Last month, as six new priests were ordained in the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, the Bishop reminded the congregation and the ordinands that the foundation of all ministry is in baptism. Whereas priests have a particular ministerial role in the church, the baptized – as lay ministers in the world – are the foundation of all ministry in the church. In daily life lay people bear witness to Christ wherever they may be, whether in the home, in the workplace, in the community, in leisure, or the wider world. In their book, Radical Sending, Demi Prentiss and the late Fletcher Lowe describe being baptized as walking wet in the world.
As we were renewing our baptismal promises, I was given a bowl of water filled from the baptismal font and a cedar branch to cast the holy water on members of the congregation. We all were reminded to remember our baptism – and to remember the baptismal promises that we either make or which are made on our behalf: “Remember your baptism” with all of its solemnity.
And then I realized that the bowl of baptismal water I was carrying had spilled down the front of my alb. I was soaking wet! Soaking wet in the waters of baptism! What a profound reminder that when I was sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever so many years ago, my baptism became the foundation of all of my ministry. It’s a reminder that I will always savor.
We’re about to enter Holy Week, an opportunity to feel the power and the poignancy of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. We can choose to walk through those eight days as a memorial, a tradition, a liturgical banquet, a personal sacrifice. For me, this Lent, I’m drawn to reflect deeply on how each day’s drama is challenging me to live differently, starting now. How might my daily life be transformed?
My prayer is for God to change my heart. This song, “Last Words” by Karl Kohlhase has offered me a framework to press into opening my heart more fully. It calls me to see the habits I must let go to allow my heart to be – every day – more tender, trusting, thankful, holy, loving, perfect, and faithful.
"Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,”
I hear you pray for those who torture you.
These are the words that tear my grudges all apart.
Create in me a tender heart.
You turn your head to address a dying thief.
“Today you’ll be in paradise with me.”
These are the words where every hopeless soul must start.
Create in me a trusting heart.
Your darkest hour you cried out from the tree,
“My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?”
These words of anguish pierce me through just like a dart.
Create in me a thankful heart.
Then unto Mary, “Woman behold your son,
Behold your mother,” your dying words to John.
These words begin a family of which I’m part.
Create in me a holy heart.
You said, “I thirst,” yet it was not for wine.
You thirst for love from desert souls like mine.
And with these words a flowing river you impart.
Create in me a loving heart.
Then “It is finished!” Your work on earth was done.
For in three days your battle would be won.
These are the words with which you crown your works of art.
Create in me a perfect heart.
“Into your hands, Father, I commend my breath.”
Your final prayer as you close your eyes in death.
And with these words one day I’ll fly to where you are.
Create in me, create in me, create in me a faithful heart.
“Last Words” by Karl Kohlhase
Thomas Mousin, an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Maine, has created daily Keeping Advent reflections for many years. Using scriptural passages he finds Advent themes and elaborates on them with apt insight and relevance. As a subscriber I have found them consistently evocative and pertinent in my baptismal journey to Christmas.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
We can spend a lot of time thinking about the life to come. Such was the question asked by the lawyer who was testing Jesus. In one sense, Jesus answered clearly, saying these are the things you need to do. He also knew that the lawyer, having asked the question, already knew the answer.
But the truth of that answer has not to do with what ensures our eternal fate, but what it means to live each moment of each day. What does it mean to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength, and all our mind? And what does it mean to love our neighbor as ourselves? These are the questions we work out in the everydayness of our lives.
When Jesus commended the lawyer on his response, he did not say, “You have given the right answer; you will do this and you will have eternal life.” Instead, he said, “You have given the right answer; you will do this and you will live.” We are meant to live, today in this moment and every moment, as we love God and our neighbor as ourselves for the life we are given today.
Many Episcopal congregations observe the Feast of All Saints in early November by renewing their baptismal covenant, that shared set of beliefs and practices that are recited by all baptized Episcopalians. While for many All Saints Day is a remembrance of the saints who have gone before us, that renewal of vows is a reminder that baptism marks the first step for many Christians in their journey with Jesus.
We can’t start a spiritual journey on a negative foundation. If we just seek God out of fear or guilt or shame (which is often the legacy of original sin), we won’t go very far. If we start negative, we stay negative. We have to begin positive—by a wonderful experience, by something that’s larger than life, by something that dips us into the depths of our own being. That’s what the word baptism means, “to be dipped into.”
Jesus is thirty years old when his baptism happens. According to Mark’s Gospel, he hasn’t said a single thing up to now. Until we know we’re a beloved son or beloved daughter or even just beloved, we don’t have anything to say. We’re so filled with self-doubt that we have no good news for the world. In his baptism, Jesus was dipped in the unifying mystery of life and death and love. That’s where it all begins—even for him! The unique Son of God had to hear it with his own ears and then he couldn’t be stopped. Then he has plenty to say for the next three years, because he has finally found his own soul, his own identity, and his own life’s purpose….
This is the good news of God for our hurting world: we are all beloved by God. That fundamental understanding equips us to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our] neighbor as [ourselves],” and, further, “respect the dignity of every human being.” (from the Baptismal Covenant, Book of Common Prayer, p. 305) In the midst of our brokenness and blindness, the truth of that belovedness is the good news that the world hungers for. It sets us on the path that early Jesus-followers called “the Way,” the Way of Love.
…. The only purpose of the gospel, and even religion, is to communicate that one and eternal truth. Once we have that straight, nothing can stop us and no one can take it away from us, because it is given only, always, and everywhere by God—for those who will accept it freely. My only job and any preacher’s job is to try to replicate and resound that eternal message of God that initiates everything good on this earth—You are beloved children of God
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.
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. Hereyou’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)
“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.
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:
Express Welcome. We felt that being approachable was at the heart of welcome.
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.
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.
Be Careful Not to Judge. We found this to be connected with Blaming, looking to the fault, not the person.
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.
There is a significant movement within the English Anglican Church that is creatively focusing on the calling of all the baptized in their daily life and work. Illustrative of that is this article by the Bishop of Leicester:
Moving the dial towards everyday faith, by Martyn Snow, Bishop of Leicester
Inspiring Everyday Faith is a way of highlighting why and what is important in Christian discipleship. In the past 20-30 years, we have not been terribly good at equipping people for living their Christian faith in the whole of their lives. The Church has tended to focus on its own life, or its own outreach projects, and forgotten that for most people the majority of their time is not spent involved in church projects – it’s spent in their workplaces, home, social. Equipping people for faith in those contexts must be core to what the Church is all about. I think there has been a change in that over time, but during this pandemic and lockdown – as in so many other areas – it has brought new questions into focus.
Nick and I have a running joke about who first coined the phrase Everyday Faith. All I can say is it has ‘made in Leicester’ stamped on it, and we use that as our strapline now! Using that language of everyday faith has certainly been very significant. My role as bishop is to hold people to account and for them to hold me to account in what we decide under God we are called to be and do. We use the following questions to help each of us in this discernment:
How are you enabling others to grow in the depth of their discipleship?
How are you growing in numbers of disciples?
How are you growing in loving service, enabling others to grow in loving service?
We have found it important that such questions are adopted across the whole life of the diocese….- Other ways … putting lay ministers’ licensing services and commissionings on the same standing as ordination in the life of the diocese. When I license a new clergy person in a parish, we have a ritual of partnership in ministry, so looking very clearly at joining a team of ministers within that church context –
Recently, we’ve done an exercise of gathering stories about faith during lockdown. We’ve had a particularly prolonged lockdown in Leicester, as you may know. We’ve asked people right across our churches what they have been learning about faith in this particular context. Those stories have been fascinating. There has been a sense in which it has shifted the dial along the scale. People are asking –
+ Is my Christian faith something I do with a particular group of people in a particular building at a particular moment in time? through to
+ Is my Christian faith something I do in the whole of life?
The dial has been shifted during this period to what, actually, faith is about! What I do in my own home, what I do when I’m online, talking with my friends. Increasingly people are realising that we should all take responsibility for this. It’s not something somebody else does for me – I need to be enabling the practices that enable my faith to grow in my own home and in my workplace. I think the dial has been shifted and we’re starting to see more about everyday faith.
Ultimately, the more we’ve talked about everyday faith, the more we’ve started to understand the key role that lay ministers play in enabling the whole people of God to live out their faith in the whole of life.
In my own work, I’ve encountered numerous lay ministers lacking confidence, wondering what their role is and how they can best express their gifts within the body of Christ. As we’ve started to explore everyday faith – especially with the questions that are raised within the workplace, or within social networks – lay ministers have started to see that this is their area of expertise. They’ve struggled with questions about how to live out faith in these contexts themselves, and therefore their ministry can be focused on how they enable others to grow in their faith in those contexts as well. I think there’s been an encouraging shift in that sense and a growth in that understanding of clergy and lay ministers working together to enable the whole people of God in their everyday faith.
Over the years in the parishes I have served, I have been visiting members where they work. The conversations usually go: What do you do here? What is the Sunday-Monday – the Faith/Work – connection with what you do here? This latter question is, for most all of the church members, the first time that question has been raised for them. Yet where they work is the place where they spend most of their God-given time and talent. What an indictment of the Church!
Here are the words of one businessman, David Wofford, I visited. The words he wrote (pre COVID-19) describe his “Aha!” to that second question:
Excuse me? Faith at work? I’m not a priest or a rabbi. It’s not my job to heal the sick or mend broken souls. I’m just a “used-bond salesman.” These were my initial thoughts when Fletcher said he wanted to visit me at work to discuss faith at work.
Upon his arrival, Fletcher surveyed my work area. The space is a large trading floor with people sitting in front of several monitors blinking price action in the bond market. Everyone sits almost elbow to elbow and it can get a bit loud. The two of us then moved to an office for a little privacy. I tried to explain that the atmosphere in my office was closer to that of a fraternity house and not exactly like a place of worship. We work hard, do a good job, and at the same time, have a lot of fun. More often than not, that fun is similar to the fun we had in elementary school.
After asking for more details about my job, Fletcher thought a bit and he said something that opened my eyes. My faith was all around me. It is there when I try to help my accounts meet their goals with honesty and integrity. If they are down, I try to cheer them up or put them at ease. The camaraderie with my colleagues is also a part of my faith. Many of us have worked together over twenty years in a very stressful occupation. We share lots of laughs. We pull together when times are tough. Another salesman and I like to read “Forward Movement” on line during down time. There is also an email I receive from Fletcher entitled “On the Job Prayers.” I pass that around to some in my office to help alleviate some of the stress during the day.
I park across the street from my office. Each morning there is a little ritual on my walk. I thank God for my great family. I ask for Him to help me be a better father and husband. I thank Him for the opportunities I have and the friends around me. I ask for His help when times are rough or a friend is in need. I thank Him for the sunshine or the rain. God walks me to work….and everyone in the office says I only park across the street because I’m a tight wad and can save $30 a month!!
Faith at work? Even for a “used-bond salesman”? Believe it or not it can happen.
St. Seraphim of Sarov is often quoted as having said, “Acquire inner peace and thousands around you will find their salvation.”
All during Christmas and Epiphany, we Christians have focused our awareness on the Light of Christ. As we walk our Lenten journey, we’re invited to practice silence and stillness, discovering Christ’s light within our own hearts as well as in the world around us. Our Lenten practices can help us nurture that light, grounding us in the peace that Christ’s presence brings.
The daily work of practicing inner stillness can free us to remember who we are – a Child of God, beloved and called. And in that clarity of our true identity, joy blossoms as quietly as a flower unfolding. That joy is the wellspring of the generosity – in terms of possessions and time, skills and spirit – that is the hallmark of one who follows Christ’s way of love.
Seraphim understands that joy as God’s irresistible gift – whenever we receive that joy and offer it to another, it sets the world alight. “We cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of one who gives and kindles joy in the heart of one who receives.” In the sharing and receiving, such a community of joy participates in the reign of God.
May our inner work in Lent lead us to the realization that our daily work – offering ourselves as such conduits of joy – can bring us to a place of true peace.