How to Make a Deacon in 30 Months

Allow me a brief rant: it takes way too long to make a deacon. Usually five years. Five years for a vocation that pays nothing to the deacon but the grace and joy of service to others. The current program in TEC is over-planned, over-stuffed, and onerous both financially and domestically (i.o.w., it’s hard on the family members).

Here’s what I mean: a person who wants to be a deacon usually spends a year in discernment, which includes interviews with the Bishop, a discernment committee that meets 7 times with the applicant, a couple of interviews with the Commission on Ministry, application docs, spiritual bio, personal bio, criminal background check, financial background check, psychological exam, physical exam, and a few other things I can hardly remember. This take about a year.

Then, if you get the green light, the applicant spends 3 years in education, usually one intensive weekend a month for 36 months straight, with lots of reading and writing to be done along the way. Often, the training is centrally located in the state and some out-state members have to stay overnight.

Then, if you get the next green light, you spend a year at a parish not your own where you do your Field Work and your Project (think transitional O.J.T. and a special major project instead of G.O.E.s). Also during this time, the applicant/postulant must do Unit One of CPE somewhere, which means you may have to quite your job or work at a part-time job somewhere if you are accepted to a CPE program.

If it all goes well without a hiccup, you get ordained at the end of Year Five. For me it was close to six, it cost me about $14,000, and it put a burden on my spouse as well as me. And remember, this is not a career, it’s a non-stipendiary vocation.

I’ve now been a deacon for about two and a half years, and I think the reason why we only have a little over a dozen active deacons in the diocese is because the education/formation program is too long and daunting. That, and few people are being asked if they’ve ever considered being a deacon. I have some suggestions to remedy the situation.

The Powers That Be, in their honest efforts to make deacons prepared for their vocations, have way over-planned the program, and modeled it after the education/formation of a priest. We aren’t priests. We have a different vocation that demands a different formation program. The demand for deacons in most dioceses is extreme. Extreme times demand extreme measures, so here is my Streamlined Process for the Creation of Deacons. We can make deacons in 30 months, not five years. Here’s how.

1. Design discernment process to be 6 months long.
A. Committee addresses single question: is this person deacon material?
B. Three meetings with discernment committee.
C. Background/Psychological remains the same.

2. ESM-type education two years long.
A. Courses are 6-8 weeks long, meets weekly, Saturday only. 3-4 weeks off after every course. Quarterly, a 3-day weekend retreat. ESM courses held at various parish locations in diocese to make it available to all.
B. After YR 1, license to preach & made postulant.
C. YR 2, much the same as YR 1. Upon graduation, ordained.

…AFTER ORDINATION…

3. 12-month mentorship program, post ordination.
A. Works at a parish with a senior deacon.
B. Completes deacon-designed CPE course, not a regular CPE unit.
C. Deacon is assigned diocesan ministry and creates portfolio-of-plans for said ministry: purpose, mission statement, steps with deadlines, resources required, etc.

4. Deacon assigned to new parish/ministry at end of 12 months.

This program will maintain the programs and education that I have found important to my formation as a deacon and streamline the others that were either superfluous or over-wrought. This way, a person who is considering becoming a deacon will look at a program that will select and train them well, but not take half a decade to complete.

Once they make it through the discernment process, they have two year to ordination, not another four. Once they are ordained, they will have a mentorship program to further train them with real, on-the-job advice. That additional year of training is retained from the former program, but in the vocational setting appropriate to the vocation of a deacon.

Is this perfect? No, it’s not. But, from my perspective, it’s better than the process we have now. I treasure my time in formation as a deacon, but it could have been better, and if it looked a lot like the program I sketched above, I might not have waited until I was near retirement to become a deacon. I might have started back in my 30’s instead of my 50’s. What would a diocese look like with a bunch of 30-something deacons? Personally, I think it would be life-changing for the church.

 

 

 

 

 

On Mother’s Day, Medicine, and Wood Chippers

Many years ago, my son had a bad asthma attack. It was so bad we took him to the ER of Children’s Hospital about 1:00 in the morning.

We had never been to Children’s ER before.  We went through the double doors which led straight into the huge waiting room where we were greeted by a surprising crush of humanity. 

It was 1:00 o’clock on a Wednesday morning in July and there must have been over 100 people crammed into the waiting room.

They were sweaty, loud, smelly, children crying, arguing….all I could think of when I saw the room was that this must be the first circle of hell.

We made our way to the front desk, explained to the Unit Manager why we were there, and she asked us, “Any insurance?”

My wife “C” handed her our insurance card, she took one look at it, and said, “Could you follow me, please?”, motioning us to a door on her left.

The Unit Manager took us down a lone hallway and into another waiting room that was an exact replica of the one we just left except this room was completely empty. 

She brought us to a private exam room where an ER nurse gave my son oxygen and an IV in less than a minute.  In 5 minutes he was breathing normally and asleep.

I could tell something was bothering C by her puzzled look, and she finally asked, “May I ask where we are?  Is this a special ward for asthmatics?”

The nurse smiled and said, “No, ma’am, this is our ward for people with insurance.”

Despite our gratitude for the care our son received, the “mother” in C was bothered for days by what she experienced.  It’s been over 20 years now and it still bothers her. 

Just down the hall was an entire mob of mother who were just as concerned about their children’s health as she was, but because we were fortunate to have a little insurance card, our son was getting 1st World healthcare, while those mothers could only get their children 3rd World medical care.

Imagine the pain of a mother who knows that, try as she may, the best she can get for her son or daughter is 3rd world medical care.  In the richest nation in history, it’s not right. Not at all.

We celebrate Mother’s Day today because of the heart mothers have for their children.  Those hearts have nurtured children and save lives for millennia.  We see their love for their children by the way they live their lives and sacrifice so much for them.  We don’t need any more proof of their love for their children than how they their lives.

We hear how complicated healthcare is here in the US, and we hear lots of debates about why some mother sit in Lobby #1 while others sit in Lobby #2.  Jesus had something to say about “complicated arguments” in today’s Gospel, John 14: 1-14.

The apostles had all kinds of questions and thoughts about a complicated God…who was God, what was God like…and they kept nagging Jesus about it in the Gospels:  “Just show us the Father,” they said in today’s passage.  “That’s all we ask.” 

Jesus replied, “Guys, guys, guys…stop it…you’re making this way too complicated.  Remember what you’ve seen with your own eyes over the last couple of years?  Haven’t you been with me all this time?  Remember the miracles?  You’re making this way too complicated…

“Look: God and I are one.  You see me, you see God.  You hear me, you hear God.  It’s so simple you’re missing it and it’s right in front of you.  Do you want to know God?  Get to know me!”

That’s the way of people, though…we make things complicated when things are simple.  We deny the reality of nature right in front of us.  We don’t believe our own eyes. 

Like a very wise woman told me once, “Things aren’t complicated; they’re simple.”

Want to know about healthcare in our country?  Take a walk through Lobby #1 and then through Lobby #2.  You will learn a lot.  Sit with a mother who can only access 3rd World medical care for her son or daughter and listen to her.  You will hear all you need to know to realize something is desperately wrong in our nation about healthcare. 

This day is not easy for many people today.  We are celebrating a day to honor mothers and some people don’t have pleasant emotions about today.  Some people are not mothers and don’t want to be…other people are not mothers but want to be, but aren’t or can’t…other people grieve deeply on this day for many, many reasons.  Your pain makes me sad and I am sorry for your pain on this day.

I also have high hopes for our society, and my hopes are high because of the mothers among us.  Moms are not real patient when it comes to the welfare of their children.  Think of Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the Anti-bullying initiatives.  You mess with their children and you are about to walk into a wood chipper.  I sincerely believe that mothers will save our healthcare just like women will be the ones who will save our churches.

After all, it was women who first realized Jesus had risen from the dead when they went to his grave to care for his remains.  The apostles were still back in the upper room wringing their hands and wondering what to do next.  The women knew what to do: take care of business that is right in front of you.  They took care of Jesus.  They see things for what they truly are by looking at them with their own eyes.

That’s why I believe women will save civilization.  We just need to get out of their way and help them WHEN asked and AS asked.

This is based on a sermon given by me at St. John’s-Tower Grove on Mother’s Day, 2017.

A Church Without Privilege

It is both a tragedy and a grace to be a Christian in the age of Trump.

A tragedy because 81% of people who identify as an evangelical voted for a man who is anathema to the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is a tragedy that so many souls have mistaken white supremacy and nationalism for the Good News of the Savior.

It is also a grace that the rest of us can finally discard, once and for all, the idea that the Way of Jesus has anything to do with modern evangelicalism as practiced in the USA.

We are now free. The nature of the Christian community can reveal its true, original self as a community of faith without privilege, status, or dominion. Privilege, status, and dominion are the stuff of empire, not Christ.

We are liberated from the need to support greed, hate, fear, violence, and bigotry. To cooperate with the ways of empire is to be guilty of same. We can now speak truth to power, full-throated, no longer afraid of upsetting someone. We can no longer afford to “be nice”; we should not “be nice” while the least among us, Jesus’ brothers and sisters, stand at the precipice of empire’s nihilism, ready for the final nudge.

It will not be an easy existance for us. This new Confessing Church, this Church Without Privilege, will lose members, lose positions, lose buildings, lose money, lose many things. Things we have come to expect and depend upon. Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it from his prison cell in Nazi Germany…

“It is inifintely easier to suffer in obedience to a human command than to accept suffering as free, responsible people. It is infinitely easier to suffer with one another than it is to suffer apart and in ignominy. . It is infinitely easier to suffer a public death than it is to endure spiritual suffering. Christ suffered as a free person alone, apart and in ignominy, in body and in spirit, and since that day many Christians have suffered with him.”

But it is worth it all if we live truly for Christ and The Way, not live for empire. And we must live it openly, boldly, and without apology. The only privilege we enjoy must be the privilege of the salvation that comes from living and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, truly and fully.

Slow Reading

I have a small bookshelf for a night stand. There I keep a handful of books that are my favorites and that I read over and over. I am very much a proponent of slow reading.

They are books that I read ever so slowly while lying in bed at night. Sometimes just a page or two before it falls out of my hand and bops me on the nose as I drift off to sleep. Then it gets put away until tomorrow night and the lamp is snapped off.

I liken this slow reading to sipping a cup of coffee on the deck, savoring the taste and the moment. Or letting a slice of Swiss chocolate melt on my tongue as I eat it. There is something special going on here and we should be in the moment, being present to it, being mindful.

Some people strive for quantity in their reading, wolfing down one to two books a week, like they are gulping their coffee on the run or chomping down their chocolate in two bites. It’s almost as if they see reading as competition, racing to the finish line.

I do understand that, for many people, reading is a form of pure entertainment, like television. C likes mysteries and is a voracious reader of murder stories. She calls them her “brain candy”. But I believe much can be said for taking it slowly and allowing the writer to speak to us as broadly and deeply as she can. I have often found myself getting emotional not only by what an author has said, but by the way she has said it. I don’t often catch those sorts of things if I am jogging past them, turning the pages and cruising along.

Also, re-reading brings great rewards as well. Hamlet was very sympathetic when I was 18, but he got on my nerves by the time I was 38; by age 50, I found him sympathetic again, but for different reasons than when I was 18.

When I read a book I’ve purchased, I initial the title page in the corner and include the month/year I read it so I can keep track of my chronology of reading that particular work. I think about the last time I read it, what I may have thought about it then and what new discoveries I find in my latest reading. I have some books that I have read some dozen times or more over the past 30 to 40 years. It is surprising that to me how mediocre some of my once favorite books are today, or how good other formerly so-so books have become.

I have found myself going over passages that are particularly moving or thought-provoking to me. I will linger on a page or ponder over a passage, wondering why it has affected me so or left me breathless with its brilliance. Only slow reading allows me to experience it.

Carlyle said that the best university is a collection of good books. (He did not say a lot of books, just good books.) Teddy Roosevelt said that Lincoln, one our greatest presidents, only knew one book truly well, but Lincoln had the good sense to make that one book the Bible. (I would add Shakespeare to Lincoln’s library of well-understood literature, though.) Carlyle and Lincoln could be called slow readers in my estimation, and they were the better for it.

Lately, I’ve been doing that which I once thought inconceivable – I am getting rid of many of my other books.

In downsizing our life here at Windy Hill, C and I are jettisoning many of our possessions. Of the many things that we have hoarded over the years, books are at the top of the list. Boxes of books are stacked in closets and in corners of the spare bedrooms. As we open these boxes and realize that we have not missed these books in some time, let alone read them, we have been asking ourselves, “Why do we keep these?” At one time, the answer was simple: because they are books! Books are held in high esteem in our household. and sit at the top of our possession hierarchy – the aristocracy of personal possessions.

But today? I literally hold much of the world’s literature in my pocket with my cell phone, accessible by the browser. I also have an e-reader which is capable of holding 1500 volumes. And that double volume of Shelly’s Complete Works I found at the bottom of a box? Can I finally admit that they have sat in the closet for ten years, that I can access Shelly for free any time I want to on my phone, and…well, I really don’t care much for Shelly anyway?

So, along with dozens and dozens of other books squirreled away in the house, they are off to Goodwill or the Book Fair. My little collection on my shelf nightstand is sacrosanct, though. They stay. They will continue to be read.  Slowly.

The Holy Family as Refugees

Outside our church, hanging from the railing of the steps, is a large banner that says “Immigrants and Refugees Welcomed”. In the corner of the banner is an illustration of the Holy Family based on classic paintings of that tableau: Joseph leading a donkey that carries Mary and the Christ child.

It is a banner that is to remind us that the immigrants and refugees of modern society are nothing less than the Holy Family itself that we study and honor at this unique period in our lectionary, and they are all welcomed at our church.

2,000 years ago, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were indeed refugees, no less than the people we see today on the evening news. We cannot forget that just last Wednesday we honored a feast day on our church calendar called The Slaughter of the Innocents, in which we remember and lament over all the newborn children under the age of two that Herod had slaughtered in order to kill the child prophesied to take his place on the throne. We don’t find that event mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, but rather in the 2nd chapter of Matthew.

2,000 years ago, soldiers killed children by the sword. Today they use barrel-bombs.

If you doubt the comparison of the Holy Family to that of modern refugees, then consider the definition of refugees according to the United Nations that says, “A refugee is someone who is forced to flee his or her home country because of persecution, war, or violence.” …which is precisely what Mary and Joseph were doing – they were fleeing a death-sentence by an autocratic dictator.

It must have been a terrible, traumatic event for them. They probably were two people who had not traveled any further than a couple of hours walk from their homes. The roads back then were patrolled by roving gangs of bandits that preyed on defenseless travelers regularly. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan, about a traveler waylaid on the open road by bandits.

This is the kind of trip Mary and Joseph had to make with their newborn. Most scholars pose that they probably joined a larger caravan heading to Egypt, which fits the narrative of the day. After all, it is 200 miles of rough country from Bethlehem to Egypt, not a journey for a young family of three to make alone. Historically, Egypt was a haven for Jews during the 40 year reign of Herod, for he was an oppressive and violent ruler who brooked no dissent, so many Jews of Jesus’ day made their way to Egypt to seek asylum. An escape to Egypt made complete sense for the Holy Family.

Tradition says that the Holy Family made it as far as Cairo. There is still a church and shrine on the outskirts of Cairo today dedicated to the Holy Family’s supposed residence there. Imagine coming to the Temple for the naming day of your child, like we just read this morning, and just a few days or weeks later, forced to flee your native land in order to save your child’s life. I can barely fathom it.

Yet, the parallels to today’s refugee and immigrant crisis is obvious. People all over the world are in the middle of a great, global migration as they flee persecution, war, and violence. Syria, Sudan, Latin America, the list seems endless sometimes.

We Christians should be able to see the Holy Family in the faces of the dispossessed and suffering. A Quaker friend of mine once said, “If you can’t find God in the face of the very next person you meet, where DO you expect to find God?” We could say today, “If we can’t find the Holy Family in the plight of the refugee, where DO we expect to find the Holy Family?”

We Christians have always seen ourselves as a pilgrim church, for indeed we were described as such by Jesus himself. He says in Luke 9:58 “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” He also goes on to teach that no one is above his or her Master.

The message that the apostles and disciples heard over the centuries were obvious to them all: We are all passing through this life, just like Jesus, and it is not our actual home. Our real home is elsewhere, in God’s Kingdom in heaven.

But… in a serious way, we are also all refugees in this world. Yes, we are supposed to be a pilgrim people of a pilgrim church, on an endless journey to heaven. But equally we are refugees, fleeing our homeland for our very lives, fleeing the persecution of conformity to this world and its values, fleeing the war waged against our souls with greed and avarice and dominion, fleeing the violence perpetrated on our very existence because we live, move, and have our being differently than what is expected by modern, secular society. Our lives can be one, long, endless flight to an Egypt we cannot find.

But then… there comes a day in our journey when we find a place of asylum and we finally can come to know and claim our true names, names known by the very angels themselves before we were born, like Jesus; that we find the asylum of Egypt for each and every one of our lives and come to know ourselves, and each other, for the children of God that we are.

On this, the first day of the New Year, I pray that this community, St. John’s, with its welcome banner hung outside our banister, can be your safe harbor, your Egypt, your new homeland, safe from the Herods of life.

I pray that we will always be a place where you have a human name and not a title or classification or an insult; where you will be called by the name given to you by God, like Jesus was given his.

I pray that we all are humble shepherds to one another in this place and in this time, no matter what storm clouds may be gathering on the horizon, ready to carry the word that “Christ is among us” to the rest of our Bethlehem. Amen.

(A sermon given by me on Jan. 1, 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church-Tower Grove.)

If You Keep Doing What You Do…

Old maxim: “If you keep doing what you do, you going to keep getting what you get.”

A number of people think that, because our church membership numbers are shrinking, that religion in the US is dying.  We read reports from top-flight research organizations like PRRI, who recently said:

“By the end of the 1990s, 14% of the public claimed no religious affiliation. The rate of religious change accelerated further during the late 2000s and early 2010s, reaching 20% by 2012. Today [2016], one-quarter (25%) of Americans claim no formal religious identity, making this group the single largest ‘religious group’ in the U.S.”*

So, the percentage of unaffiliated in the US rose 11% over the last 20 years or so, from 14% to 25%.  That seems to be a lot.  But…

…if we dig into the numbers, the general population of the US rose by 22% during the same time-frame, twice as fast as the 11% rise of the unaffiliated people number.  That means that the pool of people in the US who are most likely to affiliate with a religion is larger today than, say, 1996. (1996: 228M, 2016: 243M)

So, if our churches are struggling with decreasing numbers, it’s not because there are fewer and fewer people today who believe; there’s actually more today than in the golden past.   It must be because we are doing something wrong to attract and retain them.  After all, they’re out there.  It’s just that they aren’t in here!

I find this good news, actually.  There is this “Eureka!” moment when many of us finally gain an insight into a thorny issue and understand it better.  Better understanding of a problem means we are closer to a solution to the problem.  And maybe things are not as bad as we think.

Despite the reality of a growing number of people who no longer believe, it is also a reality that there is a growing number of people who do believe.  The percentages are shifting a bit, but people of faith are not disappearing.  They just aren’t showing up in the pews like they used to.

One thing that comes to mind is the notion that pew-sitting may not be as popular as it once was – or convenient.

Perhaps the Sunday-morning-worship, everybody-in-the-pew model of parish life is neither attractive nor compatible with 21st century western life.  Lots of people work on Sunday, or it might be the one morning per week that they get to sleep-in, for we all are exhausted from the 50-hour work weeks we now live.

Perhaps, now that we know that there are more believing people today than in the past generation, we need to look at how we “do church”, and get creative with how we gather as a faith community and preach/teach the Way of Jesus for a 21st century society.  We don’t need to abandon the traditional model of parish, but rather expand our definition of “parish”.

Do we have a home-church movement in our denomination, where people can meet for liturgy and fellowship in an intimate home setting on a Tuesday night?  Or meet at a private dining room of a restaurant on Thursdays? Or at the Elk’s Club?  Or a picnic table at the park?  Or even at the church sanctuary itself, but on a Wednesday?

Do our sermons and lessons talk about income insecurity, or bigotry, or domestic abuse, or depression, or the frenetic pace of life, and how God is intimately concerned about all these matters, and why God’s concern actually can matter to us? 

Do we sometimes forget that many of our sacred parables and lessons often sound childish unless properly explored and taught?  If we do not know our stories and understand them as 21st century adults, how can we know what it means to be a disciple?  Disciple to what? And to who? And why?

If we keep doing what we do, we are going to keep getting what we get, and I know that a lot of my colleagues are not happy with their Average Sunday Attendance.  How about we start changing things up a bit?  Let’s try some different ways to meet, different ways to worship, and different ways to relate…and let’s see what happens.  We don’t need to study this to death.  Study time is over.  It’s now time to act.

*”Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion”, P.R.R.I, Sept. 9, 2016

A Mission to Missouri?

I have an unusual proposal to make to my church.  I wonder if it isn’t time for a home mission initiative to rural Missouri.

As a church, we travel to far-away places to be the church for others and to learn from them. This is all good and in keeping with The Great Commission.

With the recent election, though, it’s become glaringly obvious that there are people in our diocese we don’t know or understand. They live in a world that is separated from many of us, and what they understand to be The Way of Jesus looks and sounds very different than what we hear from the pulpits in our parishes.

I wonder if it’s time for a “domestic missions initiative”; planting settlement houses and community farms and homes churches throughout Missouri?  Maybe even the whole country?

Why is this important? I think we can find the answer in the recent meeting between the bishops of the A.C. and the R.C.C. They made a public statement confessing their mutual neglect of women, children, and indigenous people of the human race. They announced that the care of the oppressed and neglected is at the core of the Gospel message and way of life.

It is increasingly apparent that those very people, as well as p.o.c. and lgbtq persons, are under threat like no other time in recent memory. Add to this the economic neglect and marginalization of poor white folk, and we have a witch’s brew of sorrow and rage in our diocese and our nation. This cries out for the redemptive message of Jesus, and we need to bring it to rural life like it hasn’t been in quite a while.

The religious and culture vacuum in the rural areas is being filled with something other than the Gospel of Jesus, wrapped up in Christian lingo and Christian window dressing.  It’s small, mean, narrow, and compassionless, infused with a tremendous amount of rage.

Back in November of 2015, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said:

God came among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to show us the Way.  He came to show us the Way to life, the Way to love.  He came to show us the Way beyond what often can be the nightmares of our own devisings and into the dream of God’s intending.  That’s why when Jesus called his first followers he did it with the simple words “Follow me.”  “Follow me,” he said, “and I will make you fish for people.”

I wonder if what we are seeing in our nation today is due, in large part, to our selective fishing for people.  Are we fishing for rural people like we fish for urban and suburban people?  Because of our abandonment of our rural brothers and sisters, are we now reaping the whirlwind of another message, a message of hate and fury?  If we hope to create a church of love, compassion, and reconciliation, do we not first go to the abandoned places of empire and seek out the lost and the lonely?

We should be there, and be there in a serious way.  We need to plant faith communities and base camps that reach out to the abandoned and the left-behind and fulfill the Great Commission.  Jesuits did it with their reductions in the Americas, Anglicans did it with their settlement houses in the English speaking world…there is great precedent for such a mission.  We have a department in the national office called “New Church Starts and Missional Initiatives”.  We have the Jubilee Ministries for support.  There is also the Episcopal Service Corps.

Perhaps it’s time we go where the rural lost are found and go fishing.