Sunday, January 29, 2012

What Have You To Do With Us, Jesus? the interior process of transitions..

A reflection on the readings for Epiphany 4B: Psalm 111, Mark 1:21-28 and the Rector's Report for the Annual Meeting

Our Psalm this morning reminds us that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. Of course fear here does not mean to be “afraid,” it actually means to be in awe of, to honor, respect, value and follow God. William Bridges, in his book, “Managing Transitions,” offers a perspective on the state in which we, as a congregation, and the entire state of religious institutions in the United States, currently live as we try to follow God in an ever changing world. He writes, “…. Change is not the same as transition. Change is situational: the new site, the new boss, the new team roles, the new policy. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation. Change is external, transition is internal.” The beginning of wisdom, we might say, is understanding what it means to follow God in this day and age. Or as the Gospel of Mark points us, we can wonder “where is God in all of this?” and more specifically today our reading asks us: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God?"

Bridges, and other folk who study parish dynamic, acknowledge that a change in who is Rector, the external component, is obvious. Dan Appleyard left, Bob Hart came and left, and I was called and came. But the internal transition continues. Bridges writes that “Inwardly the psychological transition happen(s) much more slowly,(for) as fast as the situation changed outwardly, we will struggle for a time in a state that is neither the old nor the new. It’s time of emotional wilderness, a time when it isn’t clear who we are or what is real.” (pg. 5) So, we begin to understand that following God in this time means a bit of wandering through a time that will feel like the wilderness.

Some may be grieving the loss of previous clergy that have served here. Many of you are excited that the search for a rector is over, you are ready to get going with whatever hopes and dreams you have in mind. This is the nature of this type of transition, of this wilderness time - it is a time of simultaneous dreaming of what can be and grieving what was.

I am going through my own internal transition. I have relocated to a new town three hundred miles from my kids, I have to find new doctors and dentists, new friends and colleagues, a new spiritual director and a new favorite place for pizza or breakfast.

The typical transition time, when a congregation calls a new rector, is about 18 months. Or in other words, we will be adjusting and adapting emotionally and psychologically to one another, while building relationship, for about 18 months until we settle into a relatively comfortable pattern. I have been here almost nine months, so we are about half way through this transition time.

During these first nine months I have observed this parish and how we function. I have intentionally tried to keep as much the same as possible. Truth be told, I feel a very organic, natural connection between the way this parish functions and my leadership style.

That said, some things have been done differently. Sometimes that is because no one could remember how something was done. Some things have happened simply because there was a request from a parishioner to do something, and enough energy around the idea, that we did it. And some change happened simply because I am neither Dan nor Bob. But regardless, my effort has been primarily focused on learning how this parish functions and becoming a part of the system. I have done this by meeting with groups and individuals, listening to what people have to say about themselves and their role in the parish. I have tried to be attentive to where the energy is and what excites people. I have made note of what people are frustrated with and where the energy feels depleted.

This year the Vestry and I will move into a more intentional time of observation, reflection, and action.

As a Vestry we will engage the Charrette work in our annual retreat this February. T., and others from the Charrette group work, will join us for a portion of the retreat so we can hear their observations and learn more about the outcome and goals that developed from the Charrette work. We have engaged the guidance of Jim Gettel, a parish consultant, who spoke at the Celebration Dinner. Jim will guide the vestry through this period of reflection, assessment, and direction. This work will take some time, longer than this one retreat. I have read through all of the annual reports from 1999 to 2010, I know that it is important that the Vestry develop an action plan so that our work moves from the theoretical to practical. It is also important that the parish be apprised, as relevant, to our work.

I have formed a team, comprised of J. and P., who are working with me on a “Legal Review.” We are reading through our By-Laws, policies, procedures, and letters of agreements. This will help me understand both the big picture organizationally and the details of policies and procedures we have implemented. We are checking to ensure that there is consistency in writing and in practice of what we have said and what we do. And lastly the review is to ensure that our practices are in line with Diocesan Canons and General Convention Canons.

Combined, between the review and the work with Jim Gettel, the Vestry hopes to have greater clarity of its leadership role as a whole and as individual members. Having read thirteen years’ worth of annual reports I understand that articulating and implementing leadership roles is an ongoing process in this parish. It is an ongoing process in every parish because vestry members change each year. Changes in leadership require of us, from time to time, to re-articulate roles and responsibilities of leadership and create the means by which each leader is accountable to oneself, one’s committee, and the parish.

In preparation for the retreat - the vestry, and those nominated for vestry, - has been asked to read the book, “A Door Set Open” by Peter Steinke. This book,(and I recommend it to everyone here), articulates the transition that our society is in today and how that transition impacts the church. Steinke writes, “Today’s rapidly changing world is pressing the church to respond to a shift of paradigm.” Steinke reminds us that all religious institutions, particularly Christianity, are going through an internal transition in response to a vastly changing world. Phyllis Tickle and Diana Butler Bass, among others, are calling this time in Christian History, “The New Reformation.” What this means is we have a great opportunity to tap into God’s creative energy. This time of transition offers the potential for a new religious awakening, a new resurrection! Both for Christianity as a whole and for Christ Church specifically.
It is important in our discernment that we pay attention to what has changed, what is changing, and continue our transition to some new opportunities. Let’s be mindful that the change in priest is not the end of the transition – rather it offers us the opportunity to continue the internal transition, a process of which will bring greater health and growth. We are on a larger journey that will draw us closer to God and one another in faith, hope and love.

I am really excited to be on this journey with you. Christ Church is a fabulous community, energetic, engaged, thoughtful, creative, fun, exciting, - I love being here with you – and feel truly blessed - and that’s because each of you bring your gifts and talents, your heart and your compassion, and share them abundantly. Our Psalm reminds us that God is engaged in our lives and in this transition time, God will provide for all of our needs. And so, with the confidence that God has our back, let us step forward in faith. I look forward to the year ahead.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

On Being Found

A reflection on the readings for the third Sunday after the Epiphany, year B: Mark 1:14-20; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Psalm 62:5-12; Jonah 3:1-5

Do you remember Mr. Gower, the old pharmacist in it’s a wonderful life? Do you remember, in particular, the way he was portrayed in the portion of the movie meant to show George what the lives of his family and friends would be like if he had never been born? Without George to intervene in the medication mix up Mr. Gower became the disgrace of the town, disliked by everyone, taunted, disheveled, with a tendency to drink too much. That’s the image I have of the person in this joke:

So, a disheveled, disoriented man stumbles across a baptismal service on Sunday afternoon down by the river.

He proceeds to walk into the water and stand next to the preacher. The minister notices the man and says, "Mister, are you ready to find Jesus?"

The man looks back and says, "Yes, preacher, I sure am."

The minister dunks the fellow under the water and pulls him right back up.

"Have you found Jesus?" the preacher asks."Nooo, I didn't!" said the man.

The preacher then dunks him under for quite a bit longer, brings him up, and says, "Now, brother, have you found Jesus?"

"Noooo, I have not, Reverend."

The preacher holds the man under for even longer and then brings him out of the water, and says, "My God, man, have you found Jesus yet?"

The man wipes his eyes and says to the preacher, "Are you sure this is where he fell in?"

Where is Jesus? Where is God? Are themes of our readings this morning. And, along with the wondering where God is, we hear the theme of people who follow Jesus, follow God. It’s quite amazing, in the reading last week and this week, that these people drop everything to follow Jesus. Last week Philip and Nathanael drop their nets and follow. This week Simon and Andrew, James and John, drop everything and follow. Out of the water that has been their life, these fisherfolk turn, and follow Jesus, just like that. Did it feel impulsive to them? Or did it feel right? Or were they hesitant but did it anyway?

When Dan and I were first married we went to Salt Lake City for part of our honeymoon, where we met my extended family. That was followed by a week hiking in Estes Park, Colorado. One of our first days in Salt Lake we drove east to Park City. It was a beautiful August day, and we leisurely wandered the roads and mountain side. As the afternoon was growing late we decided to head back. I felt certain, based on a vague childhood memory, that there was a back-road over the mountain that would drop us into Salt Lake City. So we wandered on this dirt road for a bit, going deeper into the wilderness and over ever more challenging roads. We were driving a little green Gremlin, or Pinto, I don’t remember, some old car my dad had. But which-ever it was it was definitely not built for the rugged terrain we were on. Sure enough we bottomed out – took out some part of the undercarriage necessary for driving. This was in 1985, no cell phones, no GPS. We were good and stranded.

Thankfully some young guys were driving their pickup through the back-roads and came to assist us. We had to leave the car in the woods and accept a ride back to a gas station on the main highway where we called my dad and aunt to come get us. The next day we returned and pulled the car out of the rut.

Sometimes we get on a path, and even if it is not the right path, we just can’t figure out how to turn around and get to a better place. The people of Ninevah were in such a place – stuck in their self-destructive ways. Jonah comes and proclaims their demise and in doing so turns the course of events in a significant way. The people of Ninevah change their ways which provokes God to change God’s mind, thus sparing the people of Ninevah. Here we have an example of how God’s actions are always contextual – God always acts in relationship to our actions.

And so our readings this morning focus us on the idea of a relationship of actions - of turning, of change, of humans turning and changing and in response, God turning and changing, always in relationship to creation, to us.
In Jonah we hear of God changing God’s mind. In the Psalm we hear of the steady presence of God. Paul, in the letter to the Corinthians lists the ways in which the qualities of life pass away and change, but God’s presence is steady. And then in the Gospel we hear that God challenges us to pay attention, to recognize God’s call to us to change our ways, to turn and to follow God.

Perhaps one reason these fisherfolk in the Gospel turn and follow Jesus may be that they remember the story from Jonah, of what happened, later, to Jonah when he fails to follow God – and ends up in the belly of a whale. Perhaps, fearing that all could go wrong if they follow the wrong path, take the wrong road, these fishfolk discples-to-be take the chance on following God by following Jesus. Somehow they know in the core of their being that following Jesus is the way to go. In fact they come to learn that following Jesus is the not only the way to go, BUT the way to LET GO. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians speaks of the many expectations that we must let go of. Following God often means we must leave behind the ways in which we have become settled and complacent, overly comfortable, and set in our expectations. In the process of letting go - the disciples, the people in Corinth, and the people of Ninevah – all find their true path, the way to God.

This year we are focusing ourselves on what it means to be disciples – to follow God. The Gospel of Mark will give us clues even as it begs the question, “Where is God?” We have talked about finding God in and through the various things we do. We have considered the ways in which we find God in other people and the ways in which we are the hands and heart of Christ, we are the love of God made manifest in the world.

Today you will find the annual parish report ready for you to take and read. The booklet is filled with reports from the various commissions and committees of the parish on the work we have done over the last year. It’s a record of the fine ministries that take place at Christ Church, of the way in which we strive to turn and follow God.

Next week we will have one service at 10am followed by the annual meeting. At that meeting we will elect new vestry members, hear the report on our finances and budget, and have the opportunity to thank the outgoing vestry members. In addition we will thank T.H. for her years serving as the Chair of the Finance Committee. It will be a time of celebration and thanks giving for all the blessings of this parish. It is a wonderful life, after all, and each of us really do make a difference in the lives of others.

So, as you prepare for the meeting next week, and as we prepare for the year ahead, remember our readings today and their call to discipleship. Even if it doesn’t mean abandoning everything you have known, how might following Jesus come to mean something new in your life?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Hunger for God

A reflection on the readings for Epiphany 2: First Samuel 3:1-10 and John 1:43-51

The Hunger Games, is the first book in a trilogy of books based on a time some 100 years in the future. Following the apocalypse and a complete collapse of the world as we know it a new country rises up in North America. Instead of the United States there are twelve districts, all tightly controlled by the Capital, and each focused on the natural resources of the district. Most of the districts are very poor, a few have ample resources. In order to remind the districts that they are under the strong arm of the President and Capital, the Hunger Games are held once a year. The games, looking like something out of reality television and the Olympics, requires each district to randomly select one boy and one girl, called “TRIBUTES,” between the ages of twelve and eighteen, to compete in the games. The Hunger Games are a survival of the fittest battle through extreme wilderness experiences with only one person, one tribute, allowed to win. All of the children competitors must battle each other and the elements until one remains, with the entire event being televised. Everyone in every district is required to watch the games. The district with the winning child receives notoriety, extra food, and benefits for a year, until the next Hunger Games.

Katniss, the lead character in the series, is a sixteen year old girl from District 12, a poor coal mining district. Following the death of her father from a coal mining accident, Katniss becomes the family caretaker – hunting for meat and collecting berries to support her mother and younger sister. She adores her sweet younger sister, Primrose.

Here is an excerpt from the book, with Katniss as the narrator, as the town prepares to learn who will be the tributes from their district:

“It’s time for the first drawing. Effie Trinket says as she always does, ‘Ladies first!’ and crosses to the big glass bowl with the girl’s names. She reaches in, digs her hand deep into the ball, and pulls out a piece of paper. The crowd draws a collective breath and then you can hear a pin drop, and I’m feeling nauseous and so desperately hoping that it’s not me….Effie….reads out the name in a clear voice. And it’s not me. It’s Primrose….There must be some mistake. This can’t be happening. Prim has her name on one piece of paper in thousands! Her chances of being chosen are so remote that I haven’t even bothered to worry about her…..with one sweep of my arm, I push her behind me. ‘I volunteer! I gasp, I volunteer as tribute!”

It is no surprise that when the younger sister is chosen to be the tribute Katniss insists on going in her place. Take me, she proclaims. The story that unfolds is gripping, moving, and challenging to read.

Our readings this morning all focus on the idea of being chosen by God, called to serve God, and our response to that call. The readings offer us a number of ways in which people hear God’s call and follow, reflecting that each of us is called, in different ways, and each of us responds in our own way.

Samuel, although a small boy, is called to become a "trustworthy prophet of the Lord." The Gospel of John tells the story of Philip and Nathanael leaving everything behind to follow Jesus. These readings connect to the theme of the Gospel for this year – “Where is God?” with the idea that God chooses to be made known in and through us.

None of us has the exact same call from God, each call is unique to who we are. Which reminds me of this story:

A rabbi named Zusya died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, "Why weren't you Moses or why weren't you Solomon or why weren't you David?" But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, "Why weren't you Zusya?"

How are we to become fully who God calls us to be? Samuel reminds us that God calls both children and adults. God’s call might come as a whisper, or small voice in the night, as a dream, a thought, an idea, or something said to us by another person. God’s call comes in and through the context of all the voices in our lives.

And so, sometimes we need help discerning which voice is the authentic voice of God. Samuel seeks the guidance of Eli. People discerning a call to ordained ministry need to have that call confirmed by a community of people who, after spending a number of weeks and months in prayer and conversation, can affirm a call or redirect the person toward another understanding of their call. Each of us has a calling, and for many of us it manifests in the work we do every day, whether that is our paid profession, our volunteer work, or our role as a parent or grandparent, lawyer, doctor, nurse, or teacher.

Martin Luther King, Jr. whose feast day we celebrate today, knew his call from God. A minister and an activist for social justice, particularly as one who spoke out against racism and prejudice, Dr. King literally put his life on the line to follow God. Unlike the Hunger Games where one person survives, King worked hard for the survival of people of color – for all of society to recognize the inherent value of all human beings – loved by God and worthy of equal opportunities in all avenues of life. Dr. King points us to consider how our call, like his call, is a movement toward the fulfillment of the kingdom of God, or what it means to love God, love self, and love others. Our call may not look as extreme or as intense as his, but that doesn’t mean it is less important to the kingdom of God.

Bruce Epperly, an author and Spiritual Director suggests that our call is a “call to adventure – to see God everywhere, to experience God in our daily lives, to honor embodiment, and welcome revelation whenever and wherever it occurs…In the questioning, inspired by a sense of holiness in all moments and all creatures, we will discover God’s voice amid the voices….
Katherine Hawker at liturgyoutside.net wrote this prayer, A Litany of Call:

A child once dreamed the Voice was calling his name… 'Samuel';
Fisherman once heard the Voice when a young man bid them follow;
And still the Voice beckons today… can you hear?
Here I am. Send me.

Moses protested vehemently as the Voice spoke at the burning bush;
Mary stood amazed as the Voice proclaimed impending birth;
And still the Voice beckons today… can you hear?
Here I am. Send me.

Rosa Parks followed the Voice to the front of the bus;
Martin Luther King, Jr. heard the Voice as the bullet shattered;
And still the Voice beckons today… can you hear?
Here I am. Send me….

A timid believer pauses to listen to the Voice;
A struggling church hears the Voice and turns;
And still the Voice beckons today… can you hear?

Listen. The Voice is calling you, too…

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Building A Bridge to God

Rabbi Jeffery Salkin, author of numerous books on Judaism, and rabbi of Temple Israel in Columbus, Georgia, tells this story in his book, “Being God’s Partner,”…

“A few years ago, a young taxi driver drove me to John F. Kennedy Airport, on Long Island. After a few minutes of conversation, I discovered that Mike had belonged to my synagogue years before I came to the community.

‘So, rabbi,’ he asked, while we sat in heavy traffic, ‘What do you say to a Jew like me who hasn’t been to a synagogue since his bar mitzvah ceremony?’
Thinking a moment, I realized that in Hassidic lore, the baal aqalah (the wagon driver) is an honored profession. So I said, ‘We could talk about your work.’

‘What does my work have to do with religion?’

‘Well, we choose how we look at the world and at life. You’re a taxi driver. But you are also a piece of the tissue that connects all humanity. You’re taking me to the airport. I’ll go to a different city and give a couple of lectures that might touch or help or change someone. I couldn’t have gotten there without you. You help make that connection happen.’

‘I heard you on your two-way radio after you drop me off, you’re going to pick up a woman from the hospital and take her home. That means that you’ll be the first non-medical person she encounters after being in a hospital. You will be a small part of her healing process, an agent in her re-entry into the world of health.’

‘You may then pick up someone from the train station who has come home from seeing a dying parent. You may take someone to the house of the one he or she will ask to join in marriage. You’re a connector, a bridge builder. You’re one of the unseen people who make the world work as well as it does. That is holy work. You may not think of it this way, but yours is a sacred mission.”

We have just celebrated the birth of Christ, the incarnation of God, Emmanuel, of the one who has come to live among us, the Word made flesh. We celebrated the sacred occasion of naming this holy one, Jesus – that was our worship service last Sunday. And today, in the Gospel of Mark we hear that the child is already grown, and is being baptized in the river Jordan. His ministry as the Holy One, his sacred work, in the Gospel of Mark begins – for the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove – and we hear that he is God’s beloved. Jesus is the bridge builder for us, the way in which God comes to know us more deeply and we come to know God.

The Holy Spirit, the active energy of God is manifesting God’s desire into the baptism of Jesus, into the world, into our lives, in and through us. And, by virtue of our baptism, the Holy Spirit infuses us with her energy, guides our work, and enables us to partner with God. The Holy Spirit is means by which the bridge is built between humanity and God.

It is God who has chosen us, chosen to let our hands be God’s hands, to let our feet take us where God desires, and put into our mouths the words of compassion that God would have us say. But, though it be God’s desire it still require us to respond, to do, to act, to participate with God.

The Acts of the Apostles gives us a glimpse into the life of the early church and the mystical reality of God acting in creation and the response of humanity to God. Into that glimpse this morning we find St. Paul baptizing a group of people in Ephesus, and we hear that the, “Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke…” This is the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s desire becoming active in us, motivating us to action, into crossing the bridge.

Maxine F. Dennis, in her reflection titled, “Of Human Hands” wrote,
“Cashiering in a supermarket may not seem like a very rewarding position to most. But to me it is. You see, I feel that my job consists of a lot more than ringing up orders, taking people’s money, and bagging their groceries. The most important part of my job is not the obvious. Rather it’s the manner in which I present myself to others that will determine whether my customers will leave the store feeling better or worse because of their brief encounter with me. For by doing my job well I know I have a chance to do God’s work too. Because of this, I try to make each of my customers feel special. While I’m serving them, they become the most important people in my life.”

The most important work we do each day is to consider how we are doing God’s work by living into our baptismal covenant – how we are loving God, loving self, and loving others. How we are working toward justice and the dignity of all people, how we are treating everyone as we wish to be treated. How we encounter Christ in one another, in friend and stranger alike.

Each of us spends our time doing holy work, a sacred mission. You may not think of it that way, whatever it is you do with each day, but it is. It is sacred because every day you encounter other human beings in some capacity, whether the person is your neighbor or a stranger in the grocery store, a colleague at work or a friend in school, every day we encounter others – and in that process, how we treat others is a measure of our engagement in the sacred work of God.

Bruce Epperly, a noted author and spiritual director offers this on the Process and Faith Blog:
“Mark’s Gospel describes Jesus’ baptism, but God’s words to Jesus reflect God’s care for our lives (as beloved of God)… While sacraments awaken us to God’s love, they don’t define the scope of God’s love. In the interplay of divine call and human response, sacramental moments – (which make obvious the mystery of God’s grace and love occur with the potential that they) may lead to life-transforming experiences…. each day can be a celebration of our baptism…an opportunity for renewal, refreshment, transformation, and cleansing…”

During this year, as we read and reflect on the Gospel of Mark we will be pondering the question Mark asks – “Where is God?” – and the response will be varied. Sometimes we will encounter God in one another. Other times we encounter God in a moment of time or in the words of a complete stranger. All of these encounters with God will happen, whether we notice them or not. Today’s passage from Acts suggests that we should be on the lookout for these mystical experiences, sacramental opportunities, in which we can, through the power of the Holy Spirit, make visible signs of the invisible grace of God desire in our lives.

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