Holy Asides
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March 9, 2017, 8:12 PM

Leave and Listen

Last Saturday, the vestry met for their annual retreat. The Rev. Donna Mote, chaplain of the airport and the Missioner for Engagement and Innovation in the Diocese, was our retreat leader and reminded us of an important core value of the Church: we exist primarily to serve those who are not its members. This is summary of a quote made by Archbishop William Temple, who is not speaking just of individual congregations or parishes, rather the purpose of the Church as a whole is to serve those who are not presently a part of the Church. We, who know the glory of God’s redeeming work in and through Jesus Christ, are called to demonstrate that love and knowledge to the world around us.

This has a profound impact upon the ministries we choose to engage in, as well as our evaluation of the effectiveness of those ministries. Let’s take Friday Friends as an example. Why have we chosen to provide food for the weekend for 81 elementary school children at Walnut Creek? Is it to let people know how wonderful St. Joseph’s is? Is it to try and get those kids and their families to come to our church? Or is it simply to share the love of Christ in us with those whom we have discerned God has called us to serve?  Hopefully, you have chosen the third inquiry. Our mission as the Church is to discern the ways in our communities in which God is inviting us to shine forth Christ’s light and glory, without expectation that those to whom we go will begin attending the parish or become pledging members.

This is a bit counter-intuitive to everything we have heard or been taught through the church growth movement model. We hold Vacation Bible School in order for kids to bring their friends, who will bring their parents, who will bring their checkbooks, which will pay for our new education wing. However, the real reason to hold Vacation Bible School is to allow kids (and some teens and adults, for that matter) to experience the transforming power of God’s love for them-and to have FUN! Jesus is fun. He is life-giving.

The challenge before us is two-fold: to leave and to listen. We need to leave the church building and enter into the communities and neighborhoods that surround us. Not only is St. Joseph’s the only Episcopal Church in Henry County, but we are also the surrogate presence for Butts County.  In addition, we have an impact in parts of Newton and Rockdale Counties. That is a large area and a large demographic, with a great number of needs and concerns. This leads us to listen. We need to listen to the people that we encounter. What are their fears? Hopes? Needs? And we need to listen to God. We are called to discern together how we are to engage within our communities, how we can bring outreach, healing, prayer, and worship into the world that surrounds us. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. How will we bring forth that love to the world that does not know it?

January 16, 2017, 12:00 AM

Experiencing the Body of Christ

On a recent weekday, I was showing a visitor around the church and they noticed the monstrance set up on the altar for Eucharistic Adoration. She expressed some surprise, because it is not a common practice in many Episcopal churches. I recounted the way in which it has helped me in personal devotion, being still before the Lord, by providing a focal point when I am in the presence of Jesus. Sometimes, it seems the only time I am completely quiet is before the Blessed Sacrament. But, sharing that testimony also brought back a memory of an encounter that I had a while back at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.

Every Sunday afternoon, before their Evening Prayer Service, there is Eucharistic Adoration, which concludes with Benediction (the priest making the sign of the cross over the congregation with the Sacrament). I had been several times before, and I was often one of a handful in attendance. However, on this particular occasion, there were at least thirty or forty people seated in the back pews. For those who have not been to the Monastery, there is a section of seating in the back or in the balcony for the public, and other seating near the front of the church in large choir stalls for the monks and retreat guests. Soon the monks handed us a small bulletin and invited all of us to join them in the choir stalls. It was then that I found out the reason that there were so many people was because Brother Luke, one of the monks, had died. Instead of the normal liturgy, there would be a vigil service for his burial. 

This was a simple service of psalms and prayers as Brother Luke’s body was brought into the church and placed before the altar. There he would remain, while the other monks prayed and kept watch through the night, until his burial the following morning. Before the conclusion of the service, each of us, too, were able to pass by and say prayers before the body of Brother Luke. As I departed, I was struck by the holiness of the service—and what a blessing it was for me to take part in this liturgy. I had come to sit peacefully and reflectively in silence before the presence of the Lord, but found myself immersed in his presence through the loving witness of those who came to bear witness to the life of Brother Luke. 

It was only much later that God helped me draw the connection of being before the Blessed Sacrament (the body of Christ), and this unexpected joy of finding myself worshiping in a new way, with people I had never encountered, as the Body of Christ. The Church is Christ’s bodynot just our parish, our congregation, our denomination—but all who have answered the call to follow Jesus. Likewise, the body of Christ through receiving the Eucharist is a clear way that reflects that Jesus Christ abides in us, as we abide in him. So, while I may have gone out to worship the Body of Christ through Eucharistic Adoration, instead, I was richly blessed to be drawn into worship within Christ’s body.

November 16, 2016, 12:00 AM

Being Careful About Your Heart

“Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap.” Luke 21:34 NIV

Each Thursday at our McDonald’s Men’s Morning Bible Study, we examine and discuss the upcoming Gospel lesson for Sunday. Sometimes we read a little bit further, as we did last week. The above verse follows the passage that was read as the Gospel last Sunday. I want to offer a brief reflection of this verse, especially in light of the Bishop’s sermon this past week. As a general overview of the passage, Jesus is warning the disciples that the Temple and Jerusalem will be overthrown. Basically, Jesus is saying that there will be false prophets, wars, revolutions, famine, arrests and imprisonments, but to not lose heart for the Kingdom of God is greater than all of this. 

Bishop Wright preached a similar sermon in light of this passage and the election: whether we are elated or deflated about the election, we are all just passing through time. The Kingdom of God is greater, and our work is not done. Our work is that of “loving like Jesus.” The interesting thing about love is that it is a command of freedom and of unlimited boundaries. Unlike the Law, which speaks of things we should not do, Love opens up a world of potential. The Law says, we are not to steal from or covet our neighbor’s possessions. In many ways that is quite simple. But, what does it mean to love our neighbor? Watering their plants, cooking them dinner, feeding their dog, babysitting their kids, mowing their lawn…the possibilities are endless. 

This verse is in a similar vain. Jesus tells us to be careful, watchful, or to guard our hearts, depending on the translation; otherwise we may fall into behaviors which detract and distract from the Kingdom of God. We will squander wealth and resources; we will become drunk or gluttonous; we will experience deep anxiety about the cares of the world. What is interesting is that generally the focal point of the application of this verse comes across as the Law. “Thou shalt not become drunk.” “Thou shalt not waste wealth.” “Thou shalt not be anxious.” However, this is not the point that Jesus is emphasizing. We are called to be careful so our hearts are not weighed down. Clearly, this is much more difficult to define. How do we go about this? It is much easier to follow a few rules of what not to do, than it is to embrace the challenge of discerning how we stay tapped into the love and grace of God.

This is partly because it is different for everyone, in the same way that demonstrating love is different for everyone. So, some may guard their hearts from being weighed down through prayer and praise; others by serving in the community; others through giving generously and cheerfully; and still others through worship and study. There are an endless array of ways to “be careful”, but primarily the most important way, like love, is not to dwell on the results of “not being careful,” rather, it is to seek after those things that lift our hearts to the Lord.

October 3, 2016, 5:18 PM

Worship and Liturgy as Formation

As I wrote in the last E-pistle, this past summer I attended workshops on Christian formation in the 21st century. I also referenced some of the ways in which liturgy and worship can be missional, like the Corpus Christi and Blessing of Pets celebrations. But, worship and liturgy, especially within our tradition, are excellent ways for Christian formation and education to take place within our own walls, even within our own pews. There is a rhythm to the liturgy throughout the year. We are given a broad view of theology and scripture, and every bodily sense is utilized when we worship together.

The reality that worship encompasses all five of our bodily senses should not be underrated.  This is how we come before God, presenting ourselves as living sacrifices, and giving God our whole selves in worship. We see the images around us: the stained glass, the cross, the altar—those symbols that are vital to who we are. We hear the choir singing, the sermon being preached, and the prayers being offered. We taste the body and blood of Jesus in the bread and wine as we come forward for communion. And coffee hour should not be discounted as we gather in fellowship with one another. We feel the touch of one another in the “passing of the peace” or when we receive the laying on of hands from those praying for us. Sometimes we smell incense, other times the candles or maybe the flowers, or even just the fresh morning air as we get out of our cars. Worship permeates every aspect of who we are, and when we join together as one, the impact of this multiplies.

In liturgy, we are also formed through our theological learning. Reading and hearing God’s Holy Word through the scripture lessons and sermons, despite the amount and breadth of scripture read each week, are actually only a minor way in which we are formed. Rather, it is largely through the repetition of hymns, songs, creeds, and prayers that learning takes place. In the Lord's Prayer, we pray that God brings forth the kingdom of heaven to us here on earth. During Eucharist, we proclaim Jesus as “the perfect sacrifice for the whole world.” And in the Nicene Creed, we profess the divinity and humanity of Jesus. We also sing that “the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord,” not bake sales, or stewardship campaigns, Bible studies, or even worship services. Jesus is the foundation of all that we do. This is formational learning of who God is and who we are as God’s people.

Through worship, we also come to be formed in the remembrance and celebration of the seasons of the Church and Holy Days. We move from Advent to Christmas, as we both await the return of the King and simultaneously rejoice in his first coming at the Nativity in Bethlehem. We walk with the Magi in Epiphany, gazing at the glorious ways in which God has been made manifest to us. We travel through the wilderness of the forty days of Lent. And during Holy Week, we eat the Last Supper, wash the feet of one another, hear the pounding of the nails into the cross, and experience the darkness of the tomb. On Easter Day we rejoice in the new life that takes place in Jesus. We celebrate, that “Alleluia, Christ is Risen” for fifty days, until the Holy Spirit is sent forth from God to empower and transform the people of God and the Church. The long season following Pentecost is to focus on growth and formation in the lives of God’s people.

Throughout the year there are also a variety of Holy Days. Some are well-known and observed, like Ash Wednesday. Others are major feasts, though not as prominent in society, such as St. Michael and all Angels. These Holy Days and Seasons, which occur year in and year out, deepen our formation in Christ and draw us into a holy rhythm of God’s saving grace.

While there are a variety of other aspects that form us as a parish and as disciples of Jesus, our worship and liturgy may not only be important ways in which we are formed, they just might be the key ways in which our theological and scriptural understandings take place.

August 30, 2016, 7:58 PM

Hurt vs. Harm

Six years ago I had a total knee replacement on my right knee. In the midst of my physical therapy, my doctor had me shift from low-impact, high-repetition exercises to highly intensive exercises held for lengthy periods. I used a ratchet strap to bend my knee back as far as it could go and hold it there for two minutes. This was to make sure that I would have enough flex in my knee—and this exercise HURT! But, it did not harm me, in fact it is what helped bring healing to my knee. Without this pain, I would have either had to undergo another surgery or be extremely limited in my activities.

I think that there is some amount of confusion in our lives about the difference between “hurt” and “harm.” We talk about our “feelings being hurt” or “not hurting others” or giving in to “avoid being hurt.”  We go to Thanksgiving dinner at our mother’s, even though we had an opportunity to go with friends to their cabin, because we don’t want to hurt her feelings. Betty never tells Archie that she actually hates Mexican food because she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings since he always takes her to Two Amigos on their dates. Rather than risk losing her father’s approval, Sarah applies to go to his Alma Mater, even though another college is stronger in the major she wants to pursue. In none of these cases would “hurting” the person actually be “harming” them. Mom would get over you not going to Thanksgiving (maybe, but that’s her problem); Archie would find a different restaurant, if he cares about Betty; and Dad would adjust to the hopes that he might be projecting onto his daughter. Moreover, there is an opportunity for a deepening relationship and healing that can take place, as we risk being vulnerable with the people we care for deeply.

On the other hand, there are a variety of ways in which when we choose to avoid hurting someone, we actually can cause them harm. There are plenty of parents of adult children who continue to enable destructive and immature behavior through financial and emotional support, because they are afraid of losing their child’s love. There are friends and family members of those suffering with chemical addictions afraid to speak out for the same reasons, while the ones they love are slowly destroying themselves. I had a parishioner who was once placed in the uncomfortable position of either taking the car keys of their elderly parent, who had macular degeneration, or allowing them to drive and risk harming himself or others. 

I think the reason that this topic jumped out at me is that I am aware of the disconnect in our society and our churches when it comes to “hurt” versus “harm.”  By and large Christians are supposed to be “nice”, therefore, they are not allowed to hurt someone's feelings by telling them “no”, or by turning down an invitation, or by creating effective boundaries. We are often willing to go to great lengths to avoid being hurt or inflicting hurt on someone else. Yet, I am not sure how much we ever assess the harm that might take place. Harm, of anger turning into bitterness and resentment; or attitudes and behavior going unchecked. This of course does not mean failing to take people’s feelings into consideration. Not to do so would be cruel. But, we are called to speak the truth in love; and the foundational word is “love.” 

Jesus speaks with love as he reinstates Peter after his denial of Jesus. After the third time Jesus asks, “Simon do you love me,” Peter was deeply grieved. He was hurt. These were difficult words to hear; he’s answered “yes” twice already. He cries out, “Lord you know everything; you know I love you.” And Jesus completes the reinstating by calling Peter to “feed his sheep.” These words were painful, but they were not harmful. In fact, they were the words of life and a new call for Peter as an apostle of the Messiah, the Christ. May we draw on the strength and grace of Jesus as we seek to live fully for him, knowing that “hurt” is an inevitable reality of life, but in Christ we may be set free from those things that cause  “harm.”

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