Rector's Ramblings November 15, 2017
I had the opportunity to spend two days at a conference in Nashville this week, which I thoroughly enjoyed. A friend found the conference months ago and asked if I’d like to go along. The conference was simply called, “Two Days with Rob Bell,” which is about as accurate as it could have been. Rob Bell is a former megachurch pastor who was ostracized by the evangelical community for calling into question some of the pillars of conservative, literalistic Christianity. Bell affirmed the gifts of women in ministry in a culture that doesn’t have a good track record of doing so. He embraced questions and doubts instead of demanding and teaching certainty in our faith. His most public “heresy” was the publication of his book, Love Wins, in which he questions the existence of the sort of hell that so many Christians believe in. He has no place for teaching that says a man like Gandhi would burn in hell for eternity because he never professed Jesus as Lord and Savior. I’m right there with him on that one, and have quoted his views and shared his book with others.
So what was this conference like? Well, at times it often felt like a church gathering, albeit in a bar that normally hosts country western bands. What I noticed on the first day was the exuberance of the crowd. People had arrived at least an hour early to get a good seat; there were about 250 of us. The crowd was much younger than what we ever see in our tradition; a lot of 30-somethings from the look of it. A lot of young-er people who took off work and paid nearly $400 to sit and listen to a man speak for 16 hours over two days. (And I get flack for 15 minute free sermons!) I heard waves of affirmation for the messages they heard, with regular outbursts of applause, usually when Bell would talk about the need to be open and inclusive and honest about what the Gospel seems to call us to.
And here’s the really interesting thing. Nothing Bell said was brand new or cutting edge theology for me. Much of what he had to say was in line with Episcopal teaching, or at least some Episcopal teaching (we are a broad tradition). We tend to be a tradition that encourages thoughtful reflection on our faith and our tradition. We tend not to be authoritarian like the Roman Catholic tradition or the strong-armed branches of evangelical Christianity. We tend to preach grace over damnation; invitation instead of fear. Even when Bell was talking about the power of the Eucharist, lamenting that the Protestant tradition doesn’t have the Eucharist in the way the Catholics do, as a way to draw people into community despite their diversity and disagreements, I realized we are the church so many in the room seemed to be craving. But they have never heard of us. (For the record, we are a shining discrepancy with Bell’s opinion about Protestants not having that kind of opportunity.)
Throughout the event when Bell would take questions, the questions were often removed from the topic being presented. The questions tended to be quite specific and personal for the one asking. It was clear that people in the room were hungry for some good news, and eager to hear Bell’s comforting responses. One question made it clear a woman was struggling in her marriage; another worried about the role of anger in his life; people expressed the damage the Church had done to them when they were younger. People wanted healing, not easy answers. Many were there to realize they weren’t alone in their questioning of their faith, and that there are others who find their faith strengthened by questioning it instead of obliterated as some traditions warn.
As my friend and I discussed, what would it take for people to realize that there are Episcopal Churches right in their neighborhoods who can help them walk this path; churches that can blend ancient traditions and liturgies with the concerns we face today? How do people not know? Because they don’t. How do I know this? Because I met some people who didn’t really know much about us or understand that we could possibly be that open.
For example, on the first day we sat a four-top table in the balcony with two strangers also in attendance. The man was my age, had a large, bushy beard, paired with shaved sides on his head, and a styled center section of hair. He wore large earrings of the sort that stretch the ear lobes into large circles around the earring. He was covered in tattoos and rode a motorcycle. As we spoke over meals and on breaks, I learned that he grew up in a conservative Christian home and left at age 18, as soon as he could. He has spent the last 20 years discovering a world that is much bigger and complex than what he was taught. He’s also discovering the same about his faith. He has a dual career, both of which he excels in; investing in rental properties, and serving as one of the top mixologists (bartenders) in the city, at a restaurant that is booked 3-4 months in advance. As we spoke and he learned about me, and that I was a priest in the Episcopal Church, he was curious about a tradition that would have room in it for Bell’s sort of questioning. I assured him we did.
The young woman at our table was very nice. A twenty-something blonde woman, we learned that she is a singer (in Nashville? What are the chances?!?) who is trying to get her big break. She missed out on an opportunity to appear on the The Voice, one of the television shows that can make singers famous. They filled the slots just before her final audition in the final round. She is producing a new album with her husband, and just launched a new single. She sings pop songs, so Nashville isn’t quite as natural a place for her genre, but she’s working hard. She grew up in “an ultra-conservative tradition”, but had long struggled with the rigidity of some of the teaching. She and her husband were finding new ways to think about their faith and hope to find a church home that works for them. Both of these strangers asked me for Episcopal Church recommendations, which I gladly gave them – Nashville happens to have some great Episcopal congregations.
I also learned the hunger is deeper and wider than those who had even heard of Rob Bell. After our first day at the conference, we went to one of the iconic Broadway bars/stages to have a drink and listen to some music (I mean, when in Nashville, right?). The woman next to us at the bar struck up a conversation. She was in town for work from Chicago and wanted to hear some music as well. When we answered her question about why we were in Nashville, and she learned that I was a priest, she quickly began asking me religious questions (a vocational hazard when priests hang out in bars). She was raised in a Pentecostal tradition, which has driven her into what she describes as agnosticism. She’s not sure she buys the Jesus story anymore because there are so many inconsistencies in the Bible she can’t believe any of it… but she wants to. Now that she has a six-month-old, she’s starting to wonder if there’s something she missed. After we talked for a few moments, she started writing down book titles I suggested might be helpful for her, and she suggested that she might look up an Episcopal Church in Chicago to see if she liked it.
These were holy moments, to be sure. This was some of the clearest evangelism I’ve done in my ministry. I have no idea if these folks will find their way to an Episcopal Church, or any church, for that matter, but I was able to affirm their journey and point them towards a community that might be able to help them. Sometimes that’s the best we can do, and it’s more than enough.
Over the years I have learned that it’s not just younger people who struggle with such things. In confirmation classes, Bible studies, and book groups, I regularly hear stories from people who have carried around doubts and questions that they haven’t felt they could ask. To be around others who ask the same things, and have clergy who will walk the questions with them can be incredibly healing. It’s one of the unique gifts our tradition can offer a person. I say this because we all know people who hunger and thirst for a relationship with God. Many are disillusioned or have been disenfranchised, or even wounded by the Church. When we meet someone like that, it might just be the right time to invite them to walk with us in our own doubts and questions, and to invite them into a larger community that’s doing the very same thing. Assuming we know of a community like that…
O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the earth, and sent your blessed Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people everywhere may seek after you and find you; bring the nations into your fold; pour out your Spirit upon all flesh; and hasten the coming of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.