|Rev. Greg Syler|
Last week, I got away to Maine. Everything I heard about traveling on Route 1 was true – rock croppings set against picturesque waterscapes; lovely foliage; and the quaintest little towns, straight out of a postcard.
The Episcopal Church is very much a part of that landscape, or so I heard from parishioners in one congregation I visited. Yet they have their own struggles. Maine’s population is growing, but several critical industries are long gone. A 2010 study revealed that it’s the least religious state in the nation. Bishop Lane is working to renew things, and in southern Maryland we’ve kept up with his efforts, particularly as they reflect our attempts to develop collaborative ministries. But there is the feeling, both here and there, that the conversation we’re having, at best, is about managing the decline – hospice care for the church.
One day, I took a trip out to Maine’s lush farmland, to a town more rustic than idyllic. The tenant farmer and his family greeted us warmly – having known our common connection from back in Maryland. They couldn’t have been more hospitable, and yet I walked away with a lingering sadness and sense of dislocation. His wife suffered with a terminal illness, and he toiled to work land that wasn’t actually his own. Their daughter and her husband and children moved in recently, having fallen on hard times. The son-in-law returned from Iraq with injuries more psychological than physical, and she, the daughter, came home after her shift at the pizza joint in the next town over and mentioned she was called in as a substitute teacher the next morning, all that in addition to going to school herself.
Where, in all that, is Christ reconciling us to God and one another? In those quaint villages, with their lovely churches and boutique shops? Of course, and yet, not only. In that farmhouse, that family, the farmer who can’t find a reason to go to church because they only seem to ask for money? Yes, indeed, but where is the redemption? The contrast was profound, and Christ’s call to renewal was never more clear. But how?, I wondered. And by whom?
At the Portland airport – er, Jetport – on my way home, I met an evangelical pastor who was coming off a conference of church planters. He talked about translating Christ’s Good News to local needs, and he spoke with joy and a refreshing fearlessness. He wasn’t managing decline. He was participating with an abundant God by doing the ministry of Christ’s Body, the church. We exchanged cards, and I’m continuing the conversation.
I’ve been formed as a follower of Jesus and, additionally, as a priest, and those are indelible marks. But I’m also aware, for the first time, that I’m not trained to be doing the work we need to be doing – to proclaim sight to the blind, release to the captives, and the moment of God’s good favor. That doesn’t require a new institution, but it demands a new skill set, a different way of functioning, and a boldness to color outside the lines.
Few of us are trained for this, and all of us could be really great at it if we name, with some fearlessness, that we are no longer interested in managing decline, and we will take care of our precious buildings and quaint villages and love our people as we’ve always done. But to also name that our Episcopal Church is ready to rise anew for the Risen Christ. I think that that kind of honesty is a good first step towards becoming those entrepreneurs we talk about.
Rev. Greg Syler is the rector at St. George's, Valley Lee.
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