A year ago I blogged about the ministry of Toby the Therapy Dog. For years, Toby, a gentle giant of a St. Bernard, and his person Stan have brought joy and comfort to nursing facility residents and have helped reduce anxiety in waiting rooms of emergency rooms. Toby warmed the hearts of parents and children alike in our regional children’s hospital as young patients nuzzled their faces in his fur, crawled over him, or simply snuggled with him. Stan combined his love for dogs, his love for Christ, and his passion for caring to offer peace and healing to others.
I was sad to learn that Toby suffered a stroke and passed away during emergency surgery early this month. The outpouring of love from the communities Toby served is a testimony to the impact his and Stan’s ministry has had on others.
The exciting news is that Toby’s legacy lives on! A week after Toby’s stroke, I met Stevie, a friendly golden retriever, as I left the hospital after a visit. Stan had founded Toby’s Therapy Dogs to train a team of therapy dogs, and Toby had mentored Stevie. Stevie has achieved Novice Therapy Dog status after having completed ten visits to nursing homes! And although the initial plan was to build a local therapy dog team, it has quickly expanded to include a chapter in Wisconsin and beyond. All to continue to honor Toby and to carry on his ministry!
When I think of how quickly Toby’s legacy is spreading, I’m reminded of Kurt Kaiser’s hymn, Pass it On:
“It only takes a spark
To get a fire going,
And soon all those around
Can warm up in its glowing.
That’s how it is with God’s love,
Once you’ve experienced it,
You spread His love to ev’ryone,
You want to pass it on.”
Stan’s ministry with Toby started small – just a spark in a seemingly dark world – and is expanding day-by-day thanks to Stan’s faith and his commitment. To learn more about Stan and Toby’s ministry, visit his Facebook page: Toby the Therapy Dog.
A reflection on Sacredspace.ie recently reminded me that God is present in all that I do, in the people I meet, and in the midst of each situation I’m in. Over the past several weeks, this has been particularly driven home for me.
Our family received the gift of God’s ongoing love during an extended hospitalization – though at the other end of the age spectrum from what fellow Living God’s Mission blogger Fletcher Lowe described several weeks ago. Serious pregnancy complications resulted in our daughter-in-law’s month-long hospitalization. In the midst of a record-breaking snowstorm and freeze, our granddaughter, Sienna, made her appearance – nine weeks early!
Parenting a newborn isn’t easy, and parenting a preemie calls for the support of community, not the least of which are the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) healthcare providers. I marveled at their love and commitment as they braved severe weather conditions to care for Sienna and the other preemies. I also marvel at their choice of vocation to tenderly care for these tiny, delicate infants with equally tiny PICC lines, feeding tubes, and blood pressure cuffs. The devotion of Sienna’s nurses has transformed her room into a physically and spiritually nurturing sacred space. And several have shared that they pray for their little charges, as well as how their faith shapes their vocation, in other words, their baptismal ministry.
Strengthened by prayer in the midst of so many joys and fears, hopes and tears, we watch our son and daughter-in-law being transformed by God’s love and grace into loving parents. And they bear witness to Christ’s love in all that they do and say. Sienna and her parents are part of yet another family – the NICU family – and when she eventually graduates from the NICU, she and her parents will not only continue to have the support of those who’ve journeyed with them, but they will also support other preemie families – and share how Jesus was present in all that they experienced as they walked through this storm of uncertainty and danger to mother and daughter.
With the passage of Resolution C005, General Convention earlier this year created the Task Force on Formation and Ministry of the Baptized. That group of 12 Episcopalians have been charged to “identify or develop curricula, practices, and strategies that can be used by dioceses and congregations to encourage and engage all the baptized in the work of building up the church by identifying their gifts for ministry, employing their gifts for ministry, and focusing on full engagement of their ministries in daily life, work, and leisure.” The task force is charged with recommending to the 2021 General Convention “strategies for the affirmation, development, and exercise of ministry by all baptized persons in the areas of gifts discernment, education and training for ministry, and leadership development.”
This work of recognizing, celebrating, and engaging the laity as equal and essential partners in ministry is not limited to The Episcopal Church. Back in 2017, the Church of England launched a new program called “Setting God’s People Free” (SGPF), aimed at equipping all the children of God to live the Good News of Jesus with confidence and joy, in every aspect of their lives, Sunday to Saturday. Implementing the program means shifting the life of the church – every aspect of church culture – to focus on the whole people of God, living their lives in homes, schools, communities, and places of work, as well as the church.
The program originated in proposals from the Setting God’s People Free report written for the Archbishop’s Council and presented to Church of England’s General Synod in 2017. As one element of the C of E’s “Renewal and Reform” process, SGFP offers a series of practical resources for Monday to Saturday practices that support each church, and aim for a cultural transformation.
SGPF looks beyond and outside Church structures to the whole people of God at work in communities and wider society – not to ‘fixing’ the institutional Church.
SGPF challenges a culture that over-emphasizes a distinction between sacred and secular to a fuller vision of calling within the all-encompassing scope of the Gospel – not to limit vocation to church based roles.
SGPF seeks to affirm and enable the complementary roles and vocations of clergy and of lay people, grounded in our common baptism – not to blur or undermine these distinctions.
SGPF proposes imaginative steps to nourish, illuminate and connect what is working already in and through parishes and communities of faith – not to institute a top-down approach.
Only a year into implementation, the effects of SGFP are hard to gauge. The peer review process that is also a part of the Renewal and Reform is in its second year, and aims to facilitate shared learning as well as mutual accountability among participating dioceses.
The work of our fellow Anglicans in implementing SGFP can inform and enrich the work of the newly appointed TEC task force. Stay tuned as the TEC task force – which I am honored to be a part of – embarks on its work.
With belated birthday wishes to J.K. Rowling and to Harry Potter, I’m posting this because of what it has to say about the meaning of baptism. With permission, I’m re-posting a Facebook entry from the Rev. Patricia Lyons, famed for celebrating the mysteries of Hogwarts. Here’s what she offered on July 31:
July 31st…a day for Birthdays and Baptism
Happy Birthday JK Rowling and Happy Birthday Harry Potter.
[July 31] is a special day for both the Harry Potter fandom and for anyone in that fandom who has been or might be baptized. For those folks, today is more special than you might realize.
Everyone knows that Harry’s best birthday present came just a few minutes into his eleventh birthday (July 31,1991) along with a cake from his newest friend and fan Rubeus Hagrid. Hagrid handed Harry his Hogwarts acceptance letter — the proof in writing of Harry’s magical identity and miraculous destiny.
But what many people do not know is that when JK Rowling was nine years — until around 12 years old – she had a Saturday job cleaning the Anglican Church down the road from her house. She and her sister were paid one British pound each week to clean up the church and prepare it for Sunday worship. Joanne fell in love with that church, the sight and smells of candles, the stories depicted in its colorful windows and the words of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer that she re-organized in the pews every week.
According to Rowling, after a few years of cleaning the church, she wanted desperately to join it. Although her family practiced no religion, Rowling presented herself to the priest to be baptized. She wanted to be a member of the Christian faith. Her parents did not object and Joanne Rowling was baptized at the font of St. Luke’s church.
For those of you who wonder how impactful that baptism was on her life and her imagination, consider this: Joanne Rowling was baptized on her 11th birthday. So she shares with Harry not only an annual birthday, but they also share the experience of their eleventh birthday as a day that revealed magical identity and miraculous destiny. Rowling has never commented on the fact that her baptism and the reception of a Hogwarts Letter both come on one’s 11th birthday. Rowling is one of the most intentional writers of our time, so the thought that there is no symbolism in a Hogwarts Letter arriving on the age of her baptism is hard to believe. I trust she wants us to think of the identity that opens for us at baptism as easily and truly as opening a life-changing letter on our birthday.
Just like the Snitch, every baptized soul will open at the close.
Adolph Eichmann, one of the Nazi officials who supervised the murder of countless human beings during the Nazi regime, was blinded by a systemic effort to eradicate certain groups of people. God was not a part of his equation.
Unlike Eichmann, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were each confronted by a system of laws that was unjust, and each had their eyes opened, factoring God into the equation of their lives.
So too with Jesus. He and the Pharisees had an ongoing conflict. One of many contentious occasions (Mark 2:23-3:6) focused on the Sabbath. The Pharisees were guardians of an intricate system of laws governing the Sabbath. To some extent they had reduced the practice of religion to following a set of laws. But here comes Jesus in a bit of civil disobedience, helping his followers glean the grain fields to resolve their hunger. Then Jesus goes on to restore a man’s withered hand. Both events took place on the Sabbath, contrary to Sabbath laws. Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus was not blind to human need – he was factoring his own divinity into the equation of his daily life.
During my ordained life part of my pastoral ministry has been to visit members in their places of work. The conversation begins with what do you do here. Then the second question: What is the faith connection with what you do here, the Sunday-Monday connection? I must tell you that for the vast majority – like 85% – this is the first time that that question has come to their consciousness. What an indictment of the church! For that work place is where they are spending most of their God-given time and ability. After some continuing conversation, most come to an “aha”: Their eyes open and they begin to see that their work – as a contract lawyer or a mortgage broker or a governmental official or a homemaker – is indeed their baptismal ministry. The “aha” comes as they factor God into the equation of their daily life and work.
The question is the same for each of us – for you and for me: How do we, as the Baptized, factor God into the equation of our daily lives?
Here we are in the middle of Advent – just past the beginning of the Christian year, looking toward Christmas and those Happy New Year celebrations, complete with made-to-be-broken resolutions. Each week church goers hear about the hope and joyful expectation embodied in Advent. With the days getting shorter, the temperatures colder, and the trees barer, many of us identify with the longing for a glimmer of hope.
For Christians, Jesus embodies that hope. And we look forward to re-claiming that hope for ourselves each year. “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, / For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!’ is the reminder we hear in the verses of “O Holy Night.”
Thank you, Jesus! I deserve a little hope. Doesn’t everyone? For many of us, every-day life can be hope-crushing. All I want for Christmas is hope!
But wait. In the “already / not yet” world of the Christian, each of us is already a Christ-bearer, by virtue of our baptism. We are “marked as Christ’s own forever” (BCP p. 308). Each of us carries that spark of hope, even when it’s so dim we hardly feel it. As Peter reminds us, “Always be ready to offer a defense, … when someone asks why you live in hope.“ (1 Peter 3:15 The Voice)
Even when you aren’t aware of it, it’s likely the Christ in you is showing, or could be. In what ways might the people around you see your everyday work and the way you live your life as “bringing hope into the world”? And if you don’t think of your life in that way, what might happen if you did? What might happen in your work-place, or your family, or your cycling group, if your ambition each day was to bring hope into the world?
May your week bring many opportunities to be a hope-bringer.
“I really like my work here.” the dental assistant said as I sat patiently waiting for the dentist to appear. “I like what I do and the people I work with and the patients—at least most of them, including you,” she continued.
I said, “It sounds like you have a real ministry here.” There was a pause, and then she said: “Really? I never thought of it like that, but maybe what I do really is ministry.”
“Well.” I said,” it certainly sounds like a ministry to me.”
This is not an isolated event. There are so many people working so many jobs that really are their ministry. We just need to help them name and own it. In so doing we put another dimension in what they do: That it is more than a job, really a ministry, God-given, through which they live out their faith in their work.
Christians of all sorts and conditions are doing ministry in all kinds of places and positions. Our role is to help them name what they are doing as ministry and to help them own it. What about the Uber driver or the ER nurse or the cleaning person in our office building or the receptionist in that office or the teller at our bank or the clerk in the clothing store…. The very act of affirming what a person does, thanking them for their work, can begin a short conversation that leads to naming what they do as ministry.
So often we limit the use of words like ministry and vocation and calling to those who are ordained, whereas all the Baptized are called to live into their Baptism in their daily lives, which is their ministry. We need to help folks make that connection by naming it, so they may own it.
As Martin Luther once remarked, “The housemaid on her knees scrubbing the floor is doing a work as pleasing in the sight of the Almighty as the priest on his knees before the altar saying Mass.” We have a mission: To help the “housemaids” whose lives intersect with ours—even briefly—to own their work as ministry.
A recent blog post caught my eye. While it was aimed a young adults, I think the message is a profound one for the entire faith community:
“According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, young adults have lower employment levels and smaller incomes than previous generations. In addition, young adults are more frequently strapped with student loan debt which impacts their options for housing and reduces their buying power. Young adults are waiting longer to complete traditional milestones of adulthood like marriage and starting a family. At the same time, new milestones of adulthood have yet to emerge.
“When my young adult friends say “I’m tired of adulting” they are most often sharing their frustrations over these realities. They feel stuck because in many ways they are. To adult is to become an effective manager of your life and while that is good, it feels incomplete.
“This hunger for meaning is where I believe communities of faith can help. Revitalized communities of faith provide alternatives to “mindless adulting” by equipping men and women – both young and old – to discover and live their vocations. In these communities, stale catechesis is replaced by a Culture of Encounter and Vocation.
“How do congregational leaders begin this revitalization?
Let go of old program models that don’t work
Create space for people to listen and hear God who is calling
Help people identify their gifts
Appreciate the diversity of talents present in the community
Call gifts from the margin to the center
Uphold the dignity of all work
Place people in relationship with one another so needs can be shared without shame
Celebrate and find meaning through story sharing”
What might our faith communities look like if believers were formed to discover and live their vocations – not simply on the church grounds or on a mission trip, but every day? How do we uphold and celebrate the daily life ministries of all the baptized? What needs to change in your faith community to take the first step in this direction?
I live in Richmond, VA, a reasonably large metropolitan area. There are several Episcopal churches from which people can choose. The congregation that I rectored several years ago made a conscious identity decision—to be known for its creative liturgy and for its community and international outreach. To make that happen, the system of our congregational life was molded to affect that. That meant having a liturgy team that could think out of the box. It meant taking some initiative both toward community needs and international connections.
Every congregation makes decisions about its identity, some conscious, others not so. It has a system that is designed to produce certain results. The systemic question is, going back to the earlier discussion of 2 blogs ago, is your mission statement where your congregational system is? The actual mission statement may be something that is unwritten, but really lived into—different from the one stated, yet securely at the heart of a congregation’s life. It’s how that congregation really functions and operates, its modus operandi. For example, a congregation’s mission statement may read that it believes in lay ministry, but practically its system only prepares/trains/honors laity who serve/minister in the congregation, e.g. lay eucharistic ministers, church school teachers, altar guild members.
So let’s take a congregation that really wants to live into a mission statement to empower the 99%, the lay folks, in their daily lives—the lives they live outside the church walls. Then conscious decisions are made in terms of its liturgy, pastoral care, communication, and formation which support that decision. For example, in liturgy, how do the Sunday- and week-day- liturgies enhance the calling of all the Baptized. Through sermons, prayers of the people, the Dismissal? On occasion are there liturgies or litanies that recognize the lay members in their work? Are there frequent Ministry Moments when congregants share their Sunday-Monday connection? Depending on the congregation’s past, this may mean a systemic change. But engaging with the questions makes clear the congregation’s desire to match its mission statement with its actual systemic actions.
The truth remains: A congregation’s system, not its statements, is what produces the kinds of members who fulfill that system.
So how do we redesign a congregation’s system? Stay tuned.