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Bishop Beckwith's address at the 143rd Annual Convention

Bishop Mark Beckwith
The Rt. Rev. Mark M. Beckwith, Bishop of Newark

This year, Bishop Beckwith gave his annual Convention address in three parts, on Friday afternoon, Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon.

The text is below; scroll down to the bottom of this page for the video.

Part 1: Why Are We Here?

Given Friday afternoon.

I am going to start with why. Why are we here? The surface answer is that we are required to be here. The Canons of the church mandate that each diocese meet annually for a Convention; and our by-laws stipulate that we meet on the last Friday in January in order to do an array of things: celebrate the Eucharist, vote on a budget, elect people to offices, including General Convention, listen to various reports – and hear from the bishop in an annual address. And we are going to do all that.

But there is a deeper reason for why we are here – and we have reorganized our time together to pursue it. The history of the Christian faith begins with a series of stories – and those stories center on God’s pursuit of the human family – which God loves and blesses, challenges and chides. In these stories God invites, and in some cases God expects, God’s people to follow God. To go on a journey – together. Over the centuries God has identified Moses, Joshua and the prophets to lead people in their journey of following God. Two thousand years ago God sent Jesus as the Incarnation of God living in the world to continue the journey – to teach, to heal, to bless and to lead the way to holiness, justice and freedom. While these biblical stories are ancient, in faith we say that God is still very much alive, and actively working in the world. And we are invited to join God in this ongoing journey of teaching, healing, blessing and showing the way to holiness, justice and freedom. It is a journey of hope.

As outlined in scripture, God began his journey with his people by listening. God heard the groaning of the Israelites who were living under the yoke of slavery in Egypt (Exodus 3:1-6). God first listened to their travail, and through that listening God discerned and then decided how to act. God chose Moses to lead the people on the long journey from bondage to freedom.

Listening is foundational to who we are and what we are about. We have designed this Diocesan Convention around the practice of listening. This is different from past Conventions. It is something we haven’t done before, but we are building on the commitment and energy that has emerged from gatherings and conversations that we have had over the past couple of years. We have invited non-deputies to participate in this Convention’s conversations – conversations that will take up more aggregate time than the business that we need to attend to. We have set aside time to listen – to scripture, to each other, to the Holy Spirit, to ourselves – and listen intentionally for various trends and dynamics that are going on in the neighborhoods of New Jersey. We have set aside three significant blocks of time – this afternoon, tomorrow morning and tomorrow afternoon, to engage in various exercises of listening. Listening not for the purpose of gathering data, nor with the intent of countering with an argument, nor coming up with yet another program that will fix a problem – but listening to discern God’s presence – to hear pain, joy, confusion and clarity. So my address will be divided into three parts – each as an introduction to the different segments of listening to the ancient stories of scripture and of our own lives. And I will conclude each block with some reflections on what I heard, saw and felt during each particular section.

This first block of time is devoted to “where have we been?” Exactly ten years ago today we began a journey together as bishop and diocese, building on 134 years of faithful work and ministry. We have employed various phrases and metaphors along the way to describe the journey we have been on together: From the Gates of Hope, to the Diocesan Mission Statement of Equipping, Empowering and Engaging the world – with the hope and Justice of Jesus; to Missional Church, to Going Local to the Jesus movement, to Joining God in Shaping Our Future. Some people may feel a bit of spiritual whiplash as we have transitioned from one image or metaphor to another. What I have learned is that these images and metaphors are simply benchmarks which describe where we can locate ourselves on our journey of joining God in shaping our future. The words change, in part because the journey has not been a straight line. We are not shaping a strategic plan. In every context, it is all about paying attention to God through each other, our neighbors and the Holy Spirit. Experiencing blessing. Discovering hope – by a sequence that starts with listening, moves to discerning and then experimenting, reflecting and deciding – an ongoing cycle that we have identified as core practices.

Over the past ten years, and indeed long before that, we – the diocese and congregations in the diocese – have been on two distinct trajectories. One is the trajectory of challenge and decline – marked by the closing of churches, aging congregations, fewer full time clergy, more “nones” and “dones,” less money through a shrinking pledge base, higher insurance and other costs, and the overspending of endowments. These dynamics are reflective of a tsunami of change that is affecting – in different ways, virtually every denomination, every health care system, our entire higher education system and on and on and on. The tsunami of change is taking place faster than most people can keep up with it. And the effect has left people feeling paralyzed with anxiety, or feeling that they are drowning in the flood of fear that usually accompanies such rapid change. More stable institutions tend to look out at the tsunami and try to divert its onslaught by either doubling down on what has worked in the past, or attempting to seal themselves off from the maelstrom swirling around them. These are understandable, but reactive, responses that offer quick fixes that ultimately don’t work.

The other trajectory is that God is calling us out of our churches and into the world – to see what God is up to. To listen to what God is up to. And to join God there. To see, hear and experience God’s hope for the world. To go on a journey that is physical as well as spiritual. What I have learned in the past two years, when we have been more intentional about this journey of joining God in shaping our future, is that we begin with small, carefully discerned steps called experiments. And then we learn from these experiments, so we can decide the next steps of listening, discerning and experimenting. After several years of listening, discerning and experimenting, I think – I think, I have purged myself of the idea that the way forward is to develop a comprehensive strategic plan. No, this trajectory invites me, invites us, to go deeper into the mystery of God and who God is calling us to be.

A welcome byproduct of this journey is that I feel more connected to God’s mystery than at any time in my 37 years of ordained life. I feel more confident in God’s call. I experience more hope. And my connection and confidence is bolstered by the number of people who have been intentionally taking this journey with God. In this past year the journey has accelerated – through the work of four Action Learning teams which wrestled with significant challenges – and through a process of listening to scripture and each other, developed some transforming experiments. We have a second cohort of Going Local congregations and a third cohort of clergy. And this fall the diocese hosted six listening tables – which involved over 200 people from 80 congregations. Through all of this, more stories are being told and heard, hope and connection have blossomed – and commitment to the faith has deepened. All told, some 600 people from across the diocese have been involved in some dimension of the journey. And with this Convention, we will add about 300 more – which represents 10% of our average Sunday attendance.

One of our priests, who is deeply involved in this journey, recently asked an important question: why does this matter? Why is it important that we intentionally listen to God in scripture, in each other, in our neighbors – and in our souls? This journey is not some default or reactive response so that we can save the church. No, this journey matters because in the midst of all the chaos and confusion of the world, in the midst of increased verbal insults and violent outbursts, in the midst of institutional fragility and decline – God is calling us to a new way of living together. God is inviting us to discover more of God’s blessedness and belovedness. When we take this journey –especially when we take it together, we discover a deeper hope and a more abiding freedom.

This past summer 31 of us walked across the diocese – from the Delaware River in Belvidere to the Hudson River in Hoboken. 88.4 miles. Twenty-one churches hosted us along the way, plus two Episcopal organizations, Crossroads Camp and House of the Good Shepherd. We were offered meals, beds, showers, snacks – and best of all, ice-cold footbaths. We prayed every morning, noon and night; we listened to scripture and to each other. The intense summer heat, along with the daily mileage quota, made the journey quite an ordeal. Perhaps because we felt so vulnerable, what was most remembered was the remarkable hospitality we received – from host congregations, from strangers – and from the living God who seemed so present as we traversed the western fields and the eastern city streets.

Our journey this past summer was framed by a river. It so happens that this Convention will be framed by a river. The Jordan River. A river that our spiritual ancestors were invited to cross – to a new way of living together. We will read the ancient story from the third chapter of Joshua. Some of you will be hearing it for the first time. For others, this will be an echo of earlier moments with this text. By my unofficial reckoning, I have engaged in dwelling in the word with this passage over fifty times in the past year. This story continues to kindle my imagination—no matter how many times I read it. And it offers a mysterious and unexplained hospitality, in that the passage invites me to make the connection between who we are as God’s people today with our spiritual ancestors who took great risks and discovered a divine hope.

As we begin this first block of listening and sharing stories, my prayer is that you will allow yourselves to let go of the trajectory of challenge and decline – and instead to place yourself at the banks of the Jordan River – and to risk by joining the journey to a new way of living together.

Part 2: Stepping into the River

Given Saturday morning.

Business as usual is no longer an option. That is the statement I made in last year’s Convention address, and I continue to hear echoes of it across the diocese. One of our clergy has told me that the phrase – “business as usual is no longer an option,” is the hardest and best thing he has been a part of as a priest.

The more I reflect on what I said – and what he said, my soul is led down to the edge of the Jordan River. The text from the third chapter of the Book of Joshua, which we dwelled in yesterday afternoon, emerged in the diocesan staff as a compelling story – and a powerful image. In the dozens of times that I have read it since – among clergy, in my weekly visits to congregations, I find that I continue to be formed by both the image and the narrative. This is, in large part, because we seem to be camped out at the edge of the Jordan River with our spiritual ancestors. It’s a hard place to be. I look at our spiritual ancestors with considerable envy. They were in tents, which could be packed up and easily moved across the river. Most of our “tents” are over a hundred years old. They are not portable. They have roofs that leak, boilers that burst, stained glass windows that warp and wood that rots. And the budgets required to maintain them, insure and honor them – because they are the literal structures of our faith, are often stretched and challenged to a breaking point. And then there are the people who move away, leaving financial, leadership and pastoral holes. Not to mention the people who have died; and the emotional and spiritual wrench that always accompanies death. It is a hard place to be.

And the idea of crossing the river is a spiritual challenge that defies the imagination to the degree that we can’t imagine that it is possible to do. It seems like a hard place to go. Besides, we don’t know what’s over there, because we believe we haven’t been there before.

Oh, but we have. We have been there in faith. We have been there in hope. That faith and that hope is what brought us here today. That faith and that hope were in full bloom in the stories we told and heard yesterday. That faith and that hope caused us to build our churches in the first place. The church buildings have been the repositories of faith and hope – but can’t be confined there. From the beginning of our relationship with the living God, we have been invited to move – to continue on a journey, to join God in shaping our future. To cross rivers and boundaries; to risk stepping into the water and trusting that God will be there, and will guide us to next steps. And that, my brothers and sisters, is the best place to be, because that is where and how we discover the gift of God’s blessedness and belovedness, God’s hope and freedom. That is why we are about this work – to rediscover or renew our faith and hope – which generates a passion and a commitment to move to a new way of living together.

So, here we are, camped on one side of the river. Some might say we are more anchored than camped. What do we do? The invitation is to take a risk and step into the river. Depending on risk tolerance, it may be just one toe, some may dive in. Others may find it easy to go across, trusting that the flow of water will stop as it did in the Joshua story told centuries ago. Some will be on the other side of the river, exploring and discovering a new way of living together. We need all of that – the cautious and the bold, the risk taker and the risk averse – and we need to listen to where people are; honor where they are – and learn from one another’s experiences of where they are. All the while trusting in God’s presence – a God who is always inviting us to move to a new and challenging place.

I can hear the response now: “But we can’t pack up our tents and move.” Does this mean that we abandon these sacred buildings, built with the faith and love of those who have gone before, and where we gather to be fed by this life-giving tradition? As St. Paul wrote several times, by no means! We need to deal with our buildings, and to celebrate them – as they are the spaces which house our celebrations and where we hear and share stories. But – but, we don’t need to be held captive by them. Buildings – and the budgets that support them, are key components of the killer B’s. What often happens is that these Killer B’s swarm over the psyche and take over vestry and finance meetings, and create anxiety in the rest of the congregation, such that people aren’t able to see past the crisis. Vision gets truncated, and hope gets reduced to some sort of fix-it strategy.

In the last few months, I have suggested to at least two vestries – which have been caught up in an overwhelming building issue or a seemingly impossible budget conundrum – to move. To spend an allotted time dealing with these difficult business issues in one space – and then to move to another space to hear God’s call through Dwelling in the Word, prayer and the sharing of vision. To literally move – with the understanding and commitment that the important business conversation in one space does not adversely infect the faith and vision exercise in another space. This all may seem like a gimmick or hopelessly fou-fou, but if we don’t consciously move out of the anxiety and fear – with some intention, the anxiety can take over and we lose out on God’s blessing and vision. God is calling us to move.

It needs to be said that all of this causes anxiety. Lots of anxiety. I see it and I hear it. Some of it is repressed; much of it comes out in a prolonged whine or in episodic groans. We need to acknowledge the anxiety – and name it. To meet people where they are and help one another move through it.

The anxiety in our church is met – and perhaps even surpassed by, the anxiety that has been released by the transition of national leadership which began last week. Millions worry what is next. Whole cohorts of people are feeling acutely vulnerable. Much of the build-up toward the inauguration has been characterized by what I would call the Disrespectful D’s – deport, demean, diminish and denounce.

It would be fairly easy to externalize the Disrespectful D’s – to point our fingers and adopt a self-righteous posture in opposition to them. But our integrity is seriously compromised if we fail to recognize that we have in ourselves the same capacity for disrespect. We need to acknowledge the impulse to demean, name it to ourselves – rather than dump a denouncing D on someone else. That is hard work to do.

Disrespect begets disrespect. And given the semi-official support for disrespect which seems to be widespread in our culture, we can get drawn into a vicious cycle – and can get stuck in its pernicious vortex. It is hard to break out. Conversely, blessedness begets blessedness; and unlike disrespect, which can hold people hostage, blessedness sets us free – and opens us up to a deep and abiding hope. As we have the capacity to be disrespectful, we also have a capacity to bless. God bestowed it on us; and Jesus’ life, death and life reinforced it. All of that was conferred on us in our baptism; and in that blessing we were anointed to pass it on.

I want to go back to the river. But this time I would invite you to imagine that stepping into the river is stepping outside of yourself into a place of some risk. To step into the neighborhood, to step toward a neighbor – to take a small step outside of your regular pattern and rhythm of life. To step into that place and see what God is up to, and join God there.

In this journey of joining God in shaping our future, we talk a lot about neighbors and neighborhoods. And often people get distracted by issues of geography, or stuck in the challenge of determining whether the neighborhood is the church, the workplace or where one lives.

It is often the case that our neighbors and neighborhoods are self-selected. We live and move in and around people we know – in our churches, in our workplaces and where we live. And while we might take pride in knowing their names, where they work or went to school or what grades their kids are in, more often than not we don’t know what they deeply care or worry about, what they hope for or believe in.

And that’s just with the people we think we know. And then there are the people we don’t have any relationships with. In 2008, journalist Bill Bishop wrote an important book: The Big Sort; which had a rather chilling subtitle, “Why the clustering of like-minded America is tearing us apart.” He makes the case that we tend to pitch our tents among people who think and act like we do – a tendency he traces back several decades. Nearly ten years later, it is even harder to ignore the cultural misunderstanding, economic inequality, political extremism and legislative gridlock he predicted. It is harder to ignore; but the temptation is to do just that – to seal ourselves off in our insular tents.

We are invited to step in among people we haven’t been with and places we haven’t been to before. Every time I have done that in my life – be it with a person with a different perspective or background or religion, not only do I end up having a deeper appreciation of that person as a brother or sister, the more I learn about what it means to be a child of God.

All of this takes listening. Listening at a deeper level than just securing information. Listening to peoples’ stories, honoring those stories – learning how God is present in those stories. Listening builds confidence. Listening builds relationships – not just with our neighbor, but with the living Christ. Because the more we listen at this deep level, the more we see the face of Christ in our neighbor, the more we are able to see each other as brother and sister, and the more willing – and the more compelled, we are to stand with them when they are assaulted by the Disrespectful D’s.

I have discovered that the more I listen, the more willing I am to take a step toward a neighbor or into a neighborhood. And the more freedom I experience, the more faith is generated, the more blessing I feel – and the more able I am to pass it on.

That is why we are about this work of joining God in shaping our future.

Part 3: Joining God in Shaping Our Future

Given Saturday afternoon.

Repent, John the Baptist cries out to his followers, a challenge we hear every Advent from any one of the four Gospels. The call to repentance is carried forward into Epiphany, because once John the Baptist is locked up in prison for being too bold and brash, Jesus channels his cousin, and begins his own ministry by calling people to repent.

Repent means to turn. For much of my life – and I suspect for most our lives, repentance has been about turning away. Turning away from bad stuff – be they thoughts, or behaviors or practices – or the Disrespectful D’s – deport, demean, diminish and denounce. Repentance has been burned into us as a necessary exercise to avoid punishment – the ultimate of which is being banished to hell.

I submit that before it is about turning away, repentance is about turning toward. Immediately after Jesus calls people to repent, he invites two sets of brothers – Simon and Andrew and the Zebedee boys James and John, to follow him (Matthew 4:12-23). It is an invitation to turn – turn toward the hope, turn to the light – follow Jesus on the journey to hope and freedom. Turn toward your neighbor to see them as a brother or sister – turn toward your neighborhood and see where God is working.

In a few weeks, on the first Sunday of Lent, we will hear the story of Jesus, who was at his most vulnerable after being in the wilderness for forty days without food or drink – and with little sleep, being tempted by the devil. Three temptations – and Jesus says no to each of them. But I am convinced that for Jesus to say no – he first had to go down into the depth of his soul, turn inward and say yes to God.

Repentance is not a one- time exercise. It is a daily practice – which involves practice, invites support, inspires collaboration and ultimately requires some sort of movement. The movement of turning toward yes – toward God’s blessedness and belovedness, which begets more blessedness and belovedness.

We have learned to support this turning not through some elaborate strategic plan, or devising a new program – but simply by engaging in experiments. Small steps of turning toward God. One member from one of our Going Local congregations decided that she would literally turn toward the person sitting next to her on a plane – and begin a conversation. Which led to a deeper understanding and appreciation of God’s work in the world, because the person was of a completely different faith tradition. Another member of that Going Local guiding team decided that her experiment would be to step across the invisible barrier between management and labor in her workplace – and sit down and have lunch and a conversation with someone on the other side. Which led to a sharing of mutual hopes and concerns – and which would not have happened had there not been an act of repentance. The guiding team of yet another Going Local congregation began to schedule conversations with the mayor, police chief and school superintendent – not so much for the purpose of learning what problems they might address, but first to develop a relationship; and through that relationship to discern how God is working in that community.

This repentance, this turning, these experiments, emerge out of listening – to scripture, to each other, to our neighbors and to ourselves. The experiment symbolically involves stepping into a river, and trusting that God will be present. The only failed experiment is one from which there is no learning. Every experiment can yield learning – about self, about God, about neighbor and about repentance.

Five years ago, following the example of one of our priests, I offered Ashes to Go on Ash Wednesday outside of Penn Station in Newark. I can vividly remember how self-conscious and anxious I felt as I stepped into the neighborhood – and offered blessings that, until that moment, had been confined to services held inside a church. A member of St. Andrew’s in Newark was worried that I wouldn’t have any takers, and she came down early in the morning to receive ashes. I will never forget her kindness.

She had to wait in line. And the more ashes I distributed, the more confident I felt. And the growing confidence in God’s presence – and my deepening willingness to join with God in God’s work in the world, is a natural result of an experiment. (And that is a great place to be.)

A couple of years later on Ash Wednesday, I worked my way into the concourse of the station – where it was warmer and there were more people. After an initial rush of people seeking ashes, there was a lull. And as I looked out at people rushing toward a train or a bus, or others who were zeroed in on their cell phones or shut off from the hubbub with their earbuds, I had a vision that resonated with a passage from the 21st chapter of the Book of Revelation – “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2).

My soul, grounded in faith, told me I saw that. I saw God at work. But the part of the brain that governs rational thought quickly weighed in and said that I didn’t see that. That I dare not see that. And that I had better turn back to what is real and measurable – and provable. And don’t talk about this anymore.

But to live in faith is to live in imagination – to turn to see God at work in ways that are not explainable or comprehensible. Not to see things that aren’t there, but to see beyond what we have been trained to see. To turn toward a stranger, and see in their face the presence of Christ, which transforms them into a neighbor, if not a brother or sister in God’s family. This takes practice, discipline and commitment, especially with people we may have been trained to demean, diminish or denounce. But the gift which results from this practice is life-changing.

One of my spiritual heroes is Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who lived in a monastery outside of Louisville, Kentucky in the early 1960s. He wrote a number of books, which opened up the spiritual life for me – and millions of others across the world. In one of his three autobiographies he describes a routine trip to the doctor in Louisville, Kentucky:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world....

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud.... I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.)

About 30 years ago I happened to be in Louisville. Like many before me, I went to the corner of Fourth and Walnut, a main intersection of the city. And I waited – for an encore of the Merton experience. Nothing happened – and quite frankly I am not sure what I would do or think if it did. But in the years since, I have come to the conviction that I or you – or any of us, have the capacity to see that blessedness and belovedness transfigured in someone else. An experience that helps to transform a stranger into a neighbor. Merton’s witness was – and continues to be, the foundation of why I am so passionate about ministry. The potential for transformation is an enormous gift – I saw it at Newark Penn Station; Merton saw it in Louisville; I see it happening in many of you.

All we need to do is take a step – or a leap. Take a risk. Engage in an experiment. See what God is up to. God’s promise of presence continues; and when we step into that river, that neighborhood – that territory that may be a bit unfamiliar – we expose ourselves to the mystery of God’s transforming power that we can receive – and that we can pass on to a world that desperately needs it.

So I invite you. I challenge you – in collaboration with a few people in your congregation – to repent; to say yes to God in some new way. Start with listening – to scripture, to each other, to our neighbors. Take the experience we have shared here back to your congregations. The joy, confusion, laughter and hope in God’s presence among us is just a small example of what might happen. As I say at every Sunday visitation, when I invite people to come forward to receive the water of blessing – as part of the renewal of their baptismal vows: this is an invitation, which means that all may, none must – and perhaps some should take this step and receive God’s blessing.

It is a commitment. It is an act of repentance. It is stepping into the river – into the yes of God – so that we can then join God in shaping our future.