Church Growth, Christ Crucified, and the Pastor-Congregant Relationship

I recently started listening to a podcast called Two Priests in a Pod. It’s a conversation between two priests in The Episcopal Church, sharing thoughts, stories, jokes, reflections, and faith. They are good at chatting humanistically about heavy topics – I highly recommend it.

One topic they addressed was the need to preach the doctrine of the Cross – perhaps more archaically described as preaching Christ Crucified, for those of us that enjoy reading the Oxford Movement Fathers as much as I do 😉

Their consensus was that the Church needs more preaching, talking about, and living the teachings of Jesus Christ the Son of God: that He suffered and died for our sins. The Church needs a stronger awareness of this, of what it says about us as people redeemed through grace in Christ. It needs this especially in a time when we do not like to talk about sin. We do not like to talk about unworthiness. So, they discussed, we need to more honestly and humanly approach this doctrine – so that we don’t avoid it and make our Christianity a shallow, superficial one. Absent this, we see declines in church membership and attendance.

I don’t entirely disagree with their thoughts. When discussing this with another priest whom I know and trust, I found another perspective. My friend has gotten to know many parishes and communities in his time. He has seen many communities grow and shrink. For those that were shrinking, he posed, is the shrinking really due to their preaching? Are they preaching differently than they were years ago (when they were larger)? He didn’t think so. Are they not preaching Christ Crucified, or skimming over these sides of the Gospel? He didn’t think so. Yet… some congregations are shrinking and some are growing. Sometimes, we agreed, this is for reasons only to be found in that community, and in that context – the factors for which cannot always be generalized to the larger Church.

I’ve thought over the podcast again, as well as our conversations.  Perhaps there are grains of truth to it all. But perhaps none of the issues are centered exclusively on the rector him/herself. Perhaps the question – do we preach Christ Crucified? – is best posed to the whole congregation.

Three areas of reflection seem useful to this end:

(1) Reflecting on Myself – What does my prayer life and my daily life in all its facets, look like? In prayer, worship, and reading the Bible (hopefully all play a role 🙂 ) have I encountered Christ’s message of suffering and redemption? How would I describe Jesus’s message of love and forgiveness, for a fallen people, for all of us?   If I don’t see or feel any of this, what might I do differently in my prayer or daily life? What questions might I ask? Why will this help me grow closer to Christ and to my own humanity?

(2) Reflecting on Myself and Others – How do I live Christ’s teachings in my daily life? To what degree do I love my neighbor as Christ has loved me? In what ways do I order my life upon the Gospel’s message? How visible, if at all, is this to others? How might I show the love of Christ to others in how I interact with them. How willing am I to talk about my faith? Or how do I let my faith inform what and how I speak?  How willing am I to invite someone into my spiritual life, or to know that side of me?  If these things are not taking place, what changes might I make? What questions might I ask? How will this help me (and all of us) grow as the Body of Christ? 

(3) Reflecting on the Bigger Picture – This one might happen automatically, with the first two. In all that I do, and in all that we do collectively, how has it helped me know Jesus better in my life? 

In this way, the Good News of God in Christ is lived inside and outside of the church walls. While the sermon is one of the most deliberate times when we listen and reflect, the spreading of the Gospel and living in Christ are ongoing. My small joy has been to realize this anew, and to see the potential it holds for the renewal of the Christ’s body, his Church.

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At the Altar

Over the summer, I’ve begun serving at the altar at my parish. I help with Low Mass throughout the week, and with prep and clean-up in the sacristy. We are fortunate to have a beautiful Lady Chapel in which to celebrate. Spacious, with ornate stained glass, stone, and wooden structures…Above the altar is a beautiful icon of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, juxtaposed in a style I believe is Eastern Orthodox (?). We celebrate mass ad orientem.Message_1471621913183

I’ve attended mass countless times since coming to the Episcopal Church. Everything from full-on Sunday morning High Mass, to the more reserved Low Masses we celebrate in this space. Over the past weeks, I’m pleased to say that my perceptions are changing. What I thought was familiar and routine (!?) is very different from beyond the altar rail. Through assisting the priest, reading, offering the Prayers of the People, helping minister the Eucharist…I feel a sense of what it means to do the work of God – in a ministerial way. This is not to discount the importance of any other form of doing God’s work. I seek and find fulfillment in serving God in my daily life. But I note only that this capacity is different.

I started out thinking technically. Oh no! What do I do, and when?? Is this in the right order! Will he need this? And after having done it a few times, I feel more confident in the mechanics, and my mind is freed up to participate willfully in the worship. I discussed altar serving with a friend, who is himself in seminary. He was glad that I found the experience rewarding, and encouraged me to feel while I was up there – not just think. But to feel if there is a sense of vocation in what I do.

I remembered his words and these sentiments today while serving. A number of striking things happened as the mass unfolded. I looked at what Father was doing, and at my part in it, and of the people gathered (of course I start with intellectual perception; I am what I am 😉 ) and stayed in the moment. Do I feel what we are doing? And I had to ask, just what is it we are doing? Such a simple thought, which immediately disarmed my over-thinking and sometimes guarded self. And I saw that we were worshiping God – not following a rubric and reciting text. I was reminded to see beyond the material things in front of me, and to look with faith to what was beyond them. Knowing that this is our work, this is what we do at mass – no matter what “role” we play, I saw even deeper into the moment.

While we come to worship in communion with one another, the celebrant leads and guides the people. She performs the mechanical work, yes, of the liturgical motions. But embodied in these actions, is the intent to serve God’s will and enable the people to come to Him. The priest prays to God in the mass – and the mass is a prayer – but in a way that is at once sacrificial, sacramental, and communal, he brings the prayers of the people and his, to God. She also, in accordance with God’s ordinances, brings to the people that which God has promised. And this is seen in God’s grace, forgiveness, sacramental communion, and our deepening interconnectedness as we become the Body of Christ. This too, is a sign of the interconnectedness of all in Christ’s Church. The Body of Christ is the people – all of them. Not just the priest serving, but all present coming together in worship.

For a few moments, I became acutely aware of these dynamics, and I felt them and their gravity as we served at the altar. This is done for and with the people, to the glory of God and the fulfilling of His will for all of us.

And my tongue shall talk of Thy Righteousness…

Tonight I tried praying the Daily Office in Spanish. With my iPad opened to a .pdf, sprawled with my BCP and Bible on my bed, I proceeded (muddled) through. Ma…in realtá non parlo bene lo spagnolo. It was an interesting experience, knowing some of the passages from memory in English, and knowing a decent amount of Italian, trying to deduce meaning. All of this while earnestly trying to pray to God.

From the time I was little, I enjoyed studying foreign languages. I remember one of the first times I went to our public library in North Providence with my grandmother, I picked up a French picture book, and was fascinated. In junior high, I taught myself a little bit of Latin. In high school, I took Italian for all four years, and continue to speak, study, and meet people in Rhode Island who also speak it (thank you, MeetUp 🙂 )

I began learning Syrian Arabic this summer. My drive for Syrian was largely in awareness of and outreach to the refugees of Syria and the Middle East. I also have a couple friends who speak it; RI actually has a small Syrian-immigrant community up north.

So, where does Spanish come into all this? Foreign Language study was one of my career choices in high school. When I took a different route, I saw my passion for it as a hobby–one I want to keep in my life, and one that may be useful nonetheless. Now…as I discern if I may be called to the priesthood, I’m realizing a different role for that passion.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (RSV). Over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to identify the role(s) of the priest in the modern world. What does his/her ministry look like? One central theme is that of outreach.

A priest is a part of a lived community. Wherever she may find herself, she is charged with the spiritual welfare of her flock. To live as a part of that community of people–not outside or above or away from them, but as an organic member of the whole. He must warmly and genuinely reach out to his neighbors and work for their upbuilding, the building up of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12). 

This includes people of all backgrounds and origins; those who speak English and those who don’t. Being aware of this ministerial need, I find myself called to study the languages of the people around me. Looking down the road, even some basic competencies may help in reaching out to others. So I feel a strange calling right now – to pray the offices in Spanish once in a while, or in Italian or even Arabic–maybe in a few months XD. To make language learning a balanced, sustainable commitment in my life. And to be aware that stepping out of one’s comfort zone culturally and lingually, might be part of vocation.

 

Holy Monday – Daily Office Reflection

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! …All her people groan as they search for bread; they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength. Look, O Lord, and see how worthless I have become. Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger….

– Lamentations 1 (excerpted)

For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ…for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us. On him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again….

– 2 Corinthians 1 (excerpted)

Today, I sit at my desk currently covered in papers and an empty mug of tea. The snow flurries down outside as the storm finishes up. This morning’s Daily Office contained readings from Lamentations and 2 Corinthians. Excerpted above, they could not contain a stronger contrast. In the first, the people of Jerusalem lament their anguish–their suffering, misery, disarray, and hopelessness. It appears God has cast judgement upon them and they have nothing to do but helplessly accept their punishment.

In Corinthians, Saint Paul seemingly connects with the sufferings of the people (more generally applied to the people of Corinth and the larger world) and urges them to remain hopeful. Through Christ there is always hope. Not only salvation from eternal death, but deliverance from our current afflictions. He further alludes that the suffering we do go through, may serve to deepen our faith in God.

I think the juxtaposition is far from a coincidence. The compilers of the Daily Office Lectionary (sequence of readings from day to day) made the comparison for a reason. No doubt, the readings point toward the Resurrection of Christ, which we will celebrate in just a few days–a time when the helplessness of all humanity was answered and transformed with hope for the future.

Today’s Office leads me to ask myself… How have I been condemned by my own sins and actions? How have I felt helpless and beyond hope in my life (due to my own actions or those of others)? And how might God’s grace lift me up from helplessness, in a way I could not do on my own? Hope-2-570x379

 

Talking about Politics and Religion

Plato and AristotleLately, I’ve been reflecting…how do I “show forth” my faith in daily life? What do I do and say to make this happen? Over the last few weeks, I see myself having conversations with people…involving the Pope, Kim Davis, the death penalty, marriage, and a whole range of stuff. I’m political, and I get excited about politics and cultural movements…It’s just who I am. I love to sit back and analyze it, unleash my postmodern fury and attack! Why? Because I believe that this type of discussion will help us understand the matter, and handle it better.

But it doesn’t always come off that way to those around me. Heated conversations on politics, theology, the Church…may in fact turn others off – or leave a sour taste in their mouth. And I realize that I don’t always realize how I may come off to others in these conversations. Apologies to my family and friends if I have ever offended you.

I do believe there is a time and a place for hot intellectual discussions…critiquing the Church on x, y, and z, disagreeing with doctrine A and B, etc., and that we can benefit from these discussions. But these are not what should be the center of our daily interactions. If we’re going to “talk about religion,” why don’t we focus on the things that unite us and the things that allow us to show forth God’s grace in our lives? If I really want to spread the Word of God and work toward unity, I should work to show those truths that unite us in faith. Surely, that would be more fruitful than knit-picking our divisions and sowing dissent.

One benefit hidden in all this: Those conversations over the past weeks…they’ve helped me to clarify where my passions are. I love to study and discuss all these theological matters. I love to look at Scripture and the early Church Fathers–to muse over their interpretations. I love to study theological debates and bring them into the present…not to create arguments and disagreement, but to move us forward.

Right now, bishops of the Roman Catholic Church are meeting in synod and having heated discussions about marriage, divorce, family, and LGBT matters. They could, for all we know, come up with some marvelous solutions or ways forward. And yet I think most Americans wouldn’t be that interested. If it were covered briefly on the 6 o’clock news, some might glance at it and say, “well, that’s nice…I wonder what’s in the fridge.”

I have this burning desire…not to argue, but to earnestly get people to “care.” I feel that the biggest danger to the Church in this century is not heresy; it’s apathy. Less and less people care, and the Church becomes less and less relevant to them. I want people to care, and to find meaning and life in this place we call church–the meaning and life He intended us to find. In my own comfort zone, this happens most easily through intellectual discussion about the Church, and theology. But there are so many ways to live this faith and guide others to find it.

As I sit here discerning if I am called to ordained ministry, I realize I have the desire described above. I know that I have it, but I don’t always know what to do with it, or where to go next….

“Achieving” Spirituality

In many ways, my life has taught me to think in terms of accomplishments and achievements. All through school, I was taught this. Go to college and achieve that education. Accomplish getting a job, and get that paycheck every week. Get certified in stuff, work toward credentials, and achieve skills. And there was always a concrete, material thing to signify it: the diploma, the certificate, the job title, the paycheck. As I look at my drive in life up to the present, so much of it has been motivated by achieving concrete things. Things that I can refer to and point at.

As my faith becomes deeper in my life, some questions arise: what does it mean to grow in faith? Does one “achieve” spirituality? (If I do, does someone come and give me a document that says I did? Surely, it can’t be valid unless they do…) I realized that spirituality is not easily measured by accomplishments. And the milestones of these developments don’t resemble the concrete deliverables of the academic or business worlds.

What is there to “point to” in spirituality? I think that rather than achieving more and more (and gaining distinction for it), true spiritual development goes down a different path. It helps us to be more humble and aware of what is greater than us, to exalt others and to more earnestly worship the God at whom our faith is directed. Said another way by Saint John:

He must become greater but I must become less. The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all.

– John 3:30-32

In a way, growing spiritually is not about building yourself up. It’s about emptying yourself and opening yourself to God’s will–to what He is saying to you in daily life, even through the people you encounter every day. There is a call to be more connected with one’s community then, as an instance of God’s presence. To humble yourself and put others first–and to see the divine calling in that. It’s hard today. We’re often taught to be competitive and to work toward our own achievements and happiness in life. I’m curious to see how these two (the community and self) goals might not be so opposed. In what ways can life incorporate both and find balance? In any case, this gradual, deepening awareness over time seems to be a strong marker of growth–at least that is my lived experience so far.

Sometimes, there’s this fear of becoming too cerebral about it. Can I will my faith to happen? Does it just come to me? Am I believing what I need to believe in!? I mull over these thoughts and fixate on minutia….and it leads to frustration. Being so meta-cognitive can actually cause doubt. I learned that a deeper faith can come from letting go of some worry and from not trying so hard to believe. You can accept that you don’t have to understand it all perfectly–or “feel” like you are believing what you need to believe at every moment. Letting go and opening one’s mind to God and to all that is possible through Him can itself be a spiritual act. Epiphanies come, but they are not constant. Maybe quiet confidence is more the norm.

Is Faith Rational?

maze_in_my_mind_by_Timmy0829One of the biggest obstacles to my faith is when I get too “rationalistic.” There’s this inner battle that goes on sometimes, between the faith I believe and the facts I know. The source of the struggle comes under many wordings: show me proof before I believe in X; that’s just not logical; it doesn’t make sense. Many people I know would say, “how can you expect me to believe in something as fantastic as this?” They speak of any religion, and none in particular. I have felt this sometimes. No matter how hard I “want to believe” in this element or that, it seems just beyond my reach, and beyond the expectations of a rational mind.

But I realized that faith does not have to conform to reason (read reason in the rationalist, logical, Enlightenment Period sense). When I have anxiety over what I “want” to believe in but can’t, it’s most often because I am trying to force my faith through a rubric of secular reason and logic. For example, it makes “sense” that an apple exists–I see it, feel it, and taste it. It makes “sense” that 2 + 2 = 4. It makes “sense” that the man I injured in a car accident is mad at me. But faith goes beyond these dimensions. It transcends the rational/irrational binary. It transcends the natural world of observable fact and cannot be contained by it.

Asking if my faith makes “sense” and failing to find an answer…that is not disproving my faith against the test of reason. Rather, it is like trying to grade a history essay using a rubric for a chemistry class. The problem is not that faith cannot fit the rational standards of proof and logic. The problem is that it was never meant to.

Now, since faith is not bound by rational standards and explanations, the worries that follow them can be dismissed. Thoughts like, how can this bread become the Body of Christ? fade away–not because I have found an answer but because I realized that it’s beyond my understanding or anyone’s, and it is supposed to be. Knowing exactly how it happens, or witnessing irrefutable proof that it does happen, is not required in order to believe it. Freeing up my mind from these constraints, I find more room to believe. From here, inner joy and confidence flow outward, and I feel more genuine in what I am doing and thinking.

This idea that faith transcends reason, is a comfort to me when I’m bogged down by my own doubts and anxieties; I hope it can be a comfort to others as well. And it is surprisingly difficult to capture in words! Perhaps if I could comprehend it “rationally” enough to write more precisely, it would cease to be faith.