Did you know there’s a Christian holiday that celebrates the sacredness of mountains? It’s called the Transfiguration, and it takes its name from a Bible story. Jesus took Peter and two other disciples up on a high mountain, where Jesus was transformed right before their eyes. His face “shone like the sun” and his clothes became “dazzling white.” The Voice of God rang out and the disciples fell to the ground in terror.
Everything is different when we go up in the mountains, right? Daily life is left behind, with all its habits and routines. That’s why mountain outings can be so refreshing, and why people have always gone there to seek visions. Bishop Steven Charleston wrote that “Matthew 17:1-8 has all of the classic elements of a traditional Native American quest. Jesus has prepared himself; his lament is so deep that he has predicted his own death. He goes up to a high place, accompanied by spiritual supporters, and stands alone before God. A vision occurs, so powerful that his friends actually see it.”
 Steven Charleston, The Four Vision Quests of Jesus, p. 120
We’ve been in Covid time for more than four months now. It has taken a while for us to realize our spiritual needs and desires and our abilities to meet them. The human contact, the Eucharist, the singing together, are all missed sorely. We find some of our spiritual longings are met by Zoom, a technology developed just in time to allow us to see each other, to connect, to gather, to pray together on Sunday.
Still, through the weeks, the end of the day is hard. More and more, people report having trouble getting to sleep, especially if they have checked in on the news in the hours prior. The what ifs, the hows, and the realities of our personal lives, the community and the nation are alarming or frightening or discouraging at best. Those who live alone have no one with whom to process the day, the week, the season. Others welcome a transition from day to night just as much.
Anyone who attends an Episcopal baptism service is foolish to participate.
You see, everyone who attends is asked to make vows before God. Making vows to God you know you will not keep is a bit foolish, and maybe dangerous. If you want to be frightened over the promises, and impressed if anyone makes those vows intending to keep them, look in the Book of Common Prayer, specifically page 304. The final one is: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?
The first part is easier. It should involve more but it could be fulfilled by marching at a rally, voting for the right candidates, working at a food pantry => ALL GOOD THINGS. I am not minimizing them, just acknowledging they are doable.
The second part – never doable. At least for me. Respect the dignity of every human being?
My goodness, a lot has happened in the world since we all worshipped in person together. For many, processing it all happened in the privacy of their homes. Others had to do so from hospital beds. Others from food lines, a situation they never dreamed of experiencing. Others from the front lines of community protests over racism.
In the weeks or months ahead, faith communities will gather again. Can we really just pick up where we left off and head on our way? Will Vestry meetings resume the usual topics of budget and Commission reports?
With the COVID-19 pandemic came the precipitous end to in-person classes at Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in early March. Students who had the option to do so were strongly encouraged to leave seminary housing and get out of the virus epicenter in New York City, so we became physically scattered and separated from our worship space in the small chapel at Union.
Within days of the cessation of classes, the EDS worship team met over Zoom and came up with a plan. Our Monday through Thursday Morning Prayer schedule would resume by Zoom. We shortened the form of worship slightly, omitting the canticles but keeping the time for song that we had cherished when we had been physically together to pray the office. Because we shortened the service, we had the space to add a time of reflection after the Gospel reading. This gave us more interaction during the service in the virtual space. We kept the EDS at Union custom of reciting the Apostles’ Creed and Lord’s Prayer in Spanish.
Participating as a lay leader of a congregation is a joyful opportunity to participate in building up the Kingdom of God. Sometimes that joy ebbs low as we face of fewer people in the pews and fewer pledges in the plate. Our highest hope and prayers aim to get by for another year, rather than really hoping and praying for the fullness of God’s promises.
If you or your Vestry are in a bit of a rut, here is a quote worthy of intentional meditation from 19 century preacher and Bishop of Massachusetts, Phillips Brooks:
"Pray the largest prayers. You cannot think a prayer so large that God, in answering it, will not wish you had made it larger. Pray not for crutches but for wings."
“Nearly every morning, I enjoy morning prayer time with a group of friends.”
Three years ago, those words began my Vital Practices blog post about a virtual community of faithful people who regularly read and comment on Forward Movement’s daily prayer meditations published online at Forward Day by Day.
Today there is a new dimension to my gratitude for this ministry and my friends who meet me there. The constancy of this place keeps me grounded while my home church is closed. Thanks be to God for new platforms for community worship such as YouTube, Zoom and Facebook. But let’s face it, it’s been a learning curve to find them and get used to them.
If the Constitution and Canons of the 1920s Episcopal Church were anything like what they are today, the prayers and rites of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer would have been vetted over 6-9 years. Which means they were largely written in the shadow of the 1918 influenza pandemic. It’s no wonder, then, that the 1928 BCP includes this prayer, In Times of Great Sickness and Mortality:
O Most mighty and merciful God, in this time of grievous sickness, we flee unto thee for succour. Deliver us, we beseech thee, from our peril; give strength and skill to all those who minister to the sick; prosper the means made use of for their cure; and grant that, perceiving how frail and uncertain our life is, we may apply our hearts unto that heavenly wisdom which leadeth to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, 1928, page 45).
Ecclesiastes 3 tells us that “there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens,” including, “a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.”
Yes, this is a time to refrain from embracing. But what else does this scary time of COVID-19 offer to those in church leadership?
In January I co-led a retreat with actor Erin Dangler for the women of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston Texas. Priest and actor, we wove together concepts of church and theater. But we had to start by making clear that acting is not being “fake”. Rather the best acting happens when the actor is able to access her/his/their true self, and is then able to connect that self to the role they have been given.
Erin introduced the gathering to the “actor’s palette”, a concept created by Brian Cranston, which includes life experience, talent, research and preparation, and imagination.
These are the things that an actor brings to any role taken on. Some roles require more research, others require deeper digging into life experiences. Some require a whole lot of imagination.
Once again, Episcopalians (and others!) are participating in the Good Book Club. This time, we are reading through the Gospel of John, and this week is mostly John 8. As I read through John 8, I see many themes: sin, forgiveness, death, new life, and more. But again, one overarching theme: Discipleship.
John 8 begins and ends with crowds and stones. It opens with a crowd gathered around a woman caught in adultery and ends with a crowd gathered around Jesus. The crowds saw an adulterous woman and a demon-possessed liar, and the crowds wanted to kill them both.
But Jesus saw something different. In the woman, he saw a child of God. And in himself, he saw the son of God.
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.