Sunday, February 14, 2016

Before a Vote (Dear Christ Church)

In two weeks, my church will be voting on our options for the future, and I actually won't be present for the vote. As I was thinking through all of this, the conversations we've had as a church over the past six months, and some things I've read over the past year, I wrote the letter below the fold. I don't really intend to give it to the church, but it brings together much of what I've been thinking, and it was important for me to write.

Dear Christ Church,

I want to start by thanking you -- thanking you for what you've been to me, what you have been to a number of Olin and Wellesley college students over the past four years. You welcomed me; you made this place and this community home. You've asked me to be liturgist, to play handbells, to be on committees, to sing with the choir. It has been such a blessing to feel like I belonged, like I had found family and home in a new place. You have been central to my life for the past three and a half years. This is not just -- or even primarily -- a dying church. It is first and foremost a part of the Body. Your part of the Body, and by your welcome, mine as well.

Most of you know I'm from Oklahoma, the center of Tornado Alley. Even more than that, the particular area I'm from has been impacted by the three most destructive tornadoes in Oklahoma history, all in the past seventeen years. So I've seen what it's like for a community to feel defeated, to look around and see rubble and loss. But here's the thing about having seen that death, about having seen those ruins: they mean I have also seen resurrection. I can't not believe in resurrection. It has happened, time and time again, before my eyes, at the heart of the community in which I was raised. And I hold that resurrection as hope. Our God is a God of life, of new life, of recreation and renewal and resurrection. Christ our Lord has died and is risen, and we are promised that resurrection. We must first die in order to be reborn, but God promises that we will be reborn, and God is faithful. We can rely on the Lord's promises. We can rely on the hope of resurrection, because Jesus Christ, Son of God, is the ground of that hope.

I believe in resurrection because I have seen it. I have hope because I remember times when it felt like there was nothing left, and out of ashes there emerged new creation. Howard Thurman said that waiting was "to watch a gathering darkness until all light is swallowed up completely without the power to interfere or bring a halt. Then in that darkness, to continue one's journey with one's footsteps guided by the illumination of remembered radiance." Some days all we have is that remembered radiance, but it can be enough. God is still with us. God is still faithful. God is still Light. We can, as Howard Thurman continued "demand the light ... continue to be light even in the surrounding darkness." The darkness never overcame the light, never extinguished the light.

There is still light here, in this place. I encountered that light when I first stepped through the doors of this building into your arms, and I still find that light each time I am among you. You greet me, hug me, feed me, hand me a chair to carry to the stairwell, welcome my voice, ask me to listen and to think and to struggle with you. You weave me in, and that is light. Even though we are tired. Even though we are weary. Even though we no longer feel like we are enough. There is still light. We are not alone. We never have been. This is God's world; that is God's promise.

And now we consider surrendering what we have been, and we hope for what we will be, without knowing quite what the path looks like. We must trust that God has a vision, and we've seen glimpses of it -- glimpses from the past, glimpses from the present, glimpses of possible futures, glimpses that we can't really put into words or time. Oswald Chambers wrote, "The vision is not a castle in the air, but a vision of what God wants you to be. Let Him put you on His wheel and whirl you as He likes, and as sure as God is God and you are you, you will turn out exactly in accordance with the vision."

As sure as God is God and you are you, you will turn out exactly in accordance with the vision.

That's the hope I'm clutching now, the thing most deep: that we will trust enough, be strong enough, to let God put us on God's wheel and whirl us as God likes. That we will be that vulnerable, that we will surrender that much, so that we can be shaped by God. I pray the words of "Spirit of the Living God" : "Melt us, mold us, fill us, use us. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us." I pray the words of "Take My Life": "Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee... Take myself and I will be, ever, always, all for Thee."

Through our conversations, we've discussed being open-minded about the options. I ask for your open-mindedness; I ask for my own. To borrow the words of writer J.D. Walt, "Faith... does not seek a particular outcome, but rather anchors all hope in God alone and the surety of His promises. Let go of your hopeful projection of a certain outcome... so that faith can arise in the God and Father of our risen Lord, Jesus Christ." He refers to our "particular expectations" as a false god. Our Lord and God is higher than our expectations, is faithful to keep God's promises. So we can hope in God, we can trust in God, we can rely on the fact that God is at work in surprising ways. "As sure as God is God and you are you, you will turn out exactly in accordance with the vision."

I pray these words from a poem by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:

 Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

I learned that prayer just before I left Budapest after spending fall 2014 there, and the semester after I got back, those were sometimes all the words I had. Reverse culture shock did not treat me kindly. I wasn't fully sure who I was anymore. I didn't know where I was going, didn't know what God was doing, and these were the words God spoke to me, again and again and again. "It is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability-- and that it may take a very long time." "Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you."

It didn't fix everything, to repeat those things to myself. But it was stability amongst the instability. It was the promise of future. It was a reminder of the Lord's faithfulness. And in the midst of change and uncertainty, those were precious. Trust in the slow work of God. Wait on the Lord. But waiting, as Thurman tells us, is not a passive thing. It is movement forward, trusting in light in the midst of darkness. Waiting, as scripture reminds us, is not a silent, lonely thing. It is not a thing we can just sleep through - though in our drowsiness, our weariness, we often do. But scripture calls us to pray as we wait. Scripture calls us to keep awake as we wait, to keep our lanterns alight as we wait. Even if we don't know what exactly it is we are waiting for or praying for or watching for. But above all, we are called to do these things together.

We have done them together. We have been community through dim and bright. We are tired, but the darkness has not overcome us, and as we continue to move forward, as our waiting shifts, as we invite God's work in us to shift, we will still not be alone. The Spirit of the Lord is among us, and as one of the affirmations in the hymnal says, "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is the one true church, apostolic and universal." We are part of a greater Body, a Body across time and space, and no matter what decision we reach, this community, Christ Church, is part of that Body.

It's interesting, that Chambers wrote of God taking us up onto a mountain to show us a vision and then into the valley to shape us, because there's a Puritan prayer that speaks of the valley of vision, the valley in which we look up, surrounded by "mountains of sin" but seeing "God's glory in the heights." That prayer ends like this: "Let me find thy light in my darkness, thy life in my death, thy joy in my sorrow, thy grace in my sin, thy riches in my poverty, thy glory in my valley."

This is what we have been seeking, what we are seeking as we consider what Christ Church has been and will be: that deep experience of God as light, life, joy, grace, riches, and glory. Over the past few years we have been naming each Sunday morning where we see God in our lives, seeking to make ourselves more aware of even the smallest experiences of Emmanuel, God with us. Where is the light breaking in? Where do you see the reign of God on earth? Where do you find joy? What gives you life? How is God pouring out grace upon you? We answer these questions for each other. We name people, times, places, moments, and together we thank God for God's presence with us.

Some of you might remember that earlier this year we repeatedly read the story of the feeding of the 5000. It came up something like four times in just a couple of months. And we asked what it would mean to see ourselves in different roles -- including the role of the bread. What does it mean to be blessed, broken, given? I came across this quote from Steven Garnaas-Holmes, a United Methodist minister in New England. "The bread is blessed and then broken. The breaking comes after the blessing. It's crumby." That's what we're living, I think. The crumby bit. And through that, it can be hard to remember the blessing that came first. It can be hard to remember that even when things seem messy, seem a little less whole than they used to, God is with us. God has blessed us.

God is still present. God is still at work. I know I'm repeating myself, but I want you to know just how strongly I believe that to be true. This is a valley, but it is a valley with two shapes: the valley in which we are being shaped, having seen glimpses of perfection from the mountaintop, but also the valley of vision. Trust in the light, whether it seems awfully dim or incredibly bright. You have helped shape me, helped me walk in faith for these four years because you are still community, and you still have light. Trust in the light that God has given us to carry. Let us light our candles and not hide them, light our lanterns and wait through the night. We are made for formation, not fear, made for holiness, not stagnation. Our Lord is leading us, and as overwhelmed, confused, and incomplete as we may feel, God is there, the voice behind us saying "This is the way; walk in it."

This is my prayer: that we will know the Spirit among us, that we will hear God's voice, that this process will be one of love. Thank you for everything you have been over the past fifty-three years, everything you've been for me, and everything you are and will be.

With love,

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