March 30, 2016 by Anna Olson

Sunday School is a tough challenge for smaller churches. There are Sundays with no kids in church. There are Sundays with one baby, two toddlers, an 8-year old, and a middle schooler. Neither scenario lends itself to an easy classroom scenario, even if we had a consistent pool of volunteers, and someone to organize curriculum, prepare materials, etc. Those are issues too…

To further complicate things at St. Mary’s, we are a congregation that has been mostly English speaking for the last fifty-plus years, and now most of the kids come to the Spanish service. So even when the English-speaking parents who grew up with traditional Sunday School get together to try to revive Sunday School, there are issues of timing, and varying cultural expectations about what to do with kids in church.

What we have come up with is not perfect. But it’s quite a bit better than nothing. We created a kids’ corner. It’s at the back of the church, using a cozy-ish space that was previously used to store folding chairs. It’s immediately visible when you walk into church. We added a rug, a rocking chair, a small table with colorful little-people-sized chairs, bookshelves with donated books, an old wooden giraffe from a long-ago carnival set-up, a kid-sized altar that the Sunday School used to use, some colorful biblical art, and lots of paper and crayons.

Here’s what’s great about it:

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March 29, 2016 by Richelle Thompson
I grew up in a faith tradition where Lent was something to be picked off a shirt. Maybe we talked about the season but it was never emphasized.
I didn’t realize how fully I’ve come to embrace the seasons of the church year until a phone call with a friend. She went to a megachurch for Easter service. On Good Friday.
The church has so many people, my friend explained, that they held the same Easter service throughout the weekend, on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Day.
Bewildered, I asked a few questions. Apparently, they conflated the Triduum and Easter into one service. Oh, they mentioned the crucifixion, my friend said. 
When I hung up the phone, I came to an important realization: I have become fully Anglicized. I embrace the seasons of the church as a way to move through the grand narrative of God’s story. As much as I want to run to Easter joy, I must walk through Holy Week despair.
The Maundy Thursday service moved me to tears. I almost broke into ugly cry as a I watched the priest wash the feet of a 90-year-old woman. The intimacy and trust in the act was palpable. The physical act of stripping the altar was wrenching. The naked cross on a bare altar tore me apart.
Moving through these days transforms the words: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”

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March 21, 2016 by Jeremiah Sierra

Holy Week, the seven days preceding Easter, commemorates the suffering and death of Jesus, as recounted in Christian Scripture. Like all Anglican churches, Trinity Church Wall Street offers a variety of services that have long history and tradition.

In this series of videos, members of Trinity’s liturgical staff present descriptions of the significant days of Holy Week, the liturgies connected with them, and the reasons why they can be so personally meaningful.

Palm Sunday

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March 9, 2016 by Greg Syler

We’ve been having a great deal of success with our Sunday morning adult formation at St. George’s in Valley Lee, and it doesn’t have anything to do with new people. This year we tried something new, something a little bit bold, but I wanted to see if it’d work. And it has, so far.

A little bit about our immediate past: as is the case at many congregations, a Sunday morning at St. George’s is a busy and wonderful time. There’s a lot to do and catch up on, but save for Children’s Chapel and Sunday School classes for kids and youth, there’s not a lot of intentional formation going on. Worship is part and parcel of formation, I know, and meaningful worship and lively music and rich fellowship remain strong and central to our Sunday morning offering.

In previous years, we tried to offer an adult bible study. Oh, we tried everything: lectionary series, intensive 36-week study of one book, a co-teacher, and various hosts for various sessions of the class. But, year after year, the trends repeated themselves: it’d start off strong in September, maybe 15 people gathered in the conference room, and those numbers and, more so, that energy and commitment kept up through October, and then numbers would start dropping, one by one, leaving only a few really committed adult students a few weeks by the first Sunday of Advent. The week we’d resume in January, most of them forgot all about it – Christmas having erased their brain, I guess – and it’d stall out right then and there.

At some point in the late summer, as I was praying about and gearing up again for this program year, I felt a sudden call – an urge, really. We were being called, I sensed, to put all the energy, all the time, all the resources of our church – or at least what we do, and why we do it – into discipleship making. If those things don’t fit the fairly loose category called “Making Disciples” then we weren’t going to do them, or at least we weren’t going to stress about them. If those things were about Discipleship 101, even if they had the faintest, loosest connection to it, we were going to shine greater light on them and move them to the center.

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February 24, 2016 by Greg Syler

Although the early numbers for 2016 seem pointed in an even more exciting direction than we previously thought, there are still some issues we need to work through. But working through them as part of an overall church growth strategy, such as we’ve learned to do for so many years, is not what we’re being called to do. Not now, that is.

This past fall, you see, St. George’s, Valley Lee went through a rather intense series of discernment. For one, we kicked off year one of a three-year financial stewardship campaign we’re calling ‘Growing Generous Givers.’ We wanted to be honest about our overall growth patterns – and there has been much growth, and much to celebrate – as well as naming the potential consequences for not continuing to grow, or failing to re-think church entirely. Some folks found this a welcome breath of fresh air – “Finally, we’re naming the elephant in the room!” (meaning, probably that we were finally naming overall financial vulnerability and confronting the need to change) – but a great many people found this campaign too aggressive, too pushy, too much. Honestly, for my part, I get the sense that there are so many issues around financial dynamics and stewardship in the life of a given congregation that any talk – let alone the fairly straightforward talk we were doing this past fall – would set off a whole host of anxiety and hand-wringing.

Another thing we did back in October and November was have a more public discussion about the future of this congregation as a stand-alone, self-sufficient, relatively independent corporate entity. The fact is we’ve been talking for years and years in this part of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington about the need to collaborate more intentionally and, indeed, to collaborate institutionally; that is, to get beyond the restrictions of the mid-20th century “one-parish / one-priest” model. The other fact is that we are growing, and not just in vibrancy and ministry-focus but in numbers; actual people and money and time. Our position is that we need to continue to do this work, and that we need to get ahead of the inevitable demographic curve that’s headed our way, and so we’ve been talking about collaboration at vestry meetings and in region-wide gatherings and with our diocese for at least seven years now. But, to be fair, we never really talked about it publicly, broadly, and with what seemed to be consequences for avoiding the issue.

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February 22, 2016 by Jeremiah Sierra

In recent weeks I’ve been baking bread in my free time. I’ve tried out French bread and some wheat sandwich bread and rolls. These recipes are from Peter Reinhart’s book, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, and require a lot of time and patience and sometimes the process takes a few days. I find the practice relaxing, even meditative, a fitting activity for Lent.

Last weekend I tried Sicilian bread, which is supposed to be shaped kind of like an “S.” An important part of preparing the dough is making sure you don’t handle it too much and degas it, or let all the air bubbles out. Shaping dough into an “S” without degassing it is much harder than I expected. I made the bread over three days, and I ended up with something that looked like two flattened circles rather than the loaves shown in the photo. Oh well. It tasted pretty good.

I’ve only recently begun to learn about bread and to practice making it, but I’ve already learned it takes a lot of patience and it’s a lot more enjoyable if I relax. As Reinhart says in his book, homemade bread is always a hit. So far, it’s all tasted good even if the loaves aren’t exactly beautiful.

We in the church spend much of our time making things that are beautiful—liturgies and vestments, music and sermons—especially those of us at large churches with lots of resources. Growing up in a church with a very small staff and a volunteer choir and organist, all of that was secondary to Eucharist and the simple act of coming together on Sunday mornings. Even when our choir was out of tune I often loved them because they were clearly trying so hard. Breaking bread together in the Eucharist was more important.

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February 19, 2016 by Demi Prentiss and J. Fletcher Lowe

Our recent Vestry Papers article "Get the Hell Out of Church" urged church leaders to shift their focus from “inside” to “outside,” and from church-sponsored outreach to individuals understanding themselves as “on mission” in their everyday lives. We’ve already offered ways to Break Out and Take Out. Another one of the ways we Christians can “get the hell out of church” is to Reach Out – to affirm parishioners where they live their daily lives, and to expand the meaning of pastoral presence.

My (Fletcher’s) years of experience being the rector “running” a lively parish has given me an appreciation of what it means to be a CEO of a non-profit organization. In my first parish, I experienced the transformation of the community over nearly five years as 17 northern industries relocated to our rural area of upper South Carolina. With the newly arrived executives moving into the area, I discovered I could best pay a pastoral visit where they worked. That experience opened, for me, a new understanding of “pastoral care.” And my interest in them as working people, and in the connection they made between their faith and what they did at work, opened a new understanding for them as well – that they were empowered and sent out to be the church in their daily lives of home, community, and work.

I set aside Thursday lunch time to visit parishioners across their desk or table or workbench. Two versions of a possible pattern for such workplace visits can be found at the website for Radical Sending. Such visits have allowed me to hear the stories of more than 300 lay folks in their places of work: mortgage managers, bank tellers, investment brokers, ad designers, plumbers, stay at home moms and dads, contract lawyers, nurses, school teachers, university professors to name a few. By listening to their stories and sometimes by challenging their perspectives, my sermons became enriched with real illustrations, my teachings focused on sharing the voices of lay folks, and the dismissal at the end of worship has taken on new meaning – sending people out to be the Church.

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February 9, 2016 by Richelle Thompson

I haven’t been intentional about bringing my kids to Ash Wednesday services. To be honest, I couldn’t fathom the idea of the priest—their father and my husband—crossing ashes on their forehead and saying, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

This says a lot more about my own spiritual maturity than it does theirs. I have had other talks with the children, but I’m not very good at talking about death. I know intellectually that mortality is a part of the cycle of life, and I believe in my heart that there is life after death. But I just haven’t figured out how to think and pray about that chasm, much less explain it to children.

But I am convicted of the importance after spending time reading and reflecting on two recent blog posts. Both are part of a new online initiative called Grow Christians, which aims to inspire and encourage people to practice their faith at home.

Ben Irwin explains why his family will talk about some of the hard concepts of Lent. “We’ll consider our mortality, our frailty, our vulnerability. We will lean into the darkness rather than run from it.
Because the painful yet glorious truth that Jesus demonstrated for us is this: the only path to resurrection runs through the grave.”

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February 2, 2016 by Richelle Thompson

Jesus is still encouraging us to let the children come to him, not least because they can explain the new features of an iPhone.

The Church as a whole has a mixed record when it comes to fully embracing children as equal participants in the body of Christ. We value them, sure. We love them and revel in the sweet voices of the children’s choir or their first tentative attempts at crucifer. But we’re sometimes reluctant to entrust them with significant or complicated projects.

Enter Jack Whittaker, a fourteen-year-old from California. He approached Forward Movement late last year with the idea of programming a mobile app for Lent. We took a chance.

Apple approved the app last week, and it’s live and ready for your Lenten devotion. The app, Journey Through Lent 2016, brings Forward Movement’s popular Join the Journey Through Lent daily coloring calendar to the digital world. The app provides daily images and reflections illustrated by award-winning cartoonist Jay Sidebotham, offered alongside daily Eucharistic gospel readings, a space for journaling, and the option to add color and share your images.

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January 21, 2016 by Richelle Thompson
“Where are you from?”
The answer to this deceptively easy question often depends on the cultural context. When I lived in an Appalachian community, this question really was asking, “Where did you go to high school?” In the community I live now, folks are divided into two camps: natives to the small town and those who are not. And if you’re a native to the town, then the follow-up question is about which street you lived on as a child.
“Where are you from?” The way people answer this depends on their context. It’s not as easy as simply a naming a town, a state, or country.
I’ve been mulling over the importance of knowing our roots as the primates of the Anglican Church met last week in England with the Archbishop of Canterbury. This is not the place to debate the merits of their decisions, including the three-year suspension of The Episcopal Church from serving on some of the councils of the wider church. But in reading many of the commentaries about the actions of the primates, I was struck in particular by one elegant description of the roots of our Anglican tradition.

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January 8, 2016 by Linda Buskirk

On the second Sunday of Christmas, the entourage of wise men were onewindow closer to the crèche at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Their journey started a couple of weeks earlier, on the window sill at the back of the sanctuary. 

Each Sunday, forward leading, still proceeding, they made it to the next window. On January 6, they would reach their final destination, worshipping the Baby Jesus in the manger.

This tradition started decades ago at St. Alban’s, yet it never loses its power. The wise men are on the move, seeking a

newborn King. Silently, they invite anyone who notices them to join their caravan. When I see them, I realize that the celebration on Christmas Day is a high point, but the search for more light continues. I am drawn in to participate in the wonder that God was made man for all people, even for me. I search for greater understanding and closer relationship with the Perfect Light.

Saint Francis realized the power of bringing Scripture to life through the simple re-enactment of the Nativity with live people and animals on a dark night on an Italian hillside. In most churches today, children with all their innocence, joy and faith act out the Christmas story for their congregations. These treasured pageants always prompt comments such as, “THAT is what Christmas is all about!”

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December 21, 2015 by Linda Buskirk

Passengers gathered at the gate in the Midwest city airport. We were calm, normal Americans, getting on with business or vacations or whatever. I was reading Morning Prayer on my iPad when I heard voices from the overhead television offering diverse opinions about the subject of the day: Should the U.S. ban Muslims from entering our borders?

Such a question. Who in my Baby Boomer generation would have ever imagined it? None of the commentators was frothing at the mouth. They actually seemed to be calm, normal Americans too, talking through horrific events and seemingly unanswerable conditions of today's world. Suddenly a louder voice greeted us from airport speakers.

"Hello. I am Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security, reminding you that, 'See something, say something' isn't just a slogan."

The recorded message went on to explain that even the most vigilant security officials need the eyes and ears of good citizens to help prevent... I don't think he used the word terrorism, but we all knew what he meant. If we see or hear anything unusual or suspicious, we should alert authorities. And have a great day.

As the TV volume and discussion resumed, one of the voices simply stated, "People are scared."

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December 17, 2015 by Bob Leopold

Nope, it's not a typo.

The pressure is on us, those of us attempting to follow Jesus, and it's a performance pressure. The World and the Church are watching and both institutions are all too ready to fire the initial servo at us when we get it wrong.

I really enjoy Richard Rohr's daily meditations. Recently, he argued we have a lot to learn from the twelve step traditions, especially the way they approach spiritual formation and maturation. The Church, aligned with the imperial culture of the Western world, has taken a top-view of these issues, rather than a bottom-view. We are trying to work our way up into spiritual health and wellness, when dwelling in Christ at the bottom might be more Christ-like in approach. Rohr muses that it is, “as if Christianity has been saying, 'We have the perfect medicine for what ails you: grace and mercy. But the only requirement for receiving it is never to need it!'” As our former Theologian-in-Residence, Nik Forti, wrote in our crowd-sourced piece for ECF's Vestry Papers, “The Church isn't called to serve the poor. The Church is called to be the poor.”

But back to “Thnaks.” Giving Thnaks is on mind this season. A few Thanksgivings ago, a friend of mine sent me a picture of the marquee sign of a little Baptist church just up the road from us. In the South, we revel in these signs and hope for the best. Occasionally, we are not disappointed. These signs will have something profound or funny to impart, like:

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December 15, 2015 by Anna Olson

My 8-year-old daughter and I found ourselves watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood the other day. She was intrigued because there’s a PBS show that is a sort of Mr. Rogers spin-off, and she hadn’t known there was an original. I told her how much I had loved Mr. Rogers as a kid, and we decided to watch an episode together. We both found the simple, low-tech show surprisingly entrancing. Mr. Rogers stands the test of time, cardigans and all.

I hadn’t watched Mr. Rogers since long before I became a preacher of the Gospel. I had known vaguely that he started his career as a Presbyterian minister. What I hadn’t realized as a kid is that the show IS ministry. It is all about the gospel, delivered with a gentle passion and a powerful witness. Love. Neighbor. Acceptance of difference. Peaceful resolution of conflicts. Honesty about sin. Forgiveness. It’s all in there, plain as day. Without ever mentioning Jesus by name, Mr. Rogers preaches it. And he preaches it so well that I can still summon up the warmth and holiness I felt watching him and hearing his voice forty years ago.

If Mr. Rogers had talked about Jesus by name, I never would have seen or heard him. I grew up in a secular family. We didn’t have a TV at home, and on the relatively rare occasions I got to watch, it was almost always PBS.

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December 11, 2015 by Anna Olson

I had the privilege of hearing the voice of Renita Weems recently. The Rev. Dr. Weems is ordained in the AME Church, a scholar of Hebrew Bible, and a fantastic preacher and writer. She delivered the annual Margaret Parker Memorial Lecture at the convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. Her voice took me back to a time that is hard for me even to remember.

I was nineteen years old: a brand new Christian, still reeling from the strange and powerful experience of discovering that what began as an academic exploration of faith had somehow let Jesus into my heart and soul. I was just starting to confess to a very few of my dearest friends that I thought this Christian thing might be happening to me. I had started to wear a little onyx cross on a silver chain, but I kept it tucked inside my shirt most of the time.

I was looking for next steps. I was pretty sure that one of the things that Christians did was go to church, so I thought I had better try that out. The campus chapel was advertising a guest preacher, and her sermon was called “The Road to Emmaus.” I didn’t know where Emmaus was or who might have wanted to go there or why, but the chapel was walking distance from my dorm, and it seemed like as good a place to start as any. I dressed up as close as I could get to what I imagined might be a “Sunday best” sort of outfit and went to church. I heard the wonderful Renita Weems, and I took communion. Jesus and I were officially a thing.

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December 7, 2015 by Linda Buskirk

When I was a new Episcopalian, I remember learning how Christmas used to be celebrated only after a healthy dose of 4 weeks of Advent. I had already learned about Lent, a time of sacrifice, preparing for the cross in obedience and giving up something I craved, like chocolate. Not likely to be successful with THAT during the holidays! So, what do I do? What is the church doing?

Lo these many years after my initial questions, I realize I still have some work to do to fully grasp the concept of waiting in expectation for something I know has already occurred. No matter how hard I try to set aside time to meditate in the quiet glow of our Christmas tree (put up well in advance of December 24), my mind wanders as I wonder in front of the crèche… Should I keep the Baby Jesus under wraps until Christmas?

In her book, The Meaning is in the Waiting: The Spirit of Advent, (Paraclete Press, 2009) author Paula Gooder explores Advent with biblical examples of those who have waited, including wisdom-filled thoughts about “why God might want us to get better at it.”

The Salvation story is like a snowball, rolling down a hill and picking up more layers with every revolution, Gooder suggests, from the beginning in creation to God’s many interventions with people:

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December 3, 2015 by Greg Syler

It’s Advent, we know. Some people found this out when they walked into a church bedecked in purple or blue on Sunday morning. The church, at least a lot of communities in the Episcopal Church, does a pretty good job of keeping the focus on Advent during most of December. This isn’t a minor thing as the themes of Advent are decidedly unsettling: end-times and stirring up and expectancy and waiting.

That’s what I think we’re saying, or trying to say.

That’s not necessarily what people hear. The day after Thanksgiving, I went with my family to our local downtown tree-lighting ceremony, where the line for pictures with Mrs. Claus was a whole lot shorter than that for her husband. We snapped a photo, I posted it on Facebook, and one of my parishioners said, in good humor, “What’s this, Fr. Greg?! Christmas so soon! What heresy!” (She has, in the past, accused me of being “Scrooge,” and I’ve heard “Fr. Grinch” from time to time – such is my reputation for how much I apparently 'love' Christmas in the early days of December!)

Believe me, I’ve told people how much I love Christmas. (I really do, by the way.) And I’ve talked about how much more special a gift becomes when we wait, really wait to open it, such as waiting for the days of Advent to truly savor Christmas. I’ve preached about the twelve days of Christmas as one long feast, and how much joy it is to relish in that short season; in other words, don’t exhaust the celebration by launching it too early. I’ve said all of this, over and over again.

But we, the church, are speaking in paragraphs (see above!) whereas the world is listening in nano-seconds. A friend reminded me that we used to talk about “sound bytes": turning complicated ideas into quick quips the evening news can pick up. Now, even that’s changed. Now, we’re talking in hashtags. And that’s all you’ve got to communicate your message.

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November 17, 2015 by Richelle Thompson

In the midst of terror and facing new pressures about whether to open our borders to refugees, we come to the story of Mary and Joseph.

Advent begins in just two weeks. We move toward Christmas with expectation and wonder. At the same time that we hear of the angel visiting Mary, the embrace of Elizabeth, and the birth of our Savior, we know that Christ’s death is already prescribed. Life and death in the same breath.

So it is in these days as we reel from the horror. Death, unspeakable, has come to too many. And so too has opportunity for new life, new resolve to live as faithful followers of Christ.
The Latino/Hispanic custom of Posadas offers an opportunity to reenact the story of Mary and Joseph’s wanderings and to take a deliberate step toward welcoming the other and embracing the stranger.

The Posadas (Spanish for "inns," "lodging," or "shelter") are an Advent candlelight procession and celebration. In Mexico and other countries, it is traditional to hold Posadas in many neighborhoods on the days preceding Christmas. The Posadas are a reenactment of Mary and Joseph's frustrating search for a place where Jesus could be born. But there’s a twist: Ultimately they find an innkeeper who welcomes Mary and Joseph into the home. We learn from the Posadas that by welcoming the poor and the needy, we are welcoming Jesus in our midst. And we have an opportunity to act out the gospel imperative articulated in Matthew to welcome the stranger.

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November 9, 2015 by Linda Buskirk

What an image: A parachute dropping from the sky towards a new suburb still growing into farmland on the northwest side of Indianapolis. Who is this parachutist so intentionally aiming for this community? It’s a priest!

Meet the Gray Lesesne, Church Planter/Pastor. Since he landed in Brownsburg, he’s been busy planting Good Samaritan Episcopal Church.

Okay, Gray did not actually jump out of an airplane. “Parachute drop” is a term used by church planters to describe the start of a congregation in a new place without many connections… literally dropping in from seemingly out of nowhere, and following the lead of the Holy Spirit.

Gray dropped in to Brownsburg’s Starbucks, with the blessing and financial support of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis and churches across the diocese. He chatted with fellow coffee and tea drinkers, to learn more about the community. He explains he began making connections with particular focus “on those who are spiritual seekers, people who have not yet connected, people who are exploring.”

It was something he always wanted to do. He was attracted to Brownsburg because of its recent population boom. With plentiful land, great schools and moderately priced housing, the area’s cornfields seemed to blossom into subdivisions overnight. This affordability means plenty of diversity among the newcomers.

“Episcopalians do diversity well. We embrace it. I saw a tremendous opportunity to build a church around the diversity,” Gray explains.

Gray’s training in church planting taught him to find existing networks to connect with people. From his “office” at Starbucks, he started asking baristas and customers, “Who is in the margins of this town?” He learned about a local high alternative school that is geared to help students with a variety of challenges, special needs, and differing abilities.

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November 2, 2015 by Jeremiah Sierra
About a week ago I went to a reading at my friend's house. This happens every month or two. We gather in his living room and read things we’ve written or read that we’d like to share. Sometimes people read a funny piece of spam they’ve encountered, an essay they are working on, or a passage from a short story they love. 
This particular evening one person read some lovely and heartfelt poetry that had never been read by another human being. Someone else read some of her touching and funny thoughts about death, including the death of her mother. One friend composed a letter to her recently deceased friend right in front of us, which was both raw and moving.
Most of these people are not religious. They don't go to church and or necessarily believe in God. Nonetheless there was something holy about how honest and vulnerable we all were there in my friend's house. 
In church sometimes we are too concerned expressing and creating polished, joyful moments, rather than the harder truths about our doubt and fear. Yet, as the Commemoration of All Souls Day and all the celebrations around it remind us, we also need those difficult and honest commemorations of death and pain we’ve all experienced. 

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