By the Rev. Eric Long
This is the final installment of a series of articles providing an inside look into my earliest engagement with St. John’s through your Rector Discernment Committee. Near the beginning of our conversation with one another, I was asked to answer several essay questions. Below is the fourth set of those questions along with my answers. I hope this series gives you both a better insight into how St. John’s Rector Search was conducted and who I am as a person and priest in the Church of Jesus Christ.
What do you think the Episcopal Church does well in carrying out our mission?
The Episcopal Church is excellent at meeting people where they are. People, particularly from fundamentalist backgrounds, are often delightfully surprised to feel accepted in our congregations. Our Church offers those seeking Christ charitable entry points because we do not force an answer to every question and allow freedom of conscience. This is a tremendous gift that we supply, particularly in this divisive age. Increasingly, our politics, entertainment and isolated information bubbles insist that if someone disagrees with you, that person is an enemy. When at our best, the Episcopal Church embodies a dramatic alternative to such thinking. We give people space to be different, trusting the Holy Spirit will ultimately guide us all to the place we are to be, as we stay in the rhythms of divine grace and the fellowship of Christ’s Church.
Furthermore, the Episcopal Church offers depth and meaning to a world terribly distracted by the small and trite. Like my children as infants staring at the plastic mobiles turning above their cribs, too many people are preoccupied by little more than what is bright, shiny and plastic. Not much thought is invested in the eternal, while the temporal demands supreme attention. Here, the rootedness of our tradition serves as a powerful antidote. Our liturgy holds hands with an easily forgotten past in order to allow the future not to be determined solely by whatever seems to offer the greatest pull in any immediate context of history.
However, in my estimation, it is our sacramental worldview that is our greatest contribution. Through it we discover that God uses the entirety of our world to touch our lives with grace. As simple bread and wine fill us with Christ in order to form us into what the world needs most, so too, everyday water births us into a new family with an eternal calling and destiny. Our age aches for meaning. The sacraments proclaim that God is reaching out in limitless ways through all of life. When we are tempted to believe that existence is nothing more than one day after another, encountering a God who uses the details of life to reach out to us makes each day pregnant with the surprise of divine presence. Our church’s gift of a sacramental worldview gives the assurance that the steps of our lives are going somewhere specific, namely to the One who graciously touches all of life, through all of life.
Where do you think the Episcopal Church struggles with carrying out our mission?
The Episcopal Church too often seems determined to remain the greatest secret around. Perhaps some Episcopalians believe if anyone were sensible enough to be a part of the Episcopal Church, he or she would have already joined us. Yet mostly, I think we simply do not appreciate how hungry people are for precisely the sort of Christian expression we enjoy, but often take for granted.
Moreover, many Episcopalians believe their particular vision for the church is the only one that should be. These people segment the Church along positional lines. They see only one way to worship, to look at a pressing concern, or to live out our tradition. This is also a major danger of our polity which causes us to too often vote “yea” or “nay” to complex, nuanced, and therefore, contentious matters. Not everything is “either/or,” and it seems to me an assault on the comprehensiveness of our tradition to insist it is. Yet, there are many who relish the voting mechanisms of our church precisely because they establish winners and losers. However, I am convinced that when we do this, it makes us all losers.
Finally, I believe that Episcopalians need to know why we do the things we do in order to see how they hold meaning for those beyond our doors. Some Episcopalians love the ways of our church but lack curiosity as to why they are. While this is perhaps inevitable on the margins, it is a challenge if such thinking becomes common. We must know how our breadth, traditions, liturgy, sacramental worldview and ethos are powerfully necessary to the world about us. Otherwise we risk being a club for the like-minded, yet one with too little idea of what brought us together in the first place. To do so would not only put us at risk to lose our deepest identity, but also forfeit the greatest missional gifts we have to offer a hungry world.
What would you like to see the Episcopal Church do more of in order to carry out our mission?
First and foremost, I would love us to realize that we are uniquely positioned as Episcopalians to meet the deep spiritual longings of our world at this time. As all churches in the 21st Century American context struggle with an increasingly religiously disengaged society, poll after poll tells that even those most turned off by what they know of the Church long for spiritual connection. The Episcopal Church can meet that need for many people who have been bruised, disillusioned and even traumatized by the loudest “Christian” voices in our culture. I constantly have people come into my congregation telling me that if it were not for the Episcopal Church, they would have left religious life behind forever. This is a tremendous opportunity. Yet it will take the people of our churches realizing it to be so, and then finding ways to open their doors to those not yet inside.
The good news is I see this as another strength built right into our DNA. While much popular evangelism practice has asked people to sign on the dotted line as a 100% believer in order to belong, increasingly, people are looking for places to first connect, which will in turn shape their belief through life in community. Anglicanism has long proclaimed that “Praying Shapes Believing,” which is another way of saying that we become more like that which we practice and worship. Because the Episcopal Church is gifted at meeting people where they are, if we find new ways to help those who are searching find a place to belong, in which they can then begin the work of prayer, we can rest assured that in time the Spirit will shape them toward belief. Yet our Church must see this as a prospect, then an imperative, and ultimately a call.
We would like to know more about you. Tell us about your interests and passions outside the life of the church that speak to who you are or anything else about you that you would like us to know.
Family fills the majority of my life outside of parish ministry. This is a joyful thing for me as my wife and daughters (Abigail – 10, Madalene – 7) are not only great fun, but remind me of why life is shot through with meaning. We love to go to the beach, take the dogs to the park, find a place to swim, or watch a movie together while having a pizza picnic on the living room floor. My home life is a noisy, rambunctious, happy incubator for love. Homework, guitar and piano lessons, volleyball games, and lots of laughter fill the empty slots on my calendar.
I also love to get together with friends and watch a football game, drink an ice-cold beer and laugh until my sides hurt. I am passionate about almost everything, so I thrive on great conversation and learning new insights through others. I love to read, find a quality television series, watch a great movie, and to learn. My family relishes opportunities to travel, and thus we try to experience new places each year. I am a private pilot and a scuba diver, although life has not afforded me the time I once had to pursue those interests. I am committed to regular exercise, as much as I have to constantly inspire myself to do it.
All in all, I am rarely bored. I easily find life to offer limitless possibilities for fun and excitement. I am blessed.
Thanks so much for reading this series. I hope, indeed, you have gained a good bit of insight into who I am as a person and priest.