I attended a conference in Portland this weekend called the Episcopal Village Mission Event. To explain in detail who was there and what the conference was about would require a short course on the sociology of the church today and I don’t want to bore you with that. The simplest way I can explain it to say that there is a group of young Episcopal clergy and laypeople who see themselves as part of a larger movement of renewal in the church that transcends denominational, theological, and conceptual boundaries of the modern period. Representatives of this group, and, in particular, leaders of a community called Church of the Apostles, in the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, were the hosts of the conference. And the guests were, for the most part, people like me, people in positions of leadership in parishes or dioceses of the mainstream Episcopal Church.
The conference got off to a rocky start. The new Bishop of Oregon had the opening address, and I think he sincerely wished to be welcoming and to begin a fruitful dialogue. But fairly quickly, almost in spite of himself, his remarks drifted toward the obstacles to change in the church, the lack of resources, and the cultural and technological divide between generations. I intend no disrespect when I say he reminded me a little of Simon, the Pharisee in the gospel story. And in that he was like all of us, whether post-modern Jesus-freaks or white-haired Episcopalians of the old school. All too often, our question to God is “how are you going to uphold my standards?” Whether your standards have to do with how hip you are to the use of African drums and electric guitars in worship, and how facile you are in texting tweets with your internet phone, or whether they have to do with the language of the Prayer Book, the old favorite hymns, and dutiful service on the altar guild and vestry, doesn’t make much difference. If I begin our conversation with a God in my pocket whose job it is to vindicate my standards, not only will I not meet you, I will not find the common ground between us that is the real dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit.
What saved this weekend’s conference was the question of the woman in the gospel story with the alabaster jar, the one who, weeping, wets Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair and anoints them with perfume. The question she asks contains its own affirmation because it begins with her risk-taking response to an experience of the love of God. She puts her shame behind her to show her love for Jesus, and that shame dissolves in acceptance and forgiveness. The young adults who led the conference in Portland didn’t come to show us a “better way” to pray or sing, or run the church. What they shared with us was the risks they have taken, and the joy they have found, in loving Jesus Christ and one another. They shared their hope for a more authentic and transforming experience of spiritual community, and their longing to become agents of God’s reconciling and healing mission in the world.
“What can I do to show what a difference it makes for me to know that you love and accept me as I am?” When we make the shift to asking this question, when we embrace the God who runs to us with open arms and weeps for joy at our return, rather than the God who enforces our standards, at least two things happen.
First, we become open to our own shame and pain, to the ways we have injured ourselves and one another by our unwillingness to love as Christ loves. We can take a sustained look at the brokenness, injustice, and destruction in the world and know that it is not outside us but is of a piece with our own wounds. Into this opening comes the deep compassion that is born of facing the hard truth. There came a point in this weekend’s workshop when the white-haired Episcopalians rose up and held the youngsters accountable for stereotyping them as complacent and unimaginative. But the meeting did not devolve into a quarrel. Instead, our shared love for Christ stirred us to a lament for the fading promise of the church as it once was, a church that is dying. I have never been to a church gathering where that could be said so courageously and clearly. And it was remarkable that the most eloquent and anguished voices in this lament were men and women in their 20s and 30s.
There is a second thing that happens when we come to God with the question of the woman with the alabaster jar— we are reconciled. When we come to the party not to see who is worthy of our standards, but to show our gratitude to the one who loves us without conditions and without measure, we go away in peace. That’s what happened in Portland. We didn’t solve any problems. We didn’t even really “hash out our differences.” But we did come away feeling like we all need each other, white-haired geezers and tatooed whippersnappers alike. We drew strength just from being together and loving one another, having conversations and saying prayers, singing God’s praise and sharing Christ’s body and blood. And I think we all came away with a renewed hope. Nobody knows what the future of the church will be, but it has a future because God holds a future for us.
“What can I do to show what a difference it has made in my life to know that you love and accept me no matter what?” We may have to go to a party where we are not welcome. We may have to do something unseemly and extravagant. We may do it with tears streaming down our cheeks. But we will cast our shame behind us, and do something—how could we not?