Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Abraham, Sarah, and the Trinity
(A Tree at the Heart of St. Francis House)

The icon of the Holy Trinity (above) hangs on the west wall of the St. Francis House chapel and is an anonymous gift of friends of St. Francis House, given in honor of Fr. White, Bishop Hallock and his son, Peter, and Mrs. Yvonne Otto, longtime housemother at St. Francis House. The icon will be dedicated as part of the community's 100th anniversary celebration, on the weekend of April 23rd.

The beautiful new icon in the St. Francis House chapel tells the story of Abraham, Sarah, and the three visitors they welcomed in their home under the oaks of Mamre (Gen 18). The icon-writing tradition is notoriously reluctant to visually depict the persons of the Trinity together, but the tradition finds a lone exception in depicting this visit to Abraham and Sarah. 

Just after he hung the icon in the chapel, the iconographer - Drazen - explained what he considered to be the key features of the icon. He started with Christ, the central of the three figures. The meal of the three individuals at the table prefigures the Eucharist that, weekly, the icon will oversee in the chapel. Drazen moved from Christ directly to the napkins. "The napkins?" I asked. "Yes!" he said, with a broad smile. Drazen explained that, in Middle-Eastern culture, to eat with neatly folded napkins in one's lap is to express dissatisfaction with the hospitality one has been offered. To keep too neat a napkin is an indication that one will not come to a given home again. The napkins in the figures' laps are emphatically not neat. The hospitality has been gladly accepted, Drazen explained, and the figures express their intention to continually visit the home. This is both a profession that "Christ will come again" and a communication of what happens in the Eucharist, as God gives God's people the food - God's own self - that we need. Finally, it is noteworthy that in many icons of the Trinity, Abraham and Sarah appear off to the side or not at all. Here, in keeping with the scriptural account, they are serving at the table. In their service, they have taken their place in a circle of friendship with God; it is a circle that the viewer completes, as one who stands on the fourth side of the table.

The story of Abraham, Sarah, and the Trinity carries a special significance for the faith community at St. Francis House today. Everywhere in the House, you will find pictures and metal sculptures of trees, recalling this story in which the welcome of the stranger became an occasion for encounter with God. It is a story that lifts up the baptismal promise to "seek and serve Christ in all persons," and which well fits a community whose doors are continually open to the thousands of students, faculty, and staff, to whom we daily extend our hospitality and for whom we gladly open our lives.

Monday, November 9, 2015

On Going To Church Because We Have To
(When Shame Drives the Church and How To Pull Over)

I came across this article, entitled WE CAN’T DO GOLD STAR CHRISTIANITY ANYMORE – CLINGING TO THE WRONG TRAPPINGS, via a good friend and colleague. Notwithstanding the author's gratuitous use of caps-lock urgency - Good Lord, deliver us! - the article helpfully engages in the kind of honest and thoughtful struggle that will accompany fruitful movement toward a flourishing future for members of the Body of Christ. 

Especially useful is the article's invitation for local faith communities to charitably enter into the changing social and cultural expectations faced by young families today. These expectations explain in part - the author suggests - why time honored incentive structures, like gold stars for perfect attendance, no longer get the job done. The article then goes on to offer good questions for rediscovering just what "the job" is.

Because all of the above is good and needed and forward leaning, I hesitate to make the observation the article doesn't make. I suspect the article doesn't make the observation because the author wants to keep the conversation constructive and positive. I do, too, but I think the observation still needs naming: if we accept the author's thesis that gold star Christianity isn't working in 2015, and if that acknowledgment leads us to ask good questions about what "the job" is, we must also evaluate and consider the extent to which "the job" was successfully accomplished in the past. The author largely gives the past a free pass on this score, seemingly content to accept that another name for doing the job well in the past was the production of attendance numbers higher than those today's churches currently enjoy. 

But what if numbers don't always capture the extent to which a given job was achieved? After all, Willow Creek famously "repented" when a self-initiated study revealed that, despite ever-growing numbers of attendees, underlying goals of discipleship and Christian formation were not being realized. If it is possible for Willow Creek to produce things other that what they set out to produce, what about the Gold Star system?

The friend who shared the Gold Star article did so alongside his own reflection, as a gold star child:

As a kid, I collected "Gold Stars" for Sunday School attendance. There were charts in every room with students' names and strings of stars beside each name. I remember the year I got sick in December and had to stay home on a Sunday w/a fever. I cried because I wasn't going to get my perfect attendance award... I asked my mom if Jesus would still love me. She assured me that he would.
It's not revelatory to say my friend is not alone in this experience. As a parish priest, I regularly ran into parishioners - grown adults - in the grocery store that served our shared small town. Often, my attempt at a friendly, "Hey friend! How are you doing?" was lamely met with, "I'm sorry I wasn't there Sunday. Something came up. I'll be there on Sunday. I promise." Time and again, shame and shame's patterns supplanted opportunities for furthering the kind of relationship God intended for us both. 

By contrast, a student recently told me that he was learning to trust God's love for him as the foundation of his identity. I asked him how his life was different because of that trust. He thought a moment before saying, "I wouldn't still be with this community. I've been so inconsistent. Even though this is a place of joy and life for me, I would have shamed myself away from ever coming back. I would have walked away from a place where I actually experience God's love and new life in Christ."

While it is no doubt an overstatement to say that the church built a 20th century empire from the bricks of shame and should, it is hard to say by how much. Where congregations and preachers have appealed to shame and fear to bolster participation, we cannot completely lament the decline of more robust numbers in Christian communities. To push the point, and writing as a fellow gold cross / perfect attendance recipient, it is not just that gold star Christianity isn't working in 2015, it is that the church may need to repent of some of the methods that produced the "successful" numbers she enjoyed in the past. After all, my friend did not cry because he was missing a Sunday school class that he loved (though he may have loved it); my friend cried because to not attend Sunday school opened the question of whether he was loved by God. 

Of course, the last thing I want to do is shame the church for invoking shame-based methodologies. It is a miracle for which I thank God that fruit of joy and love, forgiveness and mercy, have been conveyed and felt in every age of the church. Indeed, I owe the even ability to make this critique to the faith communities in which I was formed, and for which I remain deeply grateful. It is out of that gratitude, and with deep love, that I raise the issue of shame - both spoken and silent - in congregational life, in the hope that doing so can break the ice for fruitful and creative spaces in our common lives for healing toward flourishing in the Gospel. I pray this post can open such a space.

In his book The Soul of ShameCurt Thompson writes 

I need the community in order for my mind to be integrated, and with a more integrated mind I will be more able to work toward a more integrated community, which reinforces the cycle. Shame both actively dismantles and further prohibits this process of integration, leading to disconnection between mental processes within an individual's mind as well as between individual members within a community.
If Dr. Thompson is correct in the above - and his is hardly a novel presentation of shame and its effects - churches that find evangelism, for example, difficult should consider that the difficulty isn't wholly about introversion and class (though for sure those count, too), but that shame - inherited and passed along through generations - is surely also at play, insofar as symptomatic isolation and disintegration - enemies of community - go unnamed and untended. Put positively, I do not think it is an accident that the Most Rt. Rev. Michael Curry took as the theme of his inaugural sermon, "Don't worry, be happy." In doing so, he was not channeling a hippy vibe so much as giving what is in many places a dying church permission to put down her shames by appeal to - and lifting up of - the resurrection of Jesus Christ - the victory that shame would be glad to have us forget.

In addition to the family, just trying (often unsuccessfully) to show up on Sunday, shame is at play 1) in the lay person who can't get the new blood fired up about old positions and so faces the reality that she will be the last at the helm of a much beloved and generations-old ministry, 2) in the vestry that would rather stomach the fiscal hit quietly than go out to the assembly on Sunday and name the need - one more time - and ask for help, 3) in the cleric who, after years of pouring out her heart and soul, can't seem to budge the overall numbers, even she has come to suspect that what the congregation really means by "church growth" is helping existing members get the rest of their families to church with them on Sundays - all the while self-aware that its the burden of her salary on the congregations that keeps her from out and out refusing that impossible and life-less expectation, and 3) in bishops who, in the face of declining numbers, congregations, and staffs, sometimes feel responsible for culture realities they cannot change, while fighting reactionary temptations to continually justify the existence of their offices.

I surprised a parishioner one day when I told her that others in the faith community thought she was doing a particular weekly job (with which she secretly wanted to be done) because she wanted to being do it - because it gave her joy. When I said this, she couldn't hide her disgust. "Why would the others think that?" she asked. This parishioner felt the shame of being trapped and wanting to walk away. 

I suspect that folks in lay and clergy ranks - on vestries and even bishops - all find themselves thinking to themselves from time to time - about the assumption others have that they want to be doing what they are doing in a given moment - "Why would the others think that?" When we feel trapped, we project our shame at feeling trapped by something that we are supposed to want onto others in belittling ways, usually ways that end in some variation (singular or corporate) of

  • I am not good enough / cannot do enough.
  • I am not enough.
  • There is something wrong with me.
  • I am bad.
  • I don't matter.
At the heart of all of these shames is the forgetting of what Michael Curry would have us remember: that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. It's the answer to the "Why would the others think that?" So Karl Barth said, "Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God," and Wendell Berry invites us by our laughter to "practice resurrection." If there is a constant in the many types and forms of practical atheism rampant among Christians today, it is undoubtedly the shame that presents itself as bigger than the God of our risen Savior.

Where/when does your congregation most laugh? 

What ways has your faith community found to effectively name and relieve long-standing and secretive shames? 

This post is the beginning of an exploration and - most importantly - a conversation. Where might this conversation go next, in ways that would most flourish your family, community, and yourself, in relationship with the living God and one another?

2020-21 Annual License Renewal Letter

Each year, just before Advent, I request the Bishop's renewal of my license to serve in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. These annual le...