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Continuing Education

Hi friends, I’ve just returned from a little over a week in England.  I was there attending some lectures and talking with professors as part of a large and extended continuing education project.  (And enjoying the pubs, too.)  I’d like to reflect some on why continuing our educations is so important, and then tell you a little about this specific project I’m doing.
 
One of my favorite passages in the bible is God’s leading all the creatures of the earth to the first man “to see what he would call them” (Gen.2:19).  God engages a faculty the man did not know he had: learning, matching mind to world.  God educates him.  To educate is to ex ducere, “to lead out.” God leads the creatures out from burrows and nests and shadows that they might be known by Adam, a Creature-Who-Knows.  That’s part of our job as human beings: to be the creatures on earth who are reflective, who not only engage physically with our environment as animals do, but who also tell stories about it, interpret its past, imagine its future.  Of all God’s creatures, we are the ones tasked with discovering and creating meanings.  We’re the ones whose currency is symbol.
 
To do this, we must learn.  We are all God’s students.  When God leads all the other creatures out so that Adam can name them, we are witnessing Adam’s learning how to think.  It is not enough, apparently, that tigers and hummingbirds and javelinas simply exist; they must be named and thought about.  When we see Adam naming all the creatures, we see their becoming recognizable to him.  They’re thinkable now.  Adam can remember that tigers are scary and best watched from only a great distance, and because of this, he can communicate to Eve and Cain and Abel that God’s power is terrifying—like the ferocity of a tiger.  Adam can think and communicate that hummingbirds are beautiful as they flit about the flowers, filling their throats with rubies.  Because Adam can name this, he can contemplate it.  He can communicate to his friends and family that the grace of God comes to us like nectar from a flower.  They, in turn, can understand him, and can respond with their own wisdom.
 
What does all this have to do with education the way you and I usually experience it?  When we learn—whether by reading a book or conversing with a friend or going to a class or traveling—God ‘leads out to us’ a new idea or experience or emotion, and we put language on it.  We ‘name it’ as Adam named the javelinas.  This gives the idea or experience or emotion a distinct shape in our minds.  We learn its contours.  As it becomes uniquely recognizable to us, it becomes communicable to others.  When a new parent says, “having a child is like having your heart walk around on the outside of your chest,” they are naming a new reality.
 
Another example might be helpful.  The other day I was meeting with someone who is working through some significant questions related to her work.  We prayed together, and as we prayed we arrived at asking God to make her “patient and relentless” as she seeks clarity about her questions.  We were both a bit surprised at the word choice, but were struck by how fitting it was.  One can be unceasing in prayer, or diligent, or disciplined.  But none of those have quite the force of being relentless.  In naming her experience in this way, we were better able to recognize it afterwards.  The naming is part and parcel of the learning: “ah, yes, this is what it’s like.”  Going forward, each of us has now learned that some of life’s big questions demand that we be relentless in pursuing them.  Until we had named the experience in that way, neither of us could have identified it quite rightly.  As speaking beings, we can’t think what we can’t name. 
 
The same is no less true of more formalized kinds of education: books and syllabi and taking classes.  For example, for decades Christians talked about the Holy Spirit, about Jesus Christ, and about the God who is Jesus’ Father in Heaven.  But until a man named Tertullian used the word Trinity at some point late in the 2nd or early in the 3rd century CE, the unity that exists between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was even more difficult for Christians to think and speak about.  By committing his reflections to writing, generations of Christians thenceforward have learned a helpful way to name, and therefore to contemplate, the particular mystery that is God’s triune oneness.
 
This brings me to the specific continuing education project I’m working on.  This past fall, I began an MA with the University of Nottingham in England.  (Yes, Nottingham as in “Sheriff of.”)  It’s a distance degree, largely self-paced and research-oriented, with regular supervision and feedback from professors.    Once every spring, there are lectures at the university which distance students like me attend.  That’s where I was this past Sunday.  I’m working on the degree at the slowest possible pace, only turning in essays every six months or so.  This degree is how I’ve chosen to invest the continuing education and travel budget St. Liz provides as part of the vicar’s compensation package.
 
So, what is this degree in?  The degree is in Systematic and Philosophical Theology.  The simplest way to define theology is just to say that theology is the practice of speaking true statements about God.  In this sense, we’re all theologians.  What academic theologians do is frequently different in depth, breadth, and technical rigor than what we do on Sunday morning or in Life Groups, but at root it’s not fundamentally different.  The tools Christian theologians use, at universities and at St. Liz, are scripture, tradition, and reason.  (This last should be as broadly defined as possible, including experience and imagination.)  These are not neat and mutually exclusive categories—but that’s another post for another day!
 
What makes theology systematic?  If theology is the practice of crafting true statements about God, then systematic theology is the discipline of gathering those true statements together and showing how they are part of a coherent whole.  This involves responding to the myriad questions these statements raise, either on their own or when held next to each other.  For example, it’s one thing to say, “God loves all people.”  It’s another thing to say, “God will judge all people and nations.”  And it’s yet another thing to say, “the human soul is eternal because it is the imprint of God’s image.”  All these are theological statements; they are all true from an orthodox Christian perspective; and yet it’s not at all clear how we can hold all three of them together in a coherent whole.  If God is the judge of all people and nations, and if the human soul exists eternally, then it would seem that God’s judgments on human beings will endure eternally.  Well and good.  And yet if God is also loving, then how could God render a judgment of condemnation?
 
We become systematic theologians when we undertake the task of articulating as fully as possible how these three statements might coexist.  In short, a systematic theologian is simply someone who is trying to be consistent and clear when they speak of God and God’s relation to the created order.  If I say X about God, I am accountable to that utterance when I also try to say Y or Z about God.
 
What makes theology philosophical?  I confess that “philosophical theology” is a newer phrase for me.  From what I can tell, theology is philosophical when it does not shy away from concepts that can only be discussed in the abstract.  For example, we might say that qualities like goodness or truth can inhere in any number of more concrete objects, but to talk about goodness itself can only be undertaken in the abstract, which is to say philosophically.  For example, a bicycle can be good and a grape can be good, but because they are good for quite different reasons—ever try to ride a grape or make jelly from a bicycle?!—articulating the quality of goodness that they have in common, and which they get from God, demands a level of philosophical abstraction.  You can’t point to goodness the way you can point to a grape, but this does not mean that goodness is not real and worthy of our reflection.
 
If all of that leaves you a bit cold, don’t worry; theology of this sort isn’t for everybody.  (And thank God for that.  Church would be a miserable place if we all went around pontificating about metaphysics!)  I’m undertaking this degree for several reasons.  The first is that part of my job as a preacher, teacher and pastor is to help us as a community put language on our experience of God and of the world.  This helps us to name it, to recognize it, to communicate it to each other.  The discipline of study keeps me encountering newer and newer ‘creatures,’ so to speak, and therefore keeps the repository of language and concept from which I draw fresh and fluid and intelligible.  (Well, hopefully.)  The second reason I’m undertaking this degree is simply because learning is a source of great happiness for me, and I like being happy.
 
As I said earlier, I’m working on this degree at the slowest possible pace.  I began in the fall and only just turned in my first essay at the end of February.  That one was seeking to articulate how we understand the authority of Holy Scripture.  I’ll probably write about that in a couple weeks.  I’ll turn in another essay at the end of August.  That one will be about how the New Testament Canon became what it is today.  When I finish that one, I’ll be sure to write about what I learned!
 
Finally, thank you for supporting me in this.  St. Elizabeth and the Diocese of West Texas are making this degree possible, both financially and in supporting me with the space and time actually to work on it.  I am profoundly grateful, and I pray that this course of study bears fruit in our community of faith.
 
More soon.
 
Gods Peace,
 
Fr. Danie

Ecclesial Snark

Hi friends, as a minister whose email address is available on our website, I get a great deal of mass emails from various ministry-related organizations.  Solicitations of what new books are out; dozens of different community organizations (local and otherwise); bulk invitations to gigantic preacher conferences; and all kinds of church consultants looking to help me do x, y, or z.  I don’t read any that I’ve not signed up for personally or that aren’t from the Episcopal Church.  Usually, I just delete them or unsubscribe. 
 
But on Maundy Thursday I got one that pushed a button.  Maundy Thursday is one of the most powerful services of the Church year.  Jesus gathers with his disciples for a final time.  They share a meal—the meal which Christians will continue as the Holy Eucharist—and Jesus washes their feet.  Judas leaves the gathering to betray Jesus.  Our Lord goes into the Garden of Gethsemane and prays, “Father, let this cup pass from me, but thy will be done.”  At Church, the altar is stripped and the cross shrouded in black as we enter into the beauty, drama, and holy terror of Good Friday.
 
The mass email I got was from a consulting firm I’d never heard of, and they were offering to help me grow our church budget by some ridiculous percentage during Easter Sunday and the weeks following.  The email itself was filled with Alleluias and images of Easter Lilies.  Again, they sent it on Maundy Thursday.
 
I was alone in the office at the time, so I indulged in a brief…ah…monologue, might be the best word, as I scrolled down to the unsubscribe link hidden in teeny, tiny letters at the bottom.  I was delighted to find that this particular email distribution gave me options as to why I was unsubscribing, including one that said “Other,” followed by a comments blank.  I ticked this option, and—filled with righteousness!—what I said was something like:
 
You sent me an Easter-themed email on Maundy Thursday.  This does not engender confidence in your organization.
 
This is pretty tame as far as responses go, but at the time I felt that my restraint was simply further evidence of my ecclesial superiority, a way of communicating “I don’t have time for you” while actually going out of my way to respond.  So let’s call this what it is: unnecessary Church snark.
 
Not all traditions observe Lent the way we do.  Nor do all traditions observe Holy Week with the level of intentionality that Episcopalians do.  I’m sure the staff of such and such consulting firm is just doing their jobs.  After all, I, too, make plans for Easter season before Easter is actually upon us.  There’s no way around it.
 
I bring all of this up to highlight a tension I know some of us (and perhaps many of us) feel: the tension between respecting other ways of doing Church and claiming unreservedly our convictions about the way that seems genuinely best to us.  Many of us in the Episcopal Church, and at St. Liz specifically, are self-described refugees from other denominations.  I’ve heard more than one person describe themselves as a “recovering [insert previous denominational affiliation].”  For others, it’s not so much about a worldview or denomination, but about the music of a church.  Or whether a church does communion.  Or the extent to which it can be described as ‘traditional.’
 
To return to my silly little email example: I actually do believe it’s inappropriate to celebrate Easter before it’s time.  I do believe it’s inappropriate to shout (or type!) giant Alleluia’s on the night Jesus is betrayed.  I do believe that observing Holy Week with all the rituals and drama of palm processions and washing feet, of stripping the altar and sinking into the heaviness of Good Friday, with a great big celebration once it’s time for Easter—I do believe that’s the best way to do Holy Week.  We are embodied creatures, ones who experience the world with our senses and who observe rhythms in days, weeks, seasons, and years.  We are people of the Incarnation, people who believe that God is with us in this bread, in this wine, in these feet we are washing on this one special night of the calendar.  Indeed, Jesus has marked the very calendar itself with His death and resurrection.  To bring out the white lilies and talk about beefing up the church budget on Maundy Thursday really does strike me as a gross trivialization of a profound mystery.
 
I believe all of this, and I believe that my belief is good.  When I emailed our anonymous consultants, however, I was not resting in the truth of what I know, let alone remaining open to the possibility that there might be goodness in other ways of doing things.  Or open to the possibility that there might be more to this consulting firm’s perspective than simply one email.  (Or, perhaps more realistically, the possibility that this email really wasn’t worth the time!)  I could’ve just unsubscribed and gone about observing Maundy Thursday.  But instead, I chose to snark a little at people whom, for a moment at least, I held to be unenlightened barbarians.
 
That’s what ecclesial snark looks like on me: a sort of pointed smugness.  This is one of the sins of the Episcopal Church, and I occasionally perpetuate it, I’m sorry to say.  We’re an old and beautiful tradition.  Lots of poets.  Lots of intellectuals.  Lots of royalty.  Lots of founding fathers amongst our historical numbers.  That means lots of assumed superiority to shed.
 
I don’t know what ecclesial snark looks like on you.  Maybe it has to do with those ‘fundamentalists’ who don’t drink or dance.  Maybe it has to do with the hierarchy of Rome.  Maybe it has to do with church music.  Maybe you’re like me and are outraged that, instead of observing a holy day with the proper dignity, someone would offer to help your church raise a bunch of Easter money.  Or perhaps you’re simply not guilty of this particular church sin.  I hope that’s the case.  In my experience, there are a great many people at St. Liz who possess that particular brand of holiness called not taking ourselves too seriously.
 
But if you’re like me and you do suffer from the occasional bout of snarkiness, I hope you’ll attempt some appreciative inquiry about whichever group it is that drives you snarky.  Perhaps there’s some ascetic virtue in the abstinence from drink you can’t abide in those ‘fundamentalists.’  Perhaps there’s great value in having a Magisterium, a value which has somehow been obscured.  Perhaps the sense of righteousness that came with sending that email is something else entirely.
 
I also hope you’ll be intentional in articulating the conviction you hold that, perhaps in your less kind or less patient moments, manifests as snark.  The conviction might very well be a deep and holy one.  Oftentimes snark is simply the result of a good thing bent to bad use.
 
God’s Peace,
 
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

St. Liz Kidz Registration is Live!

Hi friends, you may have heard rumors of a new summer program St. Liz is starting.  The rumors are true!  We are proud to introduce St. Liz Kidz (SLK), a four day evening camp for all kids who will be entering kindergarten through fifth grade in fall of 2019. 
 
Some basic info: 
SLK will run from Monday, June 17th – Thursday, June 20th from 6pm-8pm and will be held onsite at St. Liz.  There is no cost to participate.
 
Registration is available at this link. Registration questions go to Krista Piferrer at events@st-liz.org Please register by May 10th.
 
Ina Jensen is our Team Lead for SLK.
 
Our theme this year is “In the Beginning.”
 
As this is our first year and we’ll inevitably be working some of the organizational kinks out as we go, space is limited.  However, this event is open to all families, regardless of whether they call St. Liz home.
 
We have a host of volunteers helping with this event, and we are still looking for older youth (jr. high and high school) to help serve as ‘sheepdogs’ alongside our adult shepherds.
 
A blessed Holy Week everyone.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
 
 

Holy Week Observance

Hi friends, on Sunday we begin Holy Week, the most sacred time in the Church year.  A full schedule of services is available on the website and on take-home calendars at the church.  Today, I want to suggest something simple: mark this week, amongst all weeks, as special by adopting some kind of intentional devotion.
 
I don’t necessarily mean anything grand or dramatic; one need not wear sackcloth.  But there are lots of practices available to us.  Fast on Good Friday (from meat, from alcohol, from lunch entirely, etc. as appropriate for age, health, and activity level).  Come to Morning Prayer on Tuesday like you’ve been meaning to do for so many weeks.  Write that letter to your godchild you’ve been meaning to write.  Plant a flower bed.  Tell the coach your family is skipping baseball/track/volleyball on Good Friday, just this once, because, well, this Friday is different.
 
Holy Week is a lot: a lot of worship, a lot of bible passages, a lot of divine and human drama, a lot to think about, and—in the end!—a lot to celebrate.  Any special devotions we observe, whether privately at home or publicly in worship, don’t get us extra sainthood points.  They’re simply ways to remind us that it’s good and right to let first things come first.  For us, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the first thing.  (It’s also the last thing.)
 
So, if you’re looking for a way to let this week be special during your own time, here’s one very simple but specific idea.  On Palm Sunday, we’re going to hear the Passion Narrative of Luke’s Gospel.  It’s the full Last Supper, trial, and crucifixion narrative.  If you’re like me, hearing a text just once in worship on Sunday doesn’t always let it sink in all the way.  So tonight, why not sit down with your own bible and read it?  The full passage is Luke 22:14 – Luke 23:56.  Read the whole thing; hear it again at worship on Sunday; and then maybe read it again on Monday or Tuesday of Holy Week.  Sit with all the betrayal, the confusion, the tension, the violence, the strangeness of it all.  Sink with Christ into the darkness as he is blindfolded.  Listen to the voices of the thieves crucified with Jesus on either side of him.  Feel the Centurion’s…well, what exactly does he feel?
 
And then, at sundown on Saturday, just before Easter, read the Easter account, Luke 24:1-12.  It picks up right where the Palm Sunday Passion ends, and it’s where we’ll be for Easter morning…with flowers!
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

Contemplative Prayer, or How to Play with a Flying Squirrel

Hi friends, one of my Lenten practices this year has been to spend some time every day in contemplative silence and stillness, ideally a solid twenty minutes each day.  This has never come easily to me, and this Lent has been no different.  If my ‘success’ at this Lenten practice were recorded in a fitness app on my phone, it would probably say, “Personal Best: 18 mostly contemplative minutes.  Longest Daily Prayer Streak: 3 days.”
 
It’s a discipline I resist, actively and passively, but it’s also one of whose importance I am convinced, if for no other reason than because wiser souls than mine have told me it’s important.
 
I think part of why I resist prayerful stillness and silence so relentlessly is that, of all the ways one could pray, this one perhaps renders us the most passive.  It’s rare that anything ever happens in stillnessAt least when I pray the Daily Office, I’m saying words and reading the bible and bowing and doing church things!  But simply to sit (not even kneeling?!) and let my mind wander without attaching myself to any of those wanderings…wait, why am I doing this again?  This is a waste of time.
 
And yet this contemplative practice (or ones like it) has been of fundamental importance to some of the greatest Christian practitioners in history, from the desert mothers and fathers of the early church to Thomas Merton to Sarah Coakley to some of the regular, unsung saints I meet all the time.  Why is that?
 
As I am still very much a beginner with this practice, I don’t really know.  My best guess is that contemplative silence returns us to the most basic ontological truth of being a human person: we are here on God’s terms, not ours.  If nothing ‘happens’ in prayer, well, that’s God’s prerogative.  Besides, because prayer is concerned with the deepest level of our being, the bright core of us where God alone lives, it’s not clear why we should expect to be aware of what change God is working in us, anyway.
 
All this is on my mind as we cross the halfway mark of Lent.  I still don’t like being still; I am still a beginner at all this; and yet I can see it on the faces of so many people whose words and wisdom I trust that twenty’ish minutes of contemplative prayer each day is spiritually good for us in a profound way.
 
A couple weeks ago, I had an experience that has helped me put some words on what might be happening in contemplative prayer.  Lucy and I were in Alabama, visiting our godson, Thompson.  He’s six, and it had been a while since we’d gotten to see him.  As part of our catching up, we heard about all the major life events that have happened since the last time we saw him: lost teeth, flag football games, new dance moves learned or invented, etc.  One major life event since the last time we saw Thompson is that his family has gotten a new pet: her name is Roo, and she’s a Southern Flying Squirrel.
 
This is big news.  Roo was still young when they found her hiding in their church (Thompson’s dad, Corey, is a priest), and it wasn’t clear if her family was still around.  So, they took her to the vet, learned she was healthy but maybe got lost from her squirrel family, and then adopted her. 
 
Now Roo lives in a big cage in their living room, replete with numerous hidey holes and lots of wooden climbing things.  Roo is tiny, and because she is so tiny, Thompson and his older brother explained, there are rules about how you can play with her.  These are the rules:
 
First, you bring Roo’s cage into the small hallway in the middle of the house.
 
Second, you close all the doors leading into and out of the hallway.
 
Third, you grab lots of towels from the closet, and you wedge them under the doors.  Roo is so tiny she could crawl under the doors and get into places that might not be safe for her to go.
 
Fourth, everyone sits very quietly on the floor, and then you open the door to Roo’s cage.  You’re not allowed to reach in and grab Roo. You can’t force her to play with you; you have to sit very quietly in the hallway, and let her come to you.
 
So there we were: Thompson, his brother, their dad, two other friends of ours, Lucy, and me—all sitting in total silence on the floor of the hallway, waiting on this flying squirrel to hop out of her cage and find one of us.
 
For a while, nothing happened.  But eventually, Roo hopped out of her cage, and ran into the corner, between Corey and the wall.  A moment later, she appeared on Corey’s shoulder, and then on top of Corey’s head.   We laughed quietly, at once thrilled with the prospect that Roo might alight on us next, but also trying not to break our shared silence, the spell that makes it safe for Roo to play with us.
 
Roo disappeared from Corey’s head, then reappeared on top of her cage.  Another disappearance and then—ooh!—I felt her tiny claws climbing up the back of my shirt.  From my mouth erupted a sound I will likely never be able to repeat (a mix of surprise, excitement, and anxiety, all suppressed into an awkward kazoo chirp as I tried not to frighten Roo away).  I involuntarily hunched over, my face to the ground.  Roo climbed up my back until she perched on the back of my neck, sniffing the air and looking around at all the laughing faces.
 
We played this game a while longer, Roo vanishing along the baseboards only to reappear on a shoulder or on top of her own cage, and all the while we never spoke in anything but short, expectant whispers.  After maybe twenty minutes, Corey scooped Roo back into her cage, we stood, opened all the doors, and the spell was over.  Of the seven of us crammed into the tiny hallway, Roo had alighted on maybe four of us.
 
This experience with Thompson and his family and their new pet has become a kind of parable for me for what prayerful stillness and silence are like.  The rules are quite simple: go into the innermost corridor of yourself, and close the doors of distraction.  Even wedge towels under the gaps of the doors, so you can’t hear your phone buzz with emails or texts.  Sit very quietly, being very still, and wait for the Holy Spirit to come out.  She’s been with us this whole time, but we tend to be so loud or frantic that we won’t let Her touch us.  When She does come out, we may be aware of Her presence, or we may not.  She moves on Her own terms; She is not a tame squirrel.
 
But when She does land on you—ooh!—it’s a strange sensation, so strange that you’d almost rather see Her land on other people’s heads than feel the wild intimacy of Her claws up your neck. 
 
What a strange but wonderful gift for God to make a home with us here, to build into the architecture of a human life a quiet hallway in which the Divine Wildness might leap and scurry freely about.  It is a brave and necessary thing to enter the quiet hallway of prayer, however much we may resist it, a brave and necessary thing to offer God’s Wildness our fullest and most patient attention.  It is brave because God is wild and does not simply appear when we call; God resists our attempts to force Her out of hiding.  It is necessary because it is natural: we are people of the Incarnation, which is to say that our bodies, sole to crown, are the ecosystem in which the Holy Spirit has chosen to play.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

The Goal is Good Churching

Hi friends, 2019 is already an exciting time at St. Liz.  A new playground, a new Godly Play group for older kids, our experimental new Campsite service at 8:15am, plans for this summer’s St. Liz Kidz camp, increased clarity around volunteer roles in the form of job descriptions, and a new roof going up…and that’s on top of all the good things that are already part of our life together!
 
Much of this growth is exciting and easy to embrace.  Lots of kids can be a bit chaotic, but it’s a joyful chaos.  A new playground is good news. (It was the site of an intense game of Simon Says after church this week.  Alas, I never got to be Simon….)  A complete set of volunteer job descriptions may not be an obvious cause for celebration, but it’s a big step towards sustainable, long-term health.  Our spring class of newcomers are engaged and getting to know everyone.
 
Something like adding a second service on Sunday mornings, however, is a kind of change that brings a bit more anxiety.  A brief update: as you’ll recall, we are currently in the midst of a temporary experiment with an 8:15am Eucharist that is pared down from our 10:30am service.  Before we settle on a more permanent schedule, however, we need a lot more feedback from the congregation.  Your Bishop’s Committee will focus on this at our next meeting on April 14th, and the plan is to solicit broad congregational feedback during Easter Season (April 28th – June 9th).  As of now, the earliest we would begin a more permanent two-service schedule would be fall of 2019.
 
Today, however, I want to address some of our anxieties about this new, ‘second service’ territory.  Anxiety about adding a second service is natural because let’s face it: right now, Sunday mornings are really good.  Not perfect, certainly, but really, really good.  Why risk that by adding a second service?  What’s our goal in doing this?
 
The first question is more difficult because it’s the one that confronts us with the hardest truth: the Church doesn’t belong to us, and therefore, neither does our Sunday morning schedule.  The Church is the Body of Christ, which means that our life together takes its form and content from Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus is the One whom God sent into the world that the world might be saved; His very life was not his own, but an offering from God to the world.
 
If we would be the Body of Christ, we must likewise be an offering from God to the world, the bread of heaven given from the doors of St. Liz.  In simpler terms, we might say that the Church is an organization which exists for the benefit of people who are not (yet) its members.  We are the Church, but our identity as Christ’s Body is given to us, not something we have earned or made for ourselves.  This identity exists in large part in our offering the whole of our common life to those without a community of faith to call home.  This self-offering is our mission, and it includes our worship schedule (which is reaching capacity).
 
As Jesus says of his own mission, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again” (John 10:17).  If we would be a living testament to the life of Jesus of Nazareth, then we should be prepared to do likewise: for this reason the Father loves us, because we lay down our Sunday schedule in order to take it up again.
 
Right now, some of us are feeling the anxiety of realizing that we may have to lay it down.  Some of us are already excited about what it might look like when we take it back up again, which is to say what its resurrection might look like.  One day soon, Sunday mornings could look different than they do now.  Or, they could be largely the same.  We just don’t know yet.  What we do know is that the Holy Spirit is with us constantly in this.  Because this is the same Holy Spirit who has formed us into the loving community we are, then we can rest assured that whatever a two-service St. Liz will look like, she will still look like us. 
 
So, as you think and pray about this, remember that this is conversation is about our mission, our self-offering to those without a faith community.  Thus, I hope our guiding questions are not primarily ones of what is most convenient, interesting, or comfortable for us.  Rather, I hope they’re questions like, “What gifts has God given St. Liz, and how can we adapt and change and create space in our Sunday schedule to share those with more people?”
 
This brings me to the second question: what’s our goal in all this? 
 
Our goal with a second service is the same goal we’ve always had: being the Church, the community in which Christ reigns as Lord.  Nothing more and nothing less.  Our goal is simply to continue proclaiming the Good News of God in Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins and the hope of life everlasting.  The only reason we’re discerning how best to add a second service is because y’all are good at proclaiming and practicing this Good News.  Folks are catching wind of it, and we need to make room for them. 
 
In other words, growth is not our goal; it’s just the fruit of the goal.  Right now in Buda, growth is also the environment in which we find ourselves.  Growth is not only the fruit of good Churching; it’s also the context in which we must carry out our mission.
 
Here’s what I mean: the population of Buda within a seven-mile radius of St. Liz is projected to grow by 20% by 2023.  That’s the fastest growing area in the Diocese of West Texas.  That’s the environment we’re in, the sheer fact of a growing town.
 
But St. Liz is also bearing fruit.  Because of your good Churching, St. Liz has grown even faster than Buda recently.  I did the math today, and double checked it with the congregational development folks at the diocesan office to make sure I was reading the data correctly.  I wasn’t; we’ve grown faster than I thought we had.  If the city of Buda is projected to grow by 20% by 2023, St. Liz has grown by almost 39% since this time last year.
 
Now, we’re a congregation that tends to have higher attendance in the spring than in summer and fall, so I don’t expect we’ll finish 2019 with an average Sunday attendance we currently have (around 111).  And because that 39% growth rate is so high, and because it’s a fairly recent trend, we shouldn’t expect to continue growing quite that rapidly.  (A measure of relief is appropriate!)  But make no mistake: this is fast, and everything points towards a continued upward trend.
 
You heard it right, folks: it’s probable that St. Liz is growing faster than the fastest growing area of the Diocese of West Texas.  I will say it again: growth is not our goal; our goal is always and only good Churching.  Growth is just a fact of the environment in which we pursue this goal.  Because y’all are who you are, St. Liz is just growing a little faster than the community around us.  I’m grateful to be a part of it.
 
Let’s keep doing what we’re doing.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

Love Alone is Eternal

Hi friends, our Ash Wednesday sermon began with a poem called “Ozymandias,” which (amongst other things) is about how temporary and fleeting the works of our human egos are: they return to dust.  Today, I want to start with a less well-known but complementary poem, one about what is eternal.  I discovered it a couple years ago, and even though I don’t know anything else by or about the author, this poem has stayed with me. (Published here.)  
 
Into the Fire, by Gail White
 
Every love counts, the puppy you were given
At six, the tadpoles that you tried to raise;
Even your silly parents and the siblings
You couldn’t stand were loved on certain days.

 
The first love of your adolescence, later
Spoken of slightingly as immature,
The love of marriage, even if it ended
In bitterness, the friends that still endure.

 
Into the mix, put in your charity
To those who had no one but you to love them.
All the loves given, even reluctantly,
Are still our loves. Let’s not make little of them.

 
They form the only fire that burns on
When sun and moon and stars have packed and gone.

 
*             *             *
 
I like this poem for a lot of reasons, but mostly I like the idea that the love we share and offer the world—however imperfect and awkward it may be—has a sort of cumulative effect on us over time, and that this accumulation is somehow permanent.  All those loves, little ones and big ones, even the love of a marriage ended in bitterness, all these loves “form the only fire that still burns on” when everything else has passed away.
 
This is on my mind in these first days of Lent, while the ashes are still smudged on my thumb and sleeve.  In Romans, Paul writes, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39).  Death, life, angels, rulers, nor anything else in all creation—this is an exhaustive list of creaturely powers.  All of them, it seems, are fleeting, temporary, of secondary importance when compared to the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Not even death itself has power over this love.
 
It would seem, then, that Love alone is eternal.
 
Like a lot of clergy, the offertory sentence I generally use before communion is from Ephesians 5:2 and goes, “Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.”  I like this verse because it reminds us that, for Christians, when we talk about love, we are talking about Jesus Christ.  We walk in love as Christ loved us.  The love of God in Christ always comes first, so to speak.  It’s the condition which makes our own love-walking possible.
 
Whatever it is we mean when we say that we love, we are referring to the same movement of God’s own life towards the world, the movement whose name is Jesus.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).  Why did God send Jesus?  Love.  What is love?  God’s sending of Jesus.
 
In the Gospels, we see this love play out in specific episodes.  The force behind Gabriel’s message to the Virgin Mary, the force behind that long genealogy leading up to the birth of Jesus in Luke 3, the force behind all the healings and teaching and loaves and fishes and parables—all of that is the manifestation of the infinite love of God moving towards creation through particular words and actions in particular places and times.
 
Jesus, then, is the name of the infinite, eternal love of God moving into a particular human history.  This is good news for a lot of reasons, one of which is that it means that we particular human beings can participate in the eternal, infinite love of God.  Like Jesus, each of us always finds ourselves in a particular situation—the grocery store, tee ball practice—never in some abstract arena called “the world.”  We have kids, coworkers, folks beside us at church whose names we’ve never bothered to learn.  Because of the movement of the infinite love of God into the particular human life of Jesus, our own particularity can now become the site where God’s infinite, eternal love can continue to move.  Jesus has paved the way.
 
To walk in love, then, is to move towards the world around us in the same way as God moves towards the world: as Jesus Christ, whether at tee ball practice or in the grocery store.  “To walk in love as Christ loved us” is to participate in the inner life of the Holy Trinity.

We do this imperfectly, fitfully, and usually with a great deal of awkwardness.  And sometimes our best efforts at love end in bitterness or drama or strained silence.  What I think our poet is getting at, however, is the extent to which we participate in love is the extent to which we become eternal.  It makes sense, if you think about it.  If walking in love (as Christ loved us) is participating in the inner life of the Holy Trinity—well, what could be better than that?  When we love, we become part of God’s Holy Flame, the “only fire that burns on / When sun and moon and stars have packed and gone.”
 
Whatever awkward or embarrassing or failed loves are in our past, and which ever loves we’re making an effort at in the present, “Let’s not make little of them,” as our poet says.  The loves we offer, tarnished and imperfectly motivated as they may be, constitute the shining core of us, the fire that will long outlast the ashes of which we’re made.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
 

It’s a Big Week at St. Liz!

Hi friends, this is a big week at St. Liz, marking the start of a season ripe with all kinds of opportunities.  I want to highlight a few extra opportunities coming up just this week.
 
Sunday, March 3rd
 
8:15am, our new ‘Campsite’ Worship Service.  This is our ‘first draft’ towards establishing a
second worship service and will run through April 14th.
 
9am, Godly Play for Kids
               + An Adult Formation Class in the Mission Hall, w/Seminarian Thom Rock.  Our
theme will be forgiveness.
 
10:30am, Our Regular Worship Service
 
6:30pm-8pm, Spring Newcomers’ Class in the Mission Hall
               -Julie Warfield or Lisa Sartorio with questions, jwarfield1971@gmail.com or
lisatrpl@msn.com
 
Tuesday, March 5th
 
6:30pm, our Pancake Supper in the Mission Hall!  Donations accepted for our Youth budget.
               -Bekah and Charlie Welvaert for questions.  Volunteers arrive by 6pm.
Bekah.welvaert@gmail.com or jwchuck@gmail.com
 
Wednesday, March 6th
 
Ash Wednesday Service to mark the beginning of Lent at 7pm.  Ash Wednesday is one of the major fasting days of the Church.
 
Sunday, March 10th, Daylight Savings Time Starts!
 
Bishop’s Committee Meeting after 10:30am service
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

It’s Time for a Second Service: Introducing the Campsite

Hi friends, at our Congregational Meeting this past Sunday I announced that we’re in need of a second worship service on Sundays.  For those who missed the meeting, I want to say again why that is and how you can help our community during this (exciting!) period of growth.
 
Why add a service?  The simple answer is that we’re growing!  Some numbers: right now, if we pack every single seat in our worship space, we can fit 163 people.  And I mean every single seat: we can only get 163 in there if we count the piano bench, full choir and horns, a full altar party, both rocking chairs at the back, all three chairs by the sound cabinet, and the bishop is visiting.  This 163 number is largely theoretical, however, because in the primary congregational seating area there are only 139 seats.  This means that we begin to feel full well before we get to our ‘bishop’s visit max.’ 
 
Along with our consultant, Dr. Whitesel, a host of seasoned pastors will tell you that a church tends to stop growing when its worship services get to about 80% capacity.  The reason is simple: it quite literally feels like there’s no room for anyone else.  For example, if you’re a family of five who is new to St. Liz, and you walk into church at 10:32, you’re just not going to find five empty seats all in a row.  The seats are there, but they’re spread out in ones and twos.  Your best case scenario is that some friendly folks skooch over and make room.  (Skooch is the technical theological term.)
 
Even if the skooching experience is pleasant and friendly, it nevertheless begins to flip a subconscious switch in our minds.  We’re social creatures.  At an instinctive level we only want to join a group (i.e. a church) in which we’re sure there’s room for us.  If we’re already part of that group, we only want to invite new members if the group doesn’t already feel full.  Somewhere around 80% capacity a room begins to feel full; we test the limits of skooching; and growth plateaus into stasis.
 
In a community like Buda whose population is growing so quickly, stasis is not a faithful option, and it’s just not the reality in which St. Liz finds ourselves, anyway.  Over the past six Sundays, for example, our lowest attendance was 115 and our highest was 135.  We’re mighty close to being 80% full every week.  It’s time we create more space by adding a worship service.
 
This is a happy development, and it’s been on the horizon for a while.  St. Liz began conversations about it in 2016, but back-burnered the project during our clergy transition in 2017.  Suddenly, it’s back on the table!  I will admit that I had not anticipated we’d be addressing this exciting possibility quite so soon, but the Holy Spirit doesn’t work on our time table.  So here we go!
 
In the short-term, I’m proposing a temporary solution the primary goal of which is to free up some space in our 10:30am service.  Here’s what we’re going to do:
 
Starting on March 3rd, we’re going to begin holding a second worship service on Sunday mornings at 8:15am, and we will try this for seven weeks (through April 14th).  It will be significantly pared down—45 minutes—compared to our current worship service.  Less music, fewer readings, less pageantry in general.  For example, I intend to wear a stole, my black clergy shirt, and cowboy boots, but not a traditional worship alb.  While the new service will have Holy Communion, we won’t have a procession. 
 
We’re entering into uncharted territory, exploring off the map a bit.  Because of that, what I need, and what we need as a community, is for this trial service to begin with a pioneer spirit.  Instead of trying to simply double our ministry schedule—asking our ushers and acolytes and LEMs to pull double duty each week—we’re going to treat this new service as though we were setting up a campsite in new territory.  Just like setting up a campsite, each of us 8:15’ers will undertake ‘camp chores’ on behalf of the community, only instead of setting up a tent or going for firewood, we’ll be greeting folks, or leading Prayers of the People, or serving a chalice, or brewing coffee after worship.  And we will do this without our necessarily having been scheduled to do it in advance.
 
So here’s my specific ask: if this is going to work, I need 20-25 folks to commit to our 8:15am Campsite for 7 weeks.  I want to be clear: I’m not asking for folks to attend 8:15am and also our current 10:30am service each week, though I imagine we’ll have a couple folks for whom this might be necessary for one reason or another.  Remember: our primary goal is to free up space in our current 10:30am service as it continues to grow.  If 20-25 folks simply come to church twice on Sundays, we’re not allowing that to happen. 
 
Our Bishop’s Warden, Julie Warfield, and her husband Ed have already volunteered to set up camp for 7 weeks, and I’m grateful to them for their leadership and faithfulness in this.  If you’re feeling called to explore this new territory, I hope you’ll let me know—and soon.  Otherwise, I have a feeling the Holy Spirit is going to have me call some of you and say, “You know, I wonder if God is calling you to come to church earlier on Sunday….” J
 
Our Campsite Service has additional benefits other than being easily implemented in the short run.  First, it allow us to try new things as we discern what exactly God is shaping this new service to be in the longer term.  I’ve already had one guitarist offer his musical services, for example.  I’ve also got some ideas on how to involve our many kids in tactile ways in the service.  The beauty of this seven-week trial is that we’re not committed to any of the things we try. If it’s going well at the end of seven weeks, we’ll keep doing it.  If it’s not, we’ll scrap it and go back to the drawing board.
 
Second, adding a second service from 8:15am-9am will allow us an opportunity to continue growing without disrupting our existing Sunday morning momentum in the middle of a semester.  For example, the Campsite will not disrupt Godly Play, choir practice, our 10:30am Eucharist, or our new 9am adult formation class.  Anyone who attends our 8:15am service will still be able to participate fully in Godly Play and Sunday morning adult formation—and you can still hang out and drink coffee with all your friends after!
 
That’s the beauty of the Campsite.  In the long run, before we settle on a more permanent second service structure, we’ll need a lot more feedback from the congregation.  Again, while Campsite could become permanent, I am not committing us to it beyond these seven Sundays.  Its primary goal is to address in the short-term the exciting demands our continued growth is making of us as a community, demands which are upon us sooner than I had anticipated.  Thank you in advance for your willingness to give it a try.
 
Who knows where we could be a year from now?  It could be that on Sundays, we have an 8:30am and an 11am service, or 9am and 11:15am, with formation offerings in between.  Or some totally new idea on a totally new timetable we haven’t dreamed of yet.  Or it could be that Campsite works pretty well and becomes a permanent settlement.
 
We just don’t know.  We don’t have a map yet because we’re only now exploring this terrain.  In Hebrews we read that Christ is the “pioneer of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).  To be a pioneer is to tread new territory.  What a gift God is giving us, that we might follow His Son beyond the reach of what is familiar.  By offering ourselves today as His explorers, we help draw the maps by which future generations can navigate.  If that’s at all an exciting prospect to you, I hope you’ll let me know.
 
Welcome to the frontier.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

Playgrounds and roofs

Playgrounds and Roofs
 
Hi friends, more exciting news for St. Liz: we’ve got two big home improvements going on this month.
 
First, on Tuesday of this week, two gentlemen from Rainbow Play Systems showed up to begin installing our new playground!  (If you’re at the church on a weekday this week, please be sure to say hi to Alex and Charles and thank them for their work.)  The old playscape served us well and has moved on to its new home.  Our new playground will take several days to install—big holes to dig, concrete to pour and set, etc.—but if weather permits, it’s possible it’ll be ready to go by Sunday!  Thanks to Tina Otto for coordinating our playground search and to Bobby Wilder’s family for making it possible.
 
Second, later on this month, St. Liz will be getting a new roof!  While this is not quite as obviously exciting as a new playground, this is nonetheless an important step in our ongoing stewardship of our facilities.  At the Bishop’s Committee retreat last year, we began brainstorming some ‘beautification’ desires for St. Liz’s properties.  We began talking about smaller projects, but as our conversations continued throughout the year, we realized that we have some bigger ticket items that need addressing.  This fall, we had outside experts take a look at our building foundation, one of the roof trusses on the interior of the church, and the roof itself.  Of all these, the foundation posed no structural problems; the roof truss is not pressing; and replacing the roof emerged as our best next step.
 
So, our 2018 Jr. Warden, DJ Sartorio, did some great work tracking down quotes from three different contractors, did a little Chicago-style haggling on St. Liz’s behalf, and now we’re set for the new roof to go up later this month—again, weather permitting!  We expect the new roof to go up during weekdays and not disrupt any Sunday foot traffic.  If this changes, I’ll be sure to let you know.  I’m grateful to our new Jr. Warden, Dave McCoy, for meeting with our contractors and staying on top of our various projects.
 
Finally, because of your continued faithfulness and generosity, and because you continue to exhibit hospitality as we welcome new folks to St. Liz, we are in a healthy financial position and can absorb the cost of a new roof without undertaking a capital campaign.  Not a bad start to 2019.  Who knows what God could have in store for us just around the bend?
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
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