Following his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus stayed in the city. “Every day he was teaching in the temple,” Luke tells us (Lk.19:47), and we can feel the plot thickening. Indeed, “the chief priests, the scribes and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him.”
I’ll be the first to admit: I don’t always want to start our leadership meetings with Bible study.
For the past two years, we have begun our weekly meetings with Bible study, first reading through Exodus and now the Gospel of Luke in conjunction with the Good Book Club. Sometimes I get to the meeting, harried and stressed with an overflowing to-do list, and I just want to get down to business.
And then somewhere in the midst of the scripture reading or the discussion with my colleagues, I am reminded that reading and exploring God’s Word is the foundation of our business as an organization committed to serving the wider church. If I can’t make Bible study a priority, then all else will suffer.
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.
A dear friend recently celebrated 10 years of ordained ministry. As part of his reflection on the role of the priest today, he asked me what qualities I thought priests needed to have today.
I loved this exercise, and I think the qualities that came to mind are true for all Christians, not just those ordained.
So, here they are:
The most recent issue of the Diocese of Texas’ Dialog magazine is focused on faith, culture, and the ways that we live our faith in the midst of our daily lives. This got me thinking about some of the places I’ve seen folks serving Christ in the day-to-day.
There’s Dr. Beverly Vick, an angel on earth who is a first grade teacher in Alexandria, Va. For my oldest son, and countless other children for whom school can be challenging, Dr. Vick makes learning come alive. For my son’s birthday that year, he invited Dr. Vick to dinner, and I was amazed at the stories she shared of a life dedicated to teaching. And underpinning it all is her deep faith and love of Jesus.
This week marks the end of school for many families across Texas, so summer begins. Schedules go wonky, people travel, kids go to camps, family comes to visit, and either we’re out of town on Sunday, or traveling, or it’s the one day we can breathe between one trip and the next camp.
This summer, the typical Christian formation offerings at my parish are on sabbath. Because… you know, schedules.
This year, we’ve created “Church on the Go” boxes to help bring faith to life this summer. Inside each box is a variety of ways to help us (and those we love) slow down, deepen relationships with one another, and grow closer to Jesus. Inside each box are coloring books for younger Christians, prayer journals for all ages, ideas for conversation starters, suggested books for every age, and more!
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.”
Our kids are fishing chocolate coins and nuts out of their stinky sneakers. St. Nicholas visited last night, and this morning they rushed to the fireplace to see the treats left by their favorite saint.
Neither my husband nor I grew up with a St. Nicholas tradition. But when our children were born, we wanted to find a way to connect Santa Claus with the church, the receiving of gifts with generosity of spirit. St. Nicholas has been a good way to do that.
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)
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).
Congregations everywhere are concerned with their growth. There are books, magazines, and inspiring speakers who all share strategies for growth, and church leaders diligently listen, plan, and implement. This is a good thing. It is important that church leaders be diligent and intentional about growing their communities. It is also important, however, that the growth of congregations be not only numerical but also spiritual.
I hesitate saying this. I know many churches who use “spiritual growth” as a crutch for excusing their lack of growth in the areas of evangelism, formation, and leadership development. As with most things in life, it is not one thing or the other. Growth in a congregation, a sign of life and vitality, is about all kinds of growth at the same time. Spiritual growth is not measured by the increase in warm feelings, nor by engaging in passionate discussions about religious matters, but it is measured by the way a person, or church, lives. Living in Christ and bearing fruit to God’s glory is a mark of discipleship (John 15:4-8). And how is this expressed? Through our love—again not an emotion but an action, loving our neighbors as ourselves, seeking to serve Christ by serving our neighbor, and serving the least of these (Matthew 25:40).
For most of my ministry, people have been wringing their hands about the decline of mainline churches. From my first days of service as a priest, I heard people say that we’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The image prompted a cartoon in six frames: As the ship disappears into icy waters, one could hear words from the top deck, one word per frame: We’ve… never… done…it… that…way.
I’ve wondered about the decline. Does it have to do with style of music or liturgy? Is it due to a lousy spirit of welcome? Is it about formality among the frozen chosen? Does it have to do with divisions on social or political issues? Or with indisputable hypocrisy, with shortcomings and abuses by church leaders, too many to number.
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.
Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry new video is here. (3:58)
Note: The following is the transcript of the Presiding Bishop’s video message in English and Spanish.
We’ve been talking for a little over a year now about being the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, and somebody recently said to me, “As a bishop, why don’t you paint us a picture, give us a picture of the Jesus Movement so that we can see it?”
I’m writing this on the day after Labor Day, also known in our household as our daughter’s first day of third grade. In our community, most school-aged children have been back in school for a while now (my daughter’s school does things a bit differently), but summer’s unofficial ending is now past.
In the church, as well, we’re gearing up for another year of Sunday School and formation. Our Sunday School Kickoff Sunday is, as it’s been, this weekend, right after Labor Day. I’m very proud that St. George’s, as a community, has grown a heart for formation ministries. When I arrived as rector nine years ago, there was a dedicated team of teachers and a great, but small crew of children and youth. They followed the one-room-schoolhouse approach, and critical numbers weren’t strong enough. Teachers on the search committee told me they didn’t have enough volunteers to help so, in their words, “we all wear several hats.” In my first few years, as part of investing in this community – not just the congregation I saw regularly but the wider networks of people, many of whom have deep ties to this church – I met lots of children, and learned that this area is, in fact, teeming with young families and young children, and I also came into contact with a lot of gifted and spiritually deep adults, many of whom are currently some of our best teachers. Our Sunday School has grown from one class to four, from probably a handful of children to nearly 40. I’m proud that the addition of a regular Sunday morning adult forum has seemed to stick, too.
“As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we pray and fast with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated.”
Justin Martyr, First Apology
She’s been going through a particularly difficult time – “rough,” I’m sure any of us would say. A significant death in her family, struggles with her job and making ends meet, and add to that internal strife within the remaining members of her family have left her nearly broken. “I’m not nearly as bad as where I was some time ago,” she said, referring to an even darker period, “but I’m not well, either.”
We thought we were going to have to cancel it, just like another local congregation did for theirs. This summer’s Vacation Bible School, held at St. George’s and sponsored by both Church of the Ascension, Lexington Park, and St. George’s, Valley Lee, was on the calendar for a while. Our congregation’s VBS coordinator and, all around, VBS cheerleader was getting stuff ready. The starter kit was purchased, and plans were being made. The roadside banner was ordered, and the website set-up.
But no one was registered. A few registrations started to come in in the past month or so, one after another. But just a few. A bunch of our congregation’s regular kids and families were busy that week, they said, or they couldn’t otherwise commit to attending. Some were out of town on vacation or work trips. Should we cancel, too, we wondered?
Instead of cancelling, we decided to expand it. I told the VBS coordinator that I, for one, was ‘all in,’ and even if we had just a handful of kids it’d be well worth it. I was looking forward to a great week of formation and fun – and looking forward to helping touch the lives of those whom we know already, and those whom (I hoped) we didn’t yet know. Instead of 9 am to noon, or during the evenings, as some congregations tend to do, we even expanded the whole day, starting at 9 am and running to 3 pm – and leaving time for the parents to drop off the kids beforehand and pick them up anytime after the close-up time. Lunch and snacks were provided, we told the parents.
Our local postmaster inspired this idea last summer, at least in my head. “Why don’t you guys have a day camp?” she asked me last year, admitting that she was looking for a safe and positive place to bring her two children during the days and, plus, she drives past our church every day on her way to the Valley Lee post office. My answer made sense to me, and it’s probably what a lot of church leadership says: “It’s too much work and we don’t have the capacity to pull off a day camp.” Like I said, that answer made sense to me and, to boot, it was technically correct. But it’s not the answer she was looking for, nor is it, I think, a satisfactory statement on the part of the Body of Christ.
Richelle Thompson is vacationing with her family. While she’s away, ECF Vital Practices is offering ‘reruns’ of some of her more popular posts, this one from May 31, 2011.
Campers could share a lot with parishioners when it comes to building community.
We travel frequently with our children – my son was seven weeks old when I flew to New York City for a business trip. I wasn’t ready to leave him yet, so we packed the Baby Bjorn and gave him an early taste of Times Square. The kids have been to Disney (World and Land), San Francisco, Niagara Falls, and lots of places in between.
But invariably, when we ask their favorite vacation, the reply is instant and unanimous: camping.
I thought about this over the Memorial Day weekend, as we rented our small slice of the outdoors for a three-day retreat.
Campers build community quickly. After all, they’re only around for a couple of nights – there’s no time to put out tentative feelers. It’s jump-in and take-a-risk community-building. The folks at the next campsite run out of dishwashing soap and instead of making a run to Wal-Mart, they cross five feet into the next site and ask if they can borrow some. When another driver is struggling to back into a site, fellow campers hop up and start guiding him. During the outdoor movie, people sit together and laugh; they share popcorn and mosquito spray.
Blanche Dubois might always depend on the kindness of strangers, but I am inspired by their faithfulness.
In an airport lounge, I took a seat next to an older couple. The man wore a clergy collar, so I asked if he was Episcopalian. For the next half hour, we talked about vocation. He started the conversation with a quote from Mark Twain: The two most important days in your life are the day you’re born – and the day you discover why you were born. For him, the second day was when he decided he had a call to the priesthood.
Ordained for more than sixty years, he told me about his ministry with the Cherokees and his father's experience of being mentored by David Oakerhater, a saint on the Episcopal calendar. Oakerhater’s legacy – and that of Harriet Bedell, another Episcopal saint, propelled him to compassion and commitment. Since retirement, he said he has served in more than fifty congregations, filling in between priests or serving in small congregations. He shared about receiving a call for a two-month gig at a Mandarin congregation on the West Coast. It turned into six years of service, and even though the church no longer meets, he is that community’s pastor, baptizing, marrying, and burying his flock.
Let me show you some of them, he said. And he reached into his suit jacket. I expected a cell phone (How else do we share pictures today), but he pulled out a stack of photographs held together with a paper clip. Here was a wedding. A baptism. A young Asian boy looking into the eyes of this elderly Caucasian man. That, he said, is my godson.
"But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ..." (Ephesians 4:15)
Jane was a hearty, independent New Englander through and through. She was the kind of saint that every healthy congregation needs and hopefully has. As my successor put it so well in his homily, Jane was "a truth-teller with a sincere and faithful heart." A lot of that truth was directed to the clergy - but always in love.
When I was a young new priest who thought I knew everything, Jane Howell helped me to grow up. She had a way of coming directly to me. You'd never hear it second hand from a parking lot conversation. She could be wrong, but more often she was right - or at least mostly right. She loved the Lord, her church, and the clergy - in that order. And she had lots of opinions about how I might do better to build up the Church and to serve the Lord. But as the preacher noted today, she loved God enough to speak the truth to him in love. (In fact I was very happy to hear she had not played favorites with me, but that in just a couple of years she had helped form him too! And I know of at least one other friend, now in the House of Bishops, who would say the same thing.)
When I was first ordained, I wasn't so sure that I liked the term "baby priest." In my case I was quite literally kind of a baby - heading to seminary right out of college. But even for later vocations, even for people who have had fancy careers and are then ordained in their forties or fifties, the truth is that priests are not fully formed after the bishop puts her or his hands on our head. It takes time and practice to truly form a priest: a good theological education, faithful mentors and colleagues and lots more. Someone said to me once that it takes at least ten years of prayer, and listening, and loving the people with whom we share ministry, and that seems about right.