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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The Holy Spirit: More Than We Could Ask for or Imagine

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Acts 2:1-2

My husband and I spent last weekend catching up with close friends, John and Lynnell, who are traveling the world. Lynnell is a freelance writer and community activist. John is the chaplain and religion teacher at an Episcopal day school outside of Minneapolis. His school awarded him, if you can believe it, a year-long sabbatical. He and Lynnell are visiting sacred sites of the world’s major religions. They are also spending time in places where religion has played a prominent role in the most violent of wars and where religion has been a force for peace and reconciliation. They’ve met with leaders and practitioners of many faiths, listening to their stories and observing their rituals.

After listening to story after story, I asked them how observing, studying, and experiencing the amazing diversity of religious expression around the world has informed or affected their Christian faith.

John’s reply: “I’ve become less religious in terms of ritual and practice. I haven’t been to church very often and I don’t pray as much as I used to. But I love Jesus more. I’ve fallen in love with the guy. I’ve taken to memorizing his parables and teachings, and I strive to follow him in all  I say and do.”

Lynnell said something similar, but ever the journalist, she told me a story. By way of background: Lynnell grew up Baptist and attended Wheaton college, a conservative evangelical school in the Midwest. One of her Wheaton classmates moved to the Middle East shortly after graduation to start a Christian mission among Muslims. He and family have been there for over 30 years, and their ministry now invites young evangelical Christians from the United States to spend a year or more in Christian missionary work.

John and Lynnell visited her college friend and listened to his story. In the early years, he told them, he had assumed that his mission was to convert Muslims to the Christian faith. But what he learned is having an agenda like that is a non-starter in the Muslim world, because no one would trust him. (That’s a lesson for all of us, actually. If we have an agenda for other people, if we’re trying to “get them” to do something, we’re not trustworthy, either.) So he’s learned, and he is teaching a rising generation of Christian evangelicals, to follow Jesus, and love like Jesus, among Muslims in the Middle East with no agenda whatsoever.

Early last Friday morning I was privileged to be at Washington National Cathedral listening to your good friend and mine, Ray Suarez, interview Dean Randy Hollerith and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. As the interview was coming to an end, Ray asked the Presiding Bishop to give the nearly 500 Episcopalians in the room his charge. What did he want us to go out and do?

Bishop Curry paused and said that he’d rather defer to Jesus. Then he told a story found in the Book of Acts, Chapter 1,  just before the passage we read today of the coming of the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost. The disciples were still in that in-between, mysterious time after Jesus’ resurrection in which they had been experiencing him as alive–showing up on the road to Emmaus; meeting them on the shores of Lake Galilee and inviting them to breakfast; mysteriously appearing behind closed doors and then disappearing. This astonishing turn of events was  awe-inspiring and amazing. But they didn’t know what it meant and what they were supposed to do. Jesus told them, in essence, not to worry about all that they didn’t understand. “Stay put,” he told them. “Wait. For you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

What I want most to give you today, as your bishop and friend in Jesus, is an invitation to fall in love with Jesus. Don’t spend a minute more arguing with those whose of caricatures or misrepresentations of Jesus cause you to be embarrassed or ashamed to claim him as Savior and Lord. Read his words. Study his teachings. Follow in his way, which is the way of mercy, forgiveness, justice, and sacrificial love.

And I remind you, on this the Feast Day of the Holy Spirit, that Jesus promised that the same Spirit that dwelled in him would also dwell in us. The Spirit comes to us in a variety of ways, empowering us to do amazing things.

Every time the Spirit is mentioned in the Bible, something important is happening or about to happen: it was the Spirit who descended upon Jesus at his baptism, and that same Spirit who drove him out into the wilderness to wrestle with demons and gain clarity about vocation. And as Jesus was preparing to leave his disciples, he assured them they would not be left alone, that the Spirit would come and give them what they needed.

The Spirit’s presence is always a gift.  Sometimes it comes from beyond us, as it did  in the story told from Acts, giving us strength and power in a particular moment or circumstance that enables us to do what we alone could not do. Sometimes it comes from within, as Jesus describes it, as a kind of peace and consolation. St. Paul speaks of the Spirit in yet another way, as the one who endows us with gifts. “There are a variety of gifts,” he says, “but the same Spirit.”

Some of the Spirit’s gifts are synonymous to what we would consider talent or aptitude. And yet we pray on days like today for those being confirmed that their endowed gifts will be released, amplified, and sent forth to do good in the world.

It takes courage to acknowledge oneself as gifted in particular ways, for with the gifts, come the responsibility to exercise them. It takes courage to receive a gift that propels us forth to accomplish things we know we otherwise could not do. And it takes humility to acknowledge that we’re sometimes given strength and power beyond ourselves what we need precisely when we need it. The strength comes through us but it is not from us.

The preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote evocatively about how the Spirit works in us: “Say you’ve been in a bad mood, or a bad place, for the last year,” she writes.

It seems as if all you are doing is moving bricks from one poke to another in every realm of your life. Then one of those nights when you are lying awake in your bed, you hear one bird sing outside. Why is a bird singing in the middle of the night, you wonder, and then you realize it is not the middle of the night anymore. It is the edge of morning. The bird sings again and something in you softens. You take a deep breath for the first time in months and your chest opens up. You get a second wind. You can call this anything you like. I call it a gift of the Holy Spirit.

“Once you get the hang of it,” she goes on, “the evidence is easier to spot.

Whenever two plus two does not equal four but five—whenever you find yourself speaking with eloquence you know you do not have, or offering forgiveness you had not meant to offer, whenever you find yourself taking risk you thought you did not have the courage to take or reaching out to someone you had intended to move away from, you can be pretty sure that you are being gifted by the Holy Spirit.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Gospel of the Holy Spirit,” in Home by Another Way. (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1999), p.144.)

It is, for me, the most reassuring thing, to know that it’s never all up to me to make things right; it’s never all up to us to bring all the required strength, courage, wisdom for goodness to prevail. God’s Spirit, fully present in Jesus, is also at work in us, accomplishing, as St Paul said, far more than we could ask for imagine.

My final word to you this morning: if you’re going to be a Christian, be a robust Christian. Be a joyful, rigorous, fully engaged Christian. Follow Jesus. Study his teachings. Memorize his parables. Imitate his way of love in the world.

And just when it dawns on you that there is no way for you to live with that kind of selfless sacrificial love on your own, that’s exactly the moment to pray for the gift and power of the Holy Spirit Jesus promised. Through the Spirit you will be given power to love others without agenda, as he loves; serve without remuneration as he serves; forgive not counting the cost, as he forgives, and with him fulfill your uniquely gifted purpose to renew the face of the earth.

May it so for us all.

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Building Our House on Solid Rock: The Gift and Practice of Forgiveness

Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” John 20:19-23

Spiritual power—the Holy Spirit’s power—is an amazing thing. It’s like wind blowing through us and fire burning in us, giving us resilience and courage, capacities for mercy and forgiveness, passion and understanding that can take our breath away. It’s what makes us more of who we are. St. Paul describes it as power “at work in us, able to accomplish far more than we can ask for or imagine.”  

One of the most important spiritual decisions we make in life is how we choose to live in relationship to the Spirit’s power. This isn’t a one-time choice, but a daily practice. For while the Spirit comes to us as a gift, our receptiveness to the Spirit is something we can and must cultivate. Even when we aren’t feeling anything akin to inspiration, we can practice the skills and capacities that the Spirit may draw upon and amplify. Think, by way of analogy, of the artistically or athletically endowed: the most gifted spend hours each day practicing, working far harder than most of us realize at what they have received as a gift.   

Inspired by Jesus’ first charge to his disciples when he breathed his Spirit upon them, consider the Holy Spirit’s gift of forgiveness, and the work of it. Forgiveness may be the most important spiritual gift and practice for Christians, patterned after Jesus’ own forgiving ministry. Jesus taught, practiced, and embodied forgiveness throughout his life and on the cross as he died.  

Yet forgiveness is a universal virtue, finding expression in many faith traditions. In a small book, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, the Buddhist writer Jack Kornfield offers simple truths about the power of forgiveness and how urgently we need it.  

  • Quoting the Buddha: Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. 
  • Forgiveness is the necessary ground for any healing. It is hard to imagine a world without forgiveness. Without forgiveness life would be unbearable. Without forgiveness our lives are chained, forced to carry the sufferings of the past and repeat them with no release.
  • Forgiveness does not happen quickly. For great injustice, coming to forgiveness may include a long process of grief, outrage, sadness, loss and pain. True forgiveness does not paper over what has happened in a superficial way. It is not a misguided effort to suppress or ignore pain. It cannot be hurried. It is a deep process repeated over and over in our heart which honors the grief, and in its own time ripens into the freedom to truly forgive.

If  you are struggling to forgive someone, or to forgive yourself, take comfort that it is among the hardest of tasks, one at which we often fail when left to our own resources. Remember, too, that forgiveness is the Spirit’s gift, making possible far more than we can ask for or imagine. But like all gifts, we must be open to receive forgiveness, by cultivating in our hearts a desire for it and a longing to be free from the burdens of the past.

How, then, might we open ourselves to the Spirit’s gift of forgiveness?

Asking for it is a good place to start, as is practicing the forgiveness of lesser transgressions. Forgiveness is a gift but it is also a habit.

If the wound we’ve suffered or caused is too raw, we can give ourselves time to heal, practicing compassion for ourselves and finding safe places to release feelings of resentment or anger. We need to be careful, however, that release does not become a steady rehearsal of anger and recrimination. For anger can also become a habit.

It’s also important to distinguish between the times when forgiveness comes easily, and when it will be a long, slow journey. On the long roads, we needn’t seek to forgive too soon, but be open to God’s mercy and love. Forgiveness takes time.

Jesus has entrusted us with the greatest of responsibilities: to be persons of forgiveness and healing in his name. If we forgive, he tells us, others will be forgiven. If we retain their sins—that is to say, if we hold on to them and refuse to forgive—they will be retained, at great cost both to others and to ourselves. But while the work of forgiveness is ours to do, the gift of forgiveness comes to us, and through us, from the Spirit of God. It comes as a gift, in its time, to all who are open to receive.   

 

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Building Our House On Solid Rock: The Early Seasons of Ministry

Celebration at St. James (2)

Jesus said, “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.”
Luke 6:47-48

On the weekend of May 20-21, I was privileged to preside and preach at the celebration of new ministry at two of our congregations, St. James’, Potomac and St. John’s, Broad Creek, and to install as rector the Reverends Meredith Heffner and Sarah Odderstol, respectively. What follows are excerpts from the sermon I preached at both congregations on four essential tasks to undertake in the early seasons of ministry:

The beginning of a new season in ministry is a unique moment in the life of a congregation. There is so much to learn and to do, so many tasks and responsibilities that are part of the congregation’s life.  There are assumptions and expectations on both sides of this new relationship. There are challenges and opportunities, some that you had anticipated and others that will surprise you. Honestly, it’s hard to know where to begin. Yet it’s also a time that follows a lengthy period of prayer and discernment on both sides. Over many months, you’ve tested what it might feel like to share a life of ministry together, resulting in a call extended and accepted.   

Now you are here. God willing, there are many years of ministry ahead of you. Not everything that needs to be addressed can be addressed at once. What is most important in the this initial season life together?  What comes first?

1. Relationships
The first task is always relational and organic. It takes time for one who has been selected as a spiritual leader to become the leader. There is no shortcut for the kind of relationship building that is the foundation of every healthy church. St. Paul, using an image from the natural world, writes of being grafted into the life of a community, as a seedling is grafted into a larger plant. You need time to get to know each other–as a congregation, you need to become accustomed to your new rector’s  voice in the pulpit, her or his way of leading. She or he needs to come to know and love you enough to determine how best to lead.

2. Gentle, Courageous Ministry Evaluation
If only we could do nothing else in the first two years but get to know each other! But you are not a community on hiatus. Ministry is on-going: there decisions to be made, priorities to set, budgets to manage. You need to be about that necessary work and yet also use the gift of this time for the second important set of tasks in this season: gentle, courageous ministry evaluation.  

In these first months and years, it’s helpful to cultivate a kind of dual vision, where you’re paying attention as best you can to what’s happening and a larger sense of purpose and calling behind at the same time. One author on leadership defines this kind of vision as distinguishing what you see when you’re dancing on a dance floor from what you see from the balcony looking down at all the dancers, one of whom is you. The dance floor is his image for jumping right in together for the work at hand; the balcony for the kind of vision you see only from a distance, when you step back, even in part of your mind, as you’re still out there dancing. We need both perspectives, he says. In the first year or two of a new ministry, it’s especially important to both actively engage and save a little bit of time and energy for reflection and evaluation. (Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Harvard Business School Publishing, 2002)).

A Methodist minister in Herndon, VA, Tom Berlin, suggests a simple method for cultivating this kind of dual-vision, and that is to invoke what he calls the two most powerful words for leadership: So that.  Those who learn to use these two words, he says, will discover a way to clarify the intended, fruitful outcome of every ministry endeavor. (Tom Berlin and Lovitt H. Weems, Jr, Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results (Abingdon Press, 2001))

There is a lot of biblical inspiration for this kind of thinking. Once you start looking for them, you see the words so that throughout the Bible:

“Let your light shine before others others” Jesus said, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16)

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” writes St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, “so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

Let me give you a practical  example from one pastor’s experience with a congregation that had for many years hosted a Vacation Bible School.  He asked all those gathered to organize the upcoming summer’s VBS to complete the following sentence: Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that….

At first very few people wrote anything at all,  struggling to come up with the purpose of the Vacation Bible School.  At last one person shared what she wrote: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that the children of our church will experience a vacation bible school.” “Are there more possibilities?” the pastor asked. Another chimed in: Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that our children will experience church as fun.” The pastor’s thought was, “I’m not sure we need a curriculum for that.” After some time and deeper reflection the group came up with this: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that our children will come to know and love God more and that we will reach children in the community with God’s love whom we have not reached before.” (Story told in Bearing Fruit.)

That was a purpose they could get inspired to work to accomplish and invite others to join them. It was also one that could afterwards be evaluated on the basis of fruitfulness: did the children of our church have an experience of love? Were we able to reach children in the neighborhood? If not ,why not? What might we do better next time? For the purpose was no longer to have a vacation bible school. That was a means to end. If the means no longer served that ends, they were free to consider  something else. So that helps shift our focus from the activities of our church toward their intended outcome, one that can be measured in terms of fruitfulness.

3. Weathering a Storm
The third task in the early season of ministry is perhaps the hardest: weathering a storm together. I don’t know what the storm will be, and unless you’ve already experienced one, neither do you. But I know that one is coming, because they always do. There may well be more than one.  

Remember this: how we handle ourselves in a storm has a greater lasting impact than the storm itself. There’s no choice, when the storm comes, but to go through it, but if you can all keep in mind that how you handle yourself through it matters more than the storm itself,  you will cultivate enough emotional space for needed prayer and reflection–and when the storm passes, because it will–for evaluation. What did we learn about each other? About ourselves? What mistakes did we make? How did Christ reveal himself to us in the storm? How might we plan for the future so to avoid the conditions for that kind of storm to resurface?

4. Deepening Our Relationship with Christ
There is one last task I’d like to mention, saving as it were, the best or most important for last:

In these early years, I urge you as your bishop and friend, to devote yourselves to deepen your relationship with Christ and create at least one new avenue or endeavor exclusively devoted to that  endeavor in your common life.  Please think as creatively and broadly as you can, so that as many people at your parish grow deeper in a loving relationship with Christ as are able. I’m not talking about another evening class for your 10 most devoted attendees, but rather a comprehensive, multi-faceted approach that will reach as many of your community as possible.

I am persuaded that the future vitality of all our congregations, depends on that kind of spiritual renewal and commitment to a deep, transformative encounter with God’s love as revealed to us in Christ. For without it, we are running on our own energies, and our energies aren’t enough. We create a church in our image, for our purposes, according to our preferences, rather than seeking to be his faithful witnesses and doing what he asks of us in this time and place.

I have all sorts of ideas for how to go about this, and there are others who can be of help. And surely the Holy Spirit is hard at work among you, placing this yearning in your hearts, and that all manner of ideas and possibilities are bubbling up within and among you. Pay attention to them. Give time and energy to them, so that you might draw closer to Christ, hear his unique call for each one of you and as a community, and have something of spiritual value to invite others to share. And don’t imagine that you are doing this alone. We are all in this holy work together. Now is our time, so that the Episcopal Church we love may take its humble, fruitful place in God’s mission of reconciling, healing love.

 

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Homily for a Celebration of New Ministry (St. John’s Episcopal Church, Broad Creek and the Rev. Sarah Odderstol)

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It will not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
Jeremiah 17: 7-8

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
Ephesians 4:7, 11-16

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Mark 10:13-16

Let me begin with a word of thanks to God for the people of St. John’s and for your leaders who have faithfully guided the congregation through a season of transition. You have waited a long time for this moment, and it hasn’t been as easy path. I also give thanks to the Holy Spirit for bringing Sarah into discernment with St. John’s, and all that resulted in her call to join you ministry. I give thanks for family and friends, and those who surround her on every side.

It’s my happy task to call you to faithful and fruitful ministry, as you draw closer to the One who invites you to come to him as beloved children, experience the power of his reconciling, healing love and calls you to be like trees planted by water that does not cease to bear fruit.

The beginning of a new season in ministry is a unique moment in the life of a congregation. There is so much for Sarah to learn and to do, so many tasks that are part of St. John’s everyday life. There are assumptions and expectations; challenges and opportunities some you may anticipated and others that will surprise you. Yet it’s also a time for discernment, as you clarify together your core purpose as a faith community and the particular part of God’s mission you are being invited to join.

There is, God willing, a long life of ministry ahead of you, and not everything that needs to be addressed can be addressed at once.  In this sermon, I offer for your consideration four essential tasks of this early season of ministry together.

Relationships
The first task is relational and organic. It takes time for one who has been selected as a spiritual leader to become that leader. There is no shortcut for the kind of relationship building that is the foundation of every healthy church.  St. Paul, using an image from the natural world, writes of being grafted into the life of a community much like a seedling is grafted into a stronger plant. You need time to get to know each other–you as a congregation becoming accustomed to Sarah’s voice in the pulpit, her way of leading. Sarah, in turn,  needs to come to know and love you enough to determine how best to lead.

Gentle, courageous evaluation
If only we could do nothing else but get to know each other! Yet you are not a community on hiatus. There are decisions to make, plans to put into action, budgets to manage. How can you do the necessary work well and also save enough energy for the second important task of this season: gentle, courageous evaluation?

It’s helpful to cultivate a kind of dual vision: where you’re paying attention as best you can to what’s happening and to a larger sense of purpose at the same time. One author on leadership defines this as what you see from the dance floor and what you see from the balcony looking down at all the dancers, one of whom is you. The dance floor is his image for jumping right in together for the work at hand; the balcony for the kind of vision you see only from a distance, when you step back, even in part of your mind, as you’re still out there dancing. We need both perspectives. (Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Harvard Business School Publishing, 2002).)

A Methodist minister in Herndon, VA, Tom Berlin, suggests a simple method for cultivating this kind of dual-vision to invoke what he calls the two most powerful words for leadership: so that. Those who learn to use these two words, he says, will discover a way to clarify the intended, fruitful outcome of every ministry endeavor. (Tom Berlin and Lovitt H. Weems, Jr, Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results (Abingdon Press, 2001))

There is a lot of biblical inspiration for this kind of thinking. Once you start looking for them, you see the words so that throughout the Bible:

  • “Let your light shine before others” Jesus said, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16)
  • “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” writes St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, “so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
  • “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Let me give you a practical  example from one pastor’s experience with a congregation that had for many years hosted a Vacation Bible School. He asked all those gathered to plan for the coming year to complete the following sentence:

Next summer our church will have a vacation church school so that….

At first very few people wrote anything at all,  struggling to come up with the purpose of the Vacation Bible School.  At last one person spoke up: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that the children of our church will experience a vacation bible school.”  “Are there any other possibilities?” the pastor asked. Another said: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that children will experience church as fun.”  The pastor responded, “I’m not sure we need a curriculum for that.”

After some time and deeper reflection the group came up with this: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that our children will come to know and love God more and that we will reach children in the community with God’s love whom we have not reached before.”

That was a purpose they could be inspired by, get excited working toward and inviting others to join in. It was also one that could afterwards be evaluated by standards of fruitfulness: did the children of our church have an experience of love; were we able to reach children in the neighborhood? If not ,why not? What might we do better next time?

The purpose was no longer to have a vacation bible school. That was a means to a greater purpose. If the vacation bible school no longer fulfilled that purpose they were free to consider something else. The focus became less about the  activity but the outcome.

Weathering a storm
The third task is hard and yet extremely important: weathering a storm together. I don’t know what the storm will be, and unless you’ve already experienced one, neither do you. But I know that one is coming, because they always do. There may well be more than one.

Remember this: how we handle ourselves in a storm has a greater lasting impact than the storm itself. while you’re going through it. There’s no choice, when the storm comes, but to go through it, however if you can all remember that’s what you’re doing, it can help create enough distance for prayer and reflection. It will also encourage, when the storm passes (for it will pass) a post-storm evaluation. What did we learn about each other? About ourselves? What mistakes did we make? How did Christ reveal himself to us in the storm? How might we plan for the future so to avoid the conditions for that kind of storm to resurface?

Drawing closer to Christ
I’ve saved the most important task of this early season for last.

In this season, I urge you, as your bishop and friend, to deepen your relationship with Christ. Create at least one new avenue exclusively devoted to that endeavor in your common life, and think as broadly as you can about that, so that as many people at St. John’s grow deeper in a loving relationship with Christ as are able. I’m not talking about another evening class or mid-week service for your 10 most faithful attendees, but a whole church, multi-generational effort.

I have all sorts of ideas about that, and there are others who can be of help in this. No doubt the Holy Spirit has already planted this yearning in your hearts, and ideas and possibilities are bubbling up within and among you. Pay attention to them. Give time and energy to them, so that you might draw closer to Christ, hear his unique call for each one of you and as a community, and have something of spiritual value to invite others to share.

I am persuaded that the future of St. John’s, and all our congregations, depends on that kind of spiritual renewal and deeper experience of God’s love in Christ. Without it, we are running on our own energies, and our energies aren’t enough. Without it, we create a church in our image, according to our preferences, rather than open ourselves to the call of Christ to join in his redeeming work. But know that you needn’t do this alone. We are all in this holy work together. Now is our time, so that the Episcopal Church we love may take its humble, fruitful place in God’s mission of reconciling, healing love.

Let’s pray together: Loving God we are so grateful to be here, at this moment in the life of St. John’s, and we pause to give thanks to all those whose faithfulness and love sustained this community over the years of its life. We also give thanks for Sarah, for her love for you and the gifts you have endowed her with for leadership. And we thank you for her family. Bless this moment, Lord. Guide Sarah and the people of St. John’s to a place of deep trust and affection; help them to live into these first months and years with open and discerning hearts; be with them through whatever storms they might face, and through it all, in worship, study, retreat, service, times of quiet prayer, may they draw closer to you and serve your mission of love for others. In your name, Amen.

 

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Homily for A Celebration of New Ministry St. James’ Episcopal Church, Potomac and the Rev. Meredith Heffner

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.’
John 15:9-16

Let me begin with a word of thanks to God for the people of St. James’, for your leaders who have faithfully guided the congregation through a season of transition. I also give thanks to the Holy Spirit for bringing Meredith Heffner into discernment with St. James’ and all in that process that resulted in her call here. I give thanks for family and friends, and those who surround her with love on every side.

It’s my happy task to call you to faithful and fruitful ministry as you draw closer to the One who invites you to abide in his love, embrace his presence in your life as you would the closest of friends, and has appointed you to bear fruit that will last.

The beginning of a new season in ministry is a unique moment in the life of a congregation. On the one hand there is so much to learn and to do, so many tasks and responsibilities that are part of St. James’ everyday life. There are assumptions and expectations on both sides of this new relationship, challenges and opportunities, some that you had anticipated and others that will surprise you. Honestly, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Yet on the other hand, this is a time that follows a lengthy period of prayer and assessment on both sides. There’s been a time of meeting, sharing, testing the feel of a life together, and ultimately, a call extended and a call accepted.   

Now you are here. God willing, there are many years of ministry ahead of you. Not everything that needs to be addressed can be addressed at once. What is most important in the first two two years of life together? What comes first?

1. Relationships
The first task is relational and organic. It takes time for one who has been selected as a spiritual leader to become the leader. There is no shortcut for the kind of relationship building that is the foundation of every healthy church. St. Paul, using an image from the natural world, writes of being grafted into the life of a community, as a seedling is grafted into a larger plant. You need time to get to know each other–as a congregation, you need to become accustomed to Meredith’s voice in the pulpit, her way of leading. She needs to come to know and love you enough to determine how best to lead.

2. Gentle, Courageous Ministry Evaluation
If only we could do nothing else in the first two years but get to know each other. But that’s only one of several first tasks. For it’s not as if you are a community on hiatus. Ministry is on-going: there are decisions to be made, priorities to set, budgets to manage. You need to be about that necessary work and yet also use the gift of this time for the second important set of tasks in this season: gentle, courageous ministry evaluation. 

In these first months and years, it’s helpful to cultivate a kind of dual vision, where you’re paying attention as best you can to what’s happening and a larger sense of purpose and calling at the same time. One author on leadership defines this kind of vision as distinguishing what you see when you’re dancing on a dance floor from what you see from the balcony looking down at all the dancers, one of whom is you. The dance floor is his image for jumping right in together for the work at hand; the balcony for the kind of vision you see only from a distance, when you step back, even in part of your mind, as you’re still out there dancing. We need both perspectives, he says. In the first year or two of a new ministry, it’s especially important to both actively engage and save a little bit of time and energy for reflection and evaluation. (Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Harvard Business School Publishing, 2002).)

A Methodist minister in Herndon, VA, Tom Berlin, suggests a simple method for cultivating this kind of dual-vision, and that is to invoke what he calls the two most powerful words for leadership: So that. Those who learn to use these two words, he says, will discover a way to clarify the intended, fruitful outcome of every ministry endeavor. (Tom Berlin and Lovitt H. Weems, Jr, Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results (Abingdon Press, 2001))

There is a lot of biblical inspiration for this kind of thinking. Once you start looking for them, you see the words so that throughout the Bible:

“Let your light shine before others others” Jesus said, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16)

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” writes St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, “so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

Let me give you a practical  example from one pastor’s experience with a congregation that had for many years hosted a Vacation Bible School. He asked all those gathered to organize the upcoming summer’s VBS to complete the following sentence: Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that….

At first very few people wrote anything at all, struggling to come up with the purpose of the Vacation Bible School. At last one person shared what she wrote: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that the children of our church will experience a vacation bible school.” “Are there other possibilities?” the pastor asked. Another chimed in: Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that our children will experience church as fun.” The pastor’s thought was, “I’m not sure we need a curriculum for that.” After some time and deeper reflection the group came up with this: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that our children will come to know and love God more and that we will reach children in the community with God’s love whom we have not reached before.” (Story told in Bearing Fruit.)

That was a purpose they could get inspired to work to accomplish and invite others to join them. It was also one that could afterwards be evaluated on the basis of fruitfulness: did the children of our church have an experience of love?  Were we able to reach children in the neighborhood? If not ,why not? What might we do better next time? For the purpose was no longer to have a vacation bible school. That was a means to end. If the means no longer served that end, they were free to consider something else. So that helps shift our focus from the activities of our church toward their intended outcome, one that can be measured in terms of fruitfulness.

3. Weathering a Storm
The third task in the early season ministry is perhaps the hardest: weathering a storm together. I don’t know what the storm will be, and unless you’ve already experienced one, neither do you. But I know that one is coming, because they always do. There may well be more than one.  

Remember this: how we handle ourselves in a storm has a greater lasting impact than the storm itself. There’s no choice, when the storm comes, but to go through it, but if you can all keep in mind that how you handle yourself through it matters more than the storm itself, you will cultivate enough emotional space for needed prayer and reflection–and when the storm passes, because it will–for evaluation. What did we learn about each other? About ourselves? What mistakes did we make? How did Christ reveal himself to us in the storm? How might we plan for the future so as to avoid the conditions for that kind of storm to resurface?

4. Deepening Our Relationship with Christ
There is one last task I’d like to mention, saving as it were, the best or most important for last:

In these early years, I urge you, as your bishop and friend, to devote yourselves to deepen your relationship with Christ and create at least one new avenue exclusively devoted to that endeavor in your common life. Please think as creatively and broadly as you can, so that as many people at St. James’ grow deeper in a loving relationship with Christ as described so beautifully in the gospel text in your bulletins. I’m not talking about another evening class for your 10 most devoted attendees, but rather a comprehensive, multi-faceted approach that will reach as many of your community as possible.

I am persuaded that the future of St. James’, and all our congregations, depends on that kind of spiritual renewal and commitment to a deep, transformative encounter with God’s love as revealed to us through Christ. For without it, we are running on our own energies, and our energies aren’t enough. We create a church in our image, for our purposes, according to our preferences, rather than seeking to be his faithful witnesses and doing what he asks of us in this time and place.

I have all sorts of ideas about how to go about this, and there are others who can be of help. And surely the Holy Spirit is hard at work among you, placing this yearning in your hearts, and that all manner of ideas and possibilities are bubbling up within and among you. Pay attention to them. Give time and energy to them, so that you might draw closer to Christ, hear his unique call for each one of you and as a community, and have something of spiritual value to invite others to share.  And don’t imagine that you are doing this alone. We are all in this holy work together. Now is our time, so that the Episcopal Church we love may take its humble, fruitful place in God’s mission of reconciling, healing love.

Let’s pray together:
Loving God we are so grateful to be here, at this moment in the life of St. James’, and we pause to give thanks to all those whose faithfulness and love sustained this community over the years of its life. We also give thanks for Meredith–her love for you and the gifts you have endowed her with for leadership. Bless this moment, Lord. Guide Meredith and the people of St. James’ to a place of deep trust and affection; help them to live into these first months and years with open and discerning hearts; be with them through whatever storms they might face, and through it all, in worship, study, retreat, service, times of quiet prayer, may they draw closer to you and serve your mission of love for others. In your name, Amen.

 

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Building Our House on Solid Rock: Messages We Don’t Intend to Communicate

Jesus said, “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.”
Luke 6:47-48

Rusty TEC Sign

It’s said that we only have one opportunity to make a first impression. That’s something I think about when I drive past our small, often rusty “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” signs. For there isn’t one congregation in the diocese that describes itself as unwelcoming. Yet might our appearances communicate messages we don’t intend?

What poorly-kept signs unintentionally communicate is that our church is tired, and that we aren’t expecting anyone to pay attention to us, much less visit on a Sunday morning. Sadly, in some of our churches, that message is reinforced when people visit for the first time, not by how we treat them, but what our environment communicates.

In his book, Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend, Andy Stanley tells of a time when he attended a mid-week bible study at a friend’s church:

The group met in a medium-sized assembly hall…The first thing I noticed was the smell. The room smelled old. The second thing that caught my attention was the clutter. Stuff was scattered everywhere. Sunday school literature. Bibles. Hymnals. Umbrellas. The blinds on the half-dozen windows were all pulled to varying heights. There was a bulletin board with a half-dozen flyers randomly tacked to it. The wall color was bad. The carpet needed replacing.

What was immediately clear to Stanley was that the people who met in this room had done so for so long they didn’t see it anymore. It wasn’t that they enjoyed clutter; they no longer saw it. But as a visitor, he noticed it immediately.

The real tragedy, Stanley writes, was the environment communicated messages the church wasn’t aware of:

  1. We aren’t expecting guests.
  2. What we are doing here isn’t that important.
  3. We expect somebody to clean up after us.
  4. We don’t take pride in our church.

This is the second post in a series on the foundations of healthy parish ministry. It’s point is simple: our environments matter, and when we stop seeing them they can communicate messages at odds with what we want to convey to those who might enter our doors.

I invite you to walk the perimeter of your church grounds and throughout your building with the eyes of a visitor. Walk into your worship space, as if for the first time. What might a visitor see that we, in our familiarity, overlook? I am in a different church nearly every Sunday and I see things each week that as a rector for 18 years I stopped seeing. I’ve seen everything Stanley writes of, and more.  

I know for most of our churches, resources are limited. But cleaning up clutter doesn’t cost much. It would be a great summer project, cleaning and throwing things away.

My heart sinks when I walk into many of our parish libraries. The books look old and unread, like cast-offs from previous generations. What they unintentionally communicate is that there isn’t anything interesting or new to read about the Christian faith; that the faith is as tired and boring as the books on display. I long for all our libraries to be places of warmth and invitation, with some of the best Christian writings and audio/visual materials on display. It wouldn’t take much to throw out the book that hasn’t been opened in the last 20 years, and ask each member of the congregation to contribute books they have read and found helpful in their walk with Christ.  

What if we threw out the old furniture and raised funds for a few welcoming chairs and good lighting? And if we highlighted in photographs not only the past, but our present ministries, with faces of children, elders, and all in between?

Of course, we must do more than clean for our parishes to thrive. But we only have one chance to make a first impression. Or as Stanley writes, “Our environments are the message before the message.” So why not take some time this summer to evaluate what our parish environments are communicating and see what small changes we could make?

We could start by replacing all the rusty “Episcopal Church Welcomes You,” signs in the Diocese.  If you need help with yours, let us know.  

 

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Follow Up from Clergy Conference

Clergy Conference

Dear Colleagues,

Thank you for our time together at clergy conference. It was a blessing to be with you, and I’m especially grateful for the ways you engaged with the Rev. Dr. Ruthanna Hooke in her sessions, and with me as we discussed matters of importance to the ministry we share.

As promised, here are some of the materials we shared and an invitation to participate in on-going endeavors, all in the spirit of our continuous improvement as leaders.

Ruthanna preached at our opening worship and has graciously shared her text with us.

In the first session, I introduced you to the work of acting coach Patsy Rodenburg, and in particular, her views on the importance of presence when standing before others. We watched a brief video, The Second Circle, in which Rodenberg describes three circles of energy, and then discussed how others experience our presiding and preaching depending on which circle we’re in.

 

During our evening conversation on Tuesday, I mentioned my yearly practice of attending a local live simulcast of the Global Leadership Conference. If you and any from your congregation would like to join me, the conference is an affordable, accessible engagement with some of the most thoughtful, creative leaders from multiple disciplines. More information about attending the summit as part of the diocesan group is available here.

I also mentioned that on my sabbatical next year, I plan to spend some time in the non-Episcopalian churches that are thriving within our diocese. If there is a particular church near you that you’d like me to study, please let me know as I will be forming my list between now and next March.

On Wednesday morning, we spent time discussing the planning of meaningful, engaging worship. Last year’s General Convention authorized the use of experimental liturgies for the principal service with the bishop’s approval. I told those present that I have no problem with you experimenting with liturgical styles, provided you remain true to our core doctrine of faith, tell me what you’re doing, and commit to an evaluation process, so we might learn from your experiences.

We also talked about the value of advanced planning for preaching, a discipline I have long wanted to adopt. The Rev. Sue von Rautenkranz shared with us a planning calendar Episcopal Church educator Sharon Pearson created that we can use if we want to think ahead for next year.

The Rev. Cara Spaccarelli and I decided we would spend a few days working together on a year-long preaching schedule this summer. All are welcome to join us. We’re meeting first on Thursday June 29th, from 10:00 a.m. to 3 p.m. Then we’ll spend a few weeks on our own thinking about resources and themes to further develop and meet again for two days, July 12 and 13, from 10:00-3:00 p.m. For now, we’ll plan on meeting at Church House. Please let Mitchell Sams know if you are interested in participating on June 29, July 12 and 13, or both.

Cara also invites all clergy and their spouses to a dinner at her home on Saturday June, 10 from 5 to 8 p.m. so clergy spouses can get to know one another. Please RSVP if you plan to attend.

Finally, we shared thoughts on various programs to encourage deeper faith among our people and create points of entry for those exploring the Christian faith. For many, the Alpha Course  is a helpful tool. Dean Randy Hollerith and I will be working over the summer to craft presentations for use at the Cathedral and our congregations. Other resources in discipleship include Sparkhouse, Forward Movement’s Transforming Questions, and a new series from Pastor Adam Hamilton (a United Methodist pastor and author) Creed: What Christians Believe and Why and more.

Our goal as your diocesan team is to create a strong library of useful tools and serve as a clearinghouse of materials, so that you and your leaders can find meaningful resources. Together, we can deepen our culture of spiritual growth and create entry points for those new or returning to Christian faith.

One final thought on resources having to do with money. In the Episcopal Church, most of our work with financial stewardship focuses on helping our people learn to give and to live generously, but we spend almost no time on helping our members live with money and manage money well.

So we are searching for good resources and ways to facilitate money conversations not rooted in church budgeting, but on home budgeting. All Saints’ Church in Chevy Chase offered such a class this past year that was well received, and I know that St. John’s Lafayette Square has held budgeting sessions for their young adults. The Strategic Financial Resources Commission would love to know if you’ve done work in this important area, so that we can learn from one another. Email me with your experiences and resources that you’ve found helpful.

One resource recommended by many is the Financial Peace University. I will be taking the course this summer online for myself, so that I can learn more about it (and consider again my own relationship to money). Two churches in Central Montgomery County, Christ Church in Kensington and Church of the Transfiguration, will be offering the course this summer. We will evaluate the course afterwards and let you know the results.

It was a full conference! We are blessed by the gift of one another. Again thank you for our time together, and for the privilege of serving as your bishop.

Faithfully,

Bishop Mariann

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The Most Important Things We Say

 

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
John 14: 1-8   

In the name of God, Amen.

Happy Mother’s Day to the mothers in our midst. I’m awed to be standing near the table of photographs that many of you brought of your mothers, many of whom are no longer with us. I give thanks to God for them and for you, the gift of life we pass on, one to another.

In keeping with the theme of this sermon, which I speak more of in a moment, and in light of Mother’s Day, I’m reminded of a writer whose mother had died. As he was still working through his grief and loss, he had a dream one night that his mother wrote him a letter from heaven. In his dream he was so excited to hold the letter in his hands. It made him laugh out loud–it was so like her, he thought, to reach across even that boundary. But just as he was about to open the letter to read it, he woke up.

Such disappointment! But then he realized that he already knew what she would say. So he sat down and wrote a poem with the contents of her letter (see below).

***
This is a time of year when I attend and sometimes speak at a lot of services that have one thing in common–they all end in tion: confirmation; ordination; graduation; celebration.  Perhaps some of you have taken part in such services or will in the coming weeks. There’s some of that energy here today as we celebrate both Confirmation and Reception.

Another thing these services have in common is that the person speaking attempts to give words of inspiration and meaning, the best they’ve got to share for those whose celebratory moment is at the center of the gathering.  

What I invite you to think about today are those moments when we take the time to say the most important things to one another. On Mother’s Day, for example, we take time to make our mothers feel special and appreciate. In a more everyday kind of way, many people, when finishing a phone call with a family member or close friend might say? I love you.  

A friend of mine used to work as a chaplain at an assisted living/elder care facility, and he took it upon himself to encourage everyone there to write a love letter to their families. It wasn’t their will. It was a letter in which they shared their most important life lessons and hopes for their loved ones.

That isn’t something you need to wait until you’re nearing the end of your life. You can write a letter to your children or grandchildren as they pass an important milestone, or whenever you want to give someone a blessing. It’s such a gift to say what’s in your heart, and give a word of encouragement to someone who is beginning a journey that you’ve already gone through. It doesn’t matter if you’re 16 or 66: there’s someone behind you, about to go through what you’ve already experienced. What do might you say to them, in wisdom and encouragement?  

I remember one Christmas when our older son, who was in college at the time, struggled with what to get his younger brother for Christmas. He didn’t have much money, so he was scavenging around for silly–and cheap–things that he could wrap up and put under the tree. I suggested that he might write down for his brother, who was senior in high school that year, all the things he could tell him about life in college. He thought about that for awhile, decided it was a good idea, and then asked a couple of his friends for their thoughts. And on Christmas morning, he presented his brother with a list of advice about college. Actually, there were two lists–one that we, their parents, were allowed to read, and one that we weren’t.

My invitation to you–no matter your age or time in life–is this: sometime in the next few days, take the time to write down something of importance that you have learned in life and what matters most to you. Think of it as your love letter to those closest to you. Or imagine yourself speaking to someone about to enter a stage of life you have lived through–what might be helpful for them to know? What words of encouragement or love do you have to offer? And what  if those words were to be your last?

Several years ago a computer science professor named Randy Pausch gave what’s known in academic settings as a “last lecture.” This is when a teacher is asked to distill all his or her core convictions and essential knowledge into one presentation, and then speak as if giving the last lecture of his or her life. (TED talks are the latest version of this idea). It was particularly compelling for Randy Pausch, because at age 46 he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

He began by saying that his father always taught him that when there was an elephant in the room, it was important to name it. So he showed a slide of a recent cat scan of his liver and pointed out ten tumors. “The doctors told me I have three good months left,” he said. “That was a month ago; you can do the math.” He then showed a second slide of his family’s new home in Virginia. “I’m not in denial,” he said. “My family and I have moved to Virginia, so that when the time comes, my wife and three young children will live near family who will provide love and support.” He said this all this quite matter-of-factly. “If I’m not morose enough for you when facing death, I’m sorry. But I can’t do anything about the cards I’ve been dealt. All I can do is decide how to play the hand.”

The title of his lecture was, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” He spoke about the importance of overcoming obstacles, enabling the dreams of others, and seizing every moment of life. He listed his childhood dreams one by one and described how he had gone about realizing or attempting to realize them. On his list of childhood dreams: playing in the NFL; authoring an article in the World Book encyclopedia; being Captain Kirk; winning big stuffed animals; being a Disney Imagineer. Some of his childhood dreams he, in fact, realized. Equally important, he said, was what he learned from pursuing the dreams that he didn’t accomplish.

Pausch, for example, never played professional football. But what he learned playing football as a child and adolescent prepared him for life more than anything else. In playing football, for example, he learned the importance of focusing on fundamentals, getting the fundamentals of the game down, for without them, none of the fancy plays work. He learned the importance of being pushed hard by coaches and critics, for when, he says, “you see yourself doing badly and nobody’s bothering to tell you about it anymore, that’s a bad place to be. It means they’ve given up on you.” He learned the importance of building self-esteem through the process of facing, time and again, what you can’t do, and working at it until you can.

Finally, in playing football he learned that there is more than one meaning of a head fake. A head fake on the field is when a player moves his head one way, so that you’ll think he’s going in that direction, but then move in the opposite direction. “Watch a player’s waist,” he coach would tell him. “Where his belly button goes, his body goes.” The second kind of head fake, he said, is the really important one–the one that teaches people things they don’t realize they are learning until well into the process of learning them. Kids on the football field think their coaches want them to master football skills, and they do. But what they’re really teaching them are skills for life.

Pausch’s lecture was full of deep insight and one-liner advice: Remember that brick walls give you a chance to show how badly you want something. Not everything broken needs to be fixed. Always tell the truth. Being earnest is better than being hip. Don’t complain, just work harder. Don’t obsess over what other people think of you. Look for the best in everybody. Show gratitude. A bad apology is better than no apology. Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted, and experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.

At the end of his lecture on realizing childhood dreams, Pausch asked his audience, “Did you figure out the head fake? This lecture it’s not about how to achieve your dreams. It’s about how to lead your life. If you lead your life the right way, the dreams will come to you.” He asked again, “Have you figured out the second head fake? This lecture wasn’t for you. It was for my kids.” (You can watch his lecture on YouTube here. It was later published in expanded form: Randy Pausch with Jeffry Zaslow, The Last Lecture (New York: Hyperion Press, 2008)

We just heard Rev. Cassandra read a passage from the Gospel of John that is the beginning of what we could rightfully title as “Jesus’ Last Lecture.” The setting is at the last supper, the night before his death. He’s already shared bread and wine with his disciples, telling them that whenever they break bread together in the future, he will be with them. He’s wrapped a towel around his waist, taken a basin and pitcher of water and washed each one of the disciples’ feet, saying to them, “Do you see what I have done for you? I have given you an example, that you might serve others as I have served you.”

Then he sits down and speaks to them—three chapters’ worth of wisdom and assurance. They are some of the most inspiring passages of Scripture. It’s hard to read in one setting, for each sentence is enough to ponder for a day, or a lifetime.

The passage for today starts with a word of encouragement: don’t let your hearts be troubled. He wants to assure them that even though terrible things are about to happen, he is going to be fine, and that God is still God. I’m going away but I’ll never leave you. I’m going away but you know where I’m going.

The disciples are completely and totally confused. They have no idea what he’s talking about–they don’t know where he’s going; they certainly don’t know the way. And then he says to them: don’t worry. Just keep your eyes on me. I’ll get you there.

This is one of the great head fakes in the Bible. We’re reading a passage about Jesus speaking to his disciples, preparing them, it seems for his departure, for a life without him. But what he’s really describing is how they will experience his presence with them after his death.

And did you catch the second head fake? The words weren’t written for the first disciples. They were written for us. This is who he is for us and what he offers us now.    

There’s also a bit of a head fake to this sermon. All the while I’ve been encouraging you to consider what you have to say, what it would be like for you to take time to think through, write down, and share what’s most important for you. But what I really want you to take away from this sermon is the importance of finding those words of encouragement and wisdom for yourself.

Never forget, above all, that Jesus’ words are for you. Keep your eyes fixed on him, listen for his word, and no matter what, you’ll be all right.

****

Farewell Letter

by David Whyte

She wrote me a letter
after her death
and I remember
a kind of happy light
falling on the envelope
as I sat by the rose tree
on her old bench
at the back door,
so surprised by its arrival
wondering what she would say,
looking up before I could open it
and laughing to myself
in silent expectation.

Dear son, it is time
for me to leave you.
I am afraid that the words
you are used to hearing
are no longer mine to give,
they are gone and mingled
back in the world
where it is no longer in my power
to be their first
original author
nor their last
loving bearer.
You can hear
motherly
words of affection now
only from your own mouth
and only
when you speak them
to those
who stand
motherless
before you.

As for me I must forsake
adulthood
and be bound gladly
to a new childhood.
You must understand
this apprenticeship
demands of me
an elemental innocence
from everything
I ever held in my hands.
I know your generous soul
is well able to let me go
you will in the end
by happy to know
my God was true
and I find myself
after loving you all so long
in the wide
infinite mercy
of being mothered myself.

P.S. All your intuitions were true.

(“Farewell Letter,” by David Whyte, in Everything is Waiting for You (Langley, Washington: May Rivers Press, 2003) p. 23.)

 

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