Category Archives: Doing Church

Stand Here Beside Us!

Sara preached this sermon on All Saints Sunday. Our worship opened with the community praying and singing the Litany of All the Saints.

Almighty God…give us grace to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living.

slide-5-communion-of-saintsI love this feast day. (Yawn. She says that every year, about so many feast days.) But it’s true. I was officially welcomed into the first church I joined in Portland on this day in 1986. I love the saints, the great cloud of witnesses. Questions about saints are among the most common I get from people new to the Episcopal Church, and I love to answer those questions. And I’ve done many baptisms on All Saints Day, all of which come with special memories.

All Saints is one of four baptismal feasts in the Church year. Now, I always ask this and I’m going to ask One   Last   Time: who can name the other three baptismal feasts in the Church year?

As I said to a group of parents and godparents two weeks ago, baptism is a sacrament of vocation, it is a sacrament of identity, and it is a sacrament of belonging. It is a sacrament of vocation in that it is like ordination for all Christians. When our previous bishop, Bishop Itty, was ordained in 2003, the preacher (former presiding bishop Edmond Browning) talked about what a grand event it was, the Episcopal Church at its ceremonial best, and how it was going to be in all the papers the next day, and he was right. Then he reminded us that really, we should make an equally huge deal with every baptism. Baptism is the sacrament of our vocation, our calling to be followers of Jesus.

But…enough about baptism! I know you’re all waiting to learn who the Saint of the Year is. Lindsay, may I have the envelope please…..? [Drumroll]

This year’s Saint of the Year is….every single one of you!

  • The 2009 Vestry who took a huge risk and said sure, we’ll spend all our savings and we’ll let you try any crazy stuff you want. You’re the saints who stand here beside me, beside us.
  • Those of you who came last week or this week for the very first time, when walking through the doors of an unfamiliar church can be a daunting task. We hope you’ll stand here beside us.
  • The children being baptized on this day: Marion, Lucia, Matilda, Theo, Clara, Jane, and Eleanor. Stand here beside us.
  • Their parents and godparents who stand with them and behind them. Stand here beside us.
  • All the people who have shown up week after week for a whole month or a year or a decade or half a century to pray and share blessed and broken bread, stand here beside us.
  • All of you who make all of this possible by offering your time and your treasure, you who have filled out pledge cards already and you who will fill out pledge cards this morning, stand here beside us.
  • The altar guild, ushers, readers, Eucharistic ministers, prayer-sayers, Coffee-makers, bread bakers, clay shapers, tambourine shakers, and all those whose presence and work is part of our worship each Sunday, stand here beside us.
  • The choir and musicians and our astoundingly talented leader, Ben, stand here beside us.
  • The piano students, artists, music teachers, therapists, dancers, stilt-walkers, preschoolers, fiddlers, pickers, yoga practitioners, saxophonists and cellists who grace our building with their presence, stand here beside us.
  • Those who teach Sunday school and those who learn, those who help out and those who hang out, nursery moms, dads, kids, and staff, stand here beside us.
  • Jumble-sale planners, pricers, writers, drivers, sorters, buyers, sellers, bakers, takers, sign-makers, and miracle-makers, stand here beside us.
  • Money-counters, check-writers, bill-payers, room-schedulers, building cleaners, leaf-rakers, weed-pullers, kitchen towel-washers, and fridge-cleaners, stand here beside us.

These—including all the ones I’ve forgotten—are the saints-with-a-small-s who may or may not ever be remembered for what they’ve done but they will always stand here beside us. Every community is built—continually building—upon the great cloud of witnesses, the royal priesthood of which each one of us is a part.

Baptism, as I said earlier, is a sacrament of belonging. Think about “Stand here beside us” as both a prayer of belonging and an invitation to belonging. Standing beside one another is how we belong. On this holy day, we promise to stand beside Eleanor, Jane, Clara, Theo, Matilda, and Marion as they grow into their Christian identity and vocation.

When Amy and I first talked about Jane’s baptism I asked whom she and Sarah had chosen as godparents. Amy said: “we don’t want godparents because we think of the whole community of St. David’s as Jane’s godparents.” I invite all of you to think of yourselves as godparents, to these children and to one another. Stand here beside us.

Baptism is a sacrament of identity. Baptism is how we become Christian. Christians have had a bad name for the last forty years or so. Some might argue we’ve had a bad name since the Crusades. I’ve always refused to cede the C-word to Christians who don’t speak for me in the press or in the public square. I am a follower of Jesus as much as anyone else. And so are you. Here’s an exercise. It’s going to make some of you squirm, I promise. Turn to the person sitting next to you, or in front of you, or behind you, and practice saying “I am a Christian.” And then turn to the person on the other side of you and say it. When someone says it to you, say “Hey, so am I!” or “me, too!” Just do it. We won’t tell. (I do know that a handful of you are Jewish or Buddhist, and that’s okay, too. Here’s your chance to claim that out loud.) Okay…now go.

So how do you live out your identity as a person of faith and a follower of Jesus? When we celebrate baptism, we celebrate a sacrament of vocation. As I hope my local All Saints Litany shows, our vocations as followers of Jesus differ from person to person. The bones of this calling are spelled out in our baptismal covenant, the covenant we will affirm together in a moment. As we renew our baptismal covenant, think about what flesh you will put on those bones. How will you stand beside us as one of the saints of God?

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Steer Your Surfing Towards the Word

Are you in an internet rut? I get stuck in one every time I open my browser. I mean well. I open it and check some news sites to see what’s happening in the world. I open up my email to see who needs what. Then I open up Facebook. I tell myself I’m just checking on my friends. This rarely actually happens, though, and instead I find myself scrolling through an endless list of cute kitten photos on buzzfeed or moderately interesting opinion piece about an issue I may tangentially care about on huffpost or the not-really-news pieces that npr.com seems to be fond of lately. All mediocre content with catchy or provocative titles meant to lure clicks into ad space. Unintentional browsing of the internet can easily turn it into a tabloid; or, the click of least resistance leads straight to kitten pics and commentary on Miley Cyrus. Sometimes I find something interesting. Much more often, I get to the end of a story and I think, “I can’t believe I just spent five minutes of my time reading that.”

Have you considered spending that five minutes with scripture instead? (Will you please imagine me asking that in a Mr. Rodgers sweater vest?) Perhaps you already have a daily practice for reading sacred stories that works for you (share it in the comments below so we can hear about it!) If you’re like me, daily practices can be hard to maintain. Sadly, one constant thing in my day-to-day life is my web browser. The good news is that even this can be easily turned into a tool for redirecting your attention towards something that matters more to you than kitten photos. (Don’t get mad, even baby Jesus likes kitten pics, but in moderation, people.)

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Here’s what I’m committing myself to for the rest of the season, you can join me if you feel so inspired: place some or all of these links below in your bookmarks bar, and when you open your web browser during the day, open one of them before you go to Facebook (or whatever else your internet addiction is, pie-baking blogs, youtube make-up tutorials). In other words, read something with some real, hearty, thought-provoking heart-inflaming head-scratching content. Read the Bible online. Five minutes. It will make the Bible-reading kitten pictured here proud.

So where do you want to start?

You can drag any of these links straight up to your bookmark bar where it can stare you in the face every time you open the internet.

You could start with a simple with a link to the weekly lectionary such as:

 http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/

This will give you a heads up for what we’ll hear in church on Sunday morning. It’s not cheating to read the scripture ahead of time. Walk around with it, let the stories simmer in your mind. Then you’ll be one-up on whoever’s preaching that week.

Soak up all the Sunday lectionary for the week? Try the daily office lectionary. Here’s one great place to look it up:

 http://satucket.com/lectionary/

or you could give yourself a direct link to the calendar for the month, such as this:

http://satucket.com/lectionary/October13.htm 

Clicking on any day of the calendar will take you to the readings for that day, daily office, daily Eucharist. Don’t get overwhelmed by choices, just click on a passage of scripture. Maybe something you know you haven’t read before. Maybe you just close your eyes and click, the modern-day equivalent of opening your bible to whatever page it lands on. Sometimes I read all the Old Testament lessons for the week at once, in order, consecutively, because I know I probably won’t come back to it tomorrow. (Now we’re getting really real here.)

Maybe, just maybe, you even want to read the Daily Office from the web. If so, try this:

http://www.missionstclare.com/ 

It’s all there, right on the web. Or perhaps a shorter devotion, such as this:

http://prayer.forwardmovement.org/forward_day_by_day

Whatever you choose, read some scripture. Read a little, read a lot. If you’re alone or unselfconscious read it out loud to yourself. Then, close your eyes. They’re tired of looking at the computer anyway. Close them, breathe deep, and invite God to be with you. Then, when you’re ready, move on with the rest of your day.

Eleanor Roosevelt prayed here

Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors, so I was thrilled to learn that the church where she worshipped and set the novel “The Age of Innocence” was a 15 minute walk from our apartment in NY.  Calvary Episcopal is a gorgeous church steeped in history but clearly moving forward.

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As we walked into the beautiful gothic sanctuary where the Roosevelts, Astors, and Vanderbilts all worshipped, I was struck by the beautiful, if elite, history of our church.  The sermon spoke to the radical power of God’s grace as written by Paul in his letter to the Galatians.  Looking around the church, with its racially and economically diverse and vibrant congregation, the power of Paul’s words within this city where I will be spending the next five weeks took on a new meaning.

But even in this church which symbolizes much of old New York and the traditions of the Episcopal church, I was missing the liturgical traditions that we have crafted within our own community of St. David’s. I must admit I struggled a bit with the praise hymns, with their lyrics projected onto a screen at the left of the altar. And I missed seeing the priest facing the congregation as he prepared the sacrament, as he was forced to turn his back to us because of the position of the altar.

The congregation of Calvary felt happy and unified.  I am amazed that despite the structure of our liturgy, a church can find a tone and approach that works for those that worship there.  Although I am sure that Eleanor Roosevelt would feel out of place at the Calvary of today, it felt like just the right blend of the traditional and progressive for those that worship there now.

Between a Buddhist & a Christian Practice…

A reflection from the Pastoral Associate on what makes a spiritual practice Christian or not…

About this time last Summer I went on a Vipassana meditation retreat in which I spent 10 days in total silence with some 80-odd strangers sitting cross-legged on a concrete floor for hours at a time while paying attention to every last twitch and itch in our bodies without scratching or responding to them. You can, too, if you are at all inclined by the end of this essay. “Why Vipassana?” you might reasonably ask. Because a friend told me about it. Because I had just finished three years at a denominational seminary and wanted to clear my head with a practice that had as little to do with the Daily Office and Plainsong Chant as possible. Because I wanted to honor my 15-year old self who left church when he found out he was gay and told his parents that he was a Buddhist without actually knowing what that meant. But most of all, because I wanted to see what was inside of me at the bottom of 10 days of silence.

Explicating the discoveries related to that last rationale would take a novel rather than an essay and I would only ever make my therapist read it. I will tell you that the journey on the way down changed me temporarily. In the silence shared with 80 strangers I became more attentive. Observation is one of two major skills honed in Vipassana. The time spent observing one’s own body and its sensations inevitably translates into a heightened awareness of one’s surroundings. It didn’t hurt that the retreat center was poised atop a crest overlooking a bucolic meadow with meandering dirt paths in the middle-of-nowehere, Washington. Often, we emerged from the low-lit meditation hall squinting against the daylight to see the glaciers of Mt. Rainer glistening wildly in the sun. A family of deer lived in the meadow, and it was not uncommon for a group of us to gather wordlessly at dusk and watch the newborn fawn leap across the tall grasses with his older brother and sister. Once, after rising at something crazy like 4:30 in the morning, I came face-to-face with the mother doe as I walked the gravel path from the dormitory to the meditation hall. The whole landscape was covered in a thick fog which she emerged from with grace fluid enough to be an imitation of the air around her. I could see the muscles of her hind-quarters ripple as she passed by me close enough to reach out and touch. I spent considerable time laying on the ground watching slugs crawl across my path, once I even watched long enough to find an abandoned baby naked mole rat the size of the tip of my pinky finger squirming in the grass (at which point I totally lost it and talked for the first time during the retreat to one of the teachers’ aides about what we should do to save it. He did not offer to help, incidentally.) This from a guy who is much more likely to watch HBO on Demand with some noisy friends and a glass of wine most nights. Maybe I was more myself there, maybe I was less.

I will also tell you that the hardest thing for me to do during the whole retreat was not the keeping silent part (as many of my closest friends assumed it would be) rather, it was to set my Christian practices aside. One enters the Vipassana training with the agreement that all other practices will cease while learning the technique. At stages in this training far beyond the initial 10-day retreat one agrees to practice Vipassana exclusively. The intention behind this requirement is that one not mix Vipassana with other practices, thereby gaining an undiluted experience of the technique. In the particularly apophatic mood that had seized me post-seminary I interpreted this to mean no praying, period. My seemingly liberal Christian sensibilities were tweaked, however, when terms like Buddha and Dhamma were thrown around in a slightly devotional manner. It is clearly explained from the outset that Buddha needn’t mean anything more than anyone who is fully enlightened or Dhamma than the law of nature and way to liberation. It is also explained that Vipassana is a way of living and not a religion or form of worship and needn’t contradict any religious beliefs. Still, without the name of Jesus constantly on my tongue where it had been for the past several years, I began to feel like something of a traitor. Jesus is the name I know how to talk to God with. Even when I’m not saying the actual name itself, I know its there, much in the way that the name of a roommate or other constant companion is simply implied in a statement such as, “Hey [you], could you bring me some milk on your way to the living room?” In the end, I simply could not divest the implicit “you” in a statement such as “Hey [you], please help me observe the sensations in my body with equanimity,” from my guy Jesus Christ. I will probably never be someone who can simply call upon my own individual resources of will and self without the help of a dead man from 2,000 years ago. In the retreat, this came to a head on the fifth or sixth day when I scampered away down one of those meandering dirt paths in the meadow and fell to my knees gushing aloud every scrap of the Daily Office and Plainsong Chant that I could call to mind. I felt better after that.

Equanimity is the second major skill honed in Vipassana. As you sit with yourself, moving your attention systematically from head to toe, observing every major and minor bodily sensation along the way, you are meant to treat each one of them equally. Perhaps that crick in your back is gradually spreading it’s throbbing intensity with each passing tick of a clock that you are not allowed to see while elsewhere, say, on the back of your hand, you notice a light, pleasant, tingling sensation. (As I sidenote, I’ll tell you that I seemed to never have any light or pleasant sensations anywhere in my body to observe at all.) You are supposed to treat them both the same. You are not to give any one sensation more time or attention than any other, and you are not to respond to any of them, you are simply to observe them with a hopefully ever-growing sense of equanimity. This is actually pretty incredible. The idea is that as you refine your prowess for equanimity in your physical body, you will be better equipped to treat all of the thousand various desires and aversions of the chattering ego with greater objectivity. My inner Pelagian squealed with delight at even the smallest victories in this arena. The trouble is, desire and aversion actually seem essential to my Christian life. I long for God the way that mother doe likely longs for a cool drink of the very water her own body seemed to imitate. At the same time, I actively despise all the things that keep me from that living water of God, including and above all my own selfishness. So where was I supposed to draw the line between aversions to deflect and aversions to train?

In the end, when the retreat was over and I was back home with my HBO, I could not decide; or maybe I was just too lazy to. I was also too lazy to maintain the twice-daily hour-long sittings that are supposed to continue developing the technique over time. Instead, I took to heart the idea that Vipassana shouldn’t be blended with other techniques and ditched the whole thing. I also entered a year-long Chaplain Residency on the psych ward of a VA hospital where, occasionally, my lack of equanimity got me in way over my head. That may be why, a year later, I’ve gotten to a point where I am trying to meditate again. Except that now, the practice doesn’t seem to present nearly the same kind of conflict as it did then. Observation and equanimity are two edges of a sword sharpened by Vipassana, something I’ve come to understand as a mental rather than a spiritual discipline. It is a discipline, or a tool, that can help prepare and dispose one towards the multiple sympathies of Christianity: the love of enemies, neighbors, self, and God; relationship in the Spirit of Charity cut free from the bonds of selfish desires and aversions. It is a tool one can put to use in the work of following Jesus, who taught his disciples to model themselves after the perfect equanimity of a creator God who shows love where it is not deserved and makes the sun to shine and rain to fall on the good and bad alike. Christian practice invites and even encourages the development of such tools, yet it does not ultimately require them, that’s what we have forgiveness for. Christianity began with a man who took one look at the people who were following him and ultimately expected them to fail in their pursuit. It has never been so much about practice-makes-perfect as it has been right-relationship-makes-us-whole-again. He still helped them get back up to try again anyway. Trying something new along the way could help, too. It could actually be pretty incredible.

Does this bring up any thoughts or questions about practices you’ve tried in your own faith journey? Leave them in the comments section below…

Our Rector’s Sabbatical Chronicles…

We’ve certainly been missing Sara while she’s on sabbatical this Summer, but we don’t have to miss out on what she’s been up to and pondering. You can head over to her own personal blog at dailycup.net to find out more.

In her most recent post, she reflects on the experience of returning to a church from earlier in her life which had initially left her with mixed impressions…

On that day I learned something important about what kind of a Christian I was turning out to be. I was the kind of Christian who—if anyone asked me—did not distinguish between baptized and un-baptized, Christian and non-Christian. If I were a priest in this or any church, I would want to care for people, in death as in life, whether or not they were baptized, whether or not they were Christian or any other kind of religion. I couldn’t imagine someone being excluded from the church because they didn’t believe as I believed, or were in a different place along the journey. Later I learned the churchy word for this: it turned out I was a universalist, someone who believed that if there was in fact a heaven—a big if, in my book, at that time in my life—there was not just one way to get there, but many ways to get there.

Head over to this blog entry to read the rest of her story, and be sure to subscribe if you want further reflections from her journey this Summer!

Playing with Clay

photo 1 (34)For our last session together, the Following the Way group spent time playing with clay. Artist-in-Residence Leroy Goertz talked a bit about creativity and his own experiences with clay, while the rest of us pounded, rolled, pinched, destroyed, rebuilt, fiddled, explored, talked, and listened. This experience, which I’ve been lucky enough to have a few times since LeRoy set up shop in the lower level art studio, never ceases to amaze me. I begin by getting in touch with all of my own inadequacies as an artist, mixed in with painful memories of childhood ceramics classes, where certain things came naturally to a handful of kids, and the rest of us made ashtrays (thank God our parents all smoked back then). Then gradually all of that subsides, and I let myself enjoy the tactile experience, and let it go at that. Tonight, because there were a bunch of us, the best part of the evening–for me, anyway–was seeing everyone else’s creations. Take a look.

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It started as a cave. And then it became a seashell.

And if you wish you were there, it’s not too late. This summer’s Faith & Story Project will be all about fellowship and creativity, and you’re invited. The best way to know about specific upcoming opportunities is to read our weekly enotes. If you’re not a subscriber, go to our webpage, scroll down to the bottom, and enter your email address.

Shelf fungus. Right?

Shelf fungus. Right?

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St. Michael the Archangel. Indeed!

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“Container-guy”

Lindsay made this dogwood, just in time for St. David's dogwood to bloom sometime next week.

Lindsay made this dogwood, just in time for St. David’s dogwood to bloom sometime next week.

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Megan and Anne came to Following the Way AND had a girls’ night out all at the same time!

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A contemplative dude.

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Nurturing turtle

The Green Tablecloth

This week has been a week of–among other things–two unexpected gifts.

The first was a practically new green damask tablecloth which a thoughtful and generous person handed to me at the church door on Sunday. She knew we needed round tablecloths for special occasions and had one she wasn’t using.

The second gift was a conversation in Wednesday’s “Bible 101” class. We talked about ways to read the bible, and I introduced folks to the Daily Office Lectionary and the Mission St. Clare app. We talked about the challenges of adding new disciplines–let alone new small group bible discussions–to already-packed schedules, and how those challenges conflict with the longing to connect….connect with the biblical text and connect with others on the same journey.

Someone in the conversation said: “What if anyone who wanted to could gather at a particular table during coffee hour each Sunday to talk about their experience of the daily lectionary that week?” And so the Green Tablecloth was born of these two gifts, a tablecloth and a conversation. Look for the table this Sunday, and share your hopes for an Advent-born discipline of daily scripture reading. ‘Tis the season in the church year, after all, for new year’s resolutions.