Civil Engineering, Silicon Valley, and the Transfiguration

FatherTim

John 9:28-43

The shortest distance between Points A and B is a straight line.  Or so I’ve heard.

This holds true if you’re a civil engineer and Point A is a flooding problem and Point B is the installation of a culvert, you know, a kind of tunnel to carry the water away from the problem area the next time it rains heavily.

You may or may not know that I used to work for a civil engineering firm in San Antonio, once upon a time.  And this is in fact the kind of work I did with this firm: flood control work.

You can be sure that when a problem came our way we would plan as precisely as we could to go from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, taking the straightest line possible, with the fewest oversights and contingencies.

So, putting together a proposal required planning.  Lots of planning!

We’d look at drawings from previous projects in the problem area, trying to determine why something was flooding now and how future flooding could be averted.  We’d go out into the field, armed with various tools, surveying equipment, and a camera—always a camera—in order to obtain the present-day information we needed.  Then we’d return to the office where I’d sit at a computer, absorbed in AutoCAD, drafting information into a drawing; I’d develop and overlay a proposed design; I’d go over it all with the engineers; and we’d repeat whatever steps were necessary in order to go from Point A to Point B with the fewest surprises possible.

Next, when the city accepted our proposal, that’s when the often more difficult work began: the work of liaison between whatever contracting company was awarded the bid and city officials.

I’d have to step in on occasion and tell the gruff, tattooed contractor, I’m sorry to say, but, no, this culvert is not at the correct elevation; or, worse, you’ve installed it backwards.

The shortest distance between Point A and Point B is a straight line; and the civil engineering firm I worked for was that straight line.

But—to change the image now—what if Point B is an iPhone and Point A is Apple Inc. in 1984?

1984 is when Apple Inc. announced its revolutionary new computer, the Macintosh 128, via a commercial that first aired on Superbowl Sunday at a cost of something like $1.5 million.

Computer technology had come of age.  In fact, by 1984 some innovative types were already imagining the marriage of computers and touch-screen technology.

But how did Apple Inc. get from Point A to Point B?  Did it follow a straight line?  Back in 1984, did some forward-thinking people sit in an R&D lab somewhere and map this all out through drawings, meetings, and analysis, targeting a specific launch date of June 29, 2007?

No.

You know, as well as I, that Apple Inc. did not develop the iPhone through a thoroughly planned, Point-A-to-Point-B process; but rather through what’s called an iterative process.  It was a long journey, full of twists and turns, mistakes and failures, types and prototypes, trial and error.

Back in 1984, the future for Apple Inc. was unknown.  Or, to say it another way, its future was shrouded in a cloud.

So we have two images.

The first image, the one from civil engineering, let’s call establishment.  In the world of civil engineering there is an established way of doing things.  The City of San Antonio will call on several engineering companies to put forth a proposal on how best to fix a flooding problem.  The engineering companies make their respective proposals based on the established, time-tested ways of doing things.

The second image, the Apple Inc. image, let’s call innovation, for reasons that I hope are self-explanatory.

Now, a couple questions.

First, which of these two images aligns with Peter, James, and John on that day when they saw Jesus transfigured?  Isn’t it the second image?

Peter, James, and John are thoroughly confused here.  Not only are they overshadowed by a cloud physically, but so are they mentally.  The passage even says, “Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake—”

Um, excuse me?  They’re weighed down with sleep but also awake?  Forget Peter, James, and John: I’m confused!

Then Peter, in his half-asleep-half-awake stupor, starts to move around excitedly and offers to make three dwellings—one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.  Clearly he’s not getting it.

Next, just to make sure we the readers aren’t in the dark any longer, the text explains: Peter does not know what he was saying.

Finally, after this whole scenario comes to an end; after the cloud overshadows them all, they hear God’s voice, and suddenly find themselves alone with Jesus again, we read this: “And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.”

And they kept silent.  And they told no one.  And they were confused, befuddled, nonplussed, dumbstruck, flummoxed, mystified, bewildered—we get the point!

We call this the Transfiguration of Jesus.  But this is also just the beginning of the transfiguration of Peter, James, and John.  This is just the beginning of the process of groping through life and into the future for them, from a band of uncouth fisherman to the stalwart founders of the Christian Church.

You are Simon Peter, Jesus said, and on this rock I shall build my church.

You, Simon Peter, are Point A; and the Church is Point B.

Now, can you imagine Jesus saying, “And you’re going to get from Point A to Point B by sitting cloistered up in a room and getting out some parchment and planning, planning, planning until you’ve got a decent proposal, one that has analyzed and minimizes all possible glitches and contingencies . . .”?

No!  Peter, James, and John are going to have to grope their way through the cloud of the ancient Roman world.  And their way through it is innovation.

But I said I had two questions.  My first, which we’ve just answered, was, which of these two images—establishment or innovation—aligns with Peter, James, and John?  So my second question is, which of these two images aligns with the church today?

Isn’t it the image of establishment?

We want a new ministry, a new mission church, a new program, a new whatever.  Don’t we plan how to get from Point A—where we are—to Point B—the new ministry we desire—with as few contingencies as possible?

This is an establishment mindset.

But let me offer an even more specific example.  Now, this might hit a little close to home for some of you.  But I’m not trying to pick on anybody; I’m just trying to illustrate my point that the mainstream church today—including St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Yuma—possesses an establishment mindset.

So, here’s my example.  I’ve made a few changes around here in the last year or so.  Some have been accidental; some intentional.  But that doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that the single largest response I’ve heard to change is, “But we’ve always done it that way”; or some variation thereof.

Well, that response is the epitome of the establishment mindset.

And, by the way, that response is not a good reason not to make a change.

For instance, let’s say that every time I saw a $100 bill in the offering plate I stuck it in my pocket—not a $20 or a $10 or a $1 or any other denomination, just any and all Ben Franklins.  Eventually somebody would confront me.  (I hope!)  And I’d just smile and say, “But I’ve always done it this way, ever since I’ve been rector.  It’s my tradition.”

That’s not a good reason not to make a change!

Well, anyway, here’s where I’m going with all of this.

The mainstream church, including St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Yuma, has had an establishment mindset for many a decade.  We’ve believed that if only we plan the right programs, preach the best sermons, build the right buildings, follow the tried and true examples of outreach, youth ministry, Sunday school, whatever—if only we follow the right recipe, we’ll cook up the most delicious church possible.

But the culture has largely changed over the last four decades.  We can no longer say that America is a Christian nation.  Practicing Christians are in the minority.  The church is no longer the establishment it once was.

St. Paul’s can’t simply be an established presence in our community and expect people from the neighborhood to come to us.  We need to take St. Paul’s to them.

What this means is that we need to rethink church.

But not like a civil engineering firm.

Rather, we must innovate, like Apple Inc.

We must be like Peter, James, and John, groping our way into a future that is shrouded in cloud.

We must experiment, troubleshoot, even fail—understanding that failure is simply part of the learning process—in order to move forward.  It’s an iterative process.

And it might even mean that we’ll end up changing some things from the way they’ve always been.

This Saturday the vestry and I will be on a retreat together.  It’s our annual meeting.  It’s also a time for us to get to know one another, to plan, and to strategize.

But not like a civil engineering firm!

So, there are some things I’m going to encourage the vestry to do in 2016, as we consider the future of St. Paul’s.  And today I’m encouraging you, as you are able, to do these things too.

First, I will encourage the vestry to value our traditions.

The Episcopal Church is big on tradition.  I’m big on tradition.  St. Paul’s is big on tradition—including many of its own, peculiar traditions.  As our church moves forward with a mindset of innovation, I will encourage the vestry not to eradicate any of our traditions without good reason.

In other words, I actually kind of sympathize with the statement, “But we’ve always done it this way”—even if I never want to hear it again!

Which brings me to my second encouragement: I will encourage the vestry to suspend judgment.

Here’s what I mean.  Innovation requires a safe place for discussion.  I will be asking the vestry this year to share ideas—about our worship space, about our mission, about what to do with that plot of land just beyond the playground.  A safe place for discussion means no idea is too small, no idea is too big, and no idea should be pushed aside just because we’ve always done it another way.  No one should ever feel ashamed for sharing an idea.

Help me and the vestry make St. Paul’s a safe place for sharing ideas—maybe even crazy ideas.

Third, we should build upon what we already know.

This goes back to valuing our traditions.  But, also, isn’t this the way true innovation works?

Apple Inc. didn’t arrive at the iPhone straight from the Macintosh 128; but after decades of trial and error building upon what they already knew.

Peter didn’t go straight from uncouth fisherman to church’s foundation.  He got there by building upon what he already knew.

I’m not advocating a blank slate here.  Rather, I’m encouraging the vestry and you to innovate with what we already have, from what we already know—from the uncouth fishers of men that we already are!

Fourth, and finally, I will encourage the vestry to fail.

(Gasp!)

That’s right.  I said fail.

But I mean this in the sense of Thomas Edison’s failures.  We’ve all heard how he failed more than a thousand times before he successfully invented the lightbulb.  This kind of failure is actually essential to learning and growth.  I want the vestry—I want this entire congregation—to learn and grow as we adopt a mindset of innovation.

We should anticipate failure along the way, as we grope our way into the church’s future together.  But we should also expect to learn and grow from these failures.  It is an iterative process.

Like Peter, James, and John, we are on a journey of transfiguration.  Therefore let’s not stifle the Holy Spirit, who wants to lead us on this journey!

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