How to Save Rural Parishes in Three Easy Steps

At this time, 25% of the parishes in my diocese are without a priest, and 40% of the parishes in the diocese cannot afford a full-time priest.  Nearly all of the rural parishes of my diocese fall into both of these categories. Most of the rural parishes of TEC are in the same boat, and are on the verge of collapse.  Very soon we will be, for all intents and purposes, an urban church. What do we do?  

It is past time for radical action, and I pose three steps we can take as a church to prevent their collapse.  They are as follows:

  1. Create ministry teams of priest-deacons-laity to serve and manage clusters of parishes.
  2. Raise up at least one deacon per parish to serve on the ministry team.
  3. Institute deacon-led Sunday services in the absence of the priest, including Eucharist.

Imagine a diocese that identifies a three-parish cluster in the rural section of the diocese. Individually, they cannot support a priest; together they could support one priest to serve all three parishes. Of course, the priest could not reasonably serve all three parishes by herself. However, if each parish were to raise up a deacon – a non-stipendiary, trained, ordained clergy-person – then all three parishes could have a formal liturgy each Sunday: one led by the priest, the other two by the deacons, all on a rotating basis.  

The deacon would be a part-time clergy person permanently on site at his or her parish to lend stability to the community, who is supervised by the priest.  The laity runs and manages their facilities and any neighborhood ministry they may operate, with the involvement of the deacons.

The key to this model is raising up a deacon for each parish, preferably from the parish community itself.  Raising up a deacon is quicker and far less costly than raising up a priest, and with a 50-year history of deacons in TEC, the order has an established track record of success in ministry.  It also would be easier to recruit a priest to oversee a ministry team whose soul focus is the pastoral and liturgical care of the parish cluster. If the priest knew that she is not alone in her job, but has three clergy colleagues to assist her in her vocation, she would be more willing to apply for the job. The facilities management of the parish – physical plant, budgeting, finance, et al – would be the soul responsibility of the vestry.  

With the 1979 Prayer Book, celebrating the Eucharist every Sunday became normative in TEC.  This has made liturgy “priest-centric”, and painted us into a corner regarding our options on how we staff parishes and celebrate liturgy.  Prior to 1979, we has a 192 year history of celebrating Morning Prayer Service on a Sunday, rotating with a monthly Eucharistic celebration.  Re-instituting Morning Prayer Service, led by a deacon, is in keeping with our history and tradition. What’s more, inaugurating a Sunday Morning Prayer Service with Eucharist – a blend of Morning Prayer with distribution of previously consecrated elements of the Eucharist – would satisfy the standard set over the last 40 years regarding Eucharist, but allow the deacon to distribute Eucharist in the absence of a priest.

As with the ministry team model of staffing a parish, this concept is already in place in some diocese and operating successfully.  Deacons conduct full Sunday services with music and sermons, and in some cases distribute Eucharist consecrated by a priest upon her last visit. However, it is not seen as normative, which is the problem. It is only seen as a stop-gap measure until the problem of a shrinking priesthood is resolved.  A shortage of priests, though, is not the problem; the inability to attract a priest to a rural setting and pay them a full wage is the problem, and one that simply is not going to go away.

The radical aspect of the three step solution is to make it normative, not a temporary, stop-gap measure.  All rural and small town parishes would have at least one deacon on site, under the direction of a priest. The priest would divide her time between the cluster parishes as she saw fit while the deacon would be the part-time clergy on site, lending stability and local pastoral care.  The congregation would enjoy consistency, stability, and be assured of a future, while the priest would enjoy a fully compensated position as “cluster rector” without the stress of trying to run three parishes at once by herself. This model of ministry team segues nicely with the concept of the “free range priest”, as conceived and practiced by the Rev. Catherine A. Caimano (see freerangepriest.org). 

This model requires a shift in the attitudes of some clergy who may be uncomfortable with the model, as it may strike them as a violation of their boundaries by deacons and laity.  But, frankly, no one has come up with any other workable ideas. The alternative to doing nothing is to allow the rural parishes to die, and tell our rural brothers and sisters to commute to a new parish or go seek a new church.  We cannot sacrifice them to our notions about the role of a priest in the life of the church. We need new wine skins for new wine.

 

When Terror Comes To Church

It is 9:00 a.m. and I am sitting in Courtroom #43 deep in a fortress called St.Louis County Courthouse. I am sitting in the gallery on one side of the rail, and a collection of people in prison jumpsuits and handcuffs sit on the other side of the rail. Big, burly police officers in dark blazers stand guard. I am here attending the bond hearing for one of the people on the other side of the rail. His name is Eddie.

Eddie is here because of his threat to commit mass murder during PrideFest, and this same Eddie visited my parish church 48 hours before his arrest. I am here to try and keep Eddie in jail.

Last Sunday morning, Eddie appeared at the door of our church, joining us for worship. A friendly fellow, he chatted with parishioners and stayed for Coffee Hour. He told some of us he was trans and looking for a LGBTQ+-welcoming church – our pride lawn flag and our reputation drew him in, he said.

He asked a lot of questions about any LGBTQ+ group there – when did it meet, were there any members there now and might he meet them – and he even signed up to help at our booth at PrideFest.

On Wednesday, our office got an anonymous phone call, informing us that Eddie had been arrested for making terrorist threats: he had sent an email to the PrideFest organizers a week or so previously, promising to murder as many gay people as he could before killing himself. PrideFest contacted the FBI, and the FBI, working with County Police, traced the email back to Eddie’ cell phone.

Eddie is a registered sex offender with a 20 year history of violence, arrests, and convictions. Up until his arrest, he was out on parole.

Sitting here in the gallery, I spot Eddie at the defendant’s table, huddling with his attorney. Forty-eight hours ago, he was sitting in our pews, drinking our coffee, receiving the Eucharist from Rev. Amy’s hands. And I ponder: “Was he scoping us out as a potential target for a mass shooting? Were we going to be his Orlando, or his Charleston?”

I think about all the members of StJ who I know and love – the men, women, children, infants – and how a complete stranger would come into our faith home to perpetrate the most vicious, evil act imaginable…that this tiny community of Jesus-lovers, who welcome all of God’s people, would be the target of mass murder because we welcome all of God’s people.

How does Amy+, or Mary the Sr. Warden,or I share this news with the community? How do we tell them that, for one Sunday morning, a demon of death wandered among us? How could this news not be traumatizing to the life of the parish?

The prosecuting attorney spots me and informs me that Eddie’s hearing is rescheduled for next month. Until then, he stays in jail. Due to his parole violations, the nature of his charges, and his threat to the general community, the prosecutor is confident Eddie will not step outside of jail for years. I will return next month for the hearing anyway.

It’s Pride Month, and many people think that the violence directed at the LGBTQ+ community is a thing of the past, but it is not. They and their family and friends have as much to fear today as ever. Do not be fooled – there are many other Eddies out there. And do not be fooled that following the Way of Jesus no longer poses a risk like it once did – I can assure you it most certainly does, too.

The Trinity, Father’s Day, and Other Big Stuff

Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers in the congregation*. Father’s Day is a special day for many of us, with gifts and BBQ’s and such…but it is also a bit like Mother’s Day, in that it can be a difficult day for others.

Some of us may have a difficult relationship with our father…or some fathers may have difficult relationships with their sons and daughters…so this day may be happy for some, but hard for others. Like Mother’s Day, it can be filled with emotional land mines buried across the hours of this day.

I hope that today is a good celebration for those celebrating, and for others who are not enjoying this day, I hope you can try and carry it lightly…just for today. Just for today, set it aside and do something you would normally do on a Sunday afternoon, and let it be. Don’t dwell on today too much…just for today.

Today is also a day that we celebrate a special day in the church. We celebrate a lot of days in the church calendar, like Christmas, Easter, Pentecost…those are celebrations of events in our history, like the birth of Jesus, the Resurrection, the Coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church…

Today it’s a bit different. Today we do not celebrate an event, but rather a doctrine: an idea of how we understand God and make it a statement of what we believe. Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday.

The Trinity describes how Christians understand God. To be perfectly plain about it, the Trinity is one God in three personalities: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…One in Three, and Three found in One…Some people like to describe it as Parent-Child-Spirit, to free God from gender identity, which I think is a good idea.

The word trinity comes from the Latin “tri”, three, and “unitas”, unity. So trinity is understood to be “three-fold unity” as God’s nature. Clear as mud, right?

At this point, a lot of people say something like, “Ok, stop-stop…I get it: 3 in 1, 1 in 3. You’re over-explaining.  So what? Why is this important?”

Well, it was Big Stuff in the early church, and it’s Big Stuff today for much the same reasons.

Judaism was one of the first monotheistic religions in human history: the belief in God being a single, supreme deity. Up till then, most were polytheistic, believing in multiple gods, like the Greek or Roman deities.

Judaism understands God as the One Supreme Creator God…it’s a major defining characteristic of Judaism, our spiritual parents, and it is summed up in one of their basic prayers call The Shema. It is about 3 paragraphs long, but starts with the declaration: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Anything that even seemed to contradict this statement was a heresy and a sin in the Jewish world of the first century.

So, you can imagine the problems they had when this upstart rabbi Jesus and his disciples went about saying, “Jesus and God are One.” And then further when they started talking about this Holy Spirit entity, quoting Jesus in today’s Gospel, “When the Spirit of truth comes, it will guide you into all truth for it will not speak on its own, but will speak what it hears…it will take what is mine [Jesus, Son of God] and declare it to you.”

This kind of talk made a lot of monotheists set their hair on fire, and it became a big issue and stumbling block in the Jewish community relative to their Jesus-following brothers and sisters. So it was Big Stuff back in the first century.

But why is it Big Stuff today? That’s a good question.

It’s a good question, because we need to always “Start With Why” in our walk of faith. Always start with the why of things. Not what, or how, but why.

Everything we do as Christians is based on our belief that God exists – God is real, God exists, and is our Supreme Creator.

Everything we do as Christians is based on our belief that Jesus is God’s Own Child, and is co-equal with God.

Everything we do as Christians is based on our belief that God and Jesus are living with us presently in the existence of The Spirit, and still talks and leads us to this very hour.

These three statements is the why of how we live, move, and have our being. It’s sorta like our Shema.

The way we live our lives shows our belief in how we recognize and worship God, follow the teachings and examples of Jesus, and listen together for the voice of the Spirit among us…because in all three ways we are worshiping-following-listening to God’s Own Self.

This explains why we worship the way we do, with beauty, and grace, and creativity.

This explains why we live the way we do, trying our best to imitate the life of Jesus.

This explains why we study Scripture, pray, come together in fellowship and listen to one another with respect, listening to the voice of our Comforter and Advocate, the Holy Spirit, among us. In all ways, we recognize the three-fold presence of God.

We can tell people about all the cool things we do and the gracious activities we support, but we should always start with WHY when we talk about our life as Christians, even our life here at St. John’s. The question WHY lies at the very heart of human nature, and answering the question WHY answers the deepest longing of each and every person.

This is why the idea of the trinity has a place of honor among us – it is how we see and understand God, and it affects everything we do. That is Big Stuff. Amen.

*Sermon at St. John’s-Tower Grove, June 16, 2019

On Doubting Thomas

Sermon April 28, 2019, John 20:19-31

Today’s Gospel reading deals with several things important to our faith, but I can’t help that it reminds me of a letter I received from my sister several years ago.

Along with her letter was a photo of my paternal grandfather, John Kevin McGrane. It was the only known photo of my grandfather to exist, who died when my father was barely two years old. As my father was born in 1916, the photo of granddad was nearly 100 years old.

My sister said in her letter, “No one is left living who personally remembers granddad, so I had copies of this photo made so at least we’d know what he looked like.” She sent copies to me and my two brothers.

I realized that what she wrote was true – anyone in the family who personally knew my granddad was long dead….uncles, aunts, old cousins…that generation was all gone. No one alive had a living memory of grandad; we just knew a bit about him from some of the stories passed down through three generations.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was common happenstance in life. As time goes one and we pass on, we begin to fade in the common memory of the rest of us left behind until we disappear into the Great Cloud of Witnesses that stretches across the Kingdom of God like the Milky Way stretches across the night sky. Individually – eventually – we all become unseen.

Jesus knew that. And his encounter with Thomas in today’s Gospel passage addresses this very issue in our life of faith.

We tend to believe that which we can see, touch, and hear for ourselves, but we are often skeptical of that which we do not personally experience.

We can accept the reality of the fantastic if we personally experience it, but we don’t accept the fantastic if told to us by others who experienced or witnessed it…like, for example, the resurrection of Jesus.

We often are like Thomas who, when his friends say “you’re never going to believe what we just saw,” we reply like Thomas, “You’re right. I’m never going to believe that.”

And so, like my granddad, without even a photo to verify his existence, Jesus could have faded from living personal memory and disappear into the Great Cloud…unless we worked to keep his memory alive.

Jesus, in this brief lesson today, describes in a nutshell the singular challenge of the Christian faith: a life of believing without seeing, without personally experiencing, without placing our own fingers of the wounds of Jesus.

Thomas had the opportunity to experience the miraculous in a vivid, personal way, retold in a story that has lasted for 2000 years of re-telling and still speaks to us today: blessed are those who have not seen, and still believe.

Not everyone does, of course. We all probably know friends and relatives who haven’t seen, so they don’t believe. It’s natural and understandable. We should never criticize them for it, because it is very human, and none of us know where someone else is going to end up in their path of life. Remember the two friends on the Road to Emmaus, discussing the recent events of the life and execution of Jesus: they were on a road expecting to go to Emmaus, yet they ended up at a very different place before that story is over.

Jesus teaches in today’s Gospel story that you may want to experience Jesus personally like hands-on-Thomas, but that probably isn’t going to happen. There will always be the challenges of life, in which memories fade, photos disappear, and the generations move on.

We place our trust in the stories passed on to us from the Original Witnesses, those who saw and heard first-hand the Messiah and, as it says in the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer, “…they were written by the people of the New Covenant, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to set forth the life and teachings of Jesus and proclaim the Good News…”

As the famous Anglican bishop Cranmer himself taught, we are to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest all our stories, in order to embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of eternal life.

Just like faith is not always requiring an explanation, faith is also trust and belief in things unseen. Like the American poet and sage Emerson once said, “All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.”

Our efforts to keep the memory and teachings of Jesus alive seem to have worked, so far. After all, we cannot deny the fact that there are more Christians walking the face of the earth today than ever before – 2B of us at last count.

Why? It’s because we ourselves here on earth, in this time and this space, are witnessing to others about the life and teachings of Jesus, just like the generations that came before us witnessed in their time and their space, so that all may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and that through believing, we may have life in his name. Happy Easter!

What’s So Special About Patrick?

St. Patrick’s Day comes this Sunday, and many people think he is strictly a Roman Catholic saint.  It may surprise people to learn that he is also on our Calendar of Saints in the Anglican Communion, as well as the Orthodox Church.  Despite that, many may ask, “What’s up with all this celebration about St. Patrick?  Who was he and why is he so important? I’m not Irish.”

Well, he’s gone through a bit of a revival among many Christians recently not because he was Irish (which he wasn’t) but because of what he did and how he did it.  It has some interesting applications for modern concepts of mission.

I’m going to skip over Patrick’s earlier life, as fascinating as it is, and start right in with his mission to the Ireland.

When Patrick finally decided to go to Ireland on a mission, he was already 48 years old. By the standards of the 5th century, he was already an old man.  

What’s more, he was going to a region of the world that was not an outpost of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire never set foot in Ireland, so Patrick was not going to a Roman colony under the protection of their imperial power. He was going to the end of the world, so to say, and he was on his own.

He also did not come two-by-two, as we see in many mission stories, but he came as an entire village of people.  Patrick brought with him priests, deacons, lay people, husbands and wives and all their kids, postulants to Holy Orders, vowed religious, carpenters, shepherds, farmers, weavers, book binders, masons, the entire circus of humanity.

His idea how to evangelize Ireland was simple: he and his merry band went to Ireland to first become Irish.

First, they would get permission from the local chieftain to set up their monastery next to his village, and if they got permission, they built a monastery that didn’t look anything like a monastery.  

It had no walls or moat or tower, but rather the entire place was wide open to anyone who wandered in. It looked a lot like another village. They were not the siege towers built 400 years later that we see today in pictures about ancient Ireland. Those were built when the Vikings came calling later on in the 9th century.

Anybody in the original Irish village could come visit the newcomers, who were going about the job of learning to be Irish.  They went about the job of learning to speak Irish, learn Irish ways, Irish history, Irish spirituality…Patrick, who had earlier in his life spent six years as a captured slave of  the Irish, realized that in order to speak to the Irish heart, mind, and soul, his own people first had to have an Irish heart, mind, and soul. Only then could they effectively impart the teachings of Jesus to the Irish.

The missioners didn’t bring with them a sense of culture superiority, condescending patriarchy, or an elitist savior-complex. They came there first to listen, to learn, and understand. They came in order to love the people they came to.

They also realized early on that the Way of Jesus was not something that simply could be taught to the Irish, but rather it was going to be caught by the Irish.  By living in an open village where the Irish could experience people who lived according to the Way of Jesus, they came to see there was a better way to live rather than practicing slavery and the Druid practice of the occasional human sacrifice.

In other words, Patrick and his fellow missioners did not convert people by the way of the sword, or by tent revivals, or big crusade rallies, or by open debates, but by the human persuasion of modeling a Christian life. They were not mere visitors coming to save the unwashed, but rather they came to become the very people who they came to, and to love them.  

This kind of mission is not fast; it took Patrick and his spiritual descendants decades to convert Ireland. But it is a way that is peaceful, respectful, humane, and ultimately successful.

Once people know you are one of them, and that you love them, they will listen to you.  Many things no longer need be said with words. It’s already been said by how you have conducted your life.   

It doesn’t matter how old you are.  Patrick was considered past his prime, and many of his associates were in their teens.

It doesn’t matter if you are lay or ordained.  Patrick brought everyone with him.

It doesn’t matter if you are male or female, Jew or Greek, white or black, gay or straight, rich or poor, none of that matters.  

What matters is that you arrive, you stay, you listen, you model the Way of Jesus, and that you love.  Don’t build walls and moats. Build open villages and welcome people in. The fancy term for this is a Ministry of Presence, and it’s what fascinates scholars of mission and evangelism about Patrick today, the very people who hope to re-evangelize our neighborhoods and communities.

Patrick was mimicking the Way of Jesus. Jesus lived, work, and worshiped with a small group of followers. They regularly took time to pray, both together and individually. They talked about the big issues – creating the Kingdom of God and the role of religion in daily life – and they did so while they were out in the world helping the poor, the weak, and the marginalized. They lived simply, and they relied on God to lead them and provide for them. They exercised radical hospitality, and found many opportunities to eat and drink and be with those who were outcasts and marginalized. They held each other up, learned from each other, and grew together as God used them to transform the world.

If there was ever a mission statement for a faith community, I hope it could be something like that.  The way of Patrick was very much the way of Jesus, and that is why we celebrate him today.

When Your Tribe Is No Longer Your Tribe

I remember when I realized I was no longer a member of my tribe.

I was born and raised in an ethnic-based church, which occupied an ethnic-based nationality, and it formed my entire world. It permeated every nook and cranny of my life, and comprised my entire identity. There was no such thing as an identity crisis in my world. If asked, any one of us would tell you we were X and Y. Period. End of story.

Then, one day, my church announced that it had a say over the kind of birth control Spouse and I could use, and anything other than their approved method was wrong. They believed they could control the size of our family, even our conjugal relations. Spouse and I thought they had over-reached their authority and ignored them. We heard later on that they considered any dissent a sin and dissenters were living outside of the acceptable bounds of fellowship with the tribe and God.

That was the beginning of the end.

As time went on, the teachings and doctrines of my old church became tighter and tighter to the point that Spouse and I no longer felt at home there and we became very frustrated. We got tired of being angry all the while we sat in the pews, and there finally came a day when we no longer wanted to live an angry life. So we left.

It is a surreal experience when you come to realize your tribe is no longer your tribe. Unless you are a psychologically strong person, it can be quite disorienting – who am I now? How do I live, move, and have my being now? You feel quite unmoored, even a bit frightened. And very sad.

I relive all this as I think about the UMC and their decision to reject their LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters. The LGBTQ+ folks are no longer a part of their own tribe, but, unlike me who grew alienated from my tribe and left, their tribe publicly voted them anathema to the tribe and virtually threw them out. That’s a level of pain and cruelty I cannot fathom.

I am deeply sad for the LGBTQ+ folks of the UMC, and deeply sad for all other LGBTQ+ folks who are wounded by this extraordinary decision. I will pray for all of them affected by this tragedy – both the perpetrators and the victims – and hope that the LGBTQ+ people so hurt by this come to learn the great secret I discovered some time ago about no longer being a member of your tribe: eventually, it’s liberating!

The Good News of Blessings and Woes

Sermon: Luke 6: 17-26, St. John’s-Tower Grove

CS Lewis was the author of the Chronicles of Narnia, as well as a stack of other popular literary works, both fiction and non-fiction. He’s also famous for sprinkling succinct, pithy statements throughout his work that just ring true and stays with you. One of his more famous quotes comes to mind after reading today’s Gospel passage of Blessings and Woes. Lewis said:

“If you want a religion to make you feel comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

There are few more demanding lessons from Jesus that better confirm Lewis’s statement than today’s passage of Blessings and Woes. Maybe it can be trumped by Jesus’ statement “deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me”, but not many are more challenging than the passage today.

Yes, there are wonderful words of comfort in the Blessings, no doubt about it…but the second part of the passage, the Woes, were enough to cause major heartburn to a number of people who first heard these words 2,000 years ago.

When Jesus gave this sermon, he was speaking to the Jewish people in 1st century Palestine, and we need to remember the circumstances they were all living under at that time. They were all chafing under the Roman occupation, experiencing a loss of self-government, as well as a crushing taxation imposed by Rome, with the wealth of their nation going to the empire, not back to their nation.

Historians have concluded that Palestine was experiencing a long-term economic depression due to this policy, and most of the people were living from hand to mouth. The few people who were well-connected to the Roman empire were living very well, enjoying the fruits of empire at the expense of their fellow citizens. This was the environment Jesus was speaking to.

Do these circumstances sound familiar?

We have state-wide resolutions to reform state government passed by popular vote, yet the legislature tries to do end-runs around them. Real income for the lower 75% of us hasn’t risen in over 40 years…most people don’t have enough savings to last past a 60 day emergency. Yet, only 26 people in our country own as much wealth as the lower 50% of us. That’s the wealth of 167M people.

Just like first century Palestine, we too have issues today with self-determination, wealth and poverty, even violence.

Jesus brought comfort and hope to the marginalized of his times, and a warning to the comfortable. Let’s not forget that many of the leadership of the Jewish people also attended his gatherings in the countryside. We read in other passages that priests, scribes, and Temple officials often debated with him from the crowd…or they came and actually listened with sympathetic interest, hearing the prophetic voice calling them to their better selves.

CS Lewis rightly points out that the words of Jesus can cause as much comfort and heartburn today as they did back then. If we have some problem relating to how people might have reacted back in 1st century Palestine to what we read today, let’s try to see how we might react if we paraphrase the Blessings and Woes.

“Blessed are you who haven’t seen a real rise in income in 40 years/ for yours is the Kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you who have no idea how you are going to feed your family tomorrow morning when they get out of bed and look for breakfast/ for you will be satisfied.

“Blessed are you who weep now, because your family could not accept you for the person God made you and you have been exiled to loneliness and isolation/ for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you because people hate you for your race or your gender identity or your legal status or your poor health or your poverty or that sexual assault you went public with, and when they exclude you and reject your name as evil….remember: that is how their fathers treated the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich by stealing the labor of others and hoarding that wealth/ for you have already received your comfort.

“Woe to you who are well fed now and blame the hungry for their lot and pass laws that make it illegal to give someone a sandwich on a street-corner/ for you will go hungry.

“Woe to you who laugh now and mock the handicapped and the mentally challenged and the refugee fleeing persecution and the single mother trying to find a decent life for her children/ for you will mourn and weep.

“Woe to you when people speak well of you/ for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.”

This is probably how they heard it in first century Palestine. It may surprise us to consider that both the Blessings and Woe are Good News. That the people who need comfort are receiving comfort in the promises of Jesus for he loves them…and the people who are clueless as to what they are perpetrating are learning insight from Jesus and he is giving them the opportunity to repent – which means to “change your mind” and reform your life. Only someone who loves us would give us the opportunity to change, rather than simply closing the door on us and never dealing with us again. Prophecy is often Good News, too. It may hurt, but it’s still Good News.

The famous magician and comedian, Penn Gillette of the team Penn & Teller, is an atheist who has some interesting insight about prophecy. He says, “I don’t believe in God, but I want Christians to tell me about their Jesus and try to convert me. I like it. That tells me that they actually like me and care about me. I mean, what kind of person is it who truly believes that they have the key to eternal bliss and salvation and they do not share it with others? What kind of monster is that?”

Blessings and Woes are both Good News. We may not recognize them as Good News at first glance, but they are, thanks be to God. We should remember what Lewis says about all this, “If you want a religion to make you feel comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” But please know that we Christians do recommend it for wisdom, for comfort, for hope, for joy, for salvation, and to help establish the Kingdom of God.

Hunger Will Not Wait

Starting next month, 38,000,000 Americans will lose their SNAP benefits, and these millions of people, looking for food, will end up at the front door of churches like mine. We can’t help them.

I and my many colleagues who focus on food and hunger ministries across the US already feed millions of the poor and hungry every day. Despite government programs such as WIC and SNAP, tens of millions of people go unserved or underserved daily, and food ministries, both church-based and secular, try to fill the gaps. None of these ministries are flush with money, and barely cover their current expenses.

We cannot handle the needs of an additional 38,000,000 people. They will go hungry if the government food programs are suspended.

On behalf of the hungry, I ask that we all contact our government representatives and ask them to fund the food programs while the shutdown continues. The poor can’t “manage”, as the president has said: they will start to starve, starting on Feb. 1. We need to call our reps now. Today. Hunger cannot, will not, wait.

Separate and Distinct: a Reframe of the Diaconate.

I recently read a comment in an internet chat between deacons, where one of my colleagues in another diocese was complaining about her relationship with her rector. She said in passing, “…after all, aren’t we supposed to be a full and equal order?” The comment made me cringe. I’ve never liked the phrase “full and equal”. It got me thinking about how we need to retire the phrase, and replace it with something like “separate and distinct”.

The phrase “full and equal order” to describe the diaconate has always struck me as problematic. It smacks of an adversarial relationship between the priesthood and the diaconate – a relationship that is neither true nor necessary – and it stems from a sense of inferiority about the diaconate as ordained clergy.

“Full and equal” is a linguistic justification of the diaconate, not an explanation of the diaconate, and creates an understanding of the diaconate that starts from a very poor place, both for the diaconate and the priesthood.

Historically, the creation of “full and equal” is understandable. When the permanent diaconate was revived in the 1970’s, there were many who questioned the necessity of the order. Was it not simply a clerical glorification of active lay people? What would a deacon do that an active lay person doesn’t do already? The debate motivated the book, “A Full and Equal Order,” in 1981, by James M. Barnett, who wished to address the raison d’etre of the diaconate. The book, a thorough exploration and justification of the order, answered the questions surrounding the revival of the order, and it is still one of the foundational books read and studied in deacon schools of ministry.

That was 37 years ago. Today, most of the generation that questioned the need for the order is gone, and among the various denominations that ordain/set-apart people for the diaconate, the number of deacons runs into the tens of thousands. Seldom do bishops or canons hear the question, “Why do we need a deacon?” from a priest or senior warden anymore; rather, they hear “When do we get a deacon?” Though I honor Barnett’s work in helping establish the diaconate in the minds of the church, it is now time to lay aside the phrase “full and equal” and all the baggage it brings with it.

“Separate and distinct” is a phrase that far better suits the times and I suggest we adopt it. It eliminates the adversarial language inherent in “full and equal”, as well as the sense of inferiority it creates. “Separate and distinct” still juxtaposes the diaconate to the priesthood, but it naturally leads to explanations of the diaconate, not justification, and compliments the two orders instead of opposing them.

“Separate” addresses the point that deacons are not priests at all, but an order that is different in vows and nature. As people are most familiar with the priesthood and have some ideas of what a priest does, it is a natural place to start an explanation of the diaconate. We can say, “We’re different, and this is how.” We need not start from a point of justification, but rather explanation.

“Distinct” addresses those very vows and directives that distinguish the diaconate from the priesthood. We are similar in some aspects of vocation – we both preach, teach, pray, lead – but a priest’s focus is on parish community and sacrament – they are pastors of the parish community – while a deacon’s focus is on outreach, service, and supporting the pastor’s directives.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has a succinct way to describe the difference between their priesthood and their diaconate: “Word and Sacrament” for the priesthood, “Word and Service” for the diaconate. There are overlapping duties regarding preaching and teaching Scripture, but the priest focuses on the practice of sacraments while the deacon focuses on the practice of service. It is not a definitive explanation, but when you are asked in the middle of a noisy coffee hour after Sunday services to answer the question “What’s the difference between a priest and a deacon?”, it is something anyone can hear and easily understand.

The benefits of the phrase “separate and distinct” are obvious to me. It is a better explanation of our identity and role, it eliminates the issues of justification, it eliminates the sense of inferiority, and all the adversity inherent in the expression “full and equal”. I think it is time to move on from the phrase “full and equal” and recognize the phrase “separate and distinct” instead. It will serve us better.

The Deacon as Wise Fool

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The Deacon as Wise Fool
A Pastoral Persona for the Diaconate
By Kevin J. McGrane
Published in The Anglican Theological Review,
Vol. 100, #4, Nov. 2018

Deacons often sit with the hurt and marginalized. It is in keeping with our ordination vows as deacons in the Episcopal Church, which says, “God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood… You are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.”1

Ever task-focused, deacons look for the tangible and concrete things we can do to respond to the needs of the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters (Matt. 25:40). But once the food is served, the money given, the medicine dispensed, then what? The material needs are supplied, but the hurt and the trauma are still very much present. What kind of pastoral care can deacons bring that will respond to the needs of the hurting and traumatized?

I suggest that, if we as deacons are going to be sources of continued pastoral care beyond a simple provider of material needs, we need to look to the pastoral model of the wise fool for guidance. With some exceptions here and there, deacons are uniquely fit to practice the pastoral persona of the wise fool.

The wise fool is a clinical pastoral persona most identified and developed by the pastoral theologians Alastair V. Campbell and Donald Capps. The fool is an archetype in human culture which both Campbell and Capps view as a persona capable of rendering pastoral care. In his essay “The Wise Fool”2, Campbell describes the fool as a “necessary figure” to counterpoint essential human arrogance, pomposity, and despotism: “His unruly behavior questions the limits of order; his ‘crazy’ outspoken talk probes the meaning of ‘common sense’; his unconventional appearance exposes the pride and vanity of those around him; his foolhardy loyalty to a ‘lost’ cause undercuts prudence and self-interest.”3

Building on the concept of the “circus clown” by Heiji Faber a decade earlier, Campbell elevates the unskilled circus clown, running and bumbling among the skilled circus performers, to the shrewd critic and prophet of Shakespeare’s court jester in King Lear, who perceives the folly of others through unfiltered eyes, calling them out with the satire of the double entendre. Campbell codifies the wise fool with three dominant traits, that of simplicity, loyalty, and prophecy.

Simplicity. The wise fool is neither stupid nor a simpleton, but a person without artifice or over-weaned complexity. Some of the best examples of a person with simplicity are found in literature, such as Lear’s court jester mentioned above or Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot. Whereas the court jester mocks the foibles of ego and vanity, Myshkin’s simplicity of manner exposes the insincerities and cynicism of his community. The jester hopes to shame his community back to rightness of living, the prince offers his community a way back to their true selves by modeling his way of life.4

Both fools are able to see through the errors and sins of common existence with their unique reframe of life, a reframe that does not come from education, training, or certification, but a purity of heart. Capps puts it well in his essay, “The Wise Fool Reframed”, when he says: “Wise fools tend to see problems as much less intricate and complicated. Truth is remarkably simple. Errors and falsity are unnecessarily complex.”5

Loyalty. The wise fool’s willingness to disregard self for the benefit of others, even when there is no benefit to the fool, is an enigma to most people. Lear’s fool followed him into total exile and poverty when everyone else had abandoned him. Blind loyalty and love is at the center of Jesus’ death on the cross, and such sacrifice is often found at the heart of his teachings – to deny oneself, take up one’s cross, and follow him, with zero worldly guarantee that what Jesus promised in exchange was anything but delusion. Campbell says of loyalty: “All the fools for Christ’s sake can know is that to be true to themselves they must try to be loyal to Christ, and that must mean putting love and service to others first in line.”6

Prophecy. The more engaging, robust aspect of the fool is that of prophet. Not a prophet that foretells, but as a forth-teller – pointing to the signs of the times and proclaiming divine revelation about them. As vital as simplicity and loyalty are to the persona of the fool, they are passive in nature. Speaking prophetically, in contrast, is an action that demands the attention of friend and foe alike. The fool as prophet has the audacity to call out her cultural superiors for their mendacity, cruelty, or heartlessness. This requires both courage and faith. The fool as prophet often speaks truth to power, but also truth to apathy, or truth to inertia. Speaking from the margins of society, the fool sometimes employees drama, or satire, or odd behavior. Campbell says: “The whole point of prophecy is that it does not fit in with the ‘common sense’ assumptions of the day. It cuts cross-grained to earthly powers and authority, announcing God’s judgment upon it.”7

Capps warns us of the dangers of prophecy, that buffoonery and satire can often be heartless itself, a weapon to protect the perpetrator of satire against any genuine human involvement.8 As essential as satire and humor are to the persona of the fool, they cannot be allowed to degenerate to ridicule – ridicule is rooted in humiliation, which is soul-killing. Wise fools are in the business of appealing to the soul, not killing it. Capps shows that to inoculate oneself from this pitfall, the truly wise fool understands that human life is not hopelessly complex or profound, but paradoxical to the core. A wise fool is one who sees the paradox of her own life as clearly as she sees it in others. She speaks not only about her community, but herself as well, sharing in the sting of prophecy.

With this brief description of the wise fool in mind, how does it segue with the vocation of the deacon? I suggest that deacons, by virtue of their formation and clerical parameters of authority, fit the pastoral persona of the wise fool quite well.

Simplicity. Generally, deacons are not educated in seminaries or schools of theology, but rather diocesan schools created specifically for deacons and lay minister, called Episcopal Schools of Ministry (ESM). Graduates from these institutes receive no M.Div., Master’s degree, or CPE certification. Many deacons are well-educated, but not in the same way or depth as a priest. If a deacon receives formal pastoral education at all, it is usually Unit One of a CPE program and that is all. Like Faber’s circus clown persona, we appear to be the unskilled performer among the high-wire acts of the rest of the clergy.

What’s more, a deacon does not bring any ecclesial authority to a pastoral relationship that a priest can bring – deacons do not have any authority, only duty. Whereas a priest possesses the faculties to absolve, bless and consecrate, the deacon has none of these faculties. One time I was asked by a nephew to perform his wedding, and when I informed him that I did not have the authority to perform the ceremony, he blinked in confusion and said, “Well…then what good are you?”

Not only does a deacon lack the faculties of a priest, but we will never be rector or priest in charge, never be a bishop, or never sit on a vestry, by virtue of our ordination vows. Ecclesiastically, we are powerless.

Deacons do bring to the table a lifetime of lived experience, as deacons often commence their vocational careers later in life than most priests, and many of us have degrees and training useful to our ministries. For the most part, though, there is a simplicity in the making of a deacon which personifies the wise fool as the unskilled, amateur volunteer.

Loyalty. A deacon is non-stipendiary in the Episcopal Church – she works for free. As such, there is no financial interest that compels her dedication and loyalty to her duty – only love of God and God’s people. As non-professionals, we have no employment contract, only a Letter of Agreement with the rector that spells out some duties and a weekly schedule. There is no salary, no benefits, no insurance, and no paid time off. The priestly vocation is both a vocation and a profession, as it should be; the deacon’s vocation is vocation only. It is fidelity to the vocation and our vows that motivate us in our work.

As we only have duties – neither authority nor benefits – we see the duties as rewards themselves. In the examination of a candidate for the order of Deacon, it lists our special ministry of servanthood toward the poor, as well as the study of Scripture, modeling a life of redemptive love, assisting in the worship of the community.9 This is pure loyalty, bereft of any self-interest. As the bishop asks the candidate in the liturgy or ordination: “Will you in all things seek not your glory but the glory of the Lord Christ?” 10

Such selflessness is contrary to the value-for-value exchange so honored and sought after in modern society, and it is an enigma to most people.

Prophecy. Of the various duties the deacon carries, one that stands out among the others, one which seems contrary to the humility of the first two, is the duty of prophet. In the Examination of the ordination liturgy, the bishop commands the candidate, “You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.”11

As forth-tellers, deacons speak forth on behalf of the marginalized and voiceless, calling upon the greater church to render love, compassion, and justice on those living in the margins. Deacons speak from a unique position of prophecy, based on their own personal experience living among those who they serve. Our moral imagination, as described by the Rev. Peter J. Gomes 12, allows us to flip the frame described in our vows, requiring that the deacon also bring to the world the needs, concerns, and the hopes of the Church.

A growing segment of society and their representatives regards the poor not as people of pity, or people exploited and abused, but objects of scorn; that their poverty and oppression are their own fault and they are to be punished for it. Two recent statements by U.S. Senators are examples. Sen. Chuck Grassley – Iowa, in speaking about eliminating the estate tax, said, “I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing, as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.” His associate, Sen. Orin Hatch – Utah, said regarding defunding the Children’s Health Insurance Program, “…I believe in helping those who cannot help themselves but would if they could. I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves, won’t lift a finger and expect the federal government to do everything.”13 Such are the attitudes of U.S. senators regarding the less fortunate and sick children; it is indicative of an entire movement in society towards the poor. As the church is one of the few institutions left to see this for the perversion it is, the deacon is to speak forth to the world as much as to the church, calling it out and calling it to its better nature. The deacon, therefore, must always speak prophetically.

By virtue of a deacon’s natural simplicity, loyalty, and prophetic voice, they fit the persona of the wise fool quite well. They are the amateur volunteer with no authority; they are the non-compensated servant who serves out of selfless love; they are those who speak forth from the margins, to disturb, educate, and motivate.

If we were to search for a concrete example of the deacon as the wise fool, we need not look any further than St. Francis of Assisi. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) was the founder of the Friars Minor in 1209, whose brotherhood was approved that same year by Pope Innocent III. Innocent granted the brotherhood authority to preach and wear the tonsure. Francis himself was ordained a deacon sometime thereafter.

The history of Francis fits perfectly with the three hallmarks of the wise fool. He had no formal training as a cleric. His spirituality was self-discovered through prayer and reading of the New Testament; he was without artifice and had a reputation for a pure heart. He was not a paid cleric. Francis embraced what he called Lady Poverty, living by the work of his own hands or by begging alms; his dedication to his vocation was based on love, not careerism. He was granted authority to preach. He became a street preacher and often a critic of his own society; he was one of the first church figures to openly criticize the Crusades; he called upon his community to pacifism; he did all this not from the palace of a cardinal, but from the streets and alleys of the towns and villages, i.e., from the margins.

During his lifetime, he was identified as “God’s Troubadour”, or “God’s Clown”, or “God’s Fool”. His “Admonitions” are filled with the simplicity, humility, and insight of the wise fool, summarized in his famous slogan: “…what a man is before God, that he is and nothing more.”14

Yet, from this persona of God’s fool came rivers of good will and wisdom that have flowed into the world for over eight centuries now. It has called people to repentance, reformation, and reconciliation, as well as simplicity, mercy, peace, and justice.

All this has a direct bearing on how a deacon can bring pastoral care as the wise fool to those he/she serves.

Like Francis, the deacon offers pastoral care not face-to-face like a professional counselor, but side-by-side as the deacon lives and works among the people he/she serves, sharing their lives and modeling the call to our better selves as disciples of Jesus. By our presence and our simple openness, we can be what Capps calls “agents of hope”15 and introduce people to their tomorrows. Like Francis, the deacon does not bring great professional training or expertise to the table, but rather great personal life experience and deep formation from the “school of prayer”. Like Francis, the deacon is without worldly compensation, but is rich in the grace that abounds when hearts with pure intention seek out the hurting and forgotten. Like Francis, the deacon preaches the Gospel and prophesizes to the world, calling them to a better way of life. The deacon not only speaks truth to power from the margins, but also truth to apathy, truth to inertia, and hope to a hurting world. As Capps says: “The simple fool carries no baggage when another seeks help, no technique, no ‘pastoral medicine bag’. When pretense is stripped aside, all we fools have to offer one another is a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything. Few of us manage to be so foolish.”16

Francis could only speak like he did from the powerlessness of the margins, like the wise fool he was – he saw the emptiness of wealth for he had experienced the emptiness of wealth; the folly of war and violence for he had experienced the folly of war and violence; the corruption of power because he had experienced the corruption of power. Francis was no concrete garden statue standing among the rose bushes in the backyard. He was a world-weary wise fool who saw the paradox of life and all the humor therein. Francis laughed at the paradox of life, and cried as often as he laughed.

Deacons would do well to consider and study the pastoral model of the wise fool in the life of their vocation. There is much to learn and use there.

1. The Book of Common Prayer (n.p.: Seabury Press, 1979), 543
2. Alastair V. Campbell, “The Wise Fool,” in Robert C. Dykstra, ed., Images of Pastoral Care (St. Louis, MO.: Chalice Press, 2005), 94.
3. Campbell, “The Wise Fool,” 95
4. Campbell, “The Wise Fool,” 97
5. Donald Capps, “The Wise Fool Reframed,” in Dykstra, Images of Pastoral Care, 115.
6. Capps, “The Wise Fool Reframed,” 100.
7. Campbell, “The Wise Fool,” 102.
8. Capps, “The Wise Fool Reframed,” 119.
9. Book of Common Prayer, 543.
10. Book of Common Prayer, 544.
11. Book of Common Prayer, 543.
12.  Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1996), 86.
13. CNN.com, “Two Quotes from GOP Senators Explain the GOP Tax Bill,” Gregory Kreig, Dec. 4, 2017.
14. Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, Francis and Clare – The Complete Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 33.
15 Donald Capps, “The Agent of Hope,” in Dykstra, Images of Pastoral Care, 188.
16. Campbell, “The Wise Fool,” 105.