Sunday, May 28, 2017

Pastless / Futureless People and Parishes

On this last Sunday of the Easter season our final reading from scripture is taken from what is known as “Jesus’ high priestly prayer” in John’s gospel.  We heard only a small portion of what Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane during the hours before he is arrested.  From it we learn Jesus is grateful to be returning to the glory he shared with the Father from the beginning.

There is much wisdom in the expression “live in the moment.”  If we live only in the past most likely we are inhibited with resentment over what has happened to us or guilt spawning from what we have done.  If we live only in the future we may be paralyzed with fear and anxiety.  Think of how Jesus taught his followers to consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air – two wonderful images of living in the moment.  But, is there a danger in this?

In his book Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning, Donald Barthelme captures the essence of living in the moment as he ponders a literary assessment of the French playwright Marivaux’s typical character:  

The Marivaudian being is… a pastless futureless man, born anew at every instant.  The instants are points which organize themselves into a line, but what is important is the instant, not the line.  The Marivaudian being has in a sense no history.  Nothing follows from what has gone before.  He is constantly surprised.  He cannot predict his own reaction to events.  He is constantly being overtaken by events.  A condition of breathlessness and dazzlement surrounds him.  In consequence he exists in a certain freshness which seems, if I may so, very desirable.

While this pastless/futureless person lives each moment to the fullest, an existence which might make life breathless and dazzling, it is not at all reflective of how Jesus lived his.  Jesus knew the glory he had before the Incarnation and he was aware of the glory to which he would return at the Ascension.  Knowing his past and being aware of his future greatly informed how Jesus lived in the present.

A person with a pastless/futureless life lives in the moment, but does so with no sense of history and no direction in life.  Christopher Lasch, in his book The Culture of Narcissism, writes, “We are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future.”  Without a past or future one tends to locate the self entirely in the present.   While our culture celebrates living in the moment, the reality is the pastless/futureless person tends to measure each moment against other images of success and happiness.  These other images are themselves not necessarily reality and often prove to be unobtainable.  And when a person measures himself in this way, it inevitably gives rise to unrelenting self-criticism and dramatic oscillations in self-esteem and self-doubt. 

Let me share with you a brief synopsis of my story, which probably is more than you want to know.  True to many of my generation, little in my life follows from what has gone before.  I do not live in the city where I grew up.  It has been 37 years since I worshipped at the church in which I was raised.  I have one connection with a high school friend and only thin contacts with anyone I knew in college or seminary.  I have minimal communication with people from the four previous parishes where I served as a priest.  Many years ago I began to identify a very thin thread connecting all the various moments of my life.  Marriage and family unquestionably were the thickest elements tying together my life from age 27 onward.  That thread lasted 12 years and now is gone.

What is a danger for individuals is also a possibility for faith communities.  What does it look like to be a pastless/futureless parish?  In short, it looks like measuring the present against the past (even though you do not know the stories of the past) and being anxious and fearful about the future.    

I am looking forward to next weekend’s celebration of our parish’s 375th anniversary.  The process leading up to this moment has been incredibly energizing for me personally.  I have been driven by several different motivations.  One relates to the building itself.  Your incredible support of the kitchen remodeling project enabled us to tend to the Parish Hall and chapel while creating a wonderful new gathering space in what I propose we call “The 1642 Lounge”. 

When Jim Newsom retired after serving as our rector for 29 years he accurately noted every inch of our facility either had been built or remodeled during his tenure.  He was pleased the last project in 1989 (which also addressed the kitchen and parish hall while adding office space) would serve the parish for generations to come.  I understand his motivation and hope what we have done will be a gift for the future to enjoy.

I have also been motivated theologically.  I hold to what is called “Narrative Theology”, which – put simply – believes God is working in and through the events of our parish’s life.  To know the history of our parish – and even more so, to know the stories of our parish – is to know how God has been at work in and through the people of this place. 

The pages of the bible are a collection of the sacred stories of God’s interaction with a specific group of people in a particular region of the world over a long period of time.  These sacred narratives speak to all people in all places in all times as God speaks to us today through them. 

While our parish stories may not have this global, timeless authority, they still have power and meaning for us.  If we don’t know our stories we will be challenged to know how God has been with us in the past, have difficulty identifying how God is with us in the present, and struggle to believe God will be with us in the future.  From a theological perspective, this is why I want us to celebrate well this moment in our parish’s life.

Another motivation has been psychological.  Pastless/futureless parishes are not happy places to be.  As with a person, a church that lives in the moment measures its current situation against other images of success and happiness.  Often these images are derived from “successful” contemporary mega churches in area or from memories of the past – large Sunday school classes, lots of young families, 30 people in the choir, etc.  The images may or may not reflect reality and they are absolutely impossible to recreate in our time.  This gives rise to self-criticism, diminished esteem, self-doubt, fatigue, pessimism, and often blaming – whose fault is it that our parish is not what we think it should be?

Our yearlong project to sort through our parish artifacts and to piece together some of the elements of our parish’s story has been anything but a dry effort to update history.  It has been a way to reconnect with something vital and important: where have we come from, who are we now, and where are we going. 

Jaroslav Pelikan, a scholar of church history, famously observed “tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living... [and]… it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”  The process bringing us to next weekend’s celebration is aimed not at making us bow down to an ancient window or altar cloth or bible.  Rather, it is about amazement, humility, and hope.  God has been with faithful Episcopalians of the parish of the Upper Nansemond for 375 years.  A lot has happened over that time and some of it would have ended this venture had not God desired to see us through.  It is truly amazing!  Humility: we are here at this moment in time, responding to God’s ongoing call of witness, blessing, and service in our community.  Hope: if we give our best, God will continue to work through our faith community for generations to come.  The future of this place rests in God, not in our capabilities.  Our faithfulness in this moment is all God asks of us and it is all we need to offer.

Goethe is often quoted as saying, “What you have as heritage take now as task, and in this you will make it your own.”  Two or three times during my youth our family vacationed at Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks.  Our journey from Ohio took us past this area; closer than I ever could have imagined to many of you and to my future.  Almost 10 years have passed since you called me to serve as your rector.  Our relationship continues to be an incredible blessing in my life.  You invited me to be in a place that is a place.  It is not pastless or futureless.  This is a place where God has been at work, is at work, and has work to do.  Thank you for the gift you have given to me.  And, most especially, all thanks and glory be to God through Jesus Christ, who was and is and is come.