Lee for most of my ordained ministry and his example will continue to be a source of guidance and inspiration for years to come.  Holiness abides.

Do The British Pray In Public Better Than Americans?

pray_1243657cI enjoyed the prayers offered at the events surrounding Barack Obama’s inauguration, and felt they captured what Phillips Brooks once described as “the communication of truth through personality.” So it was interesting to read a British perspective from the Telegraph Online by George Pitcher who puts forward the argument that American public prayer is a political act and that a more reserved public prayer life may be more authentic to the British taste.

American public prayer is a political act. Listen to Pastor Warren or Rev. Lowery – or Bishop Gene Robinson at the gig on Sunday – and they are issuing political manifestos; heralding a new political order, telling us their society is still racist or demanding equal rights for gays and lesbians.

They are not gathering the thoughts and prayers of their congregation, as we might in Britain, and offering them up to God. They are making a statement. They are telling God which way is up.

We may be increasingly familiar with this style in some of our more evangelical churches over here. The prayer leader who prays very fast on our behalf, impeaching the Almighty to make us see that we need to give more generously to aid projects in Africa and a more Christ-centred approach to Sunday school.

But generally, prayers rooted in a more diffident Anglican style are meditative aids and those who say them publicly are performing an act of Christian leadership, shepherding but not commanding.

We often envy American devotion and commitment to faith. But we may underestimate quiet, prayerful witness, uncontaminated by politics. The psalm says “Be still and know that I am God.” A more reserved public prayer life may even be more authentic.

I wonder.  Isn’t the petition, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” just a tad politcal in scope?  Read the entire column here.

Air and Simple Gifts

So many, like me, were deeply moved by the quartet “Air and Simple Gifts” performed yesterday just before Barrack Obama was sworn in as our new President.  Amazingly, Wikipedia already has an entry on the piece.

From Wikipedia:

Air and Simple Gifts is a classical quartet by American composer John Williams composed for the January 20, 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States. The piece was first performed at the inauguration in Washington, D.C. by Anthony McGill (clarinet), Itzhak Perlman (violin), Yo-Yo Ma (cello) and Gabriela Montero (piano). It was the first classical quartet to be performed at a presidential inauguration. It was performed immediately prior to Obama taking the oath of office. Obama officially became the President while the piece was being performed, at noon, as the United States Constitution stipulates.

Williams based the piece on the familiar nineteenth century Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” by Joseph Brackett. The source piece is famous for its appearance in Aaron Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring.  Williams chose the selection from Copland, one of Obama’s favorite classical composers. Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was supposed to be featured in a pre-inauguration concert by the National Symphony Orchestra for Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, but was pulled from the performance when a Republican congressman suggested Copland was too liberal, and perhaps a Communist sympathizer.

The piece lasts a little under four and a half minutes. It is structured in roughly three parts. The first section presents the “Air” material, consisting of a spare, descending modal melody introduced by violin, pensively explored in duet with cello and piano accompaniment. The entrance of the clarinet, playing the “Simple Gifts” theme, signals the beginning of a small set of variations on that melody. The “Air” melody at first intermingles with the “Gifts” theme, though it is supplanted by increasingly energetic variations. Midway through, the key shifts from A-major to D-major, in which the piece concludes. A short coda reprising the “Air” material follows the most vigorous of the “Gifts” variations. The piece concludes with a unusual series of cadences, ending with chord progression D-major followed by B-major, G-minor and finally D-major.

Radical Welcome

This past weekend, our Vestry spent time in “appreciative inquiry” looking at the core practices of our parish life: radical welcome, engaging worship, intentional discipleship, risk-taking mission and service, and willing generosity.  These are practices embedded in our common life.  We do some well and there are others we need to relearn and deepen to close the gap between what we “wish” and what we “do.”  One of those we have identified is the practice of radical welcome, a term I first ran into at a leadership conference entitled “Reinventing Church” at St. Bartholomew’s in New York City.  The Rector, Bill Tully, reminded us that radical welcome is a sentence taken from the Rule of St. Benedict. Benedict instructed his monks that “All those who present themselves as guests shall be welcomed as Christ.” The practice of radical welcome involves working hard to offer the gracious invitation and reception of Christ’s wisdom and love to others and to receive their needs and gifts as well.

Radical welcome means that we cultivate an increased awareness of the person who is not present, the neighbors, friends and co-workers who have no connection to a community of faith.  It means the conscious attempt to meet people within our own congregations who we do not know well, it means pitching our ministry to the next person who walks through our door, not overwhelming them, but letting them know they are most welcome and providing opportunities for them to connect more deeply with the congregation if they choose to do so.  The truth is there are countless people out there, (and within the Church) who long for an expression of the Christian faith that reconciles mind and heart, that offers a positive engaging spirituality which is also committed to grappling honestly with difficult questions, and which longs to make the world a better place.  They wonder if the Church is place where such an expression of faith and community can be found, and many, sadly, walk away feeling disillusioned by what they see.  Are we prepared to welcome, radically welcome, people as they are and where they are in their quest for faith?

In my sermon this past Sunday, I shared with the congregation that we were witnessing the practice of radical welcome in Barack Obama’s initial plans for his inaugural and his administration.  His is a story of radical welcome, a desire to invite, welcome, and include every American in the pursuit of progress in our great democracy.  Obama has made it clear that this is how he desires to govern, to be more inclusive, to bring more people around the table, to share his hope and determination to help Americans make real progress on the serious challenges of the 21st century.   I suggested that perhaps we might take a cue from our new president’s example as we seek to make progress on the adaptive challenges facing the mainline church.  You can  listen to the sermon below.

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Inaugural Prayers: Yes? No? It depends?

The On Faith Section of the asks a question that underscores the increasing diversity and pluralism of our culture:

Should the presidential inauguration ceremony include prayers by clergy? Should President-elect Obama say “so help me God” at the end of his oath of office? Should Chief Justice John Roberts ask him to?

A number of panelists weigh in on the question.  Bill Tully the Rector of St. Bart’s in New York believes we have entered a moment in our cultural and national history where we need a conversation about the eitquette of religion in public.  I appreciated this story in his response:

I love the story told by a colleague who was invited to pray at a city council meeting, and told, too, to abide by complicated guidelines against “sectarian” prayer and a number of other perceived potential offenses. He stood at the podium, reminded the councilors of their guidelines and said simply, “I’ve already prayed for you and for the business that you have to conduct. My congregation regularly prays for you and other elected leaders that you might be given the wisdom and courage to pursue justice, peace, and the welfare of those you are elected to serve.”

Then, turning to leave, he quickly added, “Thanks. Good to be with you. And blessings on your work.”

Not a bad model. Will we hear something like it this weekend?

Read his entire response here, and the main page with other panelists here.

Welcome to World of Your Making’s New Home

Welcome to the newly designed World of Your Making blog.  I’ve decided to leave the original version of this blog gently behind.  After five years with TypePad, I felt I needed a new challenge and the WordPress Thesis design has opened new possibilities for me (as well as a steep learning curve).  I plan to incorporate some of my writing from the past into this new iteration of the blog, and in the near future, the old site which you can still find here, will be parked for good.

Thesis offers a great deal more customization than Typepad.  I’ve enjoyed playing with the multi-media box and rotating images you see on the right column.  The navigation menu at the top of the page allows for quick access to separate pages of the blog and I’ve been exploring the myriad number of “plug-ins” and “widgets” (sidebar accessories) that can extend the functionality of your blog to do almost anything you can imagine.  All very new to me.

The most recent posts I’ve imported from my previous blog recount the gathering of the Compass Rose Society at Canterbury Cathedral which you can see below.  In the days ahead I’ll be focusing on what I’m doing and learning in my parish ministry at Church of the Holy Comforter, the Annual Council of the Diocese of Virginia, and some new guitar work I’ve been doing over the last several months.

I’m glad you’ve found your way to the new site.  Leave a comment if you’d like.