Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Back to Basics - On Steroids

A thoughtful friend once told me that if people truly understood what the church was about, the church [building] would be empty.  Rev. Alan Bentrup reminded us a few weeks ago in his sermon that what we do on Sunday is not church – it’s worship.  When we leave worship and go out into the world to serve, that is church.  Church is out there.  In the Episcopal Church, whenever the Gospel is read, it is read in a location in the church that causes the congregation to face the door to remind us that we must take the Gospel out into the world.  Before anyone in church leadership panics, I wholly support attending worship on Sundays (and other days).  What we do during worship is practice for our ministry in the world, especially reconciliation.  When we “pass the peace” at church, we are not merely greeting one another with a friendly handshake.  This is a symbolic reconciling action before we go to the Lord’s table together for communion.  Of course, prior to this, we have confessed, through corporate prayer, our sins to reconcile ourselves to God.  So, after this love fest, we are sent out into the world to love others.  To love everyone, actually.  Everyone

So what does reconciliation look like if we were to take it to Monday morning?  Conversation can be useful; it can sometimes makes things worse if approached in the wrong spirit.  Listening for understanding is much different than listening to convince the other.   What if trying to dialogue with those on the opposite side isn’t worth the time other than to say let’s agree to disagree and get on with work of feeding the poor and welcoming the stranger and transforming the world. In this noisy world, we can be convinced debate and argument are essential.  The Pharisees loved to debate small points with Jesus so much so that he finally boiled it down to love God and love your neighbor.  Not much gets done while debating.  If I get caught up in what divides us, I’m using precious energy that could be used to stand up for the marginalized and persecuted.

With 900 hate incidents in the past 30 days, some of which my family and friends have experienced, I have been wondering how to reconcile with others and how to change the mean-spirited tide.  I had the answer all along:  get back to the basics of being a Christian but do so in a radical way that I have never done before. As God would have it, I attended the Evangelism Matters conference recently where Presiding Bishop Michael Curry encouraged us to live out our baptismal covenant to share the Good News and to be obedient to the Great Commission to make disciples.  This has been the root of my ministry the past two years - not church growth, not more people in the pews, not meeting a membership quota - but welcoming as Christ would. Bishop Curry's message was affirming and lifted me out of the dark place I have been in for several months.  He said we can be the church for these new times: where everyone is safe but no one is comfortable.  

My baptismal covenant gives me a very plain charge:

Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent, and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

Baptism is not a comfy sacrament for admission into heaven.  The world is changing and being the same Christian I was last year is not responsive to the Holy Spirit.  Baptism calls us to a sacrificial way of life that requires action and discomfort on our part.  Never before have I understood so clearly that “Christian as usual” won’t cut it in this new world.  Because what the world needs now are crusaders for love that defy practicality and earthly limits.  What new way is Jesus asking you to deny yourself, take up his cross, and follow him?  

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

What Do We Do Now?

For many years when my second son was younger, I tucked him in with this prayer: “Lord, we thank you for our boy, Caleb.  We are so glad to have him in our family.  Give him sweet dreams and good rest so he can get up tomorrow and do your work and be kind to all he meets. Amen.”  I’ve been teaching my boys since they were very small to be kind even when others aren’t.  I remember Benjamin’s preschool teacher telling me that one of the other toddlers had hit him and Benjamin responded by patting him on the back and gently saying, “be nice.”  I remember another teacher telling me that a boy Benjamin had befriended had finally started opening up in class and that it meant the world to his mother that Benjamin was his friend. 

Any time my sons would mention there was a new student in school, I would ask them what they were doing to help them and it had to be specific: sit with them at lunch, introduce them to friends, walk with them in the hallway.  This was harder for Caleb since he is shy but he also reached out to others.  More than once, the invitation to Caleb’s birthday party was the only one a particular child had ever received.  He stood up for a child with a physical disability when others bullied him.  I have continued to repeat this message of embracing the stranger and the outcast to this day with my sons. 

So, when we grant power to a person who hurts others, it is startling to me.  The media said that Donald Trump insulted various populations of people.  Insulted doesn’t truly reflect what he did:  he deeply wounded people.  Remember Clayton Williams?  He was running for governor of Texas and made a flippant comment about rape and his political career was over in a split second.  Remember when David Duke, the infamous white supremacist, ran for governor of Louisiana?  The voters chose a candidate considered dishonest rather than elect a racist.  

I thought any one of these actions would have been deal breakers:
  • To call Mexicans rapists and drug dealers is deeply wounding
  • To brag about ogling half-naked, teenage girls backstage is deeply wounding
  • To mock a disabled reporter is deeply wounding
  • To joke about violating a woman’s boundaries is deeply wounding
  • To assume that all African Americans live in poverty and are unemployed is deeply wounding
  • To say that women who have abortions should be punished is deeply wounding
  • To recommend that Muslims register their religious status with the government is deeply wounding

I come from a politically active family.  I worked in campaigns from the age of 10.  I know how democracy works.  Over the years and in this past election, I voted for Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.  And while I have had serious ideological differences with some winners, I accept the election outcomes and move on.  After all, for democracy to work, it requires opposing voices and diversity of thought.  I feel very strongly that everyone should vote - not just the people that agree with me.  

To be clear, this is not about winning or losing a contest.  I am grieving the loss of my belief system.  My lifelong belief that most people are good and kind has been shaken this past week.  We all have a dark side and this election has given us permission to let out the darkness within us.  The reports of bullying, violence, and hate crimes continue to come in.  For the most part, I felt safe, physically and emotionally, in this country.  Now I am feeling that I need to protect myself from others – my fellow Americans – and that breaks my heart.  What I believed to be true changed overnight and it is going to take some time to discern what that means for me.  In my personal ministry, I must keep my heart wide open and it requires a certain vulnerability to welcome all people.  It is painful for me to be in a state where I want to close off my heart and insulate myself. 

This will take some time; grieving cannot be rushed and it doesn’t have a deadline.  I know if I invite God into my grief, he will resurrect something amazing from the suffering.  My baptismal vows require me to “strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being.”  I do not have the luxury of protecting myself forever because obedience and comfort are mutually exclusive.  My prayer is this:  Lord, show me what you want me to do to bring light into the world in a new way and grant me the courage to carry that out.  

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Coming Full Circle

As I was sitting in church last Sunday, I was struck by our altar at St. Mary’s.  It’s circular and although I’ve looked at it hundreds of times, the circle just captured my attention.  At St. Mary’s, when you kneel for communion, you are always facing others like the disciples must have done when they gathered around the table for that last supper.  Contrary to the DaVinci painting that shows all the disciples conveniently sitting in a row for our viewing pleasure, they were likely sitting around the table looking at each other.  Occasionally, smiles and nods are exchanged as we receive communion together, not as a singular act in a single file line.  We are communing. [Note: there is a beautiful stained glass window of Jesus behind that Easter banner.]

The night before, we held a special worship service in observance of National Recovery Month.  We especially wanted to reach out to those affected by addiction in all its many forms.  This Eucharist integrated the 12-Steps of recovery as defined by Alcoholics Anonymous and other such groups.  You may or may not know that the co-founder of AA wrote that nearly all the principles he later formulated into the 12-Steps were passed on to him through Dr. Sam Shoemaker, an Episcopal priest.  The Episcopal Church: steeped in tradition but always blazing a trail even back in the 1930’s. 

As I looked at the freestanding altar with its circular railing, I envisioned everyone that has gathered around that table for so many years in all their brokenness and joy.  All the different sorts of souls that have come to that circle of healing.  I was remembering a former clergy who, during a sermon, invited anyone who wished to come inside the altar rail, to lay a hand on the altar, and to see each other as Christ sees us.  It was a very moving gesture and there were some tears shed.  [I discreetly took this photo nearly a year ago.]

During the Recovery Worship on Saturday, there was a sense of healing in the church that night.  The stories were varied – some came because they are the only sober person in their family; others still struggling with their disease; others to support those touched by addiction.    One guest came after receiving the news article about the service from her mother.  She shared that her mother doesn’t speak to her; we hugged and I could feel all the pain she carried with her. 

There was wonderful music, a hopeful message, and anointing for healing.  We recited each of the 12-steps throughout the service as a sort of prayer.  Our liturgy actually reflects the 12-Steps - no surprise if you know about relationship between the founders of AA and the Episcopal church.   Step 12 is about taking the message to others as a result of your own spiritual awakening.  Likewise, each week, we are sent out to the world to serve others.  Perhaps the most healing part of the service was just the simple fact that we acknowledged this disease and the pain it causes without shaming. 

Yesterday, a thoughtful priest shared a concept of how people grow in their faith.  It was based on circles.  Jesus is at the center, then there were Peter, James, and John in the next circle.  Then the 12, then the 72, then the crowds at the outer circle.  The idea was that we likely start as one of the bystanders listening in the crowd and as we walk in our faith, we are moving toward the center of the circle towards Jesus.  And, we do that at our own pace.   
At St. Mary’s, one of our core beliefs is that we value all people and that means all people.  We welcome all to join the circle.  Years ago, when the church was built, our core values and mission were different than they are now.  But as I looked at that altar on Sunday, I thought, “we’ve grown into our altar.” 

Years ago, I didn’t know if my addicted son would make it to Christmas.  Yesterday, he turned 21 and I am inspired with the way he has turned his will and his life over to the care of God (Step 3).  A full circle, indeed.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Build it and they will come?

I have the best job in the world.  Actually, I have several jobs but the one I’m talking about today is my job as an evangelist.  Saying job sounds sort of weird because it’s a ministry but since I am financially compensated, it qualifies as a job.  Getting to hear the stories of people who are searching for God is the BEST.  I never listen to someone share their faith journey and think, “well, that was nothing special.”  It is always special.  I heard something at Al-Anon the other night I hadn’t heard before: we are spiritual beings having a human experience, not human beings having a spiritual experience.  We are actually having an out-of-body experience every day because who we truly are is not the tangible body we inhabit.

At this time of year, schools are gearing up for a new year and churches are also getting ready for a new start.  In my own congregation and those where I consult, I hear lots of conversations around what to do and when, what we will call it, who will lead it, and the dreaded how we will get them to come to it.  I say dreaded because if we are creating ministry and have to ask the question, “how do we get them to” then we are likely creating something we want and not necessarily something that meets the needs of others. 

Many of these conversations also include a discussion of someone who created a sign-up sheet and a blurb in the weekly bulletin but no one participated.  The discussion will usually conclude with folks throwing up their hands in desperation because they just can’t figure out how to get people to do XYZ.  When this happens, I ask, “What is the need you are trying to meet?” “What are the people you serve saying they want?”  A point of clarification:  if you haven’t personally invited folks to participate, then you don’t really know what the response is because I find that absolutely nothing takes the place of personal invitation.  Mass communication plants a seed and that is all it does.

You must discern, with those you are serving, what their need is and what would meet that need.  Then you design something in response.  Through conversation with those you are serving, you will get a much better idea of 1) what ministry is needed, 2) what it should look like and 3) how it should be communicated.  Then, you are not in the business (and I say business on purpose) of getting people to do anything.  You are ministering to others. 

And that is what we are called to do.  Minister.  As Christians, we are not creating programs.  Corporations have programs.  Schools have programs.  We are not programming anyone.  We are ministering.  It hurts my heart when I hear the word program when folks are really talking about ministry.  I credit my rector, the Rev. Beth Fain, for her consistent teaching on this point.  You are not volunteering - you are serving.  It’s not a campaign - it's a mission.  For a church so focused on liturgy and language, it surprises me how often we use words that take us away from spirituality.  Anything you do to expand the kingdom and share the Good News is ministry – even updating your website or stuffing envelopes.

And what is the Good News?  Lately, I have been thinking a lot about that as I listen with holy curiosity to these messengers.  I don’t ask too many questions; I mostly listen.  I find that people aren’t so much looking for information as they are searching for affirmation that the News they are seeking isn’t crazy or weird or ridiculous.  I am finding the Good News takes many forms: forgiveness, unconditional love, healing.  It is whatever someone needs from Jesus.  Looking for Jesus is the most personal thing a person can do and however that looks is worthy.  That is why it is so important we avoid deciding for others what fruit they should bear.  In relationship, we create ministries that bring people closer to God, to meet their needs on the journey.   

If you are feeling frustrated or discouraged in your ministry, remember we are spiritual beings having a human experience.  Return to a place of discernment and ask those you serve:  What do you need?  

Friday, July 8, 2016

Right Place, Right Time

Sometimes, things just work out, you know?  They just work out.  I see God’s hand in these moments where things just amazingly work out.  And I think as Christians, we are called to point them out so that God can be praised and we can be encouraged.  That’s really what this blog is all about.

In the past month or so, I have seen over and over things just working out.  A few Sundays ago, it was my husband’s birthday.  I planned to be at all three worship services to invite parishioners to our summer Faith Dinners but with celebrating my husband’s birthday, I thought maybe someone else could go to the evening service in my place.  I reached out to a few people but they couldn’t make it.  Then, I decided not to force it and that maybe I was supposed to be there.  We scheduled my husband’s birthday celebration for lunch at a new restaurant in the area and I attended evening worship.

This particular week was the first week we changed our service time from 5:30 pm to 5:00 pm for the summer.  We had a newcomer arrive at 5:30 pm for the service and I invited her to sit by me for the remainder of the service.  When we spoke after worship, she shared with me that she had a feeling that she was supposed to come to this church for four months and that she had been diligent in watching our website and even knew who I was.  She was moved by our core belief “value all people.” 

This gentle soul took four months to walk through our doors by herself and when she did, she was 30 minutes late.  I believe there was some comfort in my presence since she knew from her research that I was the welcome leader at St. Mary’s.  And what a joy to meet her.  What I have learned over the years is that sometimes we need to be at church for someone else, not ourselves.  Right place, right time.

Another recent Sunday, I listened to a newcomer as she told me how she and her husband found St. Mary’s.  She attended our Fall Gift Market last year and when she entered the church and lit a candle, something moved her.  This past fall was the first year we opened our church during the market and posted signs welcoming people into the sanctuary to pray, meditate or light a candle.  It took many months for her to step across our threshold but she did.  I am so glad I was there to hear their sacred story.  Right place, right time.

This past week, we had a couple of newcomers arrive for worship and I helped them find a seat in the pew.  I asked a gentleman to move down a bit and make room for them and their small baby.   I noticed them all chatting after service and it warmed my heart.  As God would have it, he was sharing with them that his daughter was getting married to her partner in September which was a wonderful welcome to these two ladies who were looking for a new church home.  I did not know this background when I sat them together but God did.  Right place, right time.

We often hear that anything worth doing is not going to be easy, otherwise everyone would do it.  I don’t believe that anymore.  I find that while God takes me out of my comfort zone, that isn’t the same as my forcing things to happen or crushing all obstacles to achieve.  Sometimes, obstacles are put in our path to direct us down a different path.  Sometimes, the path of least resistance does set us free.

Where is God directing you to be?  Is there something you are trying to force that you can let go of so God can work it out?  

Monday, May 30, 2016


A couple of weeks ago, I felt like I was being called to temporarily remove myself from my daily life.  Things had been very busy with little downtime (my fault).  As the crazy making reached a crescendo, I knew silence was calling.  I have heard others say that when you answer a call to ministry, it is affirmed by others.  Well, this calling to silent retreat was affirmed by others that I consider messengers of God. 

First, our guest teacher taught an adult class about self-compassion which reminded me of “monkey brain” and the need for loving self-talk and meditation.  Next, I read a blog by my rector which said it’s good practice to choose a theme for a pilgrimage.  I thought about that and “silence and rest” came to me.  Last, I met with my spiritual director who helped me choose the right location and gave me permission to do nothing but sleep if that’s what I needed. 

I resisted the temptation to bring anything with me that resembled work, even writing thank you notes.  When the retreat center offered a massage appointment, I declined because I didn’t want to have any schedule to keep other than showing up for a meal. 

On the way to the retreat house, I saw a likely homeless man at the corner.  With no Bag of Grace to offer (this is a bag with water, snacks, etc. from St. Mary’s), I hated to ignore this man.  I had some cold water with me so I rolled down my window and asked him if he would like some water.  He said he sure would because it was getting hot already.  I asked him his name - it was Bruce.  I usually tell people I meet like this I will pray for them but similar to what happened in my earlier post, “What Does Jesus Look Like?” I couldn’t because I suddenly felt too emotional.  We chatted and I drove off with a lump in my throat for several miles. 

As I was being shown to my room at the retreat house, we passed a sign posted for an Al-Anon meeting that night at 7 pm.  I asked my guide if I could attend – yes.  That would be my one planned activity.  (Al-Anon is a support group for people affected by the addiction of a loved one.)  This had been on my list of to-do’s for some time but I hadn’t found the time or the right group. 
It was surprisingly easy to unplug.  As my brain emptied out, I slept and read and sat still.  I came around the corner of the patio to see a huge male peacock perched on a table.  He was beautiful and I remembered the peacocks that roam the neighborhood of my spiritual director.  She had told me there were peacocks at the retreat house but I had forgotten.  I watched bunnies hop and eat.  I walked the labyrinth and let the path guide me without having to think about my steps. 

That night, as I walked over to the Al-Anon meeting, the peacock perched on top of a roof as I passed by.  It seemed he was a messenger that my spiritual director was encouraging me.  Although I didn’t share, I cried more in this meeting than I have cried in any other similar support group meeting.  And I spent years in these meetings when my son was in early recovery from substance abuse.  This meeting was exactly where I needed to be.  If you are not familiar with the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, they include among other things, to turn your life and will over to God.  Al-Anon also utilizes these steps and they really apply to anyone because these steps are a pathway to God and healthy relationships with others.  As I pursue this new life in ministry, I still find it difficult to let go.  This meeting was a needed reminder, not only to trust God but to let go of my codependent concern for others, mostly my older son’s well being and behavior.  I asked for a “desire chip” which means that I made a commitment to work the program.

When I came back from retreat, I felt a great peace and noticed all the beauty around me like this beautiful passion flower that welcomed me home.  I could appreciate all the goodness again.  The weekend wrapped up by attending our older son’s five-year sobriety milestone celebration at the local Alcoholics Anonymous group - plenty of tears all around.  There were many messengers that shared their stories and reinforced my call to work the 12 Steps for my own well-being and relationship with God.   

Who are the messengers that cross your path and what is God telling you through them?

Follow this link to the 12 Steps of Alcoholic Anonymous.  If you are not in recovery, you can utilize these steps by replacing the world “alcohol” with “others.”

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Walking Wounded

Last week, I felt like God was trying to elbow his way into my life.  Since I have been practicing making time for quiet God time in my life, I am uncomfortable when I don’t.  When I first started creating Sabbath time, it felt uncomfortable.  To do nothing felt lazy and selfish.  Now I am finding it essential to my sense of peace.  I have been busy, busy, busy in the last few weeks which also explains my lack of blogging – no time to listen.  My husband and I both had surgery within a few weeks of each other.  I was trying to make up lost time and feeling pressured to produce.  So, as I felt God trying to wedge His way in, I was telling Him, “give me a minute.”  Days went by…

I was invited to go to North Carolina to help another evangelist spread the Good News.   This was the first time that an invitation like this required me to travel by plane.  When I arrived at the airport last Friday, I heard an announcement over the loud speaker about a chapel in the terminal and that it was open to all.  I’ve done a bit of traveling through many airports and never in my life have I heard an announcement for a chapel.  I thought, “Okay, God.  You got me.  I’m yours for the weekend.  No more putting you off.”

As I approached the chapel, there was some construction nearby but the chapel was intact.  As I sat down and pulled out my phone to open my prayer app, I heard some clanging noises from construction workers.  I was a little disappointed.  Here I was trying to have some quiet time with God and it was going to be punctuated with bangs and clangs.  Making the best of it, I started my prayers and the clanging eventually subsided.  Then later, another noise started and I remembered something my older son says – that whatever is happening is supposed to happen.  I decided to just go with it and I realized this noise was different than before - a hammer.  It was a steady and heavy hammering.  I felt like I was listening to Jesus being nailed to the cross.  I meditated about the sacrifice that Jesus made and that I should never forget it.  I had forgotten that during the past week for sure.  Right before boarding, I heard the chapel announcement again – a spiritual bookend to this morning. 

A week before, we started another Seekers Forum at St. Mary’s.  This is a small group ministry for those new to our church.  It is an exploration in relationship with others and does not require a membership commitment.  This is what I was going to share in North Carolina.  I was teaching about creating a safe place for newcomers to share their faith journey.  As I do this work, I am continually touched by the stories I hear.  It is a great honor to walk with others in this way and not one of these stories is boring.  I have never heard someone talk about seeking God and thought, “well, that was nothing special.”  These are precious testimonies filled with joy and sometimes pain.  I am struck by how persistent even the wounded are in pursuing relationship with God.  The joy part is walking with others while they heal.   It is an amazing witness to God’s healing love.

Jesus was fatally wounded by being nailed to a cross.  And when God healed Him, He didn’t return Jesus to His condition prior to death.  Jesus had scars.  Scars that were evidence of God’s healing power to everyone who saw them.  I find it so interesting that God, who can do anything, made sure to leave scars when He healed Jesus.  The only time these scars are mentioned is when the disciple Thomas asks to see them.  I am so thankful for this scripture because it shows me that God’s healing is not an undoing of the wounding but a transformation of the wounding into a testimony of God’s power.  

Is it comforting to know that even if we have been deeply wounded, we can be healed by God?  Will your scars be a witness to others of your walk with God? 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

20/20 Hindsight

As I crawled back into bed this morning after my younger son left for school, I grabbed my phone.  I clicked open my email and a devotional from Our Daily Work was already open.  The Bible verse was “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here but has risen.”  The author went on to talk about how the women came with oils and spices to prepare Christ’s body for burial.  They did not expect a living Jesus on that third day.  This devotion was very similar to my very first post almost a year ago right after the first Sunday of Easter, “Who are you looking for?”  As a side note, I went back to find this devotional and it has disappeared but it was there this morning, reminding me of the past year.

I’ve been pondering my blog lately and feeling that I needed to go back and read all 22 posts. So, I did.   As I read them, all the emotions I felt when I wrote them came back.  Yes, there were tears.  But I also felt encouraged and comforted as I experienced these God moments again. 

I now can see a thread running through all of them:  love and trust.  God loves us unconditionally even in our imperfection and that trusting him even when afraid is required to be a follower.  These two concepts for me translate to comfort and action.  I can be personally comforted by God’s love but unless I do something with that love, take action, and risk failure, I’m hoarding God’s love for myself. 

This past year has taught me that God really is love.  It’s that simple.  We can get pretty distracted with other theology or opinion, but it’s really just about love.  Period.  If I’m going to be judged on the last day, judge me for loving too widely, accepting too broadly, welcoming with abandon.  I see that in my coaching, I am returning to love more and more and it simplifies everything. 

I see more clearly than ever that we can’t invite people to church because the church needs more members.  That we can’t welcome people to worship because we want them to stay.  That we can’t connect people to ministry because we need a fourth person on that usher team. 

We must invite, welcome, and connect from the theology of love – a love that is bigger than we can comprehend.  We invite people to church because Jesus commanded us to make disciples.  We welcome people to worship because Jesus said when we welcome a stranger we are welcoming Him.  We connect people to ministry because God has given them a gift to be used for His purpose. 

When we engage targets or goals or tactics, we leave the love place and go to the head place.  God gave us intellect to learn but the heart is what gives us life, as individuals and as a community.  Jesus was a skilled teacher but acted out of love. 

When you intellectually look back at this past year, what has God taught you?  What do these lessons tell you about your personal call to action?  Go with God and go with your heart.     

As I approach the one-year anniversary of The Right Hand, I want to thank everyone who has read it and encouraged me.  I never dreamed that my writings would be read in 20+ countries.  I find a few things interesting:  the most popular post is  “An Invitation to the Wounded.”  Also, I have the most readers in the US, of course, but second is Ukraine, followed by Russia.  There is so much more to all of these stories but I tried to share only highlights.  I look forward to sharing another year of witness with you.    

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Who Will Be a Witness?

Last Friday, I left downtown with a few errands to run before going home to make the last of my phone calls for the week.  I planned the most efficient route to make the most of my time.  Through a series of events, I ended up doing my errands in reverse order.  So, I found myself pulling into my church parking lot just as a young man was getting into his car to leave.  As I walked to the building, he asked me if I worked there or if I knew anything about this place.  Well, yeah. 

He said he had tried all the doors but they were locked and he “felt like a criminal.”  I was glad to let him into the church.  We walked into the narthex (foyer) and I opened up the doors to the church.  He sort of gasped.  He had never been in a church before this day.  It felt heavy to him and not in a good way so we went back out to the narthex.  I explained that all people are welcome in this place.  As he told me his story, I listened intently.  He didn’t know why he drove to the church but he did.  We talked about his background which could be described as atheistic.  I explained my belief that when people enter this church, they have been sent by God.   We discussed his work as a musician and some things he had in common with my older son. 

When it came time to talk about worship services and communion, I found myself boiling it down to the most basic description possible.  This was someone who’s family had never mentioned God, ever.  When I said that the bread and wine were symbols of Jesus giving his life so we could have more than just this life here (motioning between us), that seemed to mean something to him.  As I remember this interchange, I don’t think I have ever been in the position of introducing an adult to Jesus for the very first time.

Since he was worried about what might happen after this encounter due to the extreme experience of it, I asked him if I could show him something.  We went back into the church to the prayer altar.  I lit a candle for him and prayed for him.  I pointed out two other lit candles and explained that prayer candles aren’t blown out; they will eventually go out by themselves.  He asked me what he was to do, how was he to reciprocate.   Just say thank you.  As he left, he said again that he didn’t know why he came to church that day.  I shared that my original plans would have put me at the church an hour later.   We shook hands and he was gone.

Occasionally, I light a prayer candle and text a photo of it to the person that I prayed for as a visual manifestation of prayer.  I felt like I had to take a picture of that candle – the only proof that this young man had been there.  I chatted with the two other people in the building and when I went back to take a picture, the other two candles had just gone out with smoke rising.  I continue to pray that our paths will cross again.    

Yesterday, in observance of Ash Wednesday, St. Mary’s sent out teams to various locations in the community to offer prayers and imposition of ashes.  One of the laypersons who participated was a bit anxious but came anyway.  A year ago, she had fallen away from church and now she is a witness for Jesus in the world, imposing ashes on a stranger. 

I can still see the faces of those we encountered.  Some accepted ashes timidly, some enthusiastically.  Some trusted us with the pain they were experiencing in their lives.  Some expressed outright joy at our presence.  Our paths may never cross again.  Genuine connection with the Holy Spirit doesn’t have to be long term to be powerful.   The point was not to get these people in the pews on Sunday although that would be wonderful.  The point was obedience to our Baptismal promise to spread the Good News of a love that conquers all. 

We can either be a witness to the world of Christ’s unconditional love or we can be a silent bystander.  What is Jesus asking you to do to be his hands and feet on this earth?  

For inspiration, here is a link to one of my favorite spirituals, "Witness," arranged by Jack Halloran and sung by the Gustavus Choir.    

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Fourth Commandment

I love religious-themed jokes.  One of my favorites is about the Ten Commandments:  Moses comes down from the mountain and tells the Israelites, “I have good news and I have bad news.  The good news is I got him down to 10.  The bad news is adultery is still one of them.”  If you’ve been to Sunday School as a child, you likely learned the Ten Commandments.  There are many clever ways to remember them and like naming the seven dwarfs or the eight reindeer, we race to recite them (sometimes). 

The first three tell us about our relationship with God and the last six about our relationship with each other.  Author Walter Brueggemann calls the fourth commandment the “bridge commandment.”  This is the one that commands us to rest, to keep the Sabbath holy.  I know for me, it is the most ignored commandment.  Go kill someone and there are all sorts of consequences.  Don’t rest one day a week?  No societal consequences.  In fact, we are rewarded for being available at all hours for our jobs - for making things happen, getting things done, and driving results.  God delivered us from slavery but He knew that we could enslave ourselves again if we weren’t intentional about rest. 

For most of my childhood, my father traveled Monday thru Friday.  I didn’t realize until after several years that not everyone went to the airport to pick up their dads on Friday evening.  My father sent me postcards from his travels and my mom didn’t complain that he wasn’t around.  I didn’t feel like I missed out because when he was home on the weekend, there were no pagers, cell phones, or email.  When he was home, he wasn’t working.  We had plenty of quality time. 

I have been pondering Sabbath for several years and struggling to integrate it into my life.  After I left my 75 hour/week corporate job a year ago, I starting resting each week pretty regularly.  But, as things have gotten busier (and more exciting), I have fallen into old habits.  This past Sunday, Rev. Beth Fain taught an excellent class on Sabbath keeping.  Part of this teaching was that Sabbath doesn’t always involve worship and if God could take a day off and trust that things would be okay, we can take a day off.   This was new for me – that Sabbath could be about trusting God. 

So this Monday, I took a Sabbath.  I put on my out-of-office message and planned to be unproductive.  Within a few hours, I felt anxious and stressed.  I was having a hard time trusting that I could take a break from work.  While I physically did very little, my mind was struggling to shut off.  But, I named this day holy (set apart) and stuck with it.  Here’s the awesome thing about God.  Even though I felt some discomfort during my day of rest, it still changed me.  As this week is shaping up, I have experienced renewed patience with others, connection to God, and a lack of worry about the work still to be done this week. 

What would God show you if you took a day off and produced nothing?  

Friday, January 1, 2016

Through the Eyes of Another

This Advent, I felt called to try and “be in the moment,” to be fully present in whatever I was doing and with each person God put in my path.  I made a No Multi-Tasking pledge.  I was so in the moment enjoying a family lunch that I completely forgot my son's sewing lesson. Still, I felt I wasn't making much progress as I never fully gave up talking on the phone (hands-free) while driving, among other things.  I am a rookie at this in-the-moment stuff…

I thought something might happen, that I might be changed in some way by trying to be fully present.  Even as I tried to just be, I still had expectations.  As I look back now, I see that God gave me some extraordinary opportunities to be with others in some very special moments.  And as these moments unfolded, I wasn’t tempted in the least to do anything else.

As Christmas approached, I wasn’t feeling well and so days slipped by until it was December 22nd and I had a list as long as my arm of errands to do the next day.  My younger son had been asking me for days to arrange a visit with one of his friends and he even added it to my list.  I finally stopped what I was doing and made arrangements for his friend to come over the next morning.  This is pretty big for me since my perfectionist self of old would have never been able to handle this disruption to progress.  I know; it’s hard for me to admit.  The next morning, when I talked to my friend, she sounded upset.  When she got to my house, I invited her in for a cup of tea.  She poured her heart out about a tough day at home and we laughed and cried.  And even though there were chores to do, I was completely at peace spending that time being still with my friend.  The best part of that day to be sure.

At Christmas Eve worship, I sat between two very different friends – a young man who was without his family this holiday and a woman who had lost her husband recently.   I found myself wondering what it was like for her as she tried to get through her first Christmas without the love of her life and held her as she cried.  The young man to my left is like a son to me and was experiencing his first Episcopal Christmas service.  He had no idea what was happening as we passed the peace and since he is in long-term recovery from substance abuse, he did not drink the wine at communion. I wondered if that was difficult for others pursuing sobriety.  He found the “dresses,” what we call vestments, distracting.  I wondered what sort of traditions my friend had celebrated with her husband that she wouldn’t be doing this year.  I worshiped through their eyes that night and was completely in those moments with each of them. 

On Christmas Day, I was able to take a wonderful nap.  When I woke up from my nap, I read my emails and I had an email that a friend’s mother had been put into hospice and may die shortly.  I reached out to clergy and went to the nursing home to be with them.  I remembered sitting with my dad as he took his last, labored breaths and saying goodbye to a friend an hour before she died.  I stayed for the prayers offered by Rev. Katie and as we held hands, I physically felt the Holy Spirit’s presence.  Her mother died about four hours later.  I wondered how difficult it would be to lose your mother on Christmas. 

On the third day of Christmas, I found myself worshiping through someone else as well.  We had a sort of sing-a-long during the service where folks could call out Christmas hymns they wanted to sing and Silent Night was called out twice.  I held back tears as I saw a family who lost a child this past year; her favorite Christmas song was Silent Night.  We even sang it at her funeral.  I wondered how very hard this year’s Christmas had to be without their sweet daughter.  This was followed by a conversation with another friend who is facing some serious medical struggles with a loved one.  I was humbled to be able to listen and support her at this time.  I wondered who else was in pain during this “most wonderful time of the year.”

So, this Christmas wasn’t perfect in the ways I would have measured perfection in the past.  But it was perfect in all the Godly ways.  Advent is about slowing down and preparing.  I think God did prepare me for these Christmas moments.  What is God preparing you to do with His love?