Friday, March 21, 2014


I wrote this post almost exactly three years ago, and never quite finished it. I came across it while reviewing unfinished posts this week in an attempt to clean out my blog files, and thought I’d share it, unfinished as it is, as a reminder to myself of what I learned and as an invitation to others to share what they’ve learned along the way.

Last week, I sent a resignation letter and left a community of faith that had nurtured me for many long years.

No, I didn’t leave my church. I left an online discussion group where I had been moderator for close to a decade.

I stumbled into the Episcopal Church Yahoo Group at a time when I was only just beginning to discern a call to ordained vocation. The discussions were lively, often passionate, always challenging. There were posts that made me furious, and posts that made me want to cheer out loud. Participating forced me to to think beyond cliche, beyond “everybody knows,” to struggle to articulate my faith clearly and with serious attention to Scripture and Tradition. It was a challenge from this community that helped me to think deeply about sacramental theology and my sense of call to sacramental ministry; that helped me see more completely what it means to say that it takes the *whole* world to understand the whole Gospel; it nurtured my ability to respect viewpoints very different from my own.

But all things change. Online communities are always fluid, and in the last couple years that I served as moderator, many of the people that I had wrestled with and argued with went on to other communities. New people, full of insight and curiosity, did not come. This week, after a couple of posts full of distortions and rage that would have once triggered fierce and passionate debate, I realized that I was sitting in the pews largely alone. The handful of souls left were just as tired as I was of the same old debates, and too sick of the fight to bother engaging with it again. We went through the motions, but the fire had gone out.

Still, I hesitated. I feel great affection and respect for the few solitary souls who remain, hoping to provide a refuge for discussion there. And I take seriously St. Benedict’s instruction that wherever you find yourself, “do not easily leave.” But then I realized that I was doing exactly what so many churches do -- I was clinging to the structure long after what had made it a place of God’s grace and love had left the building. The community had moved on: it was time to use my gifts to nurture a new one elsewhere.

But before I move on, a few reflections on what I learned about community from my years as a moderator:

First, true community is often uncomfortable. It requires patience with the misguided, the lost, the angry, and even the destructive. It requires engagement again and again with people that you may not like and have no reason to value, at least at first. It generally does not transform them into lovable people, but when we allow God’s grace to work through community, it does help transform us into people who can love them anyway.

Second, politeness is not the same as being Christian. Politeness is important for providing space for mutual respect to grow and flourish, but it can also become a cover for uncivil and intolerant behavior that wounds members of the community. You cannot build community without *mutual* respect, and disdain and rejection from one side makes true community impossible, no matter how polite you are. What’s more, that disdain and rejection will poison whatever community has already been built. Imagine being in a room with an angry, disrespectful person holding forth about who God does not love. Imagine everyone in the room looking at the floor, the ceiling, anything but each other, embarrassed by the rant and isolated from each other. As long as that person is allowed to rant and hold the floor, community cannot form -- and the people in the room will one by one slip away.

Third, true community is richest when you do not try to limit it to the like-minded. It was our disagreements at Episcopal Church that allowed us to get to know one another more deeply than surface sentiments, that led us to appreciate the difficult and sometimes strange paths that had led us to our conclusions. We might not agree with those conclusions, but we learned to respect and honor the faith and strength that had allowed each of us to reach those conclusions.

Building a community replete with passionate disagreement requires the entire community be willing to hold each other accountable for our words and the impact of our claims. Without a wider community to demand such accountability, a single angry voice can dominate the conversation, and what should be a rich dialog becomes an exhausting and fruitless struggle to counter a strident voice. I think Jesus knew this, which is why he was so often cutting and even harsh with the Pharisees, who were accustomed to being the dominant voices. Christian leadership is forgiving, inclusive, gentle and welcoming, but not willing to sacrifice the community for the ego of a single member. When a single voice excludes by word or deed some members of the community, the whole community is damaged. It’s not easy to find the right balance between welcome and protecting the community, but it’s necessary to keep looking for it -- and it is most likely to be found when the entire community constantly engages in the search together.

What would you add? What have you learned from being part of Christian communities that do this well, and ones that don’t? What are you praying for in the community where you abide right now?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Waiting in the Wilderness

I know there are people who like winter, but I am not one of them. And as far as I am concerned, there is nothing worse than winter in March.

I’m not fond of the frigid cold of January or February either, you understand. In fact, November, December, January, February, March and sometimes April are all some of my least-favorite months in New England. But March is my least-favorite of my least-favorite months. It’s cold, it’s wet, and just to make it more fun, Daylight Savings Time arrives and snatches away whatever hope I had when in the last days of February when the sun finally began to rise before my alarm went off at 6 a.m. And that’s even before we get to the mud.

March is the wilderness of the year here in New England. The snow that was pretty and fun at the beginning of winter is now grey and annoying, blanketing the landscape and turning it into a barren wasteland. The skies are frequently grey, too, and while temperatures are warmer than they were a month ago, they often have a damp edge that makes the cold reach right down into your bones. March is when it feels like winter will last forever.

I thought about all this last Monday morning, as I walked the dog on a chilly, grey day with snow once again in the forecast, and thought about last Sunday’s Gospel, in which Jesus is driven into the wilderness after his baptism and tempted by Satan. Lent’s 40 days (not counting 6 Sundays) are modeled on the 40 days that Jesus spends in the wilderness. And while I imagine the wet and cold of a New England March is a far cry from the hot, dry wilderness of the Holy Land, I suspect they feel equally empty of life. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that a good chunk of Lent always falls in March.

Forty days is a long time, and even longer when your surroundings offer very little encouragement. I keep thinking about Jesus waiting in the wilderness for something to happen, particularly after the amazing experience of his baptism. And when it does, it’s Satan come to tempt him -- like snow and bitter cold blowing in after a tantalizingly brief March warm-up.

Was Jesus discouraged? Matthew’s gospel doesn’t say. He turns aside the temptations of Satan calmly and without apparent hesitation. Jesus stays true to the God who called him in baptism. He keeps on keeping on. And then, suddenly, the angels turn up and start ministering to him.

It’s actually a pretty good metaphor for the life of faith. There are times when we are aware of God’s presence with every breath, when we can see the Holy Spirit descending on us and feel God’s love and approval with an intensity that takes our breath away. But there are other times when God can seem very far away, when the winter goes on and on. It’s hard to believe God’s silence will ever end.

But spring always does come, eventually. We can trust in that, at least. We may not be able to *believe* it, precisely, but we can trust it. And so it is with God. Even in the midst of the wilderness, our task is simply to keep on keeping on. We don’t have to work at believing, at having faith. We just have to wait, stubbornly, because there’s nothing else to be done. Because we can trust that God will eventually bring new life out of the emptiness, even if we aren’t entirely able to believe it.

A couple days ago, the snow in my yard finally began to melt. For the first time since December, I could see the ground under the weeping cherry tree. And there were two green shoots with a little white blossom. The snowdrops are blooming.

Winter really is going to end.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ash Wednesday

A couple months ago, I suddenly realized that I am older than Jesus. Christian tradition teaches that Jesus was about 30 when he began his ministry, which means he was somewhere around 33 when he was crucified. At 44, I’ve got more than a decade on Jesus, which means that my children may be right when they say that I am “older than God.”

Of course, 44 hardly means I have one foot in the grave, whatever my kids think. Since Americans are living longer and I have two great-aunts who lived to be 99, I may not even realistically be middle-aged. Still, I’m also very aware that I no longer qualify as an up-and-comer. When magazines publish lists of people who are going to change the world, they choose “30 under 30” or maybe occasionally “40 under 40,” but once you get past those milestones, you’re assumed to be either prominent in your field or… well, not going to be.

Jesus would have made a list like that, I’m sure. And there was a time when I might have too -- at least in the jewelry industry where I worked. In the first six years of my career, I was promoted every year or two, going from editorial assistant to associate publisher by the time I was 27. It was heady stuff. I started working on an MBA, and began eyeing the corner office. I loved my job.

And then I left it. I got pregnant, and after much soul-searching, I decided at 29 to stay at home with my newborn son and launch a freelance writing career instead.

At the time, I didn’t think I was giving up my ambition. If anything, I figured I was delaying my trip to the corner office by a couple years. But now, 15 years later, when some of the people I graduated with are being promoted to prominent positions, I find myself on a very different path.

Sometimes I wonder what I’d be doing if I hadn’t quit my job. Maybe I’d be CEO of some non-profit in Washington or New York -- I think that’s what I would have pursued if I hadn’t gone to seminary instead. And some days, I regret the life I gave up. I can’t help but wonder if I’m wasting the gifts God gave me. I wonder if on the day I was baptized, God was hoping that by this stage of my life, I’d be bringing together international organizations for a major new initiative on Haiti, or leading the charge against gun violence as head of a national association, or something equally important.

But when I look back, I’m also astounded at the ways each step in the path prepared me for what I am doing today. I’m amazed at the way each opportunity led me to develop gifts that I use daily as a parish priest, even though most of them never appear on priestly lists of essential skills. I feel gratitude for what I learned, and the ways in which I use all that knowledge and all those gifts in my current ministry. When I was 27, I would never have imagined that managing a magazine was excellent preparation for being a priest -- but every time I draw on what I learned from that experience in my ministry at St. Mark’s, I realize that I am, indeed, using all the gifts God has given me.

And then I also think, maybe God had plenty of candidates for the kinds of jobs that land you on the cover of TIME. God is a generous giver, after all, and the gifts needed to bring together international organizations to solve big problems do seem to be surprisingly abundant -- witness all those lists of talented young professionals. And surely, God has every bit as much need for the ministries we do without fanfare or fame, the gifts we use in small but important ways. Maybe God didn’t need me to change the whole world; maybe my gifts were always intended to be used simply to make my corner of it a more compassionate, more loving place. Maybe that’s not a small thing after all. And maybe the contentment I feel in living into that calling is a sign of having listened to God’s voice.

On Ash Wednesday, we kneel to receive ashes with the words, “Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” It’s a reminder of our mortality, and an invitation to reflect on the ways we have fallen short of God’s gifts in our lives. But falling short is not the same thing as unfulfilled ambition. The question to ask is really, “How am I using my gifts in God’s service -- or failing to?” not, “Have I achieved what God wanted me to achieve?” Because on the day of our deaths, what will matter is how we have loved and served God and how we lived generously into the use of our gifts, not whether or not our obituaries appear in the New York Times. By that measure, perhaps I am living up to my potential.