This is the address Bishop Scott Mayer gave on Friday, November 8, at the 2019 Diocesan Convention at the Decatur Civic Center.
You can watch it below or on YouTube, or read the text [below the video].
Fort Worth Convention 2019 November 8
Our theme for this year’s annual convention is “The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus Centered Life.” Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, introduced these practices during the last General Convention in Austin. As he said at the time, these are ancient practices drawn from the wisdom of the saints, set in contemporary language for our contemporary context.
And that context is a rapidly changing context. You’ve likely heard me say what you know already – that it’s a new day for Christianity in North America, and I believe the Spirit is blowing through Christianity in a new way, even as we see fewer people calling themselves “Christian” and we see a decline in numbers and influence.
I believe a new wind is blowing, and it transcends our own particular tradition, and includes a broad range of expressions of the faith. We hear words like “reformation,” and “metamorphoses,” and “emergence” from a number of scholars. I like what Harvey Cox says – that we are moving from the Age of Belief (meaning belief systems) to the Age of the Spirit.
Whatever we call this new day, it appears that a fundamental shift in our self-understanding is beginning to emerge. I believe we are moving from understanding ourselves as “going to church” to understanding ourselves as “being the church.” That’s not going to change overnight. Another way I’ve heard it described (and not unrelated to the first description) is this: Christianity is moving from presenting itself as a “system of beliefs,” which is what we’ve done since the Enlightenment, to presenting itself as a “way of life.”
For people are hungry for more than doctrine, more than “head knowledge” about God. People are hungry for an encounter with the living God. Rather than learning passively about God, people are seeking a WAY of life which leads to a sense of God’s presence, a PATH which leads to abundant life, a PATH which leads to a sense of being alive.
That’s the shift we are seeing. And more and more Christians from a variety of traditions are returning to the ancient Christian practices which lead to life, returning to our roots, actually – returning to our original self understanding as the Way.
One of the leaders of this emerging church movement – now an author, but once the pastor of a large non-denominational mega-church, Brian McLaren – reminds us that while it is true that the Apostle Paul was a theologian, it was Paul’s task to show us the way to follow Jesus. McLaren says about Paul: “Far from being a rigid member of the dogma police or inquisition mafia, Paul, like Jesus, is a prophet of love, calling people to follow a love road, to walk a love path, to practice a love way. Paul’s faith is not just an idea to which we assent but a way in which we walk.” [p45]
Before Paul begins his famous passage on love – that love is patient, and love is kind, and so forth – Paul says, “I will show you a still more excellent way.” To Paul, following Jesus is like walking a path, the way of love. It’s a discipline, an exercise, a training, a practice.
It’s McLaren who observes that practice may not make perfect, but it does make currently impossible things possible. Practice can make the gifts of patience, and kindness, and courage, and forgiveness, and inner peace possible. Practice can make the gift of an awareness of God’s presence possible. Practice can make the gift of deeper communion with God and one another possible.
The mystics will tell us – and I believe they are right – that our deepest desire as human beings, and ultimately the desire beneath all other desires, is union with God. As Christians, we believe following Jesus is the way to such union. And these “way of love” practices put us on that path. But, these practices are not merely private and individualistic. This is something more than “my” personal salvation.
Jesus himself quoted the Hebrew Scriptures when he linked together the two great commandments to love God AND neighbor. They are connected. All of the spiritual guides of our history will tell us we cannot grow close to God without growing close to one another. Holy Communion is celebrated WITH others. We are baptized for a purpose beyond ourselves: to proclaim and embody God’s love for all people.
That proclamation always takes place in a context, and it’s pretty plain to see that our context is one characterized by growing divisions in society. I’m mindful that the word “devil” in the Greek has its roots in the word “divider.” We are divided, alienated. That’s the theological understanding of sin. And the message is simple, really – simple, but not easy. God’s mission (the mission in which we participate) is to restore creation to union with God and one another, and the way we do that is through love – the love revealed in Jesus.
I want to pause for a moment to say something about our current context, this moment in our beloved country’s history. Something is wrong. I don’t believe I’m being melodramatic in saying that. This is something more than philosophical differences on economic or political systems. This is more than disagreement.
At the most recent meeting of the House of Bishops, our Presiding Bishop said the following in his opening sermon: “When folk are out just partying in Dayton, Ohio, and they get gunned down, something’s wrong. Something’s wrong when folk are gunned down in El Paso because of the color of their skin and the origin of their home. Something’s wrong when Jews in Pittsburg can’t worship the Lord. Something’s wrong when Sikhs can’t worship in Wisconsin. Or, the AME church in Charleston.”
“Something’s wrong in our cities where drive-bys continue to happen. And innocent children in Chicago are gunned down. And that’s been going on for years throughout the cities of this country. The epidemic of gun violence, something’s wrong.”
“And something’s wrong when we are not receiving moral leadership. I’m not being partisan now. I don’t care who’s in the White House, Republican, Democrat, Independent. So, we need our leaders to call us to the better angels of our nature. To call us to the values on which this country was founded.”
“And we must catalyze a revival – a revival in this nation, a revival in our church, a revival to the principles and to the God who’s the author of them.”
The Church is called to follow Jesus. That sounds obvious. I’ve heard it said that there are Christians who believe that we are called primarily to worship Jesus, and then there are Christians who believe that we are called primarily to follow Jesus. It’s not an “either/or” proposition. And besides, as Episcopalians we are inclined to be “both/and” people. Surely, we are called to follow him.
In his latest book the Franciscan monk and theologian, Richard Rohr, addresses this as he writes about what he calls “the Great Comma.” He is referencing the Apostle’s Creed when we say: “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, [comma] suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried … .”
Notice, there is nothing in the Creed between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate” except a comma. Rohr says: “Called the ‘Great Comma,’ this gap certainly invites some serious questions. Did all the things Jesus said and did in those years not count for much? Were they nothing to ‘believe’ in? Was it only his birth and death that mattered? Does the gap in some way explain Christianity’s often dismal record of imitating Jesus’ actual life and teachings?”
According to Rohr, the Great Comma represents the life, the teachings such as the Beatitudes, the healings, the life example of Jesus – who calls us to follow him.
This afternoon I would like to make two observations, given our context, and make two appeals to us in this moment. And the preacher is preaching to the preacher, as well.
First. It’s been said that the only power anyone has is the power we give them. I think that’s mostly true. As we enter into this long political season, fraught with emotion, my appeal to all of us is this: don’t give this moment the power to divide us; don’t give any public figure the power to divide us. I am mindful of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the so-called “love passage.”
Paul writes: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” Let’s speak – and speak honestly and prophetically – but, let’s speak to one another and beyond the church with love.
Second. I would like to remind us of our historic roots as a tradition inclusive of different theological perspectives. We have a gift to offer beyond ourselves. Years ago I heard the former Senator of Missouri speak at General Convention. The former Republican Senator of Missouri is an Episcopal priest, as well. Father Jack Danforth said the following: “Here, in a nutshell, is my point. I think the holding America together should be the project of the Episcopal Church.”
He says, “We Episcopalians are especially well positioned for this project. … It is our tradition. We are the middle way. We reject extremes. We do not insist upon doctrinal purity. We allow a variety of beliefs in our common prayer. We welcome all to our altars. We boast of being inclusive. … Our breadth is our strength, not our weakness.”
He says, “Let’s make it clear that we are respectful of a variety of political opinions. … If we are serious about being inclusive, we must resist being a niche church that is identified with only one part of the political spectrum.” He reminds us, “… no party and no ideology makes the same claim on us as God.” And he wonders if this could be our prophetic ministry.
Holding a fractured country together may be beyond our capacity. Father Danforth is aiming high. But, I do think we are positioned theologically, spiritually, and temperamentally to be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation during this historical moment. It will take practice to have the interiority for this moment.
Bishop Curry has introduced us to seven practices: Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, and Rest. We have booklets, and T-shirts, and websites, and podcasts to guide us through these practices.
I’m going to walk through each practice, using the recent Episcopal Church podcasts as my guide in the order the podcasts were released. I recommend these. Each one features our Presiding Bishop, as he tells of his own experience.
So, I’m beginning today with the practice of prayer – “Pray: to dwell intentionally with God each day.” Fundamental to the Presiding Bishop’s prayer life is the Daily Office. He shares with us that every day he prays Morning Prayer and either Evening Prayer or Compline. He, also, spends time praying over specific passages from scripture. He has a prayer list, and when he prays for a person he visualizes their face to bring them into fuller consciousness. Daily prayer is in the rhythm of his life.
I, too, pray Morning Prayer or some version of it. Sometimes I get out of the habit, but sitting down with the Book of Common Prayer in my hands, and reading the prayers aloud brings me back into practice. I have had spiritual directors throughout my life; I count the Book of Common Prayer as one of them. In seminary we all read a book for liturgics called “Praying Shapes Believing.” The Book of Common Prayer has shaped my believing.
From time to time I have practiced Centering Prayer. Centering Prayer is an exercise in emptying the self of fears, anxieties, and desires – a practice in letting go of the self. Simply put, one spends 20 minutes letting go of thoughts. It’s a practice of letting go of anything that comes to mind. It is not a practice in stopping thoughts from arising but, rather, when they arise, let them go.
If you’re like me, there are certain thoughts we want to hang onto, and massage, and develop – especially when the brilliant idea for the next sermon surfaces. Let it go. It’s like a death, a dying to self. And the practice of letting go – that self-emptying – will change us. We may not even realize it, but others will. It is one method among many, and not for everyone.
The second podcast released is “Rest: recognizing the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration.” Rest, as a practice, is taken from the word “Sabbath,” which means “dwelling with God.” The Presiding Bishop reminds us that it is something more than “time off.” It is creating space or creating a container to practice rest, and make it a part of our rhythm of life.
Two things about rest, theologically speaking: one reason the Sabbath is so important to the Jews in stories throughout the Bible – and the reason they went to extremes to create a container for the practice of rest – is that keeping Sabbath was a statement that they were free. They were liberated from the bondage of slavery. No longer slaves, they were free to “not work.”
And another thing that “rest” reminds us is that the world will turn without our work. It may look selfish to take time to rest, but actually it gets us out of our sense of self-importance. Someone else is in charge. (It’s not necessary to notice that I gave a theological case for keeping Sabbath, rather than sharing my practice.)
The next practice is worship – “Worship: gathering with others to give thanks, praise, and to draw near to God.” The Presiding Bishop is asked if there is a difference between prayer and worship – a great question. He says they are different. “Why go somewhere to worship with a bunch of people when I can stay home and pray by myself?” And he answers his own question: “to get out of my own world, and go to our world; to get out of my self-centeredness. I am not the center of the universe. I am not God. So I go to a place of worship with a group of people, and do things beyond ‘me’ – to de-center myself and re-center myself in God; to go from ‘me’ at the center to God at the center.”
And he says, “Where else do you make such a fuss over bread and wine? And water? And we wear costumes.” We can see that these podcasts are something more than textbook descriptions of a rule of life. Bishop Curry shares his story in plain English.
Speaking personally, I have been privileged to travel the Anglican theme park of high church Anglo-catholic, low church evangelical, contemplative, and renewed, ranging from the National Cathedral to church camp. I have loved it, and my favorite part of this calling is the Sunday visitations.
I appreciate it that everyone wants the liturgy to be perfect when the bishop comes to visit. I know that arises out of your gift of hospitality. I remember a rector of mine, trying to alleviate the anxiety of acolytes, remarked that there is no such thing as a perfect Eucharist. I have come to believe they are all perfect.
“Learn: reflect on scripture each day, especially Jesus’ life and teachings.” The Presiding Bishop tells us that he reads scripture out loud. He tends to practice Lectio Divina, reading a passage three times, listening for the word that comes to mind. He says it’s less studying and more listening, that rather than trying to master the scriptures, he is trying to let the scriptures master him. He says that for him, a passage can become like an earworm – a song that gets stuck in our ears.
For me personally, I take seriously a particular vow in the service for the ordination to the priesthood. The ordination candidate is asked, “Will you be diligent in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures, AND in seeking such knowledge of such things as may make you a stronger and more able minister of Christ?”
So, I read theology (I’m fed by that), and poetry, and novels – and my continued education has ranged from studies in leadership, and family systems theory, and Spanish language immersion.
“Bless: sharing faith, giving, and serving.” This particular podcast is a conversation between Bishop Curry and his Canon for Evangelism and Reconciliation, Stephanie Spellers. Canon Spellers is the one who observes that the intention of a blessing is for the person being blessed, or the place being blessed, or the item being blessed to become fully who or what it is called to be.
For example, to give the blessing of money to something is to help it become what it is called to be or do, whether the annual congregational budget, or a new building, or to cure cancer.
Sharing faith (or evangelism) does the same, although Bishop Curry and Canon Spellers are quick to remark that sharing our stories with others begins with listening. In the gospels we see that when Jesus engages a person, he begins by listening, by meeting them where they are. It is a blessing to be heard.
There is power in both the hearing and telling of faith stories. When I meet with confirmation candidates before a service, I always ask to hear their story. I wish you could hear them, and know, if you ever doubt it, that all this church work matters. There is power in our testimonies. They bless us.
Throughout this convention we will hear some testimonies by way of video, as Episcopalians tell of their life-changing experience in our own local congregations. This is part of the Evangelism Initiative which began at our last convention – a ground-up initiative launched in-house. Our initial target audience is those who are un-churched, de-churched, or wounded by the church, as we claim “God loves you, yes you!” and “God doesn’t hate.” I encourage us to listen deeply as these stories are told. We will be blessed. We will become more fully who we are.
“Turn: pause, listen, and choose to follow Jesus.” This podcast is, also, a conversation between the Presiding Bishop and his Canon. Turning is a particular understanding of repentance. To repent is not to beat yourself up for your sins, but rather it is to turn toward God. Canon Spellers gives us the image of a flower turning from darkness to the light, so that the flower lives. To turn is to turn toward the light – the life-giving energy – the loving, liberating, life-giving energy of Jesus.
When we think of repentance we think of turning from sin, but sin is something more than moral infractions. It’s that which separates us from God and one another. Bishop Curry says that sin is selfishness, self-centeredness, and that is what alienates us – not only from God and one another, but from our truest selves. When the flower turns toward the light, the flower is being what a flower is supposed to be. And, it looks like it’s alive – it looks like life, and it looks like it can give life to others.
“Go.” You’ve likely heard the Presiding Bishop claim that the word “go” is the most important word in the Great Commission. In this podcast he tells a couple of stories from his days as diocesan bishop in North Carolina. One story was about a woman in a parish who started feeding inner-city neighborhood kids breakfast on Sundays, and then bringing them to church. That evolved into needing Sunday School classes, and eventually to an after-care program.
It began organically with a woman doing her best to live like Jesus. Another example he gives comes out of a small town, a ministry which began when a woman wanted to honor birthdays of children in the foster care system.
Bishop Curry calls this the “gut response to grace.” And when he speaks of this practice to “Go,” he reminds us of the story of the Resurrection. In Matthew’s version Mary Magdalene and the other Mary come to the tomb. The angel says to the women: “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. … He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee….”
Jesus has gone ahead of us to Galilee. Christ has gone ahead of us. Go … to where Christ has gone ahead of us. Wherever we go, God is there already. Do not be afraid.
These are seven practices following the Way of Love. Through these podcasts (which can be found through our website) these practices are made accessible in a very approachable way. I suspect you follow some of these practices already.
The Catholic monk who was one of the principal developers of the practice of Centering Prayer died about a year ago in October of 2018; his name is Thomas Keating. Keating served as abbot of a Trappist Monastery in Massachusetts for twenty years. A few miles down the road from the abbey was a Buddhist Insight Meditation Center. I tell this story as one who is grateful for the introduction to Buddhist practices to North America. At any rate, a growing number of young people started stopping by the monastery to ask directions to get to the Insight Meditation Center.
The story is told [by Cynthia Bourgeault p56] that Keating began to engage the young pilgrims in dialogue. “What was it they were seeking at the Insight Meditation Center? To which the response nearly always came, in the vernacular of the sixties, ‘A path, man! We are seeking a path.’ Discovering the vast majority of these seekers had been raised as Christians, he asked the sixty-four dollar question – ‘So, why don’t you search for a path within your own tradition?’ To which he received the genuinely astonished answer, ‘You mean Christianity has a path?’”
We are re-discovering that Christianity not only has a path, it is a path. It is an ancient path. It is a loving path. And, it changes lives. You will hear stories today and tomorrow that bear witness that through this path – this Way of Love – you change lives. Yes, you. Through the power of the Spirit, you change lives. And I’m grateful to be a part of this journey, and to follow this Way of Love with you.