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.)