This week, the third week in Advent, began with Gaudete Sunday, the customary day for lighting the pink candle on the Advent wreath. Often thought of as honoring Mary the mother of Jesus, the pink candle signals a “breather” at the halfway point in Advent – an opportunity to “lighten up” the intensity of our Advent observances on our way to Christmas. A time to “let it be.” That same Sunday, Dec. 12, was the traditional day for celebrating the feast of the Virgen de Guadalupe, patron saint of the Americas. La Virgen appeared to Juan Diego as a pregnant indigenous woman and spoke to him in Nahuatl, his native language.
This past Saturday, the Center for Action and Contemplation featured a meditation and practice outlined by Brian McLaren, centering around the dimension that Mary brings to Christianity.
In Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, God aligns with the creative feminine power of womanhood rather than the violent masculine power of statehood. The doctrine of the virgin birth, it turns out, isn’t about bypassing sex but about subverting violence. The violent power of top-down patriarchy is subverted not by counterviolence but by the creative power of pregnancy. It is through what proud men have considered “the weaker sex” that God’s true power enters and changes the world. That, it turns out, is exactly what Mary understood the messenger to be saying: [read her Magnificat, especially Luke 1:48, 51, 52, 53]. . . .
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:, Mt 9:13 and 12:17). Again and again, through scripture and witness, God calls us to practice generativity, not violence. In our daily lives, when our work springs from our gifts and our calling, we access God’s power as co-creators. We are empowered to change the world through love.
For years I commuted to Seattle, often by bus. I found the bus drivers to be courteous and helpful – some friendly, and others, business-like. And, like anyone who faces the public daily, they encounter gracious passengers and rude, even unruly, passengers while trying to treat them respectfully.
Linda Wilson-Allen takes her role as a bus driver to a whole new level. A 2013 article in the San Francisco Chronicle describes Linda as someone who “loves the people on the bus, knows the regulars, learns their names. She will wait for them if they are late, and then make up the time on her route. She would get out of the driver’s seat of her bus to help seniors.” One day, Linda even reached out to a passenger who was lost and afraid and then invited her to join her family for Thanksgiving dinner. Her kindness has touched people so powerfully that some passengers will let another bus pass by just so they can ride with Linda.
Linda’s story inspired the pastors of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (MPPC). Because her job can be thankless and filled with frustrations from cranky passengers to traffic jams and breakdowns, they invited her to share with the congregation how she keeps such a positive attitude. Linda told them that her work is to minister to God’s people. She begins her day with prayer – at the crack of dawn. She asks God for guidance and how God might help her bless the people she encounters on her route. She asks God to help her shine light into dark places.
After she shared her story at MPPC, senior pastor John Ortberg reminded his congregation of the wider lesson we all can learn from Linda about ministry. He said, “My patients are my ministry. My clients are my ministry. My neighborhood is my ministry. My store is my ministry. I’m just going to go through every day and reach up to Jesus so that the power of the Holy Spirit is in me all the time, and then be a part of a little community here where I have people I can know and love and care about and serve for and who can help me grow, and then I’m going out. I will go out and bless.”
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
In August, Luther Seminary’s “God Pause” featured devotions written by Josh Kestner ’17 M.Div. who now serves as campus pastor for University Lutheran Church and Lutheran Campus Ministry at Clemson University, Clemson, SC. Reflecting on the hymn “Built on a Rock” (ELW 652), Kestner wrote,
“…[A]n important part of having faith is living out our faith with our bodies. We navigate the world, using our five senses. And, like Jesus, we try to use our bodies to partake in the coming kingdom of God. Verse 3 reminds us of the holiness that resides in us: “Christ builds a house of living stones: we are his own habitation.” It’s a blessing. And it’s an incredible, overwhelming responsibility. Faith is more than an intellectual thing. It’s an incarnational thing. And more often than not, we forget that. Spend some time today—whether in worship, in your community, or in your own home—asking God how you are being called to live in the world. And find confidence in the fact that your body is holy, and that you can do holy work.”
How might you become more aware of God’s presence, using your senses? Through sight? Hearing? Touch? Smell? Taste? How might you savor those sensations of God with you, within you, around you? How might those first-hand experiences of God guide and ground your daily life? What holy work might God be channeling through you?
Remember Kestner’s reminder: “Your body is holy, and … you can do holy work.”
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.)
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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.