Friday, June 30, 2017

Although We Are Weeping, Lord Help Us Keep Sowing

I spent four days last week at the national gathering of Episcopal young adult and campus ministers. God touched my heart throughout the time, particularly through the truthfulness of the worship and the leadership of the presiding bishop. This is my rambling attempt to give voice to the balm I encountered in Austin. 

National gatherings of Episcopal young adult and campus ministers are wonderful and complicated. Wonderful, because of the presence of so many amazing people whom God has also called to this peculiar work. Happily, I enjoy rich local relationships among my clergy sisters and brothers and, ecumenically, among my lay and ordained campus ministry colleagues. Most of the time, however, I must choose between being physically present to professional gatherings of Episcopalians or campus ministers. One or the other, with precious little overlap. In Austin, however, I shared fellowship with 80+ Episcopal young adult and campus ministers for four days. The uniqueness and dearness of the opportunity is never lost on me. 

Complicated, because all national gatherings of the church are complicated. Because recent general conventions have taken as their business whether or not to have general conventions. Because the geographic regions, called provinces, that have defined especially campus ministry relationships for decades, with the national funding that attends them, are probably enjoying their last days. Because "national" is a lot of church and different understandings of Christian faithfulness to squeeze into one space. Because (wonderfully) there are so many different shapes and sizes and expressions of young adult faith communities that we have to lean into each other to see, hear, and appreciate the distinctive gifts of God in each context.

For all of these reasons, it was especially meaningful to have Presiding Bishop Michael Curry with us on the conference's first full day. We shared Eucharist and an open town hall, both of which Bishop Curry engaged with his characteristic enthusiasm, candor, and love of Jesus. In talking with a conference organizer, I learned that Bishop Curry had originally planned to spend even more time with us in small groups, but an unexpected flight change nixed the possibility. When Bishop Curry began his sermon by saying, "I know what you do and that it is good and hard work. I see you and want you to know what you mean to the church and the lives of young adults. That's why I'm here," it was as if he touched our hearts with holy unction. (I wrote one time about the importance of vision in ministry and the words, "I see you," in particular. I learned from the example of Bishop David Reed in West Texas, and I continue to believe, that just such vision is the central work of bishops, and of course not just bishops.)

Bishop Curry's sermon went on to take the shape of prophetic encouragement. Citing the prophet Jeremiah, he said something like
"Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord." You know something is important in the Bible when the writer says it twice! "They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream." You know how the saying goes, 'The key to the fruit is in the root!' "It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious..." Are you hearing what I'm saying, church? "In the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit." Jer 17, ff. 
The sermon continued in equal parts challenge and encouragement, all of it against the backdrop of psalm 126, which we had sung together after the Old Testament reading. "Although we are weeping, Lord may we keep sowing." Well, the people around me sang it. I sat and wept.

As Bishop Curry named the drought and the difficulty of the work, he opened space to name in ways we aren't often afforded (or that we don't often take) that weeping and sowing so many times share the same space. Recently, at lunch with a board member, when asked how I was doing, I said, "Really good. There is so much that excites me. I can't wait for the summer and the projects we have lined up. Also, I am really exhausted. But it's not that I'm excited for somethings on some days and exhausted about other things on other days. I'm excited and exhausted about the same things on the same days." But this refrain from psalm 126 came closer to the heart of it:

"Although we are weeping, Lord help us keep sowing," and my heart was opened to name in one space the simultaneous presence of great joy in the gospel and multiple layers of political, ecclesial, and personal grief. Kind of like the women as they left the empty tomb with "fear and great joy," but with space for tears and wounds.

It has been an especially difficult year politically. Despite the broadly left-learning nature of the Episcopal church, the year has been difficult - as Kathy Cramer's work demonstrates - for members of both parties, as well as those of us who believe that, though it is probably possible to vote without succumbing to idolatry, doing so requires thoughtful practices, the help of God, and the help of the church. There is so much we would have be different than it is. So much that is broken and, some days, feels like it might break us.

Although we are weeping.

Mainline Christianity may have more than 23 Easters left, but a half-century of decline has been physically, spiritually, and emotionally exhausting. What's worse, by failing to name the 1950s for the anomaly is was in terms of church growth, many church leaders have presented the decline through lenses of guilt, failure, and shame. Try harder. Act smarter. All of it an eerie parody of the "have more faith to be healed" theologies that mainliners have publicly despised for years. Even now, it takes special effort to make clear that the new proposed ways of being church are not with the goal of making things like they were. Lazy clichés like this one have not helped.

Seminaries have only recently begun to formally acknowledge in their coursework that the future of ordained ministry is not full-time, a welcome admission that begins to back away from false narratives of guilt and shame. (Bishop Curry's acknowledgement of this reality at the conference was the clearest such acknowledgement I had ever heard from a leader of any mainline denomination.) The church is changing. Bishop Curry simultaneously claimed the exciting possibilities of the church's transformation while naming the church's responsibility to help guard young clergy from personal financial failure. More and more, it is becoming clear to 21st century Christians who had despaired of the church's future that the future is bright. God's church will not cease to be. Anxiety for the church's future is primarily a product of our financial idolatry.

Tangentially, to the extent that the financial flourishing of the 1950s was a byproduct of America's post-war identity as a nation of war, Christians cannot completely lament the transition, apart from its sheer difficulty.

The transition, while hopeful, is continually mired in the (sometimes dishonest) grey areas between mission work and managed decline. Further, it is not clear how the church's diocesan polity survives even those aspects of the transformation that give me great hope (for an example of what gives me great hope, see David Fitch's Faithful Presence).

Although we are weeping.

On a deeply personal note, I've already written about our miscarriage, nine months ago next week, and how the grief was/is unlike any my wife and I have ever carried. I did not control it and certainly could not hide it, and so I openly shared our pain with staff and members of the St. Francis House community. The community of faith loved us and walked with us.

Although we are weeping, Lord help us keep sowing.

Every proclaimer of the Gospel meets in her life a moment of hesitation, a pause, brought about by the prospect of simultaneously weeping and sowing. I remember the first time, some months after my ordination, that I had to preach on a Sunday morning following a difficult conversation (read, fight) with Rebekah, on Saturday, that we hadn't resolved. I was upset at my shortcomings and not at all put together. "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," I said, and I preached anyway.

Thank God that God's strength is made known in and in spite of our weakness, that the Good News of Jesus is that we need not hide before God. In the face of all kinds of grief, still we are sowing. Living our need of God, we discover words of proclamation. God helping, we do. And from time to time we are stopped short, we marvel, that the seed sown in our sorrow has grown up and blossomed. That our grief did not stop the beauty of God's Word. We keep walking, limping, blessing, and blessed.

A dear mentor one time observed to me that, in Revelation, God promises to wipe away every tear, not that there won't be tears to wipe. Painfully, beautifully, weeping and sowing belong together, for in our honest tears, there is the hand of God, gentle on our faces.

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