A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Friday, May 31, 2013

At the Threshold, After the Angel - A Riff on the Visitation

In those days, the world cried out in pain:
            the pain of oppression and violence
            of injustice and despair
In those days, the world cried out
            for salvation, for hope, for promise.
In those days of angelic announcement and prophetic discourse and salvific promise –
when did she know?

When the angel came to her, hailing her as favored one?
and when she consented to partner with God in this divine conspiracy?

Or did it become clear at the moment she asked how can this be?
And the angel explained exactly how it could be; is that when she knew?

 Or…was it after the angel departed from her?

When did she know? When did she come to understand her part in this divine plan?

Perhaps not until she set out from Nazareth did understanding begin to grow within her heart
as the Holy grew within her body.
Or finally, when she reached that “town in the Judean hill country”
            and stood at the threshold of the house of priestly Zechariah

When she crossed that threshold and greeted Elizabeth - wise, patient, expectant Elizabeth
prophetic Elizabeth,
Elizabeth who embraced her and felt the movement of the Spirit, the wonder of God’s favor:
“Why me? Why has this happened to me? The mother of my Lord is…here.”

Surely that’s when Mary knew. Crossing that threshold, entering that space made suddenly sacred:
Sacred with hope, sacred with promise, sacred with grace and blessing

Two women – one too old, one far too young
Each faithful and obedient, expectant with promise and salvation;
eyes meeting, arms embracing.

That’s when Mary knew that the news she bore was the Good News.

That’s when Mary understood what it all meant: the angel, the “yes”, the journey, the joyful greeting.
Crossing the threshold had opened her eyes, freed her spirit, opened her heart.
Crossing the threshold, she found her voice and sang a song -
and changed the world.

In those days….

In these days the world still cries out in pain
The world still cries out for those who will bear the Good News
            and give birth to Divine hope and tell of God’s promise

In these days we are Elizabeth; we are the prophetic ones
Sensing the movement of the Spirit, knowing the wonder of God’s favor
Seeing the presence of Christ in the ones who cross the thresholds of our lives
And we are Mary: the obedient ones, the ones who say “yes”.
            We take the journey, step by step, revelation by revelation.

In these days we must be the angels, the prophets, bearing the message of salvation’s promise.

For we, too, have a song to sing:
It is the anthem of salvation, it is the aria of grace,
it is the hymn of promise that poured from Mary’s heart.

We know what news we bear.
We know it is with this news that every place,
and every space,
may be made sacred with hope,
sacred with promise,
sacred with grace and blessing.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Rescuing Stewardship – Beyond Giving to the Church

Several years ago I suggested to our parish finance committee that rather than put together our parish budget after the annual financial pledges are in, which has been the parish’s historical approach to budgeting, we instead build a “dream” budget first and ask parishioners to support it. A member of the committee responded gruffly, “That’s not stewardship, that’s fundraising; it’s giving to a budget, not to God. Stewardship isn’t fundraising.” Well, of course it isn’t. Who says it is? Most of us, actually – every time we refer to what happens in October and November in our parishes.

Our definition of stewardship is too narrow. Within those narrow confines, we have become comfortable with the concept of the annual exercise of pledging “time, talent, and treasure” (would someone please come up with another trinity of terms for those?!) to the church. If we come to a better understanding of true stewardship, then far from being comfortable we will live more fully into the often unsettling challenges that true stewardship offers.
Stewardship is not an activity done in church. Stewardship is a spiritual practice which, while not exclusive to Christianity, is nevertheless an ongoing part of life as a member of the body of Christ, the community of the baptized both in and out of the institution that we call the church (yes, in spite of emergence and postmodernism, it’s still an institution!). A friend once defined stewardship as “what you do with what you have, every minute of every day.” He was right. And yet our vision of stewardship has become narrow and limited in its focus. I think we all know this, deep down, but we tend to gloss over it - especially every autumn.

What’s wrong with calling our annual pledging efforts Stewardship? For starters, it allows us to close the file on stewardship once we’ve filled out and signed our pledge forms. The fulfillment of those pledges will no doubt remind us of our promises; these are important contributions to our faith communities and they do constitute our ministries – but they only constitute a portion of what it means to be true stewards of God’s abundant creation and gifts.
Rather than either disparaging fundraising as too secular (and let's face it, how many of us have special "fundraising" activities during the remainder of the year?) let’s just admit that it is what we do and embrace it as needful. We need money to fund ministries – and also to pay salaries, utility bills, landscaping crews, etc. This is not a substitute for the actual practice of stewardship but is a necessity as long as congregations are housed in buildings, employ and support clergy and lay staff, and sponsor programs that require material resources. That is, in fact, “giving to a budget”, regardless of whether that budget is created before or after the financial pledges come in.  And we do need people with specific gifts and skills, (and often, simple willingness), to participate in ministries and programs that allow us to be who we believe we must be as a Christian community. So, let’s make sure that our budgets and requests for volunteers reflect God’s mission as we have discerned it for ourselves and our community, and helps us obtain and achieve what we must do to carry out that mission.
But stewardship is about much more that giving to an institution or even to a specific community that we are attached to, fond of, or dependent on. So I’m encouraging my parish to make an intentional effort to think more expansively about the true nature of stewardship. For starters, I say, let’s never, ever call our annual pitch for funding for next year’s budget, or our efforts to get volunteers to assume the many responsibilities that we’ve grafted onto communal Christian life in the last century or so, no matter how necessary or beloved they may be, by the name Stewardship Campaign or drive or effort. That will take some discipline – OK, it will take lots of discipline! Instead, I hope we can begin to recognize that stewardship is nothing more and nothing less than our constant practice of honoring God by the right use of all of God’s gifts, in and out of church. Let’s not use that beautiful word to describe anything less.