Mission

For us, there is only the trying.

I spent this Summer shadowing a Latino priest, doing my best to pick up what it means to operate in a Latino congregation. It meant a lot of stumbling with my Spanish. A lot of looking like an idiot. Of not knowing the words in a space where most of my job consists of being the guy who has the words. Of feeling mostly out of place and slightly useless.

It gave me so much life.

Admittedly, I’m weird for that.  It’s been a bit of a pattern in my life. When I was 11 I started learning to play guitar. I took lessons from the music minister at the Methodist parish i grew up in. After I learned all four of the chords necessary for praise music she told me that I would be playing 2 Sundays a month from there on out.

It was a freaky kind of genius. The only thing that was sure to get an 11 year old to practice was the fear of sucking in front of my friends. I practiced. I still sucked. I kept practicing until I sucked less. I learned to love to play. I even reached a point where it was generally acknowledged that I was good.

I would like to proffer that this is the process by which we all learn anything. It’s not pleasant. It involves screwing up a lot, but its the only way we get better.

To expect to get better at anything without practicing, making a fool of yourself, and then practicing again is ludicrous, yet it is precisely what we’re doing in the Episcopal Church. General Convention set an unprecedented tone (and budget) for evangelism and new ministry. But when we look at the number of actual practitioners out cutting new paths and planting new communities there are, in the words of Tobias Bluth, “Literally dozens of us.”

In my experience that’s not entirely for lack of will. Its a calling that’s not for everyone. And the Church doesn’t quite know what to do with people who feel so called. In my own discernment process I was questioned intensely about whether or not I was really called to the priesthood because of my energy for incorporating justice and mission work into my ministry in the church.

We don’t know how to listen to people who feel these calls. We don’t know how to train the people who want to do this work. At this moment in our institutional life anyone who steps out to take up the mantle of revival is in some form or fashion an outlier. The work gets tokened. The temptation is to let the professionals, the folks who are “good at it” do the work. We can’t let that happen. We can’t let +Curry be out in front while we sit hesitatingly in our institutions waiting to see whether or not this revival thing is for us.

We don’t have the time to feel good about piloting a few new things while the rest of our structures crumble. We can’t get complacent. We have to be courageous.

This is where our tradition as the “establishment Church” rears its ugly head. To be Episcopalian is to expect a certain degree of decorum in what we do. To do something new, genuinely new, is almost always messy. Decorum is hard to maintain when you’re shooting from the hip every time a new challenge pops up if only because the lode star of “this is the way we’ve always done it” doesn’t exist.

To be in mission means that sometimes you fail. Hard. Publicly. Painfully.

Our forebearers in the faith failed. Hard. Pubically. Painfully. The fact that we venerate people that died before their work was done is testament enough to the fact that we’re a resurrection people. Even when Jesus was sending out the seventy he prescribed a response to failure and rejection. “Wipe the dust from your feet.” Get it off. Keep moving.

Not being received is an inevitability, but it isn’t the end of the work. And it certainly isn’t excuse enough to not start the work in the first place.

We’ve reached a point where trying, where practicing, is all we can do. Our models are so scant that our only option is to make more models. The revival of the Episcopal Church will come from small networks of practitioners who are open about where they’ve fallen down. We need to be honest about the fact that we, as a Church are just starting to figure this out, and we’re an even longer way away from this being a major component of our ecclesial life together.

It is the time to try. To be unashamed of the fact that we as a Church aren’t good at this kind of thing, and unashamed of the fact that we have a God whose grace working in us is able to accomplish more than we can ask or imagine. Its the only faithful response to the moment in which we have been called by God to be church together. T.S. Eliot says it better than I ever could:

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

-T.S. Eliot. East Coker.

(So try, Friends.)

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General Convention, Parish Life

GC78, and things I wish we’d stop saying.

Since GC78 has ended I’ve been trying to piece together exactly what we have done and what we have left undone. I’m more and more convinced that it’s the second part of that line from the confession that’s going to be the burden we carry going into the 21st Century. But before I hop on that soapbox It’s important to celebrate what we accomplished.

  • We elected Michael Curry as the next Presiding Bishop.
  • We opened up the sacrament of Marriage to all people, regardless of orientation.
  • We trimmed down committee bloat at the national level.
  • We approved funding for digital evangelism.
  • We (finally) approved money for church planting and innovative ministries.

We did more, but that’s the stuff that really encourages me. This General Convention did worlds for our efforts to reach out to those who we are not currently. I may just be saying that because I relegated to the House of Twitter, and in comparing the Twitter feed with the livestream was an exercise in how social media can throw shade over the facts on the floor. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but It did leave me with a very clear sense that those of us on #GC78 were just as hungry for cultural change as we were for institutional change.

While some folks were ready to call out our snark, the snark is case in point. We’re snarky about processes. About cultural assumptions. About parliamentary process impeding real work getting done. Ad hominem attacks were few and far between and were usually wrought by trolls. (The fact that #GC78 got big enough to troll is Twitter’s way of saying we were kind of a big deal.)

The things that make us cynical about GC are the same things that make newcomers cynical about our parishes. Committee bloat. Process over product. Covering our institutional asses at the risk of losing out on real relationship. I see it all the time. Folks come into our churches looking for real encounter. Looking for something that is increasingly hard to find in an increasingly fragmented culture, and we give them institutional process. I really do get why they’re important to have, especially when you’re dealing with an international denominational body, but they have no place in our parishes. Even in the big ones.

The distinction between process and program is important to make here. Programming is good. Programming as a hoop to jump through for inclusion into the full life of the institution is bad.

We’re here to baptize people into the body of Christ, not inculcate them into our institutional norms. 

Now, a good many goodly Episcopalians are probably saying: “But we welcome everybody!”

Friends, that’s bullshit. And we need to stop saying it. Let’s check this right now. We are good at welcoming people who want to be more like us. And very few people want to be like us anymore.

Our bastion of White middle-class enlightened liberal reserve is not the cultural commodity that it once was, and yet t is still so ingrained in our institutional memory that we don’t realize the pressure we apply when we tell people about ourselves. We can go down the list:

  • We’re Inclusive! (If you fit a mold of what we think it means to be LGBT. Notice the lack of Q, and we’re iffy about B and T too…)
  • We welcome everyone! (But if you’re going to stay here are a list of cultural norms that you have to abide by, otherwise you can get right the hell out. We won’t tell you that, but we’ll sure as hell make you feel it.)
  • We’re progressive! (Except for when you challenge our notions about what it means to actually be progressive. This is especially true if you aren’t white.)
  • We elected a Black Bishop! (Who has told me that he spent the first few years of his Episcopacy in North Carolina having to prove over and over again that he was indeed “Episcopalian enough.”)

This is in our bones. We put it on t-shirts. On Mugs. It’s our flagship meme. The fact that we’re inclusive is good, but we’re increasingly living in a world where inclusivity is assumed. We are no longer weird for welcoming LGBT people. There are other denominations who are, in fact, ahead of us on this one.

In a lot of ways we have to become the anti-institution. Institutions crashed the economy and put me and my peers in boatloads of debt that we can never hope to discharge. Institutions sent my friends to the middle east to die, and didn’t take care of them when they came back. Institutions are keeping people away from receiving vital care because the price of entry is too high. There was a time where we wanted to emulate these institutions, but they’ve spent the last 30 years proving that they can’t be trusted and the whole time we’ve been trying to play nice with them.

We have the unique opportunity to not be that. But it means we’re going to have to give up a lot of what we think makes us who we are. If the millennials like me are going to have keep proving our value to the institutional life of the church then we’re going to keep staying out.

It’s been a fight for me and a lot of folks like me. Some of us have the patience, and we’re here because we love worshiping God in the Anglican way. But it ain’t been easy. The floor debates didn’t lead me to believe that its going to get easier anytime soon. Twitter did though. And for that I give thanks.

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