Work hard to be read easily

Edit life's pages to reflect our focus on church's mission
April 1, 2005

“You write easily,” a professor said somewhat dismissively to a close friend of mine. The student replied, “No, sir, it reads easily because I work hard at writing.”

Writing is hard work. We tend to avoid it. When I sit down to complete a writing assignment, I’m easily distracted. I see on a note needing acknowledgment, a gift I meant to send, a response card due tomorrow. It’s soon too late to start writing. I put the assignment aside until the next large block of free time. Because the little distractions were all worthy projects, I delude myself into not feeling bad about missing my prime objective.

Our catechism defines the prime objective of the church’s existence: the effort “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” For me, that’s a general commitment to speak the good news of the Reign of God and to stand in practical ways with those who are abused by sin, personal and systemic. Souls and society are the objects of God’s will to restore.

In my own small diocese, we have committed ourselves primarily to an evangelism program, advocacy for children and work with the Christians of Kajo-Keji (Southern Sudan) as they rebuild their lives after 50 years of civil war. Similar understandings of mission exist throughout the Episcopal Church.

Like writing, however, those tasks are difficult, not quickly accomplished. They require constant self-criticism and editing. It should not surprise us that distractions can provide relief from the strains of the gospel imperative. It is, after all, easier to argue than to act. As a diocesan community, we have had to budget strictly the amount of energy and time we will devote to the sometimes dark pleasures of theological argument, liturgical tinkering and church politics.

It surely is important for us to engage in theological discussion, liturgical development and fine-tuning the church’s common life. The question is how much attention these activities deserve when compared to our overall mission.

Could we write the history of our church in terms of its distractions? I wonder. Is it arguable that over the last century we have devoted more energy to reflecting on the nature of the church than to doing its work? Do our actions across the years suggest that we are more in love with God or with what we say about God?

I’m writing the day after the primates issued the communiqué revealing some of their deliberations on the Windsor Report. A difficult situation has become more complex. Those of us who have leadership responsibilities will indeed need to respond publicly, as will the entire church at the next General Convention. These are necessary tasks. The hard part will be resisting voices that try to make them primary.

Budgeting energy is essential here because it will take years, not months, to sort through the debate on sexuality and the issues raised along the way about Scripture, authority, leadership and communion. The sorting must happen; while we sort, may we not lose mission energy. May disagreement on issues not result in refusal to work together in the church’s primary mission.

Another reason to insist on maintaining the centrality of common mission in times of conflict may not appeal to the most contentious among us. A fascinating study of male aggression demonstrated that once the subjects were in aggressive mode, the only thing that would take them out of their antagonism toward others was the experience of working toward a common goal. I dare to suggest that God may reveal the way (or a way) through our present difficulties precisely as we continue to walk, pray and work together.

With that in mind, withholding money or participation from the body of the church looks very little like conscience. Maintaining a cut-off posture seems instead to be a strategy that institutionalizes conflict and in fact prevents its resolution, even though that may not be the conscious intention of those who cut themselves off.

There is a death to self in the suggestion that we keep our focus on our work. In the season of the Resurrection, we celebrate the fact that, in raising the one who took the difficult and inglorious path, God redefined both glory and victory.

For the sake of those who do not know God, it is important that the lines we now write be those of people who acknowledge that the church’s theology always has been in flux to some degree, but whose determination to follow Jesus of Nazareth together cannot be displaced by the reality of flux. Those lines will be hard to write with our lives. They will offer nobody the illusion of vindication. To those seekers in America who need more than the fragile illusion of a perfect church, however, they will read easily.

Additional columns and sermons by Marshall are available at http://www.diobeth.org/.

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