We are now in the season of Lent. As the Book of Common Prayer reminds us in the Ash Wednesday service:
… I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature …
Many of us make genuine efforts to follow the practices suggested for Lent but in our humanness many times fall short. I especially remember one story where a parishioner fell in the parking lot of the local bakery right after the Good Friday Service in her haste to buy the cake she had given up for Lent. Though our efforts are not always successful I believe they are certainly worthwhile.
Luke and Acts are thought to have been written primarily for a Gentile audience. This means that from the very beginning, Luke has a challenge. How does one “set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us” when the listening audience does not share a common language of hope and fulfillment? For a Jewish audience, the question, “What are we waiting for?” would have had a fairly clear answer, even if individuals and groups would have argued (and certainly did) over what shape the Messiah’s coming would take.
For a Gentile audience, the question of “What are we waiting for?” is a much tougher one. So Luke starts with hope. For a people who have not imbibed the promises of the Hebrew Scriptures with their mothers’ milk, Luke lays out a number of interlocking statements of hope. In a few chapters, the gospel introduces a whole new people to centuries of shared history and commitment and faithfulness – on the part of both God and the people.
I’ve become the chief obituary writer for the family. It started nearly twenty years ago when my husband’s grandfather died. I was a reporter for the metro newspaper, and it was a natural ask. Over the years, even as my jobs have changed, I am still the go-to person for obituaries for the family.
It’s not that I have a golden pen or some magical way with words. Rather I spend some quiet, reflective time thinking about the person, about the qualities that endeared them to others (and the ones that drove others crazy). I work to paint a picture of the person, to suss out those key details that give insight into personality and heart. Here’s a bit of the obituary I recently wrote for my husband’s grandmother:
There is a scary sense of the unknown at the start of a period of congregational discernment, whether for a potential capital campaign or for strategic visioning. I have to admit, as a facilitator the anticipation is part of the thrill – like when the safety bar clamps shut on a roller coaster and you know the ride is about to begin. Oh, what will the listening, prayer and Holy Spirit will reveal?
At St. John’s Episcopal Church in Canandaigua, New York, an obvious need to renovate the former rectory building turned out to be secondary to the congregation’s spiritual need to experience and share worship and music with the community. Organ replacement and stained glass window preservation moved to the top of the priority list. A successful capital campaign to address those issues is now being followed by new ministry possibilities for the old house.
This month we offer five resources to help your vestry, bishop’s committee, or other leadership group take a productive and life-giving retreat. Please share this digest with your parish leadership and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and the monthly digest.
1. The Vestry Goes on Retreat
The Vestry Goes on Retreat shares how retreats can be a time of fruitful work, relationship building and most importantly, honest conversations about the life and health of a church.
Sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with friend or stranger sounds a bit scary. To make it less so, we are advised to prepare what we would say whenever the opportunity arises. Writing one’s faith story is a powerful experience when done in prayerful partnership with the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the resulting words on paper seem so compelling, the would-be story teller transforms into a would-be author. Or at least dreams about it.
Recently, dreams found paths toward reality at a Writing for Your Life conference in Nashville, Tennessee. More than 100 spiritual writers – some would-be and some already published – gathered like pilgrims at a hallowed place. No candles in this grotto - just inspiration from best-selling authors Barbara Brown Taylor and Rachel Held Evans, and information from other writers, teachers and editors about the craft and business of writing for publication.
This past weekend I went out with a group from my parish to serve with 249 & Hope, a ministry for and with our brothers and sisters living along the local highway. This was my first time to go along with the group, and I was struck by the question the ministry leader asked me. “What are we going to learn today?”
I didn’t have an answer.
Too often, I think the church goes out into its neighborhood to solve problems. Let’s feed the homeless, or tutor in the local school, or visit the sick and lonely. These are all good things that we, as Christians, should do! But we don’t do them because we can provide solutions to other people’s problems.
Today we claim the song as ours, belting it out full throttle, especially today as we celebrate All Saints Day.
“I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew. And one was a doctor and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green: they were all of them saints of God—and I mean, God helping, to be one too.”
(If you’re primed to sing the rest, go ahead and turn to page 293 in the 1982 Hymnal of the Episcopal Church).
Years ago, in a pastoral liturgy class at General Seminary, I learned what is still one of my favorite words. Anamnesis is the name for the part of the Eucharistic prayer where we tell the story of how we came to be saved through Jesus’ death and resurrection. An- is the Greek prefix for “not” and amnesis is a close cousin of the English word “amnesia.” Anamnesis is the “not-forgetting.” It is the not forgetting the price that was paid, the not wiping away the uncomfortable parts of the story, the not protecting future generations from how bloody the whole thing really was.
I spent several weeks in Germany this summer. It was mostly just a really fun family trip, full of adventures and good laughs and beautiful views and a certain amount of beer drunk before noon (totally socially acceptable in Munich, I swear). There was the time when my daughter was convinced there was a snack car on the train and it turned out to be a toilet. There were the creepily large day-glow paper mache bunnies wearing shorts and holding soccer balls that adorned our low budget rental apartment. So many family inside jokes to last us until we get to travel together again.
"Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness." Many Episcopalians strive to accomplish that with each use of our beloved liturgy. We enliven the treasured words with beautiful music that inspires us to, "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord!"
In between our soaring Sunday worship services, how is your congregation helping people become familiar with Individual spiritual practices designed to draw us closer in relationship to our triune God? The power of these practices was discovered hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years ago.
The leadership of a congregation is responsible for creating a vision, that is, developing a plan that enables the church to respond to the future in a creative manner. Given all the demands of a parish, it takes great discipline to attend to the future but the clergy and vestry need to ask the hard questions such as: What are we called to do in the name of Christ? Who is our neighbor?
Once God’s dream for a church takes shape, the response is naturally to get rather excited and to start making things happen. The leadership will probably share these dreams at a parish meeting and assume the work of communication has been done. There is also a natural assumption that the parish knows about the plans and is ready to get started.
“Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
- For an Election, Book of Common Prayer p.822
Election Day is Tuesday, November 8. Our Episcopal Church has done a fine job to remind us of the awesome privilege and responsibility of voting. The resources available online, the Election Engagment Toolkit from Episcopal Public Policy Network, as well as the prayers in the Prayer Book itself, including the collect quoted above, have been useful tools in my own prayer life as I get ready.
For the past several weeks, I’ve snuck a hour or half-hour, here or there, on as many days as I can to clear rocks from the rectory’s front yard in Valley Lee. My late predecessor, his wife tells me, got a call one day from a friend who offered him stones – a whole assortment of large, extra-large and not-so-small rocks. He gladly accepted the gift and turned them into edges for flower beds – lovely, I imagine, in his time. Ever since his departure and throughout the decade after he left and before I arrived, the rock edges did little more than keep the weeds in and the trimming out. I thought clearing the beds and cleaning up the front yard would be an easy summer job, achievable in a just few days since, after all, the stones didn’t appear very large. Regrettably, I’ve been reminded that heavy objects sink rather well in this porous southern Maryland soil, such that I was only looking at the tip of what are, in retrospect, hundreds and hundreds of extra large boulders!
It’s not that we don’t want to be spiritual. We’re lay people serving on vestries that oversee the business of the church. We lend our experience from the workplace and serving on not-for-profit boards to our parish decision-making. These are our gifts and we use them as we have been trained. And besides, we are spiritual… we open our meetings with prayer.
Ah, but what if you covered your meetings with prayer? What if you held up to God your questions about priorities and direction and called on the Holy Spirit to guide your decisions?
Several congregations are utilizing a prayer model that is transforming meetings from secular, office-style business to spiritual, prayerful-style obedience. Authors Catherin C. Tran and Sandra Hughes Boyd explain how to engage leadership in prayerful discernment in their book, Spiritual Discovery: A Method for Discernment in Small Groups and Congregations. Their method is grounded in the Prayer Model developed by Jane E. Vennard, a nationally known spiritual director whose model invites a “compassionate observer” to silently listen and pray while a seeker speaks with his/her spiritual director.
With a group, there may be three or four “compassionate observers” sitting in a circle surrounding a smaller circle made up of the person seeking direction, and the people who are “responders.” Spiritual Discovery gives clear how-to steps for setting up a group prayer model session, and how it should be facilitated. Those in the center circle speak, but between opportunity for words are minutes of silent prayer. One of the observers is a timekeeper – the person with the responsibility to insure the process moves in rhythm with the prescribed format.
The authors also offer ideas for teaching people how to incorporate Spiritual Discovery Method for group decision making. But they also make it clear that the best way to understand the model is to simply experience it:
Alleluia! It feels good to say THAT again! Glorious celebrations of Jesus’ resurrection are still ringing in our ears as Eastertide joyously overtakes the liturgical calendar following Lent.
The observation of a “Holy Lent” often involves personal reflection, considering how we are moving toward a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, and what barriers may be getting in the way. We may also consider how we follow Jesus as apostles sent to do His work.
If you enjoyed a Lenten discipline in which you did some intentional listening for God’s will or desire in your life, consider continuing that discernment. “Wait,” you might say, “’Discernment’ is for those who feel called to be a priest or deacon. That’s not me!”
In his book, Ears to Hear: Recognizing and Responding to God’s Call, Edward S. Little, bishop of the Diocese of Northern Indiana, opens with a declaration worthy of our consideration: “God’s people are a called people, and there are no exceptions.” (Page 1)
Bishop Little uses examples from the Bible to demonstrate how and when God called people to leadership, to ministry, to special purposes. Examples include Abraham’s call to uproot his family to go to a new land, Moses called to lead God’s people out of bondage, and Deborah called by her community to save Israel.
Those are the well knowns. Bishop Little also raises up the lesser knowns, such as Bezalel and Oholiab, chosen by God (in Exodus) to build a tabernacle:
Every year, her words come back to me around this time of year. I think it was during Holy Week, or maybe a week or two before, when the pastor of the congregation where I served as seminarian said, “I honestly don’t know what else to preach on Easter! What should I add?” she wondered. “Maybe I should just get in the pulpit, take a deep breath, look around with a smile and say, one more time, ‘Alleluia! Christ is risen!’ And sit down.”
I remember that her words sounded odd to me at the time. It was probably an off-handed statement, maybe the exasperation of not coming up with anything to say. But seminarians read a lot and think a lot and write a lot, and at that point in my life I was convinced that there was always something more I needed to add to any given theological point or doctrine. Such are the nature of late-night conversations and arguments in seminary.
Now, however, I’m not so sure.
Now, however, I understand what she was really saying; what she really meant. What else can we bring to this story? What other meaning can we draw out? Looking at the pure drama and rhythm of Holy Week, itself, the movement through these stories to Easter Day, what else can we, should we add?
It’s around this time that I turn to poetry much more than prose. Like many others, I have my own ‘canon’ of preferred poets, religious and otherwise; Mary Oliver and George Herbert in my top slots. And those who’ve attended Holy Week and Easter worship at St. George’s, Valley Lee are probably getting used to these names, and I’d like to think they’re growing a bit more accustomed to Holy Week meditations, and poetry readings, and musing homilies that don’t really have a point, a “Now you should do/consider/pray about such-and-such…”
Two weeks into the new year, and many resolutions already have gone the way of the dodo bird. Failed resolutions aren’t for a lack of try; change is really, really hard to execute.
That’s why I like the words of Michael Ramsey, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1960s and early 1970s. His keen insight is particularly helpful this week, as the primates of the Anglican Communion are gathered with the current Archbishop of Canterbury, struggling to figure out their own resolve about the bonds of unity in the wider church.
Thank God. Often and always. Thank him carefully and wonderingly for your continuing privileges and for every experience of his goodness. Thankfulness is a soil in which pride does not easily grow.
Take care about confession of your sins. As time passes the habit of being critical about people and things grows more than each of us realize. …[Ramsey suggests the practice of sacramental confession].
Be ready to accept humiliations. They can hurt terribly but they can help to keep you humble. [Whether trivial or big, accept them he says.] All these can be so many chances to be a little nearer to our Lord. There is nothing to fear, if you are near to the Lord and in his hands.
Do not worry about status. There is only one status that Our Lord bids us be concerned with, and that is our proximity to him. “If a man serve me, let him follow me, and where I am there also shall my servant be” (John 12:26). That is our status; to be near our Lord wherever he may ask us to go with him.
Use your sense of humour. Laugh at things, laugh at the absurdities of life, laugh at yourself.
I've been in school a lot. This is not self-promotion. I'm not trying to say what a great, studious priest I am, as is plainly evident to anyone who reads what I write. I just mean in my thirty-six years on the planet, I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t in school. I hold three advanced degrees and am close to two more. Again, don't be impressed. I spent seven-and-a-half years in undergraduate education. I also like to have a lot of fun. Despite all my schooling, I'm not a scholar.
But no place are the deficiencies in my vast education more evident than at Southside Abbey. Those experiencing homelessness and hunger on the Southside of Chattanooga don't care that I've got letters after my name. Their needs are far more immediate than that.
And so, as it turns out, are mine.
I have written before about how my faith has been changed by the faith of those I serve. I remember vividly the interaction of a man experiencing homelessness for twelve years who handed me a money order for $250 – the exact amount we budgeted for weekly food at the time. I was so worldly I tried to talk him out of it. He said, “Don't take this gift away from me! I want to buy dinner for my friends this week!” Hmm. Clearly I still had a lot to learn about faith.
And it turns out, I still do.
This past weekend I was in Arizona visiting family. I live in New York City; most of my Arizona family live in small mining towns in the southeast part of the state, so I don’t see them often. It’s very hot there, but it’s also beautiful. The highways cut through hills covered in cacti and scrub brush. There are low mountains on the horizon and lots of bright blue sky.
Much of my family on my dad’s side has lived their entire lives in Arizona. Many of them work for the nearby copper mine. They also love to talk and tell stories, so I when I’m there I spend a lot of time listening.
It’s easy in New York or in the Episcopal Church to spend most of my time with people just like me. Most of my Facebook friends are liberal college graduates and so are most of the people I regularly interact with at work. Leaving New York and listening to my family’s stories exposes me to a different life and a slightly different way of seeing the world. Many of their lives have had a very different trajectory than mine. Around kitchen tables my aunt talked about her faith and my grandmother recounted memories of her life in a small town. She turned 80 this past weekend, and so she has many stories to tell, some happy and some not.