Fletcher mattered

J. Fletcher Lowe (1932-2021), Faith and Work Leader

by Jennifer Woodruff Tait, reprinted with permission from The Green Room

In 2016, Fletcher Lowe emailed me out of the blue. He wanted to meet Episcopalians who were going to be at the 2016 Faith and Work Summit in Dallas, and a chain of emails had led him to me and Will Messenger at the Theology of Work Project. (Will and I are both Episcopal priests, as was Fletcher.)

Fletcher Lowe

We exchanged phone numbers and planned to meet at the opening reception. Fletcher promptly got off of the plane and, as I recall (my saved email fails me on the details), broke his foot. He had to get right back on the plane and go home to Virginia. We never met in person.

Our near-miss, however, led him to invite me and others from TOW to get on a Zoom call (in 2016!) to connect the work of the Episcopal faith and work group Fletcher headed (then called Episcopalians on Baptismal Mission and now Partners for Baptismal Living), to more evangelical faith-and-work efforts represented by the Summit. After a couple of fruitful discussions, Fletcher invited me to join the periodic conference calls held by the Steering Committee of EBM. I would say this was an afterthought, except that I don’t think Fletcher had afterthoughts. He was a master of intentionality.

I never really agreed to be a “Steer” – as he always addressed us in his convening emails – I just never really agreed not to be. Fletcher kept emailing me and I kept showing up for the conference calls and Zoom meetings. The group was always looking for more diversity on the steering committee, and while a middle-aged middle-class white lady is not that diverse, at that point I was the only Steer younger than the boomer generation, and (while I always describe myself as doctrinally orthodox but not culturally evangelical) I had connections in more evangelical parts of the church than many. Fletcher always welcomed me warmly to our discussions.

It’s hard to capture Fletcher’s enthusiasm in words. His obituary will give you a bit of an idea – I am exhausted just reading everything he started, most of which he managed to finish. He always began our calls by checking in with us and asking how we were doing and how we were working for justice and equity in our own corners of the world. (As he had worked deeply and carefully to help his parish reckon with their legacy regarding Robert E. Lee, I wish I could have heard what he would have said knowing he was being buried on the same day the Lee statue in Richmond came down.)

He had a grand vision to make Episcopalians overcome our deeply ingrained clericalism, and he would do that by any possible means. He would talk to anybody. He wrote a book (more on that in a minute). He worked informally through relationship-building; he worked bureaucratically through pushing for changes to our canons (for non-Anglicans in the house, canons are essentially the rules of how we run the church.) I didn’t even realize until I read his obituary that he was the driving force behind allowing Episcopal laypeople to assist with the distribution of bread and wine at the Eucharist and to take communion to shut-ins, two things that I take completely for granted as a priest in the 21st century. In Anglicanism, you can argue about polity and theology all day long but it really matters when you start changing the liturgy. Fletcher mattered. Fletcher thought people mattered. Fletcher thought people outside the church walls mattered.

Sometime between the foot-breaking incident and the Chicago Summit in 2018, Fletcher sent me the book he’d co-authored with another Steer, Demi Prentiss: Radical Sending. I read it, and then I was supposed to review it for this blog. I never did – I had two small children and several jobs, and life (and eventually a pandemic) got in the way. (When I opened it to write this reflection, I found my 2018 room key from the Hyatt inside of it.) I do not in the least think that Fletcher would mind that I briefly reviewed his and Demi’s book while writing a eulogy for him.

It’s a very good book. It uses one of his favorite metaphors – that of the church as “base camp” which sends out hikers/disciples to transform the world – and it looks at this theologically and practically. It deals honestly with the kinds of resistance that will emerge when you try to point out that the church doesn’t just belong to the clergy. It has lots of interviews with churches who have learned to radically send their people, and with laypeople in these churches who have learned to live out their baptismal covenant in their daily life and work. It has wonderful appendices with all sorts of plug-and-play stuff for the local congregation. You should read it.

We lost Fletcher on August 25, twelve hours after he wrote a perfectly marvelous and quintessentially Fletcher blog post which you should also go read, concluding:

[F]or some of us, the Dismissal at the end of worship is the most important part of the Sunday Liturgy. What are the hymns and readings and prayers and sermons all about but helping “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” (Ephesians 4:12) Preparing for the launch, getting the fuel for the journey, being supplied for the hike.

Fletcher planned his own funeral, a wonderful affirmation of his faith – of the church’s faith – in Jesus Christ who empowers the faithful in their daily work, who guides us as we walk (OK, Fletcher, hike) on our daily journey, who raises the dead and promises a new heaven and a new earth. The brief note he composed for the beginning of the bulletin is worth quoting in full:

To my family and friends. Thank you for joining in this service of thanksgiving to God for the life God has given to me. Believing as I do in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, I know that there is life after [death] and that death comes as another event in my continuing life with Christ; that, as through Baptism, I have died and risen with Christ, so my death comes as part of that Baptismal journey. Thus this memorial service speaks rather to Easter than Good Friday, to a risen Lord, not a deceased prophet.

To my interfaith friends: I welcome you to this, my last earthly hurrah and I thank you for being present. That this service is clearly from my Christian tradition should not surprise you. We have been at our best when we have most fully lived within our own Faith tradition- and through the strength of those commitments, we have joined together in a united voice for the God of justice. As always, Peace, Shalom and Salaam, Fletcher.

Peace, Fletcher. I hope someday to see you face to face when I too have hiked to the top of the mountain.

Every day: Both faith and action

by Pam Tinsley

Medscape.com

This past week I’ve heard two moms express their anguish when their young kiddos contracted Covid-19. Both have been extremely cautious over the past 18 months, practicing social-distancing and faithful masking, along with their own vaccination. Both kids were exposed at school or day-camp, in one case because masks weren’t required for children who are five-and-under, and the other because their state doesn’t require masks at all; wearing masks is even discouraged.

Both kiddos got sick. And, because it was Covid, the impact on the children’s families was substantial. Kelly’s eight-month-old baby brother had to stay with his grandparents for ten days to avoid infection. Both kids’ parents had to quarantine and work from home during isolation – that is, work and care for their sick child.

The words the moms used to describe their emotions were fear and anger. They feared for their children’s health and well-being; they feared for those who might have been unknowingly exposed to the coronavirus through their kids; and they also feared that they might end up with a breakthrough infection themselves. They were angry – “Mama bear angry” – that this had happened after they had been so careful: angry about lax attitudes that contribute to the virus’s ongoing spread and its variants.

While there are some who simply refuse to be vaccinated or to wear masks, others have legitimate reasons for fearing vaccination – such as Black Americans who know the US government history of experimenting on them without their consent or those in low-paying jobs whose employers won’t provide time off from work for them to be vaccinated or sick leave if they have a reaction. If we truly promise at Baptism to love our neighbor as Christ loves us; if we truly promise to treat people with dignity and respect – we will strive to listen to and hear their concerns, walk with them in love, and do what we can to reduce their reluctance. Our promises call for us to pray persistently to our God of abundance for wisdom, guidance, healing, and reconciliation. And as members of society, we are called to act responsibly to collectively protect the vulnerable and those who can’t yet protect themselves – our little ones like the young children of the two moms. Because our Baptismal promises call for both faith and action, every day of our lives.

Celebrating work

by Demi Prentiss

The Book of Common Prayer offers this collect for Labor Day (BCP, p. 261):

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

“All we do affects … all other lives: So guide us in [all] the work we do….” God calls us to bring God into every aspect of our daily lives, and aim to make our work holy, an expression of our relationship with God – regardless of whether our work is paid or unpaid.

How can we better remember – not just on Labor Day, but throughout the year – the work that the vast majority of people in our churches do, every day – work that is beyond the church walls?  How can we equip people to work for and with God, in our work as well as in our worship? So that we are equipped to recognize

  • the hopeful expectation of Advent among, for instance, all those in the medical profession – doctors, orderlies, researchers, lab techs, administrators;
  • the joyful celebration of Christmas and Easter among, God willing, those in the field of education – students, aides, teachers, janitors, principals, parents, and presidents;
  • the penitence and spiritual growth of Lent within and among the people involved in the legal profession – paralegals, judges, guards, lawyers, inmates, court reporters, legislators;
  • the overwhelming animating spirit of Pentecost among those in performance and entertainment careers – musicians, scenic artists, writers, dancers, directors, roadies, editors.

What if we take a page from the Black Lives Matter movement and dare to “say their names” – of their vocations – in our prayers and liturgies? What if, in addition to blessing backpacks as we head back to school, we extend our blessings to all those working in schools and colleges? And on St. Francis Day, as we bless the animals, we also bless all who interact with God’s creatures – as vets or zookeepers or scientists or pet caregivers? What other times and seasons might we dedicate to celebrating the Monday through Saturday lives of God’s people?

The psalmist prays, “[O Lord,] Prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork” (Ps 90:17).  May our churches help us grow in our understanding that “our common life depends upon each other’s toil” (BCP, p. 134), through recognizing the ministry that each of us exercises through our daily work. And may God’s love flow into us and through our work, drawing us into Beloved Community.

‘The real play goes on….’

Editor’s Note: This is almost certainly the last piece Fletcher Lowe wrote in this life. Less than 12 hours after he emailed it to me, Fletcher died in his sleep, in his apartment in Richmond, VA. His wife, who proofread this blog entry before Fletcher sent it, believes he may have had a premonition that it was his last writing.

The Rev. Canon J. Fletcher Lowe

In addition to his many Episcopal Church honors and recognitions, Fletcher, who was named a a correspondent of the year in 2019 by the Richmond Post-Dispatch (RTD), was a founding member of the Virginia Interfaith Center and was executive director from 1998 to 2004. He also was a member of the RTD Opinions’ Community Advisory Board. Here you’ll find one of his columns.

by Fletcher Lowe

“The real play goes on after you leave the theater.”   Words of wisdom from a Broadway actor whose name I have unfortunately lost. 

But I do remember former US Senate Chaplain Richard Halverson, who put those words specifically in a Christian context: “Whether you are a pilot, plumber, pastor, physician, or working to meet innumerable legitimate human needs at an office, construction site, or home, you are working for God!” 

The question is, how often do Christians feel that at their work bench, they are working for God?  According to a recent Center for Faith at Work survey, only 30% of Christians “can clearly see the work they are doing is serving God….”  In my own personal survey – having visited over 400 Christians in their places of work – about 80% said our conversation of connecting faith with work was the first time that subject had ever been raised.  What an indictment on the Church, that the place where Christians who work spend most of their God- given time and talent is not a focus of interest for the Church?  Is this not at the core of what our faith is about?  “The real play does go on after you leave the theater.”  A congregation, rightly perceived, serves as a launching pad, a filling station, a base camp where people go for support before going to “the real play.”

That is why, for some of us, the Dismissal at the end of worship is the most important part of the Sunday Liturgy. What are the hymns and readings and prayers and sermons all about but helping “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” (Ephesians 4:12) Preparing for the launch, getting the fuel for the journey, being supplied for the hike. “And now Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do….”  “Let us now go forth into our worlds of work and community and home, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.” (Book of Common Prayer, p.366, adapted)

‘Whose church? God’s church!’

by Demi Prentiss

For the church in the 21st century, this definition of “laicize” is missing the mark, What’s needed is a word that speaks of laity assuming their rightful place in the church, as the “first order“ – both historically and in terms of numbers. I’m searching for a term to describe the laos – the whole people of God – as a collaborative partnership between people who exercise their ministries in the world and people who focus their ministries within the institution that is the church. Because what I see as the future for Christianity world-wide is the laicization of the church – the establishment of “right order” to our orders of ministry: laity, bishops, priests, and deacons.

I’m not talking about kicking clergy out of the church, or making the church “secular” (whatever that might mean). Both laity and clergy are called to share in the leadership and governance of the church; the three orders of ordained leadership are valuable, alongside the lay order. Deacons, priests, and bishops function as icons of the leadership a Beloved Community requires. They are windows through which we can see more clearly and deeply the roles that all Christians are called to play, nearly every day. All people, in their life and work, are called to

  • serve the community and bridge between the church and the world, as deacons do;
  • convene, bless, feed, teach, and offer forgiveness, as priests do; and
  • oversee, exercise authority, and hold the system accountable, as bishops do.

The three orders of clergy are important to the functioning of the church, but they are not the church, in and of themselves. As a matter of fact, in the early 21st century, among Christian denominations the ordained account for 0.8 percent of the people who are the church. If the laity abdicate their roles and leave the ordained to be the only recognized church leaders, we’ll work them to death.

I’m also not talking about turning all the church buildings into chic homes and trendy restaurants. The rise of the “nones” (who name their religious affiliation as “none”) and the uncertainties of post-pandemic culture have led many to speculate that shrinking Sunday attendance numbers are the death knell of the church. In many small towns, closed churches seem to outnumber functioning faith communities.  “Old Church Bakery” is trending as a business name.

In the same way that the chant “Whose streets? Our streets!” focused the Black Lives Matter movement, perhaps a similar chant might galvanize faith communities: “Whose church? God’s church!” May we all be people of God.

What I am calling for is celebrating the fact that the church is not a building but the Body of Christ. And we might consider recognizing that the model for our current adaptive challenge is not the first century – the beginnings of the church. More germane, as my friend Mark Dunwoody maintains, is the Dark Ages, the second half of the first millennium (about 500-1000 CE). Much like the early third millennium (2000 CE-present), that time was roiled with political unrest, uncontrolled plague, warring princes, and political instability.  During that time, the church stepped into the power void left by the collapse of the Roman Empire. The best among Christian leaders became the voice of the people, standing for the common good and in opposition to the excesses of royalty.

What might happen if, in this post-pandemic world, the laity steps into leadership of a vast number of smaller and more focused faith communities? What if we shifted away from today’s model serving 154 million believers in 380,000 churches, in the midst of a population of 328 million? What might we accomplish by seeking to become a church of committed groups of under 100 people? What if, more essential than declaring our religious affiliation, we sought to live the Way of Jesus and to welcome our neighbors into the work of creating Beloved Community? How might our church institutions seek to encourage the health of each faith community, regardless of size?

Whose church? God’s church! May we all be people of God.

What counts as holy?

by Fletcher Lowe

“Engines and steel, loud pounding hammers, sing to the Lord a new song;

limestone and beams, loud building workers, sing to the Lord a new song.

He has done marvelous things; I too will praise him with a new song!”

So goes verse 4 of a great new (1968) hymn Earth and all stars, sung to an equally new and lively tune!

Included in this hymn are those for which we are singing a new song: hail and rain, loud blowing snowstorms; trumpet and pipes, loud clashing cymbals; classrooms and labs, loud boiling test tubes; daughter and son, loud praying members, sing to the Lord a new song!

How incarnate in daily life can we get!! Behind each element listed are people making things happen.  And behind each of those people, known or unknown, is the Incarnate Lord to whom new songs are being sung!!

What a view of life – no thing is out of bounds for us to sing praises to the Lord.

But that is key to who we are as followers of the Incarnate One: that God in Christ became a common and ordinary human being, grew up in a common and ordinary village with common and ordinary parent, met and preached to and healed and worked with common and ordinary folks. He blessed common and ordinary bread and wine: the holy communion, the holy common-union; the union of the hoy and the common in such common and ordinary things like bread and wine. Who are we to deny the sacredness of any things, any human being?

No day (e.g., Sunday) is more holy; no building (e.g., a church) is more holy; no person (e.g., clergy) is more holy; no food (e.g., Eucharist) is more holy. The Episcopal Church’s definition of a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Church-wise we may limit sacraments to Baptism and the Eucharist and maybe five others; but outside the church every thing can be a sacrament, an outward and visible sign that can bring us inward and spiritual grace – including rain and hail and loud blowing snowstorms.  For our God is the Incarnate One, “the Word [who] became flesh and pitched his tent among us” (John 1:18).  And that sense of en-fleshment opens up everything to be godly. “He has done marvelous things; I too will praise him with a new song!”

limestone and beams, loud building workers, sing to the Lord a new song.

He has done marvelous things; I too will praise him with a new song!”

So goes verse 4 of a great new (1968) hymn Earth and all stars, sung to an equally new and lively tune!

Included in this hymn are those for which we are singing a new song: hail and rain, loud blowing snowstorms; trumpet and pipes, loud clashing cymbals; classrooms and labs, loud boiling test tubes; daughter and son, loud praying members, sing to the Lord a new song!

How incarnate in daily life can we get!! Behind each element listed are people making things happen.  And behind each of those people, known or unknown, is the Incarnate Lord to whom new songs are being sung!!

What a view of life – no thing is out of bounds for us to sing praises to the Lord.

But that is key to who we are as followers of the Incarnate One: that God in Christ became a common and ordinary human being, grew up in a common and ordinary village with common and ordinary parent, met and preached to and healed and worked with common and ordinary folks. He blessed common and ordinary bread and wine: the holy communion, the holy common-union; the union of the hoy and the common in such common and ordinary things like bread and wine. Who are we to deny the sacredness of any things, any human being?

No day (e.g., Sunday) is more holy; no building (e.g., a church) is more holy; no person (e.g., clergy) is more holy; no food (e.g., Eucharist) is more holy. The Episcopal Church’s definition of a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Church-wise we may limit sacraments to Baptism and the Eucharist and maybe five others; but outside the church every thing can be a sacrament, an outward and visible sign that can bring us inward and spiritual grace – including rain and hail and loud blowing snowstorms.  For our God is the Incarnate One, “the Word [who] became flesh and pitched his tent among us” (John 1:18).  And that sense of en-fleshment opens up everything to be godly. “He has done marvelous things; I too will praise him with a new song!”

Bending imagination toward hope

Wipf & Stock, publishers

by Demi Prentiss

Dustin B. Benac and Erin Weber-Johnson are the editors who compiled the recently published Crisis and Care: Meditations on Faith and Philanthropy. The book examines the outpouring of care and funding that seemed to be unleashed by the crisis of the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic. In an Insights column for the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, the editors wrote, “We could not have imagined a year like 2020 and yet, as an abundance of care rose to meet the gravity of crisis, we encountered people acting in new and life-giving ways. Their combined words and witness bend our imaginations toward hope.”

Benac and Weber-Johnson point to “shared philanthropic imagination” as igniting the generosity that helped support institutions, non-profits, and individuals through the adaptive challenges that threatened to overwhelm them. From the learnings gleaned through the pandemic, they offer four touchstones to guide all of us forward:

    1. Everything is an experiment.
    2. Generosity and justice shape a shared future grounded in a faithful, fragile belonging.
    3. Making space for tension is a significant act of generosity.
    4. Philanthropic imagination emerges on the edge of certainty.

It strikes me that living each day in the loving, life-giving, liberating pattern of Jesus is an incarnation of philanthropy – literally, the love of people.  Our usual understanding of philanthropy involves generous donations of money to support worthwhile causes.  I believe that even those of us who can’t claim the identity of philanthropist can use these statements to guide us toward generosity as an every-day lifestyle.

Taking Benac and Weber-Johnson’s touchstones as our guideposts for living, wouldn’t we all be better “people lovers” – just what Jesus called us to be?  Can we use these four statements to “bend our imagination toward hope”?

‘That’s who I am! That’s what I do!’

ILO / Apex Image

by Pam Tinsley

“That’s who I am! That’s what I do!” responded the gas station attendant to our heartfelt “Thank you!” for pumping our gas. Our interaction with him was a cheerful interlude during an otherwise long day of travel. Our previous stops at rest areas had felt a little odd since people still seemed cautious about interacting closely because of the pandemic. Then, in a small eastern Oregon town several miles from the freeway on a 101-degree afternoon, this cheerful guy brightened our day – simply by showing us the joy he took in his job.

That cheerful “That’s who I am, and that’s what I do” stays with me. What if all of us who are baptized repeated these words regularly to remind us of our baptism and baptismal ministry? When we remember to place Christ at the heart of our daily activities, those seemingly routine activities can take on new meaning. They can even become transformational. Maybe if our own attitudes might be transformed so that we feel the same joy as the gas attendant, and we then become leaven for the world around us.

Work blessings

by Fletcher Lowe

Facebook – IPRO – Intentional Professional – 11/19/19

I meet once a month with a small group of friends to discuss their experiences as Christians in their places of work. The discussion-starter is usually an article related to some aspect of the workplace.  Recently we talked about an article entitled “5 Ways to Bless Others with Your Words at Work,” published by the Theology of Work.  The underlying scripture was Numbers 6:24-26: The Lord bless you and keep you.  The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you.  The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.  I added James 3:10: From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.

As we discussed each one of the five ways of blessing, we saw how it related not only to the workplace but to all other aspects of daily life.  For your own reflection let me share them:

  1. Express Welcome.  We felt that being approachable was at the heart of welcome.
  2. Eliminate Blame Shifting. It does involve holding people accountable, but focusing on the fault, not the person; the “sin, not the sinner.”  Also acknowledging that risk-taking is an asset that leads to some failures.  And that failures often lead to growth, more than successes.
  3. Reconciling Broken Relationship. This we really struggled with, for often people bring outside baggage into the workplace that triggers brokenness. And even within an organization/community/family it can be difficult to resolve, but try we must.
  4. Be Careful Not to Judge.  We found this to be connected with Blaming, looking to the fault, not the person.
  5. Show Appreciation: How important is this!!  Expressing gratitude – especially to those whose work is less glamorous or visible – is so very valuable and affirming.

The article concludes with these words:

Empowered by Christ

When we use our words to bless others, we do so knowing that we’ve been blessed in the same ways through our relationship with Jesus. Jesus welcomes us just as we are; makes us blameless – and therefore unafraid and unashamed – before himself and God; reconciles us to himself; and even describes us as “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Because we enjoy his kindness and friendship, we are empowered to extend blessing to those around us.

What if work *WAS* worship?

by Demi Prentiss

The musical Rent helps us know the math: “Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes…. How do you measure … a year?”

Live.Love.Life – WordPress.com

How do you spend your year’s minutes?

  • Well, there’s work. Fifty weeks x 40 hours a week = 2,000 hours = 120,000 minutes.
  • Not to mention sleep. Fifty weeks x 7 days x 7.5 hours = 157,500
  • Just those two commitments eat up 277,500 minutes – more than half our year – leaving slightly more than 248,000 minutes – a bit over 4,100 hours.
  • And of course, there’s eating, and commuting, and personal time. . . .

Not too long ago, most faithful worship attenders spent an hour a week in worship – 3,000 minutes annually, leaving out two weeks for vacation. Not much time, in the scheme of things. And that’s if you’re attending worship every blessed week.

What if those 3,000 minutes – barely more than one half of one percent of our yearly minutes – expanded to fill much of our waking life? What if all of life was worship? What if worship became, for us, like breathing – something we do all the time, that becomes the very basis of our lives?

Philosopher and theologian James K.A. Smith has said, “If all of life is going to be worship, then the sanctuary [or the nave] is the place we learn how.”  

Imagine what life might be if, when we attended worship, the people at the front of the room were not called “worship leaders,” and instead were “worship starters,” as Fuller Theological Seminary professor Matthew Kaemingk calls them.  

Kaemingk and scholar Cory B. Willson became “convinced that theologies of work need to be practiced, embedded, and embodied in communities of worship.…The fabric of faith and work needs to be slowly and intentionally woven back together over a lifetime of prayer and worship.”

Their book Work and Worship – Reconnecting Our Labor and Liturgy was the result.  In an interview about their book Willson says, “We hope our book will help pastors and worship leaders see themselves as servants to the priesthood of all believers. Their primary role in worship is to equip and empower believers to live out their priesthood at the front edge of God’s mission in the world: the workplace.” 

What if all the minutes of our lives – not just the ones spent inside the church walls – became an expression of our love for God and all that God has made?