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A Resolution at Diocesan Council + the Different Kinds of Bishops

Diocesan Council is in Corpus Christi this weekend, and there’s a significant resolution coming up for a vote.  Resolution 2020-1, if approved, would empower Bishop Reed to appoint an Assistant Bishop for a period not to exceed three years.  You can find the official wording of the resolution at this link.  This resolution is a good idea, and I have encouraged our delegates (Will Piferrer and Lisa Sartorio, with Julie Warfield as our alternate) to vote in support.  I want to say briefly what this resolution does and why it is a good idea, and then highlight the technical distinctions this resolution makes.
 
In simplest terms, this resolution would allow Bishop Reed to get some ongoing, regular help from a second bishop, and it would allow this to happen quickly and efficiently.  The Episcopal Diocese of West Texas needs two bishops.  We cover sixty counties and about 69,000 square miles of territory.  Furthermore, we have eighty-seven distinct worshipping communities of various kinds, and that each should receive an annual episcopal visit (i.e. a visit from the bishop) is to be desired.  Given all the other responsibilities bishops have in addition to confirmation visits and the like, two bishops is a good idea for us.
 
Now, there are a few ways a diocese can have multiple bishops, and this brings us into the technical ‘Episcopal speak.’  There are five kinds of bishops our diocese has had in recent memory: Diocesan, Coadjutor, Suffragan, Assisting, and Assistant.  The first three are elected; the last two are appointed.  In what remains here, I’m going to highlight the practical distinctions amongst these roles.
 
The first is the Diocesan Bishop.  This is what Bishop Reed is for us.  The Diocesan Bishop is the top of the diocesan pyramid, so to speak.  Diocesan bishops are elected by a Diocesan Council—including lay and clergy delegates—and once elected have far-reaching authority.  A priest may be elected to become a Diocesan Bishop, or a diocese may elect someone who is already a bishop (a Suffragan or Assistant from another diocese, for example). 
 
The second kind of elected bishop is a Bishop Coadjutor.  When someone is elected Bishop Coadjutor, he or she is elected to work alongside the current Diocesan Bishop until he or she retires, at which point—and this is the key—the Coadjutor becomes the Diocesan.  (Thus, one is usually a Bishop Coadjutor for only a year or two, and sometimes even less.)  Bishop Reed, for example was elected as Coadjutor before the Rt. Rev. Gary Lillibridge retired.  A priest may be elected to become a Bishop Coadjutor, or a diocese may elect someone who is already a bishop.  Bishop Reed, for example, was our Bishop Suffragan at the time of his election as Coadjutor.
 
The third kind of elected bishop is a Bishop Suffragan.  This is what Bishop Brooke-Davidson was for us.  The Bishop Suffragan is elected by a Diocesan Council, but once elected does not exercise quite the same level of authority as the Diocesan Bishop, though he or she will likely have numerous areas of oversight in a diocese and outranks all diocesan clergy but the Diocesan.  A key distinction here is that, because a Bishop Suffragan is elected by the diocese, his or her tenure as Bishop Suffragan is not tied to that of the Diocesan Bishop.  So if the Diocesan Bishop retires, the Bishop Suffragan continues as a Suffragan: he or she does not have to step down, and neither does he or she automatically become the Diocesan.  A priest may be elected to become a Bishop Suffragan, or a diocese may elect someone who is already a bishop elsewhere.
 
This brings us to bishops who are not elected, but appointed by the Diocesan (or acting ecclesiastical authority).  The first of these is an Assisting Bishop.  An Assisting Bishop is appointed to help with confirmations and the like in a mostly ‘as-needed’ basis and is already a consecrated bishop.  The Diocesan Bishop does not appoint a priest, who is then consecrated, to fill this role.  As noted in the link above, when Bishop Reed sends Bishop Folts (retired of our diocese) to do a confirmation, Bishop Folts serves in this role.  Assisting Bishops are usually retired.
 
The final kind of bishop, and the one which is relevant for Council this year, is an Assistant Bishop.  An Assistant Bishop is appointed but usually serves in a more regular and fulltime capacity than an Assisting Bishop would.  An Assistant Bishop is already a bishop at the time of his or her appointment; the Diocesan does not appoint a priest, who is then consecrated, to fill this role.  Because an Assistant Bishop is appointed and not elected by the whole diocese, an Assistant Bishop’s tenure is tied to the tenure of the bishop who appointed him or her.  So: if the Diocesan Bishop retires or steps down for some reason, any Assistant Bishops the Diocesan appointed must also step down.  Bishop Brooke-Davidson now serves as an Assistant Bishop role in the Diocese of Virginia.
 
The resolution at Council this weekend would allow Bishop Reed to appoint an Assistant Bishop to serve for a period not to exceed three years.  If Bishop Reed were to retire or step down for any reason before that three years expired, the Assistant Bishop would also have to step down.  If the resolution passes, Bishop Reed could appoint a retired bishop in our area, or a bishop from another diocese, to serve as our Assistant Bishop.  The key is that no priests in our diocese will become bishops by virtue of this resolution, should it pass.  Bishop Reed would appoint someone who is already a bishop. 
 
The downside of this resolution is that the diocese as a whole does not get a say in who the Assistant Bishop is.  The upside, however, is stronger: this saves us from having another election, which would be taxing on time, energy, and finances.  A bishop election tends to take over the diocese while it is going on.  We’ve had two elections (Bp Reed’s and Bp Brooke-Davidson’s) in recent years, and waiting a while before holding another seems to me to be wise.  Let’s just try being Church for a while.
 
One final thing to note is that the Standing Committee is fully supportive of Bishop Reed’s appointing an Assistant Bishop.  The Standing Committee is sort of like our Bishop’s Committee, but for the whole diocese.  Again, I think this resolution is a good move for us as a diocese right now, and I have encouraged our delegates to vote in support.
 
God’s Peace,
 
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

Why We Recoil from Religious Speech that is Reckless and Unkind

A great many of us know what it feels like to hear a fellow Christian say something about God or the Christian life or Christian morality that seems to us deeply misguided, insensitive, or just plain wrong.  We usually experience this discomfort at a gut-level: our reaction is intuitive and instinctual, and after the fact we might put some language on why the utterance was troublesome.  Sometimes, however, we come up blank with this second round of reflection.  It just felt wrong, but we’re not sure why.  Today, I want to walk through one recent instance of an utterance by a Christian leader that felt wrong to many.  In so doing I want to suggest that our instinctive recoiling can be a sign that the utterance lacks grace and is therefore untrue.
 
First, the instance in question.  During a sermon from her City of Destiny Church in Apopka, Florida earlier in January, Spiritual Adviser to the President Paula White-Cain used the following words:
 
In the name of Jesus, we command all satanic pregnancies to miscarry right now.  We declare that anything that’s been conceived in satanic wombs that it’ll miscarry, it will not be able to carry forth any plan of destruction, any plan of harm.
 
You can see a video of this segment here (including the predictable variety of responses).  This link to a Concordia University professor’s Twitter feed has some short reflections on Paula White-Cain’s prayer, as well, including reference to other Christian voices speaking from a similar perspective.
 
There are three interrelated problems here.  One pastoral, one exegetical, and one theological.
 
The pastoral problem is most quickly named, for this is the one that rubs most of us the wrong way.  To command miscarriage in the name of Jesus (or in any other name, for that matter) is reckless to the point of cruelty, even if the language of miscarriage is intended metaphorically.  To use miscarriage metaphorically in this way is to value one’s poetic license above the actual experiences of those for whom one is responsible.
 
Paula White-Cain gave her sermon on January 5th.  Since that time, statistically speaking, someone in the United States who trusts her ministry and preaching has suffered a miscarriage, and because of this trust this person is now perhaps haunted by the phrases “satanic pregnancy” and “satanic womb.”  Is her miscarriage the result of Paula White-Cain’s prayer?  Has the metaphor become literal?  These are the kinds of doubts no one should ever suffer.  To preach like this abrogates the pastoral responsibility of the preacher to her congregation.
 
The second problem is exegetical.  Exegesis is what preachers do with a text of scripture: to exegete is to unpack, explain, pull meaning from.  Paula White-Cain has responded to criticism of her sermon with the following:
 
I was praying Eph 6:12 that we wrestle not against flesh and blood. Anything that has been conceived by demonic plans, for it to be cancelled and not prevail in your life….That is- any plans to hurt people.
 
She is certainly in good company using the language of spiritual struggle against demonic forces.  This language is all over the New Testament, and though it makes many contemporary Christians uncomfortable, it is an orthodox and viable metaphorical scheme through which to pray, preach, and otherwise communicate the gospel.  Furthermore, we find this spiritual warfare trope in Ephesians, particularly in the “full armor of God” passage in which we find Eph. 6.
 
The exegetical problem arises precisely in Paula White-Cain’s defending her words by linking them to Eph. 6:12.  Nowhere in any part of Ephesians does St. Paul make use of pregnancy or miscarriage as metaphors.  There’s language about walls coming down, husbands and wives, children obeying parents, armor, warfare, adoption—any number of evocative images.  But pregnancy and miscarriage aren’t among them.[1]  If the goal is to pray for the foiling of demonic plans, her chosen text has resources to facilitate such a prayer, but it does not support “satanic pregnancy” and the like.
 
The third problem is theological.  While the images of spiritual warfare are all over the New Testament, this does not mean that the two sides of this conflict are equal, or that they have the same ‘weapons’ available to them.  The battle is won; Christ has banished the infernal legions (Mark 5); and by his death he has destroyed the one who has the power of death, that is the devil (Heb. 2:14).  This is not to say that we do not struggle with sin; nor is it to say that we cannot articulate this struggle by using “satan” and “demon” language.
 
But again, the battle is over and the victory is won.  Why?  Because Jesus Christ became incarnate by the Virgin Mary, lived and died as one of us, and on the third day God raised him from the dead.  It is by Mary’s real human pregnancy, by the real human birth of this child from Nazareth from a real human womb that God began his overthrow of the spiritual forces of darkness.
 
The metaphor of satanic pregnancy suggests that the spiritual forces of darkness have a potency equal to God’s: that they, too, could somehow try to ‘re-invade’ the earth in a way that is like the birth of Jesus, i.e. via ‘satanic’ pregnancy instead of Mary’s.  But this would be to say that the spiritual forces of darkness have strength and means akin to God’s. 
 
They do not.  To suggest otherwise is not a Christian worldview; it is functionally dualist.  I say ‘functionally’ because Paula White-Cain does say that the blood of Jesus is ‘superior,’ but this is akin to my proclaiming vegetarianism while eating a cheeseburger.  Even if the language of satanic pregnancy is metaphorical—and again, this defense is slim given that Ephesians lacks this metaphor entirely—the thought-world inaugurated by the metaphor is one in which demonic forces can generate life as God does.  Thus, this metaphor is one that attributes to demons power akin to God’s.  This is decidedly outside Christian orthodoxy. 
 
Taken together, these three problems show a connection between the insensitivity of religious language and its theological falsehood.  The case in question also suggests that where we find these two, we are likely to find a third: the misrepresentation of scripture.  This is not surprising because, for the Church, scripture is nothing if it not a truthful collection of religious language.
 
Based on this evidence, it seems that when we recoil from a religious utterance that is reckless and unkind, it is worth considering whether our reaction is symptomatic of the statement’s falsehood.  I want to be clear: we cannot diagnose a simple causal link between the two, as though what makes me uneasy must necessarily be a lie.  This would be to make my own individual sensibility the final arbiter of the truth, which is dangerous.  But for Christians, a correlation does exist between religious language that is reckless or mean and falsehood.  We might say a correlation exists between religious language that is mean or reckless and religious language that is unorthodox.
 
Why might this be?  The task of the theologian—whether a preacher, an academic, or a churchgoer helping a friend through difficulty—is to articulate what God’s relationship to the world and its creatures is like.  “God is love” we read in scripture (1 John 4:8), and God’s loving relationship to the world has a name: Jesus Christ, whom God sent into the world because He loved the world (John 3:16). 
 
Yet this Jesus is also the truth (John 14:6).  We see here, then, that for the Christian theologian of any stripe, truth and love inhere in the same person.  When religious speech lacks one of these, what we are hearing is not the Word of God.  We recoil.
 
In Ephesians, St. Paul writes that our language must be “only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that [our] words may give grace to those who hear” (4:29).  We recoil when we hear preachers use phrases like “satanic pregnancies,” “satanic wombs,” and the command to miscarry in the name of Jesus because there is no grace in them.  We should not be surprised to find them riddled with exegetical and theological problems, as well. 
 
God’s Peace,
 
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
[1] In preparing this piece, I went looking for “satanic pregnancies” in the New Testament.  I reread Revelation 17-18, which features the infamous “whore of Babylon” image, the woman seated upon the waters who fornicates with the kings of the earth.  There’s fornication, and a reference to her being the mother of earth’s abominations (17:5).  We are much closer to “satanic pregnancies” here, but Revelation goes to great pains to make it clear that this woman is actually a city (17:18).  With all the references to “merchants” and “luxury” (18:3 and 18:7), it seems clear that what the author has in view is greed and other systematic injustices, primarily (but not exclusively) economic.  Thus, even in the context of Revelation we would be obliged to conclude that “satanic pregnancy” and the command of a spiritual miscarriage are dubious images to choose because the “abominations” are already here in the form of violence and economic injustice; we’re not waiting on them to be born.

An Invitation to Altar Work

I’d like you to meet me at the altar on Saturday, February 15th at 2pm.  We’re going to learn how to be at the altar, how to handle the objects that go on it, what their names are.  Everyone, of all ages and of all experience levels, is invited.
 
When we put something on the altar, it changes.  A placemat becomes a corporal.  A cup becomes a chalice.  A plate becomes a paten.  An odd piece of stiffened white linen becomes a pall.  Bread and wine become body and blood.
 
All these funny church words serve to remind us of a basic truth: the altar is the place where we meet Jesus, and when we meet Jesus, things change.  We change.  The presence of Christ involves a kind of translation: when we are with Christ, we are in a new kingdom.  We cross a kind of border.  We learn new words in this strange new country where bread and body and even we are somehow different.
 
This is one of the themes we’re practicing with our Learning Altar, or Low Altar, at the 8:45am service.  It’s simple: we step onto our big blue rug like we’re stepping into a new country.  We learn the names of the objects that go on the altar.  We learn to handle them, and we place them where they go.  The prayerful simplicity of this work gets our hearts ready to receive Jesus even as our bodies prepare the physical space where we will meet Him through sacrament.  We receive God’s presence as a little child does, because that’s really the only way to receive it (Mark 10:15).
 
When we learn to handle the altar objects and learn their names, we are learning to be at home at the altar.  It’s a way of learning to be comfortable at church, which is to say that this is a way of letting St. Liz becoming ours.  The chores we do taking care of the altar are like setting the table at home: we handle the objects, we place them where they go, we keep them clean, we learn their names.  Corporal, paten, chalice.  Placemat, plate, cup. 
 
We do this in honor of God and on behalf of our sisters and brothers.  Furthermore, this is the kind of work that is necessary.  Sunday worship cannot happen without the altar work getting done.  We cannot eat unless the table is set.
 
I’m inviting you to learn how to do this altar work, but showing up does not oblige you to anything.  We’re gathering to learn the names of things, how they go together, how to handle them.  I hope you’ll come.  Saturday, February 15th at 2pm.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

The Book of Psalms: A River of Prayer by guest writer Thom Rock

As the deer longs for the water-brooks,
so longs my soul for you, O God

                                     —Psalm 42:1

St. Elizabeth Adult Sunday School to Resume February 2, 2020
 
            In my brief time here in Texas, I have come to respect the mighty power of water. We notice its absence in times of drought, and delight in its liquid mercy when it falls like grace from the skies. Unless, of course, it comes as a sudden downpour, the likes of which I’ve only seen here in the Lone Star State. Water can quench or inundate; it can relieve, rejuvenate, sustain or challenge. The Edwards Aquifer yields gallons of water for the millions of taps and faucets in the greater Austin area, while Barton Springs steadfastly offers a refreshingly cold splash even in the longest stretch of a triple-digit heat wave. And then there’s the river that winds its way through Buda—the Onion Creek—reputedly the longest creek in Texas at nearly sixty miles long, and whose banks provided dreams of hope and home and new beginning to formerly enslaved African Americans after the Civil War. Or the peaceful holiday waters of Ladybird Lake, with its kayakers and paddle-boarders; or even the troubled waters of the Rio Grande.
            I don’t know exactly what I was imagining, but the first time this Northerner caught a glimpse of that borderland river up close it didn’t look at all like I had pictured it in my mind. The river gently rippled opaline before me, obeying the laws of the universe and wending its way surely home to the sea. A breeze whispered the tall grasses along the bankside; a man groomed and exercised his horses nearby, eventually bringing them to the river to water them. Indeed, if it were not for the constant reminder of the Customs and Border Protection vehicle that sat idling nearby the entire time I was there, I might even have considered the bend in the river where I stood a place of tranquility and calm.
            Whatever side of that river you’re on, there is an ocean of emotion surrounding it. Though the river is a place of hopefulness, aspiration, and liberation—and even beauty—it is also a place of anger, fear, frustration, outrage and trepidation. If the river has a song (as most rivers do if you listen closely), it would surely be the gut-wrenching, God-praising hymnbook we call the Psalter. The Psalms, like the river, overflow with human emotion—with anguish, lament, and despair, as well as joyful praise and thanksgiving. And they wend their way not only through the Holy Scriptures and our Prayer Book, but also down through the ages to us here and now. Remarkable in their raw honesty and tender intimacy, the Psalms reflect the full spectrum of human emotion and human response to a life of faith—from the anguish expressed in the cry: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (22:1), to the ecstatic praise and thanksgiving in the ebullient call: “Let the rivers clap their hands, and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord” (98:9). In periods of our own spiritual drought or doubt, not only can the poetic language of the Psalms still help and comfort; when we pray them, we also become tributaries joining a long river of faithful doubters and believers who have prayed them before us. Part poetry, part hymn, the Psalms are far more, though, than simply musical or literary forms to those who pray them. Like the river, they sustain; they are daily bread.
Beginning February 2, adult Sunday school will resume at St. Liz, meeting from 9:45-10:45 in between our two services. For the next few months we will dip our toes into the ancient waters of the Psalter, and wade into that great river of prayer so foundational to our faith. Whether you stick around after the early service, or come early before the later service; come for one or some or all of the classes, I hope you’ll join me in this adventure in exploring together the depths of the Book of Psalms.

Faithfully,
Thom
 

The "G" Was for George

It was on Tuesday that I got the call that our friend John Weber was declining quickly and that I should come to see him.  Another member of St. Liz and I gathered at John’s bedside and said the prayers appropriate for someone nearing their time of death.  The prayers begin on page 462 of The Book of Common Prayer.  The words are beautiful and powerful.
 
There’s one prayer in particular that caught me.  It’s on page 464 and begins, “Deliver your servant N., O Sovereign Lord Christ….”   What caught me off guard was the N., the place where John’s name was to go.  Where only one N. is listed in the prayer book, the unspoken rule is that using just a first name is fine.  (Compare the double N.’s for full names on page 424 in the marriage rite.)  But at John’s bedside, in the midst of that prayer of deliverance, for some reason I really wanted to use his full name.
 
The trouble was that I didn’t know it.  I had a vague memory that his middle initial was “G” but had no idea what it stood for.  Now there’s nothing unusual about not knowing someone’s full name.  Each of us has friends we’ve known for years whose middle names we probably have never learned or have forgotten.   But with John, not knowing his middle name bothered me.
 
John was a very private man.  He was faithful at worship, cordial, if gruff at times, and participated in a life group.  He was the kind of person many of us loved and knew but few of us knew much about.  During those final prayers at his bedside, the fact that I didn’t know his middle name symbolized for me the privacy with which John lived, the many visits to his home he declined, the predictable brevity of our conversations.  The G was for John’s goodness and gratitude and generosity and great memory of the Prayer Book, but it was also for guardedness, for gentle refusals, for “Goodbye, Father, thank you for the call.”
 
Maybe you can relate.  Some folks we love have boundaries that are stronger than we would like them to be.  Sometimes those boundaries are stronger than we even think is healthy.  This can be a particular challenge for a congregation like ours, where affection and mutual care is so central to who we are and how we live.  For some, however, distance and solitude and a simple handshake simply are the topography of love.  For these of our brothers and sisters, our learning to navigate and appreciate the beauty of this landscape, however sparse it may seem to us, is essential to how we “respect the dignity of every human being,” as we say in our Baptismal Covenant  (BCP, 305). 
 
John was mostly asleep as we prayed by his bedside, but he roused a little during the Lord’s Prayer and grabbed my hand.  This was a great gift to me.  What I felt in that moment was that John knew how much his church loved him, that he had received and cherished and delighted in every bit of our friendship, and that he had reciprocated fully, in his own way. 
 
I’ve since learned that the G was for George.  There are other things I would like to know of John, too, and at the end of time, when we’re all gathered together in the full communion of saints, I’ll get to ask.  Maybe he will tell me stories, or maybe even in eternity he will cherish privately his many mysteries.  Regardless, I am comforted by knowing John is seen and loved fully by our Lord, who walked beside him as an old friend through all the solitary hinterlands of John’s earthly journey, even as He walks beside him now through a more heavenly country.
 
I am grateful to have known John George Weber.  He was my teacher in holiness, particularly during our Tuesday Morning Prayer service, and a companion along the way.  It is a great honor to have been his priest for a time and to count myself amongst his friends.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+ 
 

Burning Time

In my desk there is a big sealed envelope marked “confidential.”  There are two things inside: first, all the written prayers from our Prayer Box since we first began using it over a year ago, and second, the griefs and burdens some of our members wrote as part of our Blue Christmas service on December 21. The prayer cards are not confidential, as we have read them aloud at Morning Prayer each Tuesday, but the papers from the Blue Christmas service are.  No one has read them, and no one will.

Part of our custom and commitment with both the prayers and the burdens is that they will be disposed of appropriately.  I confess I’ve been unsure of how to do that.  I’ve kept them safe and close by, but each time I thought about dropping them in the trash or recycle bin or paper shredder, the action seemed inappropriate to the dignity papers like these deserve.  They deserve a more solemn disposal.
 
A few weeks ago, however, I realized what I think is a good answer and won’t bury the lead of this piece any longer: we will burn them in our Epiphany fire this Monday evening.  The details: we’ll gather at the home of Kim and Michael Fry at 6:30pm.  Bring a beverage or snack to share.  Kim and Michael are at 300 Marietta’s Way in Buda.  We’ll burn the prayers and burdens during our brief Epiphany service at Kim and Michael’s.
 
This idea was inspired by a poem my maternal grandfather wrote.  He was a doctor, and after he retired from his medical practice, he ran a small publishing house out of an extra building on their property as a sort of hobby, publishing mostly local authors and his own work.  One of his collections was called Burning Time.  The collection was mostly about his years as a doctor.  The titular poem reflects on his experience of burning all his old medical files after he retired.  His life’s work, decades worth of patient files, confidential medical info—all of it committed to flame.
 
I wasn’t there when he did it, but I imagine Granddad Morris lugging archive boxes into the backyard and spending a whole day at it.  I don’t know if he wept or felt relieved or if he sat silently and alone or if Grandmom helped or if the West Highland Terriers they kept were nosing about.  Probably all of that.  But I do remember the final lines of the collection’s titular poem: “Still, a part of me is rising with this smoke at burning time.”[1]
 
The practical desire to dispose of confidential information; the emotional desire both to mourn and to celebrate the end of a career; the spiritual desire to make of one’s life’s work a sacrifice—it’s all there, ritualized by Granddad Morris in the backyard.  Some desires only fire can answer. 
 
There’s a permanence to burning that neither a paper shredder nor the town dump offers.  When paper is shredded, it may be messy to the point of being unreadable, but the paper is still there.  Its letters and texture and syllables still offer themselves to us.  When it’s buried, it’s still recoverable, at least for a while.  But when something burns it changes to ash immediately and entirely.  To burn something is permanent: these pages are now irrevocably gone from the world.
 
This permanence is part of what makes fire so terrifying.  A wildfire reaching a residential area, for example, can be rampant, harrowing, destructive, even deadly.  It can end neighborhoods and lives.
 
In the context of a ritual like Granddad Morris’s burning time, however, fire’s power of permanence lends a solemnity and dignity to whatever is offered to the flames: something is given away, surrendered, relinquished. 
 
Last year a priest friend of mine’s church finished paying off the mortgage on their building, so they got together after worship and burnt the mortgage documents.  Their community’s financial debt had been discharged.  It is gone from the world.  Because this was sacramental of their common life as a community of faith for a number of years, it was also a ritual offering to God of their time, energy, and resources.
 
The burning of a mortgage document by a church community who has been faithfully working towards paying it off, the burning of many lives’ worth of medical files by a doctor who has recently retired, the burning of written prayers and burdens at Epiphany—these examples move us towards the language of sacrifice.  A sacrifice is literally a “holy-making,”[2] an offering of something to God.  It’s less obvious to us contemporary Christians now that our principal sacrifices are bread, wine, praise, thanksgiving and financial gifts, but for much of human history, including in our own Judeo-Christian tradition, many sacrifices involved fire.
 
It’s easy to see why: fire rises as it burns.  Its fundamental orientation is up, toward heaven.  The ancients understood this to mean that fire was the purest of natural elements, and its rising signified that it was a favored means of divine commerce and communication.  When Gideon meets an angel of the Lord, he prepares for God a sacrifice of broth and a goat; the sign of God’s receiving it is a flame (Judges 6:19-21).  When Elijah battles the prophets of Baal, the sign that Elijah’s God is the only true God is lightning—the fire of heaven—licking down and consuming the prepared sacrifice (1 Kings 18, especially v. 38).  When Isaiah is called as God’s prophet, a fired coal is placed on his lips (Isaiah 6:6-8)
 
When something is sacrificed by fire, it is not only gone from our world but is received by God.  Fire is the gateway to the heavenly places.  When Gideon offers broth and a goat, for example, he’s offering to God from his tangible life’s work and livelihood: instead of a retired doctor’s medical files, it’s a goat from his own flock.  Both Granddad Morris and Gideon offered to God of their vocational substance.  No wonder the angels closest to God’s throne, the ones who forever sing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” are called Seraphim, “the burning ones” (Isaiah 6:2-3).  Their very being belongs to, and is, the praise of God.
 
One of the opening sentences for Evening Prayer is Psalm from 142, “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (v.2).  The burning of the incense, the rising of the smoke, these are outward and visible signs of our prayers being taken up.  When someone is baptized, they’re given a candle lighted by the Paschal Candle, which is to say that they’re gifted with God’s own fire.  As the candle burns, we see performed the truth that she now has a new, fundamental orientation towards God, to whom the candle flame points.  Her being is now that of a person drawn up.  She’s a little burning one.
 
This Monday is the Feast of the Epiphany on which we celebrate Christ as a Light to the Gentiles.  One of the great symbols of Epiphany is the star the Gentile Magi followed to Christ.  It’s as though God lit a fire in heaven around which all peoples might gather and be drawn up.  Whether you’ve gold, frankincense, myrrh, or a written prayer, burden, or thanksgiving—I hope you’ll join us.
 
As I said, our Epiphany celebration at St. Liz will have a campfire.  We’ll have food and drink, enjoy each other’s company, and say our prayers.  But we will also use this as a burning time.  We will offer to God through our Epiphany fire the written prayers and grievous burdens bundled in that sealed envelope in my desk.  If you have any other written messages you’d like to offer up at the beginning of this New Year, you are encouraged to write them out and bring them, or send them along with a friend if you’re unable to be present.  Again, 6:30pm this Monday, January 6th, and the home of Kim and Michael Fry.
 
We will let a part of us rise with this smoke and into the presence of God.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
[1] Granddad, forgive me for not remembering the line break exactly!
[2] The word sacrifice breaks into two roots: sacra (sacred, holy) and facere (to do or to make).

2020 Bishop’s Committee + Leadership Team

Hi friends, I’m writing with an update and a reminder.  Our update is that I’m pleased to announce our 2020 Bishop’s Committee (the “BC”).  Our BC members for 2020 are as follows:
 
            Krista Piferrer, joined January 2019 (Bishop’s Warden as of Jan. 2020)
Tina Otto, joined Nov. 2017
Philip Johnson, joined Dec. 2017
Charlie Welvaert, joined Jan. 2018
            David Jensen, joined Jan. 2019
            Betsy Terrel, joined Jan. 2019
            Ruth Anne Bloor, joined Jan. 2020
            Rachel Joiner, joined Jan. 2020
            Kevin Hammond, joined Jan. 2020
Sarah Johnson, (joined Jan. 2019.  Treasurer, non-voting member.)
 
Please commend these folks to your daily prayers!  Our BC members who are rolling off are Julie Warfield (who joined the BC in March of 2015 and has served as Bishop’s Warden since at least fall of 2016) and Dave McCoy (joined Jan. 2017 and has served as Jr. Warden since Jan. of 2019).  Additionally, this spring Sarah Williams resigned from the BC due to significant scheduling conflicts.  Sarah was scheduled to roll off at the end of 2019 as well. I’m grateful for their hard work, and for their continued support as they help train our newest members.
 
You will notice that this list does not include a Jr. Warden.  That may change, or, given our particular facility needs at the moment, we may get creative in how that role functions.  So that piece is still unknown, but I wanted to update everyone on where the BC was for starting 2020.
 
Since I arrived at St. Liz, I have tried to nudge us towards regularity of volunteer terms, particularly on the Bishop’s Committee.  Voting members of the BC serve for three years. We had folks roll off last year, and likewise this year, Dave and Julie are rolling off.  This is not a reflection of their work but is simply our trying to habituate some best practices for as a community.
 
There are two primary reasons for regularizing BC terms: first, this helps guard against volunteer burnout, which is something St. Liz has struggled with in the past.  Second, when St. Liz becomes a parish, and instead of a Bishop’s Committee we have an elected vestry, term limits will be the norm.  Thus, in regularizing BC terms, we’re already preparing ourselves for the future of our common life as a parish.  2020 will be the first year in quite some time in which all members of the BC joined knowing in advance that at the end of three years, they would roll off.  Barring unforeseen circumstances and/or unanticipated reasons to the contrary, at the end of 2020, Tina Otto, Philip Johnson, and Charlie Welvaert will roll off the BC.
 
Next, a reminder about St. Liz’ Leadership Team!  Our Leadership Team is composed of, but not limited to, our Bishop’s Committee, hosts/leaders of Life Groups, and ministry leads (Acolyte Master, Lead Usher, Children’s Chapel Coordinator, etc.)  As many of you will remember, our Leadership Team grew out of our work back in 2017-2018 with a consultant named Dr. Bob Whitesel.  Dr. Whitesel helped us set and achieve some goals as a community of faith.
 
Leadership Team meetings are good ‘rally the troops’ opportunities.  Additionally, after the Bishop’s Committee, Leadership Team is the first group I usually go to as Vicar to communicate ideas and my sense of where we are as a congregation.  Leadership Team meetings are open to the congregation.  Our first Leadership Team meeting for 2020 will be on Saturday, January 25th from 10am-noon.
 
Finally, I’d like to say an extra word of thanks to Julie Warfield, who was a rock for St. Liz during the clergy transition between Bp. Jennifer and me during 2017, and has consistently been a source of support and wisdom for me as I’ve learned the ropes of Vicar’ing.  I am grateful to continue serving alongside her in ministry at St. Liz and in the wider Diocese of West Texas.
 
God’s Peace
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

Blue Christmas Service + Christmas Schedule through Epiphany

Hi friends, two updates for us today.  First, a new ‘Blue Christmas’ service we’re adding on December 21st this year, and second, some reminders about our schedule through the Advent and Christmas seasons. 
 
First, a Blue Christmas service is one that honors and speaks to the experiences of so many of us for whom the holiday season awakens sadness and memories of lost loved ones.  For many the pain of the holidays can be acute: not only does the emphasis on family and time together heighten our awareness of those who aren’t with us anymore, but the lights and parties and festive atmosphere so many of us enjoy can be starkly discordant for a grieving soul.  In other words, the brightness of stars and inflatable Santas on the outside of a home can lengthen the shadows in which we walk on the inside.
 
This is not to say that we shouldn’t celebrate or stop putting light up candy canes on our sidewalks—far from it—and it’s not to say that we either have a very Merry Christmas or a sad one.  Many of us, and perhaps most, have a measure of both for whatever reason.  Our Blue Christmas service seeks to honor that reality, that our Advent wait for the return of Christ simply feels different for each of us.
 
We will celebrate our Blue Christmas Eucharist on Saturday, December 21st at 6pm in our worship space.  This is the longest night of the year.  For those for whom Advent is a difficult time, what better night to gather together in worship as we await the coming of the Light?
 
Second, a reminder about our schedule for December and the first of January.  Our regular Sunday Schedule will continue uninterrupted, with services at 8:45am and 11am each Sunday morning.  A few other notes:
 
Our Christmas Eve celebration of the Holy Eucharist will begin with music at 5pm.  On Christmas Day, we will celebrate the Holy Eucharist at 10am.
 
Beginning this week (Dec 15), Godly Play will meet at its new time at 9:45am in the Mission Hall.  There is no Godly Play on December 29th or January 5th.  Godly Play will resume on Sunday, January 12th—again, at 9:45am.
 
Adult Sunday School has concluded for the fall and will resume on February 2nd.
 
On Monday, January 6th we will gather at the home of Kim and Michael Fry at 6:30pm to celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord.  (Our bonfire this year will be a bit tamer, as we’ve an artificial tree this year!)  Bring an hors d’oeuvres and/or beverage of your choice!  St. Liz will provide all the s’mores supplies.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

Advent Reflections after a Hike with my Dad

Hi friends, my Dad recently retired, and this has facilitated a kind of renaissance for him.  A renewed sense of purpose, re-engagement at church, some healthy lifestyle changes—all of this was front and center during Lucy’s and my visit to my hometown of Cullman, Alabama over Thanksgiving.  One afternoon stands out in particular.
 
There’s a Catholic High School and Abbey in Cullman called St. Bernard, and the Abbey owns hundreds of acres, much of it forest.  There are several miles worth of trails to hike, and Dad and I hiked 3.3 miles together, including a few hundred feet of elevation change.  I know this because he told me in classic dad speak.  “We’ll start by heading southwest”—insert slightly dramatic orienteering gesture—“and after 1.6 miles we’ll gradually circle around until we’re heading northeast again.  We’ll edge along the creek and finish Big Loop.  So counting the walk back to the car, that’s exactly 3.3 miles.”  He just knows and remembers numbers like this.
 
We hiked at a pretty good clip, just slow enough that we could keep talking without too much difficulty.  At some point in our conversation, we realized that the last time either of us could remember doing anything really active together was one particular day when I was in high school when we played Frisbee at a park in Cullman. That was twenty years ago.
                     
Identifying that twenty-year gap was a significant moment for both of us, I think.  I realized then that part of how I understand myself is as an active person, and that Dad understands himself this way, too.  More important, he always has.  This was more than a hike: I was getting to taste the fruit of the transformation his retirement has facilitated.  We both were.  In our hike together, Dad was recovering and enjoying an aspect of his identity he’d been missing for twenty years. 
 
In Colossians St. Paul writes about what it’s like to “have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed [ourselves] with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (3:9-10).  In Paul’s own day, the image of being “clothed…with the new self” is probably a reference to the white robe new Christians put on right after their baptism, but today I can’t help but see some of my dad’s post-retirement transformation in these words.  He’s stripped off a kind of old self and put on a new. 
 
He and I can both identify some very particular changes he’s made—some dietary habits, reconnecting with old friends, getting into volunteer work and ministry with a non-profit based at his church, exercise and weight loss—but his experience of the change has been top to bottom: emotional, spiritual, mental, as well as physical.  Whatever the specific, tangible changes, the result is more wholeness of being.  There’s some kind of old self that he’s put away, or allowed God to put away, and a kind of new self he is putting on.
 
We’ve just begun Advent, and it’s a new year in the Church.  We’re preparing, anticipating, getting ready for Christ.  I can’t help but wonder what sort of old self I’m carrying around.  Is there some false person I’m trying to be, rather than simply receiving from God the gift of who I really am?  What are the specific, tangible changes I’m called to make in receiving that identity?  What burdens am I carrying that are necessary for me to carry, and what burdens need putting down?
 
Maybe you resonate with these questions, maybe not.  It’s rare that any of us undergoes a big life change like my dad has had this past year.  Intense periods of whole-life transformation like that happen only a few times in a life.  In seminary speak, we call these “nodal events.”  A nodal event is one by which we orient the narrative of our life as we tell it.  When we say, “After Mom died” or “Before Suzie was born” or “When we moved back to Texas” or “After I went back to work,” we’re identifying a nodal event.  A kind of chapter marker by which we organize the other stories we tell about ourselves. 
 
We all have them.  In ten years, Dad may be telling stories about “before I retired” and “after I retired,” who knows?  He’s still undergoing whatever transformation he’s in; he’s still getting used to his new retirement self.  It takes time before we can know whether That Thing That Happened is going to be pivotal in how we organize our life story.  What’s important is this: a nodal event is the thing that happens between the old self and the new self; it’s the thing that reorients the story of our self-understanding.
 
For St. Paul, the nodal event is his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus.  (See Acts 9.)  His old self was Saul, a violent persecutor of the Church, and his new self is Paul, an apostle, a church-planter and willing martyr for the faith.  In between is his painful but ultimately joyful and life-giving encounter with Jesus.  Doesn’t get much more nodal than that.
 
It also doesn’t get much simpler.  Old self bad; new self good—and Jesus is that semicolon in between them.  Death, resurrection, woohoo!  But for many of us it’s just a lot messier.  Nodal events aren’t always good things, after all; they’re just significant things.  Whatever your most recent nodal event has been, whatever chapter marker is the most recent milestone in your story, maybe for you the new self isn’t at all what you wanted or hoped for.  Maybe it’s actually your old self you miss, that person you were before That Thing That Happened.  Maybe this new self feels like you’re living somebody else’s life, like you’re an alien in your own head.
 
This is part of what I learned on our hike.  Dad’s move into retirement has led to new energy, new self-esteem, new lots of things—but the real crux of our hike was that we were regaining something we used to share but haven’t for twenty years.  We haven’t gotten to do this, to be active and outside together, since that day in the park with the Frisbee when I was a sophomore in high school.  Thus, Dad’s new self isn’t only new; it’s also a recovery of something that used to be but hasn’t been for a while.  The new self revives an older one.
 
In the season of Advent, we await Christ’s arrival, and yet this arrival is also a return.  We prepare for Christ’s birth anew, and yet we also prepare for the Lord’s return in glory.  Deep in our memories we know that Christ used to be with us, that we used to see him face to face, but that we haven’t in a while.  This new thing we await will revive an old knowledge.
 
The mystery of Christ’s Incarnation is that when we meet God, God is always utterly new to us and yet also utterly familiar.  We remember that Face we’ve never seen.  We anticipate being seen by Eyes that even now are upon us.  The old self and the new self are reconciled to each other, the image of God in us burnished to a clarity we’ve yet to know.  On the last great day, when we put on our new, resurrected selves and experience a never-before-felt fullness, we will say, “Oh yes, I remember now, this is what it’s like.”
 
This Advent, what new self are you hoping to become in Christ’s birth?  What old self are you hoping to recover in Christ’s return?
 
What does the Incarnation of God look like when shaped like you?
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
 

Stewardship of Treasure

Hi friends, this past Sunday was our big Taking the Next Step celebration and the climax of our focused financial stewardship season.  To those who were able to be there, and to those who have already returned an estimate of giving card, thank you!  It was a good day, with good music, good food, and even better company!
 
If you weren’t able to join us, I hope you’ll return your estimate of giving card soon.  You’ve heard me say before that home is the place where you’re one of the folks who takes out the garbage.  We only do chores at our own homes—not when we’re guests.  This is one of the ways we understand volunteering—time, talent!—at St. Liz.  There’s a similar dynamic at work when it comes to money: home is the place where our ongoing commitment of treasure helps enliven and sustain the family’s common life and work.
 
As I’ve reflected on the role of money in the life of the Church over these past few weeks, I found myself returning to 2 Corinthians 8-9.  They’re helpful chapters for thinking about stewardship of treasure.  In short, in the life of the Church, money needs to move in order to do God’s work.  Why?  Because God, the Holy Spirit, is always moving.
 
Here’s the background to those chapters: the Church in Jerusalem, which is primarily Jewish in character, is struggling financially.  During his travels, Paul has been organizing a collection on their behalf—not only to support them materially, but to generate a feeling of unity between the Jerusalem church and the more urban, Gentile-filled churches elsewhere across the Mediterranean.
 
He’s had some success, too.  The churches of Macedonia (probably the Thessalonians and the Philippians) have gone over and above what Paul might have expected, giving with joy despite their own myriad struggles.  Paul uses this story of the Macedonians to encourage—and perhaps gently twist the arm of—the Corinthian church to do likewise.
 
That’s the gist of 2 Corinthians 8-9.  Paul wants to get that money on the move to where it needs to go.  There’s a subtle theological current at work here.  What’s so noticeable about these chapters is just how often the word grace appears.  (Nerd alert!  In Greek it looks like this: χάρις.)  It’s used ten times in these two chapters and gets translated in all kinds of ways into English: in addition to seeing it simply as grace in the NRSV (8:1 and 9:14), we get privilege (8:4), generous undertaking (8:6, 7 and 19), generous act (8:9), thanks (8:16 and 9:15), and blessing (9:8). 
 
This word grace is the close cousin and root of another word, gift.  (You can see the visual similarity: χάρισμα.)  We see this word for gift in Pauls’ other letter to the Corinthians: “Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit,” (1 Cor. 12:4), and to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7).
 
So, what can we say about all this?  All Paul’s talk about the role of money in the life of the Church is really about grace, and grace, in whatever its form, is gifted to us by the Holy Spirit.  The particular situation Paul is addressing is about money, but the deeper issue is that he’s trying to get the Corinthians to feel, to drift upon, to rise and sink and rise again on the current of the Holy Spirit moving among them.
 
The word for Spirit and the word for breath are the same.  (πνεῦμα.)  In his financial collection on behalf of the Jerusalem church, it’s as though Paul is trying to get the Corinthians to listen for and feel God’s very breathing.
 
I’ve found this to be a helpful metaphor.  Breath is always on the move: it’s always coming in or moving out.  Holding our breath isn’t something we can do for very long without turning blue; it’s in the very nature of breath that it is breathed.  This is a helpful metaphor in guiding our stewardship of treasure as Christians: our treasure flows into and out of Christ’s body, the Church, as one more vehicle of grace, flowing in and out as the Spirit breathes in and through us.
 
It’s fitting, then, that Christians should expect that faithful financial stewardship should either look like offering a portion of our income to God through the Church, as Paul’s Macedonian communities do, or receiving financial support, as the Jerusalem community does.  Simply sitting by with neither active generosity nor an expressed need, as the Corinthian church seems prone to doing, simply isn’t a faithful option.  In other words, we give financially as a part of our discipleship, or we let the Church put groceries on our table.  Anything else is a bit like holding our breath.
 
Now, I’ve drawn those categories a bit simplistically to demonstrate a point.  Just because the Church helps with your power bill one month doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t put a fiver in the offering plate on Sunday if you’re moved to do so.  The dignity and grace of offering our treasure to God, particularly during the offertory in liturgy, is in our participation in God’s own self-offering to us, not in the dollar amount.  (Remember the widow’s coins in Mark 12?)  Likewise, just because you’re financially secure and giving to your church doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t also receive from your Church in any number of ways. 
 
Still, as we’ve seen, if our stewardship of treasure is to be guided by the Holy Spirit, which is to say if it is to be a gift and a vehicle of grace, then we’ve got to let our money move.  In and out.  In and out, with the rhythm of God’s own breathing.
 
If you’re on the fence about that, I hope you’ll reach out.  I’d love to talk with you more.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
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