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"The hard, good, God-driven work of being missional" -- Bishop Beckwith's address at the 139th Annual Convention

The Rt. Rev. Mark M. Beckwith at the 139th Annual Convention
The Rt. Rev. Mark M. Beckwith, Bishop of Newark

We are well launched into 2013, but many of us are still living in the wake of 2012. Hurricane Sandy blew through our region in late October, cutting off power in parts of every community in the diocese, flooding much of Hoboken and Little Ferry – and devastating the coasts of New Jersey, and Staten and Long Islands. The third and most vicious storm in fifteen months brought a new wave of awareness that our climate is becoming more fierce – and we are more vulnerable in the face of it.

And then on December 14, 20 first graders and six teachers were slaughtered in a Newtown, Ct. school. This horrific tragedy has cast a huge shadow over the national soul. It has also torn further at the already frayed psyches of so many people in this country – especially those living in the poorest urban neighborhoods – who deal with the threat of gun violence on a regular basis.

These events framed the year – and are reframing our lives. They have generated a fight-or-flight response, which always emerges in the aftermath of such disasters. The fight response suggests that if we muscle up enough technology and will, we will be able to vanquish future storms – that if we stockpile enough guns in the right hands and in the right places, then those who threaten to bring guns into the wrong places will be blown away.

The flight response causes people to shut down, bow out – or take refuge in the many silos that are so readily available. Or to engage in denial that events like these could ever happen again.

“God is our refuge and strength; a very present help in trouble,” the psalmist writes, and is the passage which called us to worship this morning. The psalmist faced similar realities of calamities and tragedies – and called the faithful back to God. “Therefore we will not fear though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea…

“The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” (From Psalm 46.)

We are called to God, who is our refuge and strength. We are called out of our confusion, distraction and fear, back to God. That is the first order of business for us as a diocese – and for me as a bishop. I see myself as the CSO – the chief spiritual officer – calling us back to God.

Watch the video of the full address. Time: 27:59. (Please note: due to technical difficulties,
the image disappears briefly between 24:54 and 25:20, but the audio continues uninterrupted.)

And we have many ways by which we can connect, communicate and be guided by God. Last summer we began to invite people across the diocese to pay attention to signs of God’s grace – God’s gifts in our lives –which are freely given and remarkably abundant. When does God show up in our lives? How and where is God working in the world? We have provided opportunities for people to share signs of God’s grace: since September we have a place on our web site for people to share stories of the signs of God’s grace. As your CSO, at every Sunday parish visitation, I invite people to voice signs of God’s grace. I initially worried that people would feel the need to frame their stories in theological or biblical language. Some do. Most don’t. A nine year old boy recently told me and his congregation that he felt God’s blessing and comfort when he held onto a cross his mother gave him when he had to spend time in a hospital. I heard an expectant mother share her regular moments of grace by the relationships she has developed with the guests in her parish feeding program. A woman from another congregation was in tears when she told the people of her congregation that they were signs of God’s grace because they helped her sort through the many divergent feelings she had at the death of her estranged father. And the stories keep coming.

These stories tell me three important things: that people can see how God is working; that our congregations are safe places where people can share intimate signs of God’s grace; and that we need to be intentional about watching for signs of God’s grace. To keep paying attention – and to give the signs of God’s grace equal or more weight than the other signs that command our attention and raise our anxiety – the economic signs, the indicators from the political landscape, the signs from the flock of electronic devices that most of us keep at the ready.

As we develop a practice of paying attention to signs of God's grace, we are more inclined to live in gratitude. Living in gratitude is a discipline. It takes work. It needs to be a part of our work as the people of God in this diocese. Gratitude is responding to God’s grace by passing grace on to others. Gratitude is not about obligation – although it sure felt that way when I was ten years old and my mother hounded me to write Christmas thank you notes to my grandparents.

Living in gratitude is a corrective to resentment and guilt, which are two primary responses that our culture reinforces – and which bring us away from God.

I have designated Epiphany as the gratitude season. Epiphany begins with the story of the giving of gifts, which are outward manifestations of gratitude. Many of us are reading Help Thanks Wow by Anne Lamott as a way of entering more fully into the discipline of gratitude. A life grounded in gratitude opens our hearts, and frees our souls to be more generous – which as Anne Lamott points out is a key ingredient in our healing. Gratitude literally makes us better, stronger, and more vital – and when you get down to it, living in gratitude makes life much more fun.

We often describe as a vicious cycle any dynamic in our lives which spins us downward to depression and negativity. It sounds ominous if not dangerous. We know that cycle. Many of us have been on a vicious cycle. And it often is ominous and dangerous. Gratitude invites us into a different cycle – a cycle of blessing and discipleship, which leads us to more joy and greater freedom.

As CSO, I call us onto the cycle of blessing – by paying attention to signs of God’s grace, and living in gratitude. We will wind up giving more, and thanking more. I already see that happening – which deepens my gratitude in having this remarkable honor to serve as your bishop. As we continue to live onto the cycle of blessing, we will discover more and more what it means to be disciples of Christ.

We are called to be disciples – which means, in part, that we are people who are called to live with discipline. The discipline is deepened in worship; worship is designed to to fill all our senses and sensibilities with signs of God’s grace – and launch us onto the cycle of blessing – which is why worship is so important. Discipleship includes our being grounded in worship, but it extends beyond our just being in church. Being a disciple of Christ means living out our faith between Monday and Saturday – when the stresses and distractions of life threaten to take over. It means living out our faith with intention and discipline – in every aspect of our lives. Being a disciple requires intentional stewardship about how we spend our time, giving thanks to God and one another, and paying attention to the signs of God’s grace. A life of discipleship serves as a corrective to the creeping tide of functional atheism, a term coined by the Christian writer Parker Palmer, who writes that a functional atheist is someone who says they believe in God, but lives as though God doesn’t exist.

On my visits to congregations I often hear leaders telling me that they need more members – more people in the pews. My response is that what we really need are more disciples – people who can articulate their call from God, identify their own unique gifts and have a clear sense of how to use their gifts to do God’s work in the world. We welcome members – but we need disciples. Our ministry needs to be about the work of transforming members into disciples of the living Christ

That can be a tall order. But I see it happening over and over again. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, at least a dozen churches in the diocese that retained power opened their doors to neighbors who didn’t. Elaborate charging stations were set up. Food was served. Care was given. Some churches had parishioners spending all day, for many days, cooking, or listening, or serving – in short, being disciples. I visited many of these churches. I saw discipleship in action; people were connecting their faith to their service – and were claiming their church as a community center. Millionaires and homeless people were serving each other, and transformation was happening in ways that people hadn’t seen before. I saw the missional church.

Many congregations were without power throughout the crisis. They are talking with one another about how to be ready when the next storm hits – which, after three major weather events in fifteen months, seems likely. And some churches which kept power, but didn’t open their doors, have spent time after the storm assessing how they could have done things differently. Still other churches are acknowledging the reality of climate change – and are engaging in practices to reduce individual and congregational carbon footprints.

These are some of the signs of the missional church. Three Saturdays ago, more than a hundred people from 40 congregations in the diocese gathered for the first of several missional conversations sponsored by the Mission Strategy Committee. Pains were taken to define missional – which is an important thing to do given that our theme for this convention is “daring to be missional,” and given that my computer spell check has no clue what I am talking about. “Missional” moved from the conceptual to the real when two laypeople and one priest told their stories of mission. They were not stories of givers and receivers, but of mutual spiritual transformation – be it a breakfast ministry at Grace Van Vorst, Jersey City; a game night for young adults with special needs at St. Michael’s, Wayne; or a neighborhood youth group at St. John’s, Boonton. There were a lot of “Ahas” that morning, as more people began to not only get the idea of “missional,” but wanted to learn more about it so they can engage in it themselves.

The Mission Strategy Committee is responding to this commitment to learning about what it means to be missional people. They have scheduled another missional conversation for Saturday morning, March 23 – and will design the time so that returnees can take the conversation deeper while newcomers can be offered an introduction to the missional church. In April, training will be offered for the many people who are interested in being companions, or coaches, to congregations that want to embrace being a missional church. Pending your approval, the developing commitment to missional work is reflected in our budget.

And missional is a way of being. It is not a program. It is a different orientation as to how we are the church. It will take time to live into it. Most, if not all, of our congregations are wedded to the attractional model of church. There are some in the missional world who think that the attractional model needs to be abandoned altogether. I am not one of them. The attractional elements of a congregation – the music, the Christian education, the preaching, the web site – are very important; but they are not enough. The missional needs to be engaged as well.

As your CSO, I want to suggest a simple, but perhaps not easy way to bring missional into your common prayer. Every congregation I visit gives a lot of attention to the prayers of the people. Aside from a passing mention of the President and the Governor, all the prayers are for people in the congregation – people who are sick, or in bereavement or in some special need. These prayers bind the congregation together. I now invite you to add needs and concerns of the neighborhood into your prayer – for the school play at the high school; for a group of families who were burned out; for the upcoming election. These sorts of prayers will bind the congregation to the neighborhood.

The prayers are the simple part. The not so easy part is defining the neighborhood. Neighborhood is the place where the congregation is being led by the Holy Spirit to engage with what God is already up to. I know that this presents a dilemma for nearly every congregation – given that at least half their members, excuse me, disciples, live in another community. So what is your neighborhood? In the congregation I served for 14 years in Massachusetts it took us 18 months to discern if our neighborhood was five square blocks of the city or ten. It was a difficult discernment, but we needed to do it – and when we did our missional activity became clearer and was more focused. This is a challenge for so many of our congregations. Perhaps no more so than for St. Paul’s and Resurrection in Wood-Ridge, where many parishioners live as far as sixty miles away; and are drawn there because of their mutual south India roots. They are wrestling with the definition of “neighborhood” in new and creative ways.

When we define our neighborhood, we redefine pastoral care – and we become more missional. Perhaps the greatest strength I find in virtually all of our congregations is the pastoral care that the congregation provides one another. I say this because you tell me about it. At every visit, I hear about it. I see it. Oh, sweet Jesus, are you good at it. The stories have a common thread: “I couldn’t have made it through my job loss – or my divorce – or my child’s illness – or my father’s death – without the incredible (and that is a word often used) care given by the priest or the deacon – or the disciples in the congregation” (who are indeed living out their discipleship).

This is an amazing gift we have. We need to bring it into our neighborhoods, not at the expense of caring for one another – but to build on that gift. To be missional.

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, when Hoboken was still flooded and without power, a community leader came to All Saints Parish just before the 8 am Eucharist on Sunday morning. He was coming to church – not to worship, but to get the keys to the Jubilee Center, the congregation’s mission on the western part of the city. He had a scrounged up a couple of generators, and he wanted to set them up so the Jubilee Center could start serving food and providing support to people in that neighborhood. He was not a member of the congregation, but he knew that All Saints had a long history of providing pastoral care to the larger community. And he was a part of it.

Daring to be missional. Daring to be more intentional about my role as the chief spiritual officer. This will involve change. And for all of us who are leaders – which includes all of us here this morning – that will involve leading change in ourselves, in our congregations and in the diocese.

For me, change will involve a significant adjustment to my rule of life. For the past twenty years, my rule of life has been limited to my observance of the holy habits: a rhythm of prayer, worship, exercise, study, service and tithing. These practices are foundational to my life. They provide a needed rhythm, and they deepen my joy. It took me nearly twenty years to live a rule of life with any degree of regularity. At a CREDO conference for bishops last December, we were invited to look at rule of life from various perspectives – and to develop a new rule of life. And I did. I have added a few things to my observance of holy habits – but more importantly, I have added two new categories: being more intentionally creative; and intentionally living with more gratitude. The change is new – and so it still feels odd, but deep down it feels right, and life-giving, to have them be foundational to my life.

I want to credit a small group of clergy in the diocese for challenging me to be more missional. Last spring they came to me and asked – what about the soup kitchen immediately next door to Episcopal House in Newark? I knew about it. Actually, I knew more about it when I arrived six years ago. I had seen the people lined up twice a day – at breakfast and lunch. I saw them. It looked familiar, because I had done a lot of work in soup kitchens and shelters over the years.

And then I no longer noticed the people next door, even though they gathered right beneath my office window twice a day. After a time as bishop, I had other things to look at – over 100 congregations spread all over northern New Jersey, with their issues and opportunities and concerns. The soup kitchen became part of a frozen landscape.

“Let’s go together and find out what’s going on”, these clergy suggested. By now they had their elbows firmly planted in my ribs – and I knew theirs was an offer I couldn’t refuse. We went over together – not to eat, but to listen. And in the course of an hour, I identified the neighborhood for the first time. I went back. I continue to go back – to listen to some incredible stories of courage and disappointment. The Diocese maintains a gate that divides the two properties, with a common driveway in between. We used to keep the gate locked. People had to walk two extra blocks out to McCarter Highway in order to stand in the food line. Some crawled under the fence as a shortcut. As a result of naming the soup kitchen as part of our neighborhood, we have unlocked the gate during meal times. It is a big change – a good change for the most part; but it has created some ancillary changes that we are still working through.

As bishop, I want to help congregations identify their neighborhood and engage in community pastoral care. I want to dare congregations to be more missional. To that end, in addition to my Sunday visits – and in addition to my coming to congregations to see mission in action, in this next year I plan to schedule appointments with clergy and/or lay leaders on a time other than Sunday. I will ask the leader to make an appointment with a neighborhood leader – and then I will go with them to have a conversation with that leader. The Mission Strategy Committee will help congregations in discerning community leaders. It could be the mayor, or someone else who has a sense of the issues and concerns of the community. Given the heightened anxiety after the Newtown Ct. shooting, the superintendent of schools or a school principal might especially welcome the visit. I will come not to provide advice or a program, but to model the change I think is needed in claiming pastoral care for the community. This coming week I will be going with leaders from All Saints Millington to meet with a restaurant owner, who functioned as the community chaplain during the long power outage after Superstorm Sandy.

There is change brewing in our collective spiritual life. There is change emerging in our daring to be missional. And there is change in our institutional reality. Last year at this time we had three pairs of congregations who were – and still are – exploring ministry together. We now have seven. We have three or four other pairs or triads who are planning to have conversations about exploring ministry together. This means that fully twenty percent of our congregations are exploring different models of ministry. Some involve peer churches, in that they are of the same size. Some are pairings of a larger and smaller congregation. There was a unique moment of change at St. Agnes, Little Falls, this past October – when the congregation decided to close their doors for a Sunday and send parishioners to worship in several different congregations. It was discernment in the service of mission.

As bishop, I want to support these conversations, but I don’t want to dictate how those conversations should go. Each conversation is different –and so is the change that is involved. There is an art to this – and we are learning the art together. There isn’t one road map to follow. Every situation is unique.

A couple of things are clear to me as we live into this relatively new phenomenon. It is hard work. It is good work. It is God-driven work. And I am convinced that if the process is not grounded in God with a clear focus on being missional (as opposed to survival) I think it is a good bet to say that it won’t work. What gives me hope about all of this is the witness that the warden from St. Luke’s, Hope made in a meeting with me and the vestry of St. Mary’s, Belvidere, two congregations who have been in conversation about partnership for a little over two years. He said that it was his belief that the impetus for the congregations coming together was not due to the challenge of finances, but a gift of God’s grace. I believed him. So did everyone else in the room.

We will need to be open to change if we are going to lead it. And the change involved will be different for every congregation in the diocese. Many of us will choose to engage in change. We know that there are people in our congregations who will be resistant to change. As Gandhi once said, we must become the change we seek. This is not about change for change’s sake – but seeing what God is up to in our neighborhoods, meeting God there – and living more fully into the grace and gratitude and God’s blessing and God’s mission.

May it be so.