Sometimes, the grass does look greener on the other side. When I was a curate in an urban Episcopal congregation, I wanted to serve as rector of a smaller, rural parish. When I was serving on a multi-staff congregation, I wanted to be the solo priest-in-community.
And yet, ironically, the apparent differences between curate and rector, between big urban church and smaller country parish haven’t been all that different, not in my experience. The skills I learned in seminary, the training I received as a parish priest, my formation as curate, and the expectations of how (Episcopal) churches run have been the very same skills, tools, and expectations I needed in every call, regardless of the job, size, or location.
The year 2017 has ended and many of us cannot wait to continue to jump into 2018. Like children at Christmas I guess it is natural to reach out for the new shiny toys and discard the old and used ones without consideration. Now that we are all grown up I think it is worthwhile to do some reflection on the passing year as we prepare for the new. Many congregations do this reflection in the form of Mutual Ministerial reviews, primarily with the Vestry and Clergy. However, I think these reflections should be expanded to the total life of the congregation. Asking the simple questions, should we do more of this or less of this, with the answers helping to make the positive adjustments needed to enhance our corporate lives together. For example:
You just can’t beat a Christmas pageant for rousing up “the Christmas spirit.” Children don scratchy robes, wooly onesies with ears, or sparkling tinsel halos, transporting them into what is likely the first Bible story they know by heart. Not as in memorizing the first chapters of Luke, but, as in their hearts.
Pageant participants’ pure belief ripples through the congregation. Together, we are corporately living up to what we promised we would do when we witnessed these child actors being baptized: supporting them in their life in Christ. As delighted as we are with the performance, we are warmed by the knowledge that they are learning about Jesus.
If you are discouraged about the long-run sustainability of your congregation, or the overall Episcopal Church, or even if you’re not, give yourself an early Christmas present and read My Church is NOT Dying; Episcopalians in the 21st Century, by Greg Garrett.
Garrett, a professor, writer, and licensed lay preacher, weaves an uplifting review of the most enduring traits and values of the Episcopal tradition. Part history, part love letter, part review of our blessings and challenges, Garrett points us to our strengths as a people united in prayer, community, beauty, evangelism, and justice.
There’s no stink in most Christmas pageants.
There’s none of the droppings from the sheep and cattle that were lowing, as we romanticize in song. If you’ve been in a barn lately, you know that they’re stinky, dirty, cobwebby places. Even freshly cut hay smells, much less after it’s mingled with the leavings on the dirt floor.
Our sweet Christmas pageants are sanitized versions of the nativity story. Children dressed in sheets, kings’ crowns sitting cockeyed on small heads, young Mary holding a wriggly, pacifier-laden infant (or a plastic baby doll).
All my ministry has been bilingual ministry. My whole Christian life has been lived in both languages, since before my baptism at age 20. English and Spanish are woven so deeply together in my faith that they have become difficult to untangle. In Advent, however, I know that my spirituality is shaped in great part by a simple grammatical fact of Spanish.
The word for “to wait” is the same as the word for “to hope.” Esperar.
In Spanish the two words are distinguished by context and usage, but also related. Waiting is tinged with hope through the linguistic connection and hope becomes in part an exercise in patience, an awareness that more is still to come. That is how it works in my mind, anyway, through the lens of a first-language English speaker who has nonetheless discovered quite a few things for the very first time in Spanish over the last thirty years.
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:
Thank you to everyone whose honesty invited me to share my truth. I've had a year that has reminded me of the long reach of sexual assault and harassment in my own life, the ways that years later those experiences can still creep up to steal my perspective, my patience, my creativity, my sense of humor. I mourn for the cost of all the healing that our world makes necessary and wonder what we all might do and be if that energy could be turned outward to building the world around us. I struggle to raise daughters who will be strong enough if they must join in saying, "me too" while my heart breaks with hope that they never will.
I posted this on Facebook today. It was harder than I thought it would be to bring myself to do it. Even with way too much company. Even having talked about my experiences to lots of people in lots of contexts over lots of years. I couldn’t have done it without a whole communion of saints who taught me how to do this, how to speak in a healing way about my own brokenness, how to keep the faith that God wants wholeness for all of us.
Already stores urge us to “prepare for the holidays” – as if the whole season depends on us choosing a new color scheme for our Christmas decorations. Right now.
Episcopal sensibilities resist this, of course. We are too busy getting back into the swing of Sunday School, reviving outreach ministries, and conducting annual giving campaigns. Before we know it, the last pot will be scrubbed after the annual community Thanksgiving meal. Dry your hands, sit down, take a breath. Welcome Advent.
Here are five ways to get ready to experience a meaningful Advent.
In the midst of the tumult surrounding the NFL and whether to kneel or stand for the National Anthem, our priest quietly practiced his faith.
A former parishioner is in the midst of the Crucible, a grueling three-day endurance test required before becoming a Marine. Our priest offered special intentions on his behalf (and all the recruits going through the Crucible). During Morning Prayer, the priest wrote down the young man’s name on a card and laid it near a candle on the altar. And he shared the picture on Facebook with the parents.
Surely this is the type of kneeling that all people of faith, regardless of political opinion, can embrace.
This past Tuesday I was at the red light next to St. Mary’s, and all of a sudden the car in front of me started backing up. There was someone behind me, so I didn’t have anywhere to go. I watched as the SUV in front of me kept backing up, and crushing my hood.
As if flood recovery wasn’t enough to deal with right now.
I’m safe, the car is drivable (which is good, because there are no available rental cars in Houston right now), and I now have a new friend.
Prayer — the heart of Christian practice — can embody the continuation of the movement of reconciliation, and can be an integral element of social and systemic change. In Ineffable Grace, Piero Ferrucci recalls the power of what prayer might do:
Prayer is not a request for God’s favors. True, it has been used to obtain the satisfaction of personal desires. It has even been adopted to reinforce prejudices, justify violence, and create barriers between people and between countries. But genuine prayer is based on recognizing the Origin of all that exists, and opening ourselves to it. . . . One can then communicate with this Source, worship it, and ultimately place one’s very center in it.
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.
We Episcopalians love our liturgy and our “color coded” church year (as comedian Robin Williams so cleverly coined it). The liturgical calendar keeps us moving through the Bible, celebrates the major milestones and miracles of our faith, highlights examples of saints we might emulate, and so much more.
Better understanding of the “so much more” is found in The Liturgical Year – The Spiraling Adventures of the Spiritual Life, authored by Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister. The book is great reading for anyone desiring a deeper experience of each season and celebration. In plain terms, Chittister wakes us up to what’s going on each Sunday, explain that, “Each church year moves with measured rhythm in order to knit Jesus’ life and vision into our own personal journeys through time.”
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.
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.
In the last three months I've had the opportunity to attend three retreats. The first was a two-day spiritual retreat at Holy Cross Monastery in upstate New York. This was a time for prayer, worship, guided reflections and, most important, silence. All the participants relished the time together to unplug.
The second retreat was a board and conference planning meeting for two groups that meet primarily by conference call. We met at the Maritime Institute in Baltimore, Maryland from noon on Friday to noon on Saturday.
I don’t know all of the particulars about who and how the lessons of the lectionary were chosen, but it seems to me they must have been thinking about Annual Meetings when they chose the ones for Sunday, January 29, this year.
From Micah: “O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
From Psalm 15: “Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, who speaks the truth from his heart. There is no guile upon his tongue; he does no evil to his friend;”
What are you doing on Friday during the inauguration?
More importantly, what will your church do?
Many of us have probably read about the debates within the Episcopal Church: Should we pray for the president-elect by name? Should Washington National Cathedral host the inaugural prayer service? Should the cathedral choir sing?
People of deep faith and strongly held convictions have expressed a variety of answers to these questions. I am not going to offer my opinion here. It isn’t the place.
Instead, I’ll repeat the question: On Inauguration Day, what will your church do?
Teams that work well together understand that each member must respect the others’ opinions and priorities. Together, they find and honor what they value in common.
As you plan the first meeting with a “new” vestry, consider this exercise that helps identify shared values. It also serves as an ice-breaker that goes much deeper than, “Please state your name, how long you’ve been attending St. Swithens, and your favorite liturgical color.”