The Optics Are Just Bad.

The deadline for the next edition of Convergent Streams is fast approaching. Convergent Streams is the premier Independent Sacramental Movement magazine and its editor is our own Bishop Gregory! While the magazine is geared toward those who identify as Old Catholic, Independent Catholic, and Continuing Anglican, they accept articles from any denomination with a liturgical style of worship. Last week, I submitted another article for publication that will most likely make more than a few clergy a bit angry, as I address directly a decline in following tradition, minimal educational norms, and overriding formation models in order to make more unfit, unqualified clergy.

I have also noted, through the advent and proliferation of social media platforms, an increased uptick in what I call, ‘church envy’. One clergyperson dislikes or envies another, or one parish dislikes or envies another, or one priest tries to make a ‘band of like-minded brothers’ to topple the others who created, yes you guessed it, their own such band! One priest posts some outrageous statement about buying a hotel and turning it into a refuge for those experiencing homelessness when they are barely a parish at all yet, or some grandiose plans to end hunger. I can tell you, as someone who has been at this for a long time now, and built a rather impressive parish with a strong outreach ministry, it isn’t that easy and takes a lot of funding, a group effort of like-minded folks, time, a lot of sacrifice with many sleepless nights, and whole lot of failures along the way! AND, let me clear and direct here when I tell you that – as large as we are – we still  fall short of our financial needs every single month!

It seems that no one likes to remember how difficult it is to run a parish or church of any size, and many clergy fail to remember to do their own ministry so that combined – working side by side, one church by another, each doing some form of good work – we do much greater things to serve God’s Kingdom as a collective. This isn’t a competition, it’s ministry. Isn’t it grand enough that you even dared to start a church in the first place when most of the world is pursuing secular pursuits? Isn’t that enough until you’re more established and stable to see what God calls you to do next? While there is something to be said for dreams and ambitions, the optics are bad when you make statements that cannot be feasible or close to true or possible.

I remember some 13 years ago, we were barley a few months old, in rented space when a parishioner brought in a large container to collect cans for homeless people. I summarily rejected the idea and they were none too happy with me, to say the least! But, as I explained to them, we were barley a church yet and had enough issues with keeping our lights on, let alone doing outreach we aren’t sure God, or our community, even needed. And, large food banks could buy in excess of 12 pounds of food with a single dollar! How, or why, would we compete with that? Instead of using an outreach as an excuse to clean out our pantry, let us wait until God tells us what He needs! We did, and here we are; doing the work we do with children, welcoming the rejected and the marginalized, and serving those experiencing homelessness. And, soon, yet another adventure later this year that just might help thousands more! Why? Because we stopped envying  and listened to God more.

St. Francis of Assisi gave up a life of wealth to live a life of poverty. He grew up leading a privileged life as the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. About the age of nineteen Francis went to battle against the nearby town of Perugia. Francis was captured and taken prisoner and held in a dungeon for over a year before his father paid the ransom to gain his freedom. Francis began to see visions from God that changed his life. The first vision was when he was very sick with a high fever. At first, Francis thought that God had called him to fight in the Crusades. However, he had another vision that told him to help the sick. Finally, when praying in a church, Francis heard God tell him to “repair my church, which is falling in ruins.” He began to repair a small chapel, and then he realized God meant something much more. He gave all he had to the church, but at first it was just him and some birds and animals and a lot of faith. Francis continued to pray and listen and learn what God wanted from him. Then, came a couple of new followers, Leo and Clare, and soon thousands more. In the end, Francis began alone and listened and believed. He waited and suffered until God was ready. It wasn’t about him anymore. Francis became severally ill and spent the last few years of his life mostly blind. He died in 1226 while singing Psalm 141.

“O LORD, I call to you; come quickly to me. Hear my voice when I call to you. May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice. Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.”

I remember when Joel Osteen led his Lakewood Church congregation into the stadium formerly known as the Compaq Center in Houston. After $95 million in renovations and much political wrangling, the church moved into its new 16,000-seat home on July 16, 2005. Many a clergy, including me, were very envious! Then, in 2017, after the Houston flood, Lakewood Church became a public relations nightmare when reports surfaced that they refused to allow people in. Clergy pounced with moral impunity and social media was a buzz! Smaller churches opened their doors with so little resources to help victims, and here was the largest church in the nation slamming their doors tight! It was a lack of compassion and worse, it was inhospitable and the optics were oh so bad!

Osteen later disputed that report, and we may never know the full truth behind that day when those rain-soaked Houstonians came to the doorstep of Lakewood Church, just the type of people that Jesus told his disciples to look out for, and were told to look elsewhere; just like Jesus’ own mom and dad. In hindsight, from various reports out later, it looked as if the Lakewood staff may have been justified in sending people to outside government shelters, but that doesn’t matter anymore. What matters, as is often true, are the optics looking so bad.

So, then, perhaps St. Francis was right. We should all focus on building what God asks us to build and let go of things not of our concern, or out of our reach, and just be grateful for where we are and what God has given us to do. Yes, dream, but dream with prudence and ambition that relies on God. Not everyone will agree to follow you, it’s true, but those that do must have water to drink along the way as the desert sun gets hot! That, my friends, if your job as a pastor! Perhaps this coming Lent we will be ready to finally hear more.

Remember, sin is not only that which we do, it is that which we neglect to do, too. After all, otherwise the optics are bad.

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