We are facing a major challenge as we re-open the doors at St. Paul’s, one for which I invite every member to join, emphasizing that we enter this challenge from a position of strength.
"Back to Church Sunday" used to be a Diocesan-wide affair, but we’ve kept it each year and I think to good effect. At the end of a two-year hiatus due to Covid, it is also timely. This is what I see and believe:
*An ordinary parish can expect to lose about 10% each year due to ordinary attrition. If the average Sunday pre-Covid is the measure, at St. Paul’s that’s about 30 people a year. (Early on in ministry a friend pointed out that if you need growth of 10% a year just to stay even, "maintaining" a parish is no small accomplishment.) Families are still realizing that Sunday School has resumed, but we’re already back to about 210 attending. Our finances have remained very strong and this makes me think that our supporting congregation is at least 50+ more than those showing up so far.
*We’ve just experienced 2 ½ extraordinary years when the ordinary attrition occurred, another kind of attrition occurred due to Covid, AND we were not able to draw in new members (or didn’t know how) as we would ordinarily - with the exception of a stream of new African members which inspired the formation of an African fellowship.
*All things being equal, healthy things grow. For my part I’ve tried to concentrate on health in the parish which is why Alan Kreider’s book (Back to Church Sermon below) caught my attention.
*During Covid I’ve also tried to prepare the parish (and myself) for what we would experience when the pandemic ended, preparing us for the challenge of a three-year parish re-building project, with the goal of getting back to where we were before Covid - about 300+ on Sundays. Three years may be long, but the challenge is a large one and who’s going to complain if it ends sooner than expected.
Why 300? Because over the years St. Paul’s has inherited a large responsibility for the parish, for the Centre senior residence and in the community. Unless the Lord tells us otherwise, this is the mission and responsibility we have received.
*While trying to remain forthright and realistic, and in spite of a general sense of discouragement in the society about the church, what we've experienced so far is bright green lights for everything we've re-opened: Bible studies, the pans, the strings, the choir, youth programs which, plain and simple, are sky-rocketing, adult classes for ESL that combine an introduction to the faith, AND several new opportunities such as the new African fellowship, a possible Indigenous spiritual centre, and also on the radar is the possibility of a South Asian young adult fellowship in response to a steady stream of Indian and Sri Lankan young adults.
Chins up, dear friends. No one is complaining when the church is true to itself as the humility, kindness and self-sacrifice of Queen Elizabeth II demonstrated. We do our very best to conduct our affairs transparently. Around finances and conduct with children and vulnerable people, the protocols of the Anglican Church are some of the strictest anywhere in our society. And where we are being scorned for dedication, high moral standards, and the defense of every life precious to God, we always have. From the very beginning, for the very same things, we always have!
And this. During Covid a loyal congregation of about 30 began meeting every day on Zoom for Morning Prayer, Mondays through Saturdays and Sunday night for Evening Prayer. The offices of Morning and Evening Prayer should be done in person, but as the Anglican standard for daily prayer the Offices were also designed to be said alone. It is a whole lot more encouraging to do it together in the cloud. And because we follow the prayerbook on its own terms, there’s a little company at St. Paul’s who have been tutored in the merits and beauty of the Offices. And the prayers of the parish are offered to God each day.
A major challenge is before us, but we enter it from a position of strength.
*Finally, several times in recent months I have mentioned the scholarly work of Alan Kreider. In the early church he discovered two things supporting the first Christians when no other support was offered.
First was the power of Christian conviction about the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the patience of God. They were not afraid to die. They were patient with themselves and others because God was patient and kind.
Secondly, they discovered the power of a Rule of Life that accurately targetted the most prominent of the degrading forces at work in contemporary society. These are the "powers and principalities" from which the life of Jesus Christ is meant to bring freedom, leading us to friendship with Jesus Christ and into his service, the true and supreme longing of every person.
A Rule of Life may sound new, but it sits at the climax of our Catechism (BCP, p. 555) and true altogether to the Christian faith and life we’ve received in the Anglican tradition.
We are not the only ones facing this time of rebuilding and we can expect a lot of sensational solutions to appear. But let us fix our sights on Jesus Christ, on the beauty, order and mission of our life in the church, with hearts open to what God promises do, patient with what he will do for the sake of the world He loves.
Back to Church Sermon: After Covid - September 23, 2022
In his book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (Baker Academic, 2016), Alan Kreider looks at why the early churches were growing in spite of persecution and with no support in the society at large. In fact, most if not all early Christians were prepared to die for their faith. And while the number of congregations grew quickly, individual congregations were very small, their activities done in secret for fear of persecution.
And yet without any of the support we would expect ourselves, the churches grew dramatically.
Why? And what support did they have?
Three things emerge.
First, the early Christians believed that God was patient. And if God could be patient, they could be patient. They trusted God with the results and what he would do with their lives. And they concentrated on bringing their lives into harmony with his will.
They could be patient about how God would use their lives.
They could be patient about their own Christian growth and maturation. For many, their lives, and the way they conducted themselves, was changing dramatically. But it wouldn't all be progress. There were setbacks. Real people were being reformed and renewed. It required patience.
And importantly, they were patient with others. They resisted forcing or manipulating new people seeking to enter the Christian life or neighbors who believed in other gods.
The church father Tertullian describes the patience of Jesus. You can see how it would have had the effect that it did. I quote:
How odd Jesus’s story is . . . whose labors (unlike [the Roman god] Hercules's) did not include killing, capturing, and stealing but who instead kept a low profile, who bore reproaches, who would not hear of forcing people, who ate at anyone's table, who declined to call for massive angelic intervention, who rejected the avenging sword, who healed the servant of his enemy, and thereby "cursed for all time the works of the sword . . . Patience such as this no mere man had ever practiced."
In the early church Alan Kreider sees at work a process of patient ferment. Most times, most people outside the church couldn’t see anything at all. And given how humble those Christians were, most people didn’t even bother to look. But the Christians concentrated on the change in their heart and the changes this meant for their actions and their way of life. What Jesus Christ had done and offered to them was their concern. The results were left with God.
Secondly, the early Christians had witnessed the resurrection of Jesus Christ. They had seen God bring good out of the very worst that could be imagined, that is, the unjust crucifixion of the innocent Jesus. They saw him suffer and die. And on the third day, when all hope was gone, they saw him rise again. In their hearts they were experiencing this same resurrection power. Dying to old lives. Rising to new life with him. Unafraid of their mortal end, whether natural or by violent means.
And thirdly, they were taught to proclaim the great news of Jesus Christ through their changed lives, letting their new lives be the words by which they told others the Good News of Jesus Christ
You may or may not find this surprising, but among the first Christians, a person wishing to be baptized had to prove themselves teachable. But you can see why when you consider what was being left behind and how hard it would be to do so:
Idolatry - the distraction, burden and vice-like grip of false gods.
Violence - a society maintained by force, founded on violence and entertained by the gladiators.
Covetousness - so much grasping for material things.
Promiscuity - when many filled empty lives through self-indulgence.
And in those early years, these four great changes were emphasized (Justin Martyr) all of which are relevant for us today.
First, a Christian must resist idolatry - the worship of false gods - ‘useless things’ as St. Paul calls them (Acts 14.15) - in favor of single-minded devotion and loyalty to God.
In the first centuries, this was a call away from the worship of many different gods in Roman society. Like the addictions of our time to pornography, alcohol, drugs - even work - the false gods are made by human hands and substituted for the Creator of all things.
Secondly, Christians were to resist violence in favor of living peaceful lives - starting in their own hearts, homes and congregations - and did so in a society ruled by a brutal army and entertained by gladitorial sports. But for the Christians, every life is sacred before God and to be treated as such.
Most of us are not struggling each day with murderous thoughts and plans. But we live in a callous society that, on a dime, discards the unwanted through abortion and euthanasia. And while some have had to face this directly, the effect for most of us will be in the support we show for seniors who are frail, parents who have their hands full, friends and neighbors who are weak, the poor and mentally ill - now being euthanized in Canada for those reasons! And some, more personally, must attend to the anger in the heart, dealing seriously with unresolved conflict. The Lord promises to keep us in his peace. This is a promise to collect.
Thirdly, the intimate life of Christians would be modest and purposeful, ruled by the boundaries of marriage and the calling of Christ.
Thou shalt not commit adultery. We will serve the Lord and only him.
It is important to see how marital discipline and the calling of the Lord are connected.
God has given our lives dignity and purpose. But if we live as if God does not exist, as if any purpose in life will do, the pressure is overwhelming to turn in on ourselves. As Fr. Ajit said last Sunday, we live in a time where many suffer from great loneliness and emptiness. Loneliness that can do great harm if we try to fill it wrongly.
God has given a noble purpose for our union in marriage. It is that place where children are born and raised. It is a little university for us to explore and understand the depths of God’s love for us. But it simply is not the greatest calling. That calling is the call of Jesus Christ of every Christian, under whom all else finds its place. Who calls every one of us to himself and into his family. Who knows each one of us by name and answers the deepest longing in each one of our hearts.
As our Lord put it, ‘my brothers and sisters are those who obey the will of God.’
And as Paul put it, I imagine with a shrug of his shoulders:
"I'm unmarried. I serve the Lord.
"I'm married. I serve the Lord.
"In whatever state - I Serve The Lord!
And where this leads is straight into the beauty and mystery of life in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ. I give away my life for his sake. I am given back more than I could ever imagine by the One who loves us and calls us by name.
Fourthly, Christians would not be materialists. Thou shalt not covet.
This applies in two ways.
We will not be ruled by possessions.
And we will not be driven by the competitiveness that so often accompanies the pursuit of wealth and the ill and unjust treatment of others for the sake of business.
And so, in a time when there’s much that turns our heads away from God and onto useless things, a time when many innocent lives, young and old, are violently discarded, when anger poisons our hearts, when we fill empty lives with stimulants, material possessions or self indulgence, where shall we look?
Well, for starters, we would do well to consider what’s found at the conclusion of our Catechism (BCP 555). There, every Christian is urged to "frame" for themselves a RULE OF LIFE in accordance with the Gospel and "the faith and order of the Church," committing ourselves to the following six things:
1 Regular attendance at public worship and especially at the holy Communion.
2 The practice of private prayer, Bible-reading, and self-discipline.
3 Bringing the teaching and example of Christ into everyday life.
4 The boldness of our spoken witness to our faith in Christ.
5 Personal service to the Church and the community.
6 The offering of money according to our means for the support of the work of the Church at home and around the world.
This is a wise and strong rule of life for every Christian to consider seriously and one that I encourage all of us to act on and accept.
But for those moved to do so, for those who may be tired of the faith being too much in the head and not enough in daily life, who may be dragged down by the useless things of our time - maybe there’s a place for the addition of these four specific rules AND a fellowship of like-minded people to live this way together - to honestly and humbly face the addictions, anger, greed, and indulgence that haunt and depress our lives. To become a peaceful people. To accept and to share the kindness of the Lord.
In the early church, changed lives attracted the notice of others. Is there reason to think that following the Rule of Life in our time would attract the same notice and attention now?
So try a little thought experiment.
What if a person attended church on the Lord’s Day? Who as a matter of principle and practice for themselves and their families, takes one day a week to pray, to rest, to enjoy the fellowship of family and friends, whose eyes are lifted in prayer to see the world God loves. Whose children are, for this reason, kept out of the expensive and all-consuming Sunday sports programs - the national sport being among the worst.
Would anyone notice?
What if a person took time each day to pray and read the Bible and let the thoughts and prayers of those few moments percolate throughout the day? In the cloud with the St. Paul's congregation or following Daily Bread a few minutes before work?
Would anyone notice?
What if a person pushed back when a fellow employee was bullied, a company leader tried cheating? What if a person joins in the large projects of the Diocese and at St. Paul L'Amoreaux to provide a home for low income seniors, to provide the relief of food and shelter to those stricken by circumstances through ACSA, to provide comfort to cancer patients in their final hour through the Bridge of Hope in Sri Lanka.
Would anyone notice?
What if casual conversation with friends was about more than sport scores and new shoes and included reflection about the faith? What if rather than sidestepping the hard questions and troubles of our friends, instead we opened our hearts to them and the Lord, listening carefully and answering in the spirit of Christ, "unafraid because the words will be provided."
Would anyone notice?
What if the necessary time we take for rest and recreation also included a visit to a lonely senior, help in the Sunday School, or a morning at the Food Bank?
Would anyone notice?
What if our charity was not random but regular and generous for what God might do with our many hands and nickels together.
Would anyone notice?
I knew someone quite proud of his generosity and the charity he showed to street people, sharing a loonie or toonie on the occasions he noticed them. From what he told me, I had reason to believe this was his only charitable giving. I thought, and still believe, that his kindness meant something, but with a six figure annual income, I also did the math, estimating a few gifts a month for 12 months a year, and understood in an instant why the average Canadian gives less than 1/2 percent a year and, by contrast, the merits of the Christian tithe, where every gift, regular and sustained, becomes part of the economy of God.
And for those moved to do so, addicted to and dragged down by "the useless things" of our time, who will deal seriously with the addictions, anger, greed and indulgences of our time in the safe and confidential company of like-minded people with experienced and competent guides, seeking the new life promised and offered by our Lord.
Would anyone notice?
My prayer during this time of reopening and rebuilding - as we return and invite family and friends back to church - is that our heads are not turned by quick fixes and spectacles, but rather that we will live by the patience and kindness of the Lord. That what turns our heads is the work of God’s spirit in our hearts and lives and changed lives that can wordlessly proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Let this be where our attention rests. Let us trust God to use our lives as he sees fit - to proclaim the great things of the Lord.
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