January 12, 2016 by Richelle Thompson

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.

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Topics: Discernment
November 11, 2015 by Bob Leopold

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.

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Topics: Discernment
July 30, 2015 by Jeremiah Sierra

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. 

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Topics: Discernment
July 14, 2015 by Sandra Montes

This post is also available in Spanish aqui

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a friend who is a priest. We started talking about his Church, his ideas, concerns, and experiences. You can find the Spanish interview here.  I asked him a question that made me think a lot. I asked what was something that had surprised him about the Episcopal Church when he became a priest. He said that what surprised him was that there was a big difference between the Episcopal Church in Mexico and the Episcopal Church in the United States. Specifically, the Church in the US has adopted traditions that are not "episcopal" such as having images of virgins (namely la Guadalupana) and saints, first communions, and other traditions that are Roman Catholic. He is fourth generation Episcopalian and has been the son of a priest/bishop throughout his life (his wife is also fourth generation Episcopalian) and that, to me, was a big surprise. Although I know that the Episcopal Church has existed for many years, I do not know why he had not thought of this. My own experience has also shown me that the predominantly Latino/Hispanic/Spanish speaking Episcopal Church in the US is seen as a Roman Catholic church and many people do not seem to know there is any difference besides that the priests can marry and that women can be priests.

I thought this because many Roman Catholic priests "become" Episcopalian - my honest opinion was that it was because they wanted to marry or are already "married" or have children or were "caught" in romantic relationships and they had to leave the Roman Catholic Church (which does not allow its priests to marry, have children, or be in romantic relationships) and did not want to "become" Episcopalian. I grew up in the Evangelical Church so for me, seeing statues of virgins or saints has always been something that bothers me. So I enjoyed talking with my friend and I felt that someone finally had the same opinion as me about the Episcopal identity – we are not Roman Catholic.

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Topics: Discernment
July 13, 2015 by Sandra Montes

This article is also available in English here. Este artículo está disponible en ingles aquí. 

Hace unas semanas tuve una conversación con un amigo sacerdote. Empezamos a hablar sobre su Iglesia, sus ideas, sus inquietudes, y sus experiencias. Puede encontrar la entrevista AQUÍ y el video abajo.

Le hice una pregunta que me hizo pensar mucho. Le pregunté qué era algo que le había sorprendido de la Iglesia Episcopal cuando se hizo sacerdote. Me dijo que lo que le había sorprendido era que había una gran diferencia entre la Iglesia Episcopal de México y la de los EEUU. Específicamente, que en la de EEUU hemos adoptado tradiciones que no son “episcopales” como tener imágenes de vírgenes (particularmente La Guadalupana) y santos, primeras comuniones, y otras tradiciones que son Católicas Romanas. Él es cuarta generación Episcopal, hijo de sacerdote/obispo toda su vida (su esposa también es cuarta generación episcopal) y eso, para mí, fue una gran sorpresa. Aunque yo sé que la Iglesia Episcopal ha existido por muchos años, no sé por qué no había pensado en esto. Mi propia experiencia también me ha mostrado que en EEUU la Iglesia Episcopal Latina/Hispana/Hispanoparlante se ve como una iglesia Católica Romana y varias personas no parecen saber si hay alguna diferencia más que el/la sacerdote se puede casar y puede ser mujer. 

Yo pensaba que esta realidad era porque tenemos muchos sacerdotes de la Iglesia Católica Romana que se han “convertido” episcopales – mi honesta opinión era que se querían casar o ya estaban “casados” o tenían hijos o los habían “sorprendido” en relaciones amorosas y tenían que dejar la Iglesia Romana (que no permite que sus sacerdotes se casen, tengan hijos, o estén en relaciones amorosas) y no querían “convertirse” en Episcopales. Yo crecí en la Iglesia Evangélica así que para mí, tener imágenes o estatuas de vírgenes o santos siempre ha sido algo que me incomoda. Así que me encantó hablar con mi amigo ya que sentí que por fin alguien tenia la misma opinión que yo sobre la Identidad Episcopal – no somos Católicos Romanos.

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Topics: Discernment
June 22, 2015 by Linda Buskirk

When there is so much happening, or so much to do in the present, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine the future. Here’s a fun exercise to move people to envision how their church could make an exciting difference in the world.

Vision is inspiring because it describes impact. To help people understand this concept, start the exercise by asking the question: What are some ways our ministries currently impact the people of our congregation and our neighborhood or community? In other words, what are some results of our ministry in this place?

Record the answers of people on a flip chart. Encourage stories that describe impact. For instance, if someone says the impact is “beautiful worship,” explain that beautiful worship is what we do, but what is the impact of our beautiful worship? Ask the person if s/he can give an example of how her/his life, has been impacted by the worship at the church (which I hereby name St. Alban’s).

This is sometimes a bit of a stretch for people. Asking them to describe impact helps prevent simple listing of the features of the parish.

Next, divide the audience into small groups of 3 to 6 people, and give these instructions:

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Topics: Discernment
May 15, 2015 by Lisa Fischbeck

It took me a while to notice, but summer is a hard season in the life of a church in a university town. People leave. We wish them well, we pray them on their way. And we grieve.

A church with young adults experiences this a lot. A church that embraces change as one of its descriptors experiences it even more. A church that is open to change attracts people who like change, not only in their church, but also in their lives. Off they go. Some to a first job, others to another job, some to be ordained as priests, others to be closer to extended family.

Others drift. They drift away from church altogether. Our church is their last stop, their last attempt at Christian Church. They arrive, excited that there is a church that would accept them on their journey of life and faith and doubt. But the talk about Jesus is uncomfortable. The Creed as declaration of faith feels like a roadblock. They love the community, they say, but the Christian faith just doesn’t ring true. They find their way to Buddhist practices or yoga, to coffee shops or bike trails.

Others drift away because they find the community lacking. They find what seem to be more meaningful communities in their neighborhoods or their children’s schools. Or they don’t feel comfortable around the prisoners in the congregation, or that we pray for the guy in our congregation who was arrested and is now in jail. Not enough lesbians, too many gays, not enough people their age, not enough children. This latter complaint is truly frustrating: How will we ever have enough children to satisfy them if the people with children keep leaving because we don’t have enough children?

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Topics: Discernment
April 7, 2015 by Greg Syler

This is really a book-length issue about which I’m only going to write a few hundred words. Underneath all of this is a library-full of information, plus an entire life’s journey and discernment. I’m thinking about baptism. It’s Easter, after all, and these 50 Days of Easter are the season of baptism.

Christianity’s one big sacrament of initiation has a noticeably wide spectrum of practice and belief and interpretation surrounding it. From Jesus and John in the Jordan River – and the gospel authors’ mild disagreements about what was happening there – to the divergent ways in which Christ’s earliest followers went about baptizing converts, at least according to the earlier chapters in Acts of the Apostles, to the fundamental question that arose much later in the tradition about where and when and how the Holy Spirit shows up, it can be said that baptism has a profound and yet uneasy both/and nature about it: baptism is both initiation and cleansing; something both for believers and for those who don’t yet (fully) understand; both customary practice and a radical, personal, individual decision. In our current baptismal rite, I think the 1979 Book of Common Prayer captures brilliantly such diversity; it’s a rite which allows for believer baptism and infant baptism and, by consequence, renders that other initiatory sacrament – confirmation – somewhat in question. Like I said, there’s a library full of information and a life’s journey to answer questions and question answers.

The point of this blog post, however, is not to delve more deeply into traditions and histories and theologies of baptism but to encourage the pastoral art of, let me call it, theologizing-on-the-ground.

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Topics: Discernment
April 6, 2015 by Jeremiah Sierra

This past weekend I went to an Easter Vigil at a large Manhattan church. It was a lovely service, crowded, with beautiful music and several baptisms. It was not, of course, perfect. There was a microphone that didn’t work and a noisy child sitting behind us, up way past her bedtime, talking and crying through most of the service.

I have to admit I’d prefer a quieter service, but I also want children to feel welcome and at home in church. Ultimately, you just have to let the children be themselves, which means a bit of extra noise.

This is, I've been reminded recently, how life works: we have to live with noise and imperfections. Children are loud and messy. Sometimes they cry. That’s simply something we must accept. So it is with any community or even individual. There are parts of us that are loud and messy. There are times when we will feel anxious and fearful, when we will accidentally break things, and when we will feel sick and sad. There’s no way around this. 

There’s a temptation to believe we can fix ourselves and our communities, perhaps even perfect them, but this is not how reality actually works, nor is it the Christian story. The story we celebrated this past weekend does not ignore the pain and messiness of life, but rather blesses it. In Holy Week we commemorate the life and death of a savior who suffered, of a God who suffers. Resurrection does not erase pain and death. There is still a scar in Jesus’s side, holes in his hands and feet. The disciples are still afraid and sinful. The world remains imperfect.

No, in the story we tell every Holy Week, God loves and blesses our misshapen, broken hearts, our unpredictable, loud, and noisy world.

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Topics: Discernment
February 5, 2015 by Richelle Thompson
I’ll be honest. For many years, I saw “professional development” as code for relatively fun junkets away from the office. The idea of taking a retreat or sabbatical seemed like more of an excuse to get out of work than a needed time for reflection and rejuvenation.
I’ve changed my tune. In 2013, I attended Credo, a retreat sponsored by the Church Pension Group as a time to refocus and define spiritual, mental, financial, and physical goals. (Sadly, this was the last Credo for lay employees; the program continues for ordained folks). At about the same time, I began a year-long program through the local Chamber of Commerce for women in leadership. At the close of both, I knew that I had made some important decisions and experienced some needed renewal.
But the real fruits are coming to bear now, two years later. I had no idea the seeds that were planted during this time apart from the stresses of everyday life. But I’m experiencing them now.
In the past two years, I’ve switched careers, finding myself open to a job change after a decade working for an Episcopal diocese. It was a risk in many ways, but I’m finding that I’m happier and more fulfilled in my work than ever, and I believe I’m living into God’s call for my life and gifts. I am learning how to be a manager of people, and I’m certain that I would not have been open to the changes I needed to make in my work style and expectations without these two programs. The time away afforded me the opportunity to really reflect on my strengths and weaknesses, to develop an action plan of how to improve certain areas and to be more cognizant and responsive to others and their particular quirks. Promises that I made about my physical health are finally being realized after two years of gestation.

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Topics: Discernment
September 29, 2014 by Jeremiah Sierra

I begin today with a confession: Sometimes, when I feel like my life is just too full, I skip church. About a decade ago, this is something I would have judged myself pretty harshly for. You go to church not because it’s easy and you feel like it, but because it’s an essential part of a life of faith. Now, I feel I was a little too rigid.

Occasionally, my life just feels too full. Work has been busy lately and I’ve been traveling. I’ve got several to-do lists and several writing and side projects, dozens of emails I haven’t responded to, and of course, I really need to get to the gym. I want to be a good steward of the limited amount of time I’ve got on this earth, but I’ve only got so much bandwidth. I know I'm not the only person who feels this way.

When I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed, I often read articles about productivity (instead of actually checking things off my to-do list), and one of the articles I read recently was about information overload. Our brains have a limited capacity for decision-making. We're made to do one thing at a time. Now, we are given more choices than ever and more information than ever and that doesn’t necessarily make our lives easier. We’re meant to be uni-taskers, but we’ve forced ourselves to become multi-taskers.

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Topics: Discernment
September 15, 2014 by Jeremiah Sierra

I’m reading a book this week by the priest, theologian, and amateur cook Robert Capon called Supper of the Lamb. It’s part cookbook and part meditation on life and God. There are recipes and there’s a whole chapter devoted to cutting an onion and there are paragraphs sprinkled throughout on our relationship to the creation.

For example:

"Creation exists in its own right, is no parable, no front, no Punch and Judy show in which God plays all the parts, but a vast and vacuous meeting where each thing acts out its nature, shouts I am I, as if no other thing had being. The world exists, not for what it means but for what it is. The purpose of mushrooms is to be mushrooms; wine is to be wine: Things are precious before they are contributory."

In other words (I think), it’s an appreciation of the creation for what it is, not for what it can do for us. It’s a reminder to stop and look closely at things and appreciate them as the gifts they are.

One of the reasons I’m enjoying the book is that sitting with it feels like stepping outside the flow of things happening in my life and in the world. A book with a chapter about peeling an onion is self-consciously not in a hurry.

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Topics: Discernment
September 10, 2014 by Greg Syler

The return of school and these post-Labor Day days seem to have kicked the whole world – and no less the church – back into program mode. Bible studies and Sunday schools and small groups and senior ministries and other programs are in full swing, or at least they’re getting there. That’s a great thing. But why are we doing this, anyway?

The other day, I was talking with a friend. “I’ve got to tell you something,” she said, “I’ve been going to another church!” I heard genuine excitement in her voice. And I also heard a little anxiety. Previously, she and her family had been active in their local Episcopal church. She first found her way into that congregation through their passion for social justice and the food pantry they run in their economically mixed neighborhood. My friend, you see, has a real passion for justice and even though she was raised in a nominally Christian household, she was never drawn to God or organized religion in her 20s. Volunteering with the food pantry, however, led her to eventually make connections with and ground her life in the worship and fellowship of that congregation. In time, her children were baptized at that parish church.

“What’s the new church?” I asked.

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Topics: Discernment
July 28, 2014 by Jeremiah Sierra

Every Sunday at St. Lydia’s we read a poem after prayers. I know, reading poetry at dinner church in Brooklyn sounds a little like your stereotypical hipster church, but I find that it is an authentic expression of our community.

For example, this past Sunday I read Mary Karr’s poem, Disgraceland, which is lovely and funny and bracing. It spoke to me, because of the beauty of the words, the way they surprised me and told a story that was bigger than itself. I don’t pretend to understand every line, but understanding isn’t everything.

Now, I’m not all that qualified to talk about poetry. I wrote a poem once in the fifth grade and I think that’s the last time I tried. But I love how poetry feels to me like prayer, something somewhat mysterious that does not speak to me explicitly, but nonetheless reveals something sacred.

My friend Joel Avery recently wrote this blog entry about science and religion, which I think touches on this same idea. He studied physics and now is in divinity school. People ask him about the conflict between science and religion, and his answer is art. “Art doesn’t trump science or religion,” he writes, “art stands as a reminder that there is no trump.”

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Topics: Discernment
June 18, 2014 by Greg Syler

This past fall, St. George’s took the RenewalWorks survey. Based on the work of Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church and adapted by the Jay Sidebotham for purposes of use in The Episcopal Church, RenewalWorks is an incredibly thorough survey that seeks to get at spiritual life and vitality. It presumes that the questions we need to be asking are whether, in fact, people are growing in their walk with God in Christ? Whether people are expanding their understanding of discipleship? (Conversely, it does not ask whether people like their church or are (dis)satisfied with their congregation.) RenewalWorks focuses intently on a given person’s spiritual life and growth trajectory and determines, in turn, whether that person’s congregation is meeting or slowing down or helping propel that overall growth.

If, when someone takes the survey, s/he says such-and-such is absolutely vital to their spiritual life and growth but that item is not found in their church life – or is only there insufficiently – that thing shows up as a big red flag.

In our case, it was music and worship. Specifically, this statement triggered the greatest discrepancy: “The worship and music in my church feeds my spiritual life.”

Most of the survey respondents said that music and the arts of worship are critical to their spiritual wellbeing and growth. And what really set off the survey instrument was that they also said, in successive questions, that the music and worship they were getting as their daily bread in church was not on par with what they were feeding themselves throughout the course of the rest of their lives. Note that the survey did not ask whether they liked or did not like the music in church. It asked them what was working, or not, in their daily, personal spiritual disciplines. And it discovered, through a series of other questions, that there was a disconnect between the two.

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Topics: Discernment
May 14, 2014 by Erin Weber-Johnson

Summer is the perfect time to recruit volunteers. Fewer committee meetings mean more time for the one-on-one visits so important to matching the right person to the job.

Yet, recruiting volunteers for fundraising is more than simply filling a slot. Its an opportunity for mentorship, fostering greater engagement between the volunteer and the parish, and enabling others to live into their calling.

So… what happens when a parishioner’s call doesn`t meet your volunteer opening? ECF financial resources program director, Terri Mathes tells the following story:

“I had two committee chair positions to fill for the foster home my parish runs in Tijuana: fundraising and trip coordinator. This was at the height of the drug wars in Mexico, when the San Diego papers carried photos of corpses left "as a message" along the main avenue of Tijuana. Who on earth would lead monthly trips to the foster home in the middle of that?

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Topics: Discernment
March 19, 2014 by Bob Leopold

At Southside Abbey, we handle sermons a little differently. They are more like conversations born from questions posed to the community at worship. People break into small groups, discussing the readings and responding to these questions. The groups share that work and I (or whoever else is preaching) add a capstone “homilette,” often jettisoning what I have prepared for the week in favor of what the groups have lifted up.

This last week's readings contained perhaps the most well-known verse from the entirety of Holy Scripture: John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” But neither Jesus, nor the lectionary stop there. We also get John 3:17, the “two” of the “one, two punch” of these verses. Jesus continues, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

In the South, we hear and see (on t-shirts, bumper-stickers, etc.) much attention paid to John 3:16 – particularly the phrase “eternal life” – with virtually no attention paid to Jesus' non-condemnation bit. The question that spurred our Friday night discussion in light of these two verses was: “What does God saving the world through Jesus look like?”

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Topics: Discernment
February 19, 2014 by Bob Leopold
My previous post on servant ministry generated some discussion on Facebook. Thanks for that! Maybe we can go a little deeper on the topic of servant ministry.
First, I would concede that “servant ministry” and “ministry” are probably just synonyms. I like to use the phrase “servant ministry” because it keeps me honest. By intentionally using the word “servant,” I can keep that aspect of ministry always in my mind.
Second, I was asked to give examples of servant ministers. First and foremost, Jesus is an example of a servant minister who people followed. Often Jesus' ministry leads Jesus to give something of himself away. Sometimes Jesus gives himself away figuratively, as he does when he honors those society deems least. Sometimes Jesus gives himself away more literally, as he does when he heals. Sometimes Jesus gives himself away quite literally, as he does on the cross or when he says to his disciples, “Take, eat. This is my body.” Even in this eucharistic action, Jesus is serving.
Beyond Jesus, any servant-ministers I could tell you about would be tied to our context at Southside Abbey. The activities to which the Spirit calls us give able opportunity for servant ministry. Following the last church year, we have had:

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Topics: Discernment
January 8, 2014 by Nancy Davidge

Welcome 2014! 

That beginning of a new year offers a clean slate: A chance to start over, to rid oneself of unproductive habits; an opportunity to be more of those things one would like to be more of, and less of those things that weigh us down. In 2014, my resolution is to minimize the stress I create for myself – to pay attention to the ways I can unnecessarily complicate things, to teach myself to recognize the triggers, and to learn how to keep things simple.

For many congregations, January brings annual meetings and vestry elections. Changes in leadership teams bring opportunities for new ways of looking at the familiar challenges related to congregational finances, membership, and mission. As new vestries form, fresh perspectives emerge as the group begins their work together to discern what God is calling them to do.

In our January Vestry Papers, we share stories and experiences of congregations and vestries who are facing – and successfully navigating – the realities of a changing world while remaining faithful to God’s call.

Here are their stories:

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Topics: Discernment
January 1, 2014 by Rosa Lindahl Mallow

Nota - Este artículo es disponible en español aquí.

The busy-ness leading up to Christmas has given way to that somewhat uneasy ‘in between time.’ We did all the things we knew how to do to make Christmas Christmas—put up the ornaments and the tree, wrapped presents, made (and ate) Christmas cookies, observed Advent as best we could, and still got stressed out more than once. Maybe there were moments in all that where wonder found us. Whether we were the preacher or a member of the congregation, once again, we heard words wrapped around the mystery of God’s coming to dwell among us. Then almost as soon as it had arrived, Christmas was gone, none of the post-Christmas sales notwithstanding. Now all we see on TV is stuff about the year that was, the new year that’s about to arrive. Life starts feeling like a question: What comes next? What just happened? What does it all mean?

I’ve learned to treasure ‘in-between’ times like the week between Christmas and New Year’s with their ambiguity and the way they leave me feeling disoriented. First, this is an opportunity to ask myself—so how was this Christmas? We are great at adding new pieces, new parts to what we define as Christmas in our family, in our community, even inside our own hearts. It is harder to let go of the things that no longer have the same meaning or space in our lives. After the fact, and without judgment or rush, this may be a good moment to jot down some things to remember not to do next year.

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Topics: Discernment