Ever since I listened to the story of Derek Black I have been thinking a lot about how we are supposed to love our enemies. Derek Black was taught to hate from the time he was born. Both of his parents had dedicated their lives to racist causes, and even went as far as to try to overthrow the government Dominica, a small Caribbean nation, to establish a white paradise. Derek’s father spent some time in prison for this failed coup d’état, and when he got out he started the still influential racist website “Stormfront”. Derek emulated his father and started a companion website for children aptly named “Stormfront Kids”. When he got older the mission of his family and their website was to make their racist views more mainstream. They no longer spoke of race wars, but ran for local government positions and tried to ease everyday Americans into more and more racist policies and rhetoric. By the time Derek went to college he had his own talk show in Florida to promote his views. Derek was the doubtless heir-apparent to his father’s racist legacy.
The incredible part of Derek’s story is not that he changed, but how he changed. When he first started attending college he knew it was only a matter of time until his peers realized who he was, and he would become an outcast, so he decided to out himself by leaving an article he wrote out for everyone to see. He did get a lot of flak from his peers, but a group of Jewish students decided to take him under their wing. Their strategy was genius. They would invite him to their weekly Shabbat dinners, and would talk about everything except for race and Derek’s involvement in white nationalism. This slowly led Derek to become disillusioned with the movement that he inherited, and he is now a vocal opponent to the views that he once championed.
In a recent interview he said that it wasn’t until much later that he realized how much it pained those Jewish students to reach out a hand to him when he felt isolated and lonely. It’s doubtless that they loathed him as much as he loathed them, but week after week they continued to engage him with carefully planned conversations, and even though they may not have liked Derek or what he stood for, they certainly loved him. The love that those students showed Derek is an incredible model for the rest of the world on how we should love our enemies. They gave the love that he needed rather than the love that he deserved, and he was transformed by that subtle and persistent engagement and love from those Jewish students.
The students that continually engaged Derek are true heroes, and Derek deserves a tremendous amount of respect for being willing to change his mind. His entire community was based on the white nationalism, and he had to give much of that up when he denounced his beliefs. Timing is also an incredibly important detail in this story of redemption. Derek had a community of racists, but they were not with him at College. If Derek had a community of like-minded peers at his school he probably would not have chosen to attend these Shabbat dinners when invited, and he would not have seen the humanity of the people that he claimed to hate. His future friends that invited him to dinner did not just see a leader of a hate group, but a scared and lonely college student that suddenly found himself a pariah. They did not know at the beginning that they could cure him of his racism, but they knew that they could cure him of his loneliness.
I keep coming back to the bit about timing. What if those students encountered Derek in the middle of an anti-Semitic demonstration? What if things got tense, or even violent? The same students that saved Derek at school could have easily fought him if the timing and context were slightly different. Derek would have still had the potential to change, and those students would have had the potential to change him, but not in that moment. This is a hard lesson for me. I know that Christ calls on me to love my enemies, and I know that it’s okay to stand up for myself when I’m threatened or being manipulated, and that much of my encounters are not solely based on my own merit or capacity to love or hate, but on the timing of the situation. I look back on all of the times I have had to privilege to show someone my love that wanted to show me their hatred. Those circumstances could have been much worse if the timing was just a bit off. I also look back on the few times I’ve had to confront people. I don’t regret those encounters either, but maybe I mourn that the timing wasn’t quite right to show them love instead.
This article is for the occasional Church attender. I promise that when I see you in public I have never once thought, “Geez, where have they been?!”, or “I wonder what excuse they have this time.” And when you are able to get back to Church I never consider you to be any less part of this community.
Sometimes my position and the clerical collar make me feel pigeon-holed into this outdated, and largely inaccurate troupe, of the parish priest that is constantly on patrol to remind people of their shortcomings. The last thing I want to be is the Church attendance police. Not only is guilting people about their attendance unhelpful, it is also unchristian. There are a million reasons why you might miss Church on a regular basis, and if I don’t see you for a month, and we run into each other at the Rives, I will be glad to see you, and if you decide to go back to Church, we will welcome you with no guilt attached.
Don’t get me wrong. I want everyone to come to Christ Church, become members, pledge, join committees, and maybe even run for vestry. I want this, because I honestly believe that our Christian community has something unique to offer the world, and every new member of the Church makes us that much stronger and complete. I also realize that I am bias, and my hopes are simply not realistic for most people. My enthusiasm for our parish comes second to my commitment to you as a brother in Christ, and as a friend.
Time and time again in the Gospels we see Jesus reach out to the people on the fringe of religious society and lift them up. This seems to be for one of two reasons. The first we see in the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus teaches his disciples that the shepherd will leave his flock of ninety-nine to search for the one that is lost. He doesn’t talk about chastising the sheep when the shepherd finds it, because his search is motivated by concern and love, not anger. Our other reason is akin to the first, but distinct. Throughout the Gospels Jesus humbles religious leaders, while pointing toward the religious depth of those who have been forgotten, or even pushed out. We see this in his encounters with the hemorrhaging woman, the Syrophoenician woman, and many more. These paragons of the Gospels are not just brought into the fold, because they have been missing. They are lifted up, because the profound faith and religious depth they possess seems to be unique to those on the margins.
You could be missing Church on a regular basis because you are hung over, drained from the work week, depressed, chronically ill, you might be avoiding that one person, maybe your feelings are still hurt, or you might have lost faith. When I see you on the street, at parties, or when you come back to Church I do not know why you have been absent, but I do know that you have been missed, and regardless of why you have been gone you will be welcomed back as a fellow brother or sister, and not as an outcast.
We use the word “minister” a bit differently than many other Christian traditions. Many Churches consider ministers to be ordained people, or maybe individuals that have some sort of official leadership position within the Church. We claim that the ministers of the Church are bishops, priests, deacons and all baptized Christians. So, in other words, every member of the congregation is called to minister to the Church and to the world. In the best occasions Churches see this as an empowering approach to showing Christ’s love. They see it as a rallying cry, and motivation to shape the world. Unfortunately, this approach is often totally neglected, or dismissed as wishful thinking. I have seen many vibrant Churches and many stagnant ones, but I have never seen a Church that looks quite like ours. Energy and leadership seem to naturally rising to the surface of our community, and this affects everything from altar guild, to worship, to our buildings, and even the parties that we throw. I imagine that those of you who have been here for a long time may see this as completely normal, so I thought I would share just a couple of the amazing things I have seen and show you just how delightfully unusual they are.
The culture around worship at Christ Church consistently surprises me. This applies to our music, lay leadership, altar guild, the nursery, and any other conceivable role that has to do with worship. Here is a list of things that can cause worship to completely crumble and disappear in Episcopal Churches: not having the normal priest or preacher, not having the normal organist or choir master, last minute change of venue, literally anything different, and probably the most dramatic, having the priest run out of the Church vomiting during the Christmas pageant. Christ Church has not only experienced all of these things, the community has thrived under these normally debilitating circumstances. When the AC wasn’t working on Sunday we moved Church to the gathering space behind the Church, and people were thrilled!! This does not normally happen. When Lynn (our organist) is gone not only do we persevere, we get Will Zimmer on guitar and change the whole feel of our worship for that Sunday! This is not normal. When someone moves to town oozing with preaching talent, like Pete Budde, we get them to preach and help with services, and people love it! Once again, this is not normal. And when I got food poisoning and barely made it to the peace during the Christmas Pageant Steve Keyser, and Phil Gardner calmly took over for the rest of the service. All of these occasions would normally be debilitating for a congregation, but time and again Christ Church has proven itself full of grace.
If we are being painfully honest right now, most parties hosted by Churches are terrible. People go to be supportive, but if you pressed them on the issue they would rather be doing something else during that time. I experienced the oyster roast shortly after I arrived in Martinsville, and I was honestly surprised at not only how much fun I was having, but how much the entire town seems to look forward to the party. Not only can we throw a party we can throw the social event of the year. So many people deserve credit for all of the great events that I have seen at Christ Church, but it was especially amazing to witness Page Beeler command her small army of volunteers that orchestrated the oyster roast, parish picnic, and so many other great events at the Church. These events should never be underestimated. Our ability to plan these great parties means that people care enough to put in the work to make them happen, and the fact that people go and have a good time means that we actually enjoy each other’s company. Once again, this may sound normal to you, but it is a rare and wonderful trait of our Church.
There are so many other areas that I could point out to you. Have you noticed that we have a great looking website, our Facebook is always current, and the newsletter you’re reading right now looks professional. That is all done by Cari Zimmer. One thing you will probably not notice is our finances and our budget. A ton of time goes into that, and it is done by the people that fill the pews on Sunday. In nearly every corner of the Church is an empowered minister dedicated to making our community function. Sometimes that work and dedication is up front and center, and sometimes that work is behind the scenes. Regardless of where it is I am constantly amazed and surprised by all of the true ministers we have in our Church.
When I walk outside my lungs immediately begin to protest at the harsh hot humid air being forced into them. I start to think how unbelievably hot it is, and then I remember that not that long ago I lived in a much hotter, much more humid place, and my level of discomfort was about the same. And a few years prior to that I was hiking through the southern Appalachians in July and during a heat wave. That was intense, but by the end of it I was equally as miserable as I am when I walk from the office to Shindig on Main Street for a delicious fried chicken sandwich (Shindig, you owe me for the free plug).
Believe it or not, there is actually a scientific reason for me being about just as miserable in these three different situations. Our bodies are able to develop a tolerance for heat in the same way that it develops tolerances to drugs. The more time we spend in hot environments the more it seems normal, while never really getting to fully normal. While I was hiking, in Columbus, and walking in the heat here it always seemed to be on the boarder of unbearable. We constantly complained about the heat and humidity regardless of how well we were acclimated, but in retrospect it was getting a little bit easier and easier. When I got off of the trail I could not tell that my tolerance for heart really changed at all, but then I would not feel the need to turn on the AC at 85 degrees. Our ability to adapt ever so slowly is a subtle, but wonderful gift from God that should be a beacon of hope, because it applies to so many aspects of our lives.
Sometimes we can find ourselves on the cusp of something so foreign and new that it feels like that blast of hot air going into our lungs when we open up the door to the summer air. It can be overwhelming, and the thought of this extreme condition being our new normal seems impossible. It seems impossible to bear, tolerate, and definitely impossible to thrive within; however, day after day we face that new reality, and somehow manage to survive, and given enough time we can even find ourselves thriving and having fun again. This is what quitting smoking was like. Every day I was convinced that I would never be happy again without nicotine, and then one day I realized I forgot to be miserable and started to live again. This is how I imagine having children is like too. I have no doubt that they are wonderful, but I also have no doubt that they change everything, and that when we have children there will be equal parts joy and terror. Any change, good or bad, has the potential to leave us in a state of utter disbelief that we will one day learn to live differently, and awe that others already do.
Next time you breathe in that hot air, or find yourself staring at the next stage of your life remember that God made you strong and more resilient than you give yourself credit.
Even though we are all destined to participate in materialism, it is often considered the primary symptom of modern shallowness. Images of sport cars racing past the forgotten poor may arise when materialism comes to mind, but we all must participate in materialism to one degree or another. Getting a paycheck, buying groceries and saving for retirement are all materialistic, but they are also responsible and necessary things to do. As living beings, we must participate in the material world to survive. It is not the participation in materialism that is sinful, but it is when material things become our God that can lead to idolatry and excess that we may expect. The reality of materialism in our Christian life is also a necessity that can easily turn sinful. Recently a televangelist asked his viewers to buy him a new private jet so he would not have to sit with the sinners on commercial airliners. The absurdity and excessiveness of his request is clear, and his excessive materialism deserves the scorn he has received; however, to condemn the material world outright might be throwing the baby out with the bath water.
At Christ Episcopal Church we have a plethora of objects that straddle the boundary between the mundane and the divine. We don’t want to put things on a pedestal to the point where they become idols, but there is no doubt that the chalices given in memory of loved ones, the stained glass, and even the bricks that make up our Church are not things to be discarded and forgotten. Maybe when they were bought they were just like any other cup, or just like any other brick, but after generations of use, and after the countless hopes and prayers that the objects have witnessed they have become a connection to the faith of the generations before us. This sort of materialism is neither good nor evil, rather it is an example of how we give meaning to the physical world around us. We can even see this within scripture. When Jacob had his prophetic dreams in the wilderness he built an altar on the stone he laid his head on. It was just like any other rock, until it became a reminder of the sacred moment he encountered. We do this in our life outside of Church as well. We may save a wedding dress, a child’s shoes, or a lock of their hair from their first haircut, because they remind us of a sacred time and help us to maintain that connection.
Church is often the focal point where meaning making happens, which explains why there are so many of these powerful objects within our walls. What happens when Church goes beyond the walls? Cari and Will Zimmer had the great idea three years ago to have a service at Rooster Walk that was lovingly dubbed, “Banjo Church”. Throughout the festival a table with supplies was set up for people to make prayer flags. The flags were then hung in the trees, and the prayers would blow in the breeze throughout the festival. Sunday morning worship would be in the midst of the prayer flags from that year and the years before. This year the Zimmers were out of town for a wedding during Banjo Church, so Leandra and I took the lead in setting up the flags from the previous year. As we were setting up the flags we realized that we had a ton, maybe too many to hang, and we considered getting rid of some that… lets say didn’t look very sacred. Not to say they were inappropriate but looked more like doodles than prayers. One just had a bunch of S’s on it, and I figured that would be the first to go if we needed more room. Almost on que the artist of the S flag walked right up to us. She was a young girl, maybe nine years old, and she told us that she made flags the last two years and was looking forward to making a third this year. She began hunting for the one that she made three years ago, which for her was nearly a lifetime ago, and she found it. A white flag covered in stylized S’s. You can see the look on her face when she found it. It was the work of her hands a third of her life ago, when she was a very different person than she was in that moment, and its presence meant the world to her.
On the surface that particular flag didn’t look like much. We asked people to write prayers on the flags, and this flag did not seem to fit into our hopes for this ministry; however, this young festival goer showed me that I was looking at it in all the wrong ways. Three years ago, she inadvertently made a sacred object, and every Rooster Walk she can look forward to seeing the works of her past and participate in beautiful material ritual of creating something new to fly in the trees with her and other’s memories and prayers.
I have this odd irrational fear that pops up in the last few days of winter that spring will never come. I love all of the seasons, but by the time March comes I am done with winter, and anxiously wait for the leaves to start appearing on the trees again and for the earth to come back to life. The fear is slow to start in. First it begins just as a yearning for the warmth and joy of spring and summer, but eventually I get impatient. What if it never comes? Not only would this be an ecological disaster, it would also condemn us to live in a world without the vibrant colors that come with warm weather, and the new-found energy I find with the sun on my face.
Of course, this fear is completely irrational, but nonetheless it is part of my annual cadence, and it makes me feel that much more appreciative when the world comes into bloom. The last week I have been day dreaming of time on the water with Leandra and the dogs, and I literally cannot wait for warm weather. This past weekend it was only 58 degrees outside, but it looked like lake weather, so I packed up the dogs and we went to Fairy Stone State Park. No one else was there, so we had the trails to ourselves, and all three of us drank in the day. Bean focused on hunting, so would chase animals back to their borrows, and dutifully point to the exact location. Peanut was supposed to have been born a sea lion rather than a dog and reveled in being able to swim to her heart’s content. I strolled along with the overwhelming feeling that the world, at least in that moment and place, was exactly as it should be.
Whenever I look at something close enough I see echoes of our faith. The rhythm of feeling the despair of winter, and longing for summer runs parallel to our Lenten season, and I felt hints of the hope of Easter on my perfect day on the lake in early spring. Easter marks our exit from a time of penitence, remembering how we are dissonant with God and the world, to a time of harmony and hope in new life. When we talk about our liturgical seasons it can feel like an intellectual exercise, but it is actually something as natural as being aware of the changing physical seasons around us. Our liturgy, and our ancient rites and rituals should not be considered some oddity that has somehow seemed to have survived into the modern Church. These ancient practices are in remarkable harmony with the world around, and help us to mark the meaning in our lives, and can even give us words when our vocabulary comes up lacking, and they are constantly reminding that our days are sacred, and should not be taken for granted.
When you read this we will already be in the Easter Season. The stone will be rolled away from the tomb, the children will have already hunted for colored eggs, and Easter brunches would be a fond memory of the recent past. However, I am in the odd predicament of writing about Easter in the midst of Holy Week. Holy Week is one of my favorite times of the year, but it can be filled with so much chaos and stress that it makes me thankful it only happens once a year. On the other hand people get so enthusiastic about Church this time of year that it fills me with joy. Last year we decided to go all in for Holy Week, and we are doing the same thing this year. We have daily services, and in addition to the usual Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter services we are also doing Compline, Tenebrae and a very joyful Easter Vigil. I love Holy Week not only because it prepares us for the joy of Easter, but also because it adds depth to our faith.
I remember when I was still in High School there was a growing assumption within Christian communities that anything that was not uplifting was not only unnecessary, but it was also deplorable and probably the reason young people didn’t want to go to Church. Many people expect that mountain top experience every time they go into Church, and that is fine, but I wanted to explore the spirituality of Good Friday as well as Easter. As I got older I started to notice the beautiful melancholy of Ash Wednesday, and I began to look forward to Maundy Thursday just as much as I looked forward to Easter. The very thing that was supposed to be pushing young people away from Church was drawing me in, and inviting me to a deeper understanding of God and the resurrection.
I know that I am not alone in this experience. I see many of our own young people drawn into these solemn services just as much, if not more, than they are drawn to silly games and pizza parties. You can get pizza and play games anywhere at anytime, but Tenebrae is something special. Last year I asked Clare Warner Coleman, who is in middle school, to chant the psalms with Raul, our cantor, during the Tenebrae service. Tenebrae is an ancient service that is all about light and darkness. It is a long service, and intentionally moves slowly. I doubt anyone who experiences Tenebrae would imagine a teenager leaving the service with the exclamation, “That. Was. So. Cool!” but that was exactly what Clare Warner said while still in her black cassock as she left Church. We did Tenebrae again last night and got even more youth to participate, and they were all enthusiastically engaged in this ancient solemn service.
I am not sure if I can speak for them, and I doubt that this is a universal phenomenon, but I have a hunch that people like Clare Warner, Emily, Will, Aurora and I find these services compelling not because we love to constantly wallow in moody melancholy, but because it makes Easter feel that much more meaningful. The whole story of our salvation is not told on Easter Sunday. Jesus on the cross, and in the tomb is part of that story as well, and if we forget these parts of the story and fail to live into them, then Easter just feels like church followed by an Easter egg hunt. On Easter morning the choir, altar guild, and I will be utterly exhausted, thankful for Holy Week, but equally thankful for the respite that is Easter, and Easter will be that much sweeter, joyful and powerful for the journey we went through together.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
I read John Donne’s For Whom the Bell Tolls when I was a sophomore in High School, and I had no interest in deciphering its dated metaphors and other hidden secrets. Only after a decade and a half did I realize that Donne’s poem is just as relevant, beautiful and uncomfortable today as it was when it was written in 17th century England. The poem’s premise is simple. None of us exists as an island; completely self-sufficient and not requiring the main land. Initially the poem just seems to an appeal to logic. Europe is less if a clog washes away or if a peak overlooking the sea collapses. Regardless of the magnitude it is a loss.
Donne shifts from abstract metaphors to the concrete and punches us right in the gut. In his time bells would toll to let people know someone in their community had died. Donne tells his audience to not bother checking to see for whom the bells are tolling, because they are tolling for you. His safe metaphors turn sharp, and he reminds us what it is to be invested in humanity and to be part of a community. When we toll our bells at the beginning of a funeral it should strike us as a personal loss. Or, what might be more relevant in our time,
“Therefore, don’t turn on the news
to see for whom the news scroll scrolls
it scrolls for thee”
When we see ourselves as islands the tragedies in the news become less personal, less devastating and less scary. We see so many stories about civilian deaths in Syria that it becomes white noise. Mass shootings within our own boarders have become so routine that maybe deep down we begin to feel that it happens so often, but never to us, so maybe it never will.
After the latest shooting in Florida I felt outrage, and even shed tears for the stories of heroism, but it still felt distant. Yesterday during the healing service at noon I began to get frantic texts from my family. Shots were fired at our local high school, and that was all that we knew. That is the high school I went to, and many of the children in my home church go to school there. When I got onto Facebook I saw their posts. One girl was just down the hall from where a teacher (a well-beloved and seemingly well-oriented teacher) had barricaded himself into his room and fired at the principal. I did not feel outrage. Instead my knees felt weak, and I felt completely helpless.
Fortunately there were no victims at Dalton High School. The teacher was having a breakdown and never intended to hurt students, but no one knew that when he fired his pistol. As the news was unfolding it was not reporting about some distant crisis, it was reporting about my crisis.
Sometimes we convince ourselves that we are islands, even when we were connected to the mainland of humanity all along. We also convince ourselves that our community, whether that is our family, our Church, or even our country is an island, and not connected to the rest of God’s family. We forget that we are all children of God, and that binds us. We forget that Christ died for all, and not only for us and for our loved ones. Yesterday was a reminder for me that when we see scared children, or headlines of great loss of life an ocean away that scars me as well, and my thoughts and prayers should remind me of that truth. Our prayers can remind us that we are all part of God’s family, and can lead us to treat each other accordingly.
I have five senses, but I am constantly tempted to limit my prayers to words. I remember not too long ago prayer for me was an intellectual exercise, which is not a bad thing, but it limited my prayer’s potential. Every night I would try to compose a totally complete prayer, so I could be sure that no one would be forgotten in my careful benedictions to God. I would be sure to pray for everyone’s needs from my own and my family’s, to the needs of forgotten refugees across the world and everyone in between, and when I realized that someone was forgotten I would start over and be sure to include them that time around. My prayer life fueled my growing obsession with BBC news, which at the time for me was a kind of prayer research website. This type of prayer life was great for pushing me to understand complex geopolitical issues and it pushed me to expand my compassion for others, but it was terrible for cultivating the peace of Christ in my own life. I was praying vigorously with my mind and with my words, but by neglecting my other senses I missed an opportunity to listen to God rather than try to have God listen to me.
Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter will soon be upon us, and within these decadent, somber, reflective, tragic and joyous services is an opportunity to pray with our whole bodies and live into the love that God has shown us. Each of these services and events seems to touch a nerve on what it is to be a child of God, and each also seems to invite to pray with all of our senses.
Shrove Tuesday is the most recent and probably the most secular of the events happening this season, but it can still show us something about our relationship with God. Shrove Tuesday started because decadent foods such as butter, sugar and meat were banned during Lent, so they would eat as much of these things as they could before it was too late! Pancakes and sausage seem to be a natural choice for this occasion, because of their unapologetic celebration of fat, sweetness and deliciousness. Even though Shrove Tuesday is a joyful event it lives in the shadow of Lent, so the pancakes that we are consuming remind us of what we may not have the next forty days. A reminder that even when we feel most stable and self sufficient, we may be relying on God the next day more than we thought.
While our taste buds rule on Shrove Tuesday I cannot help but think of the smell of incense during Lent. Many of the Churches that use incense reserve it for Easter and Christmas, but I will always be reminded of the smell of and sight of rising incense before an altar during a Lenten meditation. Incense and other sweet smelling things would be used to cover up the smell of death in ancient times, and Ash Wednesday and Lent are meant to remind of our mortality, as well as the death that Christ suffered for us. The joy of the resurrection could not have happened without the bitterness of the crucifixion, and the sweet smell of incense is a subtle reminder of what was paid for us.
Shrove Tuesday is a day of abundance, and Lent is a season of absence, and one thing absent during this season is our proclamation of “Alleluia!” It is one of those things where I don’t miss it until it’s gone, and when it’s gone Church just doesn’t feel right. All year I take it for granted, and miss it terribly in those forty days. So, for Easter I pray with my ears. That first “Alleluia!” at the Easter vigil feels triumphant, and to hear the enthusiasm of the congregation confirms my suspicion that they missed it as much as me.
There are many ways we can pray with our whole bodies. We pray when we use our ears to listen to scripture, we pray with our bodies when we kneel or stand for the Eucharist, and we pray with our sense of touch when we lay on hands at the healing service. When we pray with our whole bodies we leave that space that we create for ourselves in our heads, and we enter a world that is God’s gift to us. Living into the story of Christ in the world around us can make our lives a prayer of thanksgiving to the God that made us whole.
I suspect that I am a terrible hunter. A while ago I decided that eventually I would become a deer and turkey hunter, which would be our primary source of meat. I imagined learning how to make venison sausage, which is a favorite of mine. I also decided that I would become such a good charcuterier (fancy word for a sausage maker) that everyone would cherish getting gifts of venison sausage from me around Christmas. Finally my dream seemed to be becoming true. My father-in-law bought me a very nice rifle, I learned how to shoot it well, and Ron Probst agreed to teach me how to hunt. I thought this last step would be the easiest considering I see deer in my back yard nearly every morning. The first time we went out it was relatively cold, and I wore street clothes. I would not spend money on camouflage or any other unnecessary piece of gear considering Martinsville’s deer seem to be ambivalent to my presence under any other circumstance.
On our first day we did not even see a deer. I thought this was merely a fluke, but the second time in the woods we again saw absolutely nothing. So I started to read up on the finer points of hunting, bought a ton of stuff, and the only time I have seen deer has been walking my dogs on the Dick and Willie trail. I suspect that I am a terrible hunter, and I have not even gotten the opportunity to practice my sausage making skills, but what I have gained has been invaluable. Ron’s enthusiasm for hunting is contagious, which is about the only thing that could get me up at 4:30 in the morning. Getting into the woods before the break of dawn, and trying to remain perfectly quiet and still as the sun rises is the closest thing to mediation that I have experienced. I am a restless person, and being mindfully still is not on my list of skills, but sitting in a tree stand scanning the woods and passively noticing the birds waking up, squirrels going about their business has not only given me an insight into nature, but also into what it is to be truly still.
I am still going to work on the hunting thing. Maybe I’ll eventually figure out what I’ve been doing wrong, or maybe my luck will merely shift, but I am determined to follow through with this goal. However, even if I never figure how to be a master hunter, or even get a chance to perfect my sausage recipe I will continue to be grateful for the time I spent in the woods learning to be still. In many ways this past year feels like my lessons in hunting. At the beginning of 2017 I had still not been installed as your rector, I had not run a vestry retreat, and I had not yet experienced Easter in Martinsville. I felt like the deer in the headlights (pun intended). With each of these I was expecting to grab the bull by the horns and figure out the formula to do each of these things perfectly. Instead I learned to depend on the people that already have those valuable experiences, and how to work together as a team. And when I failed I learned how to accept your grace. This coming year will be filled with plans and expectations, many of which will not come to fruition. I have no doubt that we will continue to grow together, and we will strive to grow closer to Christ, but no amount of planning or predictions can determine where we will land at the next new year, but perhaps we will be exactly where God intended.
Dear Christ Church,
I remember writing this article for you last year. It was only a couple of months into my tenure at Christ Church, and I remember being very pleased with my message to you about the upcoming Season of Advent. The sum of it was that most clergy types would tell you to find the moments of peace and expectation in this season that the secular world makes hectic. I tried to flip it on its head and told you to embrace the chaos! Everything about Advent screams of stress. On top of being pregnant with the Son of God and being unwed, Mary was also forced to travel all the way to Bethlehem for a census. If I were Mary or Joseph I would have been freaking out. It is natural for us to feel stress when hoards of family come to visit, or when we want to find that perfect gift for a loved one, and just like in the story of Mary and Joseph, God works in the brokenness and stress despite our best efforts. This still rings true for me, but I think there is another layer to the complexity of this season. Moments of refuge and sanctuary in seasons of chaos can help put stress into perspective, and might even give us a glimpse into how God is working in our lives.
In many ways Advent is the season of almost, but not yet. I am tempted to bring up a number of stressful things that are almost resolved, but not quite yet. One such thing is the pledge campaign. We have gotten in over half of the pledge cards that we received last year, and we are cautiously optimistic for the coming year. Our hope is to avoid a deficit budget, and if the generosity we have seen continues we should be in good shape. Our financial situation is almost resolved, but not yet. Another issue has been the vile people that were removed and banned from Church a couple of weeks ago. They feed off of attention, and we have been ignoring them. They are running out of things to say about the Episcopal Church and me. They still harass me, but soon they will move on. The haters are almost gone, but not yet. In the midst of these things you have shown me what generosity looks like. So many of you have stepped up to help us sustain our ministry, and so many of you were willing to defend your Church, and I have been continually reminded of why I am honored to serve at this outpost of Christ’s Church.
These are important things to feel stress over, just as the census was important for Mary and Joseph, but we should not forget that our stressors are the background music to the season, and not the main act. I wonder if Mary and Joseph ever let the stress of their journey make them forget about the miraculous event that was about to happen. I wonder if they ever felt that getting to Bethlehem was more important than the miracle within Mary’s womb. If they did, I would not have blamed them. Like most people I am susceptible to loosing the forest for the trees. In all of the bits of drama and excitement that we have experienced this past year I also remember the moments of peace and sanctuary. I cherish those times when I realized how small my concerns were, and I could see glimpses of God working in our lives. Thank you for these moments of perspective, and I hope that you will be blessed with those sacred moments this coming Season of Advent.
Today is special. This time last year Leandra and I were buying candy, decorations and costumes for our first Halloween in a house. We had always lived in apartments before and never had the very grown-up experience of handing out candy to trick-or-treaters. Last year we were so excited to experience this rite of passage, but unfortunately God had other plans. Even though we saw hordes of costumed children pass by our house almost none stopped in looking for candy. In retrospect we should not have been surprised. The previous week we had sown grass seed on our lawn, and although it would soon be a beautiful lawn, it was still mostly mud. Our muddy landscaping, coupled with the spooky music I was playing in spirit with the season, and two dogs that we decided not into the idea trick-or-treaters made our house a daunting destination for any potential candy seekers.
So, tonight is our big chance! We now have a well-manicured lawn complete with beautiful flowers and nice walkway. Peanut has her princess costume, and Vanilla Bean has her lion’s mane to soften their image to any passersby. We are filled with the expectation that we are going to have the quintessential adult Halloween experience, and this is why today is special, because in many ways we are entering into the season of high expectations.
Technically we are still in ordinary time in the life of the Church, and by this next time next month you get an article from me about Advent and embracing the expectation of the coming of Christ. Even though Advent has not officially arrived, this is the first of many holidays in rapid succession where we put a tremendous amount of expectation on ourselves, and on our loved ones. Tonight we may stress over the quality of our child’s (in our case dog’s) costume, next month we may have a panic attack over the cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving, and the month after that we may find ourselves sprinting through Wal-Mart hoping to grab the last toy needed for the perfect Christmas.
It may not be the official season of expectation yet, but our lives are slowly ramping up for the joy, worry, excitement, and stress of the holiday season. I could give you a common message that we should not burden ourselves with all of this stress during this time of year, but I think I am beginning to realize that these modern bits of wisdom are like telling someone with anxiety to “get over it”. Of course it would be great if we could let go of our stress and focus on God and our families, and of course we are going to stress out anyways.
I think Advent has something deeper to show us about expectation. It is completely human to be stressed and worried when we are expecting something tremendous in the world, even when we wish we could let go of all of those burdensome emotions. Perhaps it is ok to not only accept these feelings, but to even embrace them. Worry and stress are not inherently bad. They often give us the energy and drive to get things done when we are running out of time. I bet Joseph and Mary were stressed on their way to Bethlehem, and especially when they could not find a room. Where stress and worry can become toxic is when we give them too much credence in our lives. I hope during this season of holidays and high expectations you feel just as much, if not more, joy and wonder than you feel exhaustion and frustration. But when you find yourself at your wit’s end over Halloween costumes, cranberry sauce, or this year’s hot toy I hope you can remember that in the midst of our expectations is something miraculous, beautiful and completely unexpected.
I cannot believe that almost exactly a year ago we packed up our meager belongings along with two dogs and drove from Columbus, Georgia to Martinsville. We arrived hours after we had planned, because the weather and traffic were so bad, but Sue Rosser, and Debbie and Ben Lewis were there to greet us with dinner and dog treats. The rectory was in the final stages of renovation and the downstairs toilet was not yet installed, which suited us fine, because it was the only seat that we had that night. So much has changed in this past year. For starters the rectory now feels like a home due to a lot of help from members of Christ Church. We have also grown together. When I first arrived we were bombarded with hundred of names and faces, and slowly we got to know each other and hear each other’s stories. We have also tried a lot of new things from dodge ball to tenebrae. In many ways I still feel like we’ve just arrived, and in others I cannot believe we have done so much so such little time.
Many people say that clergy get a year honeymoon before things start getting difficult, and this kind of makes sense. It takes about a year for someone new to see what needs to change and figure out how to change it, and change is rarely popular. I have to say that we’ve already tried so many new things that I do not see this derailing our groove, but something more menacing might be lurking in our midst, and its called fund raising fatigue. Fund raising fatigue happens when an organization, especially a Church, is so focused on fund raising that people begin to think that’s all they do, and they loose heart. People begin to ask, “When will they ever be done with this?!”, and fund raising pleas start to sound like background noise.
So, here is the news: we are not going to stop focusing on ministry. We will continue to develop and grow existing ministries like Loaves and Fishes, and we will continue to start some new ones like our Youth Ministry. The big “but” of this reality is that we have a ton of work to do, and it is going to cost money. You can help in two big ways.
The first is to pledge if you have not pledged before, or to consider increasing your pledge. It is a rough guess of what you think you can contribute to the operating budget the following year. This helps us come up with our budget and make a plan on how to pay the bills. Last year we ran a deficit budget, which we cannot get away with again. This helps us keep the lights on, pay salaries, and keep the day-to-day operations of the Church going.
The second way you can help is the big one; you can help us repair the Church. The past six months has been a whirlwind of structural emergencies. From the west window, to the ductwork, to the roofs, to the sidewalk, to the columns of the parish house, and the list goes on and on. The good news is that you have already been extraordinarily generous. The window project is complete, because of your generous gifts in honor of Dan Prince. The ductwork project was significantly more dire than we originally thought. Several times we thought we had ahold of the situation only to be told that the workers uncovered another tremendous issue. We have already managed to raise approximately twenty-five thousand dollars, but still need to raise another fifteen to cover the costs. Thank you so much for your generosity, because we must be aggressive in addressing these issues or they will only continue to get worse.
Your generosity is the good news. The bad news is that this will not be last big project we must undertake this year. The flat sections of the roof of the Church need urgent attention. You may have noticed a small section of the ceiling collapsed in the narthex. This is because the roof in that section is retaining a significant amount of water. There is actually a small pond on top of the roof. This would be nice if we could raise fish in it, and if it did not leak water into building beneath it. We do not have figures for this project yet, but it is likely to be significant, and if we do not fix the roof it will only continue to damage the rest of the Church.
So, there it is. The menace that is looming just beneath the surface of our community is a problem that will require a lot of generosity, dedication and patience. I wish I could give you a figure or a date when we could stop asking for money, but we are not in a position to do that now. In the midst of leaping over our structural and financial hurdles we will not stop doing Church. We will be responsible in taking care of our Church building, but will also care for the soul of the Church as well. We will continue to have lively Sunday School classes, celebrate the Eucharist, and share our good times and bad. This past year has been a blessing for my family and me, and honestly if this is our biggest issue then we are doing pretty well. We are facing many challenges that can be fixed with brick and mortar, but our foundation is solid. Not once have we regretted making Martinsville our home, and it is not the buildings that make us want to stay, it is the people within them.
I started working at Christ Church October 10th of last year, so I am in the last couple months of doing things here for the first time. Whenever a big event comes up that I have never experienced I feel a bit of lingering anxiety. A misguided sense of importance leads me to think that somehow I am ultimately responsible and capable for ensuring the success of any event at Christ Church. Even though I am often the face of our community I deserve very little credit for anything that happens within our walls. To assume that any one person should or could completely organize something like fall flavors, loaves and fishes, the parish picnic, or even worship on Sunday is not only inaccurate, but also unbiblical. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that we are all members of the body of Christ. Each of us is simultaneously vital to the life of the Church, while being completely dependent on the other members. This is just like how each of our organs is vital, but completely dependent on the rest of the body. The parish picnic this past Sunday is a perfect example of how this model works in our community.
For a couple of months now I have seen Page Beeler, Karen Jones, and Anna McClain meet at the parish house and organize the picnic. They arranged the date, the venue, the food, and activities. In many ways they were the central nervous system of our body. They also had a lot of help with people eager to set up tables, lend and transport kayaks, and provide games for the kids. These people were like the arms and legs of our body. Then on Sunday many of us came to the picnic, and we were the blood of our body. The picnic was expertly planned and executed, but it needed people to come share food, conversation and fun in order to give the picnic life, and the picnic was thriving.
It was a good sign that at the end of the day I was fairly certain two-year-old Ryan Lawrie, and our more senior members all thoroughly enjoyed themselves. I was part of the crew that floated down the river and it was fun to see everyone slowly find his or her own pace and group to float with. Some people went quickly down the river, while others such as Lewis Pitzer enjoyed hanging behind to help anyone who may have gotten stuck. Once I got off of the river Will Zimmer was playing music, children were climbing all over Lewis’s flat bed truck, and scores of people were just enjoying each other’s company.
It was amazing to see the Church so full of life this past Sunday, and I deserve no credit for its success. We have made a lot of progress in the past ten months, but I knew that I was coming into a Church that was already motivated and mobilized. A few people put in a ton of work planning the event, a few more went above and beyond to help set up, but most importantly our Church showed up, and made our picnic a wonderful experience for our youngest members to our oldest. Thank you to all of you who give life to this Church, and make our community possible!
I go to the Daily Grind at least once a day for my morning coffee, but if I am in a hurry I can find myself eating most meals there considering the food is good, and it is right next-door. Today felt especially busy, so I went to lunch at the Daily Grind for a quick sandwich, and I was surprised to see Dan Cahill, a newer member of the Church there as well. We ate together and after we finished our chicken salad sandwiches we decided to go over the Church to look at the various construction projects, and admire the stained glass windows. We mostly talked about Church, but Dan mentioned caring for his family’s graveyards around Philpot Lake, which have been in his family for generations. This almost immediately struck me as special, and got me thinking a lot about the idea of home.
When looking into my family’s history it is clear to see that we moved around a lot. We left our ancestral homes in Germany, the British Isles, and Sweden and came to the United States, and once we got here we did not stay in one place for very long. Coming to Martinsville I can imagine that it would be powerful to know that many of your families have been here for as long as there was a Martinsville. The landscape around us would have been home to your ancestors as well, and the streets, hills, and river feel familiar to you on a deeper level than I may understand. In many ways you give us an inside look into the intimacy you feel with this area and this community. You share the stories that make up this town, you let us into your own homes and share your hospitality, and you even helped us make our own home at the rectory. Even those of you whose families haven’t been here for generations share stories about growing up here, and how the town has changed, and that is invaluable as well. You have given us a window into what it is like to have deep roots in one place, and I can see how special that is.
I cannot help but see Church in this idea of home. When we go to Church on Sunday we believe that we are just not worshipping with the people present, but with all of the saints that have come before us. Our tradition, rites and practices are ancient, and I imagine celebrating the Eucharist feels familiar to me as the landscape of Martinsville might feel familiar to those of you who have been here for generations. In many ways it feels like home. My parents, grandparents, and so on all participated in this form of worship in various denominations for generations and generations. It shaped them and it is shaping me just as Martinsville shaped you and your ancestors.
Martinsville is gradually becoming our home. I know how to drive most places now without a GPS, and the streets, hills and river are becoming more and more familiar. For many of you this has been home for a long time, and I cannot thank you enough for sharing Martinsville with us. We have a home in common at Christ Church where our roots go deep, where we share our common faith, and open our doors to welcome others home.
I am consistently surprised by the generosity of Christ Church. I see people being generous in so many different ways. When I was brand new to Christ Church I saw Beverly and Lewis Pitzer welcome a young mother and child into the Church when they walked in during the Eucharist. You could tell that they felt awkward and maybe a bit out of place. Without hesitating this dynamic duo sprang into action, invited them to sit by them, and had the little girl laughing in no time. The mother may have felt mortified to have her daughter laughing out loud during such a solemn part in the service, but when she looked around she saw friendly faces instead of the judgment she may have been afraid of. We are generous in spirit. We are not afraid to break custom or sacred silence in order to do the holy work of being generous to our neighbor.
I have also been pleasantly surprised with how generous our Church can be with special projects. We have intimidating buildings to care for, and I believe that our efforts are worthwhile. So many historic buildings, especially Churches, have been lost in Martinsville. We have one of the oldest, if not the oldest Church building in town, and choosing to keep this bit of history alive and part of our community forms us in ways that we may not realize. When you walk into the sanctuary you can feel that the walls are well soaked in prayer. The age and love in the Church itself is a sign that we have been around for a long time and will continue to be here regardless of what the changing tides of society has to say. We are here to stay. With that being said, it did not take me long to realize that there is a long maintenance list for the Church. You start to notice that some of the back windows need replacing, you realize the undercroft could use some serious work, you are told that the roof is not completely functional, then you try to restore a stained-glass
window and are told by the contractor that the brick around it is about to fall out. Our Church needs some serious help.
Starting next year we will try to have a successful capital campaign to tackle all of these issues, but we need to start immediately on several projects, or they will turn into emergencies. You may have noticed that work has already begun on one of our huge stained glass windows. Half of this money was covered by a grant, but we need to raise the rest of the funds, which amounts to nearly eleven thousand dollars. You may have noticed that the windows in the kitchen are almost completely rotten as well, which will be replaced shortly. There is also the issue with the insulation in the roof, which causes condensation to drip into the pews. With doing very little official fund raising many have already given to these causes. The person who won the raffleat the last Fall Flavors returned their winnings. Several people have written generous checks to care for our Church. Someone wrote a check for the kitchen windows out of the blue! Someone else gives a generous monthly gift for special projects. I am overwhelmed by the generosity of this Church. We are generous in many ways. We are generous in spirit, in worship and with the care of our prayer soaked buildings. We also still have a lot to do on issues that need attention now. If you can be generous with your funds and want to help fix our ?stained glass window or the condensation problem you can make a check out to the Christ Church with “special projects” in the memo.
Thank you all for the generosity you have already shown, and for the generosity you will continue to show.
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