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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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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