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.

‘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)

‘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.

Doing hard things with Jesus at our side

Flickr – Nurse Teresa Hiller administers COVID-19 vaccine.

by Pam Tinsley

A friend has been working in a local hospital’s Covid-19 vaccination clinic since early winter. Although most of those at highest risk of infection in our county have now been immunized and the demand has waned, recent expansion of eligibility to include those as young as twelve has prompted a bit of a surge in appointments.

Catherine had had a pretty routine day, when a grandmother arrived with her twelve-year old granddaughter. The grandmother was rather uneasy, perhaps uncomfortable with the hospital environment and the number of people waiting – masked and socially-distanced – for their shots. The girl, however, was extremely apprehensive about everything, not the least of which was the shot itself. The grandmother exacerbated her granddaughter’s anxiety by berating her and telling her that she was holding up the line.

Catherine paused, ignored the woman, looked into the girl’s eyes, and gently took her hand. She said that she understood the girl’s fear, and then whispered, “We can do hard things,” quoting from Glennon Doyle’s Untamed. The girl smiled shyly and held out her arm.

When Catherine shared this touching experience with me, I noticed that she – an ER nurse who’s seen it all – was choking back tears. I asked her to tell me more about what she experienced. She said that although the clinic was busy, she felt it was important to take the extra time with the girl, not just for her Covid-19 shot, but to help calm fears about future appointments. She said, too, that when she saw Jesus in the girl’s face, she realized that she, in turn, could be Jesus’ caring voice and hands. The girl, who also has Down Syndrome, needed even more respect and dignity shown to her, especially in the face of the overly anxious grandmother. And, Catherine reminded me that we all can do hard things when we remember that we’re walking with Jesus.

Can you move the dial?

Flickr – Liz West – Sundial

by Fletcher Lowe

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:

  1. How are you enabling others to grow in the depth of their discipleship?
  2. How are you growing in numbers of disciples?
  3. 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.

Whose miracle?

Pixabay – music4life

by Demi Prentiss

This past Sunday was the Feast of Pentecost, and many Christian churches celebrated “the birthday of the church,”reading a passage from Acts 2.  That story tells of tongues of fire lighting on the heads of Jesus’ apostles, and amazingly the apostles were understood by a crowd drawn from across the Mediterranean world, as though in their own language.  I’m always surprised to be reminded that that story is not Gospel. It’s not part of the four books of the Bible – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – that recount the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s told by the Gospel writer Luke, who leads off his Gospel sequel – the Acts of the Apostles – with that amazing tale.

I’m surprised because I think of that story as foundational to God’s dream for us as children of God. Eric Law’s understanding of that story offers a lens that inspires me to see multiple levels in familiar Bible stories and in many moments of life as a Christian. In his book The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb, Law offers the insight that the Pentecost story reveals two miracles, not just one.

Most of us see the “miracle of the tongue” right away, as the text says the apostles “began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:4) And then the text goes on to reveal that the crowd “was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” (Acts 2:6) A “miracle of the ear”! Between the apostles speaking and the crowd hearing, who could say which miracle was operating?

Law is clear that for those of us who are often silenced, and whose voices too often go unheard, the miracle that God unleashes is the miracle of the tongue – the gift of strength and courage to speak God’s truth. And for those of us who hold power and are accustomed to exercising it, the miracle of the ear is the true gift – the miracle of truly hearing those who speak, even though they may tremble to say the words out loud. Discerning which miracle we might pray for – or claim – is the work of a lifetime. As we live our lives in response to God’s covenant with us – sealed for us in our baptism – may we seek to discern when God urges us to claim the power of the tongue, and when to exercise the receptivity of the ear.  And may our choices be guided by the incarnate God known as the Word.

‘May God bless my screw driver…’

The Rev. Andrew Sohm blesses seed at the Newcastle farm of Sy and Ellen Kneifl, shown with their son Chad, on May 1 [2019]. The pastor at Catholic churches in Newcastle, Ponca and Jackson, Sohm annually visits the farms of parishioners who ask him to bless their seeds and fields during planting season. – Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal

by Fletcher Lowe

Blessing the farms and the fields, blessing the boats and the bait….  So in more rural times, congregations gathered as a way of asking God’s blessings. What were our rural friends asking God’s blessings on, but the means of production: farms, fields, boats, bait, for a good harvest and a good catch. The Latin word for ask is rogare, hence Rogation in our Episcopal liturgy.

What about Rogation Days, the three days prior to Ascension Day, when we traditionally ask for God’s blessing on agriculture and industry? Is that an idea whose day is past because we are a more urban, industrial, technological society?  I don’t think so.  Aren’t our needs still the same – to ask God’s blessings upon our means of production? “Means of production” relates, whether it be rural or urban. 

In congregations I have served on Rogation Sunday, the 6th Sunday after Easter, people have been invited to place in a basket small symbols of the means of production in their lives: a screw driver, a computer chip, an appointment book, a prescription pad, a measuring spoon, a cell phone, etc.  At the Offertory they were processed up along with the money and the bread and wine with a prayer, asking (rogare) God’s blessings upon those whose labor is represented in those symbols.  All of us have our own means of production that enable us to live our daily lives regardless of our situation at home or community or work, whatever occupies our time and energy.  

What are your means of production?  As you identify them, would you rogare, ask God to bless them, and rogare, ask God to bless you in your daily life?

Marks of resurrection

Flickr photo – Martin Howard – Kintsugi art white8

by Demi Prentiss

The Christian year – and, I hope, our daily lives as Christians – revolve around two transformational cycles: incarnation and resurrection. In the Christian kalendar, each of those two cycles begins with gestation, a time of examination, reflection, and growth (Advent and Lent). That season is followed by a time of celebration, begun with a feast day and extending far beyond the holy day itself – Christmastide and Eastertide.  And after the rejoicing, we enter the “ordinary time” of integration, as we use the time following Epiphany and Pentecost to incorporate the learnings of the cycle into our daily lives and work.

We are well into Eastertide, and, for me, the lesson of Thomas the Doubter is still looming large.  Like many in 2021, I find myself in the midst of a whirlwind of political wrangling, pandemic distrust, and civic tug-of-war that seems not unlike first-century Palestine. I’m seeing the Thomas story not so much as a lesson for unbelievers as a model of what Christ is calling each of us to do.

To affirm his identity, and to restore the trust of his doubting friend, what does the resurrected Jesus do?  He shows us his scars. He’s willing to expose his wounds, and to invite his friend to touch them. He allows himself to be shockingly vulnerable.  And he claims those scars as the marks of his resurrection.

The Incarnation calls on us to “be green,” to begin a new life, to allow Christ to live inside us and through us.  And through the Resurrection, we are called to allow our scars to be far more than signs of our hard-fought battles. In his risen body, Christ declares that our scars are the marks of our resurrection. As we become vulnerable enough to show those scars, we both model and proclaim the work of resurrection in our lives.

Our daily lives often bring scars. Some we are ashamed of, and some are marks of honor. May we have the courage to allow others to see and take strength from our scars. May they be for us and for those we encounter signs of our resurrection.