For the past three years The Garden has been one of a handful of parishes who have taken the work of the BCMS and incorporated into the very fabric of our being, into the very culture of who we are as a congregation. We have allowed its wisdom to guide our decision making processes as we journey to a new future together.
Gethsemane was the catalyst for this entire mission discernment process, out of the work around the Gethsemane plan, the BCMS and MSN processes emerged and came into being. For every minute of our renewal experience and around every decision we have made in the Garden (how we affectionately refer to ourselves, no one seems to know how to say Gethsemane) we have held close to our heart and soul the work of the original BCMS plan. It is important work that challenges us at a level that goes beyond the perceived diocesan structural challenges we face.
Three years ago Gethsemane was in an uncertain place, a place not unlike where the Diocese finds itself today. As part of our work to transform the culture, and as part of our ministry and commitment to bring a shift to our thinking about how we do Church, we embraced the work of the BCMS and listened to the Spirit in every letter of the document. We absorbed what it said about vulnerability around the brokenness of relationships to name our current realities. We listened to its wisdom about the need for transformation. We patiently shared our stories of how God was active in our lives and how we saw God active in the world. The BCMS 2007 document approved at Diocesan Convention changed us and it changed us drastically.
We decided not to plan our way out of the mess and simply listen as best as we could for God’s dream for us. As many of us did in the Diocese, we embraced Gospel Based Discipleship and began to try to allow the Gospel to speak to us about how God was active in the world. We held true to the process as laid out in the GBD books and how it was taught to us.
Where the BCMS report encouraged us to use gifts discernment resources, we decided to go a different route. Understanding—from much of our study of the Gospel—that clergy and leadership often get in the way of ministry and mission, as well as understanding that most people who come to church have an idea already of what their gifts are and how God has graced them with the abilities to be accomplished human beings, we decided instead to take on a vision of gifts implementation. Rather than discern what people’s gifts might be, we asked them flat out, what they love to do and how they could envision doing it in the Garden. Clergy and hierarchical leadership stepped out of the way and acted as support resources for people who had a passion to accomplish their unrealized dreams.
To date this model of ministry permeates the entire culture of the Garden, from our Altar Guild to our New Member Ministry, from our Green Group to the UTO collection; people involved in these ministries give from their passions, energy and dreams, not as obligation, have to’s and routine. Too often gifts discernment places too much power in the hands of clergy and other leadership within the church. We have found this leaves a sense that only the clergy have access to spiritual transformation and are the only arbiters of Spiritual Transformation; no one else can have it unless it is given them by the clergy.
Some clergy will think this is too harsh, or may seek to place blame on the lack of initiation of the laity, but it is primarily the unwillingness of clergy and those in established position of power to relinquish the “power over” they have and instead embrace the “power with” we are called by Jesus to have. By stepping out of the way—opening the avenue for all people to have access to spiritual transformation—there is a spirit of collaboration at Gethsemane that is unique.
I wonder if we as a Diocese are not already spiritually transformed. Gethsemane, over the past three years has felt like Thomas from John’s Gospel, Doubting Thomas. Why was Thomas not in the room with the disciples when Jesus first appeared to them? What was he doing, what might he have been doing? I like to think that Thomas was out carrying the mission Jesus asked the disciples to accomplish in the world. I’d love to think that Thomas was out actually engaging the very world that Christ had called all his disciples to transform. The disciples were already transformed, I can’t imagine one walks with Jesus and doesn’t walk away totally affected. Yet even in his ministry, something was missing, in Thomas’ solitary work, it did not feel complete.
The other 10 disciples had locked themselves in a room; scripture says it was out of fear of what might happen to them. This leads me to think that they were strategizing; how could they best carry out the mission they were called to do without being killed or dieing? Thomas would have none of that, therefore decided to go out and do what Jesus had asked, no, commanded them all to do. Thomas was out transforming the world, because he was transformed himself. However, he was one person, and seeing and knowing that he could not do this on his own, he returned to his friends, possibly, to try to convince them to join him. What a surprise he was in for!
Spiritual transformation assumes we have a relationship with God and with Jesus, the living, dying and rising Christ. At its very heart, to me, it is relational, face-to-face, heart-to-heart, touch-to-touch transformation. Spiritual transformation, I wonder, has little to do with the structures and the buildings and the systems that we, as Christians, inhabit.
The MSN report suggests identifying and commissioning our “Spiritual Connectors” and sending them out to connect our congregations. I like this but it is dismissing one thing, the Gospel. The phenomenon we have in Gospel Based Discipleship is a wonderful way to start all our conversations and connections as well as a powerful way to live fully into the idea and reality of being spiritually transformed. But first, we have to believe that we can be transformed.
Where this all must begin is not in our churches, or in our Diocese or in our Diocesan office, but in us, the people that call themselves Episcopalians and live their lives committed to that expression of Christianity. We have to believe that God is here, not far away. We have to believe that God is alive, not distant and disconnected. We have to believe that Christ is seen most clearly in the margins of society. We have to believe that God is at work in the world despite our uneasiness or unwillingness to actually go out and do ministry in the world. We must recognize that God is not done with God’s work, God has only just begun. We may even have to entertain the thought that God has a plan for the transformation of this world and that we are a small part, not THE part of that plan.
What if we said clearly, “We ARE spiritually transformed and we believe that God is here, with us”? What if we said as loud as we could, and with great joy in our hearts that before anything else the Spirit is moving us to those who are in need, and the mission that God is accomplishing already in the world is where we are being called to put our time, energy resources and talents? What if we said, the gifts we have that God has already given us are the gifts we want to offer the Church, not the gifts the Church needs in order to create attractive performances and flawless liturgies, but rather to meet people in the world where they are at?
We are already cultivating communities of love, justice and peace in this Diocese, and that work has deeply transformed us, yet we refuse to speak from that place of transformation and we refuse to allow the new life we see to guide us into deeper relationships with one another. We refuse to allow the vulnerability deeply interwoven in transformation to open our hearts to the possibilities of reconciliation and healing. That is where we NEED spiritual transformation in how we reconcile ourselves to one another as humans and Christians, and Episcopalians in the Diocese of Minnesota.
I imagine that Doubting Thomas’ understanding of his context was vital in how he moved through the city, finding people with whom he could share the story of Jesus. He would have had to have a deep understanding of the city in order to safely maneuver if the authorities and others were as hostile as John tells us they were. Yet, his fear and anxiety did not prevent him from going out, rather his knowledge of the context of his situation, his knowledge of the city, the neighborhoods, where the poor were, who housed the orphans and widows would have been great assurance to him as he carried out his work. Context, and his particular understanding of it, was vital to the ministry he was conducting.
The ministry that really lit the fire under the people in the Garden was one that landed on us like a 10 ton elephant. The housing crisis filled Hennepin County’s temporary shelters, so they began moving families into the Francis Drake hotel next door to Gethsemane. We knew there were families with kids next door in great need, families who would not stay long, but none the less, had need. We knew we had a gym, stage and classrooms that could be used to help those in need, whether it was the families themselves or the county. Our work culminated in a Christmas Party for the families of the Drake none of whom actually attended. What we found was that the people five blocks north of us at People Serving People were much more interested in the work we were doing. So we had several families from PSP attend our party and discovered that sometimes, when looking one way, other opportunities present themselves that you would have never expected.
I once heard someone say that creativity in a relational sense is not making new connections between people and organizations; creativity is discovering unexpected connections that already exist between people and organizations. The Garden has been the most creative place I have ever experienced, from exploring redevelopment opportunities to the Christmas Party, from worship to Episcopal Church partnerships. No other Church I know of has quite the amount of creativity that we have, under the definition named above.
Suffice it to say, the context we live in was never difficult to find, all we had to do was look out our back door. All we had to do is say—with boldness—the people we are here to serve are not the ones sitting in the pews, but rather those who are in the streets, those who are hungry, those who have no shelter, and those whose families are facing difficult times. Then, after saying it, actually do something about it. We, in the Episcopal Church, talk really well, we listen well too, but rarely do we believe that God is actually calling us to do something. It is not rocket science to understand the context one lives in, it is not difficult to see beyond the end of our own nose and experience the lives of those who are in need.
Something I love about the Presiding Bishop, whenever you read about her trips, whenever you hear about her work, one thing you always can bank on is that she is immersing herself in the context of the place she is visiting. She goes to those places where God is most clearly present. She goes to those places where the need for the Church is the greatest, she goes to those places most of us would never go and she gets her hands dirty. She has been an inspiration to me, because she is going about doing the work of Jesus in our world. She is walking in the streets as Thomas might have done and spreading the Good News to all who have ears. Then, I imagine, she comes back to those upper rooms, those big cathedrals and small country parishes and says something like, “What are you doing here? The work is out there, stop talking, and get busy.” But then again, maybe not.
I imagine that is what Thomas came back to say to the disciples. I imagine that is why Thomas went to the upper room, he knew he could not do this work alone, he knew he could not carry out this work without his close friends, but he was miffed, he was upset and he had an agenda that was never able to truly be revealed, he wanted to shake down Peter and his buddies and give them all sorts of trouble. But he never got the chance, because before he knew it, Jesus appeared to him. Jesus interrupted his diatribe, Jesus never allowed him to share his anger and frustration with the Disciples. Thomas, in that moment must have seen the futility in his anger, frustration and instead was reminded of his faith, the faith of those gathered with him, who, notice, did not say, “We told you so!” The transformed were transformed. Again.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus appears and goes directly to Thomas. I wonder if we misplace Jesus’ intention in his approach. I wonder if Jesus wasn’t feeling the same way as Thomas the second time he appeared to the disciples? “I told you to get your butts out last time I appeared; I even gave you the Spirit, now I have to tell you… ah, Thomas is here, the one who has been doing, the one who has been trying, the one who has been despairing most of all, I am glad to be here.” Jesus goes directly to Thomas and fills him with the Spirit, fills him with confidence and in a way says to Thomas, now you can carry on in our work knowing that I am alive, not dead, that I am here, not absent, that I am with you always. I love you Thomas, now go, out into the world filled with passion, love, joy and the spirit to carry on our work. Jesus appeared to Thomas, not the disciples. To Thomas, who had been absent and had possibly been carrying out the Words and teachings of Jesus without passion and joy and love or the Spirit.
Jesus has appeared to us. Jesus continues to appear to us—calling us out of our fear and anxiety, out of the upper room into the world. Some of us are out there already, trying. Some of us are hiding, strategizing. Wherever we are at, we still must be open to Jesus’ appearing and not expecting new connections, rather seeking unexpected existing connections that transform us and point us to the context in which we are called to walk with God.