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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Trying to be faithful in a "contemporary" church

Today the priests and deacons of our diocese will gather to renew our promises and vows. In earlier times, this was a joyful day for me filled with a sense of renewed commitment of sacred vows. As I shared some days ago, in light of a major failure, I am keenly aware of how important it is to keep my vows. I have promised God and His people, after all. The promise is both gift and burden.

In recent years, this diocese has been a less hostile environment for a traditional priest. Even as the national church barrels on with its agenda, closer to home there has been a lull in conflict. My most common experience lately is that others are kind and respectful. I am less attuned to the innovations of the national church, so the conflict is not 'felt' as intensely. I am focused on my tasks at hand. Still, trying to be faithful in this broader environment is challenging. I think the biggest problem is that with each redefinition of "the new normal" the meaning of everythng is also redefined.

A couple of years ago, I watched a clever video on line. Basically, the creator had taken a popular movie, Sleepless in Seattle (a romantic comedy), and made a movie advertisement as if the movie were a horror film. The "tense music" and accompanying voice over coupled with snippets of the actual film were done in such a way that it looked like a horror movie. Having seen the film, it was very funny to see how easily placing scenes in a "new context" gave them a different feel. New contexts can make everything different.

Serving in a church where there is an ever changing context is equally amazing, but much less entertaining. The word schizophrenic seems like an excellent descriptor. An example, six years ago in our local convention we were heatedly debating the issue of marriage. At a legislative hearing I read the following: "Christian marriage is a solemn and public covenant between a man and a woman in the presence of God."  One of the women who was serving on the committee said to me, "anyone can twist scripture to say what they want." When I tried to respond I was told I had already had my say. I guess I was rude, but I continued to speak. I said, "that was from the prayer book, page 422." I agree people can twist scripture and I assume I have done just that many times. However, in this case, I think the only twisting going on is by those who are innovating. The prayer book describes marriage in the same way as I advocate. Discussion ended, right? Not really, see, eventually they will change the prayer book. Change the definition, change the meaning, suddenly the people who have an "outdated and hateful" understanding can be accused of not upholding the prayer book. At that moment, when they have changed it all, the enforcement of compliance to the Prayer Book will begin. (Once it is changed to agree with them, it becomes binding!)

Today we (and I) will promise many things: to be diligent in reading and study of Holy Scripture, to minister word and sacrament, to be a faithful pastor, to serve as a wholesome example and to persevere in prayer. None of these is difficult for me to commmit to and for the most part I am able to say I have done a decent job of living out my commitments. I do pray and study, I do preach and teach, I do pastor. My typical day is spent being a faithful priest, even if there is vast room for improvement and even if, regularly, I fail in one aspect or another. But "the doctrine, discipline and worship as this Church has received them" is another question. Likethat fake movie ad above, the context is ever changing. A romantic comedy is becoming a nightmare. Words are being redefined. It is all very, very confusing.

Young children like to play "Opposite Day." On opposite day when a child says, "I hate you" it really means "I love you." It probably serves some psychological release. It allows kids to say mean things under cover of "what I say doesn't mean what I say." I am sure it also has elements of divine-like power. After all, what is the opposite of "I hate you"? Is it "I love you" or "you love me"? Each child gets to decide. However living in a world where the meaning of words is in constant, serious flux, (a real life "opposite day") makes every promise and commitment a fragile thing.

What after all, is a "wholesome example" now? What is "faithful" in pastoring? In rejecting the historic faith and redefining what it means to be a Christian, our church, ever trying to be contemporary, is in a position similar to Alice in Wonderland where "words mean whatever I say they mean" and what I say they mean is an ever changing thing.

So we will gather and we will commit. I will look to the invisible God and cry out to Him. I will speak the words and confirm my commitment. I will do it in a church where a large number of people would say that I am not even Christian (according to the newest Epsicopal definition). I will do it in a wider context of others who criticize "how can you stay in that church? Leave. Join us!" I will do it because I am a priest here, in this challenging, sometimes crazy (and crazy making) ecclesial world. I do it because I am clear on what the commmitment is and what it means. I do it here, because the wider world is the Episcopal situation writ large, and there is no excaping that. I will do it today because Holy week is coming and that is when we ordained folks recall the 'birth' of our ministry at the Last Supper.

Even so there is a temporary feel to this permanent commitment. I know things are changing. I know the "Queen" is ever providing new definitions to words. I know the struggle is going to become increasingly difficult. I also know that it looks like 'the cross' and that means I am probably on the right track. After all, being faithful means to share in a death like His. Jesus has given the example. Today I will again try to follow Him. Even if it sometimes feels very crazy trying to be faithful in a contemporary church!


  1. Y'know; you keep this up and I'll have to stop blogging altogether. I'll just copy quotes and link your posts. =)

    The good Lord will keep you and guard you dear brother.

  2. Jeff,

    I heard Dr. Peter Kreeft speak last night. One of the striking things he said, "If you're not close enough to the cross to get some splinters, you're not living the life Christ is calling you to live."

    Embrace the splinters, friend. Embrace them.