For many, especially those in seasonal climates, the summer months (July and August) are regarded as the time when the church slows down. We may combine services, the priest maybe on vacation, the vestry may not meet, the choir may not sing, Sunday school may be cancelled, and many guilds will also suspend their meetings until the fall. While totally in agreement that we need rest and relaxation, and it is the most popular vacation time, do we all need to rest from church obligations at the same time. Sadly it is also a time when finances go on vacation as our support of the church dwindles during the summer months.
On July 4, 1992, my husband and I boarded a train in East Berlin, heading for Warsaw, Poland. We struck up a conversation with a young Polish woman passenger, who, immediately upon learning we were Americans solemnly said, "Today is the anniversary of your freedom." It was the sweetest declaration of our independence I could have heard, full of yearning and understanding.
How we take it for granted. And not just the politics of it, but the faith of it. Many American Revolutionary leaders held a deep faith in God. They boldly believed they were acting in accordance with their faith, guided by God to fight for freedom. They prayed for America to be guided by God too.
The church bulletin is arguably one of the most important documents in our congregations. Given our bibles, hymnals and Book of Common Prayer (BCP) that may sound a bit heretical. However the amount of resources that goes into producing it does give our church bulletins very high priority. The original purpose of the bulletin was to provide the order of service including references to the BCP, hymns and readings of the day. We have evolved much beyond the basics.
Bulletin content is the largest issue for us to wrestle with. Bulletins may contain some of all of the following: fundraising and social activities, meetings of church and community organizations, lists of illnesses, birthdays, anniversaries and deaths, special donations, community, diocesan and national announcements, stewardship messages as well as information on a particular saint day, others have information on voting, job posts and apartment rental. So our bulletins, have become newspapers, newsletters and journals all rolled into one. Whew!
As summer approaches and throughout the year, one of the major issues that church leaders face is how to find a clergy person to fill in for Sunday services if the priest is unavailable. This issue is more pervasive for congregations in transition but is equally stressful for congregations with full-time clergy when it is time for vacation, sabbatical or the clergy is ill. The stakes are even higher if the need for clergy is on a high Holy Day such as Easter or Christmas. One of the most important activity for anyone with this responsibility is to plan in advance especially with the current clergy avoiding the last minute panic.
The day after my grandmother died, my family gathered in from near and far. Late afternoon, into the evening, sitting in her kitchen and living room, we talked. Coffee was plenteous, a bottle of wine, one platter overflowing with cold cuts, and another with Entenmanns coffee cake. We planned for the funeral, started thinking about distribution of her worldly possessions. Mostly, we shared memories and stories. We laughed about her personality quirks, we sighed about our experiences of her support and care, and we reminded ourselves of the wisdom she had given us. The body of the deceased wasn’t with us in the house, but her spirit sure was there.
Decades later, I was priest of the Advocate when a beloved parishioner died on a Thursday afternoon. A meeting was scheduled at the Church that night. But we knew that our sorrow would prevail, so we announced that we would gather in the Chapel and hold vigil instead. We used Evening Prayer as our guide, read scripture, prayed the Litany at the Time of Death, and shared memories and stories of our friend who had died. We laughed at turns of phrase he had used, reminded ourselves of the ways he had inspired us. We mourned together, and were comforted by our shared memories and shared loss.
My only lived experience of the 20 century was in its last twenty five years, and I don’t even remember all that much of it, but I do very clearly remember that one Sunday morning a pastor in my somewhat stiff Congregationalist church announced we were going to do a new thing – we were going to turn to our neighbors and offer, what he called, ‘the sign of peace.’
“Shake their hand, give a hug, look them in the eye and say, ‘Peace be with you,’” he invited the somewhat bewildered congregation to do.
This actually came easily to them, in fact, for in spite of the carefully scripted nature of Congregationalist worship – what I later learned was nothing less than a beautiful, exalted Sunday Morning Prayer service – there was always extended chit-chat and “Good mornings” and “How are you today?” in the large, albeit acoustically-live narthex on our way into the church itself. And so it was on that Sunday, much later in the 20 century than its mid-point, when “The Peace” was introduced at Bethany Union Church of Chicago that I remember my mom and dad turned around to those sitting nearby and said ‘Peace, peace, peace,’ and received from others ‘Peace, peace, peace.’
Perhaps one of the most notable hallmarks of our Anglican liturgical tradition is rich, resonant choral music. It’s something we’re really good at, and it’s something for which our tradition is well known. Just this past week, in fact, it was breaking news that St. Paul’s Cathedral in London appointed a woman, Carris Jones, as chorister – ‘Vicar Chorale,’ being her exact title. “First female chorister in 1,000-year history,” one headline ran. 
But beyond the sheer heavenly beauty of Anglican choral music, and besides the fact that news headlines are always going to be quick to point out the sensational and ground-breaking, what is it about choirs and choral music that is so important to our Christian worship tradition? Is it merely it’s beauty and quality? I actually hope the answer to that is ‘no’ or, at least, ‘not entirely.’ If the thing we prize about our rich choral tradition is nothing much more than its professional quality and beauty, then that might be part and parcel of why our churches fail to grow, year after year. What’s the difference, then, between a museum piece or something that can be found in a concert hall and what the church, as church, is doing in the neighborhood?
Nearly every morning, I enjoy morning prayer time with a group of friends. I think most of us are Episcopalians, but I don’t know for sure. We come from all over the United States, the Caribbean, and beyond. We read a meditation on the appointed scriptures for the day. We share our thoughts about it, enjoying the rich diversity of our experiences and vantage points. Sometimes we share memories or words to songs that speak meaning into the day’s subject.
We’ve done this so long now, we call each other family. Sometimes people share their worries, ask for prayer, or admit struggles and questions. In response, many prayers and words of encouragement offered. New people easily come into the mix and are welcomed. Anyone can participate.
Ash Wednesday is coming. For at least one day out of the year, we’re going to be reminded that we are dust, and that we’re going to die some day. Fun times!
Over the past several years, this solemn fast day has been infused with a missional fervor in the popular Ashes to Go outings. Part of a church-wide movement, Ashes to Go moves this imposing act from the confines of church buildings to the people in their daily lives. Interested passers-by are marked with the sign of the cross and invited to seek forgiveness and renewal (and hopefully be prayed for!). Locations to receive ashes are designed to meet people wherever they are, including train stations, bus stops, coffee shops, church parking lots, street corners, and more.
I’m a simple man, really. I like gadgets and such, but when it comes down to it I do most of my thinking with a paper journal and a ballpoint pen. So when I ran out of pens the other day, I walked into the store to buy my favorite brand.
That’s when it hit me. There, on the package of Bic Crystal pens (the brand I’ve been using since high school, and which was first made in the 1950s) I saw those big, bold words: NEW & IMPROVED.
Why on earth (and how on earth) could you make a simple, plastic, ballpoint pen “new” or “improved”?
This is a busy time of year both inside and outside the church. Someone said to me last week, “You must be so terribly busy,” and she was very kindly implying that there’s probably a great deal of work behind organizing our congregation’s annual meeting a few days’ ago and getting ready for the Christmas pageant and worship preparation for this season and Christmas Eve and pulling off last Sunday’s Advent Lessons & Carols. I admitted to her that, yes, it’s a full time for all of us, both church-workers and everyone else. But in the back of my mind I wasn’t really thinking about all the work. In fact, in the back of my mind was that series of emails and meetings, way back in late-September, with the president of the altar guild, during which we reminded one another of the times of services and the little details attached to all the special observances which were coming up from late fall through early January.
And with that series of emails and, I think, two phone conversations, the work has indeed been out of my hands, and into the hands of vastly more capable people -- namely, that blessed institution called the Altar Guild.
As sure as Santa Claus directed the crowds into Macy’s at the end of the Thanksgiving Day parade, we can expect to be swept up into the rush of the “the holidays.”
On Ash Wednesday, we are invited, “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.” (BCP)
Who doesn’t like a good worship service? Fortunately our Episcopal liturgy allows us the flexibility to be very creative in our worship expression. While our clergy has the primary role in designing and delivering these worship experiences, there are many roles for the laity in enabling our weekly and special services.
A real concern for many lay leaders is how to have a lively spirit-filled worship when there is no permanent clergy presence. And if there is clergy how do you provide input without the feeling of overstepping boundaries?
The message heard loud and clear at our monthly UBE (Union of Black Episcopalians) meetings at different congregations throughout the Diocese of New Jersey was how difficult it was to fill all Sunday services with a clergy person. The reasons were varied; the congregation may have been in transition, or the full time clergy was on vacation, on sabbatical, or even ill.
One idea stood out from all of our discussions. A clergy person suggested we re-embrace layperson led Morning Prayer as a legitimate form of Sunday morning worship. Response was mixed. Anglicans from the Caribbean or Africa experienced Morning Prayer often, due to less frequent clergy availability due to the number of congregations to be served. Older members had positively experienced Morning Prayer as common practice in times past. For others it was a harder pill to swallow, as they believed if there was no Communion then we didn’t really have a Service. There was also feedback that Morning Prayer was unfulfilling and it some cases even boring.
This Easter Day, once again, I explained the change to the congregation. “We’re using real bread today, and we’ll do so throughout this fifty-day-long season. For those of you more accustomed to wafers, you’ll see what we mean in this place when we talk about Jesus, the Risen Lord, as the ‘bread of life.’ I’ll be honest; frankly, these dry wafers don’t really communicate this spiritual truth, so join us for this seven week season, and thank you!” I said the same thing the following Sunday, too, taking a guess that those Easter Egg Hunts and candy might’ve clouded their hearing the week before.
Some years ago, I baked the bread. The recipe was good, but not great. The last three years, however, a member of our congregation has volunteered to be our Easter-tide baker. She has an awesome recipe for dinner rolls – multiply it a few times and, voila!, out of her oven emerges some big, delicious loaves, one loaf pretty much taking care of each Sunday morning service. I used to give smaller, wafer-sized pieces, but having so much extra bread leftover afterward seemed to unravel the symbol. I started giving larger chunks. Kids and bread-lovers adore the symbolism and, indeed, the actual experience of receiving communion. Even those few leftover bits hardly stick around, not even seconds after the worship is ended; such is the throng of children sticking around to help the altar guild clean the credence table, clamoring for ‘more bread!’ Those more accustomed to wafers put up with the season. Nowadays, wafers are back.
I have a lot of memories growing up in my home church, but one of them rises above the others, reminding me that church, for me, really was a special place, a place where the living God was made known to me, not through any particularly churchy or adult traditions but through an open space in which I could, and did, grow. A stay-at-home dad in our congregation loved to bake bread. His two daughters were around my age, and he and his wife were active leaders in our youth group. Every now and then he’d pull the kids together and we’d spend a Saturday morning baking bread. I’m sure it was a great break for my parents: “Go to church,” they’d say, “Mel’s baking bread today.” I don’t think there was any particular schedule or plan; he’d just get the idea and call the parents and, soon enough, there’d be a gaggle of kids in our church’s industrial kitchen, kneading dough, setting loaves to rise, mixing batter, cooling the baked bread, putting the rest in bags. The next day, of course, the church building was filled with that unmistakable aroma of freshly baked bread, and we’d set out a table and sell the loaves. (Turns out, it was also an amazing fundraiser for our Sunday school and youth group!)
I need a frank case.
I told my husband and fully expected him to offer assistance. Instead, he asked, bewildered: “What’s a frank case?”
I explained that it’s a small bag in which you pack shampoo, toothpaste, and medicine. He insisted he had never heard of such a thing; his family called such a contraption a toiletry bag. I silently thought to myself that it was a shame he wasn’t as urbane and sophisticated as me. Until I learned the truth about the frank case.
See, my parents had a small gray case that we used for toiletries throughout my childhood. It was “the frank case.” Several months after my conversation with my husband, I confided in my parents. My poor husband didn’t even know what a frank case was. They looked at me, then at each other. And then they dissolved into rolling laughter. When they could catch their breath, they explained.
We've spent the last week from sun-up to past sundown painting, scraping, cleaning, packing, and unpacking. It's brutal, and I'm looking forward to getting back to my day job as a break.
I realized for instance that kitchen cabinets are like deviled eggs: you can never have too many. I discovered that knickknacks multiply in the dark, and the saying that everything has a place and a place for everything isn't universally true.
I also confirmed that when it comes to change, I prefer to paint. Our new house was in pretty good shape but we wanted to add our own colors. We also needed to strip off the wallpaper in the foyer.
Despite my best intentions, I don't have the steady hand needed for trimming, so I was relegated to wallpaper removal.
I’m not sure the Bible mentions the word pluck (other than a few pesky references to removing one’s eye), but Jesus is clear time and again that his followers should exhibit the values imbued in the word.
Trusty Webster defines pluck as a “courageous readiness to fight or continue against odds. Dogged resolution.”
Doomsday scenarios have the church withering on the vine, with statistics showing steep declines in the participation of organized religion. These numbers are sobering and should be cause for serious reflection and change. But I worry we’ll stew so long, that we will see the challenge is too big, that we miss wonderful opportunities in our own communities to be the church for which God is calling us and people are hungry.
Here’s a story of one plucky congregation.
An important part of the evening was standing before the gathered community and speaking the Call to our pastor and the community and the leadership out loud. The people gathered then affirmed each other with a resounding, “We will.” There was something that felt joyful and necessary about speaking the call to a specific ministry out loud, and being affirmed by the community.
It’s Advent, the season of anticipation, preparation, and waiting. A time when Christians around the world get ready to welcome Jesus - as both the babe and the risen Christ - into not only our hearts but into our lives.
At ECF Vital Practices, our Advent gift to you is a collection of essays inviting you to delve deeper into our common Christian faith, including two reflections from “Stories of Transformation: Worship, Witness, and Work in the Black Community,” a new resource from the Episcopal Church’s Office of Black Ministries.
Our December content includes: