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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+

Taking the Next Step Sunday

Hi friends, I look forward to joining you at worship this Sunday for our Taking the Next Step celebration.  As a reminder, we’ll have one worship service at 10am (with nursery opening at 9:30am) and a catered lunch to follow.
During worship each household will have the opportunity to lay their estimate of giving card in a basket on the altar.  I look forward to joining you in that sacramental act.  Know that you are in my prayers as you discern what step God is calling you to take in your own household’s financial stewardship journey.
I continue to be grateful for the generous spirit of St. Liz, which is no less than God’s own Spirit, and I look forward to discovering together what new life God has in store for us.
God’s Peace,
Fr. Daniel+

Stewardship of Talent

Hi friends, as I mentioned last week, whenever we talk about stewardship, we usually talk about time, talent, and treasure.  I wrote about time last week.  This week’s post is about talent.
Last week, one of the things we saw about time is that, for whatever reason, we’ve come to talk about time as though it were money: we spend it, save it, waste it, etc. The opposite is true about talent: the word used to have a monetary meaning (a particular weight of money), but we’ve left that behind.  Today, what we mean by talent is an innate or habituated quality or skill someone has, like a talent for baking or entertaining or understanding how engines work.
The monetary meaning is behind Jesus’ parable of the talents in Matthew 25 (v.14-30).  You may remember it: a man goes on a journey, but before he leaves he entrusts his property to the care of his slaves.  He gives five talents to one, two to another, and one talent to a third slave.  The first two slaves, the one with five talents and the one with two, each trade with the resources entrusted to them, and they double their number of talents.  “Well done,” the master says to them, “enter into the joy of your master.”

But the third slave buries his talent in the ground.  We hear the slave’s reasoning in verse 24-25: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.  Here,” he says, handing his master back the single talent, “have what is yours.”  The master angrily takes the single talent away and gives it to another.
What’s always struck me about this passage is that there’s nothing in the parable that actually suggests the master is harsh other than the fearful words of the talent-burying slave.  The master isn’t doing anything unusual.  It was common in Jesus’ day for slaves to be entrusted with large amounts of resources and responsibility.  It was perfectly normal for landholding masters to benefit from the work of their servants, i.e. to reap “where they did no sow.”  Indeed, the first two slaves seem to know intuitively what their respective talents are for.  The master himself is the bringer not of harshness, but of joy.  The only bizarre thing in the parable is the fact that one of the slaves buries his in the ground.  It’s perhaps no coincidence that this is also the slave who sees a harsh master in what appears to be a perfectly normal arrangement for the time.
There’s an odd sense in which the slave’s fear creates the very reality he imagines: the master responds with, “You knew, did you, that that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?”  All the more reason, the master effectively says, to have used the talent I gave you rather than bury it!  And we get the troubling ending: “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
There is an apocalyptic, ‘end of days’ feel to this parable: two slaves enter into the joy of their master, a sort of messianic banquet, while a third is thrown into the outer darkness.  What seems to me to be key in this passage is that the slave who is thrown into the outer darkness has believed—falsely—from the beginning that the Master is harsh, cruel, vengeful.  The evidence, however, suggests that this Master is openhanded, willing to trust his servants, and ready to celebrate with them for having taken the risk of using what they’ve been given.   The outer darkness, then, is simply the coming-to-be-true of the lie that the third slave has been telling himself.  He’s in the dark, like a bright and life-giving talent foolishly and fearfully buried in the ground.  It is not the Master’s Word by which he lives and has lived, but his own.  It is his own sentence he pronounces.
While the talents in this parable are amounts of money, it is precisely this parable that forms the basis for our modern understanding of the word talent as a skill, or the quality of being gifted in a particular way.  It is not difficult to see why.  A talent that is shared does some good; it’s generative, fruitful.  A talent buried in the ground is no talent at all.  If I think of myself as a talented dinner host, but I never actually have anyone over for dinner—well, I’m not actually a dinner host at all, am I?  My talent is buried in the dark of unbeing.
Our talents, whether an innate ability or cultivated skill, are only truly ours to the extent that we use them.  Talents exist in traveling beyond us; we must practice them into being in a community.  The two slaves who traded, which is to say used their talents, for example: it’s not hard to imagine them walking into town together, swapping ideas along the way, meeting other folks in the marketplace, splitting some nachos on the way home with some of the extra cash.  There’s an openness to the use of the talents, a necessarily people-oriented posture.  When talents are allowed to travel beyond the home, the home is enriched.
For whatever reason, our third slave seems stricken with a kind of myopia, as though the only two figures in the story are himself and the master.  He doesn’t seem to want what the Master has handed him.  One can imagine him running out to the field behind the house and frantically digging a hole in which to cast his talent.  “Here, have what is yours,” he says, handing the talent back to the master.  It’s not clear what scares him more: being responsible for this talent while the master is gone, or seeing the master when he returns from his journey.  Every contact this slave has with the master is fraught.
But as noted above, the harsh ‘master’ this third slaves imagines doesn’t seem to be real beyond the slave’s own self-talk.  I can’t help but wonder if there’s an unseen force at work in this parable, what we might call a sense of shame in the third slave’s life.  After all, one slave got five talents, another two, and he only got one.  That’s a recipe for insecurity if ever there was one.
Perhaps that’s why the third slave buries his talent in the ground.  What is a gift from his master feels to him like a reminder of his being less-than.  He’d rather have no talents at all than use his one talent alongside those with more talent(s).  This is the real tragedy of the parable: it never occurs to the third slave that it’s not the amount that matters, but his goodness and trustworthiness with what’s been entrusted to him.  After all, the slave with five talents has over twice as much as the slave with only two, and yet to both of those slaves the Master says equally, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave…enter into the joy of your master” (v.21 and 24).  The slave with two talents got no more and no less joy from the Master than did the slave with five: for each, the joy is complete.
How often do we avoid offering ourselves for this or that role because we’re anxious or ashamed that we might not measure up?  How often do we keep to ourselves rather than stepping forward because we’re worried we might not seem to do as well as that five-talented person over there?
Or maybe it’s not about having only one talent, but that he’s being asked to use it while the master is away on a journey, which is to say without the master there telling him exactly how to use it.  Maybe it’s not about shame in comparing himself to the others, but about not trusting himself to use any talents at all.  Maybe he just doesn’t think he’s capable enough.
We know what this feels like, too, don’t we?  It never even occurs to us to offer ourselves for this or that kind of role because—well, where would we even begin?  How could we possibly trust ourselves to make a decision on our own, or learn enough along the way to feel confident we were getting the job done?  If there’s not a master there telling us what to do, how could we do anything right?
But that’s the thing about talents, remember?  They’re only ours to the extent that we use them; we have to practice them into being.  After all, we don’t know exactly how the slave with five talents turned them into ten.  Maybe he got swindled four times in a row, and his trading only paid off with the fifth try.
As Christians, our Master is neither harsh, nor absent.  What talents are buried in your backyard that need unearthing?
God’s Peace,
Fr. Daniel+

Stewardship of Time

Hi friends, whenever we talk about stewardship, we usually talk about time, talent, and treasure.  On Sundays, in some mailings that will be going out, and in our devotional, Extravagant Generosity, we’re focusing on the treasure piece for the next few weeks.  Today, however, I want to reflect a little on what we might mean by stewardship of time.
Any conversation about how we steward our time is a little paradoxical.  On the one hand, time is just about the only thing that everybody gets the same amount of in a week: no one gets any more or less than twenty-four hours in a day.  It’s a bit odd to talk about time as mine when we all share in it equally.  On the other hand, however, those twenty-four hours are so vastly different for each of us—both because of our decisions and because of circumstances beyond our control—that we don’t always seem to have the time we need, or as much time as our neighbor seems to.
I think this tension is part of why we so often talk about time as though it were money.  We save time by cutting corners or by trying to be efficient so that we waste none of it.  We spend time doing different things.  There are certain necessary parts of each day that require our time, and there are those random few minutes that offer themselves to us as moments when we can choose what we like: watch ESPN, water the flowers, read a verbose newsletter from your priest, or (my current favorite) watch internet videos featuring otters doing cute things.
There are two themes in scripture that help us navigate this tension and receive time as a gift of God to be stewarded for God’s purposes.  The first is the practice of Sabbath.  Many of us are familiar with this to some extent: in the tradition in which Jesus and his followers grew up, the Sabbath was Saturday, the final day of the week, the day in the creation story on which God rested after completing His work (Gen. 2:1-2).[1]  For the ancient Israelites, the commandment about the Sabbath comes in the wilderness at Mt. Sinai as one of the Ten Commandments, and it is based on God’s divine rest on the seventh day.
Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day….(Ex. 20:8-11)
What is less obvious about the Sabbath commandment is that this kind of holiness guards directly against the temptation (or coercion, as the case may be) to be perpetually productive.  Remember, God gives the Israelites the Ten Commandments in the wilderness after leading them out of Egypt where they were slaves: they made bricks seven days a week with no rest or comfort.  (See Ex. 5, especially v. 10-14.)
Pharaoh sees the Israelites only as laborers, producers of bricks; God sees them as His people.  The Sabbath commandment gives the Israelites a day in which to meet God in rest, and for us this requires accepting God’s disruption of our cycles of productivity.  It is no wonder that breaking the Sabbath commandment is punishable by death (Ex. 31:15): to refuse rest, recreation, and cessation of productivity is to lose one’s identity as the object of God’s love and therefore simply is a kind of death.  To practice the illusion of perpetual productivity is to accept the terms of Pharaoh and reject the terms of God.
The second theme we find in the Gospel of John.  In John’s Gospel Jesus likes to linger and have long conversations with people.  In John 3, for example, Jesus has a lengthy and intimate conversation with a Pharisee named Nicodemus (3:1-21).  In John 4, Jesus lingers at a well in a Samaritan town.  He converses with a woman he meets there, and ends up staying in the town for two full days (4:5-42).  During the Last Supper, John slows his account way down to give us five full chapters of Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet, talking with them, and praying for them (chapters 13-17).  It’s all one continuous scene, like a long movie take.
It’s no wonder, then, that one of John’s favorite verbs in his Gospel is “abide.”  Elsewhere we might translate this verb as remain. (Take 1:33, for example, where the Holy Spirit remains on Jesus).  In Greek this verb looks like this: μένω (pronounced MEN-oh).  It’s the verb Jesus uses when he says to his disciples, “Abide in me as I abide in you” (15:4).  John’s Gospel uses this verb thirty-three times; the other Gospels use it six or fewer times each.
Why might this be?  In different places in John’s Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that he was sent by God to complete God’s work.  In John 4:34-38, for example, after his disciples have urged him to eat something, Jesus says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”  Notice what Jesus holds together: the work that is his to complete is also his food.
This is a far cry from the frantic brick-making enforced by Pharaoh.  Pharaoh works on an exclusive bricks-per-day metric.  The work God gives Jesus to do, however, is more organic.  In that same passage about food and work and God’s will, Jesus references a harvest metaphor, saying the “reaper is already gathering fruit for eternal life” (4:37).  Harvesting fruit is different than bricks.  Fruit ripens on its own schedule, and we simply come along and harvest it.  And all this for eternal life, one somehow unbounded by time.
Perhaps, then, Jesus so often abides, remains, lingers because he’s giving the hearts of his followers as much time as they need to ripen.  His conversation with Nicodemus in chapter 3, for example, occurs at night.  Why?  Because fruit ripens when it ripens.  If it’s the middle of the night when Nicodemus is ready to talk, then that’s when Jesus converses with him.  If Jesus’ visit at the Samaritan well needs two full days, then it takes two full days.
Jesus offers us an eternity.
The work God sends Jesus to do isn’t about Jesus’ cramming as much ministry into his years on earth as possible, the way Pharaoh wants the Israelites to cram as many bricks into a day as possible.  Instead, the work God sends Jesus to do is about bearing and harvesting fruit: whether it’s twenty verses with Nicodemus or two days in Samaria, it takes as long as it takes.  The deadline is simply when Nicodemus is ready, or when the Samaritans are ready, or when we are ready.  It’s like taking communion together: it just takes as long as it takes. 
We see in Jesus then an attentive faithfulness that allows God’s Spirit to move on its own time, ripening our hard, new-green hearts into eternity.  Jesus abides with us in the garden as we grow.  He is not concerned with our bricks-per-day quota, as Pharaoh is.
What has all this to do with us and our stewardship of time?  As one of our volunteers recently said at a Leadership Team meeting, stewardship—whether it’s time, talent, or treasure—is an expression of love.  The New Testament reminds us that all the Law and the Prophets hang on loving God with our whole being and loving our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31).
When it comes to stewarding our time, the second part of that commandment—loving neighbor as ourselves—seems to me to be in the foreground.  The Sabbath theme from Exodus is one of the ways we love ourselves: we would never speak to our neighbor as though we were Pharaoh demanding more bricks, so why do we so often insist on perpetual productivity for ourselves?  I say this not as someone who has this licked, but as someone who lives with a tiny Pharaoh in the back of my mind, too!  When we find ourselves with a few free moments, it can be hard not to hurriedly fill them with another task, whether professional or domestic.  But if we can abide that awkwardness and discomfort a few moments, we may find ourselves drawn to something more life-giving than making bricks.  We may find ourselves fed with the eternal fruit of God’s loving will.
The theme of abiding from John’s Gospel might help us understand stewardship of time as love of neighbor.  As Jesus lingers, abides, remains with his followers for as long as it takes, so, too, ought we to abide with each other.  Give that coffee hour conversation, that awkward pause on the other side of the late night phone call, that struggle your child or parent is having—give those time.  Abide with your loved ones and with the new faces at church a while; let the Spirit ripen what needs ripening. 
As I’ve said before: the work of holiness almost always demands feeling a little awkward.  If we are willing and able to abide the awkwardness, we give it whatever time it needs to ripen into something more.  A loved one in conflict can grow into peace, a new face can become a friend, an anxious question can become discernment of what’s next, this earthly moment dilates into eternity.
Remember the rhythm of Genesis: “and there was evening, and there was morning,” and there is God abiding still on this next new day.
God’s Peace,
Fr. Daniel+
[1] As an aside, it’s worth noting that the Sabbath, and the commandment to keep it holy, is still about Saturday; it’s not about Sunday, even for Christians.  Sunday is the first day of the week, the day of the Lord’s Resurrection.  That’s why we worship on Sunday, not because of the commandment about keeping the Sabbath holy.  In the biblical tradition, each day begins at sundown (not at dawn the way we think about it) and continues until sundown the next day.  (Thus, in the Jewish tradition, the Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday.)  This is why we can have an Easter Vigil on a Saturday evening: once the sun goes down on Saturday evening, it’s technically Sunday!

The Longer Story

Hi friends, like many of you I’m ready for autumn.  Not a tease of autumn, where it dips to sixty degrees on Tuesday but is ninety-three again on Friday like we had the other week, but honest-to-God day in and day out sweater weather.  Even as I’m writing this, the patio door is open in our apartment and the sun is just a bit too warm for late October.  Cooler weather will prevail eventually, and I’ll get to wear my favorite hoodie all the time.  But right now it’s still uncomfortable a lot of days.
When the seasons change, we change with them.  We adapt.  Our wardrobes change from sleeveless shirts to sweaters; our front yards fill with Halloween decorations; our Facebook pages change from back-to-school photos to decorative gourds and pumpkin spice memes. 
Congregations have seasons, too, and these likewise require us to adapt.  This is where we are at St. Liz right now: we’re in an in-between time, waiting to see what this new season is exactly.  We’re shorter on program space than we usually are, and we’re still navigating our two service Sunday schedule.  This past spring, for example, was a season of obvious abundance: tons of kids in Godly Play, lots of consecutive Sundays with a packed house.  And let’s not forget Easter!  Over 200 folks joined us for worship that day, and 44 of them had to sit outside the building—not outside the worship space, outside the building.)  At least one family who calls St. Liz home turned around and left because there was no room for them.  That lack of space, even on Easter, is something I hope never happens again.
Now, however, we feel as though that abundance is a thing of the past.  We’re short on program space because of a curve ball we got in August, and we are worshipping at different times.  We’re not having fifteen-twenty kids every Sunday at Godly Play.  And since we’ve got two services, during worship the energy in the room feels different—feels less.  This is doubly true at the 11am, which looks and flows exactly the way our 10:30am service used to, only now nearly three dozen of the folks who were packing the house this past spring now worship at 8:45am.
All of this feels like a loss of momentum, like things aren’t going well anymore.  It feels like our summer leaves are falling off.  I’m writing to remind us that this season was always going to feel this way, that all of this is normal, and that the feelings of loss, while very real, are also temporary.  They will ease over time. 
Remember: while fall is a time of losing leaves, it is also a time of bearing fruit.  New folks continue to find their way to us, and folks who’ve left for one reason or another continue to find their way back.
While we’re continuing to see fruit, this is still an uncomfortable season.  Some of us are sad about the change, some anxious, some inconvenienced.  Remember, though, that this is one season in a much longer story.  For example, since September 8th of this year, we’ve had six non-Confirmation Sundays with two services.  In those six Sundays, our 11am service has averaged 71 attendees.  (Counting Confirmation Sunday, which was big at 11am, skews that number to 77.)  After the seams-bursting, 100+ spring we had, that drop to 71 feels like a huge loss of momentum.  But remember: we’re averaging 71 people at one of two services.  It was only five years ago (2014) that an average Sunday at all of St. Liz’s Sunday services was 71.  In reality, our total average Sunday attendance in this new season is more like 103.[1]
I want to repeat that: a few short weeks into our two-service schedule, and at only one of our two services you’ll find as many people as you would have at all of Sunday worship five years ago.
Godly Play has a longer story, too.  Given that we don’t have the use of our regular building and GP is temporarily meeting during the 8:45am service, there aren’t nearly as many kids attending right now.  Four or five a week isn’t unusual for the past couple months.  But remember that it was only three years ago that the norm at Godly Play for the whole year was one to three kids.  We’re lower than we’ve gotten used to, sure, but this is temporary. There are kids waiting in the wings for when we’ve got our designated space back and Godly Play is between services.  All their friends are at St. Liz; they’re excited for GP to return!
That’s a little of what the data suggests right now, but to borrow a phrase from one of our Bishop’s Committee members, we shouldn’t go to Vegas on these numbers.  We are still very, very early in our life as a two-service congregation.  We—and I—still have much to discern, and much has yet to reveal itself to us.  I’m still pondering, for example, what the best form for our 8:45am service is.  I’m also looking for musical help and trying to normalize what the volunteer roles are for that service.
The truth of the matter is that we need to give this a lot more time.  We must be still and know that God is God.  Do what I do and take deep breaths as needed (which can be often!)  Love your friends.  Keep an eye on the longer story, the one with a rich past and a far richer future than our current anxieties and limitations.  This is true for our ongoing adjustment to two services as well as for finding a way to regain and increase our programmatic space.  We are people of the resurrection.  We can and must play the long game.
When Bishop Reed was here earlier this month, he said something to me during one of our meetings that he repeated at the 8:45am service.  It has stayed with me.  He said something like, “At St. Elizabeth y’all are being brave.  You’re trying two of the hardest things a church can do: adding a second worship service, and changing the time of the original one.”
I confess I didn’t know that these were “two of the hardest things a church can do” when we started this, but I believe it.  I’m still figuring out how best to live and move and have my being as part of a two-service congregation.  What I want you to know is that I am proud of you—I am proud of us—for persevering in the midst of our current discomfort.  I am convinced that all of this—the unfinished feeling, the in-between’ness, even the anxiety and our grief—it is all simply part of what faithfulness looks like for us right now.  Don’t forget why we’re doing this: because God has reposed the Holy Spirit abundantly in you, and folks in our area continue to seek out our community as a haven of worship, friendship, and living, active grace.  This is part of God’s call to us.
The changes we’re experiencing, and the discomfort that comes with them, are simply the season we are in.  This season has its own challenges and its own opportunities.  And it, too, will one day bloom into something new.
As ever, I am grateful to be your priest.
God’s Peace,
Fr. Daniel+
[1] This accounts for the folks I know of (3-5) who have been attending both services; I have not counted them twice.

Closing the Gap

Hi friends, anytime we’re in worship on Sunday morning, we’re always worshipping as, on behalf of, and with two different but overlapping Churches.  There’s the Church we see around us on Sunday morning, and there’s the Church we don’t see.  Something happened during Confirmation this past Sunday morning that reminded me of this phenomenon.
The first kind of Church, the Church we see, is fairly easy to articulate: it’s the people with us in the pews; the kids spread out on the floor coloring; the choir and other ministers; the kids in the nursery; the ushers going back and forth to open doors for folks.  The Church we see is simply that: the folks here with us.  We can see them.  But the Church we don’t see is a bit more complicated.  The Church we don’t see has several layers to it. 
For example, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church isn’t just the folks physically gathered at St. Liz on Sunday morning; nor is it all Episcopalians everywhere; nor is it even all Christians of all kinds currently on planet earth!  No, the capital-C Church is spread out through all of history.  She includes our patron, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, and St. Francis of Assisi. She includes Mary Magdalene, Paul, and Peter.  The capital-C Church includes our loved ones who have passed away.  Folks like Barbara Goodson, Bobby Wilder, Ray Chatterton, Keith Soechting, George Walker, and Fred Reyna.
When we gather for worship, these folks gather with us, even though we don’t share the same physical time and place anymore.  This past Sunday during our confirmations, receptions, and reaffirmations, as I watched Bishop Reed lay his hands on our friends and neighbors in sacramental prayer, I saw the gap between us and our forebears closed.
In the Episcopal Church, we recognize what is called apostolic succession.  In simple terms, this means that the bishops who laid hands on Bishop Reed to make him a bishop in turn had episcopal (i.e. bishops’) hands also laid on them.  And so on, all the way back to Christ’s first followers.  In other words, what we see in the Office of Bishop is a person who, on behalf of the Church, stands in a long, sacramental line of people whose job it is to close the gap between the Church of the past and the Church of the present.  On Sunday, Bishop Reed helped close that gap for us as he laid hands on Bill, Theresa, Kevin, Brian, and Lucy in confirmation.  He closed the gap for us as he held the hands of Natalie, Lillie Ann, and Veronica as they were received into the Episcopal Church.  He closed the gap as he blessed Barb, Laura, Maddie, Sam, Maria, Tina, and Lisa in reaffirmation.  It was a beautiful thing.
But there are other layers to the Church We Don’t See.  On any given Sunday, there are folks who are very much a part of St. Elizabeth as we exist here and now, but who are unable to be physically present.  They could be traveling for work or for pleasure, for example, or they could be home with a cold.  Or they could be homebound more permanently.  These last are on my mind a good bit right now, and I think we could do a better job in closing the gap between those of us who are able to gather physically together on Sunday and those of us who are not.
One of the ways we can do this is by calling them, or knocking on the door, or sending flowers or a card.  Another way is by bringing them communion: physically bringing the bread and wine consecrated on St. Liz’ altar to them wherever they may be.  I do this a good deal myself, but this is not the kind of ministry that only priests can do.  To that end, I plan to train teams of Lay Eucharistic Visitors (LEVs) to help close the gap between those of us physically gathered around St. Liz’ altar on Sundays and those who were prevented by illness or injury from being there. 
This is a need we’ve had for a while, and as we continue to grow and as my own responsibilities multiply, I’m more aware than ever that this is a good step for us as a congregation to take.  I have some names of folks in mind already to serve as LEVs, but if you are interested, I do hope you’ll email me.  I’m counting on the Bishop’s Committee to keep me accountable to this commitment.
Finally, for us at St. Liz, we’re experiencing a third layer to the Church We Don’t See: we now have two services, which means that one household can worship at 11am without actually seeing another who worshiped at 8:45am that day, and vise versa.  Just the other day I heard someone say, “We missed you at church last week.  Everything okay?” to which the other replied somewhat quizzically, “No no, we were here.  Oh!  We came to 8:45.”
This reality feels different to us.  For some, this is just a new scheduling quirk . For others, it’s just like the schedule at St. Elsewhere where we used to go.  For others, it’s a significant change to our substantial, emotional and communal experience of St. Liz.  This is true because the reality is that worship—by which I mean everything we do from the opening hymn through the dismissal—is really only half of church.  The other half happens beforehand, or on the porch afterwards, or at choir practice, or at Life Group.
What I want us to remember is that, even though the schedule change isn’t a big deal for many of us, each of us does have a responsibility to help close the gap.  Each of us is part of what makes St. Liz whole for everybody else, regardless of whether we realize it.  As we continue settling into our new normal, I hope you’ll remember to practice a little in-reach.  Linger after the 8:45am awhile.  Come hang out a bit early before the 11am.  Make plans together after worship.  If you’re part of a Life Group, maybe consider inviting some familiar faces along with the new ones.  We have a new gap in our common life.  This is just true.  Let’s be gentle and extra-attentive with each other as we adapt to it.
Finally, a story from this past Sunday.  Many of y’all know Bill Jones and his daughter Theresa who joined last year.  They were both confirmed on Sunday.  As Bill isn’t comfortable standing for too long, so Bp Reed confirmed Bill where he was seated in the congregation.  Afterwards, it was Theresa’s turn, so she came forward to kneel with Bp Reed at the front.  Several of Theresa’s friends came up to join in the laying on of hands, but Bill wasn’t able to come forward.  I walked over and held Bill’s hand, not really thinking too much about it, and without missing a beat Kevin Hammond jumped up and grabbed my other hand.  Kevin stretched his arm out to the group of folks around Theresa and Bp Reed and made a kind of human chain between Theresa and Bill. 
That’s just good Church.  When we’re separated for one reason or another, we help close the gap for each other. 
Thank you for reading, and God’s Peace,
Fr. Daniel+

Bishop Reed, Godly Play, and Two Services

Hi friends, it’s been a busy week, so today I’ve just got some news and a few reminders for us.  Three things:
First, Bishop Reed has his annual visit with us this weekend!  Bishop Reed will preach and preside at the altar at both the 8:45am and the 11am service.  Additionally, on Saturday evening, all those who are being confirmed, reaffirming their baptismal vows, or are being received into the Episcopal Church will gather in our worship space at 5:30pm for a brief prayer service and will then have dinner afterwards.  We have five folks being confirmed, five being received into the Episcopal Church, and five reaffirming their baptismal vows.  Please keep them in your prayers.  (We’ll also have one baptism Sunday!)
Second, an update on Godly Play: for the foreseeable future, Godly Play will meet during the 8:45am service and will split off with the GP leaders to the Mission Hall early on.  This is not permanent, but we could be in this arrangement for several months, depending on how long our “short-on-space” season lasts.  Again, thank you for your flexibility.  Long-term, the plan is still to have Godly Play in between services, simultaneously with Christian formation offerings for adults.
Third, we’ve had one full month of our new, two service schedule.  I’ve heard directly from some of you how it’s going for your household.  I know that for some, it’s going really well, and I’m glad for that.  I also know that for others, this is a real challenge, especially because we’re not seeing the same people as much as we used to on Sunday.
This deserves more space and attention than I can give to it in this little post, and I intend to address it further.  For now, I just want you to know two things.  First, I am happy to sit down with you or your household to hear how things are going for you, regardless of how your household feels about the new rhythm (and I’ll admit we’ve not done this for quite long enough for rhythm to be really established).  If it’s going great for you, I’d love to hear it.  If you’re apprehensive, I would love to hear that, too.  This is a significant change for us as a community, and feeling discombobulated or lost is normal and appropriate for a change like this.  It does not mean that our current feelings of being dislocated as a community is permanent.  They are not.
That doesn’t mean we’re not feeling it right now, though.  So in case an invitation is helpful: this is still very much your community, and you deserve to be heard.  I’m doing my best to identify and sit down with folks whom I think might appreciate a conversation.  I do not want to miss anyone but inevitably will.  Know that if you’d like to sit down, I am more than happy to do so.  I hope you’ll let me know.
Finally, and perhaps most important, remember that the actual worship services themselves—whether 8:45am or 11am—are really only half of Church.  The other half happens beforehand, drinking coffee in the lobby.  Or afterwards, watching the kids play in the yard or on the playground.  For many of us, the other half of Church is Life Group or choir on another day of the week.  For many of us, though, Sunday morning is the real heartbeat of everything.  So, I encourage all of us to come early and linger afterwards.  Your friends miss you.  Remember that you are what makes St. Liz special.  Abide a while on Sunday mornings.  And if there’s someone you miss who might be going to the other service, maybe make a plan to meet each other in between while the kids rack up the miles on the swing set.  We are still One Body in One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.  We are just in a season where that truth requires a bit of extra intention on our parts to be felt as true.
I continue to be grateful for all that you are and for all that we are becoming together.
God’s Peace,
Fr. Daniel+

On Scripture, 2: the Word(s) of God, a First Complication

Hi friends, it’s common practice for us to refer to the bible as the Word of God.  After readings on Sunday, we say, “The Word of the Lord.”  The first half of the Holy Eucharist, which involves reading heavily from scripture, is subtitled “The Word of God” in The Book of Common Prayer (pg. 355).  Today, I want to try and highlight one complication inherent in affirming the bible as God’s Word.
If we begin by affirming the bible as God’s Word, we do not get very far into the New Testament before the bible itself complicates this affirmation.  Consider:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through Him….And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-3, 14)
No sooner have we affirmed the bible as God’s Word than this book itself has pointed us elsewhere: towards something in the “flesh,” towards someone with “the glory as of a father’s only son.”  The Word, the bible tells us, is a Person.  The Word is not just a Person (there is no such thing as a generic or abstract ‘person’), but is a person in a particular kind of relationship: a Son possessed of the glory of a Father.
This is what I meant last week when I said that my operating assumption is that there is an articulable distinction between the bible and Jesus.  Or, put differently, between God’s Word-as-text and God’s Word-as-person.  Not only is there a distinction, but something like a hierarchy: person over text, Christ over bible. 
Note that none of this is specialized work: if we begin with an assumption that the bible is God’s Word, then the very plain sense of these verses from John oblige us to distinguish text and person.  Not to would be unbiblical.
If we are in search of God’s Word, then opening the bible is a bit like opening a Russian doll: no sooner have we opened it than we’ve found another!  The Word of God points us elsewhere, and this ‘elsewhere’ is to the Word of God Incarnate.  And once we arrive at this son-like Incarnate Word, we are presented with the Father to whom this Son relates.  The bible points us towards the Word.  And if this Word is a Son, we cannot help but ponder the Father.  (We’re getting into Trinity stuff now, which is largely beyond the scope of this series.)  What we see here is something like a chain of reference.  The bible refers us to Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ refers us to God, His Father who art in heaven.
These opening verses from John’s Gospel are some of the most powerful for calling attention to this chain of reference, but they are not the only ones.  Mark’s Gospel, for example, begins simply by saying, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1).  Whatever else happens after that, it’s all about Jesus.  All over the letters of Paul, which do not claim to give a narrative account of Christ’s life and ministry, we find the apostle beginning and/or ending his writings with his wishing for his interlocutors grace from the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil. 4:23, 2 Cor. 13:14, Eph. 1:2, Gal. 1:3, etc.)  Never mind all the Christ-centered instruction contained in the body of the letters!  The coherence of Paul’s project depends upon the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
My point is that everywhere the New Testament directs us towards Christ.  Even in the midst of seemingly generic ethical instruction like “love your enemies,” the speaker is Christ (Matt. 5:44).  In verses that seem to be nothing more than reasonable advice, we find a context in which Christ is central: “Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels” sounds like the kind of thing any wise grandparent would say.  But it is followed by, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone” (2 Timothy 2:23-24).
Again, what we see at work is a deliberate referral: what the New Testament does is point us towards Jesus of Nazareth.  Opening the New Testament is a bit like stepping onto one of those moving walkways in airports: when we read it, we’re never standing on stationary ground; we’re moving somewhere.  The bible is not an end but a means.
Near the end of John’s Gospel, we again get a clear sense of what these scriptures are for: “these [things] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name”(20:31).  What I am arguing is that for Christians, even a plain sense reading of the bible seems to suggest that the real point of all this is not reading a book but encountering a Person; one serves the other.  It seems God has given us these scriptures with a why attached to them.
If this is true, then it follows that for Christians to refuse the bible’s ‘referral’ is to misuse the book itself.  To deny the bible’s referential nature is to turn it into something other than the bible.  The Word-as-text is only God’s Word when it refers us to the Word-made-Flesh, Jesus Christ.  This is its purpose, its proper use, so to speak.  Moving walkways in airports are out of order when they’re standing still.
It is no surprise, then, that, on Sunday mornings, the bible-centric part of the service called “The Word of God” leads us—moving walkway like!—into the Peace, in which we physically greet other persons, and ultimately up to the altar, where we encounter Christ’s body and blood.  Word-as-text leads to Word-as-Person.
Two issues need pointing out.  First, for the sake of clarifying the relationship between scripture and Christ, I’ve seriously flattened this topic.  I’ve talked about the bible’s referential quality as its “use,” its “why” for existing.  But the bible is not simply a tool with a straightforward use in the way that a can opener is; thus, our misuse of it is not always clear to us.  On a moving airport walkway, we can see ahead of time where we’re going.  Furthermore, the bible is (amongst other things) both beautiful and a source of beauty.  Even in a secular context, the bible contains and inspires great art.  To flatten art into mere use is both uninteresting and dangerous.  I’ve simplified things for the sake of talking about the Word-as-text and the Word-as-person.
Second, we’ve tried to dodge, stumbled into, and positively stepped in a whole pile of other questions, not the least of which is, “Well, doesn’t all this assume that we have other ways of meeting Jesus against which we can judge our reading of the bible?” (The short answer is yes, of course we do.)  Another is, “So are you saying that there’s only one way for any particular passage to refer us to Christ?”  (Nope.  That would be incredibly boring.)  Most important, perhaps, is “What about the Holy Spirit?”  (This is a great question!)  Hopefully, I’ll address some of these, and others, in this series.
To summarize: based on the witness of the New Testament itself, for Christians it is not a straightforward thing to affirm the bible as God’s Word, as though ‘what God means to say’ is as simple as the Big Red Book on my bedside table.  To stop with that Big Red Book would not take that Book seriously enough.  This textual Word refers us to Jesus Christ, God’s Only Son.  This person is what we’re after because this person refers us eternally to His Father in heaven, of whom He is the perfect image.  “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus says (John 14:9).  The bible is God’s Word, then, because it is a literary icon of Christ the Word.[1]  Moreover, we can arrive at this conclusion simply by taking the bible seriously.  We’ve not done any interpretive gymnastics to arrive here.  To affirm the bible as God’s Word necessitates a second and more fundamental affirmation: the Word God speaks is Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made Flesh, who lived and died as one of us.
That the Word-made-Flesh lived and died as one of us in physical time and space will help us make sense of a second complication, namely that the New Testament at times seems to be aware that, despite its referential nature, it doesn’t say everything there is to say about this Word-made-Flesh.  We’ll explore this next time.
God’s Peace,
Fr. Daniel+
[1] I’m indebted to Dr. Anthony Baker from Seminary of the Southwest for this phrasing.
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