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Evangelism

I have to confess that, like many Episcopalians, I have negative associations with the word “evangelism.”

I grew up in a post-Christian household. My parents had both been taken to church as children, and my mother had even attended an Episcopal school. But when I was a child my father described himself as an agnostic or atheist, and my mother described herself as a heretic. I remember attending church once: the Sunday School was boring, and the adult service must not have been much better, because we never went back.

As a non-churchgoer in 1960’s suburban America, I was the occasional target of evangelism efforts. I remember going with a high school classmate to a play at her church. Somehow evangelism was woven in with the story of the invention of the steam engine. It did not convert me to belief. My little sister once came home and announced that she had become a Christian. Our mother made her read the Book of Job, which cured her of her temporary belief.

My belief in God came about not through persuasion, but through experience. As a depressed teenager, I found a good therapist and discovered that if I was willing to let go of the internal walls that imprisoned me, there was a force of healing that was stronger than me. I chose to call that loving force “God.”

It took another 10 years for me to make my home in a church and call myself not only a believer in God, but a Christian. I think it would have been a shorter process if not for evangelism and some false ideas in the church about conversion. In case you don’t already know – not everyone who prays for Jesus to enter their hearts has their prayer answered with an emotional or cognitive change. You do people a disservice if you promise that they will.

What did help were friends and teachers who were themselves believers and who let me talk about my thoughts and experiences. Who helped me fit those thoughts and experiences into the historical framework of belief. And who dispelled my stereotypes about what Christians believed. I learned that the simplistic “heaven or hell” belief presented at State Fairs was an outlier in historic orthodox Christianity. I learned to distinguish repentance for specific sins, and acceptance of forgiveness, from an unhealthy generalized sense of shame. I learned new habits of prayer, and let the sacraments do their gradual work of realignment of my spirit.

I am only one generation removed from a time when religious identity and observance was a part of almost every family’s life. When I had questions about faith there were friends of my generation who had some knowledge and experience. And I was lucky that my family tradition happened to be that of the Episcopal Church, so this feminist intellectual found a church community that supported my continued growth in faith and action.

How, I wonder, do people without that family connection learn that such a community exists? To me, that is the positive meaning of evangelism: letting people know that God desires them as they are and as they will grow to be when nourished by a community of love and inquiry. There is a Buddhist saying, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Maybe that is our evangelism prayer: that whenever a person is ready to talk about God, we are there to listen.

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Thankfulness, Praise, and Anxiety

Last Sunday, the Gospel text was the story of Jesus healing ten lepers, one of whom turns back to give thanks. Jesus asks, essentially, “why only one?”

Gratitude, thankfulness, is sort of counter-cultural. It is not a contagious emotion. Unlike excitement, it does not spread through a crowd. You will never see a newspaper headline, “Gratitude Spreads.”

Gratitude does not sell products or services, so there are no advertising budgets for it: unlike fear or anxiety, which psychology experiments show make people likely to spend more money. (Is it entirely a coincidence that commercial TV channels, which make money through advertising, have news programs mostly devoted to accidents and disasters?)

But a habit of gratitude will improve the quality of life. In ministry, I have been privileged to get to know a lot of older people. The ones who are happy are the ones who have cultivated a habit of thankfulness. I have had young friends who, facing uncertainty and anxiety about employment, have chosen to look each day for things to be thankful for, and have found their lives improved.

One of the things for which I am grateful is a church in which we come together each week to give thanks to God. This is a habit that helps me cultivate gratitude and thankfulness in my own life. It would not be possible without the company and support of others over many generations.

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Funerals and Memorial Services

“A memorial service is for those who mourn.” How often have I said these words to family members planning a funeral or memorial service for someone they loved?

Part of that mourning is honoring the beliefs of the person who has died. If your grandmother was Jewish, you shouldn’t have a Baptist funeral. It isn’t respectful of her and her faith. At Christ Church, as at other Episcopal churches, we encourage members to let us know their wishes for their funerals. Do you have a favorite hymn that you would like sung? Did you love the archaic language of Rite I, and want it at your funeral? Do you hate “Amazing Grace,” and don’t want it sung even though it is a standard at funerals? Write it down; put it with your other papers in the file marked “Death, in the event of.” On September 17 and October 1 we will have a workshop at Christ Church that will include planning the service you want.

But part of mourning is also being respectful of the beliefs of the people left behind; those who mourn. And this is where families get complicated. Once upon a time people lived in villages. Their descendants, by and large, lived within a relatively narrow geographic and socio-cultural area. If your grandparents were Church of England, odds were that you were also. If your parents were Methodist, their friends and family probably mostly were also.

That is no longer true. The baby boomer who was baptized at Christ Church in the 1950’s might now be Buddhist. Or Foursquare. Or vaguely deist with a bit of borrowed Native American spirituality mixed in. Even if the adult child who is primarily in charge of making funeral arrangements is Episcopalian, odds are that they are trying to take into account the feelings of the Jewish in-law and the Wiccan grand-daughter.

And here is where my counsel becomes different from that of my elders in ministry. The priests I follow in ministry were often very definite: a Christian should be buried from the church, and there should always be Holy Communion at the service. My advice is different. I ask about the faith of the family members. Are there people who would feel excluded? What about the friends of the deceased who attend? I have crafted a service from the “Order for Burial” in the Book of Common Prayer using 12-Step material, for someone whose connection with the church was the AA meeting held in the parish hall. I have created abridged, ecumenical, graveside services for family of church members who are being buried at the Veteran’s Memorial Cemetery.

Does this mean I would depart entirely from the order for Christian burial in the Book of Common Prayer? No. I am an Episcopal priest, and it is my role to proclaim that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities . . . nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If a family doesn’t want that proclamation, I will send them elsewhere with my blessing. But within that basic framework and message, there is much room for variation and respect for the feelings and beliefs of those left behind.