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April 1, 2017, 12:00 AM

Aslan Is Not a Tame Lion

Aslan is not a tame lion.  In C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the children were concerned whether the lion (the Jesus figure), being a lion, was safe to be around.  “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you?  Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.  He’s the King, I tell you.”

Sometimes when I am in the wilderness, I am reminded of how vulnerable I am - dangerous and exhilarating at the same time; a good way to shatter my delusions of being in control.  God is eminently approachable, but is utterly Other at the same time - beyond control.  When was the last time you had that exhilarating experience of realizing how dangerous it is to be in God’s presence?  Ancient Israel certainly knew that risk.  Moses had to hide in the cleft of the rock as God passed by in order to not be struck dead.  When it came time for God to be more directive in the face of Israel’s hard-heartedness, no one wanted to approach God.  Send Moses! they said.  No, we like to domesticate our God (as it has been termed), make God safe to be around so we can be in control, not have to risk dying to that of parts of us that try to keep God housebroken so our faith does not make any demands on us to love as God loves us.

In a 2012 article in Christianity Today, Harry L. Kraus, Jr. said, “What we're doing, unconsciously to a large part, is to bring down what is huge, wild, and untamable and repackage him so that we can function.  And in the process, I've domesticated the Almighty.  Tamed him.  Advised him.  Put him in a box.  Fenced him into a safe pasture.  Expected him to function like a divine vending machine.  I like that because I get to be in control.  Not one of us on this side of heaven will ever really understand Christ in all his glory.  But every one of us can make an effort to remove a few of the filters that have dimmed the true light and replaced it with something else altogether.”  Jim Fikkert, on his Pastor’s Blog, put it this way: “We don’t want to have to rely on God.  We would rather do it our own way OR create a system that convinces us that we are doing it His way (while we still actually do it our own way).  What either of these solutions does is simplifies God down into a diluted form of His actual self.  It makes God digestible, but to do that, it makes Him predictable and simplistic.  It creates for us a housebroken God.”

A domesticated, housebroken god (yes, lowercase “g”), safe to be around.  That is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; not the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, who could sweep life from the face of the earth with a sweep the divine Hand…or love stronger than death.  ‘Course God isn’t safe.  But God, the King, is good.  In April (this year, anyway), we come through Holy Week, the most agonizing, most holy several days of our church year - the Last Supper’s novum mandatum (new commandment to love), the brutal agony of the crucifixion’s unjust execution, the emptiness of the tomb…to resurrection.  Nothing domesticated or housebroken about that - unless the Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday and Easter services are just a way to practice a feel-good piety or worse, given no consideration at all.

This Easter season, how about having the courage to hang out with an untamed lion, to risk allowing yourself to get caught up in the power of love strong enough to overcome death?  It makes us vulnerable which is a dangerous position to be in, but then Aslan is certainly not a tame lion and ours is not a domesticated or housebroken God!

March 1, 2017, 12:00 AM

We live in an era where increasing numbers of people are no longer seeking the Church. Thus, the Church must seek the people.

We live in an era where increasing numbers of people are no longer seeking the Church.  Thus, the Church must seek the people.

Our worship liturgies are grounded in the earliest church practices, steeped in spiritual depth (as opposed to the spiritual fluff of “worshiptainment,” as it’s been termed).

  • Is this a good thing, something we should keep doing?  Yes.
  • Has worship grounded in ancient and deeply spiritual practice resulted in anyone coming through our doors?  No.

We are quite active in offering any number of ways for our people to be more deeply formed in the faith (adult forums, Bible study, quiet days, Wednesday nights in Lent, etc.)

  • Is this a good thing, something we should keep doing?  Yes (even though only a handful of our own people take advantage of it!).
  • Does offering numerous ways of being more deeply formed in the faith bring anyone through our doors?  No.

The Agape ministry and other means of pastoral care (visitations, prayer, presence, availability) in which we care for one another in this parish is core and essential ministry.

  • Is this a good thing, something we should keep doing?  Yes.
  • Does taking care of our own bring anyone through our doors?  No.

The amount of outreach we do, reaching out to those in need beyond ourselves/outside the church doors, is amazing and is equally as vital a ministry as pastoral care.

  • Is this a good thing, something we should keep doing?  Yes.
  • Has reaching out to others in our community brought anyone through our doors?  No.

We have been blessed with some financial resources and experienced and faithful people to manage them, and are using them wisely to properly care for our sacred space and for the benefit of the parish.

  • Is this a good thing, ministry we should keep doing?  Yes.
  • Does being good stewards with our resources and maintaining our sacred space bring anyone through our doors?  No.

The ministries of all the Commissions make up the life and work of the people of this church and help us fulfill our mission to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.

  • Are these good things, ministries we should keep doing?  Yes.
  • Have any of these ministries brought anyone through our doors?  No.

All of these ministries are good and valuable and we should continue to do them, and not one of them is what brings anyone through our doors.  We have seen the trends; they are real.  Says Charles Lafond: “The Episcopal Church is losing members so fast that if trends just stay stable (and they will not, they will increase) then there will be no members left in 2060, and by 2030 there will not be a critical mass left to pay for electricity, mortgages and Windex.”

We are doing good ministry and still the trends toward decline continue unabated, indeed are increasing exponentially.  For all the good ministry we are doing now, if that is all we do, if we do nothing more than what we are doing at this moment, but not anything to invite people to hear the good news of the gospel in a way that will resonate in this current era, in two generations, when ninety-percent of those of us sitting here right now will be gone, the witness to the Christian gospel will be severely diminished and the unique Episcopal presence in Columbus will cease to exist.

Advertising the pancake supper is fine, but while it may bring a person or two not affiliated with St. Paul’s to come eat, as history proves, it will not result in any long-term difference in anyone becoming active in their faith in this church.  Making sure there is information in the newspaper about our new bishop visiting is good, but it is not likely to result in any long-term difference in people coming and seeing St. Paul’s.  What will bring people through our doors to come and see all the good things that are happening, the single most effective means, is a personal invitation.  That is what the Come and See campaign I talked about at the annual meeting (and the Vestry retreat) is all about.

So since we live in an era where increasing numbers of people are no longer seeking the Church, the Church must seek the people.  We must be willing to make a public statement (and follow through) of our commitment to make a personal invitation to several people to Come and See what the Episcopal Church as we live it at St. Paul’s is all about.

If not…

February 1, 2017, 12:00 AM

Do You Know What a "Futurist" Is?

Do you know what a “futurist” is?  A futurist is “not a fortune-teller or soothsayer, not a reader of tea leaves or crystal balls.  A futurist is a planner and a doer.  Futurists look at trends and innovations.  They look for patterns of change.  Then they act.  Futurists don’t just predict the future.  They make the future happen.”  So says Pat Williams in his book How to be Like Walt (as in Walt Disney; sorry, you know what Disney geek I am!).  Walt certainly fit the bill of a futurist.  So do some of our brightest minds in technology and philosophy.  To some degree, so did the biblical prophets.  So, too, do any of us who lead the Church when we look at trends and innovations, at patterns of change, so we can plan and act, not only predicting the future, but making it happen.

So are you a futurist?  I hope so, because what 2017 and beyond will look like for St. Paul’s depends on it.  I am not going to go back through everything I have tried to bring to your attention over the years regarding the current state of the Church and the trends of attendance and ways to address them.  You can look back through old Venites or check old sermons or adult forum topics find out all the information you never knew you wanted to know.  However, I bring it up generally here because it is early in the year, which gives us the opportunity to embrace being a futurist for a little while.

The problem, of course, is that “c” word (about as loathed as that “e” word: evangelism):  As Williams says, “The difference between today and tomorrow is called change.  It takes courage to embrace the future, because the future is about change, and change brings uncertainty and anxiety.  We fear change; we prefer the comfort of the familiar.”  Right now, we are in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory.  Change is happening whether we like it or not.  The question is if we are going to choose to be futurists or not.  Are we going to just let the change that is happening around us happen to us or will we look at trends and innovations, at patterns of change, so we can plan and act, not only predicting the future, but making it happen?

What do you want 2017 and beyond to look like for St. Paul’s?  I can talk about all the trends and ways to deal with them for years, but I cannot, indeed I should not, deal with them on my own.  It is not about me as the rector, but we as the Church.  So are you a futurist?  I hope so, because what 2017 and beyond will look like for St. Paul’s depends on it.

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January 9, 2017, 11:32 AM

Social, Structural, Local

The annual meeting is this month, on the 22nd.  As noted elsewhere, (besides having only one service that day at 9:30 AM), this is a very important time in the life of the parish because we do a number of things that can only be at this once-a-year meeting: elections are held for new Vestry members and delegates to diocesan convention, the 2017 budget will be presented, and we briefly review the previous year and take a look ahead at the coming year (as well as enjoy our usual pitch-in fare).

I do not want to give too much away, but I think I would like to have folks think a bit before the meeting about the implications of the factors that influence our common life and ministry among each other and in Columbus.  As I have mentioned now a number of times, the Church is in a position it has never been in before.  We are not the center of the universe as we once were, even though we are still acting as if we were.  The Church continues to see steep decline as a result of trying to play catch-up and St. Paul’s is no exception.

I have lately realized that there are three factors - societal, systemic, and local - that affect how we move forward.  There is not much we can do about the societal influence of fewer and fewer people claiming affiliation with any faith tradition other than being faithful to who God has called us to be as the Episcopal Church.  But that means being very clear in what it means (and does not mean) to be the Episcopal Church that was begun in this town nearly 150 years ago.

What I mean by the systemic influence is specifically the institution of the Episcopal Church.  Our liturgy is grounded in the earliest Church, rich in meaning and spiritual depth.  But we are also bound by institutional constraints.  The liturgy is determined by the Church at a particular point in time, in this case in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.  But this is 2017, nearly forty years since the last revision of the Prayer Book.  As a tradition that is larger than a parish or diocese, we are not structured to readily adapt to changes with the speed that current societal influences demand, hence having us continue to operate as if we are from a bygone generation.

Finally, there is the local influence, and by that I mean the Church itself in this place and time, the people and the leadership: you, the Vestry, me.  It is a question of whether we will be visionary (we might call it prophetic) or if we will fall back on the staid “we’ve always done it this way” meme.  We are doing good ministry now, but if that is all we do, if we do nothing more than what we are doing at this moment, but not anything that will make the gospel resonate with those who come after us, in two generations, when ninety-percent of those of us here right now will be gone, so will be this Church right along with us.

Among other things, the annual meeting is a time for looking forward.  Please put some thought into these influencing factors before the annual meeting so we can, together and with renewed vitality, embrace our mission of proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ.  See you on the 22nd.

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December 1, 2016, 12:00 AM

Advent, Christmas...and Santa

As Advent gives way to Christmas, sometime it’s nice just to have a little reminder about the real meaning of our preparations and celebrations:

Kneeling Santa Prayer

The sleigh was all packed, the reindeer were fed,
But Santa still knelt by the side of his bed,
"Dear Father, " he prayed, "Be with me tonight.
There's much work to do and my schedule is tight.
My sack will hold toys to grant all kids' wishes.
The supply will be endless like the loaves and the fishes.
I can do all these things, Lord, only through You.
I just need your blessing, then it's easy to do.
I do this only to honor the birth of the One,
That was sent to redeem us, Your most Holy Son.
So to all of my friends, lest Your glory I rob,
Please, Lord, remind them who gave me this job."

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