Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Using Our Words

21st Century Congregations - July 2013

This post went out today from the Bishop's Office to the clergy and vestry leaders in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. I share it here as well for anyone who may be interested. 

For some time now, the clergy in our diocese have received a monthly subscription to a journal called The Parish Paper, a resource self-described as “short articles on congregational development topics for 21st century congregations.” While that resource served a purpose for a season in the life of our diocese, the Rev. Canon Pam Mott and I feel that the time is right to try something new and also to expand the readership by including lay leaders along with the clergy on the distribution list.

Each of us come across a wide array of resources, some more helpful than others. We want to offer some suggestions of those resources that we have found especially helpful and begin conversations that may deepen our resolve to share in God’s Mission. Our goal, then, will be the same as that of The Parish Paper: to develop and build up 21st century congregations. We hope to do this, however, in ways that are more organic to the challenges we face in being Church in our particular context: as Episcopalians living in this part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Our goal will be to keep to roughly the same length of The Parish Paper - about two pages. Pam and I will be rotating this responsibility from month-to-month. Hopefully an added bonus of this new approach will be the opportunity for readers to glimpse what makes each of our hearts sing for the sake of the gospel and this work we all share as servants of the risen Christ.

As we begin this approach I want to commend to you an excellent article by Lillian Daniel that appeared in June in The Alban Weekly, the on-line journal of The Alban Institute. It’s called "The Practice of Testimony." I encourage you to click on the link to this resource and read the article before reading my comments below. In fact, if you read the article and skip everything else I have written, that would be ok with me. What follows from this point, however, are some reflections that this article generates in me.

Years ago I read a terrific book edited by Dorothy C. Bass, called Practicing Our Faith: A Guide for Converation, Learning, and Growth. It seems to me that the language that Daniel is using here assumes an awareness of Bass’s earlier work and builds on it. There were several things I loved about that book. I loved that it represented the breadth of the ecumenical Church and included many different voices. I loved that it focused on practices rather than “beliefs.” Don’t get me wrong: there is nothing wrong with believing. But as Barbara Brown Taylor has put it, “in a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind the willing that faith is a way of life.” Too often the Enlightenment left us with “orthodoxies” that were over-focused on right thinking rather than on healthy practices, and were therefore anything but generous. But a closer examination of the tradition reveals another way. Like their Jewish forebears, those New Testament Christian communities in places like Jerusalem and Corinth and Rome were people of “the Way.” So, too, those who have committed to follow a Rule of Life—both inside the walls of monasteries and beyond them. I believe that our life together is more about cultivating a way of life characterized by a set of distinguishing practices than about intellectual assent to a set of doctrines.

Bass’s book is a terrific one that develops this theme. If you have never read it, I commend it to you. But the reason for sharing all of this background is that one of the chapters in that book is on “Testimony.” I remember when I first read that chapter, I had an almost visceral reaction. All these other practices were so great: hospitality, Sabbath-keeping, discernment, forgiveness, healing and so forth. But testimony? That one seemed scary; a little too Baptist for my tastes!

While other Episcopalians may have a similar initial reaction to mine, this practice needs to be claimed and cultivated proudly by us, too, as members of Christ’s Body. I would even argue that it takes us to the very heart of theology of The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, focused as it is on Holy Baptism and the ministry of all the baptized. Like Daniels, we developed a practice in the parish I previously served of inviting lay persons to write Advent and Lenten meditations based on the readings from The Daily Office. We encouraged lay preaching at youth led services, stewardship season, and other occasions throughout the year. Very often I would be greeted at the door after such “testimonies” were offered by people saying, “You better watch your back or you will be out of a job!” Like Daniel, I discovered what can happen when people “…told stories about their walk with God through the life of our church. Sometimes they were funny. Sometimes people cried…”

In other words, these reflections were amazing. Young and old alike took this seriously and reflected on their own journeys in light of the gospel. Really, as an Episcopalian that’s how I’d prefer to say it: the practice of offering testimony is nothing less than encouraging one another to find our voices as we reflect on our spiritual journeys in light of the Good News.

I have often quoted St. Francis of Assisi as having said “preach the gospel at all times, when necessary use words.” (He almost certainly didn’t actually say those words, by the way, but they sound Franciscan enough to ring true, even if he didn’t.) And most Episcopalians (including me) really like this notion. We preach the gospel without saying anything by building a home for the homeless or serving a meal to the hungry or visiting a friend in the hospital. The danger that I have discovered, however, is that this can become a rationale for never, ever using words. While it is true that the best testimony we can offer to the world of our faith is the way we live our lives, the fact is that sometimes it is necessary (and at the very least helpful) to find and then use our words. We are a people of the Word after all, a people who need to tell our stories.

So how might we work together as diocesan and congregational leaders, lay and ordained, to encourage and cultivate this practice of testimony in our congregations? What are you currently doing that works well? What risk might you take (with reckless abandon or even just cautious optimism) to do more? How can we more vigorously support people in finding their voices and in speaking with authenticity both inside of the church and in the world about what it means to be a follower of Jesus in this time and place? And then perhaps that even leads us to another set of questions: what voices are still being silenced (or muted) and how might the Spirit be coaxing us to hear those voices into speech? How might their testimony change us all for good? These questions don’t need to be rhetorical. Perhaps you can take some time at your next vestry meeting or at an adult forum to discuss them a bit. I’d love to hear your responses.

The Rev. Canon Rich Simpson

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