Tuesday, November 18, 2014

BLOGFORCE Challenge: The Origin Story (Part 1)

This week's BLOGFORCE Challenge from the Acts 8 Moment asks us to tell the story of coming to the Episcopal Church in the form of a superhero origin story. While I do intend to participate fully in the assigned task, my first response was to take this as a kick in the pants to finish a project about the St. Francis day service at my church that I've been woefully behind on.

Forthwith: Armistead's origin story --

"I began my days as a street cat, but fell into dissolution and begging for wet food once I moved inside. I sought refuge in the church, and came home confused but grateful, committed to sharing my faith with the stray cats outside the screen door."

Sunday, November 2, 2014

BLOGFORCE Challenge: If I had a million dollars

During a clergy transition period immediately following the 2008 financial crisis, my church's budget was bleeding red ink. Through leadership from all corners of the parish as well as the grace of God, we were able to both cut some costs, and, more importantly, develop a spirituality around financial stewardship. We're now on our third year of balancing our budget without aid from the diocese. While we still have to keep a tight rein on expenses, the once pervasive anxiety about money has eased. We have returned to being able to offer modest budget allocations to ministries of the church that we had previously zeroed out. But we've found over the last couple years that this money is often going unspent, because the people running our Sunday School and adult education became so skilled in running on a budget of zero that having a few hundred bucks at their disposal just didn't make a difference. Ok, that's actually kind of great.

Then last week, at the annual convention of the Diocese of Indianapolis, the convention received the report of the Diocesan Reimagining Task Force, on which I served for the last 18 months. The Diocese of Indianapolis is one of the Episcopal Church's more solvent institutions, but we have created huge categories of expenses that we have culturally decided to treat as fixed, so we constantly operate with a sense of scarcity. Our attempt to start a conversation about unfixing some of those expenses in service of a new vision was received icily.

So when faced with the Acts 8 Moment's question of what I'd do with a million dollars "to help 'proclaim resurrection in the Episcopal Church'", at first I thought I'd just agree with Holli Powell, who writes that "what the Episcopal Church needs has nothing to do with money." Even where we've got it, it seems we lack the imagination or confidence or inspiration from the spirit to do anything with it that's different from what we've always done with it.

But I'm going to engage with a little beyond that. Say I'm a bajillionaire who has decided to fund a grant program for exciting new Episcopal projects. And let's say I twist what Acts 8 is asking for here that I'm looking for projects that "proclaim resurrection." Here's what I might fund:
  • $50,000: Holli Powell and I have a weekly podcast about prayer, The Collect Call (subscribe on iTunes; listen on Soundcloud). I think it's a pretty good show and some other people do, too. Holli and I get to talk about faith with each other, getting practice in a skill that Episcopalians notoriously lack, and we bring on special guests and interact a lot on Twitter to expand the conversation. Here's what it costs: 
    • Adobe Creative Suite subscription - $600 a year. (This expense is optional, because there's an excellent free editing softward called Audacity. But I use Adobe for other stuff, too).
    • Soundcloud Pro - $120 a year - gives me unlimited hours on Soundcloud, an excellent platform for sharing and embedding sound.
    • I experimented with some Facebook advertising for our All Saints Day episode. For $5 I got 33 clickthroughs from 26 people, or about $0.17/click. That's a deal. I'd like some budget to do some more of this to help get the word out.

    • Intangibles: each episode takes about 90 minutes to prepare and record, and 1-2 hours to edit. Since this is a weekly podcast that's a big commitment. It's a good thing Holli and I like each other.
    • Holli and I both bought Blue Snowball mics (around $50/each) for improved sound quality.
    • So this tells me you can have a pretty good podcast for about $1,000/year with committed volunteers and some modest setup costs. But there are only a handful of Episcopodcasts out there that aren't churches posting their sermons (of these, Easter People is my favorite). I'm going to make a bold assertion: there should be more. So from this hypothetical million dollars, I want to see a pitch from all corners of the church, and I want to dedicate $50,000 to doing this (that's different from saying I want to fund 50 podcasts; some could conceivably have higher cost structures due to concepts that would require rights to copyrighted material, or some could be recorded in live settings that are less controlled than what Holli and I do).
  • Podcasting is a medium that is open to amateurs, but it requires a little bit of knowhow. I'm setting aside $25k for some kind of training program. I don't know what this looks like yet because I'm not an educator. But if someone comes up with the $75k I've racked up so far, let's have that conversation.
  • Ok, and then I'm going to add a companion conference that will adjoin the annual Episcopal Communicators conference to allow this suddenly sizeable network of Episcopodcasters to get together for for a day and a half once a year. I don't know what conferences cost, but the Diocese of Indianapolis throws a three-day/two-night affair for around 20 grand so let's just say 20 grand.
  • And finally I'm going to send 815 $5,000 to reimagine the Episcopal Web Radio page.

My bill so far is $100,000 to invest in lifting up lay and clergy voices of faith in a medium simultaneously intimate and scalable that can help people clearly articulate why Jesus matters to them. I'm going to count on my other BLOGFORCE participants to come up with a way to spend the rest of this hypothetical largesse. Except here's the thing: it's not hypothetical. We are a richly resourced church, but we have locked ourselves into a very specific way of spending our money. Our conversations as a church about money get so toxic in part because we are all fighting to not have to change. But if we focused a little less on preservation and a little more on spreading the good news of the risen Christ in the language of the world around us, some interesting things might start to happen.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sermon: A Special Snowflake

Proper 24 - October 19, 2014.
Readings: Isaiah 45:1-7; Ps. 96; 1 Thess. 1:1-10; Matt. 22:15-22.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Why the Episcopal Church?

In the third part of its "Why the Church?" series, the Acts 8 Moment BLOGFORCE zeroes in on our denomination, the Episcopal Church. Previous questions in the series include "Why the Church?" (which I didn't write an answer for, and "Why Anglicanism?" (which I did). As we (or task forces we've appointed) reimagine the Episcopal church, it's worth asking why it is we should bother. Here's my answer.

One warm evening in 2006 I sat on a stone bench outside Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square in Columbus, Ohio. I had arrived too late to participate in the standing room only service taking place inside, part of the festivities surrounding the church's triennial General Convention, so I was just waiting for my friend John.

I struck up a conversation with another man waiting there, too. For the most part we talked investments, a hobby for him, a profession for me. Eventually we got around to talking about what we were doing at General Convention.

"I'm just here to hang out with my friend for the weekend," I said. "He's a page in the House of Bishops."

"Yeah, I'm just a hanger-on, too," the man said. "My wife is the Bishop of Nevada."

Soon enough the service let out. John and I wandered off to get dinner, while the Bishop of Nevada, Katherine Jefferts-Schori, and her husband walked north together on Broad Street in the late evening sun. Just a few days later, she was elected Presiding Bishop, the first woman to head any of the constituent national or quasi-national churches that make up the Anglican Communion.

Usually when you get a group of Episcopalians together and ask them what it is they like about the Episcopal Church you'll get some combination of responses including words like "welcoming", "inclusive", "liturgy", or "you don't have to check your brain at the door". With the exception of that last one, which I think we should stop saying, stat, I think these are all good things, only they're not all that distinctive. Every Christian church should be welcoming; every church does have a liturgy.

For me, what I appreciate most about this particular corner of Christianity is its sense of possibility, and the ability of every person in the church to participate in it. It's a little awkward sometimes: we're a rigidly hierarchical church that is uncomfortable enough with hierarchy that there are chances for the laity to get in the mix as lubricant or sand in the gears at nearly every turn. We're a small enough church (for better or worse) that lay followers (let alone leaders) can rub shoulders with archbishop-equivalents simply by showing up. And we're a human enough church that we screw it up. Like, quite a bit of the time.

I think these attributes have the possibility of serving the church particularly well during the tough times we're in today. Because for all the things that maybe have to change in the church, one that doesn't is the sense that you can be part of something significant just by showing up. In fact this is one thing we might want to double down on, that as numbers or finances or whatever force us to be different that what we've been, the participatory nature of the church be both opportunity and expectation for everyone involved.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Why Anglicanism?

The Acts 8 Moment is mid-way through a three-part series of questions about The Episcopal Church. The first question (which I missed, but which produced some awesome responses) was about why church is important at all. The second, which this post is a response to, is "Why Anglicanism?" or why does this particular branch of Christianity matter, the final one will ask about The Episcopal Church, or the official branch of Anglicanism in the United States.

Perched on high ground overlooking a river, Durham Cathedral is, in my mind, one of the most spectacular buildings on earth. A tremendous work of stone, it looks less like it was built by human hands and more like it grew from the ground beneath it. Its construction predates the innovation of flying buttresses, which allowed big windows to flood a cathedral interiors with light. Durham Cathedral has thicker walls and smaller windows, so the interior is suffused with shadow. Its walls and floors contain the bones of ancient saints, including Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede.

Durham is a cathedral of the Church of England, the mother church of the Anglican Communion, of which my own Episcopal Church is a part. So when I cross the threshold of that great stone church, it's with a sense of belonging - that this church is my church, too.

I last visited Durham Cathedral on the first Sunday in Lent in 2008. At the time, N.T. Wright was Bishop of Durham. I am an admirer of Wright's writing; he is a clear explainer of certain aspects of Christian thought against what I regard as some of the excesses of progressive Christianity. Wright is equally clear that he would prefer that people like me - a Christian who happens to be gay and who regards that attribute of myself as neither a sin nor a call to a solitary life - be much quieter if we must insist on being part of the church at all.

I worshiped at Wright's church without the slightest reservation. Because while what Wright and I disagree about are very important things to both of us, in Wright's own words, "Nothing justifies schism."

What I appreciate most about Anglicanism is its openness and humility. Anglicanism never makes the claim that it is the one true church. We regard any baptized person from any Christian denomination to be a full fellow traveler with us in Christ. Our big theological claims are just the very basics: that the Apostle's and Nicene creeds are sufficient statements of faith, that the sacraments of baptism and communion are important, and that the canonical books of the Bible contain all that is necessary for salvation.

The crowd after Easter services, St. Mary's Cathedral, Kuala Lumpur.

Maybe this makes us a little squishy...hard to tell who's in or out, who's the right kind of Christian and who's not in a church like that. But it means that even though in the alphabet soup of GAFCON and the ACC, I suppose the Diocese of West Malaysia is on the "other side" from me, St. Mary's Cathedral in Kuala Lumpur is my church, too. And when I was there this Easter Sunday days after my mother had died there, it was a more ordinary act of love, including the name of my mother, a woman unknown to that church, among the familiar prayers, that reminded me that at its best the distinction of Anglicanism is common worship, paired not with agreement, but with love.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Haiku Challenge

The Acts 8 Moment is having some summer fun in its BLOGFORCE series. This time, we're writing haiku about the Episcopal Church. Here, in a suite of three haiku, my first impressions of the Episcopal Church:

All these books, I thought.
I don't really understand.
Next week, I'll come back.

A few drops of water
Trickling across my forehead.
Now baptized, I wept.

Six months a Christian,
Hands on my forehead, confirmed.
I still don't know why.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Married. Or Not.

Last October at the Episcopal Church of All Saints in Indianapolis my partner of 8 years and I were married. Or not. It's a little confusing.

I mean, there were rings and flower girls and a huge party and a photographer and heaven knows it was expensive. But absent from the service leaflet were the words "wedding" or "marriage". Instead the service was the "Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant". When we signed the big book, it looked like a wedding register, but taped over the word "marriage" was a little slip of paper reading "lifelong covenent".

Back in the day, when I was a bit more of a firebrand, I used to say there was no way I would get married in the Episcopal Church until it was truly recognized as marriage. Government recognition be damned - as important as it is I mostly never cared what it thought as long as in the eyes of the church my family was really, truly equal.

Instead, the government got there first, and Frank and I walked down the aisle in Indiana, a state that most definitely does not recognize our marriage, while legally married some months earlier in the state of New York, to receive from our church the Sacrament of Marriage Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant.

Like I said, confusing.

And to some, insulting. I get that. But not for me.

The mission of the church, as expressed in the catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, is to "restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ." It is awfully hard to do that as a divided body. Our prayer book clearly recognizes this, including a prayer for Christian unity that asserts that we are in "great danger from our unhappy divisions" and goes on to ask that "we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity."

I would venture to guess that a large part, if not the majority, of those involved in the composition of the liturgy for the Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant and the theological reflections that accompanied it would in fact support the church's recognition of the sacrament of marriage for same sex couples. I don't blame them for coming up with something different: that was not the charge the 2009 General Convention gave them.

Particularly given where so many states are today, there are some who regard the same sex blessing rite as a timid half measure - a creature of politics designed to avoid overstepping the sensibilities of some in the church in the name of preserving denominational unity. And of course that is what it is. But that isn't only what it is.

The Holy Spirit desires unity for all of us. That is why the story of Pentecost is more or less the story of the Tower of Babel in rewind. It is the spirit that allows us to tell the Christian story and to be heard. And for each Christian there may be no stories more powerful than the working of God in our life. By taking measured steps, the Episcopal Church has done its best to avoid irretrievable alienation to create time for us to tell our stories to each other, person to person, parish to parish, diocese to diocese.

Some have left, and I'll spend no time here commenting on that other than that it should be cause for sorrow for everyone involved. But many have stayed, and I am no less in communion with the Bishops of Georgia, Northern Indiana, or Alabama - all of whom would in some measure disagree with me on questions related to the possibility of holiness in a same-sex relationship - than I am with the Bishop of Indianapolis. This is because by staying together we have decided not to forestall the possibility of changing. Through the activity of the Holy Spirit we remain in one awkward family, demanding not agreement but remaining in conversation, relying on the bonds of love.

To LGBT people caught in the middle, particularly those in dioceses less friendly than my own, the demands and sacrifices of the present situation may be unjust. In my diocese I am eligible for a not-quite sacrament packaged in a very well-written liturgy. There are many dioceses where that is not available. I don't have a good answer for that.

But in recent years there's a story in the Gospel of Mark that has become one of my favorites:
Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.  
Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 5:25-34)
This, as far as I know, is the Bible's only example of an involuntary miracle. An woman whose hemorrhages would have made her unclean for many years sneaks up behind Jesus. She does not ask for permission but boldly/timidly claims her blessing. She feels her healing before Jesus acknowledges it.

That's how it will be with many of us for now. If the church decides in 2015 or 2018 that it's ready to declare marriage between members of the same sex a sacrament - great. I hope we do so and I will do my part to make that happen. But this "official" sacrament of marriage is one that I will never receive, because it is already mine. Last October Frank and I touched Jesus's cloak and claimed our blessing. There's nothing second rate about the sacrament we received - even if for the moment the Spirit demands we officially call it something different.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Signs of Resurrection in the Episcopal Church

"I admire your enthusiasm, young man," a former senior warden at a church in Southern Indiana said to me as I spoke at coffee hour. "But I'm a realist. We simply have to accept that we're going to get smaller."

I appreciated being called young - the Episcopal Church is one of the very few contexts where that adjective still applies to me. But the reason he was saying this to me was that I was explaining that the perspective of a diocesan task force on which I serve is that the Episcopal Church is not in fact doomed to shrink - a conviction born from the fact that not a single member of the task force is a cradle Episcopalian (and also that Great Commission thing). Several, including me, would not have identified as Christian before coming to the Episcopal Church.

Caught off guard, sheepishly disabused of my naiveté, I proceeded with my presentation and discussion with the church, with perhaps a little less of my admirable enthusiasm than before.

The Acts 8 Moment has challenged the blogosphere to list the top 10 signs of resurrection in the Episcopal Church. To be sure, some things look grim, but remember, the resurrection happened not in triumph but in the darkness of the tomb. Some of my listings may look small-bore, but the bodily resurrection of Jesus means restoring not just a mighty heartbeat but severed nerves and withered capillaries, blind eyes and parched tongue.

Also, for reasons that will become obvious below, I only have energy for a top five list.

  1. Reconciliation of a Penitent: This sacrament, better known as private confession, much more strongly associated with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, and commonly associated with guilt (wrong), is nothing new. But at my church this year, instead of only offering it by appointment, our rector sat in a side chapel every Monday during Lent, offering it on a walk-up  basis. Some days she had no takers, some days she did. But for my own part, I participated for the first time in my life and found unexpected release and freedom.
  2. The Easter People podcast: This is my new favorite podcast because it's a group of Episcopalians talking in a lighthearted way about faith and pretty much ignoring the big church fights that have consumed so much energy in recent years (decades). We should have been doing this all along.
  3. The Restoration Project: A program of discipleship based on small groups and Benedictine spirituality. The concept of discipleship - as in a disciplined rhythm of life focused on prayer, worship, and service - is having a comeback in the Episcopal Church. At my church, our Lent program on Basic Discipleship had 17 participants - this in a church with average Sunday attendance of 80-90. The hunger for a deeper experience of faith is exciting.
  4. Media coverage for things that aren't about sex: whether it's Lent Madness on Fox News or Homeless Jesus on NPR, it's great to see the Episcopal Church getting noticed for creative approaches to deeper spirituality and witnessing to the need for economic justice.
  5. The Liturgy. No really, the liturgy. My mother died suddenly on Wednesday, halfway around the world from me. So instead of spending Holy Week at my church, I spent Maundy Thursday and Good Friday traveling to Kuala Lumpur; and Holy Saturday sitting with my father and brother and friends in a Chinese funeral parlor keeping her body company. My rector coached me from afar in constructing a lay-led funeral liturgy based on the Book of Common prayer that would also accommodate my mother's simple Quaker sensibilities, which I officiated this afternoon - Easter Sunday - with as much dignity as I could muster. I cannot assign any meaning to all of this yet: this is still a raw, bleeding wound and I will not rush toward healing or that awful word "closure". But what strength I have comes from a faith steeped in scripture and worship, and the peculiar synchrony of Jesus's walk to the grave and new life, and the hope I have for one I love and will see no longer.

- See more at: http://www.acts8moment.org/?p=53199#sthash.3NUmvk0I.dpuf

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Episcopal Elevator Pitch

The Acts 8 BLOGFORCE has issued a challenge to craft an elevator speech of 250 words or less for the Episcopal Church. I love this idea, if only because of its deceptive simplicity. Coming up with a message that is (a) distinctive enough to be memorable, (b) positive (not tearing down other believers), and (c) general enough to actually be delivered on in most congregations is actually a pretty tall order.

But that's not going to stop me - here's my attempt. Post yours in the comments, on your own blog (follow the link for instructions), or on the Acts 8 Moment's Facebook page.

I wasn't raised religiously - for much of my life I was an atheist. But while I was in college a strange, powerful experience caused me to understand resurrection as the way God works, and led to a faith in Jesus. I hope we can talk about that experience sometime.
I chose the Episcopal Church as the place to learn about my newfound faith because of its profound sense of connection. Our worship is flexible, but it's rooted in rituals and prayers established many centuries ago, adapted for the modern world. I love that our church offers a daily cycle of prayers that people can say in groups or alone, and know that literally thousands of other people are doing the same thing. 
I love that the way we govern ourselves reflect that we believe that all people, men and women, lay and clergy, are equal before God. I love that when I walked away from the church for three years and returned, I was welcomed without judgment.
I don't have a specific opinion about the afterlife, but it means a lot to me that virtually all of our prayers acknowledge the dead, and that future generations will do the same for me. I know that I am not very significant in the universe, but taking my place in the Episcopal Church constantly reminds me that I am part of something big.