The invitation was simple: “No agenda, just conversation. No pressure, just invitation.”
With these words, the rector and newcomers coordinator at Church of the Holy Communion in Memphis invited the members of St. Elisabeth’s Episcopal Church in nearby Bartlett, Tennessee to a service of Evening Prayer followed by a time of conversation. St. Elisabeth’s was about to close, and Holy Communion was not sure how best to help.
There is plenty of literature about how two congregations can start journeying together, but our story is not grounded in any particular theory. We just listened to each other, and we built a model that worked for us. Other churches in other places could easily do the same.
At long last, the two congregations I serve as rector are now one church – one church, we say, in two locations. Church of the Ascension in Lexington Park, MD and St. George’s Church in Valley Lee, MD are now two churches, two campuses of Resurrection Parish: the Episcopal Diocese of Washington’s newest parish, indeed the newest parish in our entire Episcopal Church! It’s been a long time coming, not to mention an incredible process; I’ve blogged extensively about our discernment around this initiative on ECF Vital Practices.
To be very technical, we merged two parishes into one parish. That may not seem super groundbreaking unto itself, but let me provide some context. St. George’s in Valley Lee is Maryland’s oldest continuous Anglican / Episcopal worshipping community – dating back to 1638 – and it became the parish church of William & Mary Parish when, in 1692, the colony was subdivided into 30 Church of England parishes (so much for Maryland’s heritage of religious toleration; we, too, got an established church not long after our founding). Church of the Ascension, meanwhile, was planted in a brand-new, post-WWII suburb as a mission chapel in the 1950s – along with so many other Episcopal church buildings and institutions in American cultural life – and it became its own full-fledged parish (Patuxent Parish) in 1968. Thanks, Baby Boom!
Over the past 500 years, the perception has been that the old world had all the answers: the science, technology, and advanced ways of living. Can that still be said? Or perceived as truth?
We are facing a monumental moral crisis. Consider these observations:
• The United States is deeply divided politically
• Income inequality is at an all-time high; poverty and homelessness are on the rise
• Pollution of the air, water, and land is contributing to climate change
• Rainforests are being destroyed each day, contributing to global warming, and thousands of native people in South America are being killed for trying to protect the earth
• More and more animal species are becoming extinct
• Violence is glorified on TV—guns are becoming a national pastime—some sports have become barbaric (UFC, WWA)—while mental health is in decline
You won’t find it in the Guinness Book, but we’re setting a world record that hopefully won’t be repeated. Normally the season of Lent lasts for forty days, after which we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter. But what I see is that Lent began on February 26, 2020 and never finished. We’ve been locked down in the pandemic for a whole year, and it hasn’t let up yet.
The Book of Common Prayer tells us that for more than a thousand years “it’s been the custom of the church to prepare for Good Friday and Easter by a season of penitence and fasting.” (p. 264) Lent is a time for stepping back to take a look at our lives, often giving up a comfortable habit for a while to see how that feels. In doing that, we’re following Jesus on his forty-day vision quest in the desert, when he was tempted by Satan and waited on by angels. Then after the darkness and agony of the crucifixion the glorious resurrection comes, as reliably as the sun rising in the east.
Picking up some scattered debris around the churchyard, I paused at Kitty’s grave. It had warmed a bit, welcome after too much ice and cold, so I stayed there a while. I remember her fondly, and miss her, too. I said a prayer then carried on with yard cleanup, an unexpected chore that morning, nice to be outdoors. Nearby Kitty’s grave is Betty’s, and on the other side of the belltower is where JoAnn lies in rest. I said a prayer for them as well, and called to mind the picture of their faces, the sounds of their voices. I remembered how truly alive they were, all of them dear, funny, strong, faithful Christian women. They were widowed for some time, all of them. None, I thank God, knew the devastating impact of this past year: pandemic, shutdown, fear and anxiety.
Laughter, games, art activities, punch in little dixie cups, and cookies with cream fillings are what I remember most about Vacation Bible School (VBS) on the Navajo Nation. Churches came in droves to visit and minister to the children and families. It was the place to be for Elementary and Middle School kids. We loved to see all the smiling and welcoming faces of new people from the big cities willing to play with us and read, sometimes ready to teach some kids how to play the piano or the ukulele. The partners all loved to sing bible songs - so loud it seemed the windows would burst.
I was a baptized Episcopalian but VBS and Holidays were mostly the only times I went to church as a child. My parents and most of my relatives in my community follow the ways of Navajo teachings, ceremonies, and prayer. My mother was devout about prayer. Each morning, before the sun began to light up the horizon, she would start her daily prayers.
Every month ECFVP offers five resources on a theme. This month we've asked the Rev. David Peters, a 2017 ECF Fellow and church planter, to choose five resources from Vital Practices to highlight. Please find his choices below. Please share this email with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and this monthly digest.
I’m a church planter that for the first year mingled with people every day, trying my best to get to know them, especially the ones who didn’t go to church anywhere. Then the Pandemic hit, and my ability to mingle ceased. I had a lot of grief about that, some of which was just the fear of failure, fear I would flop as a church planter.
Optimism is high, and vaccines are rolling out. President Biden recently changed his tune, moving forward the timeline to have sufficient Covid vaccines for all American adults by the end of May. The forecast looks good for a lot of American cultural life. Maybe even for Christian churches and religious gatherings?
Maybe. Maybe not. That’s hard to tell at this point, although any increase in in-person numbers would be a welcome sign. How many will return? And how soon? How often? Will we get back to our pre-Covid numbers? When? Has a pandemic unalterably shifted people’s sense of time and connection, and in what ways?
Lots of this will be a “wait and see…”
“Don’t discuss them.” That was among the worst advice that I was ever given. (Sorry, mom and dad!) Especially after the past four years, I’ve realized that what we should have been mastering was HOW to discuss religion and politics with integrity.
Think about it: religion is our belief system. It’s how we organize and make sense of the world in light of something far greater than us. It provides us with a way to conceptualize God and our place in the universe. It gives us a community with whom to celebrate and with whom to mourn.
Politics determines how we are governed. As we learned on the 6 of January, our particular form of government is highly fragile and depends on our willingness to actively participate in it. Politics provides us with a forum within which to debate policy and chart the future of our nation.
I spent Valentine’s Day weekend surrounded by more love than I expected.
My husband bought flowers, and we spent the day together doing some of our (new, pandemic) favorite things, and it was a wonderful day. The surprise came on Saturday afternoon.
The Daughters of the King, a churchwide organization of women committed to a Rule of Life and a path of faithful discipleship, held a “Conversations with Daughters” meeting. The topic: the Good Book Club and the Gospel of Mark. They had encouraged their 20,000 members to participate in the Good Book Club and wanted an opportunity to come together to talk about the experience and the message of the gospel. They asked if I would participate, and even though I don’t love Zoom meetings on Saturday afternoons, I accepted the gracious invitation. And goodness am I glad that I did.
Jesus's last living moments are described in the Gospel of Mark, "When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, 'Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?' which means, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'...Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last."
I imagine that many people have cried out these words over the last 365 days. Perhaps out loud. Perhaps in the depths of their souls.
There are lots of words to describe what has happened over these many months. But no words to accurately depict the experience of individuals. Particularly those occupying the trenches of tragedy.
Just two days ago, I stepped into the dining room where my father, a priest, was leading a virtual evensong service for his parish. Him and my mother are here with us, as my wife and I have just welcomed another child to our household. I had entered during the time of the Prayers of the People, and a petition had come from someone, imploring God to “make us stewards of the Earth.” I heard the gathered share the response, “Lord, hear our prayer.” This exchange has lingered with me over the past couple of days. I thought of what we Episcopalians are invited to share, namely, “lex orandi, lex credendi,” and amplified with “lex vivendi.” That which we pray, is what we believe, is what we live. In essence, we become what we pray.
Attention, stewardship ministry leaders! Here is an idea to keep you ministering to people right now: Use your church’s Annual Report to develop a letter or email to parishioners to once again thank them for their financial support, remind them of the value of their commitment, and help them feel connected to the church in this continuing time of separation.
That may seem like heavy lifting for one letter, but reading through the Annual Report will hopefully result in plenty of inspiration for a theme of, “Look at the impact your gifts are making!” Include 3 or 4 examples such as…
“Thanks to your support, even in the pandemic St. Gregory’s was able to continue Christian Formation via the internet. 15 preschool and young elementary-age children participated in Zoom Bible Study in the Fall, followed by an Advent study for families.”
We’re almost through with the Gospel according the Mark, this year’s selection for the Good Book Club. This Gospel gets right to the action, forgoing the sheep and the mangers to instead launch us into the life and ministry of Jesus with the prophet calling us to prepare the way of the Lord. In other words, this is the “let’s get down to business” Gospel.
We’ve seen Jesus’ healing miracles. We’ve seen Jesus eating with sinners. We’ve heard Jesus’ parables. We’ve seen Jesus transfigured. We’ve seen Jesus riding into town on a colt.
And now we hear Jesus telling us about the end of the world.
Rejection is painful. To be rejected means to be not accepted, believed, or approved. It can seem even more painful when people you know, discount you. Not only does rejection involve discounting, but it often involves hurtful comments in an attempt to convince you of others demoralizing judgment of you. Jesus experienced this very thing when he went back to his hometown.
Jesus came back to Nazareth and taught on the Sabbath in the synagogue. As a matter of fact, he astounded those who heard him. But their astoundedness quickly turned into disbelief, because they knew him; apparently before his public ministry. Mark 6:1-2 states, “He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!”
Many Americans witnessed the siege of the Capitol building on January 6th, just as Congress was certifying the electors in our most recent Presidential election. Irrespective of where you place yourself on the American political spectrum, it was shocking, and a horrible scene of violence. And yet, it must be said, that the insurrection of January 6th 2021 by domestic terrorists was the logical culmination of four years of dehumanizing rhetoric and actions. As the majority religion of the United States, we Christians are culpable and complicit, because far too many of us did not exercise our political values in concert with our baptismal faith to speak out against the President’s reckless words and behavior. Far too many of us preferred to remain silent through these tumultuous four years, and that silence has come home to roost.
I have always been taken with Mark’s account of the miracle of the loaves (Mark 6:30-44.) Multiplying bread and fish in order to satisfy people’s hunger spoke to me from an early age. I could never understand why anyone went hungry. As I looked at the world around me, I saw that there were those with so much as well as those with nothing. Why couldn’t those who had plenty simply share with those who were in need?
To set the stage, I am a believer in miracles. I believe in the virgin birth, healing prayer, the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and, as an Anglo-Catholic, the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
We need the miraculous in a world of the mundane, and, as of late, the insane.
Every month ECFVP offers resources on a theme. This month we've asked our own Dr. Sandra Montes to choose resources from Vital Practices to highlight. Please share this email with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and this monthly digest.