Where’s the church?

by Fletcher Lowe

You may have heard the story of a recent conversation between the Devil and God. Gleefully the devil says, “Well, God, looks like I have beat you this time.  My virus has shut down all your churches just as I planned.”  God replies, “You are correct that the church buildings are closed down. But the church is not, for the church are the people and they are very much alive, some doing extraordinary things to protect my people.”

That reminds me of a conversation I had with a person driving into the town where I began my ordained life. When he saw my clerical collar, he rolled down his car window and asked where the Episcopal church was.  I hesitated a moment and then said, “Well, the church is the teller in that bank over there, and down the road  the owner of the radio station and back there is the mayor in city hall and over there is the salesman in the hardware story.  That’s where the church is. But if you want to know where the building is it’s two blocks over on the left.”  I’m sure I gave him more information than he wanted, but it does follow God’s rebuke of the devil.  The drawing says it all!!

Jesus in Matthew 10 put it this way:

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

To paraphrase: “GO, partner with me in my mission, not to some foreign place but right here in your community.”

That call comes to us, again, to “GO, Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,” as the Episcopal Church’s Baptismal Covenant states.

A new favorite hymn of mine says it well:

Go my children with my blessing, never alone.

Waking, sleeping, I am with you; you are my own.

In my love’s baptismal river, I have made you mine forever….

Go my children, fed and nourished, closer to me,

Grow in love and love by serving, joyful and free….

Amen.

Pandemics and baptismal living

Photo by Katie Sherrod

by Edward L. Lee, Jr.

COVID-19 is, of course, THE pandemic of our time, and quite probably for a longer period than we would like to contemplate. Already it has altered our patterns of living, some of which could be permanent. We don’t know yet, and it’s that rub of uncertainty which clouds our thinking and unsettles our well-being.

But in the wake of COVID-19 I believe there are three other pandemics that, while disturbing us, yet posit the possibility of initiating long-overdue changes in American life and living. I believe the church should look and listen carefully and welcome them for their possible outcomes that coincide with God’s purposes, Jesus’s mission, and our baptismal ministries “on earth as it is in heaven.”

These other pandemics are:

      • our battered economy;
      • the reckoning of systemic racism engendered by white supremacy, privilege, and power; and
      • the rescuing of our strained democracy from the political clutches of a presidential administration gone amorally amok.

Some folk who practice their faith in the variety of American denominational churches will accuse this kind of thinking as being just too political, too secular, and not religious, nothing sacred, at all. To which I quote Mohandas Gandhi: “Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”  I agree, because the opposite of secular is the eternal; the opposite of sacred is the profane.  Our pandemics are giving us the unique opportunity to deal with some of our chronic medical, economic, cultural, and political profanities.

This portion of a sermon that appeared in an April op-ed piece in The New York Times captured what this opportunity could be:

This is a powerful moment in human history in which we can examine, individually and collectively, the unnecessary decadence and cruelty of our contemporary society that we have accepted without sufficient scrutiny. …

 

Having tasted a simpler life (in the pandemic shutdown), perhaps we will shift our values and patterns. Having seen the importance of community, maybe we will invest more in the well-being of the collective and not just the individual. Having seen the suffering of others anew, we may find it impossible to ignore it in the future.

 

And having seen the ease with which the forces St. Paul called the ‘powers and principalities’ can mobilize to defend entrenched interests, maybe – just maybe – we as a people will feel empowered to demand the same urgency of action on our planet’s climate, domestic and global poverty, the health and education of all people, and the myriad pressing problems for which future generations will judge us harshly for tolerating.

Steven Paulikas, rector

All Saints’ Church. Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY

Might this be an agenda for the Church and all its baptized ministers? I think so. I hope so. May it be so.

Editor’s note: June 23, 2020, the date this blog was posted is the 85th anniversary of Edward’s baptism – June 23, 1935, one week shy of his first birthday. Edward writes, “My parents told me it followed the 11 o’clock Morning Prayer service (’28 BCP of course) in our home parish, officiated by a much beloved rector (and deservedly so). So began my baptismal journey in TEC. It’s been a wonderful and interesting ride.”

Trinitarian ministry in daily life

The Most Holy Trinity, St. George Church, Guke near Pljevlja, Montenegro

by Demi Prentiss

Trinity Sunday – observed across many Christian denominations last Sunday – usually focuses on the ineffable trinitarian identity of the God we worship. “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty” is often the theme song of the day’s observances.  It’s unusual to hear any reference in Trinity Sunday liturgies to the oh-so-everyday-ness of living out our Christian faith each day, in the daily activities we pursue.

So I was delighted to read this “God Pause,” a lectionary-based devotional series from Luther Seminary.  “Every baptized person is incorporated into the realm of God’s powerful gifts” – every baptized person not only bears the imprint of the Lord God, they are also empowered to exercise the gifts of God for the people of God.

Devotion

Three small waterfalls on one’s head: one for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Spirit. That also means: one for the Creator, one for the Redeemer, one for the Sustainer. This important Trinitarian expression reminds us that in baptism, every baptized person is incorporated into the realm of God’s powerful gifts—the power to create, the power to redeem us from our sins, the power to sustain us in all things we face in this world. The promise is all there in the Word combined with water. First John declares, “God is love.” In the Trinitarian confession we might expand this to say that God our Creator is Love; Jesus is Love; the Spirit is Love.

 

Prayer

Triune God, you come to us in many forms, but you are always Love, surrounding, entering, and sustaining us. Lead us to know that you are with us in our highest celebrations, in our deepest times of despair, and in the ordinary times of growth. In your love we pray. Amen.

Sandee D. Kosmo ’89, M.Div.

Pastor, Grace Lutheran Communities, Eau Claire, Wisconsin

An unexpected blessing

Enjoying our porch    –    Photo by Dave Tinsley

by Pam Tinsley

Our seven-month remodeling project was finished just before our statewide stay-at-home order went into effect. The project was driven in part by safety concerns – the removal of our earthquake-vulnerable chimney – and in part by environmental concerns – the replacement of a wood-burning fireplace with a propane fireplace. To provide more light in our living room, we enlarged two windows. And for a personal touch, we added a front porch. We envisioned peacefully relaxing on our porch as we took in the fresh air during warmer – and even damp – weather with a cup of tea, a good book, and our basset hound lounging at our feet.

However, we’ve discovered an unexpected “front-porch blessing” during this time of stay-at-home orders. The parking strip and parts of our front yard have become a gathering point for neighborhood children and their appropriately-social-distancing parents! We hear squeals of joy as children ride their bikes or scooters in the closed-off street, blow gigantic bubbles, jump rope, or make chalk drawings up and down the sidewalk. They entertain our puppy, just as she entertains them! Parents who’ve lost their jobs and older siblings keep an eye on the younger kids. And in the late afternoon – especially when the sun is out – the parents who have been working from home meet on our front lawn to socialize.

A loss of personal connection has been one of the deep sorrows of this tragic pandemic, because – as human beings – we’re wired for relationship. It’s such a joy to hear the children play and to see our neighbors gather and forge stronger bonds with one another – while maintaining a safe distance. Thanks to our new front porch addition, the front yard now teems with life in the midst of this pandemic and offers an unexpected blessing to our lives and to those of our neighbors!

The best Easter ever

by Fletcher Lowe

This Easter was one of the best – if not THE best – I have ever experienced.  Why? Not only was the tomb empty, but so were the stores and the streets as well as the church buildings. We had none of the usual distractions: e.g.  bunnies, egg hunts, parades, Easter finery.  The real Easter message of Resurrection was there!

So where are we? Like those early apostles “locked in.” Not as they were, for fear of the authorities, but because of fear of the virus.

And where are we? Perhaps out walking, like those two men on the road to Emmaus. And like them, a bit confused and uncertain and unsettled, not because we didn’t recognize the Risen Lord, but because so much about the virus is unknown.

And where are some of the Apostles later, but back in Galilee at work. Out fishing, a bit frustrated for lack of productivity. And where may some of us be? Perhaps working or studying, but at home, and a bit frustrated for the lack of daily personal contact.

So in these three ways we meet those early disciples in their post-Resurrection fear, confusion, and frustration.  Into those situations, and ours, Jesus appears, and his presence makes a significant difference. As he met them where they were, so he meets us where we are today amidst all the unsettling reality of Covid 19. And isn’t that the central Easter message – that Christ is risen and meets us wherever we are, bringing us hope and love and peace.

Christ is Risen, the Lord is Risen indeed!! Alleluia!!

A pandemic is a terrible thing to waste

by Pam Tinsley

In a recent post, fellow blogger Demi Prentiss shared the challenges that many of us are experiencing as we adhere to stay-at-home orders, which are intended to keep others safe by protecting them from the spread of coronavirus. Staying at home to serve others feels so counter-intuitive when Christ’s mission field is outside the walls of our churches – and outside the walls of our homes.

Kristen Mulhern (far right), a St. Anthony Hospital ER nurse, enjoyed the Tacoma first responders parade. (a still from a video produced by Drew Perine – https://www.thenewstribune.com/news/coronavirus/article241937641.html)

Yet, it is absolutely possible to be the hands and feet of Christ in the midst of a pandemic, as my fellow parishioner, John Cain, wrote in an April 9 letter to the Tacoma News Tribune. He describes that “a tavern gifted hamburgers and cheeseburger sandwiches to every tenant in a nearby apartment complex. A friend who likes to grill gives away food to children and families who are in need. Phone calls to friends are far more rewarding than Facebook posts…. It is the quiet acts of generosity that will sustain us in the long run.”

Over the past month or so, I’ve also been inspired by many responses to Jesus’ love in action, when I see people reach out to those will become increasingly isolated as stay-at-home orders remain in place at least through May 4. Neighborhood groups, such as Nextdoor, seek to connect people and share resources for emergency public alerts and assistance. With schools closed, teenagers are offering their babysitting services to parents who have essential jobs. Individuals are picking up extra groceries for quarantined or high-risk neighbors. And, on Good Friday, a moving parade of first-responders in firetrucks, ambulances, and police vehicles saluted a local hospital’s Emergency Department to thank health-care workers on the front lines – with blaring sirens!

By embracing this spirit of sacrifice – rather than succumbing to fear or scarcity-induced hoarding – we, as Christ’s disciples, can show the world that we are Christ’s hands and feet in the world – and that all people and relationships matter. As my friend John concludes, “How we handle this crisis and how we reach out to others will sustain us not only now but in the future.”

Showing up – for such a time as this

by Demi Prentiss

Much of the world is sharing the experience of “sheltering in place” to “flatten the curve” in the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of us are dealing, simultaneously, with an unfamiliar cascade of emotions. Who would imagine looking to Harvard Business Review for guidance? So Scott Berinato’s recent HBR article was a surprising gift.

“We feel the world has changed, and it has.…. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air,” Berinato writes.  And along with that collective grief, he points out, we share anticipatory grief: “Anticipatory grief is the mind going to the future and imagining the worst.”  Once we can find the courage to name our grief, Berinato urges we engage in calming strategies:

      • Come into the present.
      • Let go of what you can’t control.
      • Stock up on compassion.

For me, in these recent weeks, my own grief has gathered around my decision not to go to the front lines, to mitigate some of the devastating effects of the pandemic. My age and my husband’s health make that foolhardy. My lifelong commitment to daily life ministry is challenged, as I discover what “being the church” means when my mission field is defined by the boundaries of my home. The internet, of course, extends my reach, and my extrovert reaches out in multiple ways.

Nevertheless, I’m challenged to claim the mission I’ve been given.  What WOULD Jesus do?  I’m working to practice the Benedictine virtue of “stability” – staying put. Poet Mark Nepo offers an encouraging, hopeful perspective.

“Accepting This,” by Mark Nepo

“… We cannot eliminate hunger,
but we can feed each other.
We cannot eliminate loneliness,
but we can hold each other.
We cannot eliminate pain,
but we can live a life
of compassion….”

Perhaps we can learn to befriend the grief we’re feeling. Perhaps we can recognize that acceptance, as Nepo describes it, can mean simply showing up, with intention. For many of us, showing up as our authentic selves is the way we practice our ministry in daily life. As we show up, we have the opportunity to be the hands and feet and presence of Jesus, remembering the words of Mordecai to Queen Esther (Esther 4:14): “Who knows? Perhaps you have come [here] … for just such a time as this.”  (NRSV)

Who are you? Whose are you?

by Demi Prentiss

How do sacraments make sense in a 21st century context?  What are Christians proclaiming when they list two – or seven – “means of grace”? What’s the point, enacting such ancient “outward and visible sign[s] of inward and spiritual grace”? Are we stuck with “It’s tradition” as the best explanation we have?

Still walking what has been, so far, a 70-year-long journey in faith, I understand baptism as the foundational sacrament of Christian life. When we are embraced by baptismal waters, when we are the subject of the words “You are my beloved,” we are assured that the Creator of the universe acknowledges us as lambs of God’s own flock. We are, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, “marked as Christ’s own forever.”  Those words are written on our hearts, even if our brains don’t always remember them.

Baptism is, above all, a sacrament of identity. Our identity rooted in God, acknowledged and affirmed in and through community. What we do in our lives is shaped by innumerable variables; who we are – and whose we are – is brought to life by the God who made us and loves us, everlastingly. Our identity is defined by the God whose name is love, and whose love is unconditional.

Identity, however, is not enough. After all, the God who loves us just exactly the way we are is never content to leave us unchanged. Setting out on a journey with God always involves growth, metanoia, transformation.   Appropriately, the second major sacrament – communion, eucharist, the Lord’s Supper – is the sacrament of growth.  Celebrations of communion involve confession, forgiveness, being inspired and encouraged, claiming our role in community, being fed, and being sent out into the world to carry God’s good news to others. Each of those elements call on us to grow, and to participate in our own development.

Each time we remember our baptism or celebrate eucharist, we are reminded that God is at work in both our identity and our growth. The church’s other sacraments give further evidence of God’s tender concern for us, shaping our identity and growth in aspects of a healthy spiritual life.

    • Confirmation – a sacrament of identity and growth through participation in community
    • Reconciliation – a sacrament of identity and growth in forgiveness
    • Marriage – a sacrament of identity and growth through relationship
    • Unction – a sacrament of identity and growth in and through healing
    • Ordination – a sacrament of identity and growth through developing a community

And it all arises from our baptism, that affirmation of our identity, our belovedness, and our being called into lifelong relationship with the God who made us. That calling summons us to fullness of life.

Be salty, Christians!

by Fletcher Lowe

I am a salt guy.  I like to salt my food, sometimes even before I taste it, much to the chagrin of my wife.  But I simply tell her, I’m just following doctor’s orders – after all on more than one occasion, as recently as a year ago, a doctor has said I’m salt deficient. I just need more salt!!

Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount has something to say about salt. “You are the salt of the earth.” Notice first of all it is not “of the church” or “of the faith community,” but “of the earth” that we are called to be salt.  We cannot retreat from the world or be neutral; our calling is to be proactive.

That is why, for me, the Dismissal is the most important part of the Liturgy – for of what value are the music or the readings or the prayers or the sermon or the bread and wine if they don’t propel us out from the church to be the church in our “earths,” our daily lives of home and community and work?  Go – that is our calling – and, like the salt, to “salt’ that part of the earth that each of us inhabits. We are called to be salty Christians.

Notice too that salt makes a difference in whatever it touches, be it food or the ocean or as a preservative.  But to make a difference, it must be in touch, in relationship – it has no value standing alone.  So, too, for us as salty Christians.  Our faith must be put into practice – in our earths.  Otherwise, it is of no value. Jesus’ message is clear to his followers – you and me.  As disciples we are called to make a difference, to join with Jesus in our calling expressed in the Lord’ Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

So, salty Christians, as we put our faith into action, let us Go forth and be the salt of our earths.

How does your church ‘equip the saints’?

by Demi Prentiss

In Ephesians 4, Paul declares that the work of church leadership is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry,” which he describes is “building up the body of Christ.”  Observing the emphasis that many Christian communities place on gathering for worship, formation, and fellowship, it might be hard to discern how that “building up” process might be occurring for anyone except “insiders,” people who find their way inside the walls of the church building.

Those of us who understand “ministry” as a daily, whole-life endeavor for all God’s people long for the day that faith communities claim their calling to truly equip their members: to give them tools to leave the church grounds and become intentional, functional ambassadors for the reign of God wherever they find themselves. Such folks can transform organizations, neighborhoods, even cities as they work to do God’s work in the world.

Our friends at the Theology of Work website offer strategies for helping a congregation practice that sort of equipping. Their web page on The Equipping Church poses four key questions for churches that aim to equip their people for mission in daily work:

      • What is God’s Mission in the World?
      • How does human work connect to God’s work?
      • What does this mean for people in their daily work?
      • How can we equip our people for God’s work in the world?

Faith communities that want to “equip” their people tend to shift focus, prioritizing “beyond the church walls” work over “inside the church” work. That last question can help faith communities shape their lives together in ways that build up the body of Christ, both those inside the church walls as well as among all the people they encounter.

What does it look like in practice for a church to operate in a way that reflects these changed perspectives and priorities? Churches that have embarked on this journey demonstrate a number of common characteristics.

Equipping churches:

      • have a vision of God at work where their people work
      • actively hunt for examples and resources
      • connect daily work to worship
      • address the opportunities and challenges their people face at work
      • invest resources in equipping people for daily work
      • create structures to sustain this ministry
      • empower and collaborate with people in the congregation to lead the ministry
      • release and support their people for work outside the church
      • encourage everyone to take responsibility
      • include daily work as part of youth ministry and compassion/outreach/service ministries

What items on that list are characteristic of your own congregation? Which of those practices might you want to undertake during the coming year?