What did you expect?
Did you expect a Christmas miracle that would turn tense family relationships into joy at the dinner table? Did you set extra chairs in the sanctuary expecting an overflow crowd? Did you hope that hearing the Christmas story would bring you peace? Whether you daily meditated around an Advent wreath or shopped, wrapped, cleaned house, baked, hosted, and mixed cocktails for the party, what were you hoping for the most?
We hold such high, hopeful expectations for Christmas. When they shatter like a fragile ornament, shards pierce our soul with loss and regret.
That’s when the first 18 verses of John’s Gospel come in handy.
This month we offer five resources for Christmas reflections. Please share this digest with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and the monthly digest.
1) Did you ever think, why, oh why, did I host that last Christmas party? In Bearing Gifts, Hosting Parties Richelle Thompson invites us to slow down and enjoy Christmas, while joining the Epiphany party trend.
Like so many of my fellow Episcopalians, I love the season of Advent. Really, I like all three winter seasons – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany.
I live in the northern hemisphere, so these winter seasons coincide with the dark days of the year, which match up well with the themes of Jesus, the Light, coming into the darkness of the world. “Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light!”, we pray in the Collect for the first Sunday of Advent. “Jesus, the Light of the World”, we sing in Christmastide. And, in the season of Epiphany, we celebrate at that we are “the light of the world”, called to carry that light out for all the world to see.
But, in recent years, I’ve had my consciousness raised by the testimony of dark-skinned clergy and laity, those for whom the popular hymn, “I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus” causes pain.
On the Feast of All Saints, November 1, the Church gives us an opportunity to reflect on the faith and witness of those who have died in the faith of the Church. In prayer and song, we remember all the saints, “who from their labors rest.” In traditional practice, The Feast of All Saints is the day we remember the Saints with a capital “S”, those who have been recognized by the Church for their faithful life and death The following day, November 2, is the “Commemoration of all Faithful Departed”, when we are encouraged to remember saints with a small “s”, those who have inspired us personally — parents and godparents, teachers, clergy, mentors, and more.
In many churches, the two remembrances are conflated the following Sunday, in a celebration unofficially called “All Saints Sunday.” While the distinctions between the capital “S” Saints and the small “s” saints may be ecclesiastically significant, pastorally, the blending of the two is inspiring and kind. As the secular world recognizes and adapts the Mexican celebration of the “Day of the Dead” more and more — in schools, public libraries, and homes — we can see that we all, at some level, yearn to remember our ancestors in faith, family, and love.
This article is also available in English here. Este artículo está disponible en ingles aquí.
Hablar de crecimiento espiritual no es una tarea fácil. Es un tema que se puede mirar desde un sin número de perspectivas porque lo que funciona para una persona, no necesariamente funciona para la otra. Sin embargo, todos podemos estar de acuerdo en que queremos crecer espiritualmente; tener una vida espiritual más rica y profunda. Lo difícil es descubrir cómo lograr ese tan deseado crecimiento. Especialmente si somos parte de algún grupo minoritario.
Si eres miembro de la comunidad LGBTQI+, una minoría racial o de género, sabes de lo que hablo. No es fácil crecer cuando se está tratando de sobrevivir y cuando además, estás buscando cómo sanar las heridas que muchas veces nos ha causado la religión y/o alguna iglesia.
Talking about spiritual growth is not an easy task. It is a topic that can be viewed from a number of perspectives because what works for one person does not necessarily work for another. However, we can all agree that we want to grow spiritually; have a richer and deeper spiritual life. The hard part is discovering how to achieve that much-desired growth. Especially if we are part of a minority group.
If you are a member of the LGBTQI+ community, a racial or gender minority, you know what I'm talking about. It is not easy to grow when you are trying to survive and when you are also trying to heal the wounds that were caused by religion or a church.
In my opinion, the first thing is to stop justifying our existence before those who deny our humanity. The Bible has been used to oppress women, the LGBTQI+ community and those of us who are not white. Putting ourselves on an equal footing is very exhausting. The best thing is to rest in the love of God, being sure that God loves us just as we are and created us as God’s sons and daughters.
My grandfather’s bedtime prayer was the Apostles’ Creed. Knowing that it held this special place in the heart of the man who held a special place in mine made me pay close attention to the words, regardless of the setting, throughout my life. I grew up in the Presbyterian Church, and the Apostles Creed was part of our weekly worship. Nonetheless, for me it was always a love-laced prayer.
Years later, now an Episcopal priest, I am often aware of a contrasting experience of the Creed in liturgy. First, it is the Nicene Creed rather than the Apostles. I know the Apostles Creed is the creed of baptism, and therefore more personal, and the Nicene Creed is more corporate, the “faith of the Church”, meant to be said by the whole congregation. It’s not a prayer.
Liturgically, The Nicene Creed follows the sermon (and sometimes serves as a corrective to the sermon!). It usually begins without introduction, beyond, in some places, an invitation to stand. It is a proclamation, declared with boldness by those gathered, kind of like a pledge of allegiance. This is what we believe!
Last time we started talking about practices to build our confidence around evangelism.
There’s a good basic list of resources available on the Episcopal Church’s website. One of those great resources is a “Prayer Walk.” Prayer walking is a great starting point, but I think walking can do much more.
There’s a term, “walk-up evangelism,” which is the type of evangelism many people think about. You walk up to someone and start telling them about Jesus (or telling them that they need Jesus). That’s not what I propose. What I’m talking about is “walk-around evangelism.”
Old Testament Lesson | Isaiah 62:1-5
For Zion's sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.
Sunday morning. Our teething five month old was up throughout the night, and my husband was on an overnight shift with the sheriff’s department. Throughout the cluster feeding, I spent more time than I care to admit pinteresting ideas for our middle child’s birthday party. It’s November. He won’t be three until April. Preschool birthday parties are cut throat. Princesses & Pirates at the local Children’s Garden complete with gluten free snack options - no peanuts, early in the morning so it’s not too hot seems to be the plan… unless someone else got to Pinterest before me. I need to make sure I book a spot first thing Monday or, better yet, I’ll send an email right now!
When a holy nudge of an idea comes along and starts to take root in your faith community, how can it be tended to grow with the support of many? Or when your community feels a bit weary, uncertain of its future, or just plain bored with its status quo, how can you liven things up to engage people in seeking answers together?
One way is as old as the Christian church itself: gatherings in homes to explore faith and pray for guidance, today frequently called “Cottage Meetings.”
The idea is to invite people to sign-up to participate in an informal gathering for conversation in someone’s home. Figure 10 to 15 people per gathering to determine how many home hosts are needed.
After ten years of being a nomadic church, renting space from Sunday by Sunday, we finally had land. It took us three years to raise the money to buy it, three years of anticipation and longing. Then, it was finally ours. Fifteen acres of old farm land on the north end of town, with a pond and a 1960s ranch style house. We were like kids on a playground, discovering the trees, guessing what kind of flowers would bloom from bulbs planted decades before, watching the turtles race. We knew that soon we would also host a chapel. But that was still a ways off. We wanted to do something to celebrate, to claim the land, to ask God’s blessing on it, on us.
So we “beat the bounds.”
The Commissioners of St. Mary’s County, Maryland recently undertook a study to identify the gaps between the services the County’s social service providers offer and those persons who lack access to resources. The ‘Gap Analysis’ revealed a host of hard-hitting facts and has spurred conversations across multiple sectors in our fast growing, economically prosperous (among a few) formerly-rural community.
For the past six months, I’ve been on a team of people commissioned by our elected leaders to make recommendations about how to translate into action what we’ve learned through the Gap Analysis. We are slowly drilling down near some root causes of the gaps, and truly helpful initiatives are beginning to emerge from our work.
I hope you’ve kept up in our reading of Romans. If so, we’ve been in Romans 12 this week. As I read through this chapter, I’m struck by what Paul is pointing out. He lists several gifts that may be given to some of us: Prophecy, preaching, exhortation, ministry, giving, leading, compassion.
That list isn’t exhaustive, but it is interesting. We’d agree that not everyone has the spiritual gift of preaching or prophecy. But giving? Compassion? Those seem like qualities all followers of Jesus should have. But Paul seems to be saying here that some folks will be particularly gifted in those areas.
But that’s not even the most interesting thing to me in this chapter. After we get through that list of qualities that some folks might have more than others, Paul then hits us right between the eyes with a quality he assumes all followers of Jesus will have in abundance: Love.
I don’t imagine Paul had any idea that his letters to the people in Corinth or Rome or Galatia would become part of the Christian canon. His focus was not to become a famous author whose words would guide and inform Christian thought for centuries. Rather, he was reaching out to friends, to communities, to urge them through personal invitation to come to Jesus, to learn about mercy and grace, salvation and sanctification.
I’ve been reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans during the Good Book Club, an initiative sponsored by Forward Movement and supported by partners across the Episcopal Church, including the Episcopal Church Foundation. The goal of the Good Book Club is to encourage a daily habit of reading scripture, believing that encounters with God’s Word are transformative. I’m learning a lot from Paul—in part, realizing that I still have a lot to learn. This missive for the Romans is not for the faint of heart; it is profound and complicated and sometimes confusing (Paul might have done well to call upon the assistance of an editor!).
I sometimes surprise people by loving Paul. People expect me – as a woman, a feminist, a lifelong fan and (I hope!) practitioner of liberation theology – to squirm at least a bit at the mention of Paul’s name. So I figured that as we as the Episcopal Church embark on reading Paul’s longest contribution to the Biblical canon, I might just share all the reasons I love Paul, just in case your enthusiasm for reading the letter to the Romans needs a little boost.
I’ll start by clarifying that I subscribe to the widely held academic view that the seven letters properly attributed to Paul himself are 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, most of 2 Corinthians and Romans. If Paul was the credible author of some of the later epistles written in his name, we’d need to have a further conversation.
In his letter to the Christian community already established in Rome, Paul provides deep insights about God’s plan for the salvation of all people and its fulfillment through Jesus. Paul longs to travel to Rome to continue teaching in person. But early in the letter, he humbly states that he would benefit from such a visit too: “That is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” (Romans 1:12)
Mutual encouragement through our faith is a beautiful thing to experience, and to witness. I see it each time I train a congregation’s capital campaign “gift ambassadors” – the volunteers who will meet one-on-one with fellow parishioners to invite them to give to the campaign.
A new calendar year brings renewed resolutions to do things right. When it comes to diet and exercise, common sense generally is the answer (sigh): eat less, move more.
Recognizing a “common sense” for a congregation can be more complicated, especially if you’ve done a good job of gathering a diverse leadership team bringing varied experiences, values and convictions to the table. There may be several options for every issue, from the budget to determining new ministries to advance justice or serve the poor. Oh, why can’t the answer be obvious?
This month we offer five resources to help your congregation prepare for Christmas. Please share this digest with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and the monthly digest.
1. This Advent Parish Checklist by Cathy Carpenter is a great tool for churches preparing for Christmas, ensuring they are ready to receive and welcome visitors (among other useful ideas). Check out this handy resource and learn new ways to be better prepared for this festive and important time.
Make room! Clear the way! Jesus is coming, so let His car into your traffic lane.
And onto your calendar too. Make room for good, like baking cookies to deliver to shut-ins, buying gifts for Angel Tree children, staging the chancel for the Christmas pageant, and a hundred other acts of love and joy.
We who are active in the church do this because we made room in our hearts for Jesus some time in the past, and He stayed. When we think about this as we hustle and bustle, we might say, “Now Jesus, there is plenty of room. You sit and keep me company as I finish wrapping these presents.”