Today is the Feast of the three kings. It is the end of the Christmas cycle and the beginning of Epiphany. As Christians, we have spent part of our holiday remembering and recreating the remarkable story of a birth and angels and a moving star. But as soon as the original Christmas card picture is taken, reality sets in. And the story moves from promise and hope – to survival.
Threatened by competition, Herod wants the child dead, and sets his soldiers out to slaughter newborn Jewish boys. Joseph is warned about all this by an angel in a dream; and if he wants his family to survive, he needs to take the child and its mother to Egypt. And the wise men, who are onto Herod’s scam, survive by going home by another way.
But Joseph is concerned less about survival – and more about the promise. It was hope that drew the wise men to the manger, where they left their gifts; but they left with a vision of God’s presence, and a promise of an even deeper hope that completely transformed their lives.
We are people of the promise. Yet, as Dwight Zscheile points out in his book, People of the Way: Renewing Episcopal Identity, much of what the Episcopal Church has focused on has been survival. “For the past several decades, while the Episcopal Church has been in precipitous decline in relationship to a dramatically growing and diversifying US population, the conversation has largely been focused inward, upon the church” (page 3). He laments the waves of strategies and techniques that have been applied to achieve growth. He has discovered another way: “the thesis of this book is that renewing Episcopal identity will not come through one more conversation about the church and how to organize it better. Instead, the future of the Episcopal Church in the US depends upon attending first and foremost to God’s life and movement and discovering how Episcopalians are particularly gifted and called to join up with that movement. It is time to have a different conversation” (page 4). Not about survival, but how God is working in the world. Living into God’s promise.
For the next seven weeks, through this season of Epiphany, I will be leading an online conversation about Dwight’s book, and the challenges he raises and the insights he offers. I will post reflections a couple of times a week on how I see God working in the world – epiphany moments, and how that might lead me – and us, to becoming more intentional about being the “people of the way.”
You're invited to share your thoughts on the book in the comments section below.
At a Christmas party several hundred miles away...
At a Christmas party several hundred miles away, five of us Episcopalians chatting together discovered not one of us was born an Episcopalian or Catholic. We were perhaps part of the diaspora who found the 'right' church. How this outreach affects our church as it moves ahead is one area I am particularly interested in, although we may still be on the margin, but possibly a growing margin that needs consideration in the overall discussion.
I agree with Zscheile that the Church must be outwardly focused to do God's work in the world. But I think of focus differently: as 'turning' and 'returning' and turning again . . . and again. I see a dialogical church, not a church that avoids inward focus.
We need to 'return' to the liturgy and each other to renew our unity, purpose, and strength and to find resources for the outward-focused work. If we lack unity of purpose, we won't be outwardly effective. We can't solve very real problems of disunity, conflict, disaffiliation, and leaving some "on the margin" (as the previous comment mentioned) by turning attention elsewhere. Unsolved, the problems frustrate and subvert the good work in the world that Episcopalians can do.
Finding God's Work in the World
The story of the church must always be found not inside the parish doors, but outside of them. I think that Zscheille is correct in implying that understanding God's promise will involve re-envisioning how God is at work "in the world". As alluded to in the two scenes from the aformentioned narratives, understanding the will of God always sets us up for a journey "outward" and into less familiar (and often times more dangerous (or perceived dangerous) roads). It seems that a good question for Episcopalians to ask would be to ask "Where are the places that God is working that we have long deemed unfamiliar or unsafe or unappetizing?". Then the next question should be "How can we catch up to God (what are our strengths in this new area and how can we contribute)?"
What is Episcopalian?
Dwight asks some tough questions. I've only recently become Episcopalian and it was only because I love the church where I worship. But what would happen if the "Episcopal" church was gone? What would it mean to me and to my community? Would the hole left behind be filled by other social services or would there be a genuine cry for help to see signs of Gods grace in the void? Where have I seen God? I have a deep feeling in my soul that I am Christian not by choice but because I am compelled to be. With Christ, I am home. But that's not enough. I'm called to do more. But I only have limited ability and energy so in comes the discernment phase. What is the dream giver really calling me and my church to be about in our community?
Thank you for your comments
I think there is a creative tension between being disciples and being missional. Both need to be in play. It is dialogical. I think the comments help to open up the dialog -- and help us work through the tension between being inward and outward.
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