Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Horizontal and Vertical

From the October, 2016 WORD of Saint Timothy's Episcopal Church
“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” I Corinthians 12:27

The then-director of music Filippa Duke gave me a clear warning before services on my first Sunday morning at Saint Timothy’s .  “It will be the longest peace you’ve ever seen.”  She was right, of course.

The five to seven (and sometimes ten?) minutes of warm greetings in the middle of the Sunday Eucharist certainly is a notable feature of your life here.  It’s wonderful to see someone back after an extended illness being warmly welcomed, and children chatting with people older than their grandparents.  When the peace is passed here, people embrace across lines of race, class, and political conviction that keep us apart so starkly in our wider society. 

It’s still not my favorite thing about your common life (and I breathed a sigh of relief when told it wouldn’t be nearly as long at my next parish), but I’ve come to see that there’s something deeply important about it. 

You live in a place where community doesn’t happen naturally.  The two places where I have served as rector before were both small towns.  Many people were related to each other and had similar life experiences.  They all went to the same schools.  They worked together, and crossed paths almost daily in the grocery store and the post office.  Churches in places like these don’t have to worry so much about building relationships, because they happen as a matter of course.

But you live in one of the most diverse counties in our nation, where people’s crazy work and commuting schedules just don’t allow for the kind of natural socialization patterns of rural communities.  Being in the relationship and community-building business is one of the greatest gifts you have to share with the world at your doorstep. Your broad and low-slung worship space with its uniquely shaped Altar aims to reinforce this.   I can see you working hard to do this in the way you pass the peace, but also in the Shrine Mont weekend, in the way you come together for workdays and fellowship activities, in the activity of the pastoral care team. 

And authentic fellowship is something the world needs right now.  I read David Brooks’ most recent column yesterday, a lament on the fraying of our nation’s social fabric.  Thin digital socialization, an increasingly privatized aging process, a lack of connections between people of different ages, Brooks says, is leaving us with scores of people “radiating the residual sadness of the lonely heart.”

Your focus on meaningful relationships between people responds to that “residual sadness” with an invitation to be connected, to share in friendship and spiritual concern.  I will value what you have taught me about this, and will take these lessons into my next call, serving in a context that faces some of these same challenges.

At the same time, churches that focus heavily on building fellowship—the horizontal dimension, we might call it, can sometimes lose track of their deeper, transcendent purposes.  When I have tried to talk with some of you about your particular vocation as a congregation, the passage from I Corinthians 12 I began with has come up more than once.  You are proud of being a body of many different kinds of members, where there is deep mutual concern. 

But in that passage, Saint Paul is also focusing on how the church unlike any other human community because it is Christ’s body.  By Christ, as one of the Morning Prayer collects says, “the whole body is governed and sanctified.”  His Spirit binds us together more than human friendships, and our true closest encounter with each other is not shaking hands at the peace, but kneeling before Him and receiving His Body and Blood, feeding together on our common source of life.

My most serious concern in the weeks after Father Brad left was how little talk I was hearing among you about religious matters.  There was good deal of focus on church bureaucratic process, issues of justice in the community, relationships between parishioners that were working out well or poorly.  But in those anxious days, I did not hear the name of Jesus spoken very often.  There were no appeals to prayer.  Frankly, it troubled me deeply.

Since then, responding to what I believed to be God’s call, I have focused much of my work as your interim in trying to help you understand the transcendent elements of the life we share in Christ—the vertical dimension, so to speak.  I have deliberately celebrated the liturgy in a way that draws attention to its solemn character.  I have tried to preach with conviction about the truth and relevance of the Gospel as expressed in the Church’s Creeds and imparted in her Sacraments.  We have expanded our adult formation programs so that more of us can share in studying the Bible, and through daily prayer services and Busy Person’s Retreats, we have emphasized that communion with God should empower all else we aim to do for Him.

I’ve not always managed to strike the proper balance in this, and I think my intentions have not always been understood as clearly as I hoped they would be.  But I have also delighted in so many important conversations opened up in these classes, and in those of you who have joined me in the prayers and have sought guidance in matters of the soul.  I do feel that you are in a healthier place as a congregation because you come to a deeper awareness that God’s grace strengthens you and God’s will is your highest purpose.

I will hold you in my prayers as you continue your search for a new rector, and I will always remain thankful for what you have taught me.  I hope you will continue to grow, in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of church life, as a people who love God and each other deeply for many generations to come.

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