Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Scouting in Networks: Ballplayers, Search Process, and Seeking Rebecca

Abraham’s servant was given no easy task. The slice of Genesis we heard today doesn’t give this servant a name. Earlier chapters list an important steward of the household as Eliezer, so let’s call him Elle.  Sarah has died, and Issac has come of age. The promise that Abraham’s descendants will number like stars in the sky as a light for all people, this promise seems difficult to win.  There is one son still in the household. He needs a wife.  

Maybe you imagine that Elle has a family himself.  We can certainly believe that his well being is directly tied to the success and failure of Abraham, his master. So Elle must set out, given a critical task with a high chance of striking out. Maybe you have been there.  A faithful employee or family member, given a daunting assignment on which it seems everything depends.

So Elle goes. Journey one week north, turn at the rock that looks like a hat, ford the river, and take the back roads, cross borders and go to Abraham's kindred, who may barely remember his name.  Go there to those people and find a partner for the heir Issac. You cannot go somewhere closer, to some other tribe. Go far beyond your comfort zone to find her, find this prospect who is a stranger of immense hope.  Get permission to bring this stranger back, and then journey again across dark roads and rivers and borders.

Elle begins this critical meeting with a prayer, it can sound a bit like making a wish with a coin, but it is wiser than that. Hospitality to strangers is a critical virtue among semi-settled desert peoples.  It isn’t just a move of kindness, but bringing water to strangers and their camels is an act of justice. Elle and Rebecca are like many servants of God then and now. They journey into the unknown and carry buckets and buckets of water.  Patiently, wisely and, daringly striving for God’s way.

I must confess that I experience a vast amount of sociological and historical distance from this lesson. I don’t have a servant, and neither did my parents or their parents. And then the idea that my parent would send a staff member to go choose my spouse?  Ha. And that the best and frankly only option would be to choose from my cousins? Good grief.  It is not my world. Yet I know we struggle with choosing our own partners wisely. And that sometimes, other people or perhaps algorithms do a better job of choosing well for long term partnerships. There is so much that gets piled into making matches, pragmatic or romantic, personal or professional. Families and legacies, hopes for the future, and heartbreaks in the past all flow into the request of Abraham and the search of his servant.

As many of you know we will be revealing the parish profile soon. We are opening ourselves to the anxiety and vulnerability of searching for a new partner in ministry. There are churches where this is done with auditions and voting.  There are also traditions where congregations and pastors have very little say in matches.  It might be fabulous if there was a computer program that could take all our data and all the data of all the priests who are open to a new call and churn out the perfect prospect.  But there is more to it than that.  There is something about personality and hopes and style that are precious but not reducible to search words and data. This process is a human process, and we have made sure it is a prayerful process. It is daring, revelatory and challenging, while also beautiful and hopeful.

The profile committee, or as some have nicknamed it ‘the sociology committee’ is wrapping up its task, and soon the crucial work will be given to the next committee, the Discernment and Review Committee. Their calling is rather like our friend Elle, Abraham’s servant.  Which is rather similar to scouting, not knots and hikes, but baseball. I was once the sound booth ‘volunteer’ for a large college baseball operation.  I say volunteer in quotes because most of the time I sat in the climate controlled production box and chatted with my friends. I did learn to run the soundboard, all those walk up songs and smashing sounds when a fly ball soars behind the stands, but I only had to do that in emergencies.  What I did more often was show baseball scouts around, and I got to know a few quite well.

I want to share with you two things about the work of baseball scouting. The first is that baseball scouts work basically on their own, but they don’t really. All the Scouts know each other, it is rare to see just one scout show up at a game.  They may serve opposing teams, but the success of the whole sport depends on more teams having good players. These guys are companions on the road, and it is more than just social.  Bill may not be looking for a side winding pitcher, but he knows that Ted’s team is, so when he notices a good prospect he shares his notes and observations. Baseball scouts rely on human networks to do the job right.  

In your search for the next rector there are statistics and search words and profiles and computer programs.  But the chances are that the priest God is raising up for you will be found in our Episcopal kinship-type networks.  I wasn’t looking for a new call when I first heard of Walla Walla. A friend of mine, who is a friend of St. Paul’s, he sent me the information, said I think this is for you.  I replied that looks so lovely with the trees and the creeks.  Nope, leave me alone. I refused the hint more than once. However, he persisted, and here we are.Unlike our Genesis story today, we cannot wait for the perfect person to appear like a fairytale. There is work to do, but the discernment and review will not be done alone it is being pursued with prayer and in large networks who want us to win.  

The second important thing I learned is that the young showboat ‘every ball over the fence’ person, isn’t very interesting if the other skills or the heart is shallow.  Brute strength fades in the rigors of long seasons. Furthermore, no one player can save a team. All the fantastic statistics in the world won’t bless a clubhouse if those stats belong to a person who doesn’t know how to evolve and doesn’t play well with others. What scouts seek are team players who know the game, who are generous and have a willingness to share and learn. All the time, every player on the team, every season and every off season.  We are both scouting and being scouted. 

There is one more thing I learned from baseball scouts that might matter for us in our practice as people called to be Jesus’ ball team.  For all the paperwork and video you can collect, there is something else.  A vibe thing, a chemistry factor, that whole picture beloved-ness that doesn’t show up in spreadsheets.  In our Old Testament replay today, Elle prays and seeks some very specific qualities, but perhaps in the act of prayer itself he invites the mystery of holy compatibility. The match is made quickly, yet in Rebecca the tribe gets something more than the skills listed on the profile.  She is no wilting violet, and she is how the blessing continues and is made real.  It is Rebecca who is the protagonist in the chapters ahead, directing the course of the whole season. She brings the skills, but she also brings something else. That flat out face in the grass diving for the ball devotion to God’s way.

So I have a few questions for us to consider:
  • How are we as Jesus mission teammates, what would a scout learn about us?
  • When God invites you into a hard deed, how do you respond? 
  • Do you pray? Do you reach out to the network?
  • Are you ready to be delighted by the call you didn’t expect but that produces blessings for God’s mission in this place and time?
    • If not, can you pray for the grace to get ready?
Let us pray.

May the forms of our belonging —in love, creativity, and friendship—
Be equal to the grandeur of God and the beauty of our souls.
May we know the urgency with which God longs to partner with us.
May we have the wisdom to enter generously into our own unease
And to discover the new direction this holy searching wants us to take. Amen.

Prayer Adapted from John O'Donahue

St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington