I serve a lovely church on top of a hill in a vacation community. The church is surrounded by lakes, and almost doubles its attendance in the summer. I serve as their part-time interim Rector. The church community has been declining, they have lost two thirds of their members in the last 10 years, and much of their energy has been spent caring for their aging buildings.
There are three buildings on the campus, the church building, the rectory and the parish hall. The church is beautiful. It was built in the 1840’s and is a typical New England white church with red doors, stained glass windows and a steep pitched roof. The church is beloved by the community and has been well cared for. The rectory has not been used as a rectory for decades; it is used mostly for office space and meetings, and is in very poor shape. The parish hall is almost as old as the church, is poorly designed and lacks function. The congregation has talked for years about renovating the parish hall, there are plans that date back to the 1960’s, but nothing has been done. These three buildings consume most of their energy.
I’ve found a way to make Christmas last all year. Or at least a bit of the spirit of the season.
When I store the decorations for another year, I’m always faced with a dilemma: What should I do with the Christmas cards? It’s the one time of year that folks send a snail mail card, and even if most have a simple signature, they are still a tangible connection to a longtime friend, a faraway relative, neighbors, and fellow parishioners. I hate to throw them away but I also don’t want to become a Christmas card hoarder.
A few years ago, a friend (and Episcopal priest) sent me a handwritten note in the middle of the year and explained that she kept her Christmas cards for a special purpose. Each week, she would draw a card from the pile, add the person to her prayer list, and then write and mail a note.
Vince Lombardi, former head coach of the Green Bay Packers, (supposedly) said: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!” For professional sports, winning drives every decision from strategy to personnel.
In the church, mission isn’t everything, it is the only thing! God’s mission (ideally) drives every aspect of church life. God’s mission determines when we say “yes” to certain opportunities, and also when we say “no.”
A clear vision of God’s mission is the heartbeat of a congregation’s movement as a community. And as we enter “stewardship season,” that vision plays a vital role in communication and helps answer the “why should I give” questions that many folks have.
Three months into St. Mary’s commitment to the Safe Parking project, I have a few observations.
One is that it is going well. None of the big problems that people imagine have come to pass. Our vehicle-dwelling neighbors report sleeping better and seem to coexist peacefully and happily with the many other folks who overlap with them at church, including lots of programs for kids and families.
Another is that the concept is very popular. There are lots of people in lots of congregations that think it’s a great idea. There are people working really hard to get the idea through their congregational decision making processes. But so far no other congregation in greater Los Angeles has actually gotten to the starting line. Besides St. Mary’s the other lots run by Safe Parking LA are all on public land.
James Turrell is perhaps my favorite artist. He uses light and space in new ways to help people see new things. Or, rather, he helps people see things in a new way. During our recent visit to Newfield in Indianapolis, a docent invite my wife and me into a room to see one of his works, Acton. I’ve only ever been to his skyspaces before, so I didn’t know what to expect.
As we stood at the back of the room, we looked ahead at a white wall with a dark painting hung in the center. Or so I thought. Acton is one of his “space division” series, which “consists of a large, horizontal aperture which appears to be a flat painting...but is a light-emitting opening to a seemingly infinite, light filled room beyond.”
There was a time when I would have been frustrated with the small scale of our offering. Ten parking spaces when nearly one percent of the population of Los Angeles lives on the streets? I easily count more than ten tent encampments just on my 1.5 mile walk from home to church. Things are bad.
Ten spaces will definitely not solve the problem. However, I have been amazed to discover once again how God can take a small offering and multiply its impact. You might think that the mustard seed parable or the feeding of the 5000 (not counting women and children?!) would have been enough to convince me. Maybe it was growing up in Missouri, the oddly named “show me state”. I have to see things with my own eyes, hear them with my own ears.
After the Missional Voices National Gathering last week, my wife and I spent Sunday afternoon at Newfields (the rebranded Indianapolis Museum of Art). I draw much of my inspiration for MV (and ministry) from art museums and other places and groups that are looking to creatively gather and connect people.
What I found at Newfields was a perfect way to cap off a week of conversation about innovation, creativity, and courage in the Church.
Newfields is working to find the right balance between traditional museum and innovative gathering space. Its director, Charles Venable, is seen as either a visionary or a heretic. And if you read profiles of him or Newfields (here, here, or here, for example), replace the work “museum” with “church” and I think you would find a great discussion of what our future may look like.
The heads and heartstrings of many Episcopalians are being tugged toward action for racial reconciliation, social justice, addressing poverty, or determining how our congregations can be more obvious participants in the Jesus Movement. Marching in demonstrations is one thing, but how do we, as faith communities, start to bring about unity and peace?
Traditionally, we categorize such efforts as “outreach ministry,” hoping we make a positive difference to those who need it. We jump to do things for the poor. We give money, buy and wrap Christmas presents for the Angel Tree, invite needy neighbors to hot meals we prepare. Beautiful acts of charity.
After many years of doing so, some wonder, “Why don’t those people come to worship?” Some sigh and conclude, “Well, they just must want the food and clothes we hand out.”
St. Mary’s Church in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, where I have served as rector since 2011, recently became a site for “safe parking”. We opened a part of our small church parking lot to be used each night as a safe spot for a few of the thousands of our Los Angeles neighbors who are living in their vehicles after losing their housing. A community partner raises funds to provide security and a portable toilet in the lot each night. That partner also works with local social service agencies to offer case management to each of the guests as they work towards a more permanent housing solution.
This is the first in a short series of posts about how St. Mary’s came to this ministry and what we have learned in the process.
“To encounter crisis is to encounter the possibility of truly being the church.” So says missiologist and theologian David Bosch in his great book, Transforming Mission. Bosch notes that the Japanese character for ‘crisis’ is a combination of the characters for ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’. So, in his estimation, crisis is not the end of opportunity but the beginning.
So what is the Church’s opportunity?
Luke 16 verse 13
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
Personally for many, our financial health is fragile and in some cases dire. A 2017 GOBankingRates survey indicates of the 8,000 respondents 39 percent have $0 (nothing) saved. The reasons are varied for this stark number. It includes chronic unemployment, underemployment, poor money management, insufficient retirement funds, catastrophic illness, government policies etc.
As we continue our Good Book Club journey through Luke’s Gospel this Lent, I’m struck by the recurring theme in the upcoming passages from chapters 14 and 15.
Luke 14 begins with Jesus eating at the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees, and then he goes into a story about a great wedding feast, and Jesus closes out the chapter by talking about food seasoning. Luke 15 opens with Jesus being accused - by the Pharisees - of welcoming sinners and eating with them. Jesus then goes on to tell a couple of stories, including one about a father who throws a great feast when his wandering son returns home.
I get the sense that Jesus liked to eat.
Luke and Acts are thought to have been written primarily for a Gentile audience. This means that from the very beginning, Luke has a challenge. How does one “set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us” when the listening audience does not share a common language of hope and fulfillment? For a Jewish audience, the question, “What are we waiting for?” would have had a fairly clear answer, even if individuals and groups would have argued (and certainly did) over what shape the Messiah’s coming would take.
For a Gentile audience, the question of “What are we waiting for?” is a much tougher one. So Luke starts with hope. For a people who have not imbibed the promises of the Hebrew Scriptures with their mothers’ milk, Luke lays out a number of interlocking statements of hope. In a few chapters, the gospel introduces a whole new people to centuries of shared history and commitment and faithfulness – on the part of both God and the people.
The last Blockbuster in Texas has closed. Which got me thinking (reminiscing) about the Friday nights of my childhood.
I remember it was a madhouse! I saw people get in a fistfight over the last movie rental (My pick was usually Rad - don’t judge me!), and children (maybe it was me…) throwing a tantrum until their parents bought them the overpriced candy so prominently put on display at eye level for them.
But then came the late 2000s.
My mom was a school principal. My wife is Head of Lower School at St. Thomas’ Episcopal School in Houston. One of my sisters is a high school math teacher, and the other is an elementary school counselor.
Needless to say, we talk about education a lot in my family.
And we in the Episcopal Church have been talking about it quite a bit these past two weeks. First, All Our Children held their National Symposium in Columbia, S.C. All Our Children started as a joint initiative of Trinity Wall Street and the Episcopal Diocese of New York in response to educational inequality in New York City’s public schools. The nationwide organization now champions “every child’s right to a quality public education by building community, creating partnership, and advocating for justice.”
My wife and I really love New Orleans. The art, music, food, and atmosphere are the perfect place for us to get away. But it’s also a place that makes me think deeply about my work and my call to follow Christ.
I’m a photographer, so I like to get up early and walk around the city taking photographs. When I do so, I inevitably strike up conversations with people. On this trip, I met a jazz musician who plays bars at night, plays in his church band on Sundays, and spends his days playing Gospel music on his trumpet outside Cafe Du Monde. At the end of our conversation, we hugged and prayed with each other...because it is hard to stay strangers too long in New Orleans.
In part one of this post, I asked us to think theologically and, indeed, ecclesiologically about technology, specifically how and whether an emerging technology or media platform may (or may not) align with our self-understanding as Christ’s Body and whether in its core assumptions it might magnify or diminish Christ’s Good News.
That’s how theology works. Nothing is what it seems; nothing is innocuous, merely mechanical, purely technical, alone. When we use the language of theology – the church’s only language, in fact – we learn that things are only what God reveals them to be. This is no less true for the bible as for how we approach Facebook and our Twitter feed.
A dear friend recently celebrated 10 years of ordained ministry. As part of his reflection on the role of the priest today, he asked me what qualities I thought priests needed to have today.
I loved this exercise, and I think the qualities that came to mind are true for all Christians, not just those ordained.
So, here they are:
In the middle of my first ‘stewardship’ season as a new rector, now ten years ago, I was doing everything by the book and already feeling overwhelmed and unenthused. The congregational leaders appeared only mildly interested in doing a pledge drive. And yet it’s drilled into us, in most every way, that the fall is the time to do stewardship, be intentional, make sure you make the proper ask, but of course couch it in terms of God’s larger mission because you’re not just asking people to pay the church’s salaries and light bills – oh, and remember to do stewardship year-‘round so it’s not only an annual request for generous pledges.
At a local clergy meeting that fall, the wiser, more senior rector of a neighbor parish said to me, “I simply hate this time of year.”