January 13, 2013
Wesley Frensdorff was the bishop of Nevada in the early 1970s. He also served as assisting bishop of Arizona and interim bishop of Navajoland. He was one of the early visionaries of a movement called “total ministry,” a strategy for living out our Baptismal Covenant in community.
Our Baptismal Covenant, the promise we make together at every baptism, calls us, among other things, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
At its very heart, Frensdorff’s ideas of total ministry push the limits of how we carry out our baptismal promise in the world, and how we “do” church. His ministry was not without conflict and opposition.
Tragically, he died in a plane crash on the rim of the Grand Canyon in 1988. But 30 years ago, before he died, Frensdorff wrote a poem called “The Dream.” The poem begins:
“Let us dream of a church in which all members know surely and simply God’s great love.”
This first line of Frensdorff’s poem brings to mind a metaphor that the great Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, used in the sixteenth century: “Can a rock that has been in the sunlight all day not fail to give off warmth and heat at night?”
Martin Luther leads us to ask ourselves, Can a Christian who has lived in the sunlight of God’s love not fail to give off warmth and love?
The answer is no. But we can’t radiate God’s love until we’ve opened our hearts and let it in.
We can’t expect ourselves or anyone else to simply start loving each other and be nice. We must first live in the sunlight of God’s love. We need to bask in the sunlight of God’s compassion. We need to absorb God’s light, allowing it to replace all those parts that are not of God within us – all of those past hurts that take up our inner space and block out God’s life-giving light.
Once we allow God’s love in, we can then begin to give off that love.
Let us dream of a church that radiates God’s love.
Thirty years ago, Frensdorff dreamed of a church unafraid of change. Is the church any less afraid of change than it was 30 years ago?
Maybe not. In fact, it may be even more afraid, which is understandable. Our world is changing so fast that sometimes a changeless church might seem the only refuge in a world that may be almost unrecognizable from what we used to know.
So we cling to what was, for comfort. But in so doing, we cut off the growth of new generation.
A woman tells the story of how, when she moved into a house in Connecticut, she decided to trim back the wisteria vines on the front of the house. The vines grew with abandon and flowered prolifically. In her attempts to shape it up a bit, and redirect it, she went out and bought some electric shearers, which she described later as being a big mistake. Not being an experienced gardener, she began to cut and cut and cut. And you know what? That wisteria never flowered again.
It didn’t die, she explained. It was still alive. Sort of. It lived as a brownish stalk that would only shoot out a few weak green bloomless tentacles each spring. She later learned that wisteria only produce flowers from the previous year’s new growth, and those few weak green shoots were unable to capture the nutrients necessary to bring forth flowers.
Let us dream of a church so vital and alive that it grows and flowers with abandon.
Thirty years ago, Frensdorff wrote in his poem that he dreamed of a church “so salty and yeasty that it really would be missed if no longer around.”
Let us share that dream and envision a bold church that exists beyond its walls, a church that fearlessly speaks out against the unjust structures of society. A church that doesn’t always choose the safe route. A church that is nimble enough to continue to be relevant and responsive in our rapidly changing social context.
A church that is not satisfied with feeding its members pablam, but instead takes risks, speaking out, and acting, regardless of consequences, against those things that are not of God.
A church where the members are so on-fire by their own conversion experiences that they can’t help but reach out and share the good news, both with people “like” themselves, and people who are very different.
Have we lost our salt? Let us, as Frensdorff did, dream of a salty church.
Thirty years ago, Frensdorff dreamed of a church where “each congregation is in mission and each Christian, gifted for ministry; a crew on a freighter, not passengers on a luxury liner.”
Let us also dream of a church united by a common vision defined by Christ’s teachings. A church where the mission of the church is the mission of Jesus Christ, and each member, regardless of ordination status, is part of the one crew.
Frensdorff’s vision was of each member as part of a crew on a freighter. But when we look at the church universal, with an estimated 38,000 different Christian denominations, when we look at the fractured Anglican Communion, and even when we look at the dynamics within individual communities, it’s hard to see one freighter. Instead there appear to be thousands of individual life rafts floating adrift.
Let us dream of a church where each member is part of that crew on one boat with a common vision. How much more could we do if our forces were united?
And finally, 30 years ago Frensdorff dreamed “of a people called to recognize all the absurdities in ourselves and in one another,” and a people “serious about the call and the mission but not, very much, about ourselves.”
Let us share his vision of a playful church, a church that takes its ultimate goal seriously, but itself – not so much.
A church that acknowledges that we might have a lot to learn. That we don’t know all the answers. And that we fall short, corporately and individually. A church where the members are blessed with hearts that forgive, and a sense of humor. That worships a God who we know also forgives, and who, we pray, has a sense of humor.
Consider this image of one day coming to know the nearer presence of Our Lord.
God is there to welcome you. You talk. God reminds you of your Baptismal Covenant – the same covenant that we will reaffirm together today. God reminds you of the teaching of Holy Scripture.
By now your post-earthly-life stomach might be turning, whatever that feels like.
But the conversation moves on to one of mercy, with God’s eternal words of welcome: “My dear child, you tried. Sometimes you even came close to getting it right. But other times, well, you missed the mark. Sometimes you fell a little short, and sometimes you got it really wrong. Sometimes your efforts were actually silly, and they even amused, giving us a good laugh. But my dear child, you tried. Your heart was in the right place. You are forgiven; you are loved; come on in anyway.”
Let us dream of a church that is serious about God’s love, and just maybe, not so serious about itself.
Today as we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, and all the baptisms today throughout the church, let us ask ourselves, What kind of a church are we bringing our new members into?
Will it be the kind of church that we dream it could be?
Will it be the kind of church that Frensdorff dreamed it could be?
Will it be the kind of church Jesus dreamed it to be?
All of us who are gathered have a part in shaping the answer. What kind of church are we going to create for these beautiful children?
— The Rev. Suzanne Watson has served in congregations in California, New Zealand, Connecticut and on the staff of the Presiding Bishop in New York. She is currently exploring a call to medical missionary work, and just completed her first semester of medical studies at St. George’s University in Grenada, West Indies, where she is also serves as a priest.