More Thoughts on Prayer

These are excerpts from a sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport. I’ll continue this series on prayer both in these writings and in the pulpit.

Today I would like to talk to you about prayer.

How we pray to God depends a great deal on our image of God. When we pray, with whom do we imagine are we communicating? Our experiences–or lack–of God come into play. So does our sense of wonder and gratitude. We must factor in how we are affected by suffering, and what we believe about God in relationship to suffering. Finally, how we pray depends upon what we imagine is possible as a result of prayer.

In the Episcopal Church, we say a lot of prayers. Most we read from the Book of Common Prayer, a book designed to be the repository of prayers we pray in common, as one people, and also a collection of prayers for various occasions.

I love our prayers–to pray them in worship and on my own. But because we pray them from a book, we risk mimicking words without considering what we hope for in relationship to God. This can leave us with the impression that we can only pray with a book in our hand. That’s not true, of course, but we can understand how anyone of us could get that impression.

Jesus prayed “by the book,” or more accurately, by the scroll. We have his prayer book, so to speak, embedded in our own, for Jesus prayed with the psalms of ancient Judaism. The psalms are an astonishing collection of prayers, giving expression to the full range of human emotions. In praying with them ourselves, we’re encouraged to speak with equal candor before God, without censuring our emotions and thoughts.

Jesus also prayed on his own. He would go away for stretches of time on his own and pray late into the night or early in the morning. He prayed with and for other people. And he prayed with his actions. The great Jewish leader, Abraham Joshua Heschel, said of the time he walked  alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the now famous March to Selma, “I felt as if my feet were praying.” Jesus prayed a lot with his feet.

My hope is simply to encourage you in prayer, and remind you to think of prayer in the broadest possible terms. You don’t need a book to pray or think of prayer as something you only do in church.

The Apostle Paul, in one his letters, writes this: Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4: 6-7)

When Jesus prayed, he addressed God using an intimate familial word  for parent–Abba–that could be translated as “pappa” or even “daddy.” He encouraged his disciples to do the same, giving an image for God of unconditional parental love. Think of the father in Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son, the one waiting anxiously to welcome his wayward son home, running to meet and embrace him on the road.

At his last supper with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “I do not call you servants any longer…but I call you friends. You are my friends.” (John 15:1)

So whenever you approach God in prayer, imagine yourself before a spiritual parent who loves you unconditionally, or a friend who has only your best interest at heart and wants to know all that both burdens and delights you.

You needn’t ever worry that you’re not good enough, or can’t find the words, or the image of God you carry isn’t the right one. St. Paul assures us that even when we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit of God dwelling within us prays on our behalf  “with sighs too deep for words.”

In an introductory course on the Christian faith known as Alpha, pastor Nicky Gumbel makes three suggestions for prayer.

Keep it real. Be honest with yourself and with God. Remember the prayer with which we begin nearly every Sunday worship service: “O God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” Acknowledging that God knows our secrets signals that we know they are there, too, and that we’re open to divine presence and mercy.

Keep it simple. When Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray, he gave them the words we now know as the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a short and simple prayer. The writer Anne Lamott suggests that we can live most of our lives on three prayers alone: help, thanks, wow.

Keep it up. We can pray anywhere, anytime–as we walk, commute to work, when we can’t fall asleep at night, in conversation with loved ones and those we struggle to love. I relish even a few minutes a day of what Bill Hybels calls “chair time,” sitting in silence, a candle lit beside me, reflecting on a word from Scripture or offering what’s on my heart and mind, and listening for whatever God might choose to say to me.

Next week I will focus on why and how we pray for others, and what we can expect to change as a result of our praying.

 

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Thoughts on Prayer

Thoughts on Prayer

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord teach us to pray. . .”
Luke 11:1

I was among those who publicly stated, in response to the mass shooting in Las Vegas, that “thoughts and prayers are not enough.”  Since then, I can’t stop thinking about prayer, and what it means to say that in certain situations prayer is insufficient. Perhaps it isn’t that prayer itself is insufficient, but rather our understanding of prayer.

I’ve been reading a book on prayer, Talking with God: What to Say When You Don’t Know How to Pray by Adam Weber, at United Methodist pastor in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, whom I heard speak l at the Church of the Resurrection’s  Leadership Institute last week. What I love is his honesty about the struggles of prayer, his own and that of those who dare to confess to him that they don’t know how to pray.

“We throw ‘praying’ around a lot,” Weber says. “A tragedy will happen and we say ‘We’re praying for you,’ and ‘Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” So obviously, everybody else knows how to pray, right? It’s almost like an acquaintance that you’ve hung out with time and again. After a certain point, it’s too late to ask what the person’s name is without its being awkward.I feel like that’s what it is with prayer. It’s like “I have no idea, but I can’t ask the question.”

I’m going to devote this Sunday’s sermon to the topic of prayer, with special focus on how we pray for others in times of crisis, both personal and societal. For now, here are Scripture passages and resources for your own reflection.

When I spoke this week of the insufficiency of prayer alone, I was thinking of the New Testament passage found in the Letter of James which warns us against faith without works:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? . . . If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them ‘Go in peace; keep warm and and eat your fill’ and yet do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
James 2: 14-17

And also the words of the prophet Amos, through which God addresses the people of Israel:

I hate, I despise your festivals and take no delight in your solemn assemblies, . . .Take away from me the noise of your song; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and the righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  
Amos 5:21, 23-24.

But I do not mean to disparage prayer as understood in the most intimate way we converse with God.

When Jesus’ disciples asked him how they were to pray, he encouraged the most simple, intimate conversation, and suggested words we refer as the Lord’s prayer. Certainly that is where we can all begin, as our Presiding Bishop encouraged us in his response to the Las Vegas shootings.

St. Paul also encourages us in prayer, saying we needn’t worry about finding the right words:

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Romans 8:26-27.

Such was a prayer that Martin Luther King, Jr. prayed during the loneliest days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott:

Lord, I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.

And here are words from the theologian Marjorie Suchocki on the power of prayer from both God’s perspective and ours:

We are taught in our tradition that God bids us to pray, invites us to pray, inspires us to pray. God’s call to us to pray is neither whimsical nor irrelevant to God’s work in the world. It is not a manner of receiving compliments, nor is it a reminder service informing God of what needs to be done in the world. Rather prayer is God’s invitation to us to be willing partners in the great dance of bringing a world into being that reflects something of God’s character.

Can it be that God needs us to pray when God needs resources, when God needs more to work with to bring about God’s kingdom?  “Christ has no body here but ours,” St. Teresa reminds us. “Ours are the hands with which he works; ours the feet on which he moves; ours the eyes with which looks upon this world with kindness.”

 

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Dr. Brené Brown to Speak at Washington National Cathedral

Stop walking through the world looking for evidence that you don’t belong because you will always find it. You don’t negotiate belonging externally; you carry it in your heart. No one belongs here more than you.
Brené Brown

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Dr. Brené Brown

Dr. Brené Brown begins her newest book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, with characteristic vulnerability:

“When I start writing, I inevitably feel myself swallowed by fear.”

The antidote to her fear, she tells us, is to seek inspiration from those with tenacious courage. Among those she turns to: J.K.Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, author and activist bell hooks, Oprah Winfrey, and–at the top of the list–Maya Angelou.

What Brené Brown seeks, she also gives. She is one many of us turn to when in need of inspiration and courage. Her TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, is among the top five most watched, with over 31,000, 000 views. The titles of her books alone are enough to invoke our innate strength and resilience: The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong.  

On Sunday October 1, we’re blessed to have Dr. Brown as preacher and forum speaker at Washington National Cathedral. Thanks to the streaming and online services of the Cathedral, those who can’t be present in person can watch either on Sunday morning or anytime at your convenience.

Brown defines true belonging as:

The spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.

While her writing is profoundly personal, the social implications are high. As she told Joshua Johnson on WETA’s radio show The 1A, “It turns out you can’t write a book on connection and belonging without being really honest about how difficult it is today, given the level of vitriol and mean spiritedness.”

Brown is unflinching in her sober assessment of the spiritual crisis of disconnectedness of our time. “The world feels high lonesome and broken to me right now,” she writes. “We’ve sorted ourselves into factions based on our politics and ideology. We’ve turned away from each other and toward blame and rage.”

Yet Braving the Wilderness is full of great stories, humor, and specific ways we can find our true belonging and the courage to stand alone. Her sermon and forum presentation are sure to be full of the same.

We’ll also have the opportunity to learn how faith informs her life and work. Brené Brown is a Christian and active member of Christ Episcopal Cathedral in Houston. She and her family have been deeply involved in rescue and relief efforts after Hurricane Harvey.

Join us in person or online as we welcome Brené Brown and draw inspiration from joyful presence and hard won wisdom. “The price of true belonging is high,” she warns us in advance, “but the reward is great.”

 

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What Matters Most

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
Matthew 13:45-46

Some of the most helpful life rules are counter-intuitive, in that they invite us to go in the opposite direction from where we assume we’re supposed to go, or must go given the circumstances we’re facing and the demands before us.

One my favorite examples of this comes from the author and journalist Sara Miles. In her 20s, Miles worked as an assistant to a short order cook in one of the busiest restaurants in New York City. Things in the kitchen could get really intense, with as many as a hundred orders coming through in a matter of minutes. The cook, a seemingly ageless man who had worked in kitchens all his life, had a series of rules for the kitchen’s staff. And one of them was: when things get busy, slow down.  

“You gotta go slow to move fast,” he’d say when Sara and the others were inclined to panic under the pressure and respond with speed. Why is slowing down a good idea when things get busy? Because when you start running in a crowded kitchen with a lot on your mind, you’re far more likely to drop a plate of dishes, spill a vat of boiling oil, slip on wet floor.

Where else is such a life rule helpful? I was on my way to a meeting in Southern Maryland, running, as usual, about 15 minutes late. And what was I tempted to do?  Drive faster–way beyond the speed limit. I had to say to myself, “Better to arrive late, Mariann, than not arrive at all.” When it’s busy, slow down. When you’re running late, stick to the speed limit.

Here’s another counter-intuitive life rule, made famous by then-First Lady Michelle Obama, as she described how her family coped with personal attacks made by political adversaries: When they go low, we go high.  

There are many of versions of this one, all calling us to take the proverbial higher ground, “I shall never allow myself to stoop of low as to hate any person,” said Booker T. Washington. Why not? For his own soul’s sake. Moreover, as a way of combatting the evil in the world, hatred on our part often serves to give evil more energy to work with: “Hate cannot drive out hate,” Martin Luther King, Jr. would say. “Only love can do that.” We hear such counter-intuitive teachings throughout the New Testament:  “Render to no one evil for evil.” “When someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek as well.”  

Here’s one more re-directing life rule: When you’re feeling pulled in a thousand different directions at once, tend to the one or two things that nourish your soul. Said another way, when the demands of your life and the pressures of this world  have the effect of scattering your thoughts and energies, leaving you perennially exhausted, go deeper with those few things that matter most.

What matters most to you?

I’d like to make a case for the priceless value of your local church. I believe, as Bill Hybels once said, that the local church–your local church–is the hope of the world. I expand on the reasons why the church is of priceless values here, but for now, I give what is probably the most important reason of all: We are Christ’s body in the world.   

Quoting St. Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body here but ours
No hand and feet here, on earth, but ours.
Ours are the eyes through which he look on this world with kindness.
Ours are the hands through which he works, ours the feet on which he moves.
Ours are the voices through which he speak to this world with kindness.

What could be more important?

So remember: when things get busy, slow down. When others go low, go high. When you feel yourself scattered and spread thin, focus on those things that matter most. And never forget that we are Christ’s body in the world.

Through our touch, our smile, our listening ear
Embodied in us, Jesus is living here.
So let us go now, filled with the Spirit, into his world with kindness.

 

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When Walking by Faith

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.
Exodus 12: 1

We often say, for good reason, that September is the first month of the year for us, marking  the season of beginnings and beginning again. This September, for many, marks the beginning of a new reality  brought on by unexpected events. Certainly that’s true for those whose lives have been forever changed by wind, rain, and fire. Perhaps it’s true for you, due to circumstances beyond your control or because a new opportunity has suddenly presented itself. It’s true for me.

In the first days of a new reality, it’s comforting to remember disorientation is normal. We’re not expected to know the path forward right away. Rather, it’s a time for faith, asking God to illumine our path and inviting Jesus to be our companion and guide. It’s a time to pay attention to our intuition alongside our logic; and to seek the wisdom of others who have walked the path we find ourselves on.

The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, in his daily meditation for September 7, writes:

I came out of the seminary in 1970 thinking that my job was to have an answer for every question. What I’ve learned is that not-knowing and often not even needing to know is—surprise of surprises—a deeper way of knowing and a deeper falling into compassion. . . Maybe that is why Jesus praised faith even more than love;  Yes, love is the final goal but ever deeper trust inside of darkness is the path for getting there.

Whatever this “first month of the year,” means for you, I pray God’s blessing and tender mercies. And I encourage us all to tend to the spiritual practices that are particularly helpful whenever we’re called to walk by faith and not by sight. Here are three tried and true practices:

  • Taking  time each day for silence and intentional prayer. It’s astonishing how nourishing even a few minutes of prayer can be. If you have a prayer practice, be faithful to it. If you need one, try something as simple as sitting in a chair and reading the stories and teachings of Jesus. I’m personally inspired by the example of our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, who prays with the daily office of Scripture readings.  I strive to do the same.
  • Being faithful in Sunday worship. I know that Sundays can be crowded with competing demands, and that church can sometimes feel like work. But the gifts of Christian community and the grace available to us when we show up to pray, be fed at Jesus’ table, and play our part in the body of Christ are priceless.

 

  • Finding ways each day to be of service to others. One of the surest ways to experience blessing is to be a blessing to other people. As St. Teresa of Avila reminds us all, “Christ has no body on earth but ours. Ours are the hands through which he works; ours the feet on which he walks; ours the voices through which he speaks to this world in kindness.”

 

I’m grateful to live in Christian community with you and look forward to this new year, with all its challenges and opportunities. We needn’t have the answer for every question. I certainly don’t. But I place my trust in Christ who is within, beside, and among us all. And I trust the Holy Spirit, whose power working in and through us can do infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine.

 

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Who Is Jesus? The Scriptural Witness

Jesus said to the crowd, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon;’ the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-20

Imagine someone stopping you on the street with a microphone in hand and cameraman beside him to ask you this question: “Who is Jesus?” That’s what the producers of a video series on the Christian faith known as Alpha did to people on the streets of London. Here are some of the answers they heard:

–I have no idea.
–I actually don’t know if Jesus exists, but I believe in him.
–Jesus is the Son of God for the Christian faith.
–I think Jesus was a really cool dude who lived a long time ago, gave great advice, and
things snowballed from there.
–I don’t know–the Savior or something?
–I think he was a fellow who walked around with a bottle of wine in his pocket and, you know, switched it out for water a couple of times to convince people he had special powers.
–Jesus is my everything. He is someone I can relate to, and pray to.
–They say Jesus is the Son of God, but apparently we’re all God’s children, so what is so special about him?

What indeed.  

Now imagine sitting around a table with a group of people–people that you’re coming to know and trust–and the question for discussion is: “Who is Jesus?” What would you say then? That’s what an Alpha course does: it creates an environment for people to consider foundational questions of the Christian faith.

Whenever we walk into a church service like this one, we’re invited to say together a lot of things about Jesus, as if we believed them to be true. We hear stories told about him. At times we pray to him. We recall his last meal in a ritual known as the Eucharist, and in so doing, we open ourselves to what those who handed this tradition down to us assure is his living presence among us. Maybe we’re here because we’ve had a sense of that presence ourselves.

But what is our answer–or the beginnings of an answer, or our answer now–to that most basic question: Who is Jesus?  If we’ve been a Christian for a long time, how has our answer to that question changed? And where have we gone, or go, to get more information about him or opportunities to experience what others describe as his spiritual presence in their lives?

Rest assured that people have wondered about Jesus from the very beginning. In his lifetime, people around him kept asking: who is this guy? What manner of man is this? In the passages leading up to the one I just read, John the Baptist–Jesus’ cousin and the one who baptized him–is in prison, and he’s wondering who Jesus is. He sends his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come? Or are we to look for another?”

In a sermon preached two weeks ago, I answered the question by way of testimony. I spoke of who Jesus is to me, how I came to the Christian faith, and how my relationship with him and understanding of him has changed over the course of my life. That part of my story is reflective of the adage, Faith is more often caught than taught, which is to say, I came to faith as I saw it lived out in other people. Only later did I take the time to learn anything about this person, Jesus, that others had told me about.

Today I’d like to come at the question from the written witness about Jesus in the part of the Bible Christians call the New Testament. There are 27 documents in the New Testament, all short and probably written between A.D. 50 and 95. They include four books known as gospels, named for their presumed authors Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The gospels offer a great deal of information about Jesus, but they’re not biographies in the ways we might understand that genre. For they were written by people who had come to believe certain things about Jesus that they wanted to preserve for others who believed the same things and for others who might become followers of  Jesus with them. The four accounts are by no means identical, but in their diversity, they are remarkably consistent in telling the narrative of the man Jesus. (Hamilton, Adam. Creed: What Christians Believe and Why (Creed series) (Kindle Locations 395-400). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.)

From the New Testament record, then, this is what we know (with thanks to world religions scholar Huston Smith for this outline):  

Jesus was born in Palestine during the reign of Herod the Great. He grew up in the town of Nazareth. He emerged as a public figure in his early 30s, rising up out of the movement begun by the John the Baptizer. He had a ministry of healing and teaching that lasted about three years, focused primarily in the region of Galilee, primarily focused on what he called “the Kingdom of God.” He made the fateful decision, however, to bring his message to Jerusalem, the center of religious and political power. There he openly challenged the religious leaders of his people, which did not sit well with them. He also aroused suspicions of the Roman authorities, and that led to his crucifixion, a form of death they reserved for insurrectionists and escaped slaves. Jesus died as a young man.

It’s impossible to understand Jesus without placing him in the tradition of the spiritual prophets of ancient Judaism. These were people who had a strong sense of a spiritual realm that informs and gives meaning to human existence. Jesus was exceptionally connected to and empowered by this spiritual realm, and he used his connection to heal people. As his disciple Peter said about him after his death, Jesus went about doing good. (Acts 10:38)

Jesus was an extraordinarily vivid teacher. “Jesus talks of camels that squeeze their humps through needles’ eyes,” writes Huston Smith. “His characters go around with timbers protruding from their eyes while they look for tiny specks in the eyes of others.” His teaching style was invitational. “Instead of telling people what to do or believe, he invited them to see things differently, confident that if they did so, their behavior would change.”

Jesus’ core message is simple, summarized in a few, often-repeated phrases: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Love your enemies.” “Blessed are the poor.” “Forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven” (in other words, if you’re still counting, you’ve missed the point). And the wonderfully evocative, consoling words we read today: “Come unto me all you that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

Most of the time Jesus told stories: of buried treasure, lost coins, and sowers in the field; of a good Samaritan (which would be like us telling a story today about a good gang leader), a man who had two sons. More than anything Jesus wanted people to believe two important facts of life: God’s overwhelming love for us and our need to accept that love and let it flow through us.

Jesus lived in such a way that people believed him when he spoke of God’s love, for he himself loved freely. He heart went out to all people, no matter if they were rich or poor, young or old, saint or sinner. He knew that everyone has a need to belong, and he encouraged those who had the means to invite the poor, the lame and the blind to their tables. He loved children, and he hated injustice for what it did to the most vulnerable people. He also hated hypocrisy, for what it did to the human soul. (This is a summary of Huston Smith’s description as found in The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition (New York: HarperCollins, 2005).)

Jesus seemed to know that the journey into Jerusalem would end in his death. In fact, in the words of Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton, (and I’m reading now from Hamilton’s book, Creed: What Christians Believe and Why):

Jesus seemed to view his death as the only way to usher in the kingdom he taught about. On Thursday night of what we now call Holy Week, Jesus had one last meal with his disciples, redefining the meaning of the Jewish Passover Seder. He hoped that his disciples might thereafter share a meal of bread and wine as a means of remembering the events that were about to unfold. On Friday morning, at the urging of the religious authorities, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to death. Jesus was given a crown of thorns as the Roman soldiers mocked him and beat him. He was nailed to a cross, then lifted up to hang before the crowd. They watched as he was left to suffer. Yet in his death, Christians would come to see profound meaning: an act of divine suffering whose end was redemption for the human race. He was taken down from the cross and hastily buried in a borrowed tomb.

That should have been the end of the story.

But on Sunday morning, the heavy stone that sealed the entrance to the tomb had been tossed aside, and the tomb was found to be empty. Jesus appeared on that day to a couple of women, and to his disciples and a few others.

Over the next forty days, Jesus appeared again and again to his disciples in various places and ways. Finally Jesus bid the disciples farewell one last time and commanded, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”

This is who Jesus was when he lived on this earth and what his first disciples believed about him. Their testimony has been handed down to us.

I want you to know these things about him, and more, all that helps us understand why our ancestors began to speak of him as the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, how they came to the extraordinary conclusion that in Jesus we see not only what it means to be fully human, but also that in him, we see God.  

In the words of St. Paul:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,  being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

Or from the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

Jesus’ teachings and the stories told about him are amazing. And yes, our forebears believed that he was, in fact, God. But if all the Church did was to teach about Jesus it wouldn’t explain the power associated with him name. As important as learning about Jesus is, it wouldn’t help us understand why he is revered as God if we also didn’t come to experience him, which enables us to believe in him in a way that changes how we live. There is a world of difference between knowing things about him and believing in him.

Believing in Jesus is not always easy. So if you struggle with your belief in Him, don’t imagine that you’re alone here. Or if you’ve already decided that you can’t believe in him, don’t imagine that somehow sets you apart from the rest of us. Doubt is a part of faith. In the end, our choices, that is to say, our spiritual practices, are what guide us when doubt sets in or our fervor wanes.

I’m here today to encourage you, no matter where you are on the path of faith, to consider taking one step further in your efforts to know Jesus, asking yourself what it might look like now for you to follow him. I happen believe that what our church teaches about Jesus and promises for us when we put our trust in him to be true. I have no doubt the world would be a better place for everyone who showed up in church on Sunday morning if they decided on Monday morning to go one step further in taking Jesus’ teachings to heart, committing to know him more deeply and doing our part to love others as he loves.

What does it look like to believe in Jesus? I think we catch glimpses of him, often through the lives of other people. For most of us faith is more often caught than taught. And we don’t recognize him at first; sometimes we don’t recognize him at all. But other times, somehow we hear him call our name. And in that moment, we feel his presence and love.

Believing in him is also like leaning into thin air, trusting that a rope will hold. It involves letting go. When I imagine what it will be like to die, I think of leaning back, letting go, and trusting that God will be there to catch me. Believing in Jesus now involves practicing, in small ways, leaning back and letting go as I live.

Believing in Jesus also involves accepting change. To believe in resurrection is to trust that we can have another chance, a fresh start. That’s what the passage from St. Paul we read today was trying to get at: Paul was writing on a really bad day, when everything that went wrong for him was his fault and he knew it. Have you ever had a day like that? I certainly have and on those days, it’s good know that in Jesus we can start again. More than that: to believe in Jesus is to trust that no matter how bad things get, no matter how stark the failure or disappointment or grief, God can raise new life in us, which gives us courage to face the greatest surrender and loss that awaits us all when we take our final breath.

So here is my invitation to you: Why not take some time this summer and read again, or for the first time, one or more of the four gospel accounts? If you’ve never read one through from beginning to end, I recommend you start with the Gospel of Mark, and read along with those of us who follow what’s called the daily lectionary. Or the Gospel of Luke. Hold off on the Gospel of John until you’ve read the other three–it was written later and has a different perspective that makes more sense once you have the other three under your belt.

More important, talk with one another. Ask each other, at dinner, over coffee, while taking a walk, “Who is Jesus?” Piece together all that you know about him and take time to fill in some of the missing pieces. If you’ve been a Christian for a while, ponder whether your understanding and experience of him has changed. If you’re going on an adventure and meeting new people, dare to ask them to tell you a bit of their faith story and share some of your own. Be open to the ways he might speak to you, be present for you, saying words that your soul most needs to hear, such as:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

 

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Who Do You Say That I Am? A Bishop’s Testimony

This is the bishop’s final blog post of the summer. She’ll resume writing in September.

Jesus asked  his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Matthew 13:13-16

This spring, we piloted an Alpha course at Washington National Cathedral, an introduction to the Christian faith that comes from an Anglican Church in London, Holy Trinity Brompton. Each session focuses on a question that gets to the heart of the Christian faith. A speaker addresses the question for about 20 minutes, followed by an hour of open-ended, small group conversation.

Giving talks for two of the Cathedral Alpha talks has inspired me to prepare talks for all ten Alpha sessions. And I’ll start with the first: Who is Jesus?

While I’ve read my share of books and know my Bible pretty well, the heart of my answer to this foundational question of the Christian faith isn’t academic. It comes from my life experience. In the final version of my talk, I’ll start with the biblical witness. For today, I give you a piece of my testimony.

A little bit about my religious upbringing, which was spotty. I was born in New Jersey; my parents divorced when I was an infant. My mother, a Swedish immigrant, worked hard to raise my older sister and me alone. At some point she found an Episcopal Church and she started attending there, in large part because two other divorced woman raising children alone went to that church.  

Shortly afterwards, however, my sister and I went to live with our father in Colorado. He didn’t attend church and was rather hostile to religion. But a friend invited me to her church on Easter Sunday; it was a church with an altar call, and at the end of his sermon, a kind young minister invited those who wished to invite Jesus into their hearts to come forward. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I was drawn to step into the aisle and make my way to the front. The minister gently prayed for me, his hands resting lightly on my head. I don’t remember feeling the kind of power that some people describe at the moment they accepted Christ, but I felt something. I’ve never turned back.

My prayer life deepened in those years, which was a good thing, because my family life took a tough turn. I came to associate the feeling of being loved, of sensing that someone was with me even when I was alone, with Jesus. I still do. When I pray each day, both in quiet at the start of my day, and on the run–which is where I do most of my praying–I feel his presence. And if I don’t feel his presence when I pray, I remember what he said about being with us always even to the end of the age. I hang on to that promise.

When my dad and step-mom divorced the middle of my junior year, I went to live with the minister of my new church. To live with a Christian family was an amazing gift. They were warm, loving, generous people–and very human. I noticed a real difference between the minister who preached on Sundays and the man he was at home. He wasn’t awful at home, but he was human. I realized that even he wasn’t living according to what he taught at church. It confused me that we couldn’t talk about the gap between who we are called to be as followers of Jesus and who we are.

Eventually I returned to live my mother in New Jersey. The Episcopal priest of my childhood welcomed me, and intentionally mentored me in faith. He helped me make sense of what had happened to me, both personally and spiritually. He helped me appreciate the gifts I had received from the church in Colorado and the gifts available to me in the Episcopal Church. And my faith and love for Jesus grew.

In college I worshipped as a Catholic, as it was the service on campus where I felt most at home. In those years, I was profoundly inspired by nuns and priests who were serving the poor and dying alongside them in Central America, and lay Catholics I met who were committed to voluntary poverty through the Catholic Worker movement. It was in college that I first learned about the Civil Rights Movement in this country, and how Christian leaders–Martin Luther King, Jr. and others–were at the helm of that great work of justice. I wanted to be that kind of a Christian–brave, compassionate, willing to put everything on the line for Jesus and those whom he called the least among us.  

After college I worked for the Methodist Church for two years as a lay missionary–not an evangelist, but one working among the poor. This was in Tucson, and our ministry served both the dislocated poor of the East Coast and Midwest, families that packed everything they had in cars and drove to the Southwest in search of work–1980s version of the great Dust Bowl migration–and those fleeing violence from Central America during height of the terrible wars there. As much as I loved my Methodist colleagues,  on Sundays I found my way back to the Episcopal Church. It was in those years that I discerned the call to ordained ministry. By then I was spending most of my time with what might be called “social justice” Christians, those whose faith is guided more by Matthew 25 than by John 3.16.

I always assumed Jesus was calling me to live and serve on the margins of society, among the poor and disenfranchised, perhaps even in another country. My husband and I spent our first year of marriage in Central America, in part to test that call. But in ways that both surprised me then and make all the sense in the world in retrospect, after seminary and marriage, I found myself drawn to parish ministry. To my amazement, I loved it.

Rather than living on the margins of society, I have served all of my ordained ministry at the center of our society, 25 years as a parish priest and now as bishop. My sense of call is to the spiritual renewal of the Episcopal Church and our collective service to Christ’s mission of healing, reconciliation and justice. I often feel as if God is asking me to stand in the gap between Christians who feel they have absolutely nothing in common with each other and help create pathways for us to learn from each other’s strengths and fill in each other’s blind spots. I also believe that as Christians we are called to love others as Jesus loved and if we did, this world of ours would be a much better place for all of God’s children.

One thing I have learned in my life’s wanderings and experiences is how many different ways there are to be a Jesus follower. That diversity of expression, worship and understanding is a gift, both wondrous and enriching. It can also be really challenging–for so many core issues are at stake for us. But Christians have been disagreeing with each other since the Council of Jerusalem was recorded in Acts 15, not to mention the blow up Paul had with Peter as he recounts in his letter to the Galatians.

There is always something to learn in the conflict–in some cases because one side is clearly right and just and the other clearly wrong and even evil. But more often than not, the real spiritual maturity comes in the tension itself and what we learn from it about ourselves, about the truths others see that we do not and the truths that we hold, and about God who is right there with us, in the place of tension and discomfort.

I’m convinced that much of the conflict we experience in life is not necessary, that we live in a culture that fuels conflict and exacerbates division in ways that do not serve a God of love. But I’m also struck that  Jesus also assures us in the midst of the conflicts we cannot avoid, or that he asks us to face for the sake of his truth, that he is with us in the midst of it. I hold onto that promise. I also strive to remember that in the end, when we know fully, as St. Paul says, as we are now fully known, that what will be revealed is faith, hope, and love–and the greatest of these is love.

Beginning in September, I’m going to be focusing the core questions of Alpha course. My hope is that my reflections will prompt you to go deeper in your own exploration of them, so that together we grow in faith and in love. And if between now and then, you’d like to share with me some of your testimony–or the questions that keep you up at night–I’d love to hear from you.

 

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Acknowledging Jesus Before Others: A Bishop’s Testimony

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother,  and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Matthew 10:24-39

When I was in high school, the Episcopal priest of my church was the greatest spiritual influence on my life. He was the kind of preacher who made me feel as if he had been following me around all week and then was able to speak precisely the word that God wanted me to hear. He was also an intentional father figure, meeting with me regularly to talk through issues of life. He encouraged me in my personal growth as a Christian and as a lay leader in the church. He taught me about prayer, the study of Scripture; about tithing and living a life of generosity. I also confess that he intimidated me. I hated to disagree with him or counter his counsel, because it felt as if I were disagreeing with God.

I must have been on some kind of planning committee for our graduation, because somehow it came up in conversation at school that we needed a speaker for our baccalaureate service. I suggested my priest and the school agreed. When he came to school for a planning meeting, I was so intimidated by his presence that I could barely say a word. I couldn’t even make eye contact with him, much less speak directly to him in that setting.

The next Sunday in church, he asked, “Mariann, why did you ignore me at your school? Why didn’t you acknowledge me?” It hurt and puzzled him. “I thought you loved me,” he said. And I felt so ashamed. He didn’t intend to invoke shame in me–he was genuinely curious, and a bit sad, for it caused him wonder if he was as important to me as he had thought.

Jesus said “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

I’d like to speak to you today about acknowledging Jesus.  

I’m aware Christ Church is among the many churches that have used the Alpha Course, a tremendously influential introduction to the Christian faith created by an Anglican Church in London–Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Brompton. Alpha is designed for people who have no experience, or no positive experience, of the Christian faith. At its best, the Alpha course is offered freely, with lavish hospitality. There is no pressure to become a Christian, although its approach is clearly evangelical, telling the good news about Jesus as convincingly as possible. Thus it’s also a way for seasoned Christians to practice sharing their faith in a respectful, loving way.

We piloted an Alpha course at Washington National Cathedral this spring, as did several other congregations throughout the diocese. I gave two of the Alpha talks for the Cathedral gathering, an experience has inspired me to prepare talks for all 10 Alpha questions:

Who is Jesus?
Why did Jesus die?
How can I have faith?
How and why do I pray?
How and why should I read the Bible?
How does God guide us?
Who is the Holy Spirit?
What does the Holy Spirit do?
How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?
How can I make the rest of the most of my life?
How can I resist evil?
Why and how should I tell others?
Does God heal today?
What about the Church?

It’s going to take me awhile to prepare all these talks, but I’m starting today with you, as I begin to answer the question for anyone who might ask me, “Who is Jesus?”  

This is not the final version of what will eventually be my Alpha talk on Jesus,  but merely the beginning, as I seek to be one who acknowledges Jesus before others. In essence, I’d like to give you part of my testimony.  I would be thrilled if  any of you, in response, feel moved to share your testimony with me.

A little bit about my religious upbringing, which was spotty, to put it mildly. I was born in New Jersey; my parents divorced when I was an infant. My mother, a Swedish immigrant, did her best to raise my older sister and me alone, as she worked full time and went to college in order to be certified as a physical therapist in this country. I was christened at the Methodist Church in our neighborhood, but I don’t remember our family ever attending there. At some point my mother found  an Episcopal Church and she started attending there solely because two other divorced woman raising children alone who went to that church. Divorce was rare in the early 1960s and something of a scandal. My mother was grateful for the friendship and solidarity of these women.

I remember singing the children’s choir and attending Sunday School. I have one particularly vivid memory of lying to my Sunday school teacher about my family (I don’t remember the lie) and my mother asking me about it afterwards. It hadn’t occurred me, I suppose, that they would ever talk to each other.

The priest of that church was the same man I mentioned at the beginning of my sermon, but his influence on my life as a young child was interrupted when my sister and I went to live with our father in Colorado. How that came to be is a painful story, for which I carried considerable guilt for a long time. Suffice to say that age 11, I hurt my mother deeply, as did other significant adults in my life.

My father didn’t attend church and was rather hostile to religion. One summer my stepmother enrolled me Vacation Bible School  and I remember loving the songs we sang.  Another summer, the year I was caught shoplifting, I wound up having a thoughtful one/one conversations with a Christian man who took an interest in me–I’m not sure how or why.

I wasn’t among the popular kids in high school, but I had a few good friends who were instruments of grace in my life. One invited me to her church on Easter Sunday. It was a church with an altar call, and at the end of his sermon, a kind young minister invited those who wished to invite Jesus into their hearts to come forward. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I was drawn to step into the aisle and make my way to the front. The minister gently prayed for me, his hands resting lightly on my head. I don’t remember feeling the kind of power that some people describe at the moment they accepted Christ, but I felt something. I’ve never turned back.

I attended Young Life as a teenager, a Christian gathering organized in schools. The leader of our school choir was a Christian and he invited a minister from a new church in town to recruit singers for a summer touring choir that would perform in churches from Colorado to the Mexican border and back. That sounded amazing to me. I was accepted into the choir and sang my heart out for Jesus that summer. When we came back, I joined the church.

That church also had an altar call every week, and even though I had already accepted Jesus, every time I heard the invitation, I felt as if I should go up again,  because whatever was supposed to happen to me when I became a Christian hadn’t yet happened. So one Sunday, I surprised everyone, including myself, when I came forward for prayer. Afterwards the minister suggested that I be baptized. I had been baptized as a child, but this church didn’t believe in infant baptism. So I was baptized again, full immersion in the swimming pool of the apartment complex where the minister and his family lived. I wish I could say that I rose from from the water a new person, but I was still me. I did, however, feel loved, and my commitment to follow Jesus grew.

My prayer life deepened in those years, which was a good thing, because my family life took a tough turn. I came to associate the feeling of being loved, of sensing that someone was with me even when I was alone, with Jesus. I still do. When I pray each day, both in quiet at the start of my day, and on the run–which is where I do most of my praying–I feel his presence. And if I don’t his presence when I pray, I remember what he said about being with us always even to the end of the age. I hang on to that promise.

When my dad and step-mom divorced the middle of my junior year, I went to live with the minister and his family for a time, until I could figure out what next to do. My dad was drinking a lot and living in an apartment alone. My stepmom didn’t like me very much, and I knew I couldn’t live with her, although leaving her meant  abandoning my younger half brother, a regret I carry with me to this day.

That the minister and his family welcomed me was an amazing gift. It was instructive to live with a Christian family. They were warm, loving, generous people–and very human. I noticed a real difference between the minister who preached on Sundays and the man he was at home. He wasn’t awful at home, but he was human. I realized that even he wasn’t living according to what he taught at church. I didn’t get angry about that, but I  felt confused that we couldn’t talk about the gap between who we are called to be as followers of Jesus and who we are.

Eventually I decided–or my mother decided for me–that it was time for me to return and live with her in New Jersey. She still attended the Episcopal church that had welcomed her as a divorced woman. The minister of my church in Colorado didn’t think it was a good idea for me to attend an Episcopal Church church, as he didn’t have the sense that Episcopalians believed in Jesus. I was pretty sure they did, but I didn’t know what to say.  I knew my mother believed in Jesus–in fact, in the years I had been away, her faith and love for him had grown, and also her strength. She had experienced healing in the years my sister and I were away, which allowed her to live with both joy and generosity despite the struggles of her life. I felt blessed and grateful that she was willing to welcome me home.

The priest of my childhood also welcomed me back, and he very intentionally mentored me in faith. He helped me make sense of what had happened to me, both personally and spiritually. He helped me appreciate the gifts I had received from the church in Colorado and the gifts available to me in the Episcopal Church. And my faith and love for Jesus grew.

In college I worshipped as a Catholic, as it was the service on campus where I felt most at home. In those years, I was profoundly inspired by nuns and priests who were serving the poor and dying alongside them in Central America, and lay Catholics I met who were committed to voluntary poverty through the Catholic Worker movement. It was in college that I first learned about the Civil Rights movement in this country, and how Christian leaders–Martin Luther King, Jr. and others–were at the helm of that great work of justice. I wanted to be that kind of a Christian–brave, compassionate, willing to put everything on the line for Jesus and those whom he called the least among us.  

After college I worked for the Methodist Church for two years as a lay missionary–not an evangelist, but one working among the poor. This was in Tucson, and our ministry served both the dislocated poor of the East Coast and Midwest, families that packed everything they had in cars and drove to the Southwest in search of work–1980s version of the great Dust Bowl migration–and those fleeing violence from Central America during height of the terrible wars there. As much as I loved my Methodist colleagues,  on Sundays I found my way back to the Episcopal Church. It was in those years that I discerned the call to ordained ministry. By then I was spending most of my time with what might be called “social justice” Christians, those whose faith is guided more by Matthew 25 than by John 3.16.

I always assumed Jesus was calling me to live and serve on the margins of society, among the poor and disenfranchised, perhaps even in another country. My husband and I spent our first year of marriage in Central America, in part to test that call. But in ways that both surprised me then and make all the sense in the world in retrospect, given my upbringing and deep desire to create a different kind of family life for our children, after seminary and marriage (my husband is a practicing Roman Catholic who was discerning his own call to priesthood when we met), I found myself drawn to parish ministry. To my amazement I loved it and was rather good at it.

Rather than living on the margins of society, I have served all of my ordained ministry at the center of our society, 25 years as a parish priest (18 of them in the same church) and now as bishop of this diocese. My sense of call is to the spiritual renewal of the Episcopal Church and our collective service to Christ’s mission of healing, reconciliation and justice. I often feel as if God is asking me to stand in the gap between Christians who feel they have absolutely nothing in common with each other and help create pathways for us to learn from each other’s strengths and fill in each other’s blind spots. I also believe that as Christians we are called to love others as Jesus loved and if we did, this world of ours would be a much better place for all of God’s children.

One thing I have learned in my life’s wanderings and experiences is how many different ways there are to be a Jesus follower. That diversity of expression, worship and understanding is a gift, both wondrous and enriching. It can also be really challenging–for so many core issues are at stake for us. And there are times, as Jesus said, that feels as if he has come among us not to bring peace but a sword and that our greatest foes are among our own household. But Christians have been disagreeing with each other since the Council of Jerusalem was recorded in Acts 15, not to mention the blow up Paul had with Peter as he recounts in his letter to the Galatians.

There is always something to learn in the conflict–in some cases because one side is clearly right and just and the other clearly wrong and even evil. But more often than not, I think, the learning, the growing, the real spiritual maturity comes in the tension itself and what we learn from it about ourselves, about the truths others see that we do not and the truths that we hold, and about God who is right there with us, in the place of tension and discomfort. For the same Jesus who said, For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household was the one uniquely moved to compassion when faced with sin and suffering as Fr. Vander Wel expounded upon so compellingly for you last Sunday.

I’m convinced that much of the conflict we experience in life is not necessary, that we live in a culture that fuels conflict and exacerbates division in ways that do not serve a God of love. But I’m also struck that  Jesus also assures us in the midst of the conflicts we cannot avoid or that he asks us to face for the sake of his truth, that he is  with us in the midst of it. I hold onto that promise, and I also strive to remember that in the end, when all that is in darkness is revealed and we shall see and know fully, as St. Paul says, as we are now fully known, that what will be revealed is faith, hope, and love–and the greatest of these is love.

When I ultimately complete my Alpha talk on “Who is Jesus?” I’ll spend more time in the Scriptures, presenting “the evidence” as the founder of Alpha Nicky Gumbel puts it, that Jesus is who he says he is. But I wanted you to know something of my heart, and my faith, and that as your bishop, I would love to know something of yours.

I want you to know that I pray only the best for Christ Church, Accokeek, that your lives and ministry will thrive. And I covet your prayers, not for me alone, but for the 87 other congregations in our diocese, as we strive to know and love Jesus, and share in his love for the world Jesus died to save.

 

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Baseball is Not Partisan

The Episcopal  Dioceses of Washington and Virginia are united in prayer for Representative Steve Scalise,  Zachary Barth, Matt Mika, and Capitol Police Officers Krystal Griner and David Bailey, that they may fully recover from their wounds. We’re praying for those who were in close proximity to the shooting,  that they may heal from the trauma of witnessing such violence.  We pray in gratitude for our community’s first responders and medical personnel who were there to protect and save lives. And we pray God’s mercy on the soul of James Hodgkinson.

Baseball brings Americans–and politicians– together. So does tragedy, as we look past our disagreements to care about those who suffer.  In the wake of violence, the nation needed President Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to speak words of unity, and they did not disappoint us. Senator Bernie Sanders, upon learning that Mr. Hodgkinson had volunteered for his campaign, strongly condemned the shooting and violence of any kind.

The shooting of a public official is a threat to our democracy, and it reverberates throughout the halls of government. “An attack on one us,” Speaker Ryan said, “is an attack on all of us.” Gun violence is  a bipartisan phenomenon. Today Representative Steve Scalise, a Republican, joins Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat, who was shot at an outdoor meeting with her constituents  in 2011.

Gun violence is also a national tragedy: more than 13,000 Americans have been injured by gunfire in  2017. Nearly 7,000 more Americans have died.  One statistic we don’t care about when counting the wounded and dead is political party affiliation.

Among these killed this year: Andrew McPaatter, a young African American father , shot dead in the Congress Heights neighborhood Southeast Washington. His grieving 7-year old son Tyshaun, featured recently in the Washington Post is one of the millions of American children growing up in high-crime communities where the threat of gun violence affects nearly every aspect of their lives. We won’t spend as much time publicly speculating on the shooting that killed Andrew, given that it happened on the other side of the Anacostia River, which, like it or not, is a political commentary of its own.

Baseball diamonds are part of America’s common ground. So are night clubs, churches, synagogues, mosques; public schools, community centers, and movie theatres; parking lots and street corners. What  these public sites have in common is gun violence.

Gun violence prevention is a civic responsibility and a spiritual vocation to which countless faith communities and their leaders are dedicated.  We refuse to believe that as a nation we are incapable of finding common ground on gun violence prevention. Our prayers for those who suffer are matched by a unified commitment to bring this national tragedy to an end.

The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, Bishop of Washington
The Rt. Rev. Shannon Johnston, Bishop of Virginia
The Rt. Rev. Susan Goff, Bishop Suffragan, Diocese of Virginia
The Rt. Rev. Ted Gulick, Assistant Bishop, Diocese of Virginia

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Building Our House on Solid Rock: The Importance of Evaluation

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Psalm 90:12

I’m in the midst of writing a self-evaluation, part of the annual review of my work as your bishop. It’s always helpful, and often humbling, to take stock of all that has been done and left undone in reference to specific goals and larger aspirations with which one begins any significant undertaking. Later this month I’ll meet with a small group of diocesan leaders and receive the feedback they have gathered, and with them reflect on ways I might lead the diocese more effectively in the future.

I believe in evaluation, as challenging as it can be. For how else can we determine the fruits of our efforts and learn how we might improve? It’s also a bit daunting because life continues even as we try to take stock and consider the deeper purpose of all that we do. The pace of my schedule makes it relatively easy to avoid asking questions about the fruitfulness of my work and the constructive criticism from others.That’s why it’s important for me to make evaluation a process of accountability with those most impacted by work and in prayer, as I listen for God’s will in my life.

Someone posed a question this week that I’m still pondering: “If you could spend most of your time where you feel you could make the greatest contribution, where would that be?” That, in large measure, is what I pray the evaluation process can help me discern. How can I best serve Christ and the mission entrusted to us in the time I’m given as your bishop?

It’s not only in work where such evaluative questions are helpful. Our work does not fully define any of us. How and what are we doing spiritually, relationally, and as beloved children of God given but one life to live? How we fill our days is how we are living our lives.

If summer is a time that affords you a bit of breathing room, might you consider the same question: “If you could spend most of your time where you feel you could make the greatest contribution, where would that be?”

While there are many demands that feel beyond our control, surely there are ways for us to make small adjustments in the direction of greater fruitfulness and fewer regrets. I personally love the idea of striving to improve in life and work 5% a year–not big leaps, but small, cumulative steps. To that end, I pray that God will teach us all to number our days, that we might spend the precious time we’re given on what matters most.

 

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