At the Upward Bound Conference
When you read this, the Maryland winter sky will most likely be cold and gray. But as I write this, I’m not in Maryland. I’m with a gathering of 35 Episcopal clergy just west of Phoenix, in a place aptly named “Carefree, Arizona.” Many of us know one another. Four are people I know from Maryland, two I knew in Colorado, one I knew in seminary. One I had served with in another parish, one presently serves a parish I served in the past. Still others I have met in other settings. All of us gathered here this week to wrestle with a variety of issues and to pray, working hard to become better clergy, better Christians, and better people.
The work we’re doing is challenging and provocative, but the setting couldn’t be more congenial: Today the desert sky was so bright and blue it made me blink. The air was perfect: clean and warm. Tonight the sky was so black the stars shone brilliantly, and we pointed out our favorite constellations to one another. The last time I came to Phoenix for a gathering of clergy was a dozen years ago in July. The temperatures soared daily past 115, and it seemed that we were discovering first hand the reality of Hell. But not today. In a setting like today, and with such congenial colleagues, it seems so easy to believe in Heaven.
I’m not sure if it’s the setting, the issues we wrestled with today, or the particular people who have gathered here. But tonight as we gathered around picnic tables for dinner, we found ourselves drawn to conversations about faith. We told faith stories and laughed uproariously about human foolishness, especially our own. We marveled at the wonder of God’s gracious and relentless faithfulness toward us. Peace on earth; good will toward men.
I found myself wishing you were here, experiencing this with us. I know it is not always easy to think and talk about God. Where you work, the word “God” is more often than not reduced to a meaningless sound expressing surprise or alarm. Even when the Church gathers together on Sundays, when a focus on God is intended, conversation about God is not often easy. The liturgy centers on God, but our conversation does not. Listen to the conversations around you in the halls or at coffee hour, and discover whether we are sharing our faith stories with one another. The truth is, we don’t really know how or when to do that. So it seldom happens. That is why I wished you were here – to experience the profound joy and encouragement that comes from being in a group of people finding it easy to tell their own stories about their own longings and need for God – and about God’s breaking into our lives in unexpected new ways.
This, of course, is what we hope for in our parish. Our understanding of the word “church” is simply this: a people called into the fellowship of Christ: knowing Christ and making him known to others. A church is not an organization, it’s a community – a community of faith. God was in Christ reconciling the world. Now we gather together in Christ, becoming a people that knows and loves one another, a people with stories of faith that we tell to one another and to the world, a people gathered each week to wrestle with a variety of issues and to pray, working hard to become better Christians, and better people. Even under Maryland’s cold, winter skies!