Monday, November 26, 2012

A PK Conversation

So between services Lily is wandering around.  I giver her a hug and say, "Hey, why don't you go to rehearsal and sing this week.  The choir anthems are great -- I wish I could sing today."

Her response, "Why don't you sing and I'll do the services for you?"

I jokingly reply, "Sure," and go fill up my coffee cup.

A few minutes later, she strolls out of the sacristy and into the lounge all vested.

When I go up to give her a hug, she stops me and says, "I'm sorry, I'm busy now.  I'll talk to you later."  (Point taken.)

(She also said I could post this but that she doesn't want to be a priest and people, especially other priests, shouldn't bug her about it.  Even if she does look really good in a chausible...)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Over the past few days, I've seen Christianity and technology meet in some interesting ways.  A colleague and friend related a story about being told that he "wasn't a Christian" for tweeting during a church event.  Meanwhile, various leaders of Episcopal Church Commissions are hosting tweetups (or tweets-up for aficionados of Rite I), while looking at rules for when and how social media is allowable.  Many people are all a-"twitter" about how and when churches should use what technology to communicate with current and future members of the Body of Christ.

This week I also re-read a very interesting chapter on technology in Jim Collins book Good to Great .  He said that great organizations have a very different view of technology than many other organizations.  They don't try to be on the bandwagon with the newest fad.  Instead, they use technology competently in areas that are helpful and are relentless about creating innovation in ways that really matter.  Great companies also tend to crawl, walk and run with new technology, rather than run, trip, fall and then crawl before finally dying. Most importantly, they weren't afraid of new technology, either of using it or of being passed by while they figured out how to use it effectively.

All of this made me think about technology use in the church.  Social media is the mark of the day, but many other technologies in church life have come and gone. At St. John's, for instance, we have a card catalog of members that is decades old -- a powerful database before UNIVACs ate punchcards.  If I need to find information about members going back a couple generations, it is at all my fingertips.  The church could track family relationships, baptisms, confirmations, weddings and all the other information necessary for excellence in sacramental record-keeping and follow-up.

Think, too, about worship technologies and how they have been used.  Some churches took to electric instruments and projection screens in all the right ways and grew thriving congregations.  Others bought every bell and whistle imaginable -- along with the smoke machine to replace an antiquated thurible -- and it didn't go so well.  Some parishes passed on those opportunities, but put in quality microphones, speakers, and hearing impaired devices to go with their organ, but are still doing just fine.  Others didn't change a thing and died.  The moral for me is that church health and growth has less to do with what technology is used than how well the church is being church.  If a church is thriving, technology will be used to further mission and ministry.  If mission and ministry are confused, if people in the church don't deeply love each other, if the place is lukewarm about prayer and worship, then even the trendiest technology doesn't help.

In recent months, I know there have been times when Twitter and Facebook have been the essential media for the communication, and that our newest members wouldn't have found us without our simple but updated website.  At the same time, parishioners with rotary phones are still important members of the Body of Christ and we are called to meet their needs.  I am also aware that a handwritten note delivered by a post office employee can often be the most effective "thank you" I can send.  A wise pastor once said something about being all things to all people so we can win some of them to Christ.

Instead of fighting "technology wars", I think as a church we need to do a couple of things:

1. Relentlessly focus on mission and ministry.

2. Let people who use social media and other newer technologies use it when and how they want and show the rest of the church how it can be useful.

3. Use our mission and ministry goals to see what gaps technology can fill, on local and national levels.  In some places, it might be taking mp3 players of sermons and choir anthems to shut-ins.  In others, a cutting edge social media presence.  In some, a way to communicate cheaply with missionaries sent on projects around the globe.  In others, just adding color photos to the parish newsletters that help identify and welcome new members.  Urban and college ministries may lead the by innovating so that a few years down the line the small town pastor will know what works and can inexpensively implement it.  People on twitter may know what happens at a CCAB meeting before people who read it in the monthly newsletter, but both media can be effective at spreading the gospel.

4. Refuse to be afraid -- either of using new technology when it can help or of not using new technologies where they don't advance mission and ministry in that particular context, however cool they might seem.

5. Have the grace to allow people to build their communities using the technologies they are comfortable with.  They will probably be most effective with them, and any medium can still reach segments of unchurched people.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Hearing a Holocaust Survivor

Last week, I had the honor of hearing Inge Auerbacher, a holocaust survivor, speak at PennState Shenango.  She was born in Germany and imprisoned in the Terezin concentration camp from age seven to ten.  After the war, she moved to the United States, became a chemist, and has spent much of the last thirty years speaking about her experiences.

The story she told blended the hopes and struggles of everyday life with the absolute horror of what she experienced.  Her books tell her larger story better than I can.  But a few things in particular hit me.

The first is how German she felt she was as a little girl.  Her hair was done in the style of the day.  She had a blonde doll she named after Marlena Dietrich.  Her father had an Iron Cross for service in WWI, and two of her uncles were killed fighting for Germany in that war.  As she said, "They went to church on Sunday, and we went to synagogue on Saturday" but they were all German to her.  Perhaps a stark reminder to all of us that we can never believe it when someone says another persons isn't "a real American" or "a real Christian" or even "a real Jew" or "a real Muslim."  Demagogues don't determine true identity. 

Second, I was struck seeing the yellow star she was forced to wear as a child in Germany and in the camps, a star she still had with her.  Knowing all about the stars is different from seeing a real one.  We also saw her actual transport order that sent her to the camp, a train ride her family had to pay for themselves.  The concept is unbelievable, yet there is the physical proof on the table before me. (Note: Homosexuals at that time had to wear pink triangles, which is the origin of that symbol). 

Julia and Lily both came from school, since Jane and I had no idea if any of us would have another opportunity to hear a holocaust survivor.  I was glad they could come.  They didn't get was a technical description of the camps or how 11 million people were systematically killed (6 million Jews and 5 million others).  They can read that in the history books.  What they saw were photos of loved ones being shipped away while bystanders looked on.  They heard of a doll that made it through the camps with Inge through disease, deprivation, and fear.  They heard a witness that such atrocities have happened, no matter what deniers and falsifiers come up with.  But most of all, they encountered a heroic woman who somehow survived a horrific experience with hope and love intact, and who is now sharing her story so that every child can "grow up in peace without hunger and prejudice."  May God bless her and her work.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Quantity Prayer

To me one of the most compelling, and indicting, quotes from the Rule of St. Benedict is in Chapter 18.  This chapter lays out which psalms are to be said at what times during the week.  The chapter ends with:

For those monastics show themselves too lazy in the service to which they are vowed, who chant less than the Psalter with the customary canticles in the course of the week, whereas we read that our holy Fathers, strenuously fulfilled that task in a single day.  May we, lukewarm as we are, perform it at least in a whole week!

Such a prayer challenge may seem well and good for 1500 years ago, but we might easily dismiss it as out of step with modern life.  After all, if we do both Morning and Evening Prayer according to the Episcopal lectionary, we get through the psalms every seven weeks.  But Christian Schwarz of Natural Church Development, in his very rigorous research on church health and growth, found that when church leaders prayed 90 minutes or more a day, their groups grew twice as often as those whose leaders prayed 30 minutes or less a day.  Prayer didn't guarantee results, but people who took prayer seriously found whatever they were leading growing more often, whether a congregation, a Bible study, or an outreach project.  Really, this power in prayer shouldn't surprise us.

Benedictine monks were steeped daily in God's promises found in the psalms, expressed in the language of deepest human emotion.  They were led to preserve Western learning, improve farming, and re-evangelize Europe.  If we harbor similar hopes for ourselves and our communities, our prayer life needs to have a similar quality and quantity.

We need to look at what we want to God to accomplish around us.  Turn around dying congregations.  Plant new churches.  Revitalize mainline denominations.  See the lame run, the blind see, and the good news preached to the poor.  Preach the gospel in Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth, including the ends of the earth down the street from us.  With these dreams, we need to challenge ourselves honestly with the quantity and quality of prayer needed to open the floodgates of heaven, and be together with one another in prayer at that level.  As this prayer is happening in various communities, God is showing up and amazing things are happening.  May we, lukewarm as we are, do the same, and see God do more than we can ask or imagine in us, around us, and through us.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Acts 8 Community

The following post was written for the Acts 8 Movement blog, but has some information about Benedictine monasticism that might be usefully read more broadly.  You can read more about the Acts 8 Moment that came out of the Episcopal Church's General Convention on their website.

Recently a number of us from Acts 8 were talking about how monasticism and the neo-monastic movements might inform and strengthen our work in building up ourselves and our church.  Monastic habits are making a comeback, both as Benedictine virtues are applied to home and parish life, and as small groups of people form new, intentional communities.

In coming weeks, I hope to put together a few posts on aspects of monastic spirituality that might be relevant for our conversations in Acts 8.  These ideas come from my own experiences as an oblate for more than twenty years with the Benedictine Sisters of Erie and time spent with the ecumenical community of Richmond Hill.  Today, I want to talk about the monastic commitment to a specific community of people.

When people enter a monastery, they pledge their lives to a specific group of people in a specific place that has a particular manner of life, a particular focus of ministry, and the unique quirks of human relationships the call forth a full gamut of emotion from joy to exacerbation.  The closest analog most people experience is marriage, and monastics often referred to each other as brothers and sisters not just out of Christian piety, but because of a loving kinship forged between them.  In a good monastery, the love and intimacy among its members is palpable, and such love is compelling to newcomers, life-giving to members, and a true gospel witness to the world.

This love is not easy to attain.  While prayer and common purpose are essential, so too is what the Benedictines call stability.  We can only get to that level of love if we pledge ourselves to be together with this same group of people, doing what God calls us to do, until we grow into the people God has made us to be.  We can only be challenged to grow by people we are close to who we have agreed to stay close to even when they call us on our own failings and character defects and require us to grow up.  Without a commitment to stay with people we would sometimes rather leave, love cannot reach the depths necessary to transform our own hardened hearts, much less the church or the world.  Any talk of monastic spirituality that does not ground us deeply with particular, flawed, sometimes difficult individuals may be helpful development, but will not be able to call us to God when we need it most.  

A key question before the Acts 8 Movement is, I think, whether we are willing to make the kind of significant commitment to one another that will allow us form such a community of love.  If so, then we need to figure out how to do so when we are scattered geographically and already have other commitments to families, parishes and dioceses.  Yet if we can make such commitments, or even a small core of us can in a way that grounds the rest of us, we could have an amazing calling.  Instead of working to change the church into the vision God has given us for it, we will change ourselves into such a loving household of God that the rest of the church will drop everything to join us.

I end here with a question and a quote.  The question is what you think about Acts 8 trying to become a community of deep personal relationships at a near monastic level and how that might be accomplished.  (Please comment below.)  The quote comes from Thomas Merton, and is a good reminder to all of us when we decide we are going to go out and do great things on behalf of God and the church:

Do not depend on the hope of results.  You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even acheive no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect.  As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.  You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people.  In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.  --Thomas Merton