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The "G" Was for George

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

Burning Time

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

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

2020 Bishop’s Committee + Leadership Team

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

Blue Christmas Service + Christmas Schedule through Epiphany

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

Advent Reflections after a Hike with my Dad

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

Stewardship of Treasure

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

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.
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