Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Marks of Discernment

As recently announced, Blessed Sacrament is beginning a process of discernment regarding its place in the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion. Twenty-one people have volunteered to serve on the Discernment Committee, which will first gather on Monday, February 26, at 7:30 p.m. Before the Committee meets, I will share some reflections on what I think discernment means, the situation we face, and how our Committee will work.

The Nature of Discernment
Whenever you ask for discernment, it means you haven’t made up your mind first. It means genuinely asking for and earnestly seeking the will of God. Discernment requires setting human noise aside and listening for the will of God. In complex matters, discernment is not normally done by one person alone but in a community, even when discernment is about an individual’s direction. Going to a community requires humility and charity, and this is a pattern that God has set.

I do not think that God makes discernment a game, nor does he play hide and seek. At the same time, for complex questions he does not provide us with simple answers such as those a fortune teller might give. People must take the questioning process seriously, which includes making the commitment truly to seek the will of God without prejudice or fear of cost or consequences.

Even before we begin, we must realize that the will of God is already generally revealed in things we know and have at hand: Scripture, Tradition, the history of the Church in which the fruits of others’ choices are evident, and so forth. We must depend on these sources first. Because of clear teaching here, I’ve taught for years during the struggles in the Episcopal Church that one neither changes the faith nor breaks the Church—i.e., one must avoid both heresy and schism. Calling the parish into discernment does not mean that I’m not backing off from that teaching; rather, it means that figuring out what to do becomes more complicated when the Church itself is under threat of fragmenting beyond one’s control, and I believe it is time to involve others in the process.

The Liberal and Conservative Traditions
Most of us have described the sides involved in the issues as liberal/conservative or similar terms. I think these descriptions are basically true, but they fall short and do not do justice to the reality behind what they describe. I think that most folks understand this, so I’ll continue to use those terms, but advisedly.

Although many conservatives appear to believe that the big problems we face are because liberals are in charge of the Episcopal Church, I don’t think so. The liberal and conservative traditions are both vital for the well-being of the household of God and the proclamation and living of Gospel truth. They have existed from the earliest days of the people of God, when the Hebrew tribes first took possession of the Holy Land.

Liberals strive to uphold love as the primary focus of the Gospel. They value “inclusion”, “acceptance of all”, “justice”, “making a home for the outcast”, and “making the Church and the Gospel relevant and timely for all people”. These positions are definitely authentic to the Gospel. But the besetting sin of such a position is departure from discipline and failure to call people to change for the better. When these positions are taken at the cost of the Biblical and historic understanding of the Faith, then this viewpoint has become unbalanced. It leads to division, outrage among others in the Church, and controversy. Whenever someone emphasizes love at the expense of truth, then something is wrong.

Conservatives strive to uphold truth as the primary focus of the Gospel. They want to uphold the doctrines the Church has accepted as authoritative, traditional moral standards, and so forth. These positions are also definitely authentic to the Gospel. But the besetting sin of such a position is rigidity, judgmentalism, and threats of separation. When these positions are taken at the cost of the Biblical and historic understanding of love and charity, then this viewpoint has become unbalanced. It also leads to division, outrage among others in the Church, and controversy. Whenever someone emphasizes truth at the expense of love, then again, something is wrong.

These two traditions provide mutual correctives, but only when adherents of both traditions live in charity, honor truth, and seek the common good. Both sides, when they stop listening to one another, become arrogant and self-righteous, rigid and judgmental. This usually happens when the balance between the traditions is tipped, as we see in our own day and have seen many times in the past. Here, I think, one may put the finger on what the real problem in the Episcopal Church is. On both sides, there are those who are guilty of arrogance, divisiveness, and even viciousness. This is very sad, and most definitely not the Gospel.

The comments I made to Diocesan Convention on December 1 and subsequently posted here (see my blogpost “Winner Take Nothing” http://johnonefive.blogspot.com/2006/12/winner-take-nothing.html) garnered a lot of support from both liberals and conservatives. Everyone from a liberal point of view who has made any comment has done so constructively and generously. Most of those from a conservative or traditional point of view agreed with what I wrote whole-heartedly and added praise, but there were some who showed a decided hard-heartedness and willingness to criticize and lambaste.

Many conservatives are astounded at how liberals so easily set aside ancient truths come to by consensus, but after nearly thirty-three years in the priesthood I am still amazed at how many who come down firmly on the side of truth play so loose and fast with facts, attack those that are on “their side”, and are so deficient in love. Many highly-rated conservative blogs and similar news engines do not hold back much from name-calling and publicizing rumors. This slant does not serve God nor the Gospel, and I will not take such an approach.

History shows that an age when the liberal/conservative balance has been undone is usually an age in which prophecy becomes more influential. When consensus and charity are lost, a sole persuasive voice can be heard more clearly. The prophetic voice in the household of God has never been the majority voice—it has been the lone voice, or one of very few, in a time when the balance between liberal and conservative had been lost. Very often the prophets were ignored or persecuted in their own time, but their words were remembered and valued—and effective—later.

So when one doesn’t have the votes, there is still moral persuasion. There is the possibility of true prophecy, i.e. where one can say, “This is the Word of the Lord”, whether by inspiration or humble appeal. Even as many conservative voices, people and congregations, have departed from the Episcopal Church, the voice of Blessed Sacrament has become increasingly influential. I don’t know if we can be called “prophetic,” but many in the liberal camp of the Diocese of Los Angeles have made it a point to tell me how important my witness has been and is, and how they have been impacted by it. More than once my voice has been asked for. More and more our lay people likewise are finding the same experience as they participate in deanery or diocesan events.

Our Axioms
Our Discernment Committee will begin with a number of givens.

During the time of discernment, the Committee will be prayed for regularly in the parish and beyond.

We will assume that God is not pulling his hair out. We will assume that all is being worked into his plan. The question is not whether his will is going to be done, but what part we will have in achieving it. We will have no fear. No anger. No name-calling. No violation of the rules. No failure in charity. We will have the assurance that all shall be well.

We will not do our discernment secretly, i.e. without letting anybody know and not involving others, and then springing a big “surprise” on the authorities. This is not discernment. Shortly after our Annual Meeting when I called for the formation of a Discernment Committee, I wrote a thorough letter to Bishop Bruno about our course. He got in touch with me very quickly to express his support. Indeed, I first expressed to him my own and the parish’s concerns last August when the Vestry (church board) and I met with him for a frank exchange. He was entirely supportive then and suggested several workable options that we will take seriously.

The Committee will be charged to keep the bishop informed and invite him or his delegate to assist us in the discernment. We will invite noted liberals in our own area to assist us in the discernment. In short, we will do our best to set a model for true discernment by keeping lines of communication open, avoiding all rumors, etc. Discernment is nearly impossible if you only talk with people who agree with you.

We will be patient and confident. Jesus and the disciples were caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee, and the disciples were frightened that they were going to be lost. Jesus rightly rebuked them with the words, “have you no faith?” The committee will not be given a fixed timetable since we don’t yet know precisely what they will need to do. They will conclude their work when it is finished.

We will accept no secular answers. Whatever others may do or have done, both liberal and conservative, we believe that when Scripture forbids lawsuits among believers, we will take this as authoritative.

Should we conclude that there needs to be some kind of distancing from the Episcopal Church, we will minimize all degrees of separation to make reconciliation as easy as possible when the time comes. Indeed, Bishop Bruno has already offered us more than I would have asked for.

The Primates’ Meeting
The Primates of the Anglican Communion met in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania from February 14 to 19. Among other issues, they dealt with the problems caused within the Communion by the Episcopal Church’s recent controversial actions. Two important statements were issued, both of which are extremely significant for the deliberations of our parish’s Discernment Committee.

They were released less than 24 hours ago, and I have only skimmed both of them so far, but from what I have gleaned, I am cautiously optimistic. It appears that there is a lot of wisdom in them and even some direction for a fruitful way forward. Also, in spite of a lot of “Anglicanese” about nobody exercising authority over anyone else, etc., there is more than a hint of some teeth in the statements. This, plus the record of our own bishop who has repeatedly shown a willingness to work with us in a powerful spirit of cooperation, bodes well for our Committee’s task.

This is a time of testing. Will we hold the course? Will we hold to truth, to love, to patience, to the desire for holiness? I believe that we will.

At Blessed Sacrament we will not fall into heresy. We will not go into schism. We will not dilute the truth. We will not fail in love. These are our standards and holding to them over the years has borne abundant fruit. The discernment process will soon be formalized. We will follow it thoroughly, peacefully, charitably, patiently, Scripturally. There may be others who have done it the way we plan to do it, but I do not know of them. I know a good number who have done it in a very far from ideal method that has produced rancor, self-righteousness, and bitterness, and have caused great harm and hurt to many people, both liberal and conservative.

To summarize: a wonderful young lady at Blessed Sacrament named Joi wrote about these issues recently and expressed her thoughts concisely and poignantly: “Dilution of truth? Never. Absence of charity? God forbid.”

This about says everything that anyone needs to know and follow if we are to be faithful in these interesting times. Joi came to Blessed Sacrament half a dozen years ago and said then, “I came because I found truth and love there. I still do.” Come what may, may she never find otherwise.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Hardest Part of Pastoring

I remember a television show or movie I saw when I was a teenager about a young fellow who had been misdiagnosed as retarded when he was a child, and his parents had put him into an institution as hopelessly incurable. Ten or more years later, when his family was long out of the picture, somehow someone discovered that he was, in fact, normal. A group of people immediately formed that was dedicated to teaching him to lead a normal life—how to read, how to engage people socially, how to manage finances. Gradually he became employable and then he moved out of a care center into his own apartment. The people in the group assisted him, monitored him, and mentored him as he learned.

Then one day, at a point toward the end of the movie, someone from the group went to his apartment and learned that he had moved without leaving a forwarding address. I can still recall how upset I was that the fellow had shown such bald-faced lack of gratitude, and felt that the movie had ended poorly—had even “tricked” me by not providing the good ending it had implied all along.

But then the last scene of the movie showed his mentors discussing what had happened, and they concluded that his departure was the final proof of his healing and the guarantee of his independence. They knew that as long as he remained “friends” with them, their connection was a constant reminder to him, and to the members of the group, that he was not yet fully able to be responsible for his own life. They recognized that the young man had to leave them behind, and they were gratified and pleased that they had been successful.

The ending impacted me powerfully. Years later, when I became an experienced priest and pastor, it helped me to understand when situations like this happened to me in real life. Several times over the years I have spent many, many hours with certain individuals to bring them out of terrible life situations into a place of healing, and then seen them move from gratitude and devotion to distance and finally rudeness and even contempt for me before they disappeared without a word. Yet I knew that I was the one who had changed their lives dramatically. (I know, of course, that it was God working through me, but there was still a lot of “me” that was spent in the process. This is how God works.)

Such endings to pastoral ministry are by no means inevitable. They happen only rarely, but when they do they are always very hard on me. I must remember that I am not truly called to be a “friend” in the commonly understood sense to the people whom I help. For a few people, for their healing to be complete, they need me to be gone from their lives.

Still, I am greatly moved by God’s own anguish over this reality. The first time I read these words from Hosea, I was moved to tears: “The more I called them, the more they went from me. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them” (Hosea 11:2-3). To be sure, in this case it is rebellion, not growth into independence, but the impact on the one who is rejected must be about the same.

I do recognize my own personal desire for friendship, to be enjoyed as a person, to be wanted as an individual. On this blog I have posted a number of items on this theme—how to connect personally with the people to whom I minister professionally, to whom I am first of all a “symbol” rather than a person. I have concluded that the “over-professional” model of priesthood I was trained with was insufficient, and that having some personal elements of myself come out into ministry was not only possible but would be good, and that many of the younger generation of my parishioners might even prefer it.

Now I am not so sure. Maybe it is possible and even desirable, but I have not learned the secret yet. I blogged about how Jesus was called “Lord” and could still call the disciples “friends”. Yet certainly that was a special case.

So recently I have thought about Saint Paul. Maybe that’s a better example. Paul was strict about his standards and demands for the congregations he had founded or over which he had some authority. It is also abundantly evident that he was lavish in his loving. He loved deeply and gave himself fully—yet there isn’t much evidence I can see in the New Testament that he had friends. To be sure, he had colleagues, and he was respected in many places, and there were occasions when congregations sent him gifts and expressed concern for him, and he was grateful for that. But wonderful and moving as these connections were, they were all “professional”; I see maybe nowhere where Paul was truly loved as a person. “Luke alone is with me,” he wrote in 2 Timothy 4:11— in Paul’s last epistle before his execution, one of the most heartbreaking lines in the New Testament.

And yet... there is Paul’s long farewell address to the elders of Ephesus with exhortations, warnings, etc. This is in Acts 20:17-35. In the middle of the address, coming across almost as a casual comment, was his declaration that they would see his face no more. Yet when he had finished speaking and knelt down to pray with the elders, it was this declaration that had impacted them most, and for which they wept (Acts 20:38). Did these elders actually care for Paul as a person? Did he know it, if they did? Though I had read this passage a number of times over the years, I still remember the first time it walloped me personally.

Do I give the impression that I don’t really want people to get too close? Do I really shut people out? Do they feel unwelcome beyond a certain level of intimacy? It could be. I don’t know whether this failure to be able to be friends is part of the authentic ministry of a pastor—at least a senior pastor who sets the standards and sometimes makes unpopular decisions—or a part of my personality. It really doesn’t matter which it is, because either way, or both, it is my experience.

Someone said to me once that this is not unique to me, by any means. It is, in fact, the human experience, common to us all: we all want to love and be loved beyond our ability to give and be given to. It just looks a little different in each person, depending on the circumstances of the person’s life. Looked at in that way, the experience is really one of desiring the fullness of a kingdom we have not yet attained. We can therefore be filled with the sure hope of the joy to come.

In the meantime, if this is the cross I must bear to be effective as a pastor, or even just as a human being who happens to be a pastor, then I must bear it. There is no other option anyway, except complete failure in pastoring and I will not choose that way. When I have sought solace and companionship from parishioners, it has almost always soured or failed somewhere. I don’t think it’s because I have no skill in friendship, since I do have successful and long-term friendships outside the Church.

Once not long ago there was a member of the parish who said that she was able to walk through my walls effortlessly, and we grew a mutually satisfying friendship without any compromise of pastoral authority. It amazed and delighted me that doing so was indeed possible! It was at her inspiration that I posted some of the early blogposts on this theme. But one day even she disappeared, giving me almost no notice or explanation. I concluded that I had indeed been more of a “symbol” to her than a person, and that she was working out some of her own issues in our relationship and got to the point when, for her own sake, she needed to disappear. I am sure that she didn’t intend it that way or even recognize it, but it seems likely to be true, and the sudden undeserved loss of friendship grieves me just the same.

It is not just that I make mistakes, because that is to be expected. I have not failed morally nor sinned greatly with anyone. I have let people down, but everyone lets people down at one time or another. I don’t think that it is usually a reason to cut off a relationship—yet too often it seems to be so. I have just not figured out how to receive or cultivate godly friendship without relinquishing my pastorship. I am ready to conclude that it really isn’t possible, and that God doesn’t even want it to be that way.

It was like that for Jeremiah. He loved God and the people of God deeply, and was greatly revered long after he died—but in his own lifetime, he was respected only by a few and opposed by most. It appears that he was certainly without personal connections. To be in this state was his calling, and this is why God made him to be an “iron pillar” (Jeremiah 1:18). The account in which the Lord said that he would provide this strength was in the first chapter of the book, before Jeremiah had even begun his public ministry. There were times he hated that calling and the conditions in which he had to exercise it and he tried to quit, but couldn’t. His love of God and his people and his dedication to duty would not permit it. He kept going.

My heart has been profoundly affected by the many young people who have come into the parish in the past seven years, and that time has seen a powerful deepening of charity and service within the entire congregation. As the parish has changed, I also have been greatly opened and warmed, and become more willing to be vulnerable. The dynamic of pastoring has changed enormously in these years, and that has raised these issues of “friendship” within the ministry of being a pastor. It is amazing and surprising to me that as the love in the parish has grown and transformed many people, it is necessary that I should remain somewhat isolated from it for it to take place. Perhaps this is how it must be. It seems to have been so for Jeremiah and for Paul.

Yet the elders of Ephesus wept when Paul finally left them for the last time. I wonder if Paul understood their tears. Luke, who alone was with Paul before his execution and who wrote about the elders’ tears, clearly understood. Was the elders’ affection shown to Paul when he was ministering to them? Did Paul himself understand their tears when he was leaving them? Was he surprised by them? We are told nothing about that. I wonder.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Into the Desert

See my previous posts on Ghost Mountain and the mud caves. http://johnonefive.blogspot.com/2007/01/ruin-on-ghost-mountain.html and http://johnonefive.blogspot.com/2007/01/mud-caves.html

Since my first trip to the mud caves in March 2000, I guess I’ve been there at least a dozen times—sometimes for day trips and sometimes to camp for a night or two with young people from the church or fans of the Starman series. The most recent trip was January 26-28. Four young people went with me on the adventure: Joi Weaver, Ashley Romero, Erin Vandeventer, and Brian Nick.

On our way, we stopped for lunch at Tommy’s in San Clemente, a 1950s-style restaurant with posters from that era and classic rock playing in the background. I was surprised and impressed that the young people knew who James Dean was. For lunch, three of the five of us had burgers with fries, one ate sushi (that she brought in from outside), and one consumed a hot fudge Sunday. We were almost as diverse as the Episcopal Church strives to be.

We made a brief stop in the gold-mining town of Julian at an elevation just above 4000 feet, and were reminded that it might be very cold where we were going. In Julian it was “brisk”. However, the desert floor was lower than Julian so we weren’t overly alarmed. We didn’t stay in Julian long since we wanted to reach the mud caves before it got too late, and the drive was taking longer than we’d hoped.

As it was, the sun had already set when we arrived at the mud caves. The moon was just past half and there were wisps of silver clouds in the sky when we set up camp. There was still plenty of light, and I pointed out that the moon was bright enough to cast sharp moonshadows. At the first opportunity we walked the hundred yards to Plunge Pool Cave, spelunked the fifty or so feet past the entrance, and came into the large chamber whose roof was thirty or forty feet above us. A rift that opens to the top of the palisade provides a measure of illumination during the day but in spite of the moonlight, it was completely dark at night. We turned off our lights and stood in the utter darkness and talked for perhaps maybe an hour. It’s amazing how much people will share with one another when you can’t see anyone.

Both nights we stayed were cold, but the cold only became a factor well after dinner, and as soon as it was light in the morning, it was warm enough to get around with only a simple jacket. During the day the temperature was quite pleasant.

We explored five different caves on our one full day. One was open to the sky but the other four were true tunnels through the mud palisade. Since they were carved by water, they followed the line of least resistance. The paths were artistically contoured in curves and turns. Occasionally there were skylights through which sunbeams could find their mysterious way into the gloom. Apart from this rare incursion of sunlight, we had only small flashlights and, for Joi, a candle.

We spent roughly half our time in camp. Cooking, eating, and cleaning up, of course, but also talking, reading, talking short walks, and praying. In spite of a thorough list of “what to bring”, I forgot to pack my cook kit. Fortunately Brian brought one.

Brian also brought wasabi green peas for a trail snack. The sharp flavor of horseradish was startlingly different from the usual trail mix. When I got back, I bought a bag of wasabi peas myself. The badger, fox, coyote, or whatever it was that ate our hot dog buns and half an apple on the first night scattered the trail mix Ashley brought, but left the wasabi peas untouched.

The new but cheap can opener I bought for the trip conked out after opening about four cans. After that we had to open cans the old-fashioned way—with a knife. The Boy Scout sheath knife I’ve had since the early 1960s always comes in handy whenever I camp.

Among the many excellent moments was seeing feathery clouds on the second night with the moon above them. The sky was deep midnight blue, and clouds the shape of angel wings covered half the heavens. They showed glowing whiteness as moonlight shone through the vapor. Another outstanding memory was when Brian and I waited for the girls to catch up as we were exiting one of the caves, and heard their ethereal voices singing praises to God in beautiful harmony as they came closer and closer to us.

Over all, it was a moving experience made up of candles, skylights, narrow slot canyons, dust, climbing ridges under evening starlight, and campfires enclosed in a barbecue pan. Most of all, it was a time of cementing Christian charity and building community.

Each time I go I learn a little more about what I need to bring. It should be great the next time I take a group down, which might be April.

On our way out on Sunday, I said Mass on Ghost Mountain. We sat in a circle in the middle of what had been the Souths’ home. I asked Brian to take a photograph as I prepared to break the Host. I wanted a photo of my hands, dusty, scraped, and with dirty fingernails, as I prepared to perform this ancient action that provided the earliest name for the Eucharist: the Breaking of Bread (Acts 2:42).

I rinsed my palms and fingers in water beforehand, but that was the best I could do. The simple Mass emphasized the incarnational aspect of what we were doing: asking Jesus to enter into our world. We need to rough it sometimes to remind us that this is the heart of our worship. None of us had showered for two days, and even washing our hands was haphazard. Still, we had the elements ordained by Jesus, the words established by the apostles in imitation of Jesus, a man anointed as a priest in apostolic succession, and the faithful. Sometimes having the bare minimum reminds us of what is essential.

We were fasting for Communion, which we thought would happen much earlier in the day than we anticipated, so that meant we didn’t get our first meal until past 3:00 p.m. When we left Ghost Mountain, we drove into Julian to go to the old-fashioned soda fountain, but the streets were jammed with tourists and there was no obvious parking available. So we kept going for five more miles and came to one of the best pizza places in the area. Almost anything would have tasted good when you’re that hungry, but we especially enjoyed the top-quality pizza we ate, comfortable in a dining room by ourselves.

Sadly, the inevitable break-up came as we entered our cars after our meal and began the final drive home. We went our separate ways, arriving home after dark.

The young people who joined me have also blogged about the trip. I only have the one photograph, but they took, and posted, a lot more. Brian Nick has a couple of posts with some photos at http://www.thenickfamily.com/

Joi Weaver has a couple of posts, including some great meditative reflections, at http://www.comeaway.blogspot.com/

Erin Vandeventer put her reflections, with a lot of photographs, at http://www.charlesburneyisourhero.blogspot.com/

Ashley Romero posted a brief but poetic reflection at