Wednesday, November 2, 2016

In Praise of Stability

One of the podcasts I listen to regularly (even obsessively) is Freakonomics. Almost always there is something in them that makes me think (and re-think) about something in a new way. Two recent podcasts I highly recommend are In Praise of Maintenance and In Praise of Incrementalism. I'll try to summarize my own takeaways in the ruminations below, but I encourage you to take time to listen to both podcasts yourself, as they are rich in so many ways.

As I listened, I reflected on the Rule of St. Benedict and in particular the vow to stability: that is a commitment to live in one community for life - to resist perpetual motion. The monks that I know (even the ones who are not explicitly "Benedictine") get maintenance and incrementalism intuitively. Both are pretty counter-cultural in a world and in a church that craves innovation and creativity.

There is a time and place for innovation and creativity, to be sure. In my diocese we give grants to congregations that come up with new ideas and want to try them out. I support this. I have preached numerous sermons about God doing a "new thing" and not to be holding onto the old thing as that new thing unfolds...

Yet as the podcast on maintenance suggests, it's not an either/or choice and it may be that taking care of the maintenance stuff actually frees up creativity. As a parish priest, I felt pretty clear that if we took care of the property and supported the staff to do their jobs and created a "stable" work environment that we would be freed up to actually do far more than we might otherwise imagine. Our energies would be unleashed rather than dealing with leaking roofs, peeling paint, musty carpets and the rest. Conversely, if the maintenance work is neglected it's easier to get stuck.

So too, I will admit that my marriage which is now in it's thirty-first year isn't all spontaneity and excitement. Hathy and I are pretty good partners in paying the bills on time, doing the shopping and cooking and cleaning and all the rest. Our snowblower is ready to go when the first snow comes this winter, and we have the gas! There is a lot of our day-to-day lives that is kind of boring and routine. Marriage is a bit like the vow of stability, I think. Now if that's all there was to life then maybe it would not be so praiseworthy. But it does seem to me that taking care of these things makes fuller and abundant life more possible. And with kids raised and out of the house, we are freed up to go on some adventures and enjoy the ride. But having the routines stabilized helps all that.

When I visit congregations, too often I see a lot of deferred maintenance and neglect. As someone said to me recently, churches that once smelled of incense now just smell of must and mold. Liturgies can tend to be stale and old too. (Or sometimes so "innovative" as to feel like they have been wrenched from their roots and from the sacred.)  I think there is much to be said for incremental changes over time in worship - innovation in the midst of rootedness. Traditioned innovation as some have called it.

I'll admit it: maybe these are just the ruminations of a middle aged man. The thought has occurred to me. But I also find myself wondering if Congress had been doing their job for the past forty years or so, if our roads and bridges were maintained, if our schools were working, if our water was clean, if the earth wasn't heating up because we've put our heads in the sand - in short if we'd been stewards of these gifts over time - then would we be experiencing the polarizations that now cause so much anxiety?

And in the Church, if we'd resist chasing every new idea as the one that will liberate us from the past - and instead take care of the gifts entrusted to us day by day, would we find ourselves more hopeful about the future?

Did you listen to the podcasts above? I find them compelling and I think it's right that social justice movements don't take hold overnight, and also that both the Civil Rights Movement and Gay Rights Movement that have led to Marriage Equality required a long-term plan and a lot of seeds being planted over time.

I'd just add that Jesus invited us to see the Kingdom of God not as a mighty tree of Lebanon but as a tiny mustard seed. So what are the seeds we need to be planting now - on the eve of a national election - that can lead us back to the path toward justice and peace? Tilling the soil and plucking up weeds and planting good seed can be back-breaking work - and surely is not so glamorous. But I think it's what we are called to do, with God's help, and then over time maybe others will reap what we have sown.

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