When the Slate Project started we didn’t know what to call ourselves. A friend suggested “the Slate Project” from the idea of “a clean slate.” When someone uses the phrase “clean slate” they are usually referring to a relationship and they are saying that something in that relationship needs to change; something needs to be “cleaned off the slate.” But the relationship, the fundamental underlying relationship is of such importance, that even though there is something that drastically needs to change, the relationship is still very much worth saving.
The relationship between God and humanity and the relationships between humans that are grounded in the knowledge and love of God are the relationships that ground the project of being the church-- a project that is very much worth saving, at least I think so. Those of us who are a part of the Slate Project have decided we are going to stick with the “project” of being church, because we believe in it; because we have experienced Jesus.
So no matter how far we walk through the valley of the shadow of the death of the institution as we know it, we will not say, “the hell with this,” and throw up our hands and walk way, because it is never a lost cause. God has given us the perpetual clean slate. God always gives us another chance. As Michael Curry, presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, always says, "God always meets us where we are, but God never intends to leave us there."
The question, “What if we had a clean slate?” is not a hypothetical one. It is an exercise in claiming our theological inheritance. We have been given a clean slate. Asking this question allows us to get out of our own way-- it gives us the psychological and emotional space and the freedom to imagine what could be. It takes out of the equation all the stuff that says what can’t be and it says just focus on what could be.
What if you had a clean slate? What would that mean for you? What if you had a clean slate for your ministry? What if the community where you serve had a clean slate for being the incarnation of the Body of Christ that God is calling it to be?
Asking these questions and dwelling in the possibilities it creates is a way to exercise our theological imaginations and open ourselves up to receiving a vision of all that could be.
We must also ask ourselves, "What is it that needs to be cleaned off our slate?" Or to think about it another way, "What is it that is keeping is us from 'walking the talk'?" The church is really good at “talking the talk.” Sometimes we even “walk the walk.” But we have work to do “walking the talk.” We preach a good message. Living that good message is a life-long journey. What is getting in our way?
Obviously, the “clean slate” is a metaphor. The only One who can give us a clean slate and "wipe" our slate clean is God. That is what redemption is, that is what forgiveness is, that is what grace is. We are given a clean slate. We are a clean slate. That happens in God’s time-- taking place now and forever in the Eternal Now.
In our time, we would be fools to think that we could just wipe the slate clean.
This is just the beginning of our work. This is just the beginning of a process of discernment that we spiral through again and again throughout our lives.
The greatest gift we can give ourselves is the willingness to be changed and the courage to let it all go, whatever it is, that is keeping us from becoming who God is calling us to be. Whatever is keeping us from the fullness and the wholeness of relationships with God, ourselves, each other and all of creation—let it go! That is what this whole church thing is all about.
I believe somewhere inside of ourselves, we know what we need to do. We know who we are. We know how to be the church. We just forget. Or we choose not to do it, because moment by moment is extraordinarily hard. The call to follow Jesus is a radical and risky one, and I don’t know about you, but I am not all that inclined to be radical or take risks.
At some point, everybody fails. Peter failed, Paul failed, Judas really failed. The problem isn’t so much that the church is full of sinners, that is kind of how it is supposed to be. The problem is the church is full people who can’t even see or admit our sin. I could be wrong, but I think this is the real reason people are leaving the church. It is not because they don’t long for God or community. It is not because they don’t want to do good and change the world and make a difference and follow love. It is because they can see through us. They can see that we are broken; our relationships are broken. And if we can see it, we are not admitting it.
It is my opinion it is not our worship styles, or our music choices, or even whether we have a good website or good Facebook presence that determines whether our church will succeed in the twenty-first century. Trust me, all of those things matter but they are secondary to whether we are a community where people feel loved, where they experience God’s love through us, and where everyone is honestly and openly struggling to follow Jesus together.
At the end of the day, it is all about relationships. The greatest commandment wasn’t fill buildings full of people. The greatest commandment wasn’t make Episcopalians or Lutherans or Methodists or Catholics. The greatest commandment is Love God, and Love your neighbor as yourself. Follow the way Jesus did it and bring other people along with you. That is what it means to be the church. The rest is details.
Adapted from a presentation given by the Rev. Sara Shisler Goff to the clergy of the Diocese of Maryland October 10, 2016 at their annual clergy conference.