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Eyes Up

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November 2014

But I said, “I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.”
he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Isaiah 49 vs. 2 and 4

October 11 and 12 we gathered in our Cathedral as leaders of our diocese. Elected leaders from 68 congregations gathered together with our Bishop, Sean Rowe. The worship was uplifting, the spirit encouraging, the dialogue honest about our shared challenge of moving forward as a diocese in the midst of changing sea tide. A changing sea tide of leadership, of diocesan shared resource, and of course missional context.

These words from Isaiah were offered at morning prayer and given to me as the preacher to ask the Spirit’s wisdom. They are a part of the narrative that runs in Isaiah of the suffering servant, called by God to serve a word of hope and salvation to the world. The servant responds initially, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and in vain!” In other words, I have been working hard God! Hard to serve you, to call the people of Israel to be faithful in prayers and in actions in the midst of their occupation, but nothing seems to be working! God’s response seems to be….well, maybe what we’re trying to do here is too small, maybe we should shoot bigger. Not only should we call the house of Israel back to covenant salvation, but perhaps we ought to reach for the entire world!”

“Ought to reach for the entire world!?” “Maybe its too small a thing!?”

I am not sure these are words you want to hear when you have been laboring hard, as hard as you can, and it seems your toil is in vain. Here is what we all agreed upon at our diocesan convention. 1. The Church (all of the church) and our churches are in membership and participation decline. 2.All of our budgets and our financial resources are tighter and tighter every year. 3.Many of us labor very hard to create fantastic opportunities for spiritual growth and community that folk are often too busy to attend. 4. Those of us who have been part of our churches for a long time find ourselves in conversations that go like this…..”remember when”. This typically is associated with a heartfelt and authentic memory of a church experience when more folks were in pews and more resources available.

Statistically certainly there is truth to this articulated experience in most mainline churches. Yes, there seems to be truth to the “shift” in our culture in regards to the institutional church and our participation in it. Yes, it is true when we take account of resources we discover indeed there are resources we once had that we no longer do. Yes, it is true and important we take such account so we may be better stewards as we continue to pursue God’s mission. In fact, I would argue that it is liberating to Name and account for what we DO NOT have SO that we can stop talking about it with lament and words that sound like “remember when”. Instead, perhaps, when we name and move on we might focus again on what God may be screaming in our hearts…..”well maybe its too small a thing” to count what was and is no longer and confuse it with a Kingdom gone by.

“Maybe it is too small a thing”. Maybe it is not about Average Sunday attendance. Maybe it is not about black and red on a ledger sheet. Maybe it is not about creating a perfect program and hoping people come to it. Maybe when we are tired of trying the same things over and over again and lamenting about what was we don’t even notice that our heads our heavy and our eyes looking downward. Maybe God’s vision is about Grace, hope, and love that shines to all in the world, not just those we look for in our pews? Maybe it is about God’s vision being so beautiful and compelling that we have no choicebut to lift our eyes and therefore our chins, and our hearts and everything else to see the enormity of God’s promise.

Esther deWaal, who I had the great privilege of living with and being directed by in spiritual direction, reminded me on my journey, “eyes up”, “eyes up Tony” to discover the beauty of God’s love.

When we lift our “eyes” as a diocese and as a Cathedral community there is much to be seen about God’s vision to be shone throughout the diocese and our community. I know of young people in one of our smallest congregations who caught a vision to serve in Appalachia. Casting a vision, raising the money, organizing the effort and making the trip, their lives were broadened and transformed as God’s light shone in a distant community in need of love and hope. I know of one of our congregations in the south of the diocese, where the neighborhood completely changed around them. Their response, create an opportunity for young mothers and their children to join with congregation members to get to know each other, help one another parenting their young children, and build relationships. We know here very well the Bethlehem Churches that join together to literally cast a net of hospitality that is the very salvation for those who are homeless and hungry. “Eyes up”. When I lift my eyes, I see children laughing together, adults singing together, companions carrying one another through the burdens of life. “Eyes up”.

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