Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Parting Words

July 5, 2011

To My Friends:

For eight and a half years every waking moment, every prayer, every resource and every talent has been directed to establishing a new church infused with a spiritual contagion, and focused on being a place unlike any other where people for whom traditional forms, styles and structures were an impediment to faith.

o Small group meeting instead of social clutches o bible studies instead of just Sunday sermons o leadership teams instead of committee meetings o a Session to resource mission initiatives rather than controlling what happens o building a non-geographic mission boundary beyond the familiar New England village/neighborhood church identity o accentuating ministry along with denomination identity o enjoying flexible worship alongside the familiar forms o finding stewardship in joy as a way to fulfill a sense of commitment o open exploration of spiritual experiences that can expend and deepen dogmatics o enthusiastic responsiveness to the fringed mission constituency taking priority over catering to the comforts of the core o all as God’s community for others more than for ourselves.

We have enjoyed many exciting moments. We found a powerful appeal among the unchurched not wanting to get sucked up into an organization. We blew the doors off conventional expectations when we finished the construction in five years instead of ten, built an endowment to fund the building costs so tithes could flow directly to ministry, reestablished a Sunday school, opened the Tuesday music jam and meditation times. Unfortunately, we couldn’t do it all. I have not been able to lead the core as far as I would have liked and have generated some animosity instead of enthusiasm. Our consultations with our Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry, Paul Nickerson of Griffith Consultants who advised us during the initial transition and Frank Poole our past Synod Executive who started this project with us, concur that we are ready for the next stage of ministry, one that should not follow the full-time pastoral model we employed to plant the church, but creatively shift to something that is, well, not too defined at the moment. We’re at a good transitional time and with the Presbytery’s help, I am sad to announce, we will be closing our pastoral relationship on July 15, turning the church back to the Presbytery, and pray for the gracious providence of our Lord to take us all to the next level of greatness.

Customarily, pastoral closures have an eight to ten month period, but given the need to continue our progress expediently, the Presbytery, our Session and I have agreed to close the relationship sooner than later, and immediately commence the planning and consultations for the next phase of ministry.

This Sunday, July 10, will be my last sermon with a reception following. The Rev. John Merz of the Presbytery, whom many of us know from his visits over the years, will join us in worship and accept the moderating role from me, commencing with a brief congregational meeting to act on the closure of our pastoral relationship. Subsequently, Mr. Merz will serve as your temporary supply and moderator.

I understand this may come as a shock to many. It was not our plan, but the momentum to chart the next course for the church must be freed to take hold. The ministry ahead requires courageous faith shown in the history of this church, one that often means stepping into places that appear dark and confusing. Yet be it ever so true, in faith, with prayer, focused on Christ as Lord and with gracious hearts, we will move forward in expectation and love for the glorious Kingdom of God.


The Reverend John Mark Rodkey, Pastor

Sunday, April 24, 2011

“It’s Possible to Dream Again”

or, “Just when you thought it was safe to go back”

April 23, 2011

John 20:11-18

11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

Every graveyard where our ancestors lie, every headstone honoring a life that has past, shouts with existential nihilism, “What resurrection?

Who does not feel the despair at one point or another when all hope is lost. Mary returns to attend to Jesus that first Easter morning, in a ritual of respect to honor the dead; the morning dew on the cool earth sparking before the morning sun as it cut through the olive trees and bid farewell to the last of the dark night’s shadows.

4:00 o’clock on Friday she had gathered linens rubbed with resin extracted from agave and socotrine aloes with a scent of balsam to cut the inevitable stench of a decaying corpse. Jesus was dead.

What hope she may have had for some salvation from her earthly addictions had been washed away when Jesus’ last blood drained and death reign triumphantly, “Where is your God?” All hope was lost.

This was utter, tragic defeat. The grief among the followers was poignant: a volatile fuel that explodes with all consuming heat destroying all hope. It burns quickly, and leaves little in its wake but a sense of detachment from reality. It is a vulnerable time.

It is hard to even get up in the morning when such infernos consume our realities. But Mary does get up; embroiled with failure, trying to regain her footing, looking to get grounded again, she moves with resignation, walking into the graveyard with a soul resigned to the inevitable: there is only death.

She knew it all along. Why would she have held out hope for something else? This should have been accepted, and now it was. It was safe now, even if depressing, to return to her old ways.

One of the deepest and most disparaging times in traumatic transition comes when the dysfunctionally familiar patterns that have sustained our integration with the world become exposed for their explicit failure, and we don’t -- as of yet – have in place a new behavior system with which to engage the world. Our reality becomes so shattered that we waver between recoiling to the old ways of thinking, and trying to scratch out a new way of true individualization of our being.

Too often, we default to the way things were. At least the old way felt safe and familiar. So back to the grave, even if it means living in a way that leads only to death. At least we know what to expect.

So, Mary returns to the grave resigned to death, feeling for the moment at least, this is safe.

Steven Schwartz, one of Linda’s colleagues, in Opening to the Infinite, writes,“When we begin to question what has been familiar, the existing paradigm goes into crisis. If we insist on defending the old paradigm, we become very vehement and passionate in its defense. We see a lot of that today, because we are on the verge of change brought on the merging at the edges of physics, biology and medicine.”[i]

Is it possible to pause for a moment and possibly see that victory, real spiritual victory, comes by passing through valley of the shadow of death? death to our addictions, death to our old habits, death to the things that once were comfortable and predictable, but really do not help us thrive; patterns that are only "characterized by compulsive [behavior] ... [riddled with repetitive] physical, psychological, or social harm.” [ii]

Insanity is doing the same thing in the same way and expecting different results.

Jesus approaches Mary in the Garden and asks her if she still wants to look at life the same way and expect the same results, or can she open the portals of her soul to see the real victory wrought in his torrent of torment.

In 1947, Life Magazine ran a profile of Albert Schweitzer’s medical hospital in Lambaréné, then French Equatorial Africa. At that same time a cattle rancher in Arizona, married with four children, seeing the images wrote to the Schweitzer’s only to be invited to visit their African hospital.

On somewhat of a lark, Larry Mellon and his wife Gwen went, only to be overwhelmed by the impact of the Schweitzer’s world view that opened them both to understanding living was an act of Christian devotion that must embrace a full reverence for life.

When they returned to the Arizona, cattle-ranch life they had vacationed from, Larry and Gwen could have gone about to the same, familiar ways of raising beef, making money, nurturing children and praying they were doing something important to change the world. But the portals of perception had been cracked open, and the way it had been could no longer be the way it should be.

He quit ranching, applied to Tulane University Medical School, then took the family to Haiti for the summer of 1953 where he gathered material for his senior thesis in tropical yaws. It was there that Larry and Gwen found an abandoned Standard Fruit banana plantation in the heart of the Artibonite River Valley, with existing houses and enough land for a hospital, and realized it was to be the setting for their life’s work, and on June 26, 1956, the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer began medical services, free of charge, to the impoverished population. It is still in function today.

Mary could have sat and rested her back on the cold stone of the tomb, absorbed in her love, her grief, her resignation to the familiar concepts of death and loved Jesus in his grief, but in such a blind love, she would have missed the enormous triumph; the new promise; the Good News.

Larry and Gwen could have set back on the porch of their Arizona ranch, absorbed in the love of Christ, going to church every Sunday, living in the familiar concepts of good Christ-loving, church-going people doing the familiar rituals of their childhood and making money to provide for the family, but they would have missed the enormous triumph, the new promise, the Good News of new life.

As long as we see Jesus from the grief of the grave, we will forever see only the history of the past, and live our lives by retreating to the graves of our history.

But turn your eyes to the resurrected Christ, who lives not in the graves of our familiar pasts, and it is possible we too will see the glory of resurrection lived in a new age and a new day, and we too will rise!

[i] Stephen A. Schwartz, Opening to the Infinite, c. 2007, p. 361

[ii] Newport Academy, Orange, CA, Residential treatment program for teens suffering from substance abuse and co-occurring disorders, “Addiction Defined,” http://www.newport-academy.com/treatment-program/addiction-defined/