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Always we begin again

by Brandon Beck

In January, many of us celebrate the promises of our lives together in our church through annual parish meetings and parochial reports.

Some of us celebrate a Recovery Sunday with liturgical, musical, and educational focus on the sacramental and covenantal relationship of recovery people and programs among us.

Some of us celebrate Lunar New Year – this is the Year of the Rabbit, in case you were wondering – respecting the dignity of the diversity of ways of being people in this world.

Wikimedia – Triquetra

Perhaps we lifted up the saintly Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on his birthday and will again on the day, in April, when he was taken from his earthly mission by gun violence.

Perhaps we held memorial vigils in remembrance of the genocidal violence of the Holocaust.

These are all parts of life in the church in January.

Supposedly, St. Benedict said, “Always we begin again.” This 6th century Italian hermit-turned-father of monasticism drew people into themselves, onto a path he followed, and along The Way with his divinely inspired meditations and writings, contemplations, and connections.

Whether or not he actually said, “Always we begin again,” is neither here nor there; for, we do always begin again.

What better way to live into the promises of our baptismal covenant than to weave these two sacred triangles together – God, ourselves and others with past, present, and future?

What symbols in the church, in nature, in your life remind you of this idea?

I see the triquetra and think of these 6 words which I say with gusto every time I witness a baptism because they remind me that always we begin again, together, to expand Love for creation: believe, continue, persevere, proclaim, seek, strive. These words that begin the versicles of our covenantal pledge weave together God, ourselves and others with past, present and future in a spinning, spiral, triquetra that always begins again and helps us celebrate just as we do every January, every year and shall every day.

Amen.

Just Plain Ministry!

Just Plain Folk: Dave, Al, David, and Nadine

by Pam Tinsley

Dave, David, and Al met eight years ago on a music team for an Episcopal Cursillo/Come and See retreat weekend. David was a vocalist and played rhythm guitar; Dave sang and played guitar, banjo, and mandolin; and Al played double bass. In addition to contemporary church music, they also shared a love of folk music and immediately began getting together to play – even though they worship at different Episcopal churches, and 35 miles separate two of them. Nadine, a fiddler and vocalist, joined them for a Come and See Prayer and Share gathering, and Just Plain Folk was born. The foursome practiced weekly, periodically played in coffee shops and farmer’s markets, and had just begun to play at some retirement communities, when the pandemic struck. Ever resourceful and committed to their passion, Just Plain Folk found ways to practice while vaxed, masked, and distanced.

Fast forward to today when the band plays regularly at retirement communities and in their memory care units. Dave describes their gigs as a ministry, a vocation – that is, the place where, in the words of Frederick Buechner, his deepest gladness meets the world’s needs. Whenever Dave picks up his mandolin, he prays that he might become a bearer of Christ’s light to brighten their hearts, if only for an hour. The result? Residents sing and dance along to tunes they know from their youth, and fellowship is nurtured, as band and audience share amusing stories from their lives.

Then, the band moves into the memory care unit. There Dave observes a powerful transformation. As they begin to play, it’s clear that their music reaches deep into the residents’ souls, awakening something beyond memory. Seeing the joy in their faces, in turn, brings great joy to the band members themselves, as a powerful reminder of Christ’s eternal truth: In giving we receive.

When the members of Just Plain Folk first started, they were mostly looking to play music together and to enjoy some Christian fellowship. Little did they realize that God had other plans for them, and Just Plain Folk has become Just Plain Ministry!

Dueling lessons – Wise men or baptism?

by Demi Prentiss

In many Episcopal churches this past Sunday, preachers faced a daunting choice: “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” or “This is my … Beloved.” Matthew’s story of the visitation of the Magi (Mt 2:1-12) or his brief account of Jesus’ baptism by John (Mt 3:13-17).

For many of us, it’s hard to connect the visitation of the wise men from the East with Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his ministry. Just last week, I ran across a question that has had me pondering most of the week: “What happened with Mary and Joseph as they raised the child Jesus, that they raised a devout Jewish boy who looked beyond the Chosen People to include Gentiles and outcasts as he proclaimed God’s good news?” Of course, there was the trip to Egypt (Mt 2:13-15). There was living in Nazareth near Sepphoris, a cultural crossroads of the Middle East.  There was Mary’s song about a lowly handmaiden, called blessed by a God who exalts the humble and meek (Lk 1:4-55). There was Joseph’s refusal to allow Mary to become an outcast (Mt 1:19).

The question’s author (whose name I’m still trying to rediscover) offers a striking answer: “the wise men.” Pondered nearly all her life by Mary, the foreigners who brought magnificent, prophetic gifts heralded the reign of God displacing the reign of Caesar. They foreshadowed a new way of ordering the world. 

That same holy reversal is at work in the baptism of Jesus. Blog author Herb Montgomery, writing for Patheos last week, offers a challenging way of seeing Jesus’ baptism – not as cleansing him from sin but as ending “his participation in the structures and values of society. It concludes his involvement in the moral order into which he was born.” [1]

From that position, Montgomery asks,

So what difference does it make for us as Jesus’ followers, as we start this new year, to interpret Jesus’ baptism not as repentance for personal sins but rather as rejection of the injustices of the current system? Jesus’ baptism was a cleansing with water, a preparing the way for something better to take root and spread.

What new ways of ordering our world are our baptisms preparing us to engage?

How does Jesus’ baptism – and the renewal of baptismal vows that are traditionally part of the observances of that day in many Episcopal churches – challenge us to denounce and turn away from the injustices we encounter in our world? How might we embody our baptismal calling in our daily lives?


[1] H. Waetjen, The Construction of the Way into a Reordering of Power: An Inquiry in the Generic Conception of the Gospel According to Mark, quoted with permission by Ched Myers in Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Marks Gospel, p. 129. From “Jesus’ Baptism as Social Protest, Part 3” by Herb Montgomery.

10 lepers leaping?

By Xavier Romero-Frias – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23287278

by Brandon Beck

At a recent holiday gathering, my extended family and I discussed the traditional carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Not everyone at the table observes the Twelve Days, so those of us who do shared our planned activities based on our traditions for each of the days and talked about the significance of the carol lyrics in our experiences.

One person shared that her favorite of the days is Boxing Day, especially now that she has young children. She said, “Giving to others is always important to me, but this one day, after the kids have opened presents from Santa, we go as a family out in the community and learn about and engage in some service outside of church.” She said all the kids – from the 4-year-old through the 12-year-old – have already developed a positive anticipation for Boxing Day and have started finding projects on their own. This year they were going to a local community center that had set up an emergency cold weather shelter to serve food and hand out blankets.

A family friend asked each of us which verse from the traditional carol was our favorite. I shared a story about how I had thought that the tenth day verse was “ten lepers leaping” and was about Jesus’s miracles and healings. I learned to laugh at myself just this year when someone at church pointed out that I had changed the lyric!!

That led us to pull out our phones and Google everything we never knew about this carol. I was pleasantly surprised to learn of symbolic connections in the lyrics to such things as the four Gospels, the five books of the Pentateuch, the 10 Commandments. What do you think the others might be? (Click here to check your thoughts!)

After Christmastide, we might struggle to remember that stillness we’ve just left in Advent – that anticipation we felt and relished while we waited with Mary and Joseph.

Now, we will receive people from around the world in the Scholars from the East on Epiphany. We will witness John baptize Jesus saying:

“This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”

32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.  33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’”

The seasons of Lent and Easter are not that far away – Jesus the newborn will be 33 before we know it.

We must make every effort to remember to love God, love our neighbor, and love ourselves – and to slow down, open our eyes in wonder, and to see Christ in each other – no matter what busy-ness is around us.

The 19th century Swiss philosopher Henri-Frederic Amiel offers a fabulous benediction to draw us deeper to that truth:

Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind! (December 16, 1868. As translated in Amiel’s Journal: The Journal Intime of Henri-Frédéric Amiel (1885), by Mrs. Humphry Ward. Macmillan.)

Amen.

Advent letter from The Consultation

The Consultation – a consortium of progressive organizations in the Episcopal Church – has offered to the larger church some thoughts about General Convention, both reflecting on last summer’s challenging work and looking forward to the 81st General Convention scheduled for June, 2024.

Partners for Baptismal Living – the group that brings you this blog – participates in The Consultation, and invites you to read what we, along with our partner organizations, are thinking about the work ahead of us.

Find The Consultation’s Advent letter here.

For Christians throughout the earth, may your journey through Advent bring you to a joyous celebration of Christmastide! And for all people, may you know peace and joy as we enter 2023.

Fling wide the door

by Demi Prentiss

“Fling wide the door, unbar the gate!” The words of this Lutheran hymn (ELW 259) remind us that the essential work of Advent is opening – our gates, our doors, our hearts, our wallets, even our minds! God is doing a new thing, and perceiving it depends on our willingness to see or learn or do something new.

For some of us, flinging wide the door isn’t easy.  In the spirit of the homeowner who feels obliged to tidy up the house before the house cleaners come, we would just as soon keep the door closed until everything is “just right” – for guests, of course. And, if we’re willing to admit it, for Jesus as well. We’ll wait until we have the dust bunnies and the clutter under control before we feel comfortable letting God in to see where we live – including our hearts. It’s hard to admit that putting up a false front is a useless exercise when we’re talking about God: The One who’s nearer than breathing already knows how messy our lives are, behind our brave façade.

God already knows that inviting God – as vulnerable infant or as powerful spirit – into our lives means doing something that forces us to loosen control – stepping out of our comfort zone.  The Advent remembrance of that vulnerable child born in Bethlehem can offer us a glimpse of the power of vulnerability. God’s experience as a human being helps us remember that, as Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “To be alive is to be vulnerable…. When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability” (Walking on Water, 1980).

Brené Brown, self-described as a “storyteller/researcher,” has dedicated much of her life to understanding vulnerability. She is careful to distinguish vulnerability from compliance or weakness and to point out that vulnerability is a demonstration of courage. In her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, she writes, ““Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope empathy, accountability, and authenticity.” Because vulnerability is inescapable, she urges us to practice it intentionally. “If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

My prayer for all of us choosing to walk this reflective journey of Advent is that we may claim vulnerability – incarnate in the Son of Man – as a source of courage to dare greatly and to invite transformation.  As Brown urges, may we dare to “show up and be seen. To ask for what you need. To talk about how you’re feeling. To have the hard conversations.”  May God open us to receive the gifts of the Incarnation.

“Fling wide the door, unbar the gate!” And the Lord God Incarnate will come in.

Seeking and serving

Angel Tree at MCAS Cherry Point, NC – Photo by Pfc. Nicholas P. Baird

by Brandon Beck

“To seek and serve all persons” is on my mind this time of year, as it is every year during Advent.

Advent is my favorite liturgical season – with the deep blue hues of the vestments and altar hangings, the lessons and carols of the season, the waiting and anticipation, the hot chocolate and crafts.

I value sharing in the preparation for and service of a community Friendsgiving event for families who receive diapers and parenting support at our local parish church. Turning to hanging the greens with special care for our Angel Tree participation, I am drawn more deeply into the sense of waiting and watching this season – but in an active way – in a seeking and serving way.

How can I fulfill my promise of baptismal living while waiting in anticipation, I wonder?

Perhaps, as in the Advent II lectionary reading from Isaiah, I will actively wait in the Spirit of the Lord:

“He shall not judge by what his eyes see,

or decide by what his ears hear;

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”

May we recognize and respond to every opportunity to meet those, like ourselves, who need a friend today and every day, for in them is Christ.

Editor’s note: PBL welcomes Brandon Beck as the newest writer to join our blog schedule. See our “Who we are” page to learn more.

Grateful Turkey

by Pam Tinsley

Each year, in early November, our daughter-in-law helps our granddaughter, Sienna, make a “Grateful Turkey” out of construction paper. This year Sienna was old enough to cut Turkey’s feathers out, make its eyes, and put socks on its feet. Sienna tells Katie what she’s grateful for, and Katie writes each item on a feather. With the addition of each feather, Sienna’s “Grateful Turkey” grows more and more grateful until it has a full complement of colorful feathers.

So, just what is 3½-year-old Sienna grateful for? “Spending time with my family; Daddy playing with me before he goes to work; Omi and G’Dad babysitting me even when I’m sick; Emma showing me how to use my inhaler; Momma and our coffee/hot cocoa dates.”

Eleven of Grateful Turkey’s twelve feathers involve other people. The lone feather that doesn’t expressly refer to others reads, “the goody bag I got on Halloween.” Yet, in some ways even that feather is expressing gratitude for others. You see, this Halloween Sienna was quite ill and spent the evening at urgent care instead of trick or treating. The thoughtfulness of others helped her have a bit of Halloween after all!

Sienna’s Grateful Turkey is more than a pretty Thanksgiving decoration. It’s a symbol of the quality time that she spends with her mom. It’s a symbol of how she thoughtfully considers and thanks God for blessings. It’s a sign of her openness to God’s love and how God is already transforming this little one.

We are all called to live lives of love, care, generosity, and gratitude. We are called to love what God loves: our neighbor, ourselves, and all of creation. In short, we are called to be God’s Grateful People, sharing our gratitude with a flourish.

Receiving and being

Pexels.com – Hassan Ouajbir

by Demi Prentiss

For those of us who choose to be partners in baptismal living, we aim to live our lives following Jesus, walking the road he described as The Way. One frame for that style of living is to understand the life we live as abiding in sacrament. I’m not talking about The Sacrament: the Body and Blood of Christ.  Instead, I mean sacrament as “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.”

When I examine my life through that lens, I notice that I often move between receiving sacrament and being sacrament.  In life, I’m frequently receiving those signs of grace, those signs of God at work:  a smile, a life-giving word, a gift of time, a token of encouragement, a flood of forgiveness.   What I notice less often – and usually only in after-the-fact reflection – are the times God’s grace allows me to BE sacrament: being the cup of water for a thirsty soul, laying down time or money as a life-giving sacrifice, allowing God to transform my poor offering to anoint another with healing and support. Most of those occasions are less the fruit of my own work, and more of God making the most of my offerings. And I notice that often, the catalyst for moving me from receiving to being is heartfelt gratitude. That seed produces the fruit of generosity.

Our faith communities move along that same continuum between receiving and being. We who gather with our siblings in Christ often come together to receive: washing, feeding, anointing, blessing, and fellowship.  Gratitude and the power of God enable us to become water, food, healing, and forgiveness – blossoming into God’s justice, peace, love, and resurrection in a hurting world. It takes faith to open our eyes to perceive God at work, in and through us, and our communities. Commissioned by our baptism to be co-creators with God, we can learn to recognize that we are receivers of God’s grace, and that we can be bearers of that grace to those around us. That work – observing God at work in the world and joining as God’s partner – is the essence of baptismal living.

Church is just the beginning!

by Pam Tinsley

Fr. Ed Sterling and friend.
Photo courtesy of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Tacoma, WA

“Go in peace, remember the poor, visit the sick, love and forgive one another, and praise the Lord always, Alleluia! Alleluia!” says 101-year-old retired priest Fr. Ed Sterling energetically as he sends the congregation forth at the end of worship. We have been nourished by the Word of God and Eucharistic meal; we have praised God and prayed for the needs of our world, our community, and our church; we have been forgiven; and we may even have renewed our baptismal promises. In fact, church is just beginning!

As our dear departed friend, the Rev. Fletcher Lowe, used to say to us, our time in church with fellow parishioners is like being at a basecamp. Just as a basecamp is integral to supporting and equipping hikers who are headed to the mountaintop, the church equips us for our baptismal pilgrimage in daily life. The church walls cannot be our destination. We are sent forth every Sunday, just as Jesus sent his first-century disciples. We are sent out through our church doors to be the church by serving God in our daily lives. And we serve God in our daily lives by proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ by word and action and by being Christ’s body in the world – by living in peace, remembering the poor, visiting the sick, loving and forgiving one another, and praising the Lord always.

Alleluia! Alleluia!