It was a long week. It started with an early morning emergency Last Rites followed by a funeral. Then I was off to work and a funeral. Immediately after I drove out of the cemetary to a retreat center in Mississippi three hours away. On the heels of a wedding weekend it was nerve wracking. I was kept awake and alive by God's grace. It afforded me lots of prayer time.
Our clergy retreat always produces some apprehension for me. The truth is I am not a typical Episcopal priest. My vision and values are often very different, even opposed to the mainstream Episcopal agenda. However, I am not alone. There are easily a half dozen who share my beliefs. In addition, many with whom I disagree are still wonderful people for whom I have a genuine affection. I have learned you can be friends with people who think differently. You can also love people who are different. It is harder, but in learning to truly love well, harder is sometimes better.
Our program was a speaker on an evaluation for parishes which came out of Willow Creek in Chicgo.
The materials were generated by this Chicago Evangelical megachurch and has been used by hundreds of congregations of all types and sizes. They are learning to adapt it (language issues, some denomination particular focus--like sacraments for us) I left the meeting with the belief that it was worth the trip. I intend to pursue the program with our leadership group.
Being a "conservative" in a progressive church means that I do not fit in. However, I believe God has not called me to leave. In fact, I so not think about leaving at all and haven't for a few years. This is something which leads those who have left to other Anglican or non-Episcopal entities questioning my orthodoxy, faithfulness or sanity. It means I am in an uncomfortable "betweener" place. I like clarity and I like it a lot. I think that God has me here on purpose. He enjoys perfecting us and I believe there is major work on my soul taking place.
Being a stranger in a strange land is not all bad. None of us should feel completely at home on planet earth in its current mode of being. Even if you are totally comfrotable in your church you still live in a society of mixed belief and practice. And we should not be cruel or unkind, especially in the name of truth. (The terror-murders at the Boston Marathon is a reminder of what the combative attitude can end up in.) I struggle with love and truth, how to balance being faithful and being kind to people who are in error. I also struggle with where to draw the line (I did a series on that long ago, there are many important issues which divide us). It is a balancing act and a source of real tension for anyone serious about their faith.
At the conference, I encountered a person who had had a sex change operation. He, now she, was reluctant to see me, in part out of concern about my reaction. I am glad that the love of Jesus Christ was in me enough that the encounter went well. S/he told me that I had been kinder than expected. Now, let me be clear, it is really hard for me to get my head around. Seeing a man who is now a woman sort of boggles my mind and stretches my imagination. However, 'his' journey to 'her', whatever I may think of it, is his journey to her. If God is displeased, God will make it known in God's own time. For me, it is a reminder of our brokenness and the struggle to have integrity. My guess is the decision to have a sex change is the fruit of many years of feeling "strange" or "out of place." That is enough to generate compassion in me, even for someone with whom I have had major and very public debates about many theological topics over the years.
YHWH-God told Israel something to the effect, "You were once aliens in Egypt and I freed you, now remember that when you come into the Land I have promised. Treat the aliens among you with kindness." Basically, God tells them to remember their experience and let that shape their hearts for compassion. Jesus makes a big deal about treating others how we want to be treated. Jesus says, "you are forgiven, so forgive others." In the end, the sadness and hurt I have regularly experience for over a decade as a "conservative" in the Episcopal church has taught me greater compassion for any people who feel "out of place." Sometimes the work of love and reconciliation takes its place alongside the work of steadfastly proclaiming the truth. I am no less certain of the truth of the one holy catholic and apostolic faith. I just know that when I see 'hurting people' they remind me of myself. I know how it feels to worry about what people are going to say about me or do to me. So I can have compassion.
What this does not mean is I have to agree with falsehood. Kindness does not mean that I am an advocate. I also know that I have made my views crystal clear, loud and clear, uncompromisingly clear. I do not back down. I know that they know what I think (and do not care or do not agree). The point is not to convince them it is to be a presence among them and serve as a constant reminder that the episcopal church is not all of one mind on the so called "hot topics." And in an Episcopal church last night a priest (me) in good standing proclaimed what Jesus teaches about marriage to a disparate group (mostly Episcopalians who agree with me and Baptists who agree with me). Some of those people heard the Gospel and received instruction in the Christianity 101 faith. And that would not have happened if I was not here. So it is worth the price of feeling like a stranger in a strange land. It is also sufficient cause to offer love and kindness to those with whom I am not in agreement.
I am glad that people who know what I stand for can still love and be loved by me.
I am glad that someone who has done something unfathomable to me can still feel kindness and acceptance in spite of our differences.
I am glad that I have encountered new tools for spiritual growth and vitality, tools which emphasize the Bible, outreach and spiritual growth; things I focus on.
I am glad to be able to share this with readers who will have their own insights into the mysterious workings of the Lord.
I am so glad that I want to pray in thanksgiving!