October 23, 2017

Ian Cron: The Internet Monk Interview

jpg_of_ian_photo.jpgOne of the communicators and writers that has really fed my mind and soul this year is Ian Cron, founding pastor of Trinity Church in Greenwich, Connecticut. Ian is a unique and gifted person who incorporates so much of what I am attracted to when I talk about a “Happy Enough Protestant” and a “Post-Evangelical” journey. His podcasted sermons are just tremendous, but are only available on site for a couple of weeks. I’ve reviewed his book Chasing Francis and recommend it as well.

Ian comes at you from a lot of places. He’s not going to be forced into the box of anyone’s convenient theological labels very easily. Some of our TR friends will find his list of influences too far beyond the predictable for them, but many of you will be inspired to look into how Ian brings it all together in his preaching and church. I believe Ian is showing many of us the way to bring a lot of things together that have many of us have been told should be kept apart.

I’m extremely honored to have someone I have come to respect as a mentor and guide on board for the IM Interview: Ian Morgan Cron. I hope he quickly becomes part of the journey of many IM readers.

1. Tell the IM audience what’s going been going on at this unique community called Trinity Church; especially what the philosophy of Trinity is that we would see working in your worship services and life as a congregation?

Trinity is a nine-year old faith community in Greenwich, Connecticut, an affluent suburb of Manhattan. On a typical Sunday between six and seven hundred people come to our morning service. Most of them work on Wall Street for investment banks or hedge funds the other six days of the week.

I’m always amazed that high capacity business leaders are attracted to a church that was dreamt up by artists. I think they connect with the music (Rob Mathes is our music director. He produced the new Panic at the Disco CD. Check it out, it’s great). They are intrigued by our love for literature, film, our approach to liturgy, poetry: our commitment to social justice and the fact that we are a Eucharistic community.

We’re pretty eclectic in worship. You could show up on a Sunday and hear a Thelonius Monk prelude, listen to a message that integrates ideas I’ve picked up from Kafka, Bernard of Clairvaux and the Coen brothers and sing the Veni Sanctus Spiritu in preparation for the Eucharist. I guess my friends and I started the kind of church we’d always wanted to find, a place that would welcome disquiet spirits like us, and Trinity is what we ended up with.

I grew up a Roman Catholic and later became an Anglican priest (it was the closest I could get to being a Catholic priest without having to ‘swim the Tiber’) so there’s definitely a weird brew of influences floating around the community. I’m presently studying spiritual direction and contemplative spirituality at the Shalem Institute and beginning next year in a doctoral program at Fordham University (The Jesuit University of New York) so the voices of Merton, Rahner, Ignatius, St Francis, Teresa of Avila, Evelyn Underhill and other contemplatives find their way into our ministries and preaching as well.

2. You have some evangelical roots, and I can still feel them at work in much of what you are doing. I remember a few weeks ago you ended a sermon with a song you wrote about the Holy Spirit, and I thought, “This is the kind of balance between tradition and contemporary that so many people are searching for.” How do both the evangelical and the catholic aspects of Christianity work out in your experience and ministry?

I fell in love with Jesus as a young boy growing up in the Catholic Church and attending Catholic grammar school. My father was a terrible alcoholic so my early years were pretty miserable. The first time I read Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night I thought, “Jeez, this is my childhood!” Unfortunately that’s not an overstatement.

Like lots of kids from screwy homes I suffered from a chronic sense of ‘apartness.’ I just didn’t fit anywhere. The only place I felt a sense of consolation and belonging was in church surrounded by silence, saints, thuribles, votives and in the celebration of the Eucharist. My introduction to evangelicalism came through my involvement in Young Life in high school. The Evangelical tradition gave me the good home I’d always wanted; a house that was tidy, organized, predictable, wholesome, and kind. It was a great place to live for a long, long time. Over time however I began to weary of the muscularity of Evangelicalism. It takes a very masculine approach to the gospel. Evangelicals are highly mission-oriented, they seek to ‘penetrate’ culture and are outwardly focused. Somewhere in my thirties I began to thirst for a spirituality that also honored the feminine; a spirituality that was more reflective, concerned with the inscape. I think the Catholics know more about this kind of feminine spirituality than Evangelicals. That being said, I hope to be a balanced container for both poles.

I freely refer and quote Catholics, Evangelicals, liberals, conservatives, Orthodox, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, etc. in my messages and conversations. I go wherever I find glimmers of the Glory.

God is pure light so none of us can look directly into him. All we can do is look at the shadows he casts. Those shadows fall in many places and take different shapes. I like to direct people’s attention to all of them wherever they are found.

3. Listening to your sermons, you quote a wide spectrum of influences and theology to your people, some of whom don’t wind up in the same sermons very often. How do you see spiritual formation and discipleship growing out of the various sources/traditions you encourage your people to read/hear? Why aren’t you afraid you’ll just restart all of Christianity’s major controversies again?

First let me say something I’ve been learning about spiritual formation. A few years ago I realized that my efforts at teaching people how ‘to do’ Christianity had borne less fruit than I’d hoped. I came to see that spiritual transformation isn’t something you ‘do’ its something that gets done ‘to you’. I learned that my task is to help others (and myself) get into the vapor stream of grace where hopefully we’re awakened to the vital immediacy of God in the present moment. For me the most effective means of getting into this transformational space is through the practices the great contemplative masters like St. Ignatius, Thomas Merton, Fr. John Mains, and others have taught–centering prayer, meditation, praying the Anglican rosary, regular retreats, attending weekly Eucharist, journaling, sacred reading; praying while practicing Yoga, fasting, befriending the poor, etc. I’m encouraging people in our community to not only rely on discursive reason to animate their religious imaginations but to encounter God in and through direct encounters with him. I think being a mystic is the ordinary destiny of all Christians. Arguably the best Catholic theologian of the twentieth century Karl Rahner said, “The Christian of tomorrow will be a mystic, one who has experienced something, or he will be nothing.” I think he’s right.

I don’t think I’m interesting enough to restart Christianity’s major controversies again!

4. Most of the time you are a lectionary preacher, using the Gospel texts. (At least as I’ve heard you.) What would you say to young preachers out there who are being told on one hand “preach verse by verse through books like Romans,” while also hearing “Preach the lectionary and stay focused on the person and teachings of Jesus?”

Ouch. I’m not sure what I’d say. I like the lectionary because it disciplines me to preach texts I wouldn’t otherwise choose to speak on. I tend towards preaching the gospels because I’m a nut for the narrative. We have a PhD teaching guy on our staff and I let him take care of St Paul. (I hate to admit it but my heart doesn’t sing when I read Paul like it does when I read the Gospel of St John for example though I think Romans 8 is frighteningly powerful).

Personally, I would tell younger speakers to do three things. First, leverage your own pain and losses to speak into the pain and losses of your listeners. This does not mean you should use your congregation to work out your own neuroses, that kind of self-referential behavior is wearisome. Rather speak honestly of how God has met you or how he hasn’t met you yet in your suffering. This need not be maudlin or humorless just honest.

Secondly, expose the radical self-interest and the false self you and every person in your congregation is determined to defend at all costs. Take advantage of every opportunity to deconstruct this twisted manner of life! I think it was Jung who said that conversion comes as a result of repeated humiliations to the Ego. Of course do this with self-deprecating humor and through story never through shaming.

Last, I would encourage them to preach a very robust theology of grace. I don’t think we can do anything to transform ourselves. It’s all God or nothing. Any gospel that says you can change the nature of your character in any substantive way by virtue of your own will isn’t good news; it’s a recipe for despair and frustration. I’m sometimes accused of being antinomian but I just believe this is Paul and Jesus’ anthropology. Grace is the unsurpassable good news of the gospel.

5. Because your congregation is wealthier than most, your church has done some wonderful things in Africa. What kinds of ministries do you dream about happening through Trinity, especially in your immediate community?

In 1999 I traveled to Rwanda with two other friends. We had decided that Trinity would invest itself in a country that no one else wanted to touch so Rwanda was a no-brainer. On that first trip we had to travel by helicopter with armed guards because the Interhamwe were still making incursions over the border from Burundi, Uganda and the Congo. It was pretty bleak.

Soon we began partnering with NGO’s and churches that were doing reconciliation and peacebuilding work as well as with groups working to empower coffee farmers. Since then we’ve sent over 150 of our people there to spend two weeks at a time in two communities we’ve worked with for several years.

Right now we’re dreaming about buying a house in a distressed neighborhood in Stamford CT where we can plant a community of young adults to live and work. Our hope is to create a Eucharistic community where house interns will commit to live together for two years not only to minister to the neighborhood but to be immersed in a program that exposes them to great Christian thinkers and practitioners as well.

6. What does St. Francis of Assisi offer to a burned-out, burned-over, Joel-Osteened evangelicalism?

A great question though challenging to answer since there’s so much I could say in response! I recently heard Fr. Ronald Rolheiser comment that what the Church most needs today is the emergence of a new Francis. I think he’s right. Francis was the whole package. He was a social activist in his commitment to the poor and peace-building (especially with Muslims), an Evangelical in that he asked people to repent and follow Jesus; his zeal and spontaneity in worship reveal a Pentecostal impulse; he was called ‘the first Protestant’ for rejecting materialism and for calling the Church to again live a gospel that brought good news to the marginalized, a Catholic in his sacramentalism, and a mystic to boot! He earthed the gospel so powerfully that to this day he is a source of tremendous inspiration.

If you were to ask a person on the street to describe the type of Christian that they would respect and admire I am convinced they would end up describing St Francis. I think he is the unsurpassable prophetic exemplar for the postmodern Church. He’s been called ‘the last Christian’ for hundreds of years since no one else has earthed the gospel with such incandescent clarity.

In my book Chasing Francis I tried to communicate some of this material in a way that I hoped would be compelling and informative. There are a BAZILLION biographies about St Francis. Read Adrian House’s Francis: A Revolutionary Life, St Francis and the Foolishness of God by Marie Denis, Donald Spoto’s The Reluctant Saint, or GK Chesterton’s St Francis of Assisi for more insights into his life.

7. You are a reader and you hear a lot of speakers. What are some of the contemporary books/voices you’d recommend we be listening to these days?

Books I’ve enjoyed recently–How Not to Speak of God by Peter Rollins, Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton by James Martin SJ, Love’s Endeavor, Love’s Expense: The Response of Being to the Love of God by W.H. Vanstone, Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land, The Life You Save Might Be Your Own by Paul Elie, The Strangest Way by Fr Robert Barron, The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, Silence by Shusaku Endo, Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow or his short story collection Fidelity. Diary of a Country Priest by Bernanos and The Power and the Glory are yearly reads for me.

Thank you, Ian. I hope we can talk again in the future. I’m sure the Internet Monk.com audience will find your book and podcast as interesting as this interview.

Comments

  1. Thank you. This is a truly pastoral and encouraging post. I think many people leave protestant churches because it is easier to go where such an atmosphere already exists rather than trying to create it from scratch within ones own church, where charisms like contemplation may be mistaken as either RC or new age. But God is a creator, not a consumer, and I want to be more like Him. I am going to take some risks and see what I can do to build similar opportunities in my own church. Thanks again.

  2. Wow — Trinity is the kind of church I’d love to be part of. Ian Cron reads all my favorite authors (I loved Into the Silent Land, too) and Trinity’s eclectic approach is just what I am hungering for. Right now I have my feet firmly planted in two churches: an EV Free church and an Anglican Province of America mission church, attending the evangelical church on Sundays and the Anglican on Fridays. I lead a literary group at the evangelical church and have also helped to introduce lectio divina, silent prayer, and the Stations of the Cross in artwork there. One of my goals is to learn the Anglican rosary this year and have it be a central part of my daily prayer offices. Trinity sounds like the best of both traditions wrapped into one body. How exciting!

    Now if only there was a church like this one in the San Diego area….

    Wonderful interview — it encourages me to continue building bridges in both of my churches towards more literary, artistic, ecletic, and service-oriented opportunities. I sense such a hunger for this kind of church among Christians of very different backgrounds, and I pray for more churches to adopt eclectic traditions as Trinity has and also remain close to the gospel, always seeing Jesus in others and spreading the good news.

  3. “I don’t think we can do anything to transform ourselves. It’s all God or nothing. Any gospel that says you can change the nature of your character in any substantive way by virtue of your own will isn’t good news; it’s a recipe for despair and frustration. I’m sometimes accused of being antinomian but I just believe this is Paul and Jesus’ anthropology. Grace is the unsurpassable good news of the gospel.”

    Excellent! I like this guy very much!
    Thanks for sharing the interview I. Monk.

    – Steve

  4. Well, so much for the sterotype of the anti-Christian East Coast, or however it gets expressed. Trinity sounds like a fantastic place.
    Thanks for the post and interview.

  5. Delighted in “Chasing Francis”. And I appreciated getting to know the author here. Thanks.

  6. What a bracing and refreshing interview!

    I’ve read “Into the Silent Land”, “Becoming Who You Are” and “Diary of a Country Priest” — all great books. I”ll certainly be checking out Ian’s other recommendations.

    Thanks Michael and Ian!

  7. Thank you for this interview and also for passing along links to Cron’s church sermons as you did some months ago. I’ve been enjoying them (or the ministers who share his pulpit) ever since then.

  8. Thanks for the introduction to someone I should know.

  9. Great interview if all it does is help redeem the word “mystic” from Protestant exile.

  10. Wish I could attend his church, it’s hard to find that mix. He seems to have the things I lacked when I was Catholic and the things I long for now that I’m evangelical. I wish we didn’t have to think this way, being Catholic or protestant. I see so many errors in both traditions, in all traditions really. My 16 year journey with the RCC was very good, it was healing from my fundamentalist past and put many things into focus and grounded me as a human being. But I missed the “masculine” side of faith, the sense of mission and devotion to Christ. My spiritual life in the Catholic church was deep and profound, but it was muted – I longed to have the enthusiasm I had as a new believer, I wanted to do something more for Christ. I’m glad there are people like Cron out there that represent the best of both worlds.

  11. Tom Balderston says:

    Visit the Blog. TomBalderston.Blogpost.com