A Weekly Commentary by the Rev. Poulson Reed
Rector of All Saints' Episcopal Church & Day School
A Weekly Commentary by the Rev. Poulson Reed
Rector of All Saints' Episcopal Church & Day School
April 20, 2017 50 States of Joy
Here at All Saints’, we are going to keep the 50 days of the Easter Season, from now until the feast of Pentecost on June 4, with the theme of “50 States of Joy.” We will explore together in sermons, writings and other ways the many layers and aspects of our Easter joy.
Here is what I had to say about this in my Easter Day sermon (the whole of which can be found in video by clicking here):
We will, I hope, collectively and individually, commit to practice joy in our lives. The verb for this is “rejoice,” a word that appears several hundred times in the Bible.
Unlike happiness, which is usually connected to external circumstances (yay! I got a raise at my job! Yum! That chocolate covered Peep is delicious!), joy is deeper, more internal. Joy and happiness can go together, but sometimes joy can come with suffering (like the pain and joy of childbirth, or the joy of justice achieved after great struggle).
We will attempt to rejoice, these fifty days, finding gratitude and purpose amidst the varied challenges of life. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” as the Scripture says.
Our joy will not be naïve, pretending that these are not anxious times in our lives, our nation, and the world. Wars and threats of wars, political divisions, addiction, and poverty will continue. We will not ignore them, nor will our compassion for others cease. But we will rejoice in the light that shines in the darkness, knowing the darkness cannot overcome it.
We will rejoice in what is good, and lovely, and gracious, and we will rejoice in a God who transforms even the most bitter pain into new life. Since we have been raised with Christ, we will set our minds on the things that are above.
And so, wherever you find yourself on the spectrum of faith and belief today, here is my challenge to you: over these next days, find ways to rejoice. Look for the good, in situations and in people, especially those people whom we dislike or disagree with. Seek it out, even when it is hard to find.
Joy almost always depends on connection; indeed, Thomas Aquinas once wrote that true joy is to be united with what we love. Cultivate joyful experiences with others. Make connections, renew friendships, extend invitations. Be aware of silver linings, and suppress the cynic and the pessimist within.
Look for joy, and try to spread it. Live more lightly, with a joyful spring in your step. Pay attention. Be mindful of the present moment. See the beauty all around us, everyday. Feel wonder at all that is amazing: the desert flowers in bloom, the giggles of children at play, the quiet calm of the evening breeze. Put down the giraffe video, and go see an actual giraffe at the Phoenix Zoo!
Rejoice. For this is one of God’s greatest tools for transforming pain and loss into new life. Whether you join us here at All Saints’ for our 50 States of Joy between now and June 4th, or practice joy at home, in your office, or in your community, commit to it, even for a week, and see what a difference intentional rejoicing can make, for yourself and for others.
50 states, 50 days of joy, in honor of our risen Lord, who died and rose to give us a different kind of life, a fuller life. God doesn’t rewind. God transforms. God transformed Jesus, God can transform us, and God can use us to transform others. That’s the promise of Easter.
April 13, 2017 Holy Week Was Not Tame
In C.S. Lewis’ classic book “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” there is a wonderful line about Aslan, the lion who is a Christ figure in the story. Mr. Beaver says, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Jesus was not safe, he was not tame, but he was good. He was not polite, but he was compassionate. If you read the earliest account that we have of the events of Holy Week, Mark chapters 11-15 (which I encourage you to do this week), it is not hard to see why the political powers (and the corrupt religious authorities collaborating with them) felt they had to get rid of Jesus. Jesus told the truth unflinchingly, and challenged an oppressive, greedy system that preyed on the most vulnerable.
The first Holy Week was not tame. It was raw, emotional, heartbreaking, and then liberating. It is difficult for us, these many centuries later, to enter into the story as if for the first time (especially if we have experienced the Holy Week liturgies many times ourselves). But the more we can enter in, through prayer and imagination, andallow God to place us with Jesus that first Holy Week, the more immediate and transformative the journey will be.
And as we keep this Holy Week in Phoenix, we recall that in some parts of the world, there is all too real violence, drama, deep emotion, and fear. The savage terrorist attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt in two different churches on Palm Sunday were horrific reminders that some Christians are even now risking their lives for the faith that they (and we) profess. We remember them in heartfelt prayer, confident that our good Jesus is most especially with those who suffer as he did, and that he is and will be King over all.
April 6, 2017 Holy Week: In Our End is Our Beginning
In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, directly beneath Calvary (the site of Jesus’ crucifixion), there is the Chapel of Adam. Legend has it that Adam’s skull was buried there, hence the name Golgotha, which means the Place of the Skull. At the crucifixion’s earthquake, a crack was made in the rock, allowing the blood of Christ to flow down to Adam, who was then redeemed from his fall after all those centuries.
Holy Week is about beginnings and endings. What seems to be Jesus’ end (his death on the Cross) is really his beginning as the resurrected Lord. When he is struck down, he becomes more powerful than either his enemies or friends could imagine (a theme, by the way, that is used to great dramatic effect in both the death of Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings” and the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars”).
Jesus, of course, was real. He really died, and really was raised from the dead (if you explore it carefully, no other explanation actually makes sense). And in his end and new beginning, he won not only for Adam but for all who believe in him an end to sin and death, and forgiveness and new life in this world and the next.
Wherever you are on your lifelong journey of faith: whether you believe, whether you are a skeptic, or if you long to believe but are not yet ready to make that leap of faith, the Church invites you to experience Holy Week. I guarantee you: the more time you spend in worship this Holy Week, especially from Thursday to Sunday, the more you will open your heart to God’s life-giving presence at Easter.
If you have never experienced the Holy Triduum (the liturgies of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Saturday Easter Vigil), which are one long, ancient liturgy in three parts, you are missing what many consider to be the mystical center of Christian worship. Every year, someone comes to the Easter Vigil on Saturday night for the first time, and says to me after that they had no idea how incredible it is.
Come and join us as often as you are able this Holy Week. Come walk with the Church as we walk with Jesus toward his suffering, death, and resurrection, his end and his beginning, and ours.
March 30, 2017 John, the Mystical Gospel, and Preparing for Sunday
You may have noticed that the gospel readings in recent weeks have been very long (certainly our deacons who proclaim the gospel in our liturgies have noticed!). This is because Year A of our lectionary appoints four extended readings from John for the Lenten gospels after week one.
And so, we had the story of Nicodemus for Lent 2, the Samaritan woman at the well in week 3, the man born blind in week 4, and this Sunday we finish the pre-Holy Week portion of Lent with the story of Lazarus. All four of these stories are unique to John’s gospel, and they are of such rich complexity that, like a great tapestry, each cannot be trimmed down without doing damage to the text.
In addition to being long, these John readings are notoriously difficult to digest. They are packed with symbolism, dense with meaning in a way that challenges the short attention span of the modern mind. But they reward the believer who enters diligently into their teaching. John’s writing has been called the “spiritual gospel” and the “mystical gospel,” because it possesses deep insight for the one who patiently plumbs its depths with a focused mind and an open heart.
These stories from John are profound parables about conversion (Nicodemus), forgiveness (the woman at the well), and the cost of discipleship (the man born blind). And this Sunday, we have the foreshadowing of the resurrection in Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus is not, strictly speaking, resurrected, for he will die again later in life (resurrection is eternal). But Jesus’ raising him is a potent and provocative reminder that God alone has power over life and death.
Indeed, so provocative is this, the greatest of Jesus’ miracles, that, in John’s gospel, the raising of Lazarus is the last straw for the religious and political authorities, who decide at this point that Jesus must be killed at any cost. The raising of Lazarus propels Jesus inevitably toward the Cross, as it propels us toward Holy Week.
Every Thursday, on the left side of our enews, there is a section called “Prepare for Sunday” (it is also on our website’s homepage under “Tools for Everyday Faith”). To take even 5 minutes to read the lessons anytime in advance of Sunday will enhance our understanding of them in worship, and the impact of the sermon. It’s one of the simplest ways there is to magnify the Sunday worship experience and take it into the following week.
This week, take some time to prepare for Sunday by reading our Sunday lessons in advance, especially the Lazarus story. See what a difference it makes, as we begin to make our turn towards the very center of the Christian year.
March 23, 2017 The Saint John’s Bible and the Benedict Option
A new book, published last week, has stirred up conversation among religious leaders. In “The Benedict Option,” Rod Dreher argues that, as Western culture becomes more secular and even hostile to religion, Christians ought to follow the example of Saint Benedict by making a “strategic withdrawal” from the culture, forming more robust Christian communities.
Dreher, who is a conservative, doesn’t envision that everyone would become monks and nuns (Saint Benedict was one of the founders of monasticism in the 6th century), or even create communities fully independent of the culture (which is impractical if not impossible for most). Rather, he sees the need for Christians to support one another through a more committed and communal religious life.
Wherever one falls on the conservative/liberal spectrum, Dreher brings up some interesting points. At a church like All Saints’, most of us still experience church as a once a week (or less) gathering that sends us out into the world to live our faith largely alone the rest of the time. How can we offer more opportunities to deepen our faith together in community, better preparing us to practice fruitful Christian lives in a wider culture in which Christianity is in decline?
I’ve been encouraged to see strong crowds for our Lenten Thursday evenings, which grow our faith through fellowship, prayer, reflection, and learning. These types of gatherings that use a variety of Christian practices over one evening are effective at strengthening our minds and spirits, and building on our Sunday experience, in the same way that exercising in two somewhat different ways in a week will build our muscles.
I’m also intrigued to reflect on our Saint John’s Bible volumes through the lens of the Benedict Option. Ideally, these amazing books will be tools of discipleship to build the Biblical faith of our members as we use them for study and inspiration. But I hope they will also be tools of mission, drawing the curious from outside our church, and even being taken out (with great care, of course!) into our wider community.
One reason why we have started a Saint John’s Bible Speaker Fund is to be able to host compelling guest speakers who will bring more guests onto our campus (to contribute, make a check to All Saints’, with “SJB Speaker Fund” in the memo line!).
Jesus teaches us that the Gospel, contained in our Saint John’s Bible, is “Good News,” which implies that it is not to be kept, but shared. People need to hear this Good News. We must indeed strengthen our Christian community at All Saints’ by praying, learning, and serving as we connect with one another, with God, and with a hurting world. But we strengthen and nourish ourselves, by God’s grace, so that we might go out to strengthen and nourish others, as Jesus did.
We gather not for spiritual withdrawal or protection, but to resupply for the mission journeys before us.
March 16, 2017 Centering Prayer and the Power of Silence
"Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
Many of us suffer from acute silence deprivation, without knowing it. We live in a constant state of noise, and of over-stimulation more generally. Have a free moment? We check our smartphone. Background music and electronic screens are everywhere.
How many hours a day do we spend with no screens and no background noise, other than sleep? How much time do we spend with our undivided attention on another person, on nature, on a book, or simply in thought? Many of us, I suspect, go around in a multitasking daze by day, starved of deep thought and deep connection, and sleeping fitfully by night.
Fortunately, there is an ancient and wonderfully effective spiritual practice to reboot our minds, bodies, and spirits: silence. I have been delighted to see a resurgence lately in contemplative practices, such as meditation and mindfulness, outside of churches. But many people don’t realize that Christianity has its own contemplative practices that are more than a thousand years old.
One such technique is Centering Prayer, a simple to understand but challenging to practice way to rest in God’s presence in silence, while gently freeing our minds of distracting thoughts. At All Saints’, a group of lay leaders has begun a process to establish a practice of Centering Prayer. A preliminary meeting recently drew 17 people, and there is an upcoming training on Saturday, March 25 from 9am to 1pm at All Saints’, led by a teacher from Contemplative Outreach in Phoenix. I encourage you to attend, if you are able.
Centering Prayer can be done in a group or alone anywhere where silence can be found and outside distractions minimized. Its benefits can be experienced in as little as 10 minutes a day (though two 20 minute sessions daily are the ideal). A daily practice, even one that is brief but fully focused, will actually re-route our neural pathways and make us healthier, more focused, more relaxed, and more connected to God.
Do come to the training on March 25, but if you are curious about how Centering Prayer works, here is the classic definition, adapted from Contemplative Outreach:
1. Choose a sacred word (like “God,” “peace,” or “Jesus”) as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
3. When engaged with your thoughts [including body sensations, feelings, images, and reflections], return ever so gently to the sacred word (or to your breath).
4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
There is also (and I know this is ironic!) a good Centering Prayer app for smartphone. For me, I find having the phone close by to be too tempting, but it may work for you.
Give silence a try. Be still, and know the presence of God. It might change your life.
March 9, 2017 Head, Heart, and Hands
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength” (Luke 10:27).
Jesus challenges us to love God not only with part of ourselves, but with all our being. We might say we are truly his disciples if we love and follow him with head, heart, and hands. With head, because it is important to understand what it means to follow him. With hands, because to follow Jesus without serving is empty and incomplete. And with heart, because if we do not genuinely love him, we will eventually get distracted, and wander off the path.
At All Saints’, we offer a variety of ways to learn about the faith (loving God with our mind). We offer many ways to serve both inside and outside of church (loving God with our strength). But how do we nurture our heart of faith?
This is one of the goals of our four Thursday night programs in Lent. Each Thursday, we will gather to share a simple meal in community. We will experience Visio Divina (a guided meditation on images from the Saint John’s Bible). We will hear from a speaker. And then we will finish with Compline, the night prayers from our Book of Common Prayer. While there will be some content for the mind, much of this time together will nourish our heart of faith, through food and conversation, use of our spiritual imaginations, and prayer. Come join us!
May this Lent be an intentional time of loving God and following Jesus with our heads, hearts, and hands. Let us not miss this opportunity to connect with God and one another.
March 2, 2017 Why We Need the Prayer of Saint Francis More Than Ever
The start of Lent is meant to be a shock to our system. Reminded on Ash Wednesday of our mortality (“remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”), we enter these 40 days with a sense of urgency, resolved to make the most of this season to return to God, to our neighbors, and to our best, most authentic selves.
If you haven’t identified a Lenten discipline, it’s not too late. Decide on something you can really do for 40 days (weekdays and Saturdays only, Sundays are “days off”), something that will benefit yourself and others. 40 days is enough time to make a new habit, if you desire a permanent change. Even if this is only a temporary measure, over 40 days it will make a real difference in your perspective.
Looking for ideas? Take our 10/10/1 challenge (10 minutes of prayer, 10 minutes of Bible reading, and one act of kindness per day), resolve to attend some of our excellent Lenten programs, fast from something you eat or do too much of, do something for others. Set a simple plan for yourself, better yet with someone else, and do it! You’ll be glad you did when Easter comes, and you have invited God to shape your life through a particular practice.
One of the ways that we mark this major shift in seasons is in our worship. Much changes, from our Eucharistic prayer to our service music, as we set a serious mood of introspection and penitence. You will also notice this Lent the regular use of the Prayer of Saint Francis after the Prayers of the People (which will be written by our Prayer Team for our services most weeks).
One of the recommendations of our RenewalWorks team was to encourage a common prayer for mission at All Saints’, and they recommended specifically the wonderful Prayer of Saint Francis from our Book of Common Prayer. Those familiar with our Day School chapels will know that the students say together the Prayer of Saint Francis at almost every chapel, after the Prayers of the People. And so we are bringing to our church a practice that we keep already at school three times per week.
Why is the Prayer of Saint Francis an effective mission prayer? Because it describes in beautiful detail what we are sent out from our worship to do. Every one of us, wherever we are, will have opportunities to sow love where there is hatred, to bring union into discord, faith into doubt, hope into despair, and light into darkness.
It is in the nature of God to transform what is evil into good, and what is dead into life. Most of the time, God uses people like you and me to do that. The Prayer of Saint Francis describes how. Our world needs that more than ever.
February 23, 2017 10/10/1: Making the Most of Lent’s Path of Grace
March 1 is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. And so now is the time to be thinking about how to make the most of those 40 days until Easter. Lent is most beneficial when we are intentional about it, focusing especially on the core Lenten practices: prayer, Scripture reading, fasting, and helping those in need.
Our RenewalWorks team recommended in their final report a 10/10/1 challenge for deepening our spiritual lives, and Lent is the perfect time to begin: 10 minutes of prayer, 10 minutes of Scripture reading, and one act of kindness each day. You could use the full services of "Morning Prayer" (Book of Common Prayer p. 75) and/or "Evening Prayer" (p. 115) or the brief “Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families” (p. 136) — by the way, the last of these, “At the Close of Day” (p. 140) is a great set of prayers for families at bedtime.
For the 10/10/1 Bible reading, you could follow the Daily Office readings (the Year One readings for the mornings and evenings in Lent begin on BCP p. 952) or just select the shortest of the gospels, Mark, (or one of the others) and read from it. For your one act of kindness, you could do something planned each day, or let God guide you (no day passes without the chance to be kind, if we are paying attention). Share your stories of kindness!
All Saints’ has a bountiful offering of programs in Lent to choose from, as well, as we keep this holy season of preparation together, from our Lenten Thursday evenings with soup and the Saint John’s Bible, to Walking to Jerusalem, to a Women’s Bible Study. Lent is also the most traditional season for individual confession and/or private spiritual conversation with a priest (by appointment).
A final word about fasting. Traditional Lenten fasting disciplines include giving up things we particularly enjoy, for example meat on Fridays, or dessert except on Sundays. Ideally we would take the money we would have spent on those things, and give it to the poor (like buying non-perishable food for our April 9 collection).
But fasting can also be adapted. Do you have unhealthy habits that distract you from loving God and your neighbor? Instead of giving up chocolate, you could fast from Facebook by limiting it to one hour per day, using the time to read or play a game with loved ones. You could limit TV, or gossip, or mean spirited criticism, or judgmental thinking, and fill the time positively. What holds you back from being the person God made you to be?
Lent is a great gift from God: the opportunity to prepare for Easter by training ourselves in holiness, seeking God’s forgiveness for our sins, and turning our attention to God and to others. Let us not miss the start of this path of grace.
February 16, 2017 The Book of Common Prayer and the Power of Holy Habits
If you were to open one of the prayer books in the pews at church, it would likely open to page 355, the Holy Eucharist. For most of us, the prayers in that Holy Communion section are our only encounter with the Book of Common Prayer. That is a shame, because our prayer book contains a rich treasure of interesting and beneficial spiritual resources.
The spiritual life is like diet and exercise: it thrives with a combination of routine and variety. That is why the classical Anglican mode of prayer is three-fold: weekly Eucharist (except for illness), daily morning and evening prayer, and a third private devotion that can vary with the individual (centering prayer, icon prayer, walking prayer, the rosary, mindfulness etc.).
This might seem like a very demanding routine, but a basic form of daily prayer and personal devotion can be done in as little as 30 minutes a day, to support our weekly Sunday gathering of the faithful at the Eucharist. This is something to keep in mind with Lent just around the corner, with its opportunity to develop new holy habits.
As Bishop Burrill and I lead an exploration of the Book of Common Prayer over the next weeks at the Sunday 10am adult education class, part of my hope is that we will gain not only historical and theological insights, but also practical ways to use the book in our life of prayer.
In the end, the goal of all our prayer practice is simple: to be formed, more and more, into people who love God and our neighbor. When our world seems complicated and turbulent, we need the stability of an ordered habit of prayer more than ever.
February 9, 2017 Salt, Light, Friendship, and Socks
Last Sunday, Jesus in our gospel reading called us to be salt and light, bringing good into a world desperate for it (see Pastor Baker’s sermon by clicking here for her excellent take on the topic). Both salt and light don’t require a lot to make a difference: a little salt flavors a dish, and even a single candle can illumine a dark room.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, our world needs us (each and every one of us), to be salt and light right now. In this time of remarkable national and political stress and conflict, a number of us at All Saints’ are working on how best to support our members (who hold a variety of political views), and how to offer to others the unique, thoughtful voice of our big tent, diverse, centrist community, amidst the partisan shouting.
But in the meanwhile, as we figure out All Saints’ calling in the midst of this unprecedented time, let us remember to be salt and light, to bring compassionate good with us wherever we go. There is much room for disagreement on what the gospel has to say about particular pieces of legislation and the decisions of our elected leaders. But certain things are gospel imperatives, among them that every human being is a precious child of God, without exception. When we are tempted to look down on another person or worse, ignore them, we would be wise to remember that they are, through Christ, members of our human family.
We are called to be salt and light. What do salt and light look like, these days, at All Saints'?
They look like students and a teacher who made friends with a World War Two veteran: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/karinabland/2017/02/03/world-war-ii-veteran- jim-mende-all-saints-episcopal-day/97419894/
And they look like more than a thousand pairs of new socks, keeping warm the feet of the poor.
How can you be salt and light this week?
February 2, 2017 Life Beyond Life
The Christian faith has a lot to say about what happens after we die. Indeed, one of our core beliefs is that Jesus’ resurrection has prepared the way for our own bodily resurrection when he comes again, following a period of time after our death during which we will rest in God’s loving presence. The Bible doesn’t give us all of the details, but we know the basic plan: in Christ, "all shall be made alive" (1 Corinthians 15:22). In him, we are given new life, in this world and the next. That is our “sure and certain hope” (BCP p. 501), and a great comfort to all of us who have lost a loved one to death.
But the resurrection is not the only way by which we can have life beyond life. We live on in the memories of those who have loved us or been inspired by us. And we live on through the legacies we leave. Some of those legacies are stories or wisdom that we leave behind, or important heirlooms to be cherished down the generations.
One of the ways we can leave a legacy to All Saints’ is to remember the church in our wills and our estate planning. Once we have taken care of our loved ones, we can designate an amount or a percentage of our remaining financial resources to support the mission and ministry of our church. In 2010, our Vestry passed a policy that designates any amount over $10,000 left to All Saints’ in a bequest go to our endowment. This guarantees that our larger bequests, unless otherwise designated by the donor, go into the endowment to fund our ministries forever. They become, in effect, a perpetual pledge from the deceased.
None of us much likes to think about our death, let alone plan for it. But if we can summon the courage to do so, we can leave a legacy gift to our families, and to this church we cherish, so that it can continue to offer God’s love to all that come after. This Sunday, during the education hour, we are offering an informational session on leaving a legacy gift. And a week from this Sunday, on February 12, our Evensong will particularly remember those in our Legacy Circle who have died in the past year. Now is a good time to join the Circle by arranging one’s estate plan to include All Saints’, for the sake of those who will follow us.
January 26, 2017 Be Kind
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
This past Tuesday in Day School chapel, I spoke about kindness, as part of the school’s week taking part in the Kindness Challenge (you can learn more about this important movement at thegreatkindnesschallenge.com). My main point was to draw a distinction between being kind and being nice.
Writers like Marcia Sirota and others have pointed out that kindness and niceness are similar, but not the same. Being nice is good, but is rather limited. Often it means doing what is expected, playing by the rules, and fulfilling our social role as a basically decent person. If I am in front of you when you accidentally drop your book in a puddle, the nice thing for me to do is to help you pick it up (not to do so would be considered rude).
Kindness, on the other hand, is deeper and more selfless. Niceness can be artificial, but kindness is genuinely felt. It is what we do for others when there is no benefit to us, no responsibility as part of the social code, and no penalty if we were to walk away. An act of kindness takes place when we feel sincere compassion for another.
Don’t get me wrong: there is nothing wrong with being nice; indeed, a civilized culture depends on good manners, on our being nice to one another. But acts of kindness have potential to make a real difference in someone’s day, and sometimes even beyond. When we help generously, ask a tenderhearted question, when we forgive, we may change the dynamic, breaking a negative cycle (at least momentarily) in another person or situation.
Jesus was always kind, but he wasn’t always nice. He had little patience for social rules, but cared wholeheartedly about people. At times, he acted angrily for the sake of what was right (think of his overturning the tables of the moneychangers at the Temple because they were taking advantage of the poor).
If I am honest, I am really afraid of what is happening In our current political climate of extreme division. I’ve never in my lifetime seen such distrust and even hatred from both sides. Even friends are turning on each other because they disagree politically. Those of us in the middle, with mixed political loyalties and beliefs, are mostly keeping our heads down.
I’m not naïve, but I do believe that genuine, heartfelt acts of kindness can help us through this toxic period. If we begin, each of us, with kindness, perhaps that helps us see the humanity in those who differ from us, and lowers the temperature, making future dialogue and cooperation for the common good just a bit more likely.
Smile more. Ask someone how they are doing. Thank people. Talk with someone different from you. Buy coffee for the person behind you in line. Pray. Bake a cake and share it with a lonely neighbor. Serve the poor and the vulnerable. When you feel like judging someone, take a deep breath. Be aware of those in need wherever you go. Take time to understand issues without leaping to conclusions, and then engage other people in civil conversation.
Let us be kind to others, as God has been kind to us. It’s not the final answer to the large issues facing our nation and our world. But it’s a start.
January 19, 2017 Christian Unity: A Futile Hope?
In the midst of this tumultuous political time in our national life, the Church celebrates the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Begun in 1908 in Garrison, New York, by an Episcopal priest, the Reverend Paul James Francis Wattson, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity lasts from January 18 (the Feast of the Confession of Saint Peter) to January 25 (The Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul) each year.
Never heard of it? You are not alone. Not many churches and dioceses make much of the week. There are some communities with vibrant ecumenical relationships that use the week to strengthen those ties, but in most places it passes largely unnoticed, despite being in existence for more than a century.
Part of this may be practical: following the large celebrations of Christmas, not many churches have energy to organize complex ecumenical worship and activities just a few weeks later. But I suspect something deeper is at work: as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the Church is, for the most part, quite comfortably settled into its divisions.
At last count, there are more than 10,000 separate denominations worldwide, offering every possible style of worship, teaching, ministry, and doctrine, all under the general heading of “Christianity.” Like every other marketplace, the Church has something for everyone. Indeed, we sometimes even speak of newcomers “church shopping.”
How do we reconcile this division with Christ’s urging that we "all be one” (John 17:21)? Certainly some division is unavoidable and even necessary on this side of Heaven. An Evensong-loving Episcopalian might never be spiritually nourished in a megachurch with rock band, and our theology of God’s love and forgiveness is frankly incompatible with some hateful and intolerant churches.
But there is more, lots more that churches could be doing to seek common ground and common voice, not just one week a year, but all the time on the pressing moral issues of our day. There have been some promising steps towards cooperation in recent years, for example in The Episcopal Church’s closer relationship with the Lutherans in the sharing of clergy, and with the Roman Catholic Church in theological dialogue and works of mercy with the homeless and refugees.
It is God’s nature to reconcile, to bring together, to heal division, and to bring new life and new perspective. Maybe God hasn’t given up on Christian Unity. Perhaps this divisive chapter in our national life will lead to more Christian cooperation, especially in compassion for the most vulnerable in our world. That’s something worth praying for.
January 12, 2017 RenewalWorks, Discipleship, and the Mission of the Church
What is the mission of The Episcopal Church? The Catechism in the back of our Book of Common Prayer defines it this way: “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” At All Saints’ more specifically, in recent years we have said that our mission is: “Welcoming all to transformation in Jesus Christ through prayer, learning, service, and connection in the Episcopal tradition,” with the abbreviated version being “Pray. Learn. Serve. Connect” (a concise summary of core Christian practices).
If we search the Bible, we might find any number of possible mission statements, from Micah 6:8 (“what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God”) to Ephesians 4:12 (“to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ”). But no Biblical mission statement would be complete without the Great Commission of Jesus in Matthew 28:19 (“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”).
Central to Jesus’ teaching was the call to grow more like him as his disciples (or students), and to invite others to do the same.
None of our worship, prayer, learning, or even service is worth much if we are not, through those practices, opening ourselves to God’s transformation of our lives, more and more, into the self-giving likeness of Christ. God changes us, beginning with our baptism, and then uses us to change the world. Indeed, one of the most tragic things there is in the Christian faith is to see someone who has spent a lifetime attending church, without being changed at all.
This past September, we invited our members to take a spiritual survey offered by RenewalWorks. Several hundred of us did, and then a team of volunteers, led by Lowell Adkins, worked over several months, guided by the national leaders of RenewalWorks, to study our data, compare it to other Episcopal churches, learn best practices, and develop some initiatives to challenge our members to grow deeper in faith and discipleship.
This Sunday at 10am, Lowell and I will share some highlights from our RenewalWorks report, and its recommendations. In my annual “State of the Parish” address on Annual Meeting Sunday at the end of this month, I will have more to say about the report, and some exciting ways we plan to use its recommendations in the coming year and years, as we seek to further God’s mission in the world.
January 5, 2017 The Road Goes Ever On and On
It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
--The Fellowship of the Ring (J.R.R. Tolkien)
This past Tuesday would have been the 125th birthday of the great fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Hobbit,” “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and much more. As a boy, I devoured his books, and would still count them among the most influential books in my life.
Tolkien was not only a noted author (something he considered a hobby). He was also a professor of literature and Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, and a devoted Roman Catholic. Indeed, it was his strong faith that influenced his friend C.S. Lewis to convert to Christianity.
As I was thinking about the baptism of Jesus, that we celebrate this weekend, I thought of the quote above from the first book of “The Lord of the Rings,” in which Frodo reflects on his cousin Bilbo’s advice, as he sets out on his epic journey.
Jesus’ baptism is, in some sense, the beginning of his own epic journey. After it, he faces his temptations in the desert, and after that his public ministry starts in earnest. How much did Jesus know about what was to come? We can’t be sure. But he surely knew that his baptism was a first step into dangerous business, onto a road that would sweep him off in all kinds of directions, both joyful and painful.
Isn’t that what all our baptisms are about? We give our lives to God, die to sin and are born again, committing to following Jesus wherever he leads us, not knowing the risks involved. We follow in faith where he has led the way. Like Bilbo and Frodo, many of the great saints of the Church thought they were destined for quiet, ordinary lives. But the wind of the Holy Spirit had other plans.
As we begin a new year, as the newly baptized begin their new lives in Christ, as Holly and Darren prepare to begin their new married life together, we all might benefit from Tolkien’s words of encouragement for the journey in another part of “The Fellowship of the Ring”:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
Onward we go, into the adventure the new year will bring.
P.S. For those who know already that 2017 will be a year of life transition, due to a change in health, family circumstances, employment or some other change, I recommend the very helpful Transitions group, beginning January 11th.