Friday, August 30, 2013

Congregational, transformational change

Two weeks ago I started a series I expected to write over the next week, and that didn't happen. It just didn't. I haven't lost it, though. Two weeks ago I wrote about expecting personal change, inviting people to tell their stories of it, and sharing one of my own. I said there would be three, and here is part two — about the congregation.

My work as a diocesan staff person is not limited to working in the diocesan office, and I wouldn't let it be. I love being in the field, meeting with clergy and lay people of churches from around the Diocese of California. I hate to say it, but the people with whom I've met (although it's been at their choice and that may say something) have had a lot less anxiety about the kinds of changes I suggest and propose than leaders from congregations with whom I met in Provinces I and II while I was in seminary.

In my specific context and ministry I'm often advocating for a greater social media presence by congregations and encouraging them (enabling?) them to see that as part of their ministry to their flock and to those beyond the congregation. I can't count the number of times someone has said, "Well, no one in our church is on Facebook or Twitter." That is possible, if unlikely, but there are countless untold numbers who are on Facebook and Twitter and not in your church...and that's how I reply to that.

I met with a rector and a new staff member of his today, and the rector had a senior warden who used to say "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you always got." Talking about how churches need to change is nothing new and it's something that something of an echo chamber online right now, but I've often seen it in a context of desperation and fear of dying or death — rather than changing the world, and being changed ourselves.

A few months ago at a conference of lay and clergy leaders a priest ask where the requirement to be a baptized, confirmed member to serve on some governing body (I think her vestry) came from — if it was canon or tradition. She said, "Because I have great people who want to serve, but none of them is confirmed. How do we change the canon?" Yes, changing the canon would be a change, that's certain, but why can't we ask the people involved in leadership to be confirmed? If they want to be a part of governance do we not want them more invested and committed — and given additional grace and strength of the Holy Spirit to perform that ministry?

The Gerasene demoniac was bursting with the Good News of what Jesus had just done for him. I asked two weeks ago how we are doing that and how we're enabling individuals to do that. Now, though, I am curious how we're encountering a Christ who is changing our congregations, a Christ who sets us free from always doing what we've always done (and thus getting what we've always gotten). Rather than assuming things will never change, where do we look for change to happen and trust God that it will?

In April I attended the Episcopal Communicators conference, where the keynote speeches were on social media. Communicators at various levels of church leadership spoke from their experience and some spoke of the difficulty they've had with churches that struggle and refuse to embrace newer media (which I think also speaks to a refusal to embrace or welcome new people and voices, let alone look for or recruit them). Someone at one of my tables said something that I latched on to and loved — let the dead bury the dead.

There are tools available for trying something new. There are tools available for asking how we might be church differently, how we might learn to burst with Good News as a community of what Christ has done for us. I think that suggesting that the dead bury the dead is actually one place where we can be expecting change; rather than coddling let there be a call to change and know it will happen. If it doesn't, ask why — starting with if the people there knew the Risen Christ in their daily lives.

When we as congregations are bursting with this Good News, we have to tell (and in turn change) our communities, too. As I read new-atheist rants about how bad religion is, I note that most of them have never studied theology nor have they cared to look much into the past of religion, certainly the past of Christianity. There have been awful things done in the name of Christ, certainly, but hospitality as a Christian virtue — welcoming the stranger, even if she is sick — led to the beginnings of hospitals.

Romans thought that Christians' giving food to whoever came to their houses was dumb, that people were scamming them going from house to house getting as much as they can. Maybe they were...but maybe someone needed help to get going again. The Good News of Christ changes lives and it changes communities. How are our churches changing themselves into new contexts and how are they changing the world around them? What would be missing in a neighborhood if a church ceased to exist there?

In my work with priests and lay leaders, talking about communication and communication strategy I get to reference two outstanding resources that the Diocese of California has produced. One is on welcome, and the other on new member incorporation...though it deals with changing communities and changing the world. They are both available here in the be::community library. They are series totally about two hours each. The ones I most highly recommend (in this context) are those by Bishop Marc Andrus and by Cn. Chuck Robertson.

The congregation with which I met today does outreach to inmates on death row and to teen mothers. They support a food pantry, too. They are changing their community if bit by bit. Today we worked on how to share that and broaden the laborers of the harvest. How is your congregation laboring, changing itself (with God's help) and changing the world around it?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Every long run needs a water element

I am running the New York City Marathon in November. I haven't written about that here because I haven't been writing here enough. I'm running with Colin Chapman (and at his suggestion/intervention). We're running together with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which works to fight childhood obesity. This is immediately where my mind went yesterday when I heard the end of the epistle reading (to the Hebrews), "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us..."

An old friend of mine took up triathlons in college and referenced this passage on his blog. Yesterday it hit me for the first time how much better this imagery works now that I'm actually training for a big race that requites perseverance. It also works because I use the images of people who've donated to my fundraising goals to get me out of bed, off the couch, and keep putting one foot in front of the next. I have a cloud of witnesses that helps me run with perseverance the distance that has been set before me. I also rely on the strengths of people who taught me to run and were patient with me in the early days.

On my 8 mile run yesterday I had some other realizations. I ran through Golden Gate Park yesterday and realized as I passed the Prayer Book Cross and the waterfall behind it that my long runs need a water element. In baptism classes at Trinity, Wall Street I talk about how it's no accident that the church uses water, food, and drink as its primary tangibles. I regularly made mention of remembering my baptism as I ran along the Hudson.

I got to the Prayer Book Cross (waterfall, and creek) as my run was starting to get to me because I was doing a bigger distance. (I only realized later that it started to go downhill at that point which helped), and that's when I got the new mantra (which our running coach encourages) of "run with perseverance the distance that has been set before me." I just kept saying it to myself, too. All my long runs, really, have had a water element to them: the Seinne, the Liffey, the Hudson, the Golden Gate Straight, and now this little creek.

About this time, though I started to get to an area of the park that was foggy. Earlier in the day (in Oakland) I'd been anxious about the heat and humidity of my run. Running through the park was delightful, especially as I got to the fog. It was cool and made me feel cooler. It was also a nice visual for running into the cloud (literally) of witnesses who were supporting me — financially and emotionally, giving money to the goal and giving encouragement when I am discouraged, and harassing me to go for my run.

Later today I'm going to be messaging people who've supported me financially and ask them what they'd like me to listen to on my runs and race, a way of carrying them with me on my race, remembering who requested what song and thinking about them on my run, how they'd helped me and were continuing to help me run the race that had been set before me...and 26 miles is definitely going to need some perseverance.

If you'd like to join the cloud of witnesses helping me on my run — and helping to fight childhood obesity — you can donate here.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Personal, transformational change

I've been meaning to write these three (?) blog entries for about two months. In my mind they're going to be personal, community, and institutional levels of transformational change. What is lighting a fire under my today is the following quotation from Irreducible Minimum: pure snark as church messaging
Don't expect to be transformed. Like, at all. It's wicked expensive, and we have other things to do. Jesus is inconvenient.
On June 23 I heard a great sermon about the Gerasene demoniac. The line I remember most from that sermon — because I had to write it down — is that the demoniac, when Jesus refuses to let him go with him, proclaims throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him. The preacher said that he was "bursting with Good News of what Jesus had just done for him."

In this same sermon, though (as I recall) the preacher told an Episcopalians light bulb changing joke. One version of this I've heard includes having one to mix the drinks, but most versions of this the numbers change, but one person does something (either changing the light bulb or calling the electrician) and then a variable number of others do the same thing: talk about how much they liked the old lightbulb or miss it.

Do we as Episcopalians (as Mainline Protestants) fear, resist, or expect transformational change, the kind of change that is eye-opening to others (if not immediate) and that is contagious of a new life. Do we expect sanctification, being made holy, or are we quite content with business as usual? In the tradition I grew up in, people shared stories about how their lives had been changed by knowing Jesus. Some people gave up drinking (what they felt they needed to do) and others had peace through difficult times.

As we bring people into our flocks, are we avoiding transformational change by lowering standards or are we praying for the transformation of souls, encouraging people to make changes, and then supporting them in their efforts with God's help (which can quite easily come in the form of community assistance). I don't think these transformations will all be immediate and dramatic, but I am asking if we expect them at all. Do we really expect people to be being made holy in this life?

If it doesn't happen, yes, grace. But I understand grace as not only forgiveness all the time, but also God molding our hearts, minds, and wills more toward that of Christ — and in so doing setting us free from the things that bind us. The Gerasene demoniac was freed not only of the demons, but literal chains, and couldn't wait to tell people about his good news. Do we ask people what their good news is? And do we tell what ours is?

One experiences of transformation in my life, a time where I have experienced the most grace and growth with God, was when I came out to God and then began a coming out process to people who knew me. I think it was summer of 2007 when I was living in South Carolina. Earlier in the summer I'd had an intense conversation with my mom about a friend of mine in Alabama that my step-dad had said spent the night at our house — he hadn't.

My mom asked if he was gay and then asked if I was gay. I said no on both counts. I lied to my mom because I wanted to have my summer in South Carolina; I didn't want her to call my uncle and tell him that he needed to send me home. I was carrying the guilt and shame not only of being gay, but also lying to so many people — including actively lying when I was asked.

When I've told people this they say, "Um, don't you think God knew?" Well, yes, obviously God knew. God created me in God's image, but words, especially spoken words have power. In middle school a relief for me and plenty of other people was online chatrooms. We could talk about our curiosity because typing it made it not real. As long as we didn't say it out loud we weren't stuck.

When in my prayer I said "God, I'm gay." It seemed as though God thumped my forehead and said, 'Duh. That's how I made you." This was after years of praying to have those feelings taken away, lying on the floor of my bedroom in high school in tears praying for me and another dear friend to be straightened out. When I heard/felt the closest I've ever felt to God audibly speaking to me, I was filled with Joy (as Lewis writes about it) and started to have bubbly laughter.

That thing that I'd been hiding, been so afraid of, been lying about — wasn't anything to worry about. It wasn't analysis of scriptures that changed my mind, it was the presence of Christ breaking the chains of shame and guilt that bound me. That's what started my real-life coming out process beyond just a few friends, and it's what really got rid of the fear I had around me. In John 3 Jesus says, "For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."

I was set free and had to come to the light to show that my deeds are done in God — and yet there is change to come. I need to love more simply and rely less on others' opinions of me. I need to do a better job having patience and not getting so angry. I need to do a much better job putting my whole trust in Christ as Lord. I have known change on the personal level, and thus I expect that a relationship with Christ brings it. It won't always look like mine, but I expect that something changes; life changes, and the status quo doesn't remain in a life, when someone knows the Good News of God in Christ.

What are your stories of freedom and redemption? How have your chains been broken? What stories do you have to tell, and where do you tell them, showing the transformational change of Christ?