August 28, 2014

Thoughts on Matthew 16:21-28

One of the big takeaways of this week’s gospel lesson is that you don’t get in the way of Jesus’ achieving his mission. If you try to do that, you get called out and sidelined for it.

A mission is that sense of driving call that gets us out of bed and keeps us moving. It is that sense of clarity that helps us to remain focused throughout the day, and to go to bed at night with plenty of time to rest so we can get up the next day and stay on it. Perhaps it’s stating the obvious, but if you call yourself a Christian, you need to take your faith and the promise of the Kingdom of God into account when doing the work of formulating your own personal sense of mission or purpose, and you must allow the leading of the Holy Spirit in formulating it as well.

So now it’s worth asking: What is your mission in this life? Why were you put on this earth?

If you can’t say right off, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in the vast majority. Why?

There are three reasons. (1) We’re basically lazy. We want to make the world a better place, but the couch is generally more comfortable. We don’t achieve focus on goals because it means excluding everything else. And “everything else” is -- let’s face it -- often just easier. (2) When it comes to a sense of mission, many of us simply do not know where to start. It’s just some vague cloud we can’t seem to clutch. This is because we aren’t practiced at it. (3) The word “mission” has been drastically overused and misused, which obscures its real power. Mission in the corporate (and corporate-church) world has been disastrously and laughably forced to serve not as a bolster to group clarity, but rather to overwhelming ambiguity. A recent song by “Weird Al” Yankovic called “Mission Statement” effectively makes the point:
We must all efficiently operationalize our strategies
Invest in world-class technology and leverage our core competencies
In order to holistically administrate exceptional synergy
We'll set a brand trajectory using management’s philosophy
Advance our market share vis-à-vis our proven methodology
With strong commitment to quality effectively enhancing corporate synergy
I’m afraid to say this is not too far from my own experience! Plenty of organizations advance mission statements all the time that are basically meaningless. In this case, as is often the case, a lack of genuine contact and communication between leaders and members leads to mission statements that are frail, forgettable, and toothless. Some companies have a simple, clear sense of purpose; their chances of long-term survival and market adaptability are much higher.

Obviously no company would ever adopt a mission statement like this: “Our mission is to be a corporation forever.” Yet that seems a fair summarization of quite a lot of churches these days. It isn’t working.

Meanwhile, two thousand years later, through Jesus, God has built a mission statement that still resonates. In Luke 4:16-21, he puts it into plain, specific, accessible terms:
When [Jesus] came to the village of Nazareth, his boyhood home, he went as usual to the synagogue on Saturday, and stood up to read the Scriptures. The book of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him, and he opened it to the place where it says:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted and to announce that captives shall be released and the blind shall see, that the downtrodden shall be freed from their oppressors, and that God is ready to give blessings to all who come to him.”
He closed the book and handed it back to the attendant and sat down, while everyone in the synagogue gazed at him intently. Then he added, “These Scriptures came true today!”
In Luke’s eyes there’s nothing vague about why Jesus has come: he is to preach Good News, heal the brokenhearted, and announce the liberation and blessings of God. Everything else will follow on from these points. Nothing will distract him from fulfilling it.

I’ve often wondered if Jesus knew his time on earth was limited, so that maybe he had a more urgent sense of mission. But then I think that for a Jesus-believer like myself, perhaps that’s really just a cop-out. (“I have all the time in the world -- why rush to change the world? -- why have a mission?”) We are simply to learn from Jesus’ lightninglike focus, and not only learn it, but imitate it outright. I wonder how fast things would change for the better if we would all just adopt this same attitude of urgency.

You know those t-shirts that say things like “Football is life -- the rest is just details”? Or, “Fishing is life -- the rest is just details”? Or really anything -- soccer or surfing or dance? Well, I have to wonder where the spark went out of our relationship with God through Christ when we can so freely proclaim a mission to dance or fish or surf with such gusto and glee, but with God it’s just not there. And oddly, I bet most of us would put our faith lives somewhere in a list of our supposedly highest priorities. So why this imbalance? (I’m preaching to myself here, too.)

Where then is the disconnect between our mission-less lives and the mission-full life of Christ? Where is the passion? The urgency? The drive? The conviction? Did we think that once we passed it along to another generation it wasn’t our responsibility anymore? Are we hoarding a dimly flickering flame? Or is there something rising in us -- a passion, a sense of missional clarity that needs to be fed and nurtured?

Pray this week for clarity and focus, and ask God to show you what your missional focus is. If you have a sense of why you were put on this earth, ask God to sharpen that sense and feeling by allowing you to put it into practice. Be bold and ask for it in plain words.

In the end, we all want a life of purpose and meaning. We all want to be able to say (both in words and in actions) why we were put on this earth. In Jesus, God clearly and precisely offers that to us. We have not come all this way in approaching the throne of grace in such great humility only to ask for nothing. Let us seek to be wise and to practice the wisdom of Christ.

In other words, let’s get clear, and let’s get movin’. Amen!

August 26, 2014

Better group norms

Using the Ten Rules for Respect, I have been able to see some intrachurch conflict slow down, or at least see some members come into a deeper place of conversation where the likelihood of conflict getting out of hand is sharply lessened. Without the overwhelming constraint and weight of constant conflict, we get freed up to more effectively pursue The Main Thing.

Last week I sat with a congregational calling committee, and they had been careful to list the following group norms for themselves. These norms were alluded to more than once during the evening, so I feel assured they are in the DNA of the group. The chair of the calling committee tells me that they all decided on the norms together, and that they always list them at the bottom of the agenda for every calling committee meeting.

These group norms were:

Balance of Voices
Listen with Open Hearts
Respect Confidentiality
All Present for ALL Discussions
Resist Sidebar Conversations
Tell the Truth Faster - With Love

I liked these norms most especially because each one seemed to have been designed to take the edge off of places where the process can go off the rails. Each desired group characteristic as described acknowledges not only that things can go wrong (and they always do, sooner or later), but specifically how things go wrong.

A balance of voices > domination by one personality or by rote

Full listening > crosstalk, getting in my say, not digesting others' ideas

Observing confidentiality > dealing with information leaks and mistrust among group members

Everyone present all the time > domination or passive-aggression by individuals' "priorities";
constantly having to catch people up

Resisting side chatter > constantly refocusing on the task at hand;
having multiple conversations rather than one conversation

Fast, loving truth > staving off the inevitable just because it's hard;
frittering over having hard conversations or making tough decisions
when we know we're going to have to make them anyway

The chief characteristic seems to be an acknowledgement that wasting the time and energy of the members of any group is the main reason why people leave groups or lose interest, and that excellent, mindful, consistent modeling by group leaders and other members keeps groups focused and on task.

Churches in search, and just administrative church bodies in general, would do well to consider how to adapt similar values into their working life.

It all seems pretty obvious, doesn't it? But if it's so obvious, why do so many group processes get bogged down or even stalled-out altogether?

August 23, 2014


Sermon for Year A, Proper 16
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
August 24, 2014
St. Paul’s Cathedral

My sisters and brothers in Christ,
 I greet each of you warmly this day,
   And I humbly ask God’s protection and guidance
   As we strive to live into the calling that has been given us
     To be a holy and living sacrifice, building up the Church
       And living and loving and serving all of God’s people. Amen. Please be seated.

So good morning! My name is Torey Lightcap.
I’m the Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, part-time;
 And I also serve as the Diocesan Transitions Minister, part-time.
It’s that last title that brings me to you today, for you are in search mode for a new Dean,
 And I am happy to be walking alongside you as you go about that search.

It’s good to see you all again, to be with you all again.
I say “again,” because I was here once before, on a Consecration Sunday, a few years ago,
 And I had the pleasure of preaching then, at Cathleen’s invitation.
I can’t remember the lessons that were appointed that day,
 Or much of anything I said for that matter.
And I had that feeling this week that I should go back and look --
 It would be a pretty easy thing, to search my files and find what I preached.
Then I thought, as a kind of an experiment, Well, what do I remember from that day?
 What, of anything, was said or done that could be recalled as sacred memory?
I pushed away and sat quietly a moment, and up onto the brooding surface of my memory
 Three little scraps came floating.
One. In the sermon that day,
 I said that the Church is an Island of Misfit Toys, and a hospital for souls.
The Church is a spiritual home for striving, not for perfection --
     It’s a base camp, not a mountaintop --
       It’s an airport, a way station -- not a destination.
(Those are all great metaphors; I stole them from people smarter than me!)
Two. I recalled that after worship, the parish hall buzzed with life of all kinds.
 (Perhaps the Church is less an airport and more of a beehive!
  After all, Paul talks about one body, many members, different functions.
    [Queens, drones, worker-bees, etc. Hmm.]
  Maybe we’ll have to play around with that metaphor.)
Three. Standing by the water garden, in my big coat, with my wife and kids nearby,
 The light in the sky already lengthening afternoon shadows,
 And having a simple conversation with Cathleen and Tim Bascom.
It was one of those conversations you don’t want to stop. Just keep it going, on and on.
In fact, I distinctly recall that as I stood there visiting with Cathleen and Tim,
 With our kids playing in the water and yet begging also to go home, ...
 I remembered what it was like to wait and wait and wait for my own mother after church --
   Sitting in the car, listening to the quiet, looking out at a large, empty parking lot
     (Being old enough, no problem, to sit in the car on my own) --
     Wondering what was so dadblamed important to Mom when her kids were hungry for lunch --
       Not realizing that she was inside getting all the adult relationship she was likely to get
       And that she had to sustain herself, psychologically and spiritually, for the next seven days.
I remembered that feeling, standing there with Cathleen and Tim,
   Just having this simple little conversation --
 I remembered it because just for a moment I felt what it was to have been my own mother,
 Having found a sense of community with two wonderful people -- just then finding it,
   And then being almost torn back into reality and getting in the car and driving three hours away.
BUT. For one brief, cold, sun-shiney moment on a Sunday afternoon,
 In the rain garden out back here, I experienced a moment of communion with my mother.
As life moments go, as big realizations go, I’d rate it way up there ...

Perhaps it is that epiphanies -- realizations, new insights -- are God’s way of reminding us
 That the world is a bigger place than we’re usually content to think.
I mean, today Peter is asked a question, and he says what he thinks,
 But Peter is an impulsive, verbose guy who does things and says things minute by minute.
Getting out of a boat to walk on the water to Jesus being just one example.
He’s recorded as saying a lot of different things in the Gospels, getting a lot of lines --
 And no doubt part of the time sticking his foot in his mouth,
   Revealing his fear and doubt and insecurity and lack of information.
And sometimes he bumbles his way into some larger beautiful truth.
And sometimes what he says is pretty profound. Our brother in the faith, gone before us.

Perhaps you know someone who has to process things out loud, like Peter does.
Perhaps you yourself are one such person.
Perhaps you’re not and you’re elbowing your spouse right now instead.

I’m not much of a talker myself;
 I tend to sit down in a quiet room and start writing out impressions,
 And pretty soon a situation becomes clearer to me. That’s how I tend to process.
But with those who need to talk it out, everyone gets to hear the thought process,
 Which, really, can be fascinating.
This is undoubtedly who Peter is: he’s a talker:
 He opens his mouth not quite aware of what’s going to come out,
   And what issues forth, from time to time,
     Is wiser than whatever else he might have planned to say.
That ever happen to you?
Without a doubt, when this happens, he’s just as surprised as anyone else!

That’s what makes him more than just a literary figure.
That’s what rounds him out and makes him human and real.
That’s what makes him our brother in the faith:
 Because he is real and he does what people do:
 Chief Stumbler of the Church; First Bishop of the Diocese of the Island of Misfit Toys.
Head Chaplain at the Hospital for Souls.

As a priest in the church, I’m proud to say
 That at my ordination my head was touched by hands that were touched by hands
   That were touched by hands that, if you care to look and trace it, go all the way back to Peter.

That ordination was also, for me, a big epiphany and a big confession.
Of what exactly, I’m not quite sure. I’ll spend my life chasing it.
But it kind of went like this:
 The Messiah has come into the world in the person of Jesus,
   Who is the Christ, the Anointed One.
My ordination into the one holy catholic and apostolic Church
 Is made official by association with a long procession of bumblers and truth-tellers --
   Men (and, I’m proud to say women) who were given a confession of true faith,
     About who Jesus was and is,
   And who brought that confession up into a self-startling confession and utterance.
God surprised them at the telling -- surprised them with joy and peace.
They confessed, as the hymn says, that Christ is the world’s true light.

And it isn’t just priests, is it? It can’t be!
It’s also -- what? -- deacons and bishops, sure --
 But mostly it’s YOU. You, confessing Christ and being “surprised by joy.”

My sisters and brothers in the faith:
 Every time we gather, every time we pray --
   With every eucharist and baptism and celebration and time of grief in community --
     Every moment of faith formation and every chance for inquiry --
     Every single act of service that helps to lift the condition of another human being --
     Every time we state the substance of our faith or say prayers for each other
       Or stand and sing, let a song fall out and rise to heaven --
         Every single time the  Church  is  the  Church,
           It’s a description about who or what God is and what or who we need or want God to be;
           It’s a link in the narrative, historic chain of our faith about Jesus;
           It’s yet another moment in our need for the Holy Spirit to come and comfort.

It’s a confession and an epiphany that God is good and that God loves what God makes --
 That God does not abandon or forsake, but loves us all the way down the line, for ever.
Every time the Church is the Church, it’s a confession
 That occasionally startles the living daylights out of us.

Now, let me ask the question you may be thinking of yourself:
 What does any of this have to do with the fact
 That the Cathedral is in the middle of a search process for a new Dean?

Well, for one, the Cathedral, being the sort of symbol it is,
 Needs to be a place where Christ is confessed, “not only with our lips but in our lives,”
 As we say in the General Thanksgiving in Morning Prayer.
Where Christ is praised, studied, and imitated.
As I said before, you are the fullest authority on how this gets done,
 And to some that may seem a bit shocking to say;
 But the Dean will be your partner, not your patriach or matriarch;
   Not Superman; not Mr or Mrs. Fix-It.
He or she will come alongside and help to make ways for Christ to be confessed and lived.
Everything about this Cathedral must be the confession of a true and shocking faith --
 A moral and valued and respected voice in the public discourse
   Speaking out with clarity and conviction about What Matters.
Confession and epiphany are like truth and revelation.

For another thing: this may come as a big shock as well,
 But a priest is a human being (!) .
A priest opens his or her mouth and sometimes life-affirming wisdom comes out;
 And sometimes, even when he or she is good and prayed up, it’s just this bumbling thing,
   Like listening to good old Saint Peter ramble on, painting himself into corners,
     Til he strikes oil, finds gold, says the truth he couldn’t have calculated on his own.
Like any parent, like any person who is given authority,
 A priest is often just a study in self-contradiction,
 Stumbling around in the dark looking for the light, and all the while asking you to follow.
His humanity, his foibles, her humanity, her inability to find the right word -- ...
 This is precisely and paradoxically what brings value to your relationship and allows you to bond.
I think that’s why so many churches who are in search like to say,
 We want a person with a sense of humor or, We want someone who’s approachable.
It means a good parish priest, a good Dean, is someone not afraid to come limping into the service,
 Laughing at his scars, and praise God alongside you.
Perfection is a lie. Keeping on Trying? That’s the Gospel.
Confession and epiphany reveal the beauty and the trial and the humor of just being alive.

Finally, just this:
 Confession of Christ means looking after what God gives you to take care of.
People of St. Paul’s, you are in an extraordinarily good place and time to be looking for a Dean.
You have strategic plans and goals and specific challenges and are raising funds to meet them;
 You have a map for the road ahead; your next phase is not guesswork.
You have the ability to greet your new Dean, not with crises upon crises,
 But a firm foundation upon which to stand and begin.
There is a spirit of invention and enterprise and entrepreneurialism here;
 It’s in the walls and in your bones.

I’m confident in your Cathedral Chapter, and your Selection Team;
 And I am encouraged beyond words by the candidates you’re working with.
It was my deep privilege to help bring them your way.
You have much to commend your selves going forward,
 Beautiful confessions of Christ before you,
   Epipany upon epiphany waiting for you in your life ahead.

You and your candidates are constantly in my prayers as you go forward in your process.

I close with Saint Paul’s words, from his writing in Hebrews:
“[L]et us approach [the sanctuary of God] with a true heart in full assurance of faith,
 With our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience
   And our bodies washed with pure water.
 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,
   For he who has promised is faithful.
 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.”

May it be so. Amen.