Image: I Am the Good Shepherd, by Lee Hodges
John Vanier died this week. He was 80 years old. Fifty years ago he created what became to be known as L’Arche (the ark) – communities of people with severe intellectual disabilities who live with others who do not have disabilities (called “assistants”) in a one to one ratio. This week a Washington Post columnist described it as “a wildly inefficient model of compassion, but one that we can all learn from.” The assistants commit to live at least 1 year in the community. It is life changing for all and many stay longer. Henri Nowen left his academic career after becoming friends with Vanier, and became pastor to a L’Arche community in Toronto. He lived and ministered there until his sudden death.
Vanier’s call came when he experienced the despair, sadness and loneliness of a psychiatric asylum outside of Paris. It started by his inviting 2 men from that asylum to come live with him. He did not have a well worked out plan, he just followed what he felt was his call. The house he found was small and dilapidated and didn’t even have an indoor toilet, only a bucket. It was the first of what became a L’Arche community. There are now 10,000 people living in about 150 or so L’Arche communities worldwide.
In his book Becoming Human Vanier writes about the journey and what he learned. His story is humble and tender. I urge you to read it if you have not. It is a handbook for me as we create the community at Sophia’s House. There is also a ton of stuff about him on-line – just Google his name. Take special note of an interview that Krista Tippet did with him for the NPR program On Being.
In reflecting on this week’s passage, most commentators I read stressed that the problem we face today is not following Jesus (the Good Shepherd), but that the challenge for us is in just recognizing the voice of Jesus. Jesus is indeed the shepherd, and we are his sheep whom he loves and cares for. And yes, we are called to follow him, but to do so, we need at least to be able to recognize his voice. We can’t follow if we don’t recognize his voice.
I would propose however, that we are called to even more than that. As the Church, we are the incarnation of Jesus today, here on earth. We are the hands and feet and heart of Jesus now. He has given us the task to follow him as apprentices. “Do you love me?” he asked Peter not once or twice, but three times. “Yes” replied a frustrated Peter “You know everything, so you know I love you!” Jesus, finally seeming to get through to Peter replied, “Well then feed my sheep!” (John 21:17)
So are we not similarly tasked with being shepherds as well as sheep? If so, where/who is our flock? Does our flock consist of only members, and people who can pledge or otherwise support Trinity? Or, is our flock the neighborhood and our city? Trinity’s history for 20 years has been the latter. Outsource Works, the Jubilee Center, The Center for Wisdom’s Women, Tree Street Youth, and the memorial garden are all evidence of that. Our flock included those who live near us. It is the old British understanding of a parish as being a geographic region. It is this map that was published in the Sun Journal after the big fires a few years back. (pass it around)
We at Trinity are at a turning point now. All the previous responses to our call have grown and thrived and moved on as independent organizations. Yes, we are older, more frail, and fewer in number now, but does that mean we just cease having a communal call in and for our neighbors? I don’t think so, at least I hope not. For a couple of years now, some of us have been urging us to explore what that call might be. That process stalled with our search for a priest.
Most of you know I have an idea. It is about allowing Trinity to become what is known as a “third place.” First places are homes. Second places are where people work. Third places, much needed in our culture today, especially in our neighborhood – are safe, affordable sanctuaries where people can gather and build community to break down barriers of race, religion, class. It is about simply leveraging our building and institutional capacity for a purpose bigger than ourselves.
And what might that look like?
It might include housing an emergency warming center on cold winter nights – mind you, not staffed or funded by us, but by an organization better equipped to do so. We simply provide the space as we do for the Jubilee Center.
It could include more flexible and comfortable seating not only for worship and things like the Oasis concerts that Greg organizes, but provide open space for other things like the drum circle that meets here monthly – perhaps contra dances or yoga and meditation groups.
We might consider having a labyrinth on the floor.
Maybe someone would offer music lessons for neighborhood children at Trinity, or be place for art exhibits or a site for the summer film festival.
Obviously, such options could better happen if we take out pews and refinishing the floor. Possibly we add a small kitchenette for easier hospitality and create a better bathroom. All these are changes that would renew and open up our space for use by our neighbors. And we would still have a beautiful space (or even a more beautiful space) for worship, and could we could worship in more varied ways. If this intrigues you, I have some pictures of churches that have done this.
Heavens, it might even make it possible for us to share the space with other worshipping communities. Imagine a Quaker or Muslim or evangelical group meeting here.
And, next time there is a tragedy like the murder last summer one block from here, might Trinity be THE place people in the neighborhood think to come to process and pray through their fears and grief?
Now, don’t panic! And please hear this clearly – This kind of change is not something to be forced. I think that is a mistake Steve made by removing the back pews and the font seemingly on his own whim. My guess it that the same is true for Bill Baxter 30 years ago. It created fear and broke trust.
We should strive for informed consensus, not individual action or majority rules. A am sorry if some folks felt like the past discussions about this was a railroaded plan. That troubles me. The intent was for us to explore options and discern our call by making informed decision about what was right for us.
What I describe is simply MY vision of what we might be called to do. I share it to spark the imagination of others and lead us to a real consideration of options. So far though, I haven’t heard any other options suggested. My desire is that we talk about this, do some discernment together, seek wisdom from outside (including from neighbors), and share various dreams or ideas of which mine may only be one. I am OK with hearing that you think I am dead wrong, as long as we talk about it! We have a wonderful pastor with us now who can help us do that.
In my 20 years working in the Church, first in Maine, then on staff in the diocese of Maryland, it is my experience that the first step is coming together, ALL of us, to deeply listen to each other, our neighbors, and of course the voice of the Good Shepherd for guidance.
I am going to say something hard to hear now…Please bear with me. There is hope on the other side…
Studies in small church development tell us that the old model of church full of families and children, with a full time priest, is no longer viable. It will not be back no matter what we do. Even the mega-churches are beginning to fade. The evolving pattern will likely be small, relational communities.
Bishop Lane has reflected that there were 70 some churches in Maine when he came. Barely 60 are left. Without some radical change, he thinks that in another 10 years there might be 50.
It seems clear to me that if we do not begin to be direct and open in our thoughts and fears and dream together, if we just continue down the road we are on now, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will find some other way to meet the needs of the flock around us that doesn’t include us. We’ll simply wither and fade away, and possibly the Jubilee Center with us since we are the roof over their heads.
This is so much bigger than whether or not the font stays in the garden or comes back inside. If we disappear in a few years, it really won’t make much difference where the font is, will it?
What will matter greatly is whether or not we cared for each other with love, tended the sick and welcomed the poor around us, fed the hungry (in body and spirit), and participated in the rejuvenation of this neighborhood in which we reside.
I love ALL of you. In a way, as an elder, single women, this place is more my family to me than my remaining family (2 siblings who live away and I seldom see). I would rather we live up to our potential by fulfilling our call, so that Trinity does not die before I do. Or even if it does, we will at least know we tried and that we have done a good thing and it is because we are no longer needed.
So, what to do? Here are the hopeful thoughts…
A month or so ago, Jane and I attended a day-long conference about being Courageous Church offered by the Bangor Theological Center which is the reincarnation of the old seminary. The presentations from that day are now posted on the BTS Center website. The link is in your handout today. I urge you to look it all over carefully.
The focusing question for the day was “What would your community do if it were brave?”(II Timothy 1:1-14) and the invitation was for us to use the day to re-imagine and re-negotiate our identity. BTS is a case in point – they faced the reality of the changing nature of theological education and are now thriving again in a new and very different incarnation.
After a gathering worship, the day started with a presentation on systems theory including metaphors for obstacles to change and the things that nurture change.
They suggested that bravery and courage was not the opposite of fear, but instead was movement in spite of fear and in the spirit of fear; that it was about doing the difficult thing despite the pressures to give into painless alternatives; and that you “can’t have courage without rumbling with vulnerability.” (Brene Brown).
They asked us to consider and talk about our idolatry to buildings and the things in them, and cautioned that an idealized vision of the past can obstruct life in the future.
We were told by one small church that presented a case study “We had a choice between death with dignity, assisted living (for a time), or resurrection.” They realized that doing nothing but the same old thing, was in fact a choice – to die with dignity. They instead paid attention to the writing on the wall and chose the latter, broke out of a rut and began to think about how to be faithful to the greater good. Rather than just re-arranging the chairs on the Titanic, they birthed new ministries. They are still small, but now are thriving.
Another church said they asked themselves “What is God’s dream for our world? What does our community need? What can we do to meet this need? Where should we go in service to our mission? What is God calling us to do?” The pastor of the Congregational Church in Bath, told me in a small group conversation, that after a period of discernment around those kind of questions, in the end, they decided to sell their church building and now operate in a store front downtown.
So far we have not talked together about these kinds of things. Or if so, we have done so only in small groups or in private conversations. I long for us to grapple with this as a whole community together, face to face.
At the end of the day the conference leaders challenged us to come up with ONE concrete thing we could imagine doing to address our particular situation and the road blocks we identified. We were told that we didn’t need to try to tackle everything, just pick one thing that we could do towards transformation. I decided I would at least share all this with all of you. I have now done so.
But that is not all… They then backed up their challenge with another – saying they would make a $500 grant available to any of us to support a next step. All we needed to do is submit a simple plan. The deadline to apply is the end of this month. Who would like to join me in that challenge? We can start with the conversation circle after worship today.
Friends – The Christian faith is one of death and resurrection. God is calling us again, and tells us “Behold, I am doing a new thing, now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:9) God, the ultimate artist, is always creating something new and calls us to share in that work.
The issue at hand is what is God calling Trinity to now, and how we can be faithful to that call. Who are the sheep in our flock that have been entrusted to our care? How can we be a better shepherd to them in the way of Jesus? Can we be a catalyst in response to their needs? What is the first step on that path? Who might we call on to help us? We don’t have to do it all ourselves, or even fund it. We just need to be clear about our call as a community of faith.
I KNOW that if we do this work TOGETHER, the way will open and once we are focused on the mission, it is my experience that the resources and people we need to do it (whatever IT is) will follow. That has always been the case in the past. It has been so with the women’s center. Jean Vanier and L’Arche certainly are proof. Vanier was a shepherd who knew his flock – they were the most marginalized ones – and he cared for them, calling others to do the same. The weakest also then became shepherds who healed others. Let us trust it is still so for us.
Let us pray:
Help us Good Shepherd to care for others as we are cared for. Help us not to be afraid, or sheepish about our faith, but to follow you in God’s way, in God’s love. May we trust each other and know that all will be well. So be it. Amen.
“To become a good shepherd is to come out of the shell of selfishness in order to be attentive to those for whom we are responsible so as to reveal to them their fundamental beauty and value and help them to grow and become fully alive.” – Jean Vanier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John
“One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn’t as individuals. – Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche
“There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.” – Margaret Wheatley
“In both stories [healing the blind man and the good shepherd]…the path of true faith requires movement into an unknown future. The Christian can no more remain complacently in a place of safety than the sheep can remain in the fold and not respond to the call of the shepherd to new pasture.” – The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible, vol 10 John
“Tell me, you whom my heart loves, where do you pasture your flock?” Song of Songs 1:7
“Woe betide Israel’s shepherds who care only for themselves! Should not the shepherd care for the flock?…You do not feed the sheep… Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord… I shall dismiss those shepherds from tending my flock… I myself shall tend my flock, and find them a place to rest, says the Lord God.” – Ezekiel 34