samedi, août 07, 2010

Sowing the wind

The three of us have just taken off our lifejackets after a wonderful few hours on the Weber River.

Fabulous guide, great stories (can you believe a tourist really asked "at what altitude does a deer become an elk?") and the sight of my son floating alongside the raft have produced a mood of blissful relaxation. Looking at the canyons above, I am amazed by the natural forces that created beauty that inspires such awe in humans.

Walking over to the Explorer my friend has rented, I decide to check my email. And my jaw drops as I scan the diocesan email telling congregants and clergy that the ecclesiastical appeals court has reversed the judgement of a lower one against Bishop Charles Bennison.

Not because the case against him was incorrect -- he did indeed act, they argue, in a way unbecoming a member of the clergy by covering up the sexual abuse of his brother.

But because, dear friends, the statute of limitations ran out.

The Bishop says the case ought not to have been brought. I say, it should have been brought decades ago.

But this issue is much bigger than our Bishop, previously and now my boss.

It is a judgment on a church whose leaders, like so many Roman Catholic bishops, ignored the abuse going on right under their behatted skulls. What did Bishop Borsch know? What of other bishops now gone? Why did they protect the brothers, Charles and John -- because the Bennison's father was a colleague?

The bitter fruits of that bigger cover-up are evident now. A bishop tainted by a court judgment, but free on what is basically a technicality. A Standing Committee that did all they could to unseat him, using whatever weapon lay nearby. A Presiding Bishop and ecclesiastical court that now look weak and perhaps even inept.

What would have happened if twenty years ago the men who ran the church would have put justice above self-interest? What of the men and women ruling it now? Where are the models for charity, or humility, or integrity?

Sow the wind...and reap...a judgment.

I hop into the car. You aren't going to believe this, I tell my friend, also an Episcopalian. And she doesn't.

mardi, août 03, 2010

Deadline for the mainline? Commentary from Lancaster

What does it feel like to be a church pastor in a denomination struggling with shrinking membership and roiled by internecine arguments over social issues?
Having served in an Episcopal evangelical congregation in which the debate over gay ordinations and blessings was often right there on the front burner, I am aware of the stress such arguments can exact.
But to get another perspective, this time from an urban pastor in the Lancaster area, I turned to Steve Verkouw, senior pastor at Lancaster's Grace Lutheran Church, 517 N. Queen St.
For the past fifteen years, Verkouw has both observed and participated in the changes that have affected both his northern corner of the city and his denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Verkouw certainly doesn't give the impression that he is depressed by the challenges of an inner city-pastorate in a mainline church -- in fact, Grace Church has grown slightly over the past few years.
But he is clear that where once the congregation could take its city leadership position for granted, thanks to immigration and ranks of the faithful fueled by procreation, now it must chart a very different course, maintaining a Lutheran identity but reaching out in new ways that meet the needs of its neighbors.
Founded in 1874 as a daughter congregation of the colonial-era Holy Trinity Lutheran, the church once stood in a growing neighborhood bounded by farmland and dirt roads. Thanks in large part to the energetic work of long-term pastor Charles Elvin Haupt and a surging immigrant population of Lutherans, the church "flourished as its members took advantage of American opportunities," he said.
Over the first part of the 20th century, both church and Sunday school attendance grew.
Then the demographic changes which transformed cities around America began to affect Grace Church. White members left the city for the suburbs and the area around the church became one of rental units and apartments.
Many mainline congregations in urban areas haven't been able to survive this transition.
A solidly middle-class congregation with pockets of affluence and poverty, Grace was able to remain vital, however, because many loyal members continued to commute into the city to worship.
Having spent six years working in the Rust Belt in northwest Pennsylvania, Verkouw was no stranger to wrestling with the problems faced by urban pastors ministering in evolving neighborhoods.
The first thing he and congregational leaders did, he said, was to try to "build bridges from congregation to neighborhood, and see if people would walk across and become part of the church's life," he said. New afterschool, childcare, community meal and housing programs were begun to reach the various ethnic and cultural groups living near its doors.
In the meantime, Grace chose to maintain and deepen the eucharistically-centered, traditional style of worship, letting rock bands and Christian contemporary music largely pass it by.
Yet "if you built it, they won't necessarily come," found Verkouw. It was then, he began to reflect, that maybe the congregational culture itself needed to change.
Worrying about whether the congregation would die wasn't helpful for evangelism or for the church, he reflected.
Instead, he began to wonder what Grace Church would look like if it modeled a revitalized faith that allows the Holy Spirit to move -- without trying to engineer it.
The church had already renovated the worship area and narthex. Should it add a more deliberate small group structure? Is the church called by God to reflect the neighborhood and work to respect the differences within it?
These are the kind of practical and theological questions Verkouw and his leadership team are asking. In the meantime, like the roll of thunder overhead, he knows that the decision by the denomination to open ordination to gay clergy in monogamous relationships will affect his congregation (though no congregation is mandated to hire gay clergy).
"My contention is that this should not be a church-dividing, because ... it will take time to sense what this really means," said Verkouw. Surveying partisans on both sides, he said "it's always a test of diversity to see how much intolerance you can tolerate."
Meanwhile, the pastor seems thoughtful but not too anxious about the challenges facing the congregation locally or denominationally. His dream for Grace Church is that people will come, not because they were necessarily born Lutherans but because there is something "irresistible, winsome, and deep enough about the Christian message to sustain their interest," he added.
"I'm an optimist -- part of the cycle in a long-term pastorate is inevitable conflict. "
While many clergy do burn out, he said, "my approach is not to be one of those statistics."

dimanche, août 01, 2010

One big happy family

I'm probably going to be writing about our family reunion now and then for months to come.

There were so many angles, so much tradition and richness and history that came together in a Glenmoore yard with the heat ebbing from the day, that I haven't really even begun to process it.

And, I can hear one of my multiple historian cousins say to me, who is to say that your point of view is accurate?

So let me say it before anybody else -- my perpective might not be that of the other 55 or so participants.

But boy, it was a bonnie affair.

I had convened the clan for reasons that relate directly to my own place on the family tree. With the exception of my sister, my family of origin is dead. I have always had warm feelings for all of my cousins, even the ones who were family memories from childhood. But as time went by, I have more and more felt the lack of an extended family.

My mother, and before that my grandmother were previous clan gatherers -- my great aunt Jennie the original Jackson family historiographer.

Knowing that all of these wonderful folks were out there -- and that there was no Hatfield-McCoy blood feud keeping us in enemy camps -- it seemed crystal clear that we needed a place and a time, and the reason would be evident.

Send out a casual email, and they would arrive, after multiple twists and turns, in pastoral Glenmoore. The invitation seemed easy -- and I figured the details would eventually spool themselves out.

And so, indeed, they did arrive, from Oregon and Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and Truro, Massachusetts, Maine, and Birmingham, Alabama.

We were gifted with a wonderful group of octogenarians, and one amazing nonogenarian. Seeing her hold court at breakfast this morning was a reminder of the blessing of good genes.

And then there were the children, teenagers, and young adults -- the "Facebook" friends who communicate via texting, messaging, and gaming. They eventually drifted off to discover each other.

We know we were Jacksons. And that we were proud to claim our heritage. But we hadn't had the chance to do it together. And, tout suite, we have a network, ties that bind -- a family for the twenty-first century.

And I am so grateful. Amazed. And awed.

Thankful, also, that the dead skunk, and vulture didn't reveal themselves on the back lawn until this morning.