Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Being a companion and getting things done

I am here! To introduce myself. Thanks Noelle for already opening up a spot for me here. Noelle created this blog, so I will speak to my relationship to her. Noelle is the senior associate rector at All Saints' where I have been a member for almost 10 years. Our kids are about the same age. I have three boys, ages 7, 4, and 8 months. I also have a husband and a dog, who are also, both boys. I was not raised in the Episcopal church. I was raised evangelical. That may come up in some way as I sort things out here. My husband Tim and I were married in the Episcopal church after both attending the same one in college, and we have attended one ever since.

I have always enjoyed hearing Noelle preach and reading her blog. I knew she was interested in a companion, writing here at this blog, and well, I enjoy being a companion, perhaps most of all. While I don't think I can say I enjoy challenges, I do seek them out. I think to write well is hard. I personally appreciate writing that is concise. Mine is not. I have had dear people from English professors to graduate school supervisors, quietly and not so quietly nudge me in the direction of resources for how to be concise. I am working on it. And that's all I'll say about that.

So... I do have some thoughts to share, but one of the things that got me started tonight was that I told myself, "hey, Beth, you don't have to do this all at once". (And you're not alone! Noelle is here too). It can be bit by bit. Or as Anne Lamott says, Bird by Bird. (Interestingly, I read this book in undergrad as an assignment to myself when doing an independent study on short-story writing).  They are wise words that I try to remember. I don't have to tackle the world at once. I just need to start. So here I am, getting started. Getting things done.  This is perhaps the biggest challenge for me, and one I like be reminded of during Lent. During Lent, it is easy for me to beat myself up over all that I'm not doing. And in the midst of all that beating, I am immobilized. I'm doing nothing.

Be patient, I tell myself. God's work takes time. Just take a step forward. One step. You'll get there. And most likely, when you do, you'll find out how much further you have to go.
This is wonderful.  As a parent, I hope that my kids have half as much intergrity as these kids when they are in high school. Watch all the way to the end.

Walking in the middle, yet again

This morning's Gospel reading from Matthew took me in the opposite direction from where it was supposed to.

Jesus is warning the disciples against being like the scribes and Pharisees who spend a lot of time being "greater than".  They expect praise and recognition for their piety.  they don't practice what they preach.  What we are supposed to learn from this is pretty clear:  Don't be a puffed-up jerk.  Be humble, be faithful.  Do without expecting praise.  Lead without expecting recognition.

I get that.

But after reading this passage this morning, I realized that the other end of that spectrum gets on my nerves just as much.  I can't stand the overly pious, self-effacing behavior of those who take this Gospel too seriously.  In fact, this probably bothers me more than the puffed-up jerks of the world.  I wonder if drawing attention to oneself by purposefully taking the lowest seat or waiting to only gather up the scraps doesn't have a similar effect to self-aggrandizement: it is alienating and counter to good community-building.  Just as no one wants to be bossed around by a big shot, no one wants to be made to feel inferior for NOT wanting to be a doormat.

Anglicans have been talking about "The Middle Way" forever.  It is, if I am honest, my fallback response to most dividing forces in the religious world is some version of this via media.  When we are at our worst, this makes us Anglicans look floppy and uncommitted, as if we can't quite make up our minds on where we stand (see previous post).  At our best, however, it means that we are making room for both ends of the spectrum (pick a spectrum, any spectrum!) and everyone in between.  I love the middle way because it means that I have some thinking to do. 

And this issue of grandiosity vs. humility gets solved for me in the middle way:  Don't be a jerk, but don't be a doormat either.  We were created for goodness, goodness we should be.  I'm not really sure what that might look like, but I'm open to your suggestions.  I think it has a lot to do with intentionality and motivation, about keeping God in clear sight at all times, and when our sight gets clouded, wiping the windshield and starting again.  This middle way-- in this respect and in so many others-- is, for me, the Christian walk: purposeful and strong, but with a light respectful tread.  

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Who we are, who we are not.

At the rector's request, our program staff have been reading Deep and Wide by Andy Stanley.  Stanley is famous around these parts for being the creator of an enormous Christian ministry conglomerate known as North Point Ministries.  Like many folks who are extremely successful at what they do, Stanley gets a lot of flak for his methodology, pedagogy and theology, primarily from those of us in mainline traditions.  We've been not-so-secretly sneering at the North Point way for years.  But the truth is, in one very basic respect, Stanley is massively successful:  there are butts in the seats.  In an age where Christianity is purported to be dying on the vine, the several Atlanta-area North Point mega churches are bringing in newcomers by the hundreds each Sunday and playing to a cast of thousands each week.    

To be frank, I'm not really enjoying the book.  His writing style is irritatingly informal and chipper, while at the same time treading obnoxiously close to "daddy knows best".


It is making me think, and I appreciate that.  And I appreciate Stanley's willingness to unlock his secret formula and lay it out for the world (including his detractors) to read, pick apart and learn from.  He is bold and he's got some exciting, out-of-the-box ideas about church.  There are ways in which I wish I could ingest some of that boldness and translate it into Episcopalese.

Because in the end, there's the rub.  One of the wonderful things about being a Christian is that there are so many ways to be engaged in Christianity, so many denominations that answer big questions in so many ways.  That same gift is also a challenge, though.  So often, we don't quite speak the same language, we don't see eye-to-eye or we think that OUR way has a corner on the Jesus market.  That, obviously, is when we get divided, pissy and decidedly un-Christian with each other.

For generations, Anglicans have been defining ourselves as NOT something else.  We're NOT Roman Catholics, we're NOT Protestants, we're NOT Evangelicals or any of the rest.  But we get stumped when asked to define who we ARE.  We're the "middle way", don't you know?  I think we can get so afraid of offending or alienating or disrespecting by proclaiming a positive identity that we avoid the issue altogether.

Stanley's book is reminding me to step up to the challenge of defining who we ARE then claiming and owning it.  I keep thinking while I'm reading, "That's nice but it wouldn't work for us.  It isn't who we are."  And I'm forcing myself when I have that observation to answer "well, why?"  It is a hard question because i'm having to make choices about who I think we are.  Why don't we have giant screens in our worship space?  Why do we have pews?  Why is most of our music classical?  Why are our sermons 12 minutes instead of 45?  Why don't I preach a feel-good message every week?  Why are we confessing all the time?

There are non-snarky reasons for all fo these things (snarky ones, too, but that's not the point).  Reading a "how-to" from a tradition so different than my own is helping me ask these questions again and frame them in light of community definition.

Finally, I want to be clear that I don't think that defining who we are, what we believe and how we worship is creating an "us" and "them".  The bare truth is that we are not going to change who we are to fit the needs of every person who walks into our narthex (See that insider language right there?  See that?).  We will strive always to be open, welcoming, hospitable and TOTALLY HONEST about who we are.  We will be the community God created us to be.  And the sooner we claim it, can talk about it and be proud of it in positive terms, rather than over-and-against terms, the more people appreciating our vision of Christianity will want to be a part of it.

Sharing this space

I'm really excited that Saintly Mama Beth Frilingos is going to blog with me over here.  I had originally intended this to be a group project, but that didn't quite come to fruition.  But Beth is joining in!  I'll let her introduce herself, but watch this space in the next few days for her contributions to the melee.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sin, repentence, humility

How's that for a Lenten blog title?

We've put another Ash Wednesday to bed alongside with our Alleluias.  I was talking with someone today who said, "I love Sunday church, but I really love it whenever we do something just a little bit different." I agree, and Ash Wednesday fits the bill nicely.  In the Episcopal tradition, the language of Ash Wednesday is a lot about sin and fallenness, but it is also about repentance and forgiveness.  The Litany of Penitence is full and cathartic, confessing self-indulgence, anger, intemperance, and negligence.  We remind ourselves above all that we are NOT GOD.

I was a great discussion earlier today about whether Ash Wednesday is more about sin and repentance or about our mortality.  In the course of the worship, we smear our heads with a cross of ashes and hear the words "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."  Like any good Episcopalian, I think it is both-and.  I see this opening day of Lent as being about humility:  we are made of the stuff if dust, not of the stuff of God.  It takes the hand of God, the breath of God, the will of God to re-member us into being.  And then-- only then-- can we become. 

I do not think Ash Wednesday is a great service for newcomers or a great introduction to this system of beliefs.  We do talk about forgiveness and grace but on this one day we talk primarily about being dust, about how far we've fallen from that grace and how undeserving we are of that forgiveness. We talk about giving up and letting go, about dying.  I am afraid that without a foundation of understanding God's deep, unshakable love for us, this could be a really disturbing introduction to how we believe. 

I also believe that we deeply need to be reminded of these things.  Many of us need the reminder that "beloved" is not the same as "entitled" and that "saved by grace" does not mean "self-righteous".  We need reminding that, while free will is a precious gift, it does not make us God or godly. 

Ash Wednesday does these things for me.  It knocks me down a peg, into that dust from which I have been made.  It reminds me that I was indeed made from muck, but made for goodness, kindness, charity, justice. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Here we go again

Things got hairy.

Not really, life-threateningly-hairy, just can't-get-to-the-bottom-of-my-to-do-list hairy.  So there was a rather extended blogging break.  But I'm back, and happy to be so.     

It is no coincidence that I'm re-upping on Ash Wednesday.  I am using Lent to try to intentionally bring back two of my great loves: reading and writing.  I can't pinpoint when exactly they fell off my List of Important Things, but they did and I miss them.  I am (was) an avid and voracious reader.  Long working hours at the church and at home have lead to evenings collapsed in a useless heap in front of CSI or Glee.  It is a wicked cycle and I know I'm not the only one who falls prey to it.

So I'm letting Lent be my springboard back to spiritual and intellectual wellness.  Right now, I've got three books in the hopper: Deep and Wide by Andy Stanley, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, and Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Build Inner Strength in Children by Linda Lantieri. I'm enjoying all three to varying degrees and hope to use them for writing fodder in the future. 

The writing I'm going to do here.  Not every day, but several times a week. And I might add some photography, too, though that might be pushing it.  I plan on going back to some of the original themes of this blog, kids, politics, religion, parenting, and see what is stirring.  My hope is that you will join in these conversations and that I will inspired to keep writing.  We shall see.  Just this first, semi-useless entry feels good.  Let's hope I continue to stay inspired, even as the hairiness continues.