I was struck with the postings from commenters, who argued back and forth about what being the church actually means. And while people were willing to concede that the church is not a building, the notion that an individual, on their own out in the world, might be the church was apparently quite challenging.
In a world that practically idolizes individualism, how did we decide that a Christian alone is incapable of being an ambassador of Christ? How did we surrender agency to the institution, which was completely unknown to the founder? How can we interpret “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” and “You will be my witnesses” if the individual is incapable of being the church?
The church gathered for worship is a vital tool, equipping each person to leave worship and go into the world, to serve as the church scattered, like salt or yeast, to transform their surroundings. What do you need to empower you to be the church, wherever you find yourself?
Little notice has been made in The Episcopal Church of the death of Tom Ray on February 6, preceded just three days earlier by that of his wife Brenda. Tom was the bishop of the Diocese of Northern Michigan from 1982 to 1999. Both died quickly after coping with protracted illnesses for several years. This June they would have been married for 59 years, during which time they raised four children who in turn provided them with many grandchildren. They were a very special couple and family.
Full disclosure: Tom and I were colleagues in ordained ministry for 62 years, starting as seminary roommates in New York City and ending as bishops in Michigan, he in the Northern diocese (Upper Peninsula) and I in the Western diocese of the Lower Peninsula. We were closest of friends. Yet it was Tom who raised my consciousness regarding the centrality of baptism, not ordination, in the mission and ministry of the church.
The website of the Diocese of Northern Michigan presents that vision in these words:
Our goal is to transform our congregations from being communities gathered around a minister to being ministering communities.
Stated more succinctly is the diocesan slogan: Stop attending church; start being the church.
It was Tom Ray who pioneered and instituted this pattern of “mutual ministry” (others have also called it “total ministry”) in Northern Michigan. A few other bishops of the church have promoted this vision of Christian community in the years before and after Tom, usually in similar dioceses of small and scattered congregations spread throughout expansive geographic spaces. The challenge: how to be fully sacramental Spirit-blown communities minimally burdened by the usual costs of property and personnel, and unfettered by unrealistic church rules and regulations, in order to live out the Baptismal Covenant, the Gospel’s constitution for all mission and ministry.
In future blog postings I will elaborate on this model of being/doing church. For the moment, however, I want to remember and celebrate the life and person of a dear friend and an adventuresome bishop who made a big difference in my life and in the life of the church even as it seems it might be forgetting him. I won’t let that happen.
George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community, once wrote,
I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek . . . at the kind of place where cynics talk smut and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where he died. And that is what he died about.
As we experience Holy Week and Easter it is well to remember what George MacLeod has put so dramatically. The real action for the Christian is not in the “cathedral” but in the marketplace where life is lived. That is where the baptized live into their Baptism. That is where, for the Christian, “the rubber meets the road.”
Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran pastor and founder of the Church for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, CO, has announced the apocalypse. In a recent post, she reminded readers that “the apocalypse”
… proclaim[s] a big, hope-filled idea: that dominant powers are not ultimate powers. Empires fall. Tyrants fade. Systems die. God is still around.
An apocalypse is a good thing, and I’m delighted to welcome you to this one.
As Bolz-Weber sees it, the #Me Too and #TimesUp movements represent the comeuppance of a long-time system of organizing the world – around gender inequality and domination. Using Friedrich Schleirmacher’s definition of heresy – “that which preserves the appearance of Christianity, and yet contradicts its essence” – Bolz-Weber calls out a centuries-old practice of Christianity:
The heresy is this: With all the trappings of Christianity behind us, those who seek to justify or maintain dominance over another group of people have historically used the Bible to prove that that domination was not actually an abuse of power at the expense of others, but indeed was part of “God’s plan.” And there you have the appearance of Christianity (Bible verses and God-talk) contradicting its essence (love God, and love your neighbor as yourself).
With the arrival of this apocalypse, we need to see how deep the heresy of domination runs, and then remind one another that dominant powers are not ultimate powers. We Christians need to repent of our original sins, and see where we have embraced the appearance of Christianity only to reject its essence.
This hard work – naming our own heresy and working to surrender the fruit of it – is the essence of daily discipleship – living our theology in daily life. Following Jesus – practicing the life of love – is essential. And, likewise, sharing the story of our journey is equally important. No matter your hashtag – #MeToo, #ChurchToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #daca – standing with those who resist domination and making room for their testimony is one way to live up to your baptismal promises.
There’s something special about Toby: He’s big and lumbering and has sad brown eyes that have a way of drawing you to him, making you feel comfortable around him, helping you feel safe. Toby frequently visits children’s hospitals and nursing facilities, in and around the South Puget Sound and also in Houston. When he enters a room in a nursing home, he is welcomed with joyful smiles. Children love to nestle in his fur and crawl over him. Oh, yes, by the way, Toby is a 165 pound St. Bernard – a therapy dog with his own Facebook page! Toby’s person Stan has a demanding professional life, yet he makes it a priority to create time to minister to others with Toby.
I think that sometimes we look around and see such tragedy and desperate need in the world that we wonder whether we can make any difference. We might become overwhelmed and even paralyzed. Yet, all it takes to reveal God’s love for the world is to show kindness to just one other person in our daily lives.
Stan and Toby are examples of what we can do if we combine our passion and compassion. In Stan’s case, he combines his love of dogs and his compassion for others into a ministry that touches countless ill children, seniors, families, and healthcare workers by showing them God’s love – in the midst of the ordinary. Although being faithful to Christ is really a small step for Stan, visiting patients together with Toby leads to a profound sense of healing and well-being to those whose lives they touch.
During my sophomore year in college, I got a note from the Dean of Students to come to his office!! UGH!, what had I done to warrant that? So, dutifully and a bit nervously, I came at the appointed time and was ushered in. The Dean asked me to sit down, and then asked me a question: Had I ever thought about the Ministry? The Ministry, really? I answered that it had never occurred to me. He said that he would like for me to give it some thought and prayer. And then I left. WOW! That conversation did percolate in my spirit, eventually leading me to seminary and ordination in the Ministry.
Early on in the Ministry, spending quality time with parishioners where they worked, I began to see that the Ministry was far broader than clergy. My sense of the Ministry opened up to include all the Baptized as they live their daily live on the job, in the community, in the home.
For whatever historical and theological reasons, the Church, however, has been more exclusive than inclusive in its sense of the Ministry. Mark Gibbs, over 50 years ago put it this way:
The secular laity are not called by God to any lower standard of discipleship than clergy or churchly laity. They are not limited to any less standard of life and witness. They are indeed, God’s first line of agents in the world. He has placed them and can use them in secular structures where the clergy can seldom penetrate.
So the Dean, not only in his conversation with me, but in the countless other aspects of his work, was exercising the Ministry. It is the Church’s responsibility to affirm its laity that who they are and what they do constitute the Ministry.
This week’s calendar oddity of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day falling on the same day was made even more poignant by the horrendous school shooting in Broward County, FL. A reminder right in our newsfeed of the infinite colliding with the daily, as school personnel and students became heroes in daily life by doing their daily work. What a commentary on our culture, with the students remarking afterward that they knew just what to do because they had practiced so often.
Having ashes smudged on our foreheads at the beginning of Lent reminds us that we’re dust, and to dust we’ll return. For many of us, that’s a stark reminder that we’ll all die – there’s only one way out of this life. Wednesday’s shootings certainly reminded us of that!
But there’s more. Traditionally, the ashes used on Ash Wednesday are what’s left after burning the palms blessed and carried in the previous year’s Palm Sunday’s processions. That liturgy celebrates Jesus’ arrival
in Jerusalem to “Hosannas” from the crowd. Just as they would for an imperial procession, the crowd placed palm branches on the road as symbols of honor, celebration, and victory.
What I remember, when the ashes are placed on my forehead, is not only the palms and the celebrations and Holy Week’s subsequent betrayals. I also remember pictures from the Hubble telescope – stellar clouds of dust and ash. The very stuff we – and the entire universe – are made of. Stardust.
Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Not only ashes but stardust. We embody both, in every facet of the lives we live in Christ.
About a dozen cars were parked near the dark church building as I arrived for an appointment on a rainy afternoon. From the main entrance I could see a woman talking to someone else in an open office across the lobby. Yet all of the doors were locked. I knocked on the window and then noticed a bell. I rang the bell and waited. I knocked on the door and waited. I rang the bell again, and finally the woman opened the door and barely acknowledged me as I followed her to the office. There she resumed her conversation with two others, one of whom was the administrative assistant. I felt completely invisible.
After several minutes, the administrative assistant finally looked up at me. I gave my name, the name of the person I had the appointment with, and that I was a few minutes early. She hesitated in a way that suggested the person I had the appointment with might not be there, then said curtly, “Yes, you are. Have a seat out there, and I’ll let her know you are here.” I was directed to the dark lobby.
The day before, I had rushed out of the house wearing faded jeans and a rain jacket that had a tattered pocket lining. As I entered the business, I was greeted warmly by several clerks standing behind the counter and directed to an individual who could help me.
The contrast between these two experiences was a clear reminder to me, and I hope to all of us, that treating others with respect and dignity can begin with a simple “hello,” with hospitality that recognizes our shared humanity, whether in church, in business, or in life. It strikes me that this is a step toward living out my baptism in my daily life and toward ministering to others by seeking and serving Christ in all people.
David Brooks is one of my favorite writers and commentators. His twice-weekly op-ed articles in the New York Times are a must read for me. He isn’t just an opinion columnist or political observer. In my judgment he’s a serious moral philosopher for our age. I recommend reading his 2015 book, “The Road to Character.” In it he probes for moral depth by blending psychology, politics, spirituality, and humility in the pursuit of a virtuous life with authentic character.
In a 2016 Times column titled “Why America’s Leaders Fail” Brooks got to the heart of the matter when he wrote:
“Over the past few decades, thousands of good people have gone into public service, but they have found themselves enmeshed in a system that drains them of their sense of vocation.
“Let’s start with a refresher on the difference between a vocation and a career. A career is something you choose; a vocation is something you are called to.
“A person choosing a career asks, How can I get the best job or win the most elections? A person summoned by a vocation asks, How can my existing abilities be put in service of the greatest common good?
“A career is a job you do as long as the benefits outweigh the costs; a vocation involves falling in love with something, having a conviction about it and making it a part of your personal identity.
“A vocation involves promises to some ideal, it reveals itself in a sense of enjoyment as you undertake its tasks and it can’t be easily quit when setbacks and humiliations occur. As others have noted, it involves a double negative — you can’t not do this thing. … People with a vocation mind-set have their eyes fixed on the long game. They are willing to throw themselves toward their goals imaginatively, boldly, and remorselessly.”
For the Christian, baptism is a vocation and not a career; a call to serve, not an optional opportunity. It is indeed a part of our personal identity. It’s serious, solemn and yet joyful business. Isn’t that what we mean when after a person is baptized we pray, “Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works”? (Book of Common Prayer, p. 308)
I believe so. Baptism is living and doing God’s mission. It’s a vocation. It’s a holy endeavor we cannot not do.