if we strive to be happy by filling all our silences with sound...

All around me, the communities of faith I have grown up with - and the colleagues who support them - are shape shifting. Seminaries are merging, clergy are retiring or leaving ministry, the rapid decline of participation in formal worship continues to accelerate, and there is no consensus about what might fill the void. I have seen the rise and fall of the charismatic movement; the growth and stagnation of white, American evangelicalism; the ascent and dissipation of both the mega-church and praise band phenomenon, and now an obsession with the NONES (those with no official religious affiliation, sometimes considered part of the SBNR - spiritual but not religious - consort.) NOTE: For more analysis based upon research, please see the Pew Research summary: Factors driving the religious "nones" in the US

I am not stating anything new or profound here: thinkers far wiser than I have been documenting the shifting sand of the North American Christian community since my ordination 35 years ago. To date, both the late Phyllis Tickle - The Great Emergence - and Diana Butler Bass - Christianity for the Rest of Us and Grounded - have written creatively and authoritatively
about this radical change. No, I am simply trying to come to terms with my own personal, emotional reaction to this reality.  

On a macro level I am delighted and excited to see Andover-Newton blend into the Yale Divinity School realm and EDS merge with Union Theological Seminary. This new ecumenical constellation holds great promise for both the wise use of limited resources as well intra-faith collaboration. Same goes for the way these old institutions are using market realities to turn their real estate into ministry: whether it is Old South Church in Boston selling a prayer book from 1620 for millions of dollars, urban churches in New Haven merging to consolidate resources, the auctioning of stained glass in Northampton, MA to fund mission, or the outright sale of under- utilized property at Union Seminary for condominiums each of these projects understands that "time makes ancient truth uncouth." To continue the work of Christ in this environment without succumbing to the ethics of the bottom line requires creativity and risk-taking.

On a micro level, however, I feel sorrow and some anxiety. Partly this is a function of age, right? My mortality is showing up and asking to be valued in these feelings. Another part frets over leadership development in this shifting environment.  A changing of the guard often evokes consternation among the elders of one generation as they pass on responsibility to the next, I know. In other eras, rites of passage functioned as a way to share knowledge, wisdom, tradition and hope between the generations. With an ever diminished commitment to institutions, however, I am unclear how a new cadre of clergy will learn how to live as wisdom keepers. One-on-one mentoring is probably the best way to do this in our ever evolving religious landscape. But my experience suggests this is not widespread. 

Further, as denominations like my own downsize, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for inter-generational linkage. There are less frequent connections between those at the top of the hierarchy and those in the local churches, too as bi-vocational ministries become the norm not the exception. In a word, there is often no time to simply sit with young clergy and listen. We are now driven by tasks rather than relationships and too often locked into the limitations of competing job demands. Just try to schedule an informal conversation over a cup of tea - it takes weeks if not months to realize - as well as computer generated scheduling resources.

Yesterday, I was convicted by this quote from Thomas Merton: "If we strive to be happy by filling all the silences of life with sound, productive by turning all life’s leisure into work, and real by turning all our being into doing, we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth."  Upon reading it I immediately sent a note to my staff asking if we might gather for an hour this morning simply to check in with one another. I love and value them all and felt like I would be living into what I hated if I didn't try to connect. Later in the day, I came across this from Merton that speaks with equal vigor to my personal reaction to a changing religious terrain:

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

The opening stanza of T.S. Eliot's "The Choruses from the Rock" is equally haunting:

The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.

O perpetual revolution of configured stars,

O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,

O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.

When local congregations assume the evaluation tools of the corporation to help their ministries, we give away part of our soul. When all we can see is the bottom line, our vision has become obscured at best and maybe poisoned, too. Small wonder I am being drawn ever more deeply into the work of spiritual direction. It is intimate, relational and as far from time effective as the Atlantic is from the Pacific. As Henri Nouwen writes about his understanding of our encounters with Christ: they are always personal, they are always quiet, and they are always small. I was blessed to be with my small staff this morning and encouraged by their commitment to the way of love. Now I can head off to three weeks of relative solitude and stillness with a sense of peace.


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