The Long Work of New Life

Did you read Thank You For Being Late? Thomas Friedman’s 2016 book is almost a theory of everything – everything, anyway, in the past 15 years or so. He describes the accelerating pace of technological change that has given so many of us a sense of constant anxiety, and offers a view of where our society can go from here.

This one paragraph has helped me get some perspective:

In 2008—right after 2007 birthed a whole new set of accelerating technologies—we entered a severe economic recession that also triggered severe political gridlock in Washington. As a result, we’ve seen a lot of our physical technologies hurtling along, while our social technologies – the learning, governing, and regulating systems we need to go along with these accelerations to get the best out of them while cushioning the worst – stall… It is as if the ground under everyone’s feet started shifting faster and faster just as the governing systems mean to help people adjust and adapt largely froze – and few political leaders could explain to people what was happening. This policy gap has left way too many citizens in America and around the world feeling unmoored and at sea, prompting an increasing number to seek out candidates from the far left or far right. So many people today seem to be looking for someone to put on the brakes, or take a hammer to the forces of change—or just give them a simple answer to make their anxiety go away. It is time to redouble our efforts to close that anxiety gap with imagination and innovation and not scare tactics and simplistic solutions that will not work. (Thank you for being late, Friedman, p. 201-202)

Friedman returns to his roots in St. Louis Park, just outside Minneapolis, to seek wisdom about how positive change can come out of this massive cultural moment. “The more the world demands that we branch out, the more we each need to be anchored in a topsoil of trust that is the foundation of all healthy communities. We must be enriched by that topsoil, and we must enrich it in turn (p.452).”

This, friends, is a secular argument for the kind of life our faith communities are called to live: as incubators of genuine relationship, in which the abundance of love and creativity spills over into generative partnerships with neighbors. Deep investment in the literal and metaphorical soil of our neighborhoods yields long-lasting fruit we may never see. That deep investment is about relationships built over the long haul, and ongoing engagement with a changing world.

In his own context of rapid destabilization, Jesus used agricultural metaphors too. There’s long work in the seed that has to die before it can sprout – even longer work going from seed to a plant big enough to shelter the birds. The gardener who promises to put manure around the fruitless fig tree to give it one more chance knows about long work and about the uncertainty of results. Relationships built over the long haul with the soil right where we stand get the chance to bear fruit when we continue to engage with the changing moment right in front of us.

Engaging the changing moment right in front of us – what does that look like? It’s a process of ongoing play, discovery, experimentation – often known by the unsexy name of ‘continued education.’ The hours you might spend reading or praying or reflecting with others about what you see happening might seem like a luxury in the face of the urgent demands of ministry now. But as Friedman’s book points out, in a world of constant change, leaders must be constantly learning, surfing the waves of adaptation instead of finding themselves washed out to sea. The investment you make now in your deepening faith and ministry skills might just be the rejuvenation, perspective, and newfound ability that opens you and your faith community up to new life.

We’re doing our own long work here in the School for Formation. By hosting the upcoming Uncharted Gathering, we’re asking three questions that animate this program, and other local formation programs around the world:

  • Missional Practice: How do we form leaders locally who will function missionally?
  • Beloved Community:  How do we form leaders who will have Beloved Community as the ground of their theological imagination?
  • Sustainable Pedagogy: What technology and best practices can dioceses use to offer local formation sustainably?

These are the biggest challenges on our plate, and it would be easy to ignore them in favor of hitting replay on the programs and models that we already know how to create. But we believe God is still doing something new, and we want to lean into the long work of asking questions that will shape the School for Formation over the longer haul to best serve the Episcopal Church in Minnesota as it forms leaders for God’s mission.

How are you pursuing lifelong learning? There are opportunities coming up as soon as this weekend for you through the School for Formation. We’re deep in the work of planning for next year, asking how we can bring our resources into reach for all of the faith communities in ECMN. Stay tuned for next year’s courses and workshops to be announced in the next few weeks. May your learning, however and wherever you find it, be fueled by the hope and imagination of Easter: new life in seemingly hopeless circumstances.