On Thursday of last week, I had the privilege of attending a gathering of amazingly creative and faithful leaders within the Episcopal Church. There were moments of insight and epiphany. Chris Corrigan who facilitated the work of this gathering opened our time with a reflection of Elijah and the Valley of the Dry Bones that will stay with me for a long time come. One of his observations was that God took Elijah to look at an army of bones. An army. Soldiers, brave and self-sacrificing people willing to give their lives to protect others. They were in a valley. That probably means the army had been trapped, caught in classic military maneuver that left them at the mercy of others. Was it a strategic error on the part of their leaders that led to this slaughter? And the most haunting thought: “those weren’t just dry bones. Those were angry dry bones.” As a metaphor for too much of the church it is a piercing insight. Explainable or not, if an army was slaughtered, there was leadership failure involved. There has surely been leadership failure in our denomination and I look out and see a lot of dry bones. Damn right those bones have been angry.
The purpose of our gathering wasn’t to focus on leadership failure and throw stones at the Episcopal Church. It was to engage as honestly and openly as we could to the question of how a system like our church lives and dies in the shadow of the cross and the light of the resurrection. We spoke almost dreamily about the way a new version of the church emerges parallel and as a complement to what has gone before. We used terms like “hosting fear”, and “hospicing death”, how “pioneers” leap from a system in decline sort-of into the abyss and start trying new things and at first there will be all kinds of failure. We also described a time when those who have gone ahead build a suspension bridge back to the system that’s in decline and invite people who are still clinging to the old ways to come across.
With sadness but also resignation, we acknowledged that a suspension bridge has its risks and not all people will be able to safely make the crossing. We will lose some along the way. The longer I’ve pondered that image, the more uncomfortable I’ve become. I was comfortable with death, had been faced with lots of it during a year-long CPE/chaplain residency at a New Orleans hospital in my mid twenties. And then my mom died last June and what I thought I knew about death was nothing in comparison to the brutally hard things I am still trying to integrate in my life. If we are going to speak about those who won’t make it across the bridge, we probably should give them some names and faces so we don’t forget the very real loss, grief and suffering that are part of death. Crucifixion is gruesome.
In sharp contrast, I have come back to a ministry that straddles a bit of all the pieces of the model we were introduced to on Friday. I had loved the time to step back and look at this ministry I serve with fresh eyes. Today, though, I am burdened (and I use this word advisedly; it feels like a cross) with the realities of leader- and discipleship. In a 24 hour period, I tried to give a family in crisis the best of my experience and recommendations. I don’t know if it was enough or right. I also realized that a major process I’ve been leading has reached a dead end. There’s a way out and there are really good folks working with me. That doesn’t mean though, that either the process or the results will be what they might have been. It happened on my watch, it was my process to lead. This morning I raised some issues and concerns about another aspect of the ministry I am engaged in. What I said was not particularly well received and this involves a relationship that is important to me personally as well as professionally. In each of those cases, no matter how collaborative the venture, how flat our decision-making systems, how shared the investment, how good my own efforts and intentions, I fell short.
I am no less a child of God, no less called, loved, empowered and accepted “just as I am” because of these moments. They are no more real than all the victories and joys of the work before and ahead of me. None of this is the end of the world, the costs of these small failures are miniscule in the greater scheme of things. In fact, it’s all piss-ant stuff when you get right down to it. What is important is a sense I can’t shake that accountability matters. It matters a lot. If an army was slaughtered because of human error and miscalculation, did the people who made those errors realize it, was there regret, metanoia, a willingness to learn and work diligently to avoid making the same mistakes again? When we retreat to a lovely setting and in relative comfort and privilege talk about those “who will not make it”—do we give those “those” faces and names to stay mindful of the enormous cost? Are we honest, “un-self indulgent” and “un-self serving” as we look at what happened and why? Do we make amends?
The New River Regional Ministry, an effort to braid together a strong and resource-rich downtown parish, a small parish that was on the verge of closing 2 years ago, and a Latino ministry filled with life but still incredibly fragile, has begun to accumulate a series of small victories that are very promising and exciting. It’s not just a series of small victories—it is stories, most of them very small stories that will cross past the threshold of memory and be forgotten in months or maybe, at most, years. Yet these stories are luminous, stunningly beautiful moments of grace and joy like a string of precious pearls. The work we did at Simpsonwood and the relationships I have been able to start forging will help to nurture and move us forward for a long time to come.
I also realized today that there is another dimension of this work that is extremely important. For lack of a better word, it is competence. It is doing things well—with discipline, follow through, care, thought, reflection, transparency, honesty, self-assessment and a willingness to accept feedback, attentiveness and thoroughness. Starting something new and big and underfunded, this is the biggest struggle the New River Regional Ministry faces right now and I am enough of a pragmatist to know that if we don’t raise our level of competence, we will not stretch into the dreams that God has for us.
It seems to me that the biggest part of my “being” right now is being in a painful, uncomfortable spot that is the opposite of dreamy—always trying to work and be present with both a hermeneutic of suspicion (including of myself, my work, my presence and my motives) and a hermeneutic of generosity. Cross and resurrection. Both equally true. Both at the heart of the call and the path. This afternoon it is so painful I have been on the verge of tears for hours. I just don’t think there’s another way forward. So I stop and cry. And then the next thing ahead calls out.