Monday, May 18, 2015

22 Million Potential Episcopalians?

22 million new Episcopalians.

(Or at least, 22 million new mainline Protestants -- if we still want to use those dated terms.)

That's what the new Pew Report on America's Changing Religious Landscape tells me is possible.

Yes, others are saying that this report describes the collapse of American Christianity. Others point out that this is merely a healthy culling of the herd as the Christmas and Easter types finally admit what the rest of us knew: they didn't really believe in this stuff anyway.

But I see opportunity in these "grim" statistics.

In marketing we perform what's called a "gap analysis" all the time. Identifying the gaps between what a product or service does and what consumers need it to do can help companies improve their offerings and make more money.

Steve Jobs did this famously in one of the best product launch speeches of all time when he identified the gap between the small-time players and the big guys (like Sony) who "hadn't had a hit yet" in the exploding digital music space.

Jobs identified the gap and Apple gave us the iPod.

Now I see a couple of "gaps" in the Pew Report.

For instance, did you know that fully one-half of all of those much-feared "Nones" now identify with a religion?

(Full disclosure: I'm one of those. A child of hippies, my parents didn't go for the whole organized religion thing, so I took it upon myself to get baptized in my riper years and am now a priest. I will give my mother props though: she left Woodstock after one day, citing unsanitary conditions.)

So the Nones may be having their moment, but their retention hasn't been so great. (The report does note, however, that in the Millennial cohort retention is pretty high. Give 'em time, I say.)

But what is more interesting is that 6.9% of the Nones still say that religion is important.

As a percentage of the entire U.S. population that's about 22 million people -- or 11 denominations the size of the present-day Episcopal Church.

That's a lot of people who still think that what we do is important.

In marketing we call getting former customers back "reactivation." In dating it's called "getting back together." We can call it whatever we want in the church.

But I don't want to make this sound simple or easier than it is. Steve Jobs's brilliant insight wasn't that he figured out that people like music.

His genius came when he and Apple figured out a way to put a hard drive containing 1,000 songs in everybody's pocket, at a cost of .30 cents a song. As he put it here, "that's where we want to be" -- right in people's pocket.

22 million religiously unaffiliated people in this country still think religion is important. Pew says so.

Where do we want to be? And what's the iPod that will take us there?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

What does a U.S. Navy Reserve chaplain serving with the Marines do?


Many of you may wonder what a U.S. Navy Reserve chaplain does. I was sure that the Marines I'm now serving might wonder that too. So, this past Saturday, while on a three-day drill with the 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, 4th Marine Division, I asked the commanding officer if I could speak to the members of H&S Company.

This is what I told them.

"I'm the chaplain," I began. "I'm an Episcopal priest. Are there any Episcopalians?" (There was one.)

Pluralism
"So I've got four jobs," I continued. "Provide for other Episcopalians and Protestant Christians so that they can worship God according to the customs and traditions of their faith. Next, I'm here to facilitate. Whatever you need to practice your own faith, I'm here to help you make that happen. I'm not here to make you an Episcopalian or a Christian, but if you are one, I want to help you be a better one. If you're Catholic, I want to help you be a better Catholic. If you're Jewish, I want to help you be a better Jew. If you're Muslim, a better Muslim. Heck, if you're an atheist, I want you to be a better atheist."

Worth fighting for
Then I told them that I respected them for signing up to put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms, freedoms like the freedom of religion, and that that's worth fighting for, and that I was proud and happy to be here.

Care for all
I told them I was also there to advise the command on morale. And finally, and most important, I told them I was there to provide care for all. That what they told me was confidential and off the record. And that the laws of the United States of America guarantee that confidentiality and that not even the President or Congress can make me break it.

Why would you ever want to talk to a chaplain?
I said, "Many of you may wonder why you'd want to talk to a chaplain," and then I told them that at age 42 there wasn't a whole lot I hadn't been through: a marriage in trouble, divorce, girlfriends, children, jobs, unemployment, finances, you name it, we can talk about it.

And that was that. I got a fairly loud "Oorah!" so I think I did okay.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Meditation on Discernment

MEDITATION ON DISCERNMENT.


Being A Homily for the Feaft of the Prefentation Wherein SIMEON upon Our Lord being Prefented in the Temple according to the precepts of the Old Law sheweth difcernment by rightly divining amongft Divers Spirits the True Promife of God to His people ISRAEL and to Simeon efpecially.
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How the Chriftian heareth the Voice of God by Virtue of the Grace of his baptifm.
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True difcernment a gift that belongeth to the Church.
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The Church being that Gathering of Godde's Beloved.


CUM PRIVILEGIO


ANNO DOMINI MMXIV


By The Rev. Jake Dell


Texts
"Jesus is presented in the temple" Luke 2:22-40
"Testing the spirits" 1 John 4:1, 5-6
"Because he himself was tested by what he suffered" Hebrews 2:18

Simeon, whom we meet in today's Gospel, is a man in the third act of his life. Not only is he in the third act, but we get the sense that this is the finale.



The Holy Spirit has told Simeon that he will not die before the sees the Lord's Messiah.


So here come Mary and Joseph, to present the child Jesus in the Temple, and that same Holy Spirit prompts Simeon to seek out the child.


And Simeon is rewarded for his faith. He takes the child in his arms and says his Nunc Dimittis, a term that like "swan song," has come to mean the last thing of any significance that a person will do.


Knowing that he's on stage for the last time, Simeon doesn't disappoint. He composes a poem on the spot,


Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace
According to thy word
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles,
And to be the glory of thy people Israel.


And then he makes a dramatic prophesy about the life this child will live. "He is destined for the rising and falling of many." "He will be a sign to be opposed so that him the inner thoughts of many will be revealed."


Simeon was fortunate in that he lived to see the promise that God made to him fulfilled.


Now, think about that. How many of you can say that God has promised you something?


I wouldn't be surprised if it's a fair number of you.


I also wouldn't be surprised if it's none of you.


We have to be a little careful in this day and age about God-talk … and by God-talk I mean God talking to us. Let alone God promising us anything.


The former might make us sound just plain odd, the second might get us labeled insane.


Now I am a priest and so I have a certain amount of leeway when it comes to God-talk. People expect me to talk to God. And they think that I am just doing my job if I tell them that God has spoken to me or given me some kind of vision.


And if you want to know the truth, I can think of two occasions in the past six months when God did speak to me. Both times they were very personal messages. Both times they were words of great comfort.


But Simeon wasn't a priest. He wasn't even a prophet. Luke's Gospel just tells us that he was righteous and devout. Yet the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon and God made a personal promise to him.


Now this makes me think that being a priest has nothing to do with the fact that sometimes I hear God speaking to me.


It has nothing to do with my title, position or function. As St. Peter says, God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34).


Rather, I believe that I can hear God's voice because God is an ever-present reality. And because God is real, he is therefore accessible.


God was real and accessible to Simeon. God was real and accessible to the prophet Anna. Two ordinary people -- Simeon and Anna -- somehow heard the voice of God.


Now don't be put off by the labels. Yes, Simeon was righteous and devout. Yes, Anna was a prophet.


But that's you too.


You are righteous. You were justified and made righteous at your baptism and by your faith in the Lord Jesus.


You are devout. Here you are sitting in church, in the evening, and on Super Bowl Sunday no less!


You are prophets too. We Christians are a prophetic people. We are called to be a light to the nations. That's all any prophet ever does -- shed light where there is darkness.


So if you think you hear God speaking to you take comfort from this story and give yourself permission to listen. I can assure you that you are not nuts. Hearing the voice of God is one of the graces of your baptism.


Of course this brings up the question of discernment. How did Simeon know that the he could trust this spirit which rested on him and that promised him that he would live to see the Lord's Messiah?


More importantly, how do you know whether or not you are actually hearing God's voice?


Maybe you fear that it's just your own voice or perhaps the voice of someone who has a great deal of power over you -- as often happen in relationships -- particularly intimate ones, where it becomes too easy to squelch our own cries, let alone the still, small voice of God.


Fortunately, this is an old question and it has already been answered.


The first letter of John has this to say about discernment, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world … They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error."


Now, forgive me if I say that at first glance, John's argument doesn't seem too sophisticated and that his logic seems circular. "Whoever agrees with us is from God, whoever disagrees with us is from the Antichrist."


Well, okay, John. You just go ahead and take your marbles and go on home.


But let's work a little harder on the passage.


John is speaking to the "beloved" -- to those who are beloved in Christ. In other words, he's speaking to those who have been called out and who form what we now call the church.


I'm struck by two things here.


The first is this. You already know how to discern the voice of God in your life. In fact it's something you've been doing all along. You've heard the call of God and it has led you here. To this very room. Here. Tonight.


And what did you find?


You found others who were led here too. And together you are called "beloved." Beloved in Christ. And this gathered assembly of the beloved is called the church.


That is the first principle of discernment. Hearing and following the call of God's voice to a place where you meet others who have also heard that same voice.


The second principle of discernment is this: discernment takes place in community.


God's voice calls and immediately a gathering of the beloved comes together. Within that gathered community one may speak and another may speak and another and so on. All the while the gathered community is still listening. So long as it remains together, the voice of God is being heard. But when it falls apart and is divided, the voice of God is being ignored.


"From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error."


What the church needs to do today is to make better use of this gift of discernment. The church and I spent over 20 years in discerning my call to be a priest, yet it spent just one Saturday helping my wife and I discern a call to marriage.


Both commitments asked me to make life-long vows and to strive to live a holy and blameless life. Why was one call given short-shrift while I seemed to wait nearly as long as Simeon for the other call to come to pass?


What is it that you need to discern? Your next job? Your next relationship? Whether or not God is calling you to have children? Or perhaps whether or not it is time to move, or to retire or to summon the courage to finally fix some personal flaw that needs fixing?


Where do you think you hear God's voice?


How are you testing the spirits of truth and error?


If you are NOT testing the spirits of truth and error within the gathered community of God's beloved people, then according to John's teaching, you are not truly listening for God's voice.


If however, you want to discern and test the spirits of truth and error, but you are not finding the church to be as helpful or responsive as it should be, then speak up.


Anyone who has ever be a witness to the vows at a baptism has also promised to do all in his or her power to help you live your life in Christ.


Ask us then, your fellow Christians, the members of the church, to make good on our promise to you.


I'll close with the passage we read from Hebrews. It ends with this, "Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested."


We, all of us, have been and are being tested. If we go it alone we neither benefit from the lessons learned by those who have also been tested, nor can we redeem our own suffering by sharing the lessons we've learned with those who come after.


This is also part of discernment.


This is also part of community.


This is what the church is all about.

In the Name of God -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- AMEN.



Preached at Saint Bartholomew's Church (Episcopal)
325 Park Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10022

February 2, 2014

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

I am a missionary


Presiding Bishop, President of the House of Deputies, Bishop Sauls, members of the Executive Council, honored guests and my fellow co-workers on the staff of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, thank you for this chance to share with you some thoughts on being a missionary. I am grateful.


Let me begin with the call to be a missionary.

Missionaries and the call

The call to be a missionary comes from Jesus. That's a simple and obvious thing to say, but I need to start there.

That's because the job of a missionary is to represent Jesus by acting in his best interests and to advance his kingdom.

Missionaries are often associated with the past. And the past is worth our attention -- including and especially the history of Christian missions.

But missionaries are not sent backwards into history. Rather, they are sent forward into the future. Missionaries speak of the things to come, because they have been called by the One who is to come.

Missionaries should be unpredictable. "What is he or she going to do next?" is a question that should keep our bishops up at night.

That's because missionaries have a knack for getting into scrapes.

And for getting out of them too.

(Think of Paul and Silas teaching the prisoners to sing hymns and then being sprung from jail by an angel and an earthquake.)

As a missionary, you will meet your share of angels and experience a few earthquakes.

Now, missionaries may get into scrapes but that doesn't mean I think they should look scrappy.

They should have a little style.

I know many missionaries who look sharp in a suit; who can rock a dinner jacket or a little black dress -- though not always on the same occasion or on the same missionary.

They should know how to order a martini and -- perhaps more importantly -- when not to.

Missionaries should be a little like James Bond.

After all, they are the 007's of the Church.

They carry a license to preach.

Foreign and domestically.

In season and out.

Missionaries and the mission

I once counseled a woman who was thinking about having an abortion. I am not going to tell you what advice I gave her or what she decided to do.

The counsel I gave her was, I pray, the informed thinking of a well-formed Christian conscience.

What she decided was, I pray, the result of her discernment, which included asking me for some guidance.

In the end, what she did or didn't do is between her, her child and God.

But in that moment, there was one thing that I knew that I had every right to tell her and full authority to declare.

I told her that GOD LOVED HER.

"God loves you," I said. "Nothing and I mean NOTHING you do can destroy that love."

Nothing.

For you see, that gulf of sin, that tear in the fabric of creation, that war between God and human race that began with Adam, continued with Noah, and that went down with Israel into captivity in Egypt ...

That war that was fought when Amalek raised his fist to God …

And over every parcel and acre of the Promised Land …

And again on the day of Midian ...

The war that continued when Israel went into exile …

And when he sat down by the waters of Babylon and wept ...

When Haman sought to destroy the Jews …

When Judas and the Maccabees took up arms against the Greeks to defend the rights of the LORD God and to purify His holy temple …

That war that was once fought on two fronts: God versus creation and creation versus itself ...

THAT WAR IS OVER.

It's not a cease-fire.

It's OVER.

It's not a truce or a compromise with the Devil, but ...

OVER.

If the Bible is worth reading at all it is because of this: first so that we can understand just how far apart God and man once stood …

How opposed to each other we once were …

Fist raised to fist …

Sword to sword ...

And then second to discover just how close and intimate with God it is possible to be.

The LORD God, the Holy One of Israel, the mighty Jehovah, the captain of armies, is now vulnerable. He waited for nine months in the womb of a peasant girl and then was born a baby in a cow-stall.

God is now one of us.

Indeed the war is over.

God has put down his sword and picked up his ploughshare. The gardener has returned to the garden.

But even though God has surrendered, that doesn't mean that WE have somehow conquered God through our sins.

Rather, it means that because of God's surrender, we can no longer fight -- indeed we have nothing left to fight for -- because there is nothing left for us to win!

God has already given us his peace.

To declare God's peace to the world is the mission of the missionary.

And it is a joy to preach that peace to the world -- as far and as wide as the curse is found.

I am a missionary

I am a missionary because, with Peter, I can say, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."

I am a missionary NOT because I believe that God speaks in secret, or from a land of darkness, or that he says, "seek me in chaos," but because I believe that the Lord speaks the truth and declares what is right.

I am a missionary because even though the letter of the law may declare that the Gentiles are accursed, I am able to stand with Nicodemus and say that the spirit of that same divine law responds to that judgment with the challenge, "Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?"

I am a missionary because I believe that Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God and that therefore there is no need for us to settle with just being spiritual, when we can know the one, true God through the gift of faith.

I am a missionary because, like the Psalmist, I have spent many nights in weeping only to awaken the dawn with joy.

I am a missionary because I believe that God is the father of orphans and the defender of widows … I am a missionary because I believe God gives the solitary a home and brings forth the prisoners into freedom …

I am a missionary because … well, where can I stop? Indeed, how can I stop when nearly every sentence of scripture gives me another reason to be one?

Why are you a missionary?

####

January 14, 2014

This reflection was presented at the In-House Meeting of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church, 815 Second Avenue, New York, New York 10017.