On Finding and Sharing Joy…

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Photo credit:  Robin Razzino; permission required for reuse.

This past Sunday, I was ready to head off for church bright and early.  My younger daughter was still asleep, so I went in to her room to give her a kiss goodbye.  She stirred and very sleepily asked me, “Is today Sunday School?  And Children’s Chapel?”  I almost giggled that this was her first thought upon arousal from sleep.  When I told her, “Yes,” she would be going to Sunday School and Children’s Chapel, she groggily replied, “It’s going to be fun.”

As I have been thinking about my child’s simple question and sense of joy about church, I had two thoughts.  The first was, I am so happy to know that my child is finding joy, happiness, and fun at church.  As a parent, you hope your child will find as much joy in Jesus as you do, but you learn pretty quickly that every child is an individual with their own passions and sources of joy.  To see my child develop a love for church and the experiences she has there has been so thrilling.  And even more importantly to me (especially as a clergy person), I am so grateful that her positive church experiences are almost totally independent of me.  Other adults are guiding her faith journey.  The community is raising her up in the faith.  Our church family is helping her find joy in God that is all her own.  That reality is one that I have deeply desired for my own children, and I am so proud that my church is a place that does the same for so many other children and families.

The second thought I had about my daughter’s early morning pronouncement was that I want adults to have that same sense of anticipatory joy about church too.  Sometimes we struggle to get ourselves to church because our lives are so over-scheduled that church feels like just one more burden.  Sometimes we go to church out of habit, but go through the motions without much joy or food for our souls for the week.  What I long for is church to be a place that when we first awake on Sunday mornings we think of church and we think, “This is going to be fun!”  We can do that at Hickory Neck because we know we will see people who have given us so much joy in our spiritual journey.  We can do that at Hickory Neck because the worship, preaching, and learning will give us new insights and renewed energy and passion for God.  We can do that at Hickory Neck because we know, somewhere during the morning, we will encounter God – and it’s going to be awesome!

This past Sunday at our Rector’s Forum, someone asked about how we invite people to church, how we share the Good News with others.  Where we start is sharing those stories of how, when we wake up on Sundays, we think about Hickory Neck and think, “This is going to be fun.”  When you tell the story of how your church brings you joy, your countenance changes, your energy shifts, and your enthusiasm is contagious.  The only thing left for you to do is say, “Hey, you want to come with me next time?  It’s really fun!”

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On Waiting with God…

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Photo credit:  http://www.makemommygosomethingsomething.com/2016/03/25/the-waiting-room/

The last few days have been marked by two contrasts in our family.  The first was a broken bone for one of our children.  What had been planned was a relaxed dinner of my daughter’s favorite meal, some homework, an early bedtime, and some evening chores.  Instead, what happened was scarfed down meals, scooping up of activities for the waiting room, dividing up of the children with parents, and a long evening of x-rays, diagnoses, and treatment.  After putting the patient to bed, then followed the flurry of emails to teachers, coaches, and parents to cancel classes, rearrange plans, and arrange for care.  Basically, the experience was a classic experience of dealing with an unexpected crisis, the adrenaline that helps you manage everything, and the upending of expectations.

Also happening this week is the opposite experience.  Our region is intently watching the weather forecast as a large, destructive hurricane is approaching the East Coast.  Unlike an immediate crisis, the build-up is much slower with a hurricane.  We can see several days out that the storm is coming.  We can ascertain from previous experiences with hurricanes what sorts of supplies we should have on hand.  Some areas are being evacuated in preparation, and schools have closed.  But unlike an immediate crisis, this kind of crisis is like waiting for a crisis in slow motion.  And these kinds of storms also involve much more ambiguity:  the storm could create massive damage and even death, or the storm could take a different path, destroying other areas, but leaving our area less impacted.  Instead of adrenaline, clarity, and decisiveness, this crisis involves lots of planning, worrying, and waiting.

As I have held these two experiences in tension this week, I have begun to see spiritual parallels.  Often, we relegate our relationship with God to crisis mode.  We lean into God when we need God, but most of our days are spent doing the work we have been given and are equipped to do without thinking much about God.  But in a situation where there is a long wait with an uncertain outcome:  a marriage that is struggling, a friend with a cancer diagnosis, an economy that puts one’s future in jeopardy – we find leaning into God more difficult.  When we lean into God during ambiguous times, we not only have to share all our ourselves with God (the hurt, the doubt, the fear, the anger), we also become much aware of how little control we have in this world.  Ambiguity in life tests our relationships with Jesus more than just about anything in life.

This week, my prayer for all of us is that we push against of our natural patterns.  Instead pulling away from God in ambiguity, my prayer is that you might saddle up next to God and give the anxiety that ambiguity creates back to God.  I promise that God can handle the weight of your anxiety.  And in freeing you up from some of that anxiety, you might be able to offer that same comfort to a neighbor, friend, or stranger.  I know God will give us strength to support one another once this storm hits.  We will do the work we need to do.  In the meantime, my prayer is that we help one another lift the burden of waiting.  God is with us!

 

Sermon – Mark 7.24-27, P18, YB, September 9, 2018

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This week I came back to work excited for a new program year and rejoining you in worship together.  I felt well rested, and ready to preach today.  I caught up with the staff and lay leaders, dug into the onslaught of emails, had some pastoral visits, and then finally sat down to read the lessons for today.  After reading the gospel, I momentarily considered calling Charlie to say, “Are you sure you don’t want to preach this week too?”

If you were listening as we proclaimed the “Good News” of God in Christ today, you might not have felt like this was very good news.  Within Mark’s gospel lesson is one of the very few stories in Holy Scripture about Jesus where we get very uncomfortable.  We are told Jesus has set out to get away.  He wants some rest and to be alone after weeks of healing, miracles, and debates with Pharisees.  In the midst of trying to get some peace and quiet, a woman comes to him, asking for another healing.  The story at this point could go in a couple of directions:  Jesus could agree to heal her daughter out of compassion; Jesus could engage the mother in conversation; or the disciples might intervene to help Jesus get some rest – and maybe Jesus would protest and heal the girl anyway.  We know Jesus is likely tired and needs some serious alone time.  But even in the midst of fatigue and a need to escape the constant pressure of the crowds, we find Jesus’ words to the Syrophoenician woman unpalatable. Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

We know a few things.  We know this is a woman and women in Jesus’ day have less power and would not customarily approach a man without a husband or male family member intervening.  But this woman is no ordinary woman – the original Greek text tells us she is a woman of means, a “lady.”[i] We also know that she is Syrophoenician and Greek – a comment on her culture and ethnicity – as well as the fact that she is a Gentile, and not a Jew.  We know her daughter has a demon, so in Jewish minds this woman and her child are impure.  We even know from scholars that this particular area of geography has a history of tensions between Gentiles and Jews, with many Jews being mistreated by Gentiles.[ii]  Finally, we know Jesus understands his ministry is about redeeming the people of Israel first.[iii]  Eventually the Gentiles will be included, in fact, he even says so in his insulting comment; but the Gentiles are not Jesus’ primary mission.  But even with all of that:  the cultural norms, the racial and ethnic tensions, the purity laws, and the God-given mission, Jesus’ words have a tone of disdain and degradation that we simply do not associate with Jesus.  Jesus’ words are uniquely harsh:  no other supplicant in the gospel is treated in this manner.[iv]  This is not the Jesus we know.  To look at this suffering woman and to call her and her child dogs makes our stomachs turn.  We are embarrassed by Jesus, and would rather sweep this particular story under the proverbial rug.

I have been wondering all week why this story about Jesus bothers us so much.  Countless scholars have tried to justify Jesus’ action or mitigate the brutality of his statements or soften Jesus’ words. But after pondering Jesus’ words this week, I realized what bothers us so much about Jesus’ words.  What bothers us is we see ourselves in his brutal behavior.  We do not like Jesus’ harsh treatment of this woman because we do not like to ponder the times when we have acted similarly.  We do not want to examine too closely those times when we have treated persons of color like dogs – through segregation, lynching, fire hoses, criminalization, or exclusion from opportunities.  We do not want to examine too closely those times when we have treated persons of other ethnicities like dogs – migrant workers who take jobs, extremists who commit violence, illegal immigrants who want free healthcare or education.  We do not want to examine too closely those times when we have treated women like dogs – refusing safe, affordable birth control and childcare, ignoring sexual assault, leaving unresolved wage gaps.  Because even if we have never called one of those groups, “dogs,” we have either thought the word, “dog,” or our actions have indicated we think of those groups as dogs.  And when someone shines a light on our incongruous behavior, we feel exposed as being uniquely harsh as Jesus is harsh.  We do not like Jesus’ behavior because we do not like our own behavior.  And Jesus is supposed to be the good one.  Jesus is that one about whom we proclaim “and yet He did not sin.”

Here is the good news though:  what is brilliant about this story is the very fact that we see ourselves in Jesus today. As much as we see the bad in Jesus, we also find redemption in Jesus today.  The good news about Jesus’ awful behavior is that he finds a formidable opponent today.  This Syrophoenician woman does not cower, or feel defeated, or walk away.  Quite the contrary, she takes Jesus’ words – his exclusion, his justification, his arrogance, and she turns them back on Jesus.  Jesus thinks she is a dog unworthy of the children’s food.  Fine.  She reminds him that even dogs get crumbs from under the table.  The woman does not contradict the system, or take a deserved stand for dignity, or try to fight Jesus’ presumptions.  She simply reminds Jesus that there is enough for everyone – even in the scraps.  She does not defend herself – she holds a mirror up to Jesus.  And this – this is the best part – this is where something tremendous happens.  Jesus says, “You’re right.”  Jesus acknowledges he is wrong.  Jesus heals and restores her daughter to health.  And, most importantly, Jesus redefines his entire ministry – no longer maintaining redemption of the Jews first and, maybe if there is time, the Gentiles.  Jesus expands his abundance and wideness of mercy for all.

What I love about this story is two-fold.  First, I love that the Syrophoenician woman is a woman who sees abundance in the face of humiliation.  The woman is unwilling to believe she is unworthy of God’s grace and abundance.  She boldly, humbly demands that abundance from the person of Jesus.  Second, I love that we actually get to see Jesus’ humanity in this story.  We could spend hours debating scripture and tradition and the creeds about whether Jesus can be sinful and what that means for our faith.  But one of the things we say about Jesus is that he is fully divine and fully human.  And we all know in this room being fully human means messing up, saying awful things, and sometimes being a failure.  But being human also means righting our wrongs, making amends, and taking our learnings from failures and turning them into future goodness.

What Jesus says today is awful, and we should feel his words as embarrassing, shameful words.  What we sometimes say and do is awful, and we should regard those actions as embarrassing and shameful too.  But what Jesus does today is also beautiful.  Jesus not only changes his mind, he expands the wideness of the kingdom of God.[v]  What the Syrophoenician woman does is make a claim on abundance and hold up a mirror to Jesus to see where he limiting abundance.  Her invitation to Jesus is her invitation to us today too.  Where are we limiting abundance and shutting down possibilities for blessing?  The Syrophoenician woman today asks us to look at the mirror and let go of a sense that there are limited resources and particular protocols about those resources.  She invites us to look at our lives, at the ministry of Hickory Neck, and the community around us and see the opportunities to choose abundance over limitations, to see grace over judgment, to see divinity over humanity.  With her mirror, and Jesus’ example, the possibilities for new life and ministry are endless.  And that’s a Jesus, and a you and me, and a Hickory Neck of which we can all be proud.  That’s a ministry that is expansive and explosive with grace, and dignity, and love.  That’s a church who is doing exciting things and I want to be a part!  Come and join us!

[i] Daniel J. Harrington, ed., Sacra Pagina:  The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville:  The Liturgical Press, 2002), 233.

[ii] Harrington, 232.

[iii] Douglas R. A. Hare, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 47.

[iv] Harrington, 233-234.

[v] Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 49.

On Dreams, Change, and Gratitude…

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Safe in each others' hands

Photo credit:  http://debragaz.com/2016/10/17/we-can-walk-together/

This week, as the buzz of insects filled the air, the heat reflected off the pavement as the sun rose, and the smell of blooming flowers lingered nearby, I greeted families and watched an age-old tradition of parents dropping off children at school.  Some of the families were rushed, the parents trying to get off to work.  Some families took things more slowly, savoring the goodbye of the day.  Some families were worn down by anxiety and tears – of children and adults.  In the hubbub of greeting these families, reality hit me:  Hickory Neck did it!

You see, over ten years ago, the community of Hickory Neck Episcopal Church had a dream – to turn the blessing of property into a blessing for the community:  meeting a desperate need for childcare in our part of our county.  Countless hours were spent by many church members planning, calculating, and organizing.  It would take a tremendous investment to create a school from scratch, but the passion and vision were there.  Unfortunately, the preparation was complete right before the economic recession hit.  And the dream was deferred.

But the needs did not change – in fact they grew as the presence of young families, especially those transplanted away from extended family, grew in our neighborhood.  Hickory Neck’s dream was what a Search Committee invited me to participate in:  to help them take the dream off the shelf, and live out their baptismal covenant more fully in their particular context.  And so, the work began again.  After months of discernment and honest conversations, we realized Hickory Neck’s dream could still meet the needs of the community.

A year later, on a steamy September morning, I was struck with a sense of awe by the Hickory Neck community.  I have been a part of many congregations, and one thing I have learned is most communities resist change.  They might need change; they might want change; they might even say they are ready for change.  But in the deep recesses of their minds and hearts, they do not really want change.  Change is scary and could disrupt what drew them there in the beginning.  But Hickory Neck is different.  Hickory Neck is a community who has been fluid and flexible, who even when her dream began to morph and change, did not dig in her feet, but instead stepped out into the unknown and said yes to the Holy Spirit.  The humility, boldness, courageousness, creativity, and gumption of Hickory Neck brought me to my knees this week.

I am so proud of our community for trying a brave new way of ministry – one that comes from the congregation, will be nurtured by the congregation, and will eventually feed the congregation.  Though I have helped navigate logistics behind the scenes, the truth is, I feel so incredibly privileged to simply accompany Hickory Neck in the fulfillment of her dream.  In these last two and half years, Hickory Neck has given me hope in the future of the church universal.  If communities of faith can cast a vision that betters the surrounding community, journey through adversity to achieve that dream, and then actually live into that dream faithfully, then I think there is hope beyond measure for the kingdom of God.

A few weeks ago, a county official said to me, “You must be so proud of yourself for doing such good work at Hickory Neck.”  But I shared with him, “No, I’m so proud of Hickory Neck.  They are an inspiration to me every day.”  Today, I thank you, Hickory Neck.  I thank you for your witness of bravery, passion, and hard work.  I thank you for inspiring me to be a better priest.  I thank you for letting me be a part of this fantastic journey, in this fantastic community, doing the fantastic work of Jesus.  I am so proud of what Hickory Neck has already accomplished.  I cannot wait to see where we go next!  Oh, and if you are not already connected to Hickory Neck, I encourage you to stop by.  You are in for an incredible treat.  Don’t worry:  we’ve already saved you a seat!

On Grieving Together…

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Photo credit:  https://www.everplans.com/articles/how-to-make-sure-your-legacy-lives-on-after-youre-gone

Grief is a funny thing.  We all experience it differently, respond to it differently, and let it impact us differently.  Sometimes we let grief do its work and then we are done; sometimes the grief sneaks up on us; and sometimes the grief never fades, a constant companion.  This week my grandmother passed away.  We knew this call would come soon.  I had taken my girls to see her months ago for a goodbye.  She had been in Hospice and had stopped eating.  But in the flurry of living – of clothes strewn about, water sloshing around, story-telling, cleaning, and brushing, the news of death was jarring.  For a moment I thought I would wait – share the news with the girls at a more appropriate time.  But then I remembered there is no appropriate time.  Death happens when it happens, and its companion, grief, comes as it will.

My initial work was helping my girls navigate their grief.  Upon receiving the news, my younger’s eyes got wide, and she was quick to assert that we needed to leave so that we could “take ‘Mee-maw’ to the hospital and take care of her.”  I tried to explain that it was too late, but she insisted that if we rushed, we could help her.  Once her disappointed face registered reality, she proclaimed, “Well, I’m not going to die!”  Then began a conversation about mortality and eternal life.  And a new level of grief began.

Meanwhile, the older child seemed to hold her thoughts and emotions at bay, being equally distracted by her sister’s reactions.  We talked about it briefly as I tucked her in, and she seemed okay.  The next morning, after I had dropped her off at camp and was heading back to my car, she ran back up to me and gave me a big hug and started crying.  “I’m sad about what happened yesterday.”  I honestly wasn’t sure what she was talking about until she explained her delayed reaction to Mee-maw’s death.  Time stood still as we grieved together.  A minute later, she was drying her face with the back of her hand and running to catch up with friends.

My own grief finally caught up with me as I watched an emotional movie later that night.  The truth is, my grandmother was a complicated woman.  She was the matriarch of the family who sometimes ruled with an iron first – even if you were only aware of her power subconsciously.  She was intimidatingly smart, held a wealth of knowledge in her mind, and could talk to any stranger.  I loved and respected her, and also saw her many flaws and the ways she hurt people.  She was not really a loving, doting grandmother, but a woman who held everyone to high standards and pushed us to be our best.  I was often afraid of the woman who insisted on the title “Grandmother Andrews.”  But in these last years, I loved seeing her humanity as a new generation of greatgrandchildren called her “Mee-maw.”

As I wade through grief this week, I welcome your prayers.  Even pastors need pastoring sometimes.  But also know that I am praying for you and the ways in which grief continues to be your companion:  for the grandparents, parents, spouses, and friends lost; for the marriages, jobs, and pregnancies lost; for the possibilities, dreams, and loves lost.  You especially have my prayers as grief reminds us all of our own mortality.  As you hold me, I also hold you in the promise of eternal life, a new reality in Christ Jesus.  May that grounding strengthen each of us as we stand together in the already and the not yet.

Almighty God, look with pity upon the sorrows of your servants.  Remember us, Lord, in mercy; nourish us with patience; comfort us with a sense of your goodness; lift up your countenance up us; and give us peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  (BCP 467, amended)

Sermon – Ephesians 4.25-5.2, P14, YB, August 12, 2018

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I used to LOVE Vacation Bible School when I was growing up.  As a preacher’s kid, of course that meant I went to VBS at my dad’s church.  But I loved Vacation Bible School more than that.  I would sign up for VBS at the Baptist Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the Lutheran Church, and would beg, “Can I go? Can I go?”  I have always joked that what I really like about VBS was the crafts.  But as I watched our own children in Vacation Bible School this week at Hickory Neck, I began to wonder if my crafts assessment was entirely true.  I liked the songs too.  And the snacks.  And the storytelling.  I liked the instant comradery and the games and laughter.  I liked the feeling of being loved by people who did not even know me.  VBS was the first – and probably only since I did not go to church with many Baptists – place where I was asked if I had accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior; and if I had not, I could ask Jesus to come to me in that moment.  My eight-year-old self was not sure what the pastor meant, but I did know a strange warming of my heart that night.

On those hot, humid summer nights, with the cicadas chirping and the lightning bugs flashing, VBS accomplished for me what I talked about with the Baptismal family last weekend.  When we prepare a child and their family for baptism, we talk about how their primary role is to raise the child up in the faith – get them to church, talk about Jesus at home, pray together, and read the Bible stories.  The parents and godparents are not flying solo with the task of raising the child in the faith – we as a community pledged just last week that we would be active in raising Dallas up in the faith.

As I watched our children at Vacation Bible School this past week, I slowly began to realize that we were doing just that – raising children up in the faith.  We were teaching them to pray, to sing, to learn, to tactilely use their bodies to engage Jesus.  And sure, there were games and snacks and laughter and silliness.  But there were also children who walked over to their neighbor’s houses and delivered VBS registration forms, inviting them into Jesus’ love too.  There were children who remembered their neighbors with pets and tentatively rang doorbells to deliver pet treats they had made with their own hands.  There were children whose joyous songs in the Public Library later that day brought hope to a man who had lost hope.  When I was a child, I was lured by crafts and snacks and potato sack races; but I left with love, and hope, and mercy.  I left knowing deep in my soul who Jesus was and what being a Christian meant.

This week I have begun to wonder if we might need an adult version of VBS; if we might need a week of evenings where we just spend some time with Jesus among the community of the faithful.  Bishop Curry would call that a revival, and Episcopal Churches are doing revivals all around the country.  I am not sure what we call that week matters, but I am beginning to wonder if we need those summer nights because we have fallen away from the practices Paul articulates today in his epistle to the Ephesians.  Paul is quite clear.  If we are going to claim the moniker of Christian, then our lives need to be signposts.  We need to speak truth to one another.  We need to not let anger rule our lives.  We need to make new ways for thieves and sinners to not only repent, but be fully restored into the world as those who not only contribute their labor, but who are freed to give their money to the poor.  We need to take on kindness, tenderness, forgiveness.  We need to be imitators of God, beloved children of God, living in love.

We hear Paul’s words today and say to ourselves, “Yes, yes, the world needs more of that.”  But what we really mean is, “Yes, that lady two rows over needs to start doing that,” or “Yes, that guy on my committee needs to be that.”  But Paul is not talking to our neighbor.  He is talking to us.  He is talking each person in this room saying, “You…I need you to live in the life of love, to be an imitator of God, to be…to be a Christian.”  And that is where the squirming begins.  I hear Paul’s words about not letting the sun go down on your anger and I can tell you there have been many a night when I was just not done with my anger – I needed to let my anger burn off before I could speak a word of forgiveness or, more importantly, a word or apology.  I hear Paul’s words about thieves and I am not worried about thieves being gainfully employed so they can make charitable contributions – I need them to punished for what they took from me.  I hear Paul’s words telling me to imitate God and I am incredulous that I could ever achieve such holiness – I need to worry about all those other people who are not imitating God towards me!

This week, I attended a conference called the Global Leadership Summit.  Founded over 25 years ago, the conference is for all people, regardless of industry or position at work or home, looking to hone their leadership skills, to learn new techniques, and to refresh old learnings.  The Conference is held in Chicago, but through technology is live broadcasted all over the world, even to Williamsburg.  One of the things I took from the Summit was that my leadership improvement work was primarily about improving myself.  Craig Groeschel reminded us, “When the leader gets better, everyone gets better.”  His message is the same message we teach congregations and families through family systems work.  The only person you can improve in a system is yourself – even though you know for certain your brother Bob is the real problem.  System experts live by this understanding though because they have witnessed time and again when one person in the system gets better, he or she creates a ripple in the system – and almost magically, everyone else starts getting better.

The reason why we send our children to VBS or Sunday School or Children’s Chapel is because we want them to know, and love, and embody Christ.  We want them to be imitators of God, beloved children, who live in love, as Christ loved us.  But what we sometimes forget in helping our children grow in Christ is that we adults need to grow in Christ too – to become those imitators of God, beloved children, who live in love, as Christ loved us.  We like to bemoan the state of the world today – to look at how we are so divided and cannot seem to come together and we want to just give up on the world, or worse yet, we want to bury our heads in the sand and not come back up until things magically get better.  But what Paul says to us today is not to worry about everyone else.  Start working on yourself.  Now whether that means you need to go to a Leadership Summit, or join a Bible Study, or commit to coming to Church regularly, or maybe agree to help with VBS so you can absorb some of that joyful goodness – do something for your faith formation today.  Systems work teaches us that the only person we can change in a dysfunctional system is ourselves.  Paul looking at Ephesians or the United States in 2018 would same the same – work on yourself, imitate God, live in love, make your life like Christ’s – or as Paul says, “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

I know that Episcopalians are pretty divided about the use of incense.  I have always loved incense.  The parish I served in Alexandria used incense every Sunday.  I loved how the scent lingered in my hair and on my clothes after church.  Sometimes, I would bring my alb home, and when I opened the bag, the fragrance of incense wafted into the room.  Years later, on the occasions my other parishes used incense, I found the scent had a calming effect on my body.  That fragrance was my physical, tangible way of remembering that I was in the presence of God.

When Paul invites us to be a fragrant offering, he is inviting us to be that tangible reminder of God that lingers behind.  When we respect the dignity of every human being, our Christian fragrant offering lingers behind.  When we are kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving, our fragrant offering lingers behind.  When we seek to imitate God in our lives, even as others see us fail and try again and again, our fragrant offering lingers behind.  I am not saying our work on ourselves will be perfect right away – or even ever help us achieve that true fragrant offering.  But what Paul encourages us to do is try.  To put ourselves in places where we can grow in faith and love and mercy so that we can become those fragrant offerings that linger with others.  And Paul knows we can do that work because God is with us to enable us.  Our invitation today is to accept the challenge:  to not leave behind the foul odors of anger, judgment, and malice, but through our baptismal-life striving through our faithful work on ourselves, to leave behind the fragrant scent of God.  What happens after that is God’s work.  Amen.

On Seeing God in the Body…

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Photo credit:  Jennifer Andrews-Weckerly; reuse with permission only

One of the things I learned very early on in my priesthood is I cannot do all the work of the church.  The priest cannot be everywhere, at every event, leading every ministry.  And I have wholeheartedly come to believe that she should not try.  In doing so, the priest disables the ministry of the laity, and to be frank, never gets close to the glory of what can happen when everyone contributes their gifts in ministry to the work of the church.  When Paul talks about the Body of Christ being like parts of the body – where every hand, foot, elbow, and nose are needed to make the Body complete – Paul was talking about the leaders too.  The Body of Christ does not function without all the members.

I have been reminded of this truth this week as I have watched our Vacation Bible School program in action.  Months of planning, organizing, imagining, and executing have come to fruition.  I was given 10 minutes this week for teaching and prayer.  The rest of the time – five days, 15 hours, 900 minutes – has been filled with adults, youth, and even children leading a wonderful week of reflection about where we see God, how we can be helpers in God’s mission, and how we can be God’s hands, changing the world.  It has been a glorious experience to watch fingers strumming guitars, adults comforting children, teens running little ones’ energy out, children holding hands, priests from neighboring churches teaching and praying, and, as I like to imagine, God smiling broadly as God hears us asking God to “kumbaya.”

Part of what is nice about this week is I get to see the work of the Body up close.  I get to see church members flexing their vocational gifts, teaching and showing our kids how much God loves them and how they are now empowered to love others.  But much like my contribution this week is just a small part of the whole, I realize Vacation Bible School week is just a small part of the larger whole.  Every week our parishioners – children, youth, and adults – are living out their vocations every day.  They are teaching children, building homes, healing bodies, fighting fires, studying for tests, and holding each other’s hands as faithful children of God.  There are holy moments every week, every day, every hour, every minute, where we live into the gifts God has given us, and show God’s love to others.  Our witness to Christ does not happen unless we are all doing are part as the Body of Christ.

I wonder where you are seeing God and the work of the Body of Christ today.  At home, at work, at play, we can all see God working through each other.  Our invitation this week is to look for that work, to be a part of that work in our own lives, and to witness where we see that work in others.  My suspicion is once we start doing that work, we will be smiling as God has been smiling this week!

On Raising Kids in the Faith…

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Photo credit:  http://livingwaterlutheran.us/

Last week, as we were driving to summer day-camp, my eight-year old was mid-stream with a story from the backseat when she abruptly jumped to another story she remembered.  Used to the constant chatter from my little ones, I barely noticed, but she exclaimed, “Oh my goodness!  I’m just like Mark!”  “What?” I asked, having no idea who this Mark was and what he had to do with either of her stories.  “You know, like Mark from the Bible, when he interrupts one story with another one.  Ha!”

As I struggled to stay focused on driving, my mouth fell open.  I was stunned.  You see, several weeks ago, I preached a sermon about Mark, explaining his “sandwiching technique,” – basically interrupting the telling of a story with another story, only to return to the original story.  You can read here about why he utilizes this literary technique.  I was shocked to know that my daughter actually remembered that detail from a sermon; honestly, I was a little surprised that she was listening at all, let alone remembering anything I said.  In my shock, I managed to stammer out, “Oh, you remember that?”  “Yeah.  Everyone thinks I don’t listen in church because I’m doing other things.  But I listen.”

Now I don’t expect children of all ages to grasp literary devices of Gospel writers, but what that conversation reminded me of is how often children are listening, and especially listening to what we have to say about God.  Many parents I talk to often worry about how to help their children learn about God, feeling a bit inadequate themselves for such a daunting task.  The advice I give them is simple:  bring them to church.  Let them experience as much of the liturgies as they can handle.  Let them go to Children’s Chapel and Sunday School as much as you can.  And when things like Vacation Bible School come up, as they do next week at Hickory Neck, take them.  The songs, the stories, the dialogue will slowly seep in, and the questions will surely pop up in the backseat of a car, at the dinner table, or before bed.  And if you are not sure about the answers, don’t worry.  You can always use the question as a “wondering moment,” asking questions and leaving things open for their imaginations (and the Holy Spirit!).

This Sunday we will baptize a baby at Hickory Neck, and his parents, godparents, and the parish will pledge to do the same – see that the child is raised up in the church.  We won’t have all the answers, and we may even stumble through trying to explain our faith (I could tell you countless stories about my own bumbling).  But in the end, each child’s journey feeds and enriches the journey of each of us.  Their questions inspire the adults to get into church too – to be steeped in the liturgy, to study scripture, to engage in conversation, to reflect on the presence of God in our lives.  The Church offers that tremendous gift to us every week.  Our invitation is to get ourselves there.

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Photo credit:  John Rothnie (permission required for reuse)

GC79: Kingdom Work

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Photo credit:  Ruth Beresford (reuse only with permission)

One of the questions I have received about General Convention is what it is like.  What you notice right away is General Convention’s impressive scale.  Every one of the 110 dioceses of the Episcopal Church is able to bring four clergy and four lay deputies.  They may also bring four alternate clergy and four alternate lay deputies.   In total, that’s over 800 people on the floor of the House of Deputies.  All bishops are also present, meeting in the House of Bishops.  Each diocese can have 1 – 3 bishops in place (Diocesan, Suffragan, and Assisting/Assistant).  Visitors from near and far can also attend, as well as media from dioceses, youth observers, and distinguished guests.  The Exhibit Hall also has an extraordinary number of staff and volunteers, and in addition to booths, the seminaries regularly bring in staff or faculty for seminary reunions.  Meanwhile, the entire Convention Center is run by massive amounts of volunteers – covering everything from check-in, monitoring the floor, helping with worship, to the exhibits.  Meanwhile, the ECW holds its annual triennium at the same time, which involves representatives, organizers, and volunteers.  Needless to say, Episcopalians take over the host city (this year coined as the Episcapocalypse).  Even Austin, Texas, which prides itself in being “weird,” I think was a little overwhelmed by our numbers.

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Photo credit:  Chris Girata (reuse only with permission)

What I particularly enjoyed was getting a taste of what it might be like to enter God’s heavenly kingdom.  People from all walks of my life were present at Convention.  There were people from my time in undergraduate campus ministry, my time working as a lay person, my time in seminary, my time as a curate, my first time as a rector, and my current position.  The joy of greeting one longtime friend or colleague after another was heartwarming.  It also reminded me of how incredibly blessed my life has been to be full of incredible people who have shaped, influenced, and sometimes directed my faith life.  God’s abundance was all around me in the faces of God’s children.

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Photo credit:  Hickman Alexandre (reuse only with permission)

But you could not be at General Convention without meeting other people.  A conversation about something mundane would lead to the realization that we had friends in common.  Waiting in line for something would lead to a conversation about a shared passion.  People you have “met” online through vocational networking you could finally meet in person.  Suddenly, you realized you were making connections from all over the world.  The family of the Episcopal Church is deep and wide.  I leave General Convention feeling hopeful for the future of the Episcopal Church, knowing that it is full of passionate people, doing their part to create a loving, liberating, life-giving world through Jesus Christ.  Thanks be to God!

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Photo credit:  Ann Turner (reuse only with permission)

GC79: Respecting Dignity

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Photo credit:  Jennifer Andrews-Weckerly (permission for reuse)

One of the many takeaways from General Convention was the need to tend to those outside of the straight, white, male, able-bodied community.  There was a task force assembled before Convention to address issues raised by the #metoo movement.  Out of that group came many resolutions about sexual harassment and abuse, equality in payment and hiring, parenting accommodations, and eliminating bias in bishop searches.  Our African-American brothers and sisters also called for work on pay equity and broader issues, such as voter suppression.  Our foreign language speakers rallied for more translated liturgies and legislation, as well as increased interpreters throughout Convention.  Our disabled and deaf members lobbied for better accommodations during Convention.  Our LGBTQ members called for broader inclusion and more intentional expansive and inclusive language.  Our immigrant members also called for thoughtfulness about our ordination processes, noting that many dioceses are unwilling to consider entering into a formal discernment process with someone if their immigration status is not settled.

There are probably more issues I am forgetting, but what struck me about each of these movements is that they are not just General Convention issues or wider church issues.  These are issues for every parish.  At our own parish, we are struggling to provide hearing assistance to our hearing-impaired members due to lack of volunteers to run our sound system.  Having served on a Commission on Ministry (COM) in another diocese, I realize now how our restrictions around immigration could have limited the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Even the conversation about breastfeeding on the Convention floor made me realize that we all have work to do about making our worship spaces as welcoming as possible.  Having watched these issues unfold at General Convention, I am convinced that there are issues we are overlooking as well.

Jesus always struck me as someone who saw everyone – especially people that society, religious leaders, and even his disciples overlooked or dismissed.  He had a knack for seeing the marginalized, the oppressed, and those cast out or looked down upon.  He asked their stories, engaged them in conversation and relationship, he often restored them to health and status in the community.  He showed us what it means to respect the dignity of every human being.  When we reaffirm our baptismal covenant, or when we say, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You,” how might we do a better job of bringing what we say in line with what we do?  General Convention’s work was a way of pointing us back to the work of Jesus.  How might Hickory Neck engage in this same work?  How might you engage in this same work in your everyday life?