Monday, August 27, 2012

Standing in the Presence

In the sanctuary of Church of the Nativity, Scottsdale, where I serve, one of our most cherished items is our icon of the Annunciation.  This is a true icon, written by Laura Fisher Smith, a noted iconographer (as well as the wife of +Kirk Smith, our diocesan bishop).

This Annunciation is different from most traditional depictions of this event, because we don't see the angel. We see Mary, a simple peasant girl, at the moment when the angel comes to her.  Eyes closed, hands uplifted in an attitude of prayer, we see her experiencing God's call to her.

Laura created this icon after a great deal of prayer, and after she and I had discussed our vision for this Annunciation icon.  We made the conscious decision not to depict the angel Gabriel, for who can really say what an angel looks like?  Surely all the gold and halos in the world cannot depict the sheer power and terror of standing in the presence of an angel.

But if we cannot imagine the appearance of an angel, surely we can imagine what a human being looks like who is open to the news an angel brings.  Mary, in our icon, is praying, open, humble.  She seems to be bathed in light from above.  She is preparing herself to say, "Let it be with me according to your word."

I thought of this icon last week as our diocesan clergy attended a seminar on preaching as spiritual direction.  Our keynote speaker, Kay Northcutt, has written a book called Kindling Desire for God: Preaching as Spiritual Direction, in which she says that the true task of the preacher is not to explain, counsel, or entertain, but to act as spiritual director to the congregation.  In this role, we should help people who are yearning for God's presence to begin to experience it.

Northcutt says that in our over-busy world, people are hungry for an experience of God.  How do we provide that in worship?  How do we help our congregations to learn spiritual disciplines that will open their hearts and minds to God's voice?    I interpreted Kay's model of the preacher as spiritual director as meaning that in preaching, we help people to ask questions about real-life experience like, where is God in this?  How is God calling to me right here and now?  The preacher then becomes the one who teaches spiritual disciplines to open our minds and hearts, and who calls the congregation to a life of noticing God's presence and handiwork.

In our Acts 8 gatherings at General Convention, I think that many of us experienced an openness to God's presence, through Bible study, prayer, and dreaming together about what the church could be.  Now that we are home, how can we call our congregations and our church into a practice of openness to God's presence?  How can each of us act as spiritual directors to a yearning world?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Restructuring and Reawakening

I've been fairly silent since returning home from General Convention - partly because I came home, did my laundry, and headed out the next day on my family vacation.  We made it as far as St. Petersburg, Russia, this year - here's a photo for you:

This is the interior of the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg.  We got there as a service was going on in a side chapel: incense burning, heavenly chant by the choir, priest arrayed in vestments of finest gold, people gathered, standing, silently bowing and crossing themselves and lighting candles as the service went on.  Of course the church in Russia was nearly dead during the Soviet years: 1,000 churches in St. Petersburg at the time of the czars had been reduced to about 5 or 6 still open by 1990.  Other church buildings were demolished, or turned into warehouses, military training facilities, or even (in one case) an indoor swimming pool.  Now, the church is coming back to life.  Five hundred churches are now open in the city, and in each one we entered (on weekdays), there were worshipers gathered for the Divine Liturgy in progress.  Christ is risen, indeed.

Which brings me to wonder why we are so concerned about the future of our church.  Amidst great anxiety about declining numbers and tight finances, The Episcopal Church gathered in General Convention this summer.  It was my second Convention, and after my first, in 2009, I wasn't sure I would return.  The anxiety, conflict, and stuck-ness seemed hopeless.  We made some good decisions, but seemed unable to address the vital issue of how to reverse, or event confront, the church's decline.

This year was different.  Not only did we address the issues before us, we did it with excitement and a sense of positive vision and hope for the future.  We created Enterprise Zones to encourage evangelism with new populations.  We agreed to move our church headquarters away from 815 Second Avenue.  We created a Task Force for Restructuring the Church.

Like many people, I hope that "restructuring" is about more than, well, restructuring.  I hope this is not just another organizational quick-fix that changes a few lines of authority and re-draws our church's flow chart.  I hope that instead, this "restructuring" becomes a reawakening.  I hope that we pray together, discuss together, gain insights from people not otherwise heard, and learn from each other.  I hope we follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  I hope this becomes a new beginning for our church, the start of an explosion of new energy, new ideas, and new people.

In the meantime, I have been elected, along with 37 other people, to serve on Executive Council, our church's Board of Directors.  Members of Executive Council recently received a request to write a one-page introduction and name what we see as the three top priorities for us to address this triennium.  We also were invited to ask any questions we have about how Executive Council works.

The biggest question I have about how Executive Council works is, how should we interact with the Task Force on Restructuring?  (By the way, if you haven't yet applied to serve on the Task Force, the deadline is Thursday, Aug. 23, and the application is here.)  Even though the Task Force is given the challenge of addressing big-picture restructuring issues, without being subordinate to Executive Council or other current leadership structures, I hope that there will be good communication between the two groups.  And I think there are certain tasks which are vital for Executive Council to address right away - tasks that are either inherently part of Council's job, or were given to Council by General Convention.

Here are the priorities I came up with.  Of course these reflect my personal interests and biases.  And since I'm new to Executive Council, and we're all new to this era of restructuring, I may have missed something important.

  • Find ways to support creative evangelism and church growth at the local level, such as Mission Enterprise Zones, with special priority given to emerging populations, youth and young adults, and non-English-speaking populations.
  • Move the corporate headquarters away from 815 2nd Ave., find a new headquarters location, and address the related question of how to responsibly leverage 815 as a real estate asset, whether by sale, lease, or other means.
  • Revamp Executive Council’s budgeting and financial oversight process and engage in a top-to-bottom review of Church Center costs, including a personnel review.  I support aligning the budget with the Marks of Mission.  Budgeting should be an ongoing process, with wide input, that continually tracks how our financial expenditures are supporting our stated mission priorities.  It should be led by Executive Council, with significant ongoing input from staff, with careful monitoring to ensure that information released to the public actually matches decisions made. 
Those are my thoughts and priorities for Executive Council.  What are yours?  I'd be interested to hear them in the comments.  

These are important issues to discuss.  But - I want to be clear.  The most vital thing for us to discover is, how is the Holy Spirit leading us into a new era?  Difficult times have beset the church from the very beginning, and the Holy Spirit has always led us into new possibilities we never would have imagined on our own.  Read Acts Chapter 8 if you have any doubts about this.  (And check out the Acts 8 Moment's website too.)  Or, if you still doubt that a declining church can be reawakened, maybe this photo will inspire you, the exterior of the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg.  The refurbishing is almost complete.  The smell of incense fills the air.  The sound of heavenly chanting fills the hearts of the worshipers who gather to pray and hope and share the Eucharist together.  

Christ is risen, indeed.  Alleluia.