Monday, November 14, 2011

The bishop comes to call (Sunday Reflections for November 13, 2011)

Metro Chicago Synod Bishop Wayne Miller dropped by the church last week. He is setting aside time for “no agenda” visits with pastors in their parishes, hoping to get to most of them within two years. Since, as he said, the bishop tends to be contacted only when there is a problem, these visits are giving him a better sense of what is happening in the lives of synod pastors and congregations.
Our conversation was very cordial. After discussing our congregation and our community, we turned to the church-at-large. Miller was refreshingly frank and open. He made no attempt to hide or downplay the crisis the church is in. Everything is changing, whether we want it to or not, whether we’re ready for it or not. And, of course, the reality is we don’t want to change and we’re not ready. Miller is trying to manage our institutional decline and the resulting tensions and disorder. Yet at the same time, he is looking for signs of new life and energy in the church—green shoots to be nurtured, embers to be fanned.
What is clear is that nothing of the institutional church will be exempt from the changes sweeping through it. Will there be synods? Will there be bishops? Who knows? Already some synod offices are on the verge of closing. At a minimum, a wave of synod consolidation is inevitable. Seminaries are also stressed, including my alma mater, LSTC, here in Chicago. Mergers or closures are coming.
Layoffs in the ELCA’s churchwide organization have left many empty cubicles at the office headquarters on Higgins Road. (Know anyone in the market for an O’Hare office tower?) Board and committee meetings are being reduced, including having the biennial churchwide assembly becoming triennial. Of course, the change obvious to the most people is the shrinking number and size of congregations. Fewer and fewer can afford a pastor’s salary, or even the buildings they are in.
But reducing, shrinking and consolidating can only get the church so far. As Miller and a growing number of others recognize, what is really needed is imagining new ways of doing church, at all levels.
Instead of congregations with separate buildings and full-time pastors, we may need to be looking at starting and nurturing “house churches.” These would have little in the way of formal programs. Instead, they would emphasize more intimate worship and fellowship, as well as community service and outreach.
Three- and four-year seminary programs have become too expensive and impractical. Perhaps pastors can begin their preparation as apprentices. During this period, they would have other employment while working in congregations with experienced pastors. Formal training would be shorter, combining part-time classroom time with online learning, similar to many secular, professional graduate programs.
In general, the trend is away from broad church organizations and bureaucracy to the more local and personal. Such trends are common in many institutions today. Decision making can often be more effective when done closer to where those decisions will be implemented. Yet there can also be a loss of coordination, cooperation, and connectivity. The Internet and social networking, however, may replace at least some of those functions previously performed by more formal church structures.
Later, as I thought about our conversation, I nonetheless felt we had missed something fundamental. I still felt we were talking about rearranging the deck chairs on our sinking ship. And I’m not sure Bishop Miller would disagree. For the reality is that when you’re part of a two thousand year-old institution, genuinely thinking outside the box is really, really hard. Yet that is what we need to be doing, for it is what our times are forcing upon us.
One thing we didn’t discuss was theology. Now I admit that such talk can often seem esoteric and irrelevant. Yet theology is the church’s starting point. It’s where we decide who we are and what we are about. Without theology the church simply exists to exist; we go through the motions without knowing why.
And that is a lot of what has been going on in the church: going through the motions. The church has been running on momentum from its past. We do things because “this is what we’ve always done,” even when we know it doesn’t make any sense today. So we still pray to “God up in heaven,” even when heaven stopped being a map-able place as it was for our ancestors, and when even “up” has no objective meaning anymore!
No, the world of the church of our ancestors is long gone. Where for ancient and medieval people, what was constant and unchanging was the norm and most important, for us the opposite is true. Our world is in constant flux. One generation struggles to understand the world of another, even when they’re living side-by-side.
So the church needs to reimagine its purpose and identity, as much as its structures and organization. But it may be this also needs to happen mostly ad hoc and at the grass roots. Like the bureaucrats, the academics also need to watch and listen (a good Advent theme). The church, like most institutions, has usually wanted the flow of ideas and direction to be from the top down. Today, however, rather than looking to ancient authorities and documents, or contemporary studies and commissions, it may be time to let the spirit blow where it wills, and the theological chips fall where they may.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Hide and seek (Sunday Reflections for November 6, 2011)

Once in awhile, I’ll notice a topic or theme appear in multiple places, nearly all at once. That happened recently on three different interviews I heard, one on TV and two on the radio. When it happens it makes me think something is happening in our culture that’s worth paying attention to. In this case, the connecting thread of these broadcast conversations was how much a mystery other people can often be to us, and how much we often hide from people around us.
The first time this came up was in the 60 Minutes interview with Ruth Madoff and her youngest son, Andrew Madoff. Their experiences and stories are different, but both claim they knew nothing about the enormous fraud being perpetrated by their husband and father, Bernie Maddoff. Because Andrew worked for one of his father’s companies, his shock and anger comes from believing he was intentionally duped. He says he will never forgive his father or ever speak to him again.
Ruth’s reaction was different. She seems more stunned by the events, and resigned to her social fall and now very bleak future. From this and other stories about her, she apparently played a role as Bernie Madoff’s wife which included very little involvement in his business affairs. From an early age she was enthralled with him, but despite having lived with him most of her life, Ruth actually knew her husband at only a superficial level.
Another interview, this time on radio, was with British actor Bill Nighy. He plays the role of a spy in a new BBC drama, Page Eight, which airs this month on PBS. In a short excerpt played from the show, his daughter dismisses his concern for her when she realizes he is simultaneously trying to get information from her. “You’re working! Hell, you’re not even talking to me. You’re working…. Do you have any honest relationships in your life at all?”
Nighy goes on to describe his character’s dilemma as never being able to be fully honest, especially with this family. He is always keeping important parts of his life hidden from them. In an excerpt from another of his films, the comedy Love Actually, Nighy is an aging rock star being interviewed on the radio. Nighy’s character startles the radio host with the bluntness of his answers, as he reflects on his life near the end of his career. “Wow. We don’t get many honest answers on this show. Thanks for that.”
The most powerful of the interviews I heard was with author Joan Didion. Most recently Didion’s life and writing have been focused on dealing first with the death of her husband (The Year of Magical Thinking), and then with the death of her adult daughter, which occurred a few years later. She began the interview reading from the introduction to her new book, Blue Nights: 
When I began writing these pages, I believed their subject to be children: the ones we have and the ones we wish we had, the ways in which we depend on our children to depend on us, the ways in which we encourage them to remain children, the ways in which they remain more unknown to us than they do to their most casual acquaintances, the ways in which we remain equally opaque to them, the ways in which our investments in each other remain too frayed ever to see the other clear, the ways in which neither we nor they can bear to contemplate the death or the illness or even the aging of the other.
As the pages progressed, it occurred to me that the actual subject was not children at all, at least not children per se, at least not children qua children. Their actual subject was this refusal even to engage in this contemplation, this failure to confront the certainties of aging, illness, death, this fear. Only as the pages progressed further did I understand that the two subjects were the same.
Just this small selection makes evident the depth of Didion’s writing, which comes from her clear vision and honesty. And yet she is admitting here her own weakness in not knowing her own child and susceptibility to the temptation to intentionally not see what she doesn’t want to see—in other words, her lack of vision and honesty.
What sets Didion apart, however, is her remarkable ability and willingness to recognize such things in herself. She is willing to double back on her own life and say, “I wasn’t honest here. I only saw what I wanted to there. I hid things from myself I didn’t want to know or understand.” Thus, we see the enormous gulf between a Joan Didion and a Ruth Madoff. Anyone can be deceived, or even deceive them self. But who has the courage to recognize and admit it, to them self or to others?
The challenge of honestly understanding others or ourselves is not a new one. It’s a major theme of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the Bible’s story of David, and even a folk talk like The Emperor’s New Clothes. The stories I heard perhaps only pointed to the new permutations on this common human foible, made possible in our unique time.
They certainly make clear that, however else we may have advanced as a culture, the temptations of ego and deceit certainly are alive as ever. They also illustrate the healing truth of one the Bible’s most profound insights and promise, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”