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2019 The Bishop’s Committee + Leadership Team

Hi friends, I’m writing with two updates: first, I’m pleased to announce our 2019 Bishop’s Committee (the “BC”).  The Bishop’s Committee is the governing body of St. Elizabeth.  More about what they do is below.  Without further ado, our BC members for 2019 are as follows:
               Julie Warfield, joined March 2015 (Bishop’s Warden since fall 2016)
               Dave McCoy, joined Jan. 2017 (Jr. Warden, starting Jan. 2019)
Sarah Williams, joined Jan. 2017
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
               Krista Piferrer, joined Jan. 2019
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 DJ Sartorio, (joined as Junior Warden Jan. 2016), Terri Thompson (joined fall 2013), and Lisa White (joined July 2015, Treasurer since July 2015).  I’m grateful for their hard work and support, and for their continued work as they help train our newest members.
A change to note about our BC.  You’ll notice that we now have ten members rather than nine.  Sarah Johnson will serve as our new Treasurer.  She is in on the Bishop’s Committee by virtue of that office.  However, she will not be a voting member; she will not be expected to do weekly “BC of the Day” duties; and she is not expected to be present for the full duration of every BC meeting.  She’s is expected to fulfill Treasurer-specific duties (weekly deposits, monthly financial reports, ensuring the annual audit is completed, etc.)
This is a change from previous years when the Treasurer both fulfilled her duties as our primary financial officer and voted as a BC member.  (Lisa White served faithfully in this capacity for a number of years!)  We are making this change as part of our ongoing work of improving our administrative practices.  The Treasurer, like the Vicar, is one of our primary check-signers.  Therefore, neither the Vicar nor the Treasurer gets to vote on the budget, which is the document that guides how much and for what purpose those checks are written.
As a post script below, I’ve included a (lengthy) refresher about Episcopal Church terminology and some Frequently Asked Questions about the BC.
Second update: 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, for the past couple years St. Liz has been meeting with a consultant named Bob Whitesel to help us set and achieve goals as a community of faith.  Our last meeting with Dr. Whitesel was in October of 2018.
One of the benefits of Dr. Whitesel’s work was that it forced us to set dates every few months when various ministry leads gathered together to check in, set goals, and divvy up work.  They were good ‘rally the troops’ opportunities.  Now that our work with Dr. Whitesel is concluded, it’s important that we continue the rhythm of periodically checking in to chart our progress and to plan our way forward.
Our first Leadership Team meeting for 2019 will be this Sunday, January 13th.  While I’ve sent specific invites and an agenda to the folks listed above, this meeting is open to the congregation.  You’re welcome to come.  We’ll finish by 2pm.  My hope is for Leadership Team to meet three times a year.
God’s Peace
Fr. Daniel+
P.S. A refresher on Episcopal Church terminology and some FAQs: 
St. Elizabeth is not a parish, but a mission of the Diocese of West Texas.  A mission is under the direct supervision of the diocesan bishop.  Because of that, unlike the members of a parish vestry, the members of a bishop’s committee are not elected but appointed directly by the bishop, who consults with the vicar regarding appointments.  Like the bishop’s committee itself, the vicar is also appointed directly by the diocesan bishop.  Thus, while both a parish and a mission are under the authority of the diocesan bishop, the bishop’s authority is more immediate when it comes to a mission.  Clear as mud? 
I remind us of all that because I imagine not all of us are clear on how, exactly, someone is selected to serve on the BC.  We do not vote on BC members.  Ultimately, the authority to appoint members resides with the bishop.  In practice, the bishop appoints only after receiving recommendations from me.  The names I offer to the bishop come from conversations with other members of the BC and our observations about who might be able and willing to serve given family commitments, responsibilities at the church, experience, etc.  Maturity, spiritual depth, open-mindedness, an ability to listen to and work with a diverse group of people, and a commitment to the mission of God at St. Liz are all essential.  BC members are expected to contribute financially to St. Liz with the understanding that, like the rest of us, they should be taking healthy steps towards tithing if they are not able currently to do so.  Other factors I consider are maintaining a mix of personalities, stages of life, and balance of women and men on the BC.  As vicar, I work particularly closely with the wardens and treasurer.
Three practical questions: first, why do we have nine voting members?  I set this number so as to have a critical mass for conversation at meetings.  We also have an odd number of members so as to avoid a split vote on anything.  While I chair the meetings and do most of our agenda setting, I do not vote.  The BC usually makes decisions by consensus; however, we vote on all financial matters and reflect the outcome of the vote in our minutes.
Second, how long does a BC member serve?  We ask for a three year commitment, though a term may be longer or shorter depending on the needs of St. Liz or an individual BC member.  We are working our way towards three-year BC terms as normative.  There’s a number of reasons for this, but three main ones are to involve new folks in governance, to prevent burnout, and to prepare us as a community for becoming a parish when we’ll have set, elected terms for vestry members.  You may remember that this time last year our plan was to have all three of our officers (Bp’s Warden, Jr. Warden, and Treasurer) change for 2019.  However, that’s just too much leadership turnover all at once.  As DJ and Lisa are cycling off as Jr. Warden and Treasurer respectively, I’ve asked Julie to continue serving as our Bishop’s Warden.  I was very glad she agreed J
Finally: what does the BC do?  A lot!  We have a full job description.  Here’s a summary: there are weekly tasks like helping count the plate offerings, opening up and locking up on a Sunday, and participating in our monthly meetings.  More ongoing responsibilities include being an ambassador for St. Liz in our communities and on Sunday mornings, serving as a sounding board for me and offering me support, continuing the work we began with Dr. Whitesel, staying involved with St. Liz’s various programs and ministries, and helping to identify and execute opportunities for mission, leadership, and spiritual growth.  BC Meetings are open to the congregation and are noted on all our calendars.  We usually meet on the 2nd Sunday of the month.  February is an exception, when the BC has a Saturday day retreat.

Meet our New Neighbors

Hi friends, a Happy New Year to you and yours!
Several months ago we got some new neighbors: the residents and staff of Sodalis Assisted Living and Memory Care.  When I say neighbors, I mean it!  The turn for Sodalis is literally just a couple hundred yards down FM 967 from us towards town.  I’d like for you to come and meet them.  There are two easy opportunities coming up soon:
First, Sodalis has their grand opening for the public on Thursday, January 10th from 2:30pm-5:30pm.  This is a come and go as you please event.  I plan to be there right at 2:30 for a while.
Second, starting in 2019, the Buda Ministerial Alliance has volunteered to do services at Sodalis twice a month.  I volunteered Wanda and me to go first, on behalf of St. Elizabeth.  We had our first service there this week, with six residents!  Wanda and I are leading another service on Wednesday, January 16th at 9:30am.  I’d love for you to join us.  (It’s cool with the staff; I asked!)
All through Advent we talked about waves, using the wave as a metaphor for the coming of Jesus.  We’re standing on the shore, waiting on the wave to break at Christmas.  Jesus has come to us in Buda just as surely as he came to Bethlehem all those years ago. 
As Christian people, once we have received God’s Word into our own midst, we are called to be a medium through which God’s Word travels to the shores of other communities.  In other words, at baptism, we are signing up to become part of God’s wave to the shores of a broken world.  This is what it means to be Church: we receive God’s bread and are fed, but only so that we can, in turn, become bread for the world, as Christ was.
Oftentimes, this begins with something as simple as making new friends.  I’m inviting you to make new friends out of our new neighbors at Sodalis.
Finally, if you’re saying to yourself, “But I don’t know anybody at Sodalis,” that’s not true! 
One of St. Liz’s very own, Barbara Goodson, actually moved in just a couple months ago.  She was at our service this morning and would love to show everyone around the new place.  Come visit!
Sodalis Assisten Living and Memory Care
645 FM 967
Buda, TX 78610
God’s Peace,
Fr. Daniel+

Lucy is Coming to Teach!

Hi friends, this spring St. Elizabeth is going to begin work with a spiritual tool called the Enneagram. (Pronounced "EN-nee-uh-gram," which is just Greek for "nine points.") Two ways I hope you'll be involved with this work. 

First, I want to get Saturday, March 16th on your calendar. We'll be hosting an all-day Enneagram 'Know Your Number' Workshop led by none other than Lucy Strandlund. From my completely objective and unbiased perspective, she's one of the best out there. Details are still in the works, but I wanted to get the date out there. Plan on 9 am - 3 pm, and we're working on having free childcare on offer all day. There's a good chance folks from outside our St. Liz community will come, too. 

Second, I hope you'll get a copy of a book called The Road Back to You:  An Enneagram Journey of Self-Discovery by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile. Suzanne is the master Lucy apprenticed under, and this book is a primer for folks who are new to the Enneagram, as I imagine most of us are. Our Life Groups will be reading it for the first couple months of 2019. My hope is that those of us not in Life Groups will read it as well ... and then bring all of our questions to our March 16th workshop! 

Some of you have heard me talk about the Enneagram. There's a lot I could say, and a lot of questions to be answered. (Why are there nine types? Why are they arranged on that weird nine-pointed diagram? Where did this stuff come from?) I promise, Lucy will address all of that during her workshop; the book answers many of those questions; and I'll be writing and video'ing a bit about it between now and then. 

Today, I just want to say why I think that, among all the spiritual tools out there, this is one worth exploring. To do that, I want to return to a metaphor we're using a lot during Advent:  the wave. 

We've been using the metaphor of a wave to help us understand what our relationship to God is like in this liturgical season. In Advent, we are like beach-goers standing on the shore, watching a wave swell in the distance. We're waiting with anticipation for it to reach us, to break across our feet. The breaking wave is the birth of Jesus at Christmas. Just as the unimaginable, bazillion-square-mile vastness of the sea touches this particular shore with this particular wave, so too does the unimaginable, bazillion-square-mile vastness of God touch the shores of human history in this particular man from Nazareth. When we become Christians -- when the Holy Spirit ripples through this or that particular baptism -- we're becoming one of God's waves, too. 

Here's the important part for the Enneagram:  a wave is visible because it's a disturbance on the ocean's surface, but it's a disturbance caused by something under the surface. A current of seawater hits the continental shelf, for example, or a barrier reef, or has to slide over a sandbar -- any of these underwater phenomena can force the ocean's natural movement to swell upward into the visible surface disturbances we call waves. 

Lots of personality-type systems focus on the surface disturbances, or the specific visible behaviors people exhibit. What I find so powerful about the Enneagram is that it focuses on the motivation for behavior, which is to say that it calls our attention to our well-rehearsed shipwrecks and sandbars under the surface. This is helpful for a lot of reasons (not least of which is that folks may exhibit similar behaviors from various motivations). Why do I get so angry inside when things aren't perfect, the way I think they should be? Why do I try compulsively to help others even when they haven't asked for it? Why do I always find that I'm the life of the party, even when I'm tired? Why is it I sometimes like to be as invisible as possible in a room full of people? 

All of these are behaviors, surface disturbances, but each of them has a motivation beneath the surface. The Enneagram helps us explore those depths. 

Just as a wave becomes a wave because of something like the continental shelf working against the ocean's current, so too do our own souls resist, to varying degrees, the natural current of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the action of God within a human community so frequently causes a disturbance3 in the surface of things:  whenever God acts, the current only reaches the shore by becoming a wave and disturbing the surface. Why? Because there's something unresolved underneath. 

In Advent, Jesus Christ is the wave breaking towards us. This wave is God's disturbing the surface of things: "distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves" (Luke 21:25). What could be more confusing and disturbing than our crucifying the Son of Man? But we must remember that the approach of Christ, and the accompanying preaching of the prophets like John the Baptizer, is only a disturbance because we resist God's currents. If there were no barriers to God under the surface of humanity, Christ would not be born into a world that crucifies him. But as it is, in a broken world, we resist the ocean currents of divinity, forcing God's action to be lifted up above the surface and break -- on the cross. 

Part of our work as Christians, part of our work of repentance and compassion towards others, is to take time to do the kind of deep reflective work a tool like the Enneagram allows. What causes the waves you always seem to be experiencing? How are the waves you make rocking someone elses's boat unnecessarily? 

I hope you'll join us on Saturday, March 16th. 

God's Peace, 

Fr. Daniel+

Advent and the Swelling of the Wave

Hi friends, on Sunday we begin our Advent observance. (Don’t forget: we’re making Advent wreaths after worship this Sunday!) We’ll put our Advent wreath up in the church, our altar hangings will change to blue, and we’ll begin a new year in our Sunday morning lectionary. This Advent, we begin reading Luke’s Gospel. I want to draw our attention to something I noticed recently about how Luke tells the story.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to go on a preaching retreat with Bishop Jennifer and some clergy colleagues at Mustang Island on the coast. Forty-eight hours of stillness and the sea, reading Luke’s Gospel and feeling for the deep currents of the Word in preparation for Advent and our new lectionary year. One morning I sat down and read the first few chapters of Luke, and I was struck by just how much activity there is before Jesus is even born (let alone before he starts ministering to people).  Angels dropping to earth, rumors spreading, women getting pregnant, men losing the ability to speak, folks travelling. The whole Advent experience in Luke’s Gospel has the feel of a wave swelling towards shore.

If you’ve never done it, try sitting down with your bible and reading the Gospel of Luke up until Jesus’ birth. We’re told that Jesus is born in Luke 2:6-7, so it’s not much more than one chapter until we come to it. But there’s an incredibly busy eighty-five verses before Jesus is born. Here’s a breakdown:

An angel visits Zechariah in the Temple of Jerusalem, foretelling the birth of John the Baptist despite Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s barrenness (1:8-20); the folks outside the Temple realize Zechariah has seen a vision (1:22); and Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth conceives but remained in seclusion for months because of all the hubbub (1:24)—and all that’s just in Jerusalem! Word is beginning to spread about something strange and perhaps miraculous, and it’s spreading from the Temple and into Zechariah’s family.

Meanwhile, seventy miles to the north, Gabriel has gone to Nazareth and told a young woman named Mary that she will bear a son named Jesus who will be called “Son of the Most High” (1:31). This same angel tells her that her elderly cousin Elizabeth has also miraculously conceived a child (1:36), so Mary travels the seventy miles, likely on foot, from Nazareth to the Judean hill country to visit her cousin (1:39).

As soon as Mary and Elizabeth greet each other, Elizabeth’s unborn child leaps in her womb (1:41), Mary bursts into song (1:46-55), and they hang out together for three months (1:56). If there’s never been a movie about these two pregnant cousins’ three months together, that’s a missed opportunity. Sisterhood of the Traveling Miraculous Maternity Pants.

John the Baptist is born, everybody is pumped because they thought Elizabeth and Zechariah couldn’t have kids, and everyone is confused why they don’t name him after his dad (1:57-59). John is circumcised, his dad regains the ability to speak, and then he bursts into song like Mary did (1:59-79) because apparently, Luke’s Gospel is a musical.

That’s in Jerusalem and Galilee, but there’s activity in the bigger historical backdrop of the Roman Empire, too. Emperor Augustus decrees that a census be taken, so Joseph has to leave Nazareth with his suspiciously pregnant fiancée and travel south again, this time to his hometown of Bethlehem (2:1-5).

Can you feel all the activity brewing beneath the surface of the narrative? The tension? The rising of this long-expected tide? Angelic visitations in both the Temple and in small-town Galilee two or three days’ walk north of there. Children of miraculous origin swelling from nonexistence into their mothers’ wombs. An older woman and a younger woman, both scandalously pregnant, brought together by a shared mystery. Zechariah falling mute, then singing. Even the vast political bulk of the Roman Empire seems to tip and tilt a little with unseen impact.

When we read the opening of Luke’s Gospel, those first eighty-five or so verses, we can feel something beneath the surface begin to stir. There’s a swelling in the plot, and like the unborn John the Baptist in his mother’s womb, our souls rise to meet it. It’s as though we’re standing on the shore, feet buried in the sand, looking expectantly out to sea. We watch as a wave grows in the distance, the slow tide of history rising in response to heaven’s unseen gravity. It’s still far off, just a ripple on the horizon now, but it’s there, a turning in the deep unsettling the surface.

Our Gospel passage for this Sunday includes this: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” (Luke 21:25).

The roaring of the sea and the waves. Will we be there when the wave breaks? Perhaps God will speak to us out of the roar of the gale. Perhaps the sea will reach forth her foam-white hands and wash our feet. Who knows?

Welcome, friends, to Advent, this wide expectant shore.

God’s Peace,

Fr. Daniel+

Mass Shootings, Compassion Fatigue, and a Subtle Idolatry

Hi friends, we’ve witnessed more mass shootings in our country this past month.  The two deadliest and most widely known were the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburg on October 27th and the Thousand Oaks shooting at the Borderline Bar in California on November 7th.  These alone are enough to make one weep. I was further distressed to learn, however, that the Thousand Oaks shooting was not the second mass shooting since Tree of Life, but the twelfth.  

The Gun Violence Archive defines a ‘mass shooting’ as a shooting in which at least four people were shot. (It’s one of the sources used here.) This means that ninety people were shot in mass shootings in the United States from October 27th to November 7th. Thirty-four of them died.

Let’s be clear: that’s not ninety people shot in the United States; that’s ninety people shot in mass shootings. In twelve days.

The damage this does to the communities in which the events occurred is, I think, obvious. Today I want to reflect on the less obvious impact it has on those of us who watch from afar. We live in an environment in which the sheer frequency of mass shootings does emotional and spiritual harm, even to those of us who are not directly impacted by the violence.  

First, emotional harm. I want to be clear: when I use the word ‘harm,’ I’m not talking about how we feel sadness or anger or other negative emotions in the wake of a mass shooting. It is a sign of emotional health to feel sadness in the midst of suffering, or anger when we hear of a murder. What I mean by emotional harm is rather the damage done to our emotional faculties to empathize, to mourn, to lament. Simply put, when mass shootings happen so often, we become numb. We stop feeling them.

I’ve heard this phenomenon referred to as compassion fatigue. I think that’s a helpful way of thinking about it. We are, by definition, limited creatures.  We must sleep, we must eat, we must breathe, we cannot work 24-hours a day. Likewise, we simply cannot feel compassion for every instance of human suffering we encounter on the news. It is increasingly the case that mass shootings tick by on the news in a series of statistics like the ones with which I began. Ninety shot. Twelve shootings. Eleven dead here, twelve dead there. This environment can exhaust the compassionate heart until it’s simply too tired to feel anything. One has compassion for a person; one cannot have compassion for a statistics.  

I am not suggesting that each episode of suffering we encounter on the news should cause us to move with tectonic compassion. We would be paralyzed if it did. But if you do find yourself feeling detached from it all and feel moved to connect more deeply, here are the faces of the eleven people killed at Tree of Life. Here are the faces of the twelve people killed at the Borderline Bar. They have faces and stories, like you we do. Like Jesus does.

Or, perhaps you need to take a break from the news for a bit. That’s okay, too. Compassion fatigue is real. Just be sure it’s compassion fatigue you’re addressing and not simply a desire to avoid something painful.

Now, the spiritual harm is a bit less obvious. The regular occurrence of mass shootings convinces us that they are inevitable and that we are powerless to stop them. We see them alongside wildfires and hurricanes, which also seem to happen frequently, and so we begin to think of mass shootings as tragic inevitabilities.


This subtle shift of belief is spiritually damaging because it is not true. To speak of human actions as inevitable is to abdicate our role within God’s creation: we are beings who choose, who make objects of terrible power, who elect leaders, who pass laws and who break them. We are beings for whom mental illness is a possibility, for whom social media is a constant, and for whom free will is a great responsibility.

We are beings who tell stories. If we are not careful, the regularity of mass shootings may convince us that the only true story we can tell is one in which mass shootings are simply a tragic fact of being American in the way that flooding is a tragic fact of living in Texas or a tornado may be a tragic fact of living in Alabama.

But a mass shooting and a tornado are not the same thing. An active shooter drill and a tornado drill do not have the same moral weight. God made a world in which tornados are possible; we made a world in which mass shootings are common.  

I believe in the power of thoughts and prayers. They matter, as I’ve written about elsewhere, and I believe that we are perpetuating a false story when we disparage their power. However, when it comes to mass shootings, it is simply true that thoughts and prayers do not represent our full power to respond. I am not claiming to have a solution. An American solution to this uniquely American evil will likely take more than one generation to emerge and establish a new normal.

For those of us who are adults right now in the midst of all this, repentance is a good place to start: we are Americans, and this is our societal evil. We don’t get to pass the buck. It may be that our kids or our grandkids are the ones who actually cross the Jordan into a land where mass shootings don’t happen. Or a land where they are at least so rare that we can remember all of them. In case you’ve forgotten, there were twelve between October 27th and Wednesday of last week.

Again, what is spiritually damaging in a country where mass shootings are so common is the slow, creeping belief that they are inevitable or that they are the price we pray for freedom. These are both lies. It is not clear what kind of freedom one enjoys if he survives a mass shooting in Las Vegas only to die in another a year later.

To see the choices, laws or culture of a human society as forces beyond human power to change is, for Christian people, a subtle form of idolatry. It’s subtle because it’s not as though we just decide one day to categorize mass shootings alongside natural disasters. We learn it, from each other and from the media and from public figures, slowly, over time. It’s a practice, a habit of speaking we develop and eventually come to believe. But remember: God’s decisions for human history and culture are irrevocable; ours are not. Idolatry is the word we use when we’ve lost that distinction.

God’s Peace,

Fr. Daniel+

On Pledging

Hi friends, I sent out a letter to the congregation this week sharing some of Lucy’s and my practice of pledging.  Today, I want to write about that practice more generally.  It’s my hope and my expectation that everyone who calls St. Liz home will make a financial pledge for 2019.  I hope this because pledging is spiritually good for us.  I expect it because it’s consonant with our identity as Christians in the Episcopal Church.
Before continuing, some terminology reminders might be helpful: a tithe is a biblical standard of 10% of one’s income offered to God through the Church.  A pledge is a commitment to give a specific amount of one’s household income in the following year.  One can pledge without tithing, and one can tithe without pledging.  One can also do both.
My hope is that everyone will pledge because as a practice, pledging is good for us spiritually.  We are a people of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is a way of saying that the most important aspect of our futures—our redemption as God’s daughters and sons—is already accomplished by God on our behalf.  To make a pledge is to practice in the present our security in God’s future.  We make pledges each fall for the coming year as a way of offering to God our future in advance, regardless of what that future might contain.  To paraphrase Matthew, “where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.”  By promising to God the first fruits of our financial futures in the coming year, we also promise to God our hearts for the coming year.
That’s why I hope this for us: because it’s good for us!  Now, what about that second word, expectation?  I expect that everyone will pledge not only because it’s practically helpful as we plan for 2019, but because the practice of pledging is consonant with our identity as Episcopalians.  Christianity is a collection of practices—weekly worship, prayer, care for the needy, pursuing peace and kindness, studying the bible—and those practices form us in a particular direction, so to speak.  The Eucharist, for example, is a practice of corporate worship given to us by Jesus.  Practicing it forms us into more and more perfect images of God, which is to say it forms us into Christ’s likeness, the perfect image of God (Col. 1:15).  We receive Christ’s Body and Blood each week so that we might become more and more like Christ himself. 
We are like piano students practicing day in, day out so that we become more like the Master Pianist—people whose native country is the very music we so love to play.  And like piano students, we depend on the Master Pianist to teach us the practices that will lead us more deeply into the music.
The practices of Christian discipleship, like the practices of learning the piano, involve a tradition of learning.  Those practices—like piano scales and the grammar of sheet music—were here before us.  Therefore, just like learning the piano, becoming Christians means becoming conversant in disciplines we would not otherwise choose or could not have invented for ourselves.  It’s a bit like learning to spell as a child: we are each befuddled to learn the pterodactyl starts with a P.  But the English language was here before we learned to speak it, and if we would be effective communicators, we must learn to practice it with all of its oddities.  Sometimes the why of an odd spelling is only revealed after we’ve been doing it for a while—and sometimes never at all!
I say all of this because offering to God of our first fruits is a Christian practice none of us gets to decide is unimportant.  Just as piano students do not get to decide but only learn the notes that make an A-major chord, and just like none of us gets to decide but only learn how to spell pterodactyl, certain aspects of being Christian people just aren’t up for grabs.  Giving of our first fruits is one. 
But we’ve not yet arrived at pledging, which is a specific way of offering to God of our first fruits.  So why pledge?
The tradition of Christianity that you and I inhabit is the Episcopal Church.  We do not belong to just any room in God’s house, but in this room.  Another way of saying this might be to say that learning the trumpet and learning the piano are both musical arts, but each will necessarily enter the world of music a bit differently.  Just as the trumpet is not necessarily better or worse than the piano, the Episcopal Church is not better or worse than any other in God’s house.  But it does mean that our room has its own particular understanding of Christian practices, our own flavor of common life.  We celebrate the Eucharist like this.  We understand the authority of the bible like this.  We have bishops like her and not only like him.  Learning the trumpet and learning the piano have much in common, but they are also distinct.
One of our practices in the Episcopal Room of God’s house is that we take vows: at baptisms, at confirmations, at weddings.  We expect our clergy to take vows at their ordinations, promising (amongst other things) to be an “example” for those entrusted to our care.  Simply put, pledging is another kind of vow.  Pledging is only one kind of giving, but it is an avowed practice of giving that fits with our understanding of Christian culture as Episcopalians.  It’s my expectation that we will behave accordingly.
Some of us resist pledging because we fear making a commitment we might break.  This is certainly understandable, and this resistance stems from a virtuous place: a conviction that we should keep our word.  As Christians, however, we believe that our calling in following Jesus is faithfulness, not perfection.  For example, during our bishop’s visit a few weeks ago, each of us reaffirmed our avowed commitment to “respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP, pg 305).  Yet none of us would claim to fulfill that vow perfectly.  Moreover, I doubt any of us expects to fulfill that vow perfectly in the year to come!  But we do expect to get better at it, day in and day out, little bits at a time.
Why?  Because we believe that we are finite and fallible creatures, and that our redemption as God’s sons and daughters depends on God’s action, not ours.  When we break our baptismal commitments, we ask for God’s forgiveness, and we strive to do a little better.  This is why I use this word practice so much—we’re all still working at it.
So, if we don’t think twice about promising to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” why would we hesitate to promise something as simple as money?
The amount of money is for no one to decide but you, your family, and God.  Whatever step God is calling you to take this year, however, I hope and expect you’ll give it a try.  It may be that the practice brings you a greater sense of abundance in your life.  It may be that, by this time next year, you decide you tried a bit too much, or maybe not quite enough.  Remember: our goal is faithfulness, not getting it exactly right.  We’re all still practicing.
Part of the grace of being people who take vows is that, when we make a vow, we are usually promising an unlimited amount of time, whether to God or to a person or to a community.  Our baptismal vows affirmed at Confirmation, for example, don’t have an expiration date: we’re promising to do this for as long as we walk the earthThere’s grace in this because it means that there’s no hard deadline for ‘success.’  Only meet 90% of your pledge this year?  That’s okay.  Pledging is a lifelong practice we renew each year.  Another year is on its way already.  Only 25% because of those medical bills, or the house you lost in the storm?  That’s also okay.  Another year is on its way already.  Our whole futures are in God’s hands, and God has promised us an unlimited amount of time, on this side of the grave and beyond, in which to grow into the full stature of Christ, His Son.  We have seasons of feast and famine, of rising and falling.  We are each of us always starting over on our journey into holiness.
And that’s okay.  This is the Church, and St. Liz is your church.  We are a community of grace, a community of ordinary people on an extraordinary journey—and a journey worth taking may involve our falling down a time or two.  But God doesn’t ask for our perfection, only for our faithfulness.  Our best efforts are pleasing to Him, however small or insignificant or imperfect they may seem to us.  Everything belongs.
God’s Peace,
Fr. Daniel+

On Worship

Hi friends, Lucy’s and my eighth wedding anniversary was on October 9th.  I was still foggy with a concussion from my (heroic, unbelievable, action-packed) scooter accident on that particular day, so we didn’t do too much celebrating.  Instead, I was mostly on the receiving end of Lucy’s love “in sickness and in health.” I’m immensely grateful for and proud of her. Being Lucy’s husband is one of the forms of life into which God has led me, for my good and for hers and for those around us, and it is through my vocation as her husband that I have learned much of what I know about belonging to God.  Today, I want to reflect on what being a husband has taught me about worship.

In the 1662 edition of The Book of Common Prayer, there was no exchanging of rings in the marriage service.  The only ring involved was one the man gave to the woman. After the vows, when it came time for the ring, the man said to the woman, “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow….”

Let’s pause here and acknowledge the obvious: this one-sided giving of rings is one of a few places in the 1662 marriage service that reveals an unhealthy relationship between the sexes.  Perhaps the most glaring is the discrepancy in the vows themselves: only the woman promises to “obey” and to “serve,” and only the man promises to “comfort.” As though wives don’t deserve obedience and service, or husbands comfort!

Having said that, I confess that despite the problematic contextual dynamics that contributed to this piece of the service, I find these words to be beautiful and true:  “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow….” The ring is a symbol of a total and unequivocal offering. All my worldly goods, even my body itself—they’re no longer simply mine because I am no longer the center of my universe.  My body and my wealth have found a newer, richer home in the presence of one who is not I.

That line, “with my body I thee worship” is probably the sexiest thing ever said in a church outside the lines of the Song of Solomon itself.  But those words are not simply about sex. At their most basic, those words are a way of acknowledging that everything we do as human beings we do with our bodies: run errands, fold laundry, wash dishes, walk the dog.  When we enter into a relationship like a marriage, we have new disciplines and demands placed upon us, and those disciplines and demands change our physical experience of the world. I wash dishes I didn’t dirty; I fold clothes I don’t wear; I try to go to bed and rise when Lucy does; I no longer ride scooters after dark.

This is no less true of “all my worldly goods.”  None of the money in my paycheck is simply mine; it’s ours.  The stipend I receive as Vicar of St. Liz is our only household income.  I am the one who does the work of vicar’ing, yet Lucy need not ask before buying a book or getting a haircut.  The mutual commitment of worldly goods made in our marriage precedes any change of job or income status. What I mean is that it’s not the case that, on payday, I ‘give’ Lucy ‘my’ money.  The work I do at St. Liz and its compensation is all part of our marriage. I’m not ‘giving’ Lucy ‘my’ money because those categories have been subsumed by the categories of marriage: our worldly goods, one household, shared life and work.

When I do all of these things, I am ordering my physical, embodied life and my material resources so as to acknowledge the worthiness of Lucy’s desires.  Her desires are a gift given to me, and they lay a unique claim on my life. They safeguard me from the illusion that I am the center of my own universe.

We can begin to see how these words from the 1662 marriage rite might be instructive in learning about worship, not just for husbands but for any Christian person.  

To worship God is to acknowledge God’s worthiness and the worthiness of God’s desires.  Since God is our creator, God’s worthiness is absolute. To worship God is to ascribe ultimate worth to our Creator.  (The words worship and worth have the same root.)  When we acknowledge the worthiness of God, then God’s desires begin to lay upon us new gifts, new disciplines and demands.

God’s desires are two, and they constitute a total claim on our lives: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength….You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31).  This claim is also unique: “you shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3).

Our bodies and our worldly goods are no longer simply our own.  We kneel in prayer, we use words instead of fists when we’re angry, we listen to each other, we visit the sick, we care for each other with food and affection, we receive this bread and this wine, we open our homes for life groups, we pledge to our church.  All of these things are simply ways we acknowledge the worthiness of God’s desires—worshipping with our bodies and all our worldly goods, receiving as a gift the disciplines and demands of living in God’s presence.

This past weekend we had our bishop’s visit.  We witnessed several folks, most of them new to St. Liz, be confirmed or received.  Others reaffirmed their baptismal vows, and if you were present at church on Sunday, you renewed your own baptismal covenant.  You promised to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.” You promised to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.”  You promised “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” You promised to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” (Book of Common Prayer 1979, pgs. 416-417).

These are not little promises.  It’s as though we all looked at God and said, “with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow….”  

Powerful vows.  Imagine God’s pleasure, Her Divine Joy, at having the promise of your whole life glittering on the gentle finger of heaven.  Imagine your own unending joy, for as long as you both shall live, the life everlasting.

God’s Peace,

Fr. Daniel+

An Essay on “the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth”

Hi friends, one of my favorite books is The Divine Comedy.  It’s a poem about a lost pilgrim named Dante who is rescued from perdition and travels through the realms of the afterlife as he understood them: hell, purgatory, and heaven.  The third section of the poem is called Paradise, and it’s about Dante’s journeying through the spheres of the heavens, meeting saints and learning to drink more and more deeply of God’s blessing.  

Near the end of the poem (Canto XXVIII), Dante emerges into the ninth sphere of heaven, the primum mobile, which in his worldview represents the very edge of the created universe.  Outside of this particular sphere, there is nothing but the dwelling of the Triune God and the countless souls enjoying God for all eternity.  Needless to say, it’s a particularly mind-blowing moment of an already mind-blowing poem.

At this point in the journey, way out there at the very edge of creation, Dante has a vision:  a single, blindingly bright point of light, and around it spin all these shining rings at various speeds.  What Dante comes to understand about his vision is this: God is the shining point of light at the center, and all around God are the many, many layers of creation—earth and us critters, the moon, stars, angels, the whole shebang.

This is a comforting image.  God, our creator and redeemer and sustainer, is the shining center of complete unity, stillness, and peace at the heart of everything.  In Dante’s vision, creation moves around God. The angels, who are more perfect than we, move at fiery speeds with musical regularity. For us on earth, however, our orbit is fitful, frequently torturous, and prone to haphazard change.

Yet the Word God speaks, the Word through whom all things were made, is that bright Truth at the center, the gravity which anchors our many flights of being and allows us to belong to part of a coherent, intricate whole.

One of the ways to describe Christian prayer is to say that when we pray, we are sharing in Dante’s vision: we are being centered, seeing clearly that I am not the center of the universe because God is. In fact, I am not even the center of my own life because God is. It’s as though when we pray, we are being attended by an angelic orthopedist setting a spiritual break, re-centering our souls dislocated bones.

Sometimes, when we have to make a difficult decision, we do something similar.  We ponder, we take time, we occasionally agonize, hoping that the anxiety and fog will part and we’ll catch a glimpse of where the center is.  Ah, yes, I see now. This is the path of faithful action or inaction.

Imagining God as the center of all that is helps us to navigate the world.  Because God is a fixed point of stillness, we have a kind of reference point, a north star on the horizon.  We can discern important questions, judge truth from falsehood, recognize when we are in need of repentance and seeking forgiveness.  This is not to say that we ever fully understand the decisions before us, let alone God, but it is to believe in something solid and unchanging by which we can attempt to make faithful judgments about the world.  We do this through prayer and worship, study, and participating in a community of faith.

Another poet I like uses a similar image to describe God, suggesting that God is “the still point of the turning world.”  What I have begun to notice is that, when the world whirls too chaotically, the still point becomes difficult to discern. And when that happens, we start looking for substitutes, for anything that has the appearance of God’s fixity and stillness, anything that we can grab hold of and say, “This much I know to be true; I’ll stand here and judge accordingly.”

This desire for a still point in a turning world is a way of banishing the terror of the unknown.  It’s made acute when we know we are in the presence of someone who must be lying, perhaps someone who has lied to us in the past.  Family members with certain mental illnesses, situations with loved ones in the midst of addiction, even something as simple as two siblings trying to explain which of them is responsible for the cat’s being covered in blue Kool-Aid.  The presence of deliberate untruth decenters us: without a clear vision of the still point against which we make judgements about ourselves and the world around us, by what are we to discern the way forward?

When I lie, I build a world of which I am the architect, in which I am the primary author of history.  If it is a world and a history of my own invention, then it is a world of which I am the center, not God.  This world will inevitably collapse because the task of a human being is not to create and sustain an entire world.  In the Rite I confession at Morning Prayer, we confess that “we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts” (BCP, pg 41).  It’s an apt phrase for our decentered lives.

In our public life as a country, as we watch the hearing and investigation around Judge Kavanaugh’s potential Supreme Court appointment unfold, we cannot help but feel that someone is lying about something.  Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony is incompatible with Dr. Ford’s and vise versa.  Whether deliberately or not, someone is preventing the whole truth. When we watch clips of one or the other’s testimony, we are thrust into a room of which it would seem God is not the center.  We’ve entered the devices and desires of a human heart.

Human beings were not made for such an environment.  Thus, as we watch, and as the turning of the world inside the senate hearing threatens to jettison us into the void, we begin to search for a still point of any kind.  Without knowing it, we begin to settle for the security of a world built around a subtle lie.

The subtlest of lies is when a partial truth is treated as the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  For example, did you ever notice that the serpent isn’t lying when it says, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4).  When Adam and Eve eat the fruit, they don’t die; their eyes are opened; and they do become like God in that they now distinguish between what is good and what is not.  The serpent isn’t lying; it’s just not telling the whole truth and nothing but.

Seen in this light, it’s ironic that a witness should swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth “so help me God.”  It is ironic because the simple fact of our not being God precludes us from telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  We are finite creatures, and thus any truth we tell cannot be the whole of it. We do not have the capacity to create and sustain the world; how could we then tell the whole truth?  We are broken creatures, and thus any truth we tell cannot be ‘nothing but’ the truth.

Each of us has been born into and grown up in a broken history in which best intentions go awry, where an accidental tone of voice can lace a simple ‘thank you’ or ‘goodbye’ with unintended sarcasm or condescension.  It is impossible for us to communicate ‘nothing but the truth’ because the truths communicated to us are rarely clear, whole, and purely motivated. In a history like this, the admission of being unable to remember details of an event over thirty years old should be expected, yet it renders us untrustworthy. In a history like this, the admission of having drunk too much as a young man is not surprising, yet it renders us wicked and incapable of having changed.

My point is that if none of us lives the whole truth and nothing but the truth, how can we expect to testify otherwise?  And if this is true, how can we observers expect more from witnesses than we ourselves would be able to provide?

This is not to say that we should therefore assume that Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh are both equally telling the truth.  But it does allow some room for grace. Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh have both testified in a world-history whose brokenness is not their sole responsibility.  They have each inherited a world in which men all too often assault women and get away with it, a world in which the voices of men are valued more than the voices of women.  They have each also inherited a world in which people lie and obfuscate under oath, even people with significant public responsibility. This is a world in which, at best, any truth a person tells is partial and contains a sliver of falsehood, and yet nevertheless we expect the whole truth and nothing but.

By now, I’ve watched, listened to, or read almost all of Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony and responses to questions, and I’ve watched, listened to, or read almost all of Dr. Ford’s testimony and responses to questions.  Like many of you, I have drawn conclusions, and like many of you, I have drawn them from wrestling with two mutually exclusive stories.

But what I crave is certainty, and this I do not have.  I have had moments close to certainty, but if I am honest, when I heap the burden of my desire for the Truth on the conclusions I have drawn, the weight is too much.  This is not to say that, at the end of time, I will discover that my conclusions have been wrong, or that you will discover your own to have been. It is simply to acknowledge that here and now, they are finite.  The truth we build from partial, imperfect truths will inevitably be partial and imperfect. It cannot bear the full responsibility of being the still point of a turning world. Only God can do that.

It is worth noting that Dante does not start off with his vision of God as the pure brightness at the core of everything; his journey through creation ends there.  When his journey begins, he is lost in a dark wood and beset by temptations of every kind.  He has no still point of reference amidst the shadows that haunt and threaten to devour him.  His journey is long, and on it he is confronted by his own sinfulness before seeing clearly the Still Point of the turning world.  His journey is one of repentance followed by blessing.

The Christian life is one of discerning the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, the Truth Who is God alone.  This takes a lifetime of repentance and receiving God’s blessing. At the end of all things, when we’re gathered together before the throne, the devices and desires of our own hearts will be cracked open and revealed as hollow, and together we’ll finally see ourselves and each other and the vicissitudes of history clearly in the light of God’s stillness.  On that day, we’ll know for sure the answer to the drama we’re seeing unfold in the arena of American politics.

Between now and then, however, be wary that your confidence in Judge Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence is not the serpent’s voice tempting you to treat a partial truth as the whole truth and nothing but.  Dr. Ford’s testimony and Judge Kavanaugh’s are mutually exclusive in regard to Judge Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence, but it does not follow that one of them is simply willfully and knowingly lying and that the other is a lone beacon of virtue.  Human lives are messier than that because the history into which we are born and in which we tell our stories is messier than that. For example, Judge Kavanaugh himself does not deny that Dr. Ford was assaulted.  Surely if the man accused can afford his accuser at least that much good faith, we can do the same for all parties involved.

One last thing needs saying before I bring this partial, imperfect truth to a close.  On Tuesday of this week, President Trump held a rally in Mississippi in which he mocked Dr. Ford’s testimony.  This is abjectly sinful behavior and what one should expect from a tyrant, not an American President.  Even if we were to suspend all belief in the veracity of Dr. Ford’s specific allegations (a thought experiment which should discomfort us), the unmistakable message to the victims of sexual assault who nevertheless hear their own stories being told by her is this: “Don’t speak up.  The abuse will only continue verbally and in public.” Thankfully, the bipartisan criticism of President Trump’s actions suggests other leaders are aware of this.  

In the vocabulary I have been laying out here, President Trump’s mockery of Dr. Ford demonstrates the degree to which it is possible for us as human beings to follow the devices and desires of our own hearts.  Yet President Trump himself is not simply inventing whole cloth a world of which he alone is the center. Like each of us, he lives and acts in a broken history. What I mean is this: not only did he mock Dr. Ford’s testimony, but he was cheered for doing so.  Had we not already been willing to cheer, he would not have been able to mock.

It is too easy simply to say, “Well that’s the Mississippi crowd’s problem!”  Again, that’s turning a partial truth into the whole truth and nothing but. Rather, it seems a thicker truth would be to say that each of us is culpable for the environment in which we as the United States find ourselves.  I mean American Christians; I cannot claim to speak for anyone else. We too quickly settle for a partial truth rather than the whole because God does not simply show up in a senate hearing room and tell us what is what. This is deeply uncomfortable for Christian people because our natural disposition is to order ourselves around that shimmering, immutable center which is God alone.  Yet being willing to sit still in the midst of anxieties like our current climate is precisely the path towards the Truth. Remember Dante’s vision: drawing near to the still point of God’s clarity means first passing through the whirling anxieties of creation, including the dark woods and tempests of our own sins and subtle lies. The only way to the light is through the dark.

All that is rather mystical, but scripture provides us a plainer example.  Remember Jesus’ trial before Pilate: Pontius Pilate cannot bear to linger with the discomfort of his own question, “What is truth?” and so he proceeds directly to crucifying the very Still Point of the turning world which he so desperately seeks (John 18:38).  Pilate, too, was part of a broken history not entirely of his own making. Political pressures and hierarchy, a cheering crowd, the doubts of his own heart, his utter perplexity about the strange testimony of Jesus. It’s a familiar environment for us.

Our leaders will make a decision about Judge Kavanaugh’s appointment.  It may be a good decision, or it may be a bad one—and we may not know which for a long time.  As you draw your own finite conclusions about this, remember that the hammer and nails of Golgotha will always be there for us to pick up, as they were for Pilate.  If we would avoid crucifying the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth, we must arrive even at our partial, specific judgments, judgments like whether Judge Kavanaugh should be appointed to the Supreme Court, by passing first through the dark wood of our own ignorance.  There we will find a way to the still point of the turning world.

Thank you for reading, and God’s Peace,

Fr. Daniel+

The Prayer Box

Hi friends, this past Sunday I introduced one of St. Elizabeth’s new ways of supporting each other and our loved ones in prayer.  Because not all of us were able to be here this past Sunday, I’ve decided to write about it here, as well.
Several weeks ago, a new idea of how to pray for each other presented itself.  One of our members, Will Piferrer, wrote a guest article about his upcoming pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago.  (You can read about his pilgrimage here.  He’s almost finished!)  In preparing for that pilgrimage, Will invited us to write our prayers and intentions on little cards, which he would then carry on our behalf into the cathedral of one of our sister churches in Spain at the end of his journey.   Those cards were available on the sound table near the front of our worship space.  I, like dozens of you, wrote one and sealed it for Will to take.
Many of us noticed how good it would be to have something like that going on all the time, a simple, informal way to commit our prayers into God’s hands by way of our community.  Thus, the Prayer Box from Will’s pilgrimage remains, only now put to broader use.
It’s simple: if you have a prayer request, write it on one of the cards on top of the sound equipment table, and put it in the Prayer Box.  When our Morning Prayer group gathers on the following Tuesday at 8:30am, as we do each week, we will take the prayers from the Prayer Box and pray them out loud before God’s altar on your behalf—without judgment and without assuming you want us to do anything other than pray for you.
Your prayers can be as specific, general, brief, or long as you feel necessary.  You may simply write a name down, or write a longer, more specific prayer addressed to God, if you like.  You may sign your name if you wish, or you may leave the prayer anonymous.  All I ask is that you write legibly J  And as a reminder, Morning Prayer is Tuesdays at 8:30am, and everyone is welcome.
I want to be clear: the prayers and intentions we sent with Will on his pilgrimage remained sealed and confidential, unopened by anyone.  From now on, the written prayers in the Prayer Box will not be confidential; we will read them—pray them on your behalf—before the altar.  This means I will see them, as will one or more of the folks who have come to Morning Prayer that week (which is open to everyone).  When Morning Prayer is over, I will dispose of the prayers appropriately.
One of my favorite prayers from Morning Prayer is a prayer attributed to St. John Chrysostom.  You can find it on page 102 of The Book of Common Prayer.  It goes like this:
Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting.  Amen.
This past week we had five prayers in the Prayer Box on Tuesday morning.  When it came time for intercession, the handful of us who had gathered prayed our own prayers, and then we divided up those five from the Prayer Box amongst us and prayed them on behalf of the folks who had written them.  Then we said those words from St. John Chrysostom, making our “common supplication” to God.  In praying out loud what others had written, I was struck by just how true those words are: our supplications are “common” because they belong to each of us, for each of us is part of the Church, Christ’s Body.  Christ is with us always, yet even more so whenever “two or three are gathered together in his Name.” 
But even more deeply than that, our supplications are “common” because they are the supplications of Jesus himself to God.  Each Sunday morning, we pray “in the words our Savior Christ has taught us,” and then begin the Lord’s Prayer.  Yet we don’t pray those words only because Jesus told us, too (though that’s reason enough).  We pray them because the pilgrimage Jesus invites us into, the one he has pioneered and perfected on our behalf, the Way of the Cross—that pilgrimage ends with our becoming one with Christ, becoming his body and blood, which is to say that our earthly pilgrimage ends with our coming to enjoy God with the same fullness as Jesus does.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, that’s what we’re practicing: that we, too, can and will call God ‘Father’ as Jesus himself does.  We are praying the words of Christ our companion on the way, and in those words we speak to God from within Christ’s relationship with Him. 
When we pray for each other, we are trusting that God accepts our prayers on their behalf as though it were Christ Himself praying, as though each of us were praying on their behalf something similar to Jesus’ words in Gethsemane: “Take this cup from them, Father, but thy will be done.”
This Tuesday morning, we prayed in the words of one of our sisters or brothers in our community here at St. Liz, and we spoke to God through their words.  And just like we are with Christ when we say the Lord’s Prayer, in that moment we were somehow with them in their journey.  Whatever Golgotha or shining mountain top is on their horizon, we were with them, and they were with us—because Christ has already traversed all terrain, and so whenever we pray, whatever shadowed valley or mountain top we pray from, the words God hears are those of his only begotten Son.
God’s Peace,
Fr. Daniel+

Carningli, or the Rock that is Higher than I

Hi friends, it’s good to be home.  Lucy and I so enjoyed our time vacationing and Wales.  It was restful, replenishing, and rejuvenating—and all just in time for the new school year! 
One of our favorite things to do in Wales is just to walk the countryside or hike one of Wales’ many, many giant hills and little mountains.  I want to tell you about one of our hikes.
First, a note about Wales.  I think one of the reasons Lucy and I love Wales so much is because it’s a liminal place.  What I mean is that traveling through the Welsh countryside feels like being in two worlds at once.  In some way this is obvious. For example, all the signs in Wales are in both Welsh and English—so everywhere you go you’re seeing two very different languages right beside each other.  Another example is the history.  Wales has more castles per square mile than anywhere else in the world.  So a city park, for example, might have all the things one would see at a park in the US, things like picnic tables, public restrooms, and bags for picking up after your dog.  But the park might also include the ruins of a 12th century castle!  (Or, even more astonishing, a Neolithic monument as old as—or older than—the pyramids.)  Welsh and English, the ancient and the 21st century—it’s all there, all at once. 
But there are other, less obvious worlds co-existing.  Wales has a long and rich history of saints.  St. David, with a cathedral named after him, is far and away the most famous Welsh saint.  Most, however, are ones we (myself included) will never have heard of before.  Saint Non, Saint Rhychwyn, Saint Brynach, Saint I’m-Not-Sure-How-To-Pronounce-the-Name. There are some saints about whom we know not much more than that he or she founded this or that church way back when.  Others were members of monasteries long dissolved. 
For many of these saints, hilltops and mountains were important places of prayer and meditation.  The saints are gone, as are their monasteries, and yet the hills and mountains remain.  Lucy and I did a day hike up from the coast, through a village and across a long moor, and finally up onto a craggy little peak called Carningli (carn-EEN-glee), Rock of the Angels, where St. Brynach spent hours in meditation.  It’s right next to some farmland and a friendly herd of cows.  It was raining badly for much of the final stretch through the moor.  We were hungry, soaked through, and were having trouble navigating in the poor visibility.  The views are usually great from the top, apparently, but that day our eyes could press no further than the thick grey fog and rain surrounding us.
Then, at the top of Carningli, standing in the shelter of a rock overhang, we met an older couple in red rain jackets, Keith and Sion (pronounced like Shawn).  They were enjoying a snack after their hike.  They were friendly and showed us the way back down, he leading and she walking behind with us in between.
It’s tempting to say that Keith and Sion were the same angels St. Brynach spent time with in meditation centuries ago.  I don’t know if St. Brynach’s angels walked back into town for tea and cakes after their hikes, but that’s what Keith and Sion did.  I think instead that Keith and Sion were friendly fellow hikers who were more experienced navigating Welsh moors in bad weather.
Whichever they were, we shared an unspoken connection in the short hour or so of down-hiking we did together.  For some reason, in weather in which no one should be out hiking, all four of us felt drawn to the Rock of the Angels that afternoon.  All four of us were drawn up, just as St. Brynach was in his century.  Just as Moses went up onto Sinai to talk to God.  Just as Jesus went up onto the mountain to speak with Moses and Elijah and his Father in heaven.  Just as countless anonymous hikers have climbed the hills and mountains in their own countries for who knows what reasons. 
Often in the bible, when God speaks to someone on the top of a mountain, the mountain is shrouded in a cloud.  I imagine it’s like Welsh fog.  You’re up high, but apart from the howling of the wind you wouldn’t know it because you can’t actually see how far up you are.  It’s as though with the fog God is saying, “Yes, there’s a lot of world out there.  But for now, just be here, with me, on top of the earth.”
The tops of Welsh mountains are liminal spaces, parts of earth that are somehow also the bottom floor of heaven.  But more than that, there’s something about the act of climbing them that is itself a liminal experience.  Walking up to Carningli, I was both a hiker on vacation, and making the ancient, prayerful climb of St. Brynach.  I was both praying and not thinking about much in particular.  I was both lost in the mist and found by my fellow travelers.  I was both hiking through an ancient place of spiritual power and skirting alongside a stretch of moor pocked with cow poop.  Even now, the memory of the hike is profoundly nourishing, and yet it’s also true that nothing particularly dramatic happened, let alone something obviously spiritual.  We just went up, and then came back.
In Psalm 61, the psalmist beseeches God to, “Set me on the rock that is higher than I” (v.2).  The psalmist is asking for safety from his enemies, but I can’t help invoking that verse when I think about our hike up Carningli.  Like a lot of us, I tend to think in clearly distinct categories: vacation vs work, prayer vs play, lost vs found, kind strangers in red rain jackets vs. possibly angelic fellow pilgrims; the ancient topography of St. Brynach vs cow poop.  Those distinctions are not illusory, but neither are they final because each is the spiritual terrain in which we meet God.  Every now and then, God gives us a little change of perspective by setting us upon a rock that is higher than the distinctions we customarily make.
Perhaps none of us has ever taken a step apart from the angels.
It’s good to be home.
God’ Peace,
Fr. Daniel+
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