Thursday, October 1, 2009

Risking Pain-Filled Humility


It's about 20 weeks after Pentecost, the birthday of the church, but I figure any day is a good day to write about life in relationship to the church's birthday. This story began on Pentecost 2009, back in May...

I heard recently, from a man who pours out his wisdom by the bucket-fulls, “God calls us into the pain of the people – to identify with it and if necessary to take it on. Great leaders are willing to enter into the pain of their people” (John Perkins speaking on 6/4/09 at Duke Summer Institute).

My own sense of Christian leadership is that it hurts to enter into the pain of a people, and it is also a great joy to be a part of the ongoing work of the church. At The Church of the Holy Family, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, we worship in a sort of in-between times. Hopefully, all churches plow and harvest in this season knowing that Jesus has been fully revealed in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and yet, the same churches are mysteriously aware that there is still something left to come. If there were not something else, then I believe pain would not feature so prominently within the fields of our lives. Humility in the face of pain is one area of human farming where the church has featured prominently, because where folks are humble, suffering is sure to be found.

During my time at The Church of the Holy Family as staff, lay member, and now ordained clergy (in another tradition, so still essentially lay in an Episcopal world), I have seen much work in the fields of humility. Some of what I love about Holy Family is that we do not fit neatly into boxes for others or our own descriptive purposes. We look liberal and conservative, orthodox and progressive, and many striations and variations in-between. I feel simultaneously insider and outsider, and over the years I have become less clear about who I am theologically, and spiritually. Such ambiguity may unnerve former professors, mentors, even my own family, yet I suspect that I am not the only baptized member there who thinks Holy Family is dually contributing to his own salvation and failure. I have shared in the failures of other members and the community at-large and seen these failures be to the glory of God. My time at Holy Family appears to be shaping me for confusion, not wanting to live in any one theological, political, or spiritual box. Can we be a people without simplistic answers to difficult questions? That’s a rhetorical question, loaded to the brim, but it has an affirmative answer for me. I no longer seek success, merely faithfulness. Those who yearn for faithfulness over and above success can rest assured their commitment to humility will be tested.

While this tends to contribute to my lack of classical success in jobs as of late, I believe such complexity can be to the glory of God. Others will not agree with me, believing that all should be tidied up where religious and vocational matters are concerned, yet God’s kingdom is rarely so tidy. It is a kingdom told in parables. It is a kingdom told in such statements as “those who are last shall be first” or “blessed are the meek.” Jesus never came pronouncing simplicity. His rule today is filled with a faithful commitment to mystery. Allegiance to mystery leaves more up to God then would make us the most comfortable. It also means that we will succeed on God’s timetable not our own.

One of the ways through last-ness and meek-ness might be to embrace these conditions rather than disdain them. To draw upon Dr. Perkins again, entering into the pain of a people is to first, be last among them, to be the humblest in their midst. To come last in the race will involve pain, humility, even embarrassment. Perhaps the church’s call is to be less triumphal than is typically our M.O. Instead we are to be a people more accepting of conditions of seeming failure. For what seems to be a failure is akin to God’s seeming failure—death on a cross. If we believe that God remains faithful to us, then it is all being worked out. It’s all good.

Though we are reminded that faithfully pronouncing, “it’s all good,” is not without pain. I have seen such digging in the realm of humility and pain at Holy Family. We were mixed on the ordination of a homosexual bishop. We were mixed on the ordination of a female presiding bishop and some are even mixed on the at-large ordination of women. Yet, we stay together. We weather the floods as Episcopalians within a complex Anglican Communion. This lack of shared vision does not always lead to increased tithing, and we deceive ourselves if we sense that giving is down only due to the recession. This parish was led by a rector/pastor so gifted it is almost laughable, yet we are far from meeting our budgetary needs. That tension exemplifies humility. I believe we live faithfully in-between the times primarily through shared food at the altar nearly every time we gather. Further, we practice acts as a weekly commitment to a penitential order including a kneeled prayer including the Ten Commandments. This penitential order has been practiced for eight years, since the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2002. Cases could be made for many other worship commitments that are adhered to by Holy Family and its’ members—foot washing, anointing, etc. Through each of these acts we hurt individually and collectively with one another and the world. My hope is that we enter into this place of pain humbly, and in turn we celebrate joyfully as participants in God’s Kingdom.

The image of fire is the prevelant image at Pentecost thanks to the story from Acts, chapter two. This is an image filled with light, pain, fear, hope, reinvention. It's a mixed bag, paradoxical, like the church.
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