Distorted Mirrors: What Our Candidates Tell Us About Ourselves

104082322-clintontrumppointing.530x298.jpg

Photo credit: cnbc.com – Getty Images

Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

I’m doing it. I am adding to the word count on the two people Americans are most tired of talking about. Fret not, though. I won’t bore you with my opining on their political positions, policies, or personal lives. I just want to ponder for a moment what our candidates’ very public moral and ethical question marks might say about where we are as a nation.

Consider a few previous presidents…

  • After a historic religious revival[1], a revolution, and inventing government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” we picked a leader of self-restraint. One who stood for virtue and honesty. George Washington reflected our values.
  • In 1860 a single injustice cast a pall over America. We elected a single issue President with the resolve to oppose that injustice. Abraham Lincoln reflected our values.
  • In the 1930’s, with the economy crippled by the Depression. America chose a president who was crippled, yet courageous. Franklin Roosevelt reflected our values.
  • In the 1950’s, wanting to stand up against the spread of communism, we elected the general who won WWII. Ike reflected our values.

Many have fretted about what so and so’s beliefs and leadership will do to our future. But it seems our leaders don’t shape our beliefs as much as reflect them back to us.  If so, do you like what you see when you look into our collective mirror? While this may be cringe provoking, especially considering Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s historically high unfavorable ratings, is it possible that our candidates are simply our values and our behaviors staring back at us?

Perhaps we need to ask some hard questions about our ethics…how morally upright is our thought life and media usage? What about our conspicuous consumption…and fears…or the effects of millions of us cutting corners and winking away little dishonesties. What about the anger? Moses told the people, “Your sins will find you out.”[2]

Perhaps our candidates are just the public face of our private selves being found out?

We are fooling ourselves to think our candidates are “them.” The cartoon character Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” Surely our candidates moral peccadillos are, at some level, a reflection of our own weak moral knees and the fact that we no longer seem to spend much time on them.

What should one do when looking into a mirror and not liking what is looking back? Surely the answer is not to try to alter the mirror, but to fix what the mirror is reflecting. Perhaps the place to start is in the privacy of the voting booth. When you go into that booth Tuesday, I encourage you to see the candidates for what they are: Flawed humans who are a little too much like you and I for comfort. Say a prayer for each of them. Say a prayer for your nation. Then cast yourself upon the mercy of God. And when you leave that booth, go and love and serve, nurture and nourish each and every person you meet. That way, when we look into the voting booth shaped mirror four years from now, we might feel a little better about what we see looking back.

*“Where are we?” Link to Sermon containing this idea. Text: Hebrews 11:1-11

[1] The Great Awakening

[2] Numbers 32:23

 

No. You don’t want your uncle Jimmy to get ordained online to do your wedding.

white-wedding-1

Snark MeterrealMID.003

It is trendy to have someone you know buy an online ordination and do your wedding ceremony. Every year I have multiple (otherwise solid) Christians contact me to ask where and how to find the “least weird” way to be ordained. Here is my response:

It is an honor to be asked, and good on you for wanting to make it as right as possible. Unfortunatelywhat you are asking just isn’t. Would you ask a teacher help you get a “less weird” online teaching certificate? Or a doctor to help you get a “less weird” online medical license? Getting ordained through Billy Bob’s Online Church of the Twenty-Buck Blessing may seem like a good idea, but it overlooks the training and experience needed to do a wedding well. A teacher does more than pull off classroom management as a one-time substitute, and a doctor more than demonstrate mastery of the tongue depressor in a routine visit. In the same way, a pastor does much more than simply read a wedding service.

Your friend will be putting someone who has never done a wedding in charge of the single most expensive and important party of their life. Will they also be asking a friend who takes nice Instagram pics to be photographer? A minister is air-traffic control. They make all of the many parts and people move in coordination. Brides are under a lot of stress. They do not need a rookie at the helm.

More than that, a non-ordained friend doing the ceremony is a bad setup for the marriage. Marriage is a sacred act originating in the mind of God. Marriage is tough. It needs God’s participation to have more than a Powerball player’s chance of making it after you scratch the ink off and see what resides below the surface of each of us. There are important roles in a wedding a friend can handle, but when it comes to making the vows, you want to have every bit of oomph possible behind those promises. You want a couple, even ones without faith involvement, to say, “I promised God and God’s representative in front of all of my friends and family in that church that I will love this girl/boy no matter how bad a time I am having of it. I’d better make good on this!”

Do them a favor, ask them to find someone duly ordained. Probably not what you wanted to hear.🙂

Matt

Usually my friends then respond with: That’s a lot to think about, but my niece/friend/neighbor is really important to me. I’m the only Christian they know and being connected to a church isn’t a priority for them. I think this is a great opportunity for me to ask some good, tough questions to her and her fiancé. Don’t you? 

I love your heart. You don’t want an online ordination.

You are wise to see your friends’ need for preparation. Marriage preparation from someone who is in a good marriage, like yours, is a good thing. But why not also connect them with someone who has helped lots of marriages? Good churches typically do a 4-6 session pre-marital course. Your friendship gives you traction to say, “Trust us, you want one more person involved: a real pastor…with their experience, preparation program, and the encouragement of other couples who will also be making new marriages work. All of that will be really helpful!”

On top of that, encourage them to try a church. You and I have both experienced the support and perspective that faith and a multi-generational church community has been in keeping the wheels from coming off our marriages when they might have otherwise.

Matt

The friend then generally responds with some version of: “Matt, you really don’t get the situation here. Our friend doesn’t going to church and they aren’t going to. She wants ME to do it and I want to do it because I love them.”
I have learned to have this part of the conversation in person because it looks so snarky in writing:

I have been at this a long time. I actually do know what is going on. 99 couples out of 100 come to clergy and ask for a “great wedding.” The fact that you think you are their best option for that, friend, reveals their need for an actual pastor. It feels good to be asked, and it feels good to give someone what they want. But that doesn’t really help them. Pastors do not to acquiesce to people’s whims and wants, but move naive couples off of the dime of “great wedding” to “great marriage.” The first is a one-off. The second is a lifetime.

I am not saying, “Let a friend down.” I am saying be a great friend: Give them a third party – one who can say things important for their life together, but hard for them to hear. Then you and your wife are free to take the role of wise old married friend confirming the ancient wisdom offered by that pastor.

Many have been burned by the church and ministers, or, not knowing or distrusting the church, have failed to engage. But, to bring this full circle, bad ministers and bad churches do not invalidate the help provided by good ones any more than being harmed by bad public school teachers or bad doctors invalidates teaching or medicine. Don’t fall into the trap of reinforcing the perception of irrelevance of some of the most potentially helpful relationships in their marriage: a church and qualified, called, experienced clergy. Make their circle larger: Include a real church and a real pastor.

Matt

Ordination is not a piece of paper. 

Ordination is a long process that begins when the community sees someone’s calling. A person confirms that call through a period of prayer and community discernment. Then the person endure rigorous preparation that typically culminates in a 3-year Masters of Divinity degree program. After seeing the faithfulness of the person in their faith journey, service, and spiritual preparation, then the church ordains them, setting them apart and asking God to make them, by His grace, up to the task of leading God’s people.

In ordination, the community of faith, below, around, and above invests in a person’s training, and then asks them to, as Eugene Peterson said, “Lash themselves to the mast of Word and Sacrament” on that communities’ behalf. Ordained people pledge to be the one whom, when the storms of life come, the community can count on. They pledge to be there when we are married, when our children are born, when they own their faith, and when we are ill and when we go and meet our maker…and every week in between. It is a sacred covenant between God, the ordained, and a community. Because of our relationship with our clergy: we have an awareness of the sacrifices they have made, and knowing that they literally risk their supper if they offend us, we trust that the occasional hard things they say and we don’t want to hear deserve a listen.

Googling an ordination makes a mockery of that process, real pastors, and the communities that call them. And it doesn’t help the people getting married.

Buying an ordination does two things well: It gives pastors lots of complements from people whose last wedding was officiated at by a bogusly ordained friend, and it feeds a side of the one buying it that really doesn’t need feeding. 

Photo from: wedding photo

Prayer Book Revision: Dancing on the third rail

Third-Rail-Danger-Sign

Snark MeterHIGH.001

Guest Blogger: Chicken Little, Doomsday Forecaster

Chicken Little

On the way into our 78th General Convention my word to my nervous brethren was, “Worry not. Outside of choosing new leaders, national meetings are irrelevant to the day to day operations of our hen houses.” General Convention is now behind us and I want to cluck a little…

First, I think we did very well in our choice of a new presiding bishop, the Right Reverend Michael Curry of North Carolina. He is a Jesus guy, will represent the Episcopal Church positively in public, and is an inspirational preacher. Unfortunately, my conjecture of Bp. Curry’s election was probably the only thing I was right about. In retrospect, this convention has the potential to leave no Episcopal church unscathed. Before General Convention (was that really only two weeks ago), I described a pothole (marriage canons) and a third rail (prayerbook revision). My belief was that we would dodge the pothole and, as long as we avoided touching that rail, all would be fine. Unfortunately, our bishops and deputies did not just run us through the pothole and touch that third rail, they danced on it…and, perhaps, set a timer ticking on a hastened demise for the Episcopal Church.

What is this hyperbolic high voltage rail and ticking time bomb to which I refer? Its official name is Plan for Revising the Book of Common Prayer. “Rest easy,” you will be told. “Prayerbook revision is a long, slow process.” In fact, it will take so long that its’ rhythmic background patter may lull you to sleep. But don’t think that tick-tock is harmless. Legislative item A 169, “Establish a Process for the Revision of the Book of common Prayer 1979,” sounds innocuous, but you should know that, “Preparing a plan for comprehensive revision” is code for “we will have a new prayer book in nine years unless we can figure out a way to do it sooner.

The insider speak promoting the revision is in code as well. Let me translate:

Bishop Thomas Breidenthal of Southern Ohio, who is on the committee responsible for the revision, told the House of Bishops, “the resolution commits us to a theological, liturgical and ecclesiological conversation. I hope we can move forward with boldness to say we are ready.” Translation: We are going to talk about a lot of stuff not heretofore considered “Christian.”

The Rev. Ruth Meyers, chair of the committee, told the House of Deputies, “It’s become increasingly apparent that the 1979 prayer book is a product of its time…it’s time for us to take stock of our church and context in this century.”

Translation: “We want a prayerbook with marriage liturgies that work with same-sex couples, a new pledge in Baptism that Christians care for creation, a wholesale change in wording to reflect the growing universalist bent in our church, and the stripping of gendered language from our liturgies.

For the uninitiated, the idea of “non-gendered language” is to purge our liturgies of “problematic” words like, “Lord,” and “Kingdom.” Also on the cutting room floor are “patriarchal” words for God, like “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” In their place we shall have “non-discriminatory” ones like, “God, Child, and Spirit.” Wrap your mind around the implications of that for a moment – a non-gendered God…except that the Holy Spirit is nearly always referred to as “she” by this group. Apparently the alternative to the biblical mode of speaking of God will be to jettison male deity references and substitute a female one. Are we about to become goddess worshippers?

I would like to say that I trust the motives and gracious impulse of those driving this. I believe they have a genuine desire to welcome and serve other more marginalized poultry-the ones not in the hen house. I have serious theological concerns about the way they want to accomplish these goals though. It is above our pay grade to change those words in the prayerbook that are the scriptures reorganized for public worship – when it is quoting the revealed words of scripture and the doctrines of the Christian tradition we cross a line. We are not our LDS convention hosts, no matter how welcoming they were in Salt Lake City. We do not receive, as our bishops said repeatedly, “new revelation from God.” And to think that new revelation comes by means of popularity contest in the form of “yeah” or “nay” vote is the epitome of progressive-modernist arrogance. We have an impeccable understanding of parliamentary procedure but need a refresher in systematic theology.

The convention seems to have gotten caught up in a collective euphoria over the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision – the convention broke out in dancing at the announcement, and they danced their way to prayerbook revision. I was assuming our flocks would be protected from this ecstasy by our ordinarily circumspect house of bishops. Sadly, I was wrong.

Each of these changes appears to represent a break with scripture and the tradition. What is certain is that we have, as a denomination, moved from “providing generous pastoral response”  and “accommodation” for same-sex couples, to the endorsement of same-sex marriage – a change from the stated end-game of the last two general conventions. “There is no slippery slope here, but let me distract you from looking too closely while I pull a revisionist rabbit out of my hat.” And while grousing over sexuality is the sour grapes of the group that just got played, sex is about to become the least of our worries. Our church has set the groundwork to move far past sexuality – Univeralism and the gender reassignment of God. We are now talking about wholesale theological alterations that affect the creedal foundations of our faith.

Which can only mean one thing-the sky is falling!

For non-Anglican readers, prayerbooks are important to Anglicans because our prayers express our theology. Prayerbook revision has long been Anglicanism’s third rail. It takes us off of mission and distracts us with futzing over words. In the end, prayerbook revisions always leave a disgruntled group. That is why revision has historically resulted in schism and defections.

But if we think the last decade in which we lost 24% of our attendance was bad, we have not yet begun to see the emptying of our parishes like will happen IF a version of the prayerbook this group is telegraphing that they want to give us is mandated for usage. We have a decade for them to warm us up to the idea, though. The timer has begun. The clock is ticking…

When our decade runs out and the new prayerbooks are delivered will the result be what the revisionists hope, a “Times Square” moment – a giant ball dropping on a heady new era?

Unknown-1

Or will it be the detonation of the mine that finishes sinking our Episcopal Church, a boat that has been taking on the waters of numerical decline for more than a decade?
UnknownWe shall see. But if we continue to grab this track, the smell of electrocuted flesh in our nostrils will be our own. If there is a silver lining it is that perhaps other churches will be blessed by our self-destructive inability to keep our hands off of the high voltage.

Chicken Little really hopes he is wrong.

And Chicken Little implores orthodox Episcopalians to scratch and cluck a bit before it is too late, especially orthodox Lesbian and Gay Episcopalians. Don’t sell your soul for a bowl of same-sex marriage rite inclusion pottage in the prayerbook. Are universalism and a new deity really what you signed up for? Many of you have told me that you joined this church because it was an orthodox expression of the Great Tradition. Will that still be true when the clock strikes?

What is the church to do in a 5-4 world?

Brave_New_World

Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

A Brave New World supplants the illusion of Christian America 

We now know what we have long suspected: America is not and never was “a Christian nation.” We may have put “In God we trust” on our coins and “one nation under God” into our pledge during the red scare, but those were merely the vestigial organs of an America of church attenders familiar with the scriptural imagery of Western civilization. But Western civilization is quickly fading away, swept under the rug of social change in a brave new world of neoliberalism and its deity, the self-identified eros.

Harbor no illusions, neoliberalism is a puritanical and absolutist form of progressivism. It is characterized by “tolerance” – the buzzword of an orthodoxy of the unfettered self. We are watching its fruit as our culture, unmoored from classical ideas of truth, beauty, and dignity, descends into hedonism. Regardless of the rhetoric, in neoliberalism truth is not actually relative. Truth may be a social construct, but it is absolute, and, as in all puritanical schemes, difference of opinion is not “tolerated.”

Artist Theo Eshutu-Brave New World http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/brave/index.html

Artist Theo Eshutu-Brave New World http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/brave/index.html

Perhaps nowhere is neoliberalism on clearer display than in the triennial meeting of my Episcopal Church. For us, the “movement of the Holy Spirit” is determined by popular vote. To oppose the winds of change then is nothing less than to oppose God. The neoliberal “Spirit,” is a “spirit” of triumphalist glory, a big-brother who squashes dissent quickly and quietly. In the deliberations of our bishops yesterday, a small and quiet conservative minority wished to read a statement indicating their disagreement with the redefinition of marriage. They were cut off on parliamentary grounds. Neoliberal tolerance can tolerate no dissent. The vitriol, social shaming, and gloating on my Facebook after the Obergefell ruling stands in stark contrast with the rhetoric of pluralism and classical liberalism we hear so much about. Our delegates heard from a Sunday school teacher shacking up with her boyfriend who has no interest in marriage, then passed a resolution to “continue work studying the growing contemporary reality…that is redefining what many mean by ‘family’ or ‘household.'”  This explicitly includes, “those who choose to remain single; unmarried persons in intimate relationships; couples who cohabitate; couples who desire a blessing, etc).” It implicitly includes “listening” to another type of emerging family structure – polyamorous families. I report this, not to be shocking, but because our church takes its establishment roots quite seriously and is generally a reflection of where progressive culture desires to go next. And, as you will have noticed, for culture crusaders addicted to the fight, there is always a next fight…

Time magazine this week posted an article by Mark Oppenheimer arguing for the elimination of church’s tax exempt status. It is spreading through social media like wildfire. The new elite smells blood: it is the last weak pulse of traditional America. Somehow they have forgotten that orphanages, hospitals, universities, literacy, and abolition were all ideas given to the world by that enemy of humanity – Christian thought.

Somehow lost in both the sophomoric euphoria and the licking of wounds is the fact that political solutions simply do not work. We are forty years into our legislative solutions to our race issues, yet those issues are still present. And in this mess Christians are still forgiving and angry nuts are still burning down our places of worship.

How should the church respond to culture shift?

We could keep financing losing political battles. We could keep encouraging ugly rhetoric. We could fight to keep our tax exempt status’ and tax deduction for charitable giving. We could keep trying to support political parties for whom nearly half of my state has disengaged and reregistered as “independent.” We could do what many have chosen to do this week and simply remain silent. We could flip-flop on 2000 years of unbroken Christian tradition and the clear meaning of the words of scripture.

Or…

…we could go back to what the church was good at. Remember, when we were eleven scared dudes hiding out in an upper room? That group had a unique methodology unused since the faith embraced power in the fourth century…

Lessons from the first Christians

First, they gathered in remarkable unity across ethnic, cultural, and social barriers in formational, seeker-insensitive worship services – This may surprise many of my evangelical friends, but there are eucharistic pointers in every NT author. The story of God is taught and formed with remarkable clarity in the format of Word and Sacrament present in Acts and given to us as ancient practice by Justin Martyr in 150 CE. We must form Christians. This is more than sermonizing. It involves enacting and imprinting the story of God on human hearts.

Second, from their deep formation, the ancient Christians moved missionally in service and proclamation into the world. They loved, gave, and proclaimed Jesus’ to the least, last, and lost.

Third, they were annoyingly clear about the exclusive claims of Jesus in a pluralistic world. This made them the target of recurring persecution. A persecution which they generally embraced.

Fourth, they were not worried about their “rights.” They worried about the world’s lostness. We can stop worrying about being persecuted and start embracing and supporting Christians who are actually being persecuted. Embrace the loss of status and prestige! Let us join our African American brothers and sisters in turning the other cheek, blessing those who persecute us, and forgiving the offender.

Fifth, they modeled internal civil discourse (Acts 15). In our churches we can teach the “faith once delivered.” But we can teach it as truths we are being conformed to, rather than using the faith as a bludgeon to beat non-Christians into an eternally irrelevant social-conformity.

Fortuitously, these are exactly the lessons we learn from many of the fastest growing millennial-heavy churches. Millennial-heavy churches (churches with hundreds of millennial generation attenders) tend to be liturgical and artful, with deep biblically-based sermons. They are high on diversity and community. They fearlessly preach on difficult topics with a “hard on me, soft on you” hermeneutic. They actively engage in social action. They tend not to engage in political action. They even seem to have a significant number of young lgbt attendees who respect their authenticity. Or, as one millennial said when she left her mega-church that is moving to gimmicks to drive attendance, “I want to go where the Christianity is what is on display.”

So, church, do not change the “deposit of faith” to make it more “relevant” to the culture. There has never been a time that has not failed to be a losing proposition. There is a reason that the fellowships that change least account for the most of us – Catholicism and Orthodoxy continue to account for 2/3 of the world’s Christians.

The Christian faith is neither the moral improvement program that many conservatives wish for it to be, nor the affirmation of desires that many progressives seem to want to make it. The Christian faith is nothing less than a radical reorienting of the human experiment to a new master. To quote, Abraham Kuyper, “There is not one one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Jesus Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘mine.'”

Or, as our spiritual forebearers said, “Jesus is Lord.” 

So let us stop trying to remake a secular society in our own image. Let us instead worry about God’s priorities: “The redemption of the world through our Lord, Jesus Christ.” (BCP, 101)

We have work to do. Politics is not that work.

*Brave New World photo labelled for reuse.

***I should say that I support full protection under the law for lgbt relationships, not because it is the government’s business what adults choose to do, gay or straight, but because adults have children, and children need the protection under the law afforded by the cultural values of monogamy and fidelity. I also see a big difference between what a pluralistic government protects and what the church, as recipients of scriptures and the tradition of the apostles, defines as marriage.

Justice: The Episcopal Church riding a one-trick pony into the ground?

Photocredit: Paul Hebert, Symbolist.com

Photocredit: Paul Hebert, Symbolist.com

Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

There is an old expression from the days when entertainment starved small town Americans waited for the traveling circus to show up, only to be left flat by the disappointing show: one-tent, one-clown, and a one-trick pony. The one-trick pony was a let down, even for farm kids who spent their afternoons watching summer storms roll through from the porch. Reading reports of the testimony from the General Convention it seems to me that, although we may shrink our structures, we have already shrunk our vision. We have become the ecclesiological expression of the one-trick pony. Our pony is “justice,” and we are in grave danger of riding that horse into the ground.

Our church was once characterized by evangelical and reformed theology, ecumenical dialogue through the Lambeth Quadrilateral, ancient catholic practice, and engagement with the world as a natural outgrowth of the first three. It now appears the pressures of our decline and the narrowness of our seminaries* training have left our laity and clergy unable to argue from the Holy Scriptures informed by the tradition, only from feelings and opinions. The words reported from last night’s “Special Legislative Committee on Marriage” are filled with, “I feel,” “I think,” “I want,” “I believe.”

We seem to be unable to view issues through any lens but the lens of social justice – to the point of public shame. Last night a cathedral dean equated the Book of Common Prayer’s marriage rite language to the flying of the Confederate flag over Charleston.

Here is a money quote from The Living Church’s coverage, “‘How long are we going to allow documents like the Book of Common Prayer to contain language that is explicitly discriminatory?’ asked the Rev. Will Mebane, interim dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo and a member of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage. ‘Demands for the Confederate flag, a symbol of hate, to come down have been heard. … It is time to remove our symbol that contains language of discrimination.’”

The dean from Buffalo actually equated the language of the prayer book marriage rite (lifted directly from another “hate document,” the bible) used in a church in which 3/4 of our diocese’ have same-sex commitment ceremonies to the racially motivated murder of nine faithful Christians assembled in their church to study the scriptures? That is patently irresponsible, thoroughly insensitive, and wholly unexplainable to my African American friends.

But I cannot really blame Reverend Mebane. To quote a well-worn expression, “When your only tool is a hammer everything begins to look like a nail.” When we read the scriptures only through the lens of justice, everything begins to look like a justice issue.  We seem to have reduced ourselves to this one-trick pony. And, dogonnit, we are going to ride that thing until it folds under our weight.

Luckily, and as usual, it is the bishops who ride to our rescue. Bishop McConnell of Pittsburgh pointed out, “A substantial range of voices was excluded in this task force…” Such as the voices of traditionalists, and those of both our ecumenical partners and the other Anglicans in our world-wide communion.

We are fond of quoting our African brethren’s proverbs in our meetings, so let me suggest one: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” If we keep riding our justice hobby horse fast and alone, it will do what horses ridden for too long do: collapse.

We have same sex blessings. That horse is out of the barn. Now, for the love, can we throw a saddle on something else for a bit? The actual mission of the church: the evangelism of the 2/3 of the world who are outside of the faith and the discipleship of the 1/3 inside it, would be a good place to start.

vintage-circus-show-bus

*Biblical languages, systematic theology, historic exegesis are all absent on the Courses of Study I have seen.

The Future of the Episcopal Church: Being “poised for growth” is not growth

High-DiveSnark MeterrealMID.003

Old joke: “What do you call a leader with no followers?” Punchline: “Someone taking a walk.”

With General Convention just around the corner there is much talk in Episcopal clergy circles of internal restructuring schemes for our national church office. Interestingly, no one outside our tribe has ever asked me about our “structure issue.” When I speak with other clergy they ask about another issue: “What are you guys doing about your leadership issue?” They see us as having a pressing problem that most of us do not seem to be able to see: A significant number of our “leaders” don’t have many followers.

The numerical decline of the American mainline has left the offices of the historic denominations in a state of continual “restructuring” (a.k.a. “downsizing”). These efforts cost piles of money, take years to enact, and generally leave us with more of the ineffective same. There is a reality instinctively understood by independent churches: churches are neither planted nor grown from national headquarters but by local leaders and their local followers. Church planters know the leadership equation:

 Talent + Preparation + Opportunity + Expectations + Effort = Results

Or as Scott Haas the planter of Substance, a Minneapolis church exploding with millennial generation parishioners says, “The right person, at the right time, in the right location, with the right methods, with the right inner circle of leaders, equals success.”

Our results stare us in the face: In numeric decline for thirty years, we are now in numeric freefall. Episcopal churches have lost a quarter of our Sunday attendance over the past decade: 823,000-623,000 per week from 2003-2013. And, lest you believe the rhetoric our decline has bottomed out, in 2013, the last year we have statistics for, the decline was 2.6%, an increase over the 10 year average of 2.4%. Conclusion, we have shrunk, are shrinking, and the rate of our decline is accelerating.  To make matters worse, this summer our General Convention will contemplate new rounds of canonical and prayer book revisions that threaten to marginalize whole groups of parishioners, threatening yet another slow trickle from our churches. And, as if we have not had enough bad news, we are about to enter what church statistician Lovett Weems calls “the tsunami of death” as our builder generation attendance core become, paraphrasing St. Paul, “absent in the body to be at home with the Lord” over the next decade.

So, If our results do not “equal success,” where in the equation are we falling short? Is it the right people? The right location? The right methods? or the right inner circle? Because our leaders have been telling us for a decade that the Episcopal Church is “poised for growth.”

And, although the first half of this post might seem to indicate otherwise, I actually believe them.

I do believe that with our inner-city locations, historic buildings, broadly creedal ancient-future faith, communities shaped in daily immersion in the scriptures and weekly sacramental worship, our willingness to form communities that help one another strive for personal holiness with grace toward others, of agreeing to pray together rather than agreeing to sign the same doctrinal statements, that we really are poised for growth.

You should know, however, that I myself was once poised. I was a freshman in high school. It was in the swimming unit of second hour Physical Ed. I was poised on the end of the high dive. Every sinew of my skinny body twitched in readiness to propel myself off that board. However, fear won out over the desire to impress the girls below. Fear and the awareness that I did not know how to dive – I lacked diving talent and preparation. So I turned around and slunk down the steps of the board to the jeers of my pre-sensitivity era friends. The point: Being “poised” to do something doesn’t get it done. One still needs talent + preparation + expectations + effort in order to go get the results that opportunity leaves us “poised” to achieve.

Will we Seize Our Episcopal Moment?

Will we turn it around? As “The seed that grows on its own” parable (Mark 4:26-29) taught us this past Sunday, the kingdom will keep growing. Last year, for instance, the Sunday attendance of 10 American churches grew by 2000 people or more. But we will only reap the harvest into our churches if we cast the seeds of the Word of God and wield the sickle to bring in the harvest. We will have to overcome our hesitation at using the God given tools of evangelism and discipleship if we are to bring in the harvest God has prepared. The kingdom is growing. God sees to that. But I see a potential pitfall in our (much needed) restructuring efforts: That of staying in the shed “sharpening” the tools to create what has been referred to as a “leaner, meaner, more responsive instrument.” But then never using it.

Will we seize our Episcopal moment and join God’s harvest? Or will we leave it to others?

How a backwoods battle and a leader you’ve never heard of changed history

Photo of the Battle of Cowpens in the Charleston Custom House.

               Painting in the Charleston Custom House.

Snark MeterrealMID.003

You probably haven’t heard of it. I hadn’t. It is known as the Battle of Cowpens and it isn’t in most high school history books these days. Here is the backstory: America was losing the revolution – badly. The British, well funded, well mannered, and well dressed, had established forts in the southern countryside and were converting loyalists to their cause as the patriots, hungry and ill equipped, hid in the woods. American General, Daniel Morgan, had 300 regulars and was trying to elude a British trap.

Morgan was a veteran. He had proven himself at Quebec and Saratoga. At Cowpens, in the face of a far superior force, Morgan did everything right and modeled leadership under pressure.

What did Morgan do?

  1. He analyzed the situation accurately: Morgan had 300 Continental soldiers. The British under the ruthless “Bloody Tarleton” were marching 1000 crack troops to surround the Americans and wrap up the frontier campaign.
  1. He recruited aggressively: Seeing the hopeless mismatch, Morgan sent out the call to “meet at the cow pens!” This produced 650-ish militia to meet him to attempt to turn the tide.
  1. He motivated passionately: The night before the battle, Morgan went among the untrained militia imploring them “just give me three good shots and you can go home heroes.”
  1. He chose his battlefield carefully: A brilliant strategist and realistic leader, Morgan chose “the cow pens,” as the place his untrained men would make their fight. It is a high and open ground with a road the British would travel down right up the middle. He stationed his Continentals on the uphill side of the pens, an open spot one hundred yards wide by five hundred long. The cow pens were surrounded by dense woods and streams. This prevented flanking. Even more, the swollen Broad River at their back gave his men nowhere to run.
  1. He formulated his plan brilliantly: Three lines of riflemen. Each would shoot at the officers and dragoons and then melt behind the next, each line providing cover for the other and leading the enemy deeper into Morgan’s midst.
  1. He estimated his foe wisely: He knew Tarleton would press the battle, confident of the open ground and anxious for a decisive blow.
  1. He led his men courageously: When the battle began to fall apart, Morgan was right there. He rode among his panicked troops, rallying a right flank in disarray, until it resembled a purposeful wheeling/pivot movement backwards from his right.
  1. He pressed the victory brilliantly: As the British came forward on their left, Morgan’s best men, mounted “Dragoons” were waiting in the trees. They came galloping down, surprising and surrounding Tarleton’s troops. This is known as a “double envelopment.” 120 British troops were killed and 800 surrendered en masse.
  1. He finished honorably: It is often difficult to be a good winner. Morgan was. The American colonists (most of whom were not trained, disciplined ‘regulars’) were very angry about the atrocities and brutal tactics  of “Bloody Tarleton.” They wanted to show no quarter and cut the British down. When the British laid down their arms in surrender, it was Morgan who forced the Americans to overcome their adrenaline and put an honorable end to the fighting. Morgan would never again lead a significant fight. Eight months later ill health would force him to resign his commission. A great leader finishes well.
  1. He did his part faithfully: Morgan was a small part of a big picture. The defeat at Cowpens deprived British General Cornwallis of his offensive weapon. Forced back to Virginia, Cornwallis was pinned on land by Washington and at sea by the timely arrival of the French at Yorktown, thus winning U.S. independence. But it was Morgan, faithfully doing his small part in the back country, who set up the famous surrender at Yorktown. We have the America we have today because of someone most of us have never heard of faithfully doing a job that needed to be done, in an out of the way spot, in the face of great adversity and terrible odds.

What kind of leader will you be?

In your life you will likely be called upon at some point to lead. Will you accept the call? And when you do, what kind of a leader will you be? Today it is fashionable to tell young people, “Follow your passion.” Frankly, that sets up a world that begins and ends with the self. The world was not built on such little thinking. And it is no coincidence that as our culture follows that line of thinking it is running right off the rails. You see, the men and women that you most admire were not people who did what they “wanted” with their lives. The great acts of history, the great leaders of the ages, and the great works of literature were all forged in the fires of difficulty and conflict. I am fairly certain that Dr. King would rather not have been writing from a Birmingham jail. I am fairly certain Lincoln would have preferred not to have to write an address for the slaughter at Gettysburg. I am absolutely certain that the New Testament would not be what it is if Jesus was not crucified and if his followers, Paul and John, were not writing from prison cells and penal colonies. Difficult times produce great humans. The world does not need you to follow some narcissistic “passion.” It needs you to find a need, step into that gap, and do something. Something small or great, that needs doing. To do that thing that is part of the bigger picture. To fight your battle, so that whether or not anyone else notices, you will have contributed to the great victory of leaving the world a better place than you found it. That is leadership.