At a meeting last night of the Monmouth Convocation in the Diocese of New Jersey, the lay and ordained representatives of the parishes and missions of the Convocation took some time to offer good news to the plenary, an update on what has been going on in our parishes since we the last general meeting in October of 2008.
What impressed me was not only the variety of initiatives that the churches were undertaking, or that sometimes even sad news (the closing of a church) can be "good news" in that the ministries of the parish are continuing despite the ending of the fellowship. It was also that in every effort, large and small, the first and last word of all were centered in how Christ has been active in people's lives. I have been an Episcopalian for my entire life...and a priest for fifteen...and yet it has only been in the last few years that I have truly heard people speak with bright passion and resolve about what Jesus is doing with them in their daily walk with God. We may be a small church, but as one of the bishops said, we are re-forming as the Body of Christ.
There is no sugar-coating the reality that most Episcopal Churches face a decline in membership, and that parish life and ministry are highly stressful environments. Though we would, in a romantic sense, prefer to imagine church life as something arising out of one of the Mitford novels, the reality is much more complex-and the stressors of crises around relationships in the church, the demands of ministry (both pastoral and material) and the rise in conflicts throughout institutions in our society all take more and more energy from our main drive to offer the Good News of God in Christ to the world, and to strive for justice and peace while at the same time living as the embodiment of the Body of Christ in the world.
Today is the feast day of Teresa of Avila. Her story is found in the link, but what comes to mind for me is her VERY relevant reminder to us all that found its way to me as a Facebook update from a friend: "Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion is to look out to the earth." Last night, that sentiment was offered up in a much more succinct way when one rector spoke of his congregation taking some risks in their plans for the holidays-and in some renovations to their physical plant. "My mentor always told me, in the Church it is always 'yes' until it is 'no.'" Meaning? That we as leaders and workers in the vineyards of our parishes need to remember that God guides us and leads us...and that our first priority is to offer a willingness to be a vessel of grace, and to let our worries and negativities take a rest when the whistle blows for us to join God's game-life in Christ.
I take that as a clarion call to the Church, and to my own procrastinatory self. It is time to remember what we are and why we are here in this world. I confess that I have in my life, too often, been someone who has denied that imperative to be Christ's body, hands, feet and eyes. Never have I done more damage to the Body than when I have said, "That won't work," or "I don't think we can," or any of a thousand other comments that rise out of either my resistance to something new-or come from a memory of a past failure.
I forget that God doesn't always (really, seldom) act first and foremost from precedent. "See, I am about to do a new thing..." (Isaiah 43.19); "For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth" (Jer. 31.32) remind me that there are more things on heaven and earth that God intends than are figured in my philosophies. (Your pardon, Shakespeare) ;)
The answer is always yes until it is no....be willing to take bold risks for Christ. Be willing to fail boldly. Be willing to succeed. But in all things, continue to act faithfully in the sure and certain hope of Christ, resurrected. We have a new life in him...let's not waste a moment getting down to living it fully!