I have received incredible support since I have arrived here last October. I love walking around Martinsville and hanging out in the local coffee shop where people often ask me about my collar and about Christ Church. Being out in the community as a representative of our Church comes naturally to me, and many of you have told me how much you like how we are starting to bust out of our walls and taking our community to the streets. Here’s the thing, you all were already doing this! It’s one of the things that initially struck me about Christ Church is that lay people were already enthusiastic about what was going on in the Church, and not afraid to try new things. We’ve been playing with a lot of new things the last couple of months. Our Easter Vigil at the Gardner’s farm was new and exciting, and our participation in the dodgeball tournament was a cohesive moment for our community. When I tell people about Banjo Church at Rooster Walk they immediately give me credit, but Banjo Church pre-exists my tenure at Christ Church and it is already a well-oiled machine! Sometimes one of the best things a new priest can do for a Church is to show them what they saw when they first arrived, so here is what I saw:
I saw a Church that was unafraid to take on adaptive challenges. Ok, so we’re getting into obscure language, so here are two concepts for you before we continue. Every group of people has technical and adaptive challenges. Technical challenges are easy. Let’s say your doctor says you need to exercise. The technical challenge is buying a tread mill. The adaptive challenge is running on it every day. Most Churches recognize problems and just buy stuff or create committees, but never go out and actually do the hard work of changing and adapting so they can thrive. Before we ever even heard of each other a group got together, recognized a problem, and did something about it. Christ Church needed more visibility in the community, you saw an opportunity at the Rooster Walk music festival, so Banjo Church was born. A table was set up by the Church where anyone could make prayer flags, and on Sunday the lay people of Christ Church led worship in the grove at Rooster Walk, one of the biggest community events of the year. This is a massive and huge undertaking! I cannot stress enough that most Churches would not have the will to bust out of the walls of the Church in this radical way.
When I came to interview I saw a Church that was already mobilized and enthusiastic to start new things. I saw a congregation that was not afraid to be leaders and not afraid to try and fail. Right now I feel that we are in a good rhythm. Our enthusiasm for the Church is contagious, and you can see that on Sunday morning, and I do not deserve credit for this. We are a team, and every day we are digging deeper into our call to serve Christ and our neighbor. We still have a lot of growing to do. I am still learning what it is to be a rector, and on the times where I try and fail I know that I have an empowered congregation on this journey with me, and I cannot tell you how much that means to me. Thank you for being Christ Church.
Ok, so I am going to do something I have never done before, and something I am not quite ready to do, but it is time. I was thinking we were going to have more time before this was going to happen, but we all knew it was going to happen eventually. Even though it makes me severely uncomfortable, and may make you uncomfortable too, it is necessary. Even though there are a thousand voices from grandmothers around the world telling me not to bring up this topic in polite company here we go. I am going to ask you for money.
I am not only uncomfortable because asking for money feels rude. As a leader in the Church focusing too much on money feels dirty and a little sinful, and I don’t want pledge or capital campaigns to overshadow the ministry that we are doing at Christ Church. There is still a cynical part of me buried deep in my bones that sees Churches just as fundraising organizations that are not focused on doing the work of the Gospel. Leandra and I fell in love with this Church not because of the financial package. We came here because we fell in love with you, and we could see that you were eager to do ministry, to worship together and to grow closer together in Christ, and we have not regretted coming here even for a minute. In my eyes you are the real deal.
When looking at the reality of our situation there are so many positives. Attendance on Sunday is growing. We have started new traditions and events that have been well supported. We have new people in the Church looking to become members. We have made relationships with other Churches and non-profits. There is a general enthusiasm in the Church that can’t be quantified, but I can feel it every Sunday morning. I am very optimistic for our future, but I also want to tackle our problems head on.
One problem is we need to increase the revenue of the operating budget. Right now we have a deficit budget. This is by no means a crisis, but if we are going to continue as we are, then we will need to increase our pledges. Another issue is structural work that desperately needs to be done to the Church building. Once again, we are not in crisis mode, but we are not far from it either, and we need to address these issues before we can begin talking about fixing up the undercroft or kitchen, which also need a lot of TLC. I want to be transparent with you about these problems, and I want you to know how we will address them. Next fall we will have a pledge campaign and we will ask you to increase your pledge or to pledge for the first time. I hope that next year we will have a balanced budget and we can focus on thriving and doing ministry rather than trying to figure out how to get by. Next spring we will have a capital campaign where we will try to raise enough funds to fix these structural issues. Maybe we will even raise enough to transform some of our space so it can work better for families and for groups who use our space.
What we are going to start doing now is telling stories. For the next couple of months you may find a story in your bulletin about what your pledges enable us to do. These stories are not to guilt you into giving more. I don’t want to you do anything for the Church out of guilt. I want you to feel compelled to come to Church and to help support our ministries with your love, time and resources. I want you to know what is happening in the Church, and how you can make a difference. And if you feel compelled to increase your pledge this year we will be that much better prepared to do ministry.
Ok, we did it! We talked about money. It was a little painful for me, but not as much as I was thinking. Regardless of what this next year looks like know that I will be here with you ready to worship on Sunday.
In the beginning of this season I told you that I don’t really understand the whole giving up stuff for Lent. I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all, and many times it can be a helpful way to change our lives, but other times it becomes more about self-improvement than throwing ourselves into the wilderness, shaking up our lives and finding God in the most unlikely of places. During Lent it is our custom to choose what we give up. We maintain control of how far we are going to push ourselves, we choose our path and make our own wilderness. There is nothing terrible about this. I do it too. I have my two Lenten disciplines that I carefully chose, and I have been challenged in all of the ways that I expected. But, what happens when something is taken from us, for good or ill? True wilderness happens unexpectedly, it is disorienting, challenging, and calls into questions things we thought we knew about the world and about God, and in these moments we can find ourselves in Lent regardless of the season.
The status quo is comfortable. Even if it is killing us, or tearing away our humanity we cling to it, because it gives us a sense of stability and control. We can see this plainly in Exodus. As children we are told the story of Moses leading the enslaved Jews from Egypt to the Promised Land. We hear the stories of God’s miracles that freed the Jews from their bondage. Go back and read the story again. Many of the Jews weren’t necessarily asking for this freedom. Once in the wilderness they were quick to turn on Moses accusing him of leading them to die. They missed their stability, food and homes. They were driven into the wilderness against their will just as much as they were freed from slavery. They were quick to turn on God as well. Even after witnessing the power of God and knowing God was invested in their lives they worshiped their golden calf as Moses was receiving the commandments. They could not understand what God had in store for them, and all they could feel was loss. This is what being in the wilderness feels like. Even if we cannot understand, choose not to understand, or can only feel sad for what we have left behind, it does not mean that God has given up on us.
The most traumatic event of my childhood was moving from Michigan to Georgia when I was twelve years old. In Michigan my life revolved around my friends. I could ride my bike anywhere and I was always just few minutes from people who knew me and wanted to spend time with me. I did not choose to move. It was something that happened to me, and I could not have felt more lost. I lost my friends, I was acutely aware that I was different than everyone else in my new town, and our new house did not feel like home. I felt like a stranger living in a foreign land. I could not see that this move would shape my life for the best. I could not see that this traumatic event would shape my personality, my opportunities and make me who I am today. I was lost and depressed as a child, but that did not mean that God had abandoned me. Even though it hurt it was path that God was leading me down. When the things or even the people that we love, that give us security and identity, are taken from us we can find ourselves in the wilderness. We can feel abandoned by God and nostalgic for the past, but we can also feel hope for the future. Lent is less about self-improvement and giving things up that we ought not to do, and it is more about reminding ourselves that one day our lives will be shaken up, we will feel sad and lost, but we can feel that loss while trusting in God.
Lent is a weird thing. In the Church we take this time to prepare ourselves for Holy Week and Easter, and its forty-day duration reflects the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness. In many ways this is our time to be in the wilderness as well. On Ash Wednesday we will spread ashes on our heads and be reminded of our mortality. The music during this season will be muted and not have the joy that is typical of our worship, and we are forbidden from saying “Alleluia”. We also have the informal tradition of giving up nasty habits during Lent, or sometimes even adding various disciplines with the idea that these habits will draw us closer to God.
Some of these rituals and customs are somewhat strange, especially giving up stuff for Lent, but for me I am amazed at the amount of people, especially people who don’t go to Church, that are fascinated by this season. Ash Wednesday is arguably the most depressing day of the Church year. The purpose of the service is to openly remind people that one day they will die, which contrasts the hope of the resurrection that we see on Easter Day. A lot of people come out of the woodwork for Easter for obvious reasons, but you would be surprised how many people who do not claim to be Christians that go to get the ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday. Even my atheist friends in the past had a lot of questions about Lent and one even came up with his own Lenten disciplines despite his general skepticism of organized religion. There is something special about this season, something that goes against the grain of society that appeals to people.
In many ways our culture is constantly trying to live in a manufactured false state of Easter. Of course we want to be happy all of the time and we wish our youth would last forever, but we are unique in history as actually having the resources to live into these delusions. Entire industries have popped up promising to keep us young, healthy and happy, but even these efforts will ultimately fail, and no one seems to be talking about this difficult truth. This is where Ash Wednesday enters into our world, and it is what draws people into Church to receive their ashes. Ash Wednesday is unapologetically melancholy and honest when it comes to the reality that we cannot always be happy, and that our days of health of youth will one day end. Yes, we rejoice in the hope of the resurrection, but Christ wept at the tomb of Lazarus, and we should not ignore the sadness that we feel when confronted with our mortality, and we should not think that coming to God with sadness is any less holy than praising God with joyful Alleluias.
Ash Wednesday is a phenomenon in the Episcopal Church. It seems to go counter to everything that we think people want, to constantly live in a joyful state of Easter, but priests stand on street corners in urban areas with ashes and scores of un-churched, or under-churched are compelled to hear the words, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Lent is weird, a little sad and oddly beautiful. It tells us something we spend most of our time avoiding, and without the sadness that Ash Wednesday, Easter means nothing. Lent invites us to be whole, to be able to face the good and the sad knowing that God walks with us.
For most Episcopalians “evangelical” is a four-letter word, and I have some experience with this sentiment. I was twelve when we moved from Michigan to rural Georgia, and as soon I started school it became clear that I was the only Catholic kid around. Almost immediately my peers started asking me if I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and savior. I of course said, “I guess…” and explained that we went to the Catholic Church. My peers were shocked that I didn’t already know that I was going hell for worshipping Mary and insisted that I go with them to their churches, or this or that church camp. Eager to make friends I often went to these camps or church services, which were filled with repetitive music, and guilt-filled appeals for me to accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and savior. After the hundredth time I was asked if I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and savior I began to understand what it really meant, “are you one of us?” And eventually my answer became “no”. All of my friend’s efforts at evangelism were little more than a desire to make me like them, and had little to do with Jesus Christ, and the fruit of that evangelism was bitterness and cynicism. For many of us evangelism is at best synonymous with awkward conversations, and for many of us evangelism amounts to little more than religious bullying, and as nice, considerate, and enlightened Episcopalians we avoid this word at all costs. Maybe, just maybe, we should reclaim the word.
If you are a member of Christ Episcopal Church, and if you are reading this article I imagine that Jesus Christ, and our community mean something to you. I will even go as far as to assume that you have been shaped and molded in your faith in Christ by this community and by the Episcopal Church. For me, finding the Episcopal Church and being quietly accepted as a teenager filled with doubt, anger and angst changed me in the most fundamental way.
Evangelism is fundamentally about sharing our experience with Christ and allowing God to work in the lives of others. We are merely messengers, and sometimes, even spokespersons for Christianity and the Episcopal Church. If you have an honest and compassionate conversation with someone who does not have faith, and if you did not convince them to come to church, pledge and eventually join vestry, you did not fail. Showing the love of Christ is something that is inherently good, and we should not try to quantify our efforts. I hope our efforts are grounded in spreading the love of God, and I have a hunch that there are scores of people in Martinsville that could find a home at Christ Church. These people may not look like us, or even think like us, but we should never be afraid to offer a hand and open our doors if we see the opportunity to welcome someone back to the home they did not even realize that they were missing. We can be evangelical in our homes, at work, and even at Kroger. Together we can share our faith with others without judgment, show the love of Christ to our neighbors and welcome strangers into our Church with open arms. Together we can be evangelical.
I was terrified of Christmas this year. I feel like I had just arrived at Christ Church when we started planning the Christmas services. Lynn Gardner and Deborah Scearce did a great job filling me in on everything that needed to get done, and the Colemans took command of the pageant, but the fear that something would go terribly wrong lingered in my consciousness.
So much work went into the services. People volunteered their time to decorate the Church, pageant rehearsals dominated Sunday mornings before Church, bulletins were made, proofed and printed, the choir rehearsed for weeks to offer us stunningly beautiful music. All of this grace-filled work was unfolding around me, and I was blinded by my own angst that I would mess up my first Christmas service as rector that I could not see the beauty surrounding our Church. All of the work that went into the Christmas services was not done out of a sense obligation or duty, but a sense of love. The love that drives us to make our houses feel like Christmas incarnate by the time our family comes into town. When the Christmas services actually began my anxiety slowly started to melt away, and I looked around to see countless poinsettias, a hoard of children in their pageant costumes ready to tell the Christmas story, and a Church full of people home for the holidays. The Church was transformed into that perfect place to welcome home the people that mean the most to you, and this is what Christmas and Church is meant to be; our collective work of love.
Christmas takes an especially large amount of work, but every service we do at Christ Church takes an immense amount of work. A few of us are paid, but most of the work that goes into our worship is completely done by volunteers. David Cole has motivated and trained a small army of acolytes that strive for perfection in the service; the altar guild is tireless in making our Church beautiful and meaningful; the ushers welcome people into the Church and help everything happen in an orderly fashion, and there are countless of others that are compelled to be ministers in worship, whether they are seen or unseen. This Church thing that we do is not just about my sermons or praying the Eucharistic Prayer, as I was reminded of on Christmas, this is something that takes a community. Everyone comes together with their gifts, talents and passions to create something that is unique to us, something that is authentic and real, something that is grounded in love. Only when we put these pieces together can we create something that is greater than the sum of its parts, only when we can work together in love can we do Church, and welcome family home and Christ into our lives.
Merry Christmas my friends and thank you for showing me time and time again what it is to do Church.
Happy Advent! This is a season where we make ourselves ready for the coming of Christ in our spiritual lives, and we are getting ready to see relatives, exchange gifts, and indulge in a whole host of deliciously unhealthy foods. For many this can also be a difficult time. Everyone has that one uncle, or niece or nephew that will not fail to bring up that one sensitive subject that everyone wishes would be avoided at all costs.
Fortunately you are there to save the day. You are determined to be ready to face the onslaught of bellicose posturing and rhetoric, and you will be the salvation of the family gathering by not only guiding everyone past the trap of debate at the dinner table, you will also manage to show everyone the light of your position saving not only Christmas, but the whole country and all of Christendom from certain peril. Then Christmas comes, you see the minivans pull into the driveway, and you go over your talking points in your head as you go out to greet your soon-to-be debate sparing partners. Within a matter of minutes the debate starts early, but not about anything that you had expected. Someone was holding the fridge door open for too long, loaded the dishes wrong into the rack, or even about how the curtains should be during Christmas, and all of the energy that you and everyone else put into their debate prep comes pouring out. Before you know it there is a scrum people with tempers flaring arguing about some mundane thing, and all of a sudden you realize that they are actually not arguing about the curtains, and maybe the awkward annual Christmas debate was never really about that one issue that always came up. Instead, like so many other families and communities deeper issues were pushed to the surface, but ultimately avoided by arguing over something mundane.
Much in the same way that we may argue over the curtains with a loved one, we can avoid big issues as a society by creating controversy over something small. The past couple of years I have been hearing a lot about the war on Christmas. Last year Starbuck’s decision to have plain red coffee cups during the holiday season was met with uproar, and it quickly became the front lines on the perceived war on Christmas. I have also heard people bemoaning signs that say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas”. What is really at the heart of these resentments? Behind these arguments and hurt feelings I see a great deal of fear and insecurity. There is no doubting the shift that has happened in our society in the last fifty years. Younger generations are less religious and the public discourse around the Christmas season is becoming less about Christ, but we should not think that the later is the cause of the first. We are not going to ensure the survival of our faith by putting up a billboard of the baby Jesus for every secular sign we see.
What we can do is continue to show Christian charity and the hope that is inherent in the season of Advent. When we see our culture shift we can be tempted to raise signs reading, “The End is Near!” like some doom and gloom street preacher, when in Advent we should be raising signs that say, “The Beginning is Near!” Advent is a time of hope in the midst of uncertainty. Regardless of what the future may hold we can trust that God is indeed active in our lives, and we do not need the affirmation of corporations or the rest of society to validate that truth for it to be true. If you find your self tempted to argue about the curtains in whatever form just breathe, and remember that we are in the season of hope and faith, and that there is nothing anyone can do to take that away.
I went to this clergy conference this past week, and they brought in a great speaker. He had us do an exercise, I won’t bore you with the details, but it involved writing down all of our challenges on one side of a large piece of paper and our assets on the other side. This was a collective activity, so people were yelling out their thoughts as the speaker was writing everything down. One of the first challenges that someone offered was the historic building that was their church. I was kind of aghast, because I was going to put that down as one of our assets. I love our old buildings. They scream that we have been around for a very long time and that they will be around even after we are gone. Yes, they are expensive to maintain, but there is something sacred about the generations of prayers that were uttered in those walls. I also feel like embracing the old is very counter cultural in a society that embraces the new and temporary. This is what we have at Christ Episcopal Church; we have prayer soaked walls from generations and generations before us. When I walk into our sanctuary I can feel that I am walking into a sacred place. All of this is to say that our place matters, but it matters specifically because of the people. Without the those who prayed in those walls before us, those who are there now, and those that will follow us those walls are just walls. We are participating in something that is bigger than us, not only in our own Church, but in all of Christianity. When we utter the ancient words of the Nicene Creed or receive communion we are participating in the same stuff as the first Christians and all that came between and everyone that will come after us. Come and do this God stuff with us. See you Sunday.
This past month has flown by! It seems like yesterday when Leandra and I stuffed the rest of our belongings, along with two dogs into our cars and drove up to Martinsville. The ride was torturous. It seems that around every corner there was another traffic jam and a seven-hour drive turned into a ten-hour drive. On top of all of the delays the anticipation was killing us. Being a rector, settling into a new town and moving into a huge beautiful house was all so much to take in, and we could not have gotten there quickly enough to start our new lives. We arrived late in the evening, and I was expecting Sue Rosser to just drop off the key and head home so she could get some sleep. Instead Sue, Debbie and Ben Lewis met us with sushi, dog treats and goodies for the house, and we spent the next hour going through the house, laughing and enjoying good food and wine. On the drive up all we could think about were the physical things, but when we arrived it was the welcome we received that reminded us why were so drawn to this wonderful place. The Church, the house and the town are all great, but they are only the setting to this stage of our lives. The people that we fell in love with and have shown us love in turn are going to the substance of our lives here.
The Church is beautiful, the house is elegant and the town is welcoming, but the reason we are here is to be with you, and this will be the foundation of everything we do here. Scripture tells us that when two or three are gathered together in the name of Christ, God is among us as well. Gathering together is not just something that we do, it is something sacred and powerful, and if we are going to grow the Church this is where we need to begin.
Christ Episcopal Church has something special going on. We could feel it when we first arrived here to interview, and we can feel it whenever we are around you. Your welcome and your faith feel real, and believe it or not this is not that common. You have something to offer Martinsville that is authentic and powerful, and something that people are craving; you can welcome people home to the home that they did not even know they were missing. You are the greatest asset to this Church. I can preach engaging sermons. I can go around and introduce myself, join rotary, hand out business cards (which look great! Thank you Cari!), but you coming to Church on Sunday is what we need to grow the Church in numbers and depth of faith. You are what brought us here, and you are the key to growing our Church and to making us a deeper, healthier and happier Church. You are the heart of this Church.
Blessings, Fr. Nick
Leandra and I are officially residents of 325 East Church St. Martinsville Virginia! I feel like every day there is some sort of new surprise of generosity. When we came back on Monday, we were delighted to find two dog beds, dog treats and toys sitting by the fireplace, which was especially well-timed considering we had discovered the night before that our dog beds are not safe to put into the washing machine. Around the house we kept finding things to help our transition. Cleaning supplies and cooking staples were in the pantry, washing detergent was in the laundry room, and wine was in my office! We cannot thank all of you enough for everything you have done for us. These gestures mean so much and have already made us feel at home. We can see how much all of you have done for us, and your warm welcome reaffirms our conviction that this was the right move for us.
My official start day is October 10th and my first Sunday will be the 16th. I cannot wait to meet all of you and become part of your community. Thank you again for all of your love and support.
8:00 AM: Holy Eucharist, Rite I
10:30 AM: Holy Eucharist, Rite II