Thursday, April 26, 2012

My Restructuring Plan -- The Montana Option

Meeting with the Great Basin Bishops in Salt Lake City has been an inspiration. My staff sometimes fret that I do not "have a vision." Well now I do. It came to me yesterday morning while tramping around the Temple and it's environs.

Episcopalians are always telling me how we need to emulate the Baptists and the mega-churches because they are so successful. But the mega-churches lose people as fast as the bring them in and the Baptists have lost more people in recent years than our entire membership. Who is actually "successful?" Our LDS brothers and sisters. They are doing quite well.

So here's the plan. Instead of redirecting a paltry few million dollars from overhead to mission in our operating budget, let's make a real adaptive change. First, sell everything. I mean everything -- the offices at 815, John the Divine, the Washington Cathedral, All Saints Pasadena -- just for starters, then our houses and jet skis. We can keep cars and golf clubs. Nothing radical here. Anglican moderation at every step.

Then we all move to Montana -- over a million of us -- elect the public officials, establish an Anglican cultural enclave, become the regional version of normal, build a huge Cathedral and complex of edifices, then invest the rest of our money in p r and supporting Episcopal Youth Service Corps all over the country. Slowly but surely, plant little Montanas all over the USA.

Now here's our niche. The LDS already has a lock on genealogy. We cannot compete with that but we can complement it. Instead of a family history library we hire a crack team of psychics and futurists to staff our family future library. People will go to Salt Lake to learn about their ancestors, then on to Helena to learn about their descendants,

Finally, we replace Hyfrydol and some of our other boring music with a new theme song. "Turn Me Loose Set Me Free Somewhere In The Middle Of Montana." Now the scary part: I am on the structure committee for General Convention. Beware of mad men in high places.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, April 8, 2012


It started with a broken zipper – the zipper on my suitcase. I took my bag to be repaired at a cobbler’s shop. An amiable young man diagnosed the problem, took the suitcase, and asked where I had been. I told him “Kenya.” He asked what I had been doing there and I told him about our church sponsored schools, especially how they rescue girls from genital mutilation and forced marriage. He asked, “Where is your church here?” I told him. Even our slight involvement in upholding the status of women in Africa, perhaps just our affiliation with Anglican Communion partners who are directly engaged in that struggle, was enough to make an unchurched young man in Henderson want to worship with us. We were doing something that he could see and understand, something that matters.

The day before that exchange, the Las Vegas Review Journal ran a feature article on Deacon Bonnie Polley and her ministry to the homeless and the incarcerated. They called her “the Mother Teresa of Las Vegas.” Bonnie was, of course, embarrassed by the attention. But there’s a gospel message in what she does and the largest newspaper in Nevada was proclaiming it to a lot of people who need to see some light that isn’t neon. The article showed people another way to live and that the Episcopal Church is living it. The next day a County Commissioner called Bonnie for a meeting to talk about making Clarke County a better place.

On Wednesday, Deacon Ann Langevin was in Boulder City to meet President Obama. She was one of five people in the room authorized to shake hands and speak with the President. She was there to welcome him on behalf of Bread for the World and the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada. Bread for the World arranged it. The point was to keep world hunger on the President’s radar screen and to say the Episcopal Church cares about this. When Bread speaks up for the hungry, we are with them.

That same afternoon, along with a small group of African Methodist Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Jewish leaders of our interfaith community organizing group, I met with Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. We were there to discuss mortgage foreclosure relief, child sex trafficking, and deportation practices. It was an energized and energizing conversation as we told each other new things and sparked new ideas in each other’s minds.

I had missed lunch; so after the meeting, I stopped by Starbucks on my way to the office for a snack and coffee. As I sat there reading Parker Palmer’s excellent book on the spiritual foundation of the common good, Healing The Heart of Democracy, a man on his way to the counter saw the book and stopped to talk. He began life in the Orthodox faith but was now an evangelical. We had a great dialogue. He confessed to being confused by the Beatitudes and I talked about the difference between blessing and commandment, how we distort the Bible when we see everything as commandment. He was touched by my simple approach to the text and gave me a small icon of the Christos Pantokrater.

These vignettes are little portraits of the Church in the World. The “first and greatest” book I have read on church and society in recent years is James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Tragedy, Irony, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (“and the second is like unto it,” Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy). These Nevada stories are about our doing what Hunter and Palmer say our mission is.

Hunter looks at the three leading approaches churches take to living on this planet. The Christian left, the Christian right, and the neo-Anabaptists. The Christian left and right mirror each other vying for control, trying to push their view of how society should work through political power. He demonstrates that neither has been successful and shows sociologically why their political strategies don’t work. (I would criticize them theologically, but his point is more practical – they just don’t achieve what they are trying to do.) The third option, the one Hunter calls neo-Anabaptist, is to condemn the culture as fallen and to stand apart from it, aloof and self-righteous. The object is to avoid contamination. I would criticize that theologically too; but Hunter’s point is that it just doesn’t work either. You can’t cut yourself off that completely from relationship with the place where you live or the people you live with.

To Change the World prescribes a different strategy. It is to be faithfully and visibly ourselves while actively engaged in society. It is as simple as saying, “Good morning, Mr. President, I’m Deacon Ann Langevin representing Bread for the World and the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada.” We are there. We are present. We are in the game. We are being the Christ light. Being the Christ light takes two things: faithful action and upfront identification with Jesus.

In the Diocese of Nevada, we are often in the game. We are often shining the Christ light. Christ Church, Pioche has adopted the highway leading into town. St. Timothy’s hosts Friends in the Desert (food program). St. Paul’s, Elko hosts and leads Boy Scouts. Grace, Trinity, and others host the homeless through Family Promise. St. Bart’s is beginning a program to combat hunger among school children. St. Peter’s, St. Matthew’s, St. Paul’s, Elko, All Saints and others support their neighborhood schools. St. Martin’s hosts Teen Night for all the youth of Pahrump. The list goes on.

This year I will be promoting the B-BHAG (the Bishop’s Big Hairy Audacious Goal). It came to me last Martin Luther King Day. As a member of the Governor’s Commission for Nevada Volunteers, I was at an Ameri-Corps work site trimming hedge and raking up trash from an urban community center. I worked alongside teams from various places that wanted to do their bit for the common good. There were high school groups, baristas from Starbuck’s, people from a bank, etc. It reminded me of all the times in Georgia when I worked with Habitat for Humanity to build houses or with Rebuilding Together to rehab houses, always, without exception as a part of a church group – our name on the sign, our t-shirts identifying our faith community. But as I looked around the work site this January, I did not see another Episcopalian.

My BBHAG is just a special opportunity for us to do what we already do so well in so many congregations. Next Martin Luther King Day, our goal is to field 300 Episcopalians at work sites around Nevada, each of them wearing our t-shirt which proclaims “Together We Can Change the World.”

There are so many ways to make difference – visibly. It can be local mission or a global mission supporting the Millenium Development Goals of alleviating hunger, poverty, and disease. The greatest danger to the soul of the Church is fearful focus on survival. The minute we shift from mission to survival, we fail at both. Without a vital mission, the Church dies for lack of a reason to exist. The Christ light goes out in our part of the world.

We have churches, both large and small, that are connected to their communities. The town knows they are there and, more importantly, knows why they are there. They know because the Church acts – acts visibly, as the church, with its nameplate on. The Church is the hands and feet of Christ. We have other congregations, large and small, where the town does not know they are there – or in some cases the town is under the impression the church is closed – because they act closed. A church focused on its own survival is spiritually closed already. It isn’t in the game.

But most of us are in the game. As we begin this year to form congregations into Jubilee Ministry Communities, we will learn more about what each other are doing. We will have a chance to learn from each other and feel each other’s support. We will experience our Communion as a sign of common mission – God’s mission here in God’s world.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Now And Then

For 14 years, my life remained much the same. Roots sank in it; moss gathered on it; spider webs were woven. It was a good life. I loved it. I miss it, though it was perhaps beginning to drive me a bit mad. The change was both a gain and a loss.

On Maundy Thursday, for those many years, I officiated at the Maundy Thursday rituals. There was a footwashing done with genuine love and reverence. Another worship leader and I would wash the feet of the first two people to come forward. I would then sit on a kneeler at the altar rail and watch as person after person received the washing then knelt to do the same for the next person in line – and I knew them all, knew their stories and where they came from, knew their faults, foibles, and nobilities – and I sometimes wept to see the beauty of their humility and vulnerability in this discomfiting ceremony.

Then we would adjourn to candle lit tables laid cruciform in the darkened fellowship hall. It was a simple Agape meal of dried fruit, cheese, olives, and bread. We ate slowly, deliberately, mindfully, in almost total silence. Any transaction that could be done by gesture was done so. Words were minimal and softly spoken. Periodically, I would read a prayer from the first centuries of the church or the Celtic tradition.

When the meal ended, we walked in silence back to the church and celebrated the Holy Eucharist, then stripped the altar, in a solemn process that culminated in Zen mindfulness as the altar was ceremonially wiped down stroke by deliberate stroke. And, yes, people wept to see the sanctuary emptied of God. The sacrament was carried to a Gethsemane Garden where we sat in one hour prayer shifts through the night. The gardeners had turned the room into a veritable jungle, with a couple of chairs, some zafus (meditation cushions), a Zen meditation bench, a pre dieu, and tables strewn with Bibles, prayer books, and meditations from great spiritual writers of the centuries.

I oversaw the process, occasionally napping in the library, taking my turn in Gethsemane at times, but mostly just being there – and sometimes talking with people before or after their prayer shift, as we sat in rocking chairs on the lighted porch. Crickets chirped. The night sounds of the Southeastern rainforest were our chorus. I knew those people more deeply than I had ever known anyone, and was better known by them – I had been opening my heart in front of them each Sunday for years. They knew me.

So the night passed until 9 o’clock, the hour of the crucifixion, on Good Friday morning. I entered the Gethsemane room and in silence removed the sacrament followed by the last shift of watchers. A few others would have gathered in the church to meet us. We prayed the solemn collects, then the Our Father, and as we stood in a close circle around the altar, we passed the bread and wine in silence until it was gone. I extinguished the sanctuary light and said “It is finished” then laid the chalice on its side and we all left without a word.

It has been five years since I last experienced Holy Week in the way that had become so much a part of my very identity. Holy Week, for me, is altogether different now. On the morning of this Maundy Thursday, I went to Christ Church, Las Vegas to bless the chrism which will be used in all our churches for all Baptisms this coming year. It is a simple service. There were only 14 of us. But there is no more important liturgical act in the Church Year. So a few people gather to make it happen for the sake of thousands who probably have no idea it is being done, no idea how the oil of Baptism comes to be.

The holy oil is then poured into small bottles, one for each church. I snagged three of them to deliver this weekend, and off I drove as I have done each year since moving back West. I did not drive through a rainforest but through the High Desert of the Great Basin – this place 19th century maps called “The Unknown Country” or “The Mystery Land.”

In Southern Nevada, it is Springtime, which means what people from cooler climes would call heat – that degree of warmth which still feels good on your skin, but warns you the place will be an oven soon. The skies are clearer than clear, and as I drove past Nellis and Creech Air Force Bases, there were white jet trails in the blue.

In Tonopah, I stopped for the only defensible cup of coffee between Vegas and Fallon, the only genuinely good cup of coffee between Vegas and Fernley (or Carson depending on which way one goes) – a coffee bar in the back of a turquoise and silver jewelry store – but it was closed again. They are artists, not entrepreneurs, not profit-driven, and therefore not reliable. In Tonopah, the warm radiance of Southern Nevada was gone. It was distinctly cold, and the wind blew the cold into me.

Past Tonopah, the sky turned grey with drifting clouds making the light itself seem to blow about in the wind. The wind picked up. Then it picked up the earth. And south of Mina I was driving through a thick dust storm. The dust had settled back to earth well before Walker Lake, but as I came to the Lake, the snow began to fall, blowing diagonally, and sometimes sideways in the wind. Not far past the northern shore, the snow stopped. Is it meteorologically possible to have lake effect snow in a desert?

At Shurz, I stopped for gasoline and pipe tobacco. I am particularly fond of the general store there. Also stopping helps me keep my speed down – a good idea while driving through the Walker Lake Reservation.

By Fallon, it was still chilly, but the sun was shining again, golden light on the fields and the horses. There are two particular garden spots in Nevada. I may be slighting somewhere along the Humboldt River. But the two sometimes green places I love best are around Lake Lahontan in the West and the Pahranagat Valley in the East. Fallon on Maundy Thursday was as lovely as I’ve ever seen it.

Then it was on to Fernley, where the hills become huge and rolling. Back East, they’d call them mountains. It was dusk, deep dusk, and the hills felt welcoming, reassuring. By Reno, it was darkest night in a city that has its share of neon. But on this night, the neon was shining through swirling snow. It was not a snow to pile up on roads and be dangerous. It was instead a snow that blocks vision with its whiteness and spins the mind in the paradox that it is the bright snow and not the dark night that obscures.

But as I was driving through the dusk and the night, people in parishes, large and small, were ceremonially emptying their churches of God, and keeping vigil in one hour shifts, watching and waiting, hoping and praying. Some of them were at St. Paul’s, Sparks. This morning I saw Fr. Kirk, bedraggled from his 2 hour of sleep night, just as I was in the years gone by.

This Good Friday night found me sitting in the pews at St. Paul’s. I was not on duty. I was there at the invitation of the Reno-Sparks Youth Group. They were performing the Passion Play for the Good Friday service. St. Paul’s does liturgy well and this was no exception. The Youth Group with painted faces mimed the Passion in a powerful and evocative presentation. We venerated the cross. We sang “Were You There?” I feel more now than I did in the Georgia days my dependence on the cross. I laid many a sin and many a desperate plea on the cross back then. But now I know a hundred times more surely than I did then that my very life depends on the merciful love God spent there in 30 A.D. and spends there today. It was good to be in a parish, good to sit in the pews, good to be the follower. I am grateful to St. Paul’s for giving me a few moments of the spirituality I lost five years ago.

So am I regretting this change in my life? Not an iota. I love this place, I love these people, and I love what I do. The life I left behind – well “I had stayed too long at the fair” already. But to be part of a parish tonight was a precious gift. Thank you, St. Paul’s – especially the Youth Group for taking me in – at this time of year when I am apt to feel particularly alone in our beautiful, fierce landscape.