A Weekly Commentary by the Rev. Poulson Reed
Rector of All Saints' Episcopal Church & Day School
A Weekly Commentary by the Rev. Poulson Reed
Rector of All Saints' Episcopal Church & Day School
September 13, 2018 Our New Choristers at 9am on Sundays
“Train up a child in the way that they should go; even when they are old they shall not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).
The other day, I was getting ready to go into Evening Prayer, about 5:25pm on a weekday, and I was struck by all that was going on in our church building. There were 7 or 8 people waiting for Evening Prayer in the Chapel, a ministry group was meeting in St. Barbara, and the choristers were rehearsing in the choir room. One of the things I love about All Saints’ is that there is so much activity on our campus, with the many ministries and programs of church and school. Still, it used to be the case that the late afternoon and early evening, after the school dismissal, was relatively quiet at the church many days before the start of evening programs. But more recently, you are likely to hear a variety of music rehearsals and lessons (through our new Music School) taking place before, during, and after Evening Prayer.
Three late afternoons a week, our student choristers from the community have been rehearsing (choristers choose two rehearsals out of three each week), and beginning this Sunday, we will start to hear the fruit of their labors. Our choristers will sing every other Sunday at 9am, supported by the trained adults of our Schola Cantorum. A number of the choristers and their families were not connected to All Saints’ before, and we are delighted to have them with us. This is the beginning of the fulfillment of a vision: students from the community coming into the orbit of All Saints’ Church, learning how to sing and play instruments, and sharing their talents in worship. As someone who sang in church choirs for most of my life until I was ordained, I know how important those experiences were for me not only musically but spiritually, and in my growth as a person and as a leader. As the quote from Proverbs reminds us, the training we impart to our children will be with them for a lifetime. I couldn’t be more proud of our young musicians, and of their outstanding leaders, Joseph Ripka and Ilona Kubiaczyk-Adler.
• One my biggest areas of focus this summer was working with the search committee for the next Head of School for All Saints’ Episcopal Day School. Tim Haskins, our Senior Warden, and I were part of a committee of nine that evaluated candidates, leading to the selection of three finalists who visited All Saints’ for two days each a few weeks ago. Now the search process is complete, with the appointment by the school’s Board of Trustees of Dr. Emma Whitman, who will begin on July 1 following Leo Dressel’s retirement. I am thrilled with the appointment. Dr. Whitman has just the right gifts, experiences, energy, and vision to build on Leo’s excellent work and help lead the school into its even brighter future. Dr. Whitman is also an Episcopalian, currently serving in an Episcopal school, and appreciates the central importance of our Episcopal identity to our school. We look forward to welcoming Emma, her husband Dave, and their daughter Molly to our All Saints’ community next summer.
September 6, 2018 Priest, Pastor, Teacher, Coach?
Members of the clergy exercise a variety of roles in our ministry, all of which are interrelated and ever-present. Sometimes our priestly identity comes to the fore as in our sacramental duties, or the pastoral as we support people in their times of need, or the teaching role as we instruct members of all ages in the essentials of the faith. But lately, in addition to those essential aspects of my ministry, I’ve been seeing myself more and more as a coach.
When I was a student, the distinction between teacher and coach seemed clear: a teacher taught in a classroom, and a coach coached on the ball field or in the gym. But other than subject matter and location, the differences between a teacher and a coach are actually quite subtle. In general, teaching has traditionally been understood as somewhat more top down, a transfer of knowledge from an expert to a novice. Coaching often involves guidance that the participant, who already has some proficiency, can use to facilitate their own growth. Sometimes coaching implies more one-on-one or small group training, and the perfecting of a skill or practice more than the learning of a concept or set of facts.
My sense is that in education, more coaching skills are being brought into the classroom: less lecture and “sage on the stage” and more group work, “flipped classrooms,” individualized instruction and the like. Meanwhile the term “coach” has become widespread in many different fields. No longer is the coach only on the athletic court or field; we hear of “executive coaching," with professionals seeking expertise to hone their skills, and “life coaches” guiding wellness and self-improvement.
I do still enjoy at times the traditional teaching model of the well-researched lecture, or the presentation with some interaction, a style I use with some regularity when teaching adult Christian education on Sunday mornings. But increasingly, I find the coaching approach more effective. With our Evening Prayer teams, for example, I’ve enjoyed more a coaching than a teaching role, making some suggestions but assuming a high level of proficiency and spirituality on the part of the leaders. Learning to pray the Daily Office works much better in trial and error practice, in repetition and muscle memory, than in attempting to memorize a sheet of instructions.
This Sunday begins a new program year with Kick-Off Sunday. It will be a grand celebration, with the return of our choirs and Christian education for all ages. Our new community choristers will be singing at the 9am service every other week beginning September 16th, and there are a host of ministry opportunities available for all ages as we pray, learn, serve, and connect together. As part of that Kick-Off, I am beginning a three session class called “A Rule of Life for Busy People.” In it, I see myself much more as coach than teacher. There will be pieces of teaching, mixed in with a good deal of practical coaching on how to train our spiritual lives. As with a first day at the gym, we will begin where we are and build, from there, an individualized action plan for spirituality, health, and happiness. Come ready to train!
August 30, 2018 A Blueprint for an Honorable Life
I’ve just finished reading Senator John McCain’s farewell statement to our state and the nation, and it is remarkable not only for what it says about him, but for what it says to all who read it. For in his straightforward but stirring prose, Senator McCain has left us not only a reflection on his own honorable life, but a blueprint for our own. And it comes at just the right time, for our nation is caught up in converging crises in which our major institutions (especially our government and politics, and most recently the Roman Catholic Church) are hemorrhaging credibility and trust. If we are to rebuild confidence in our civic and moral institutions (and we must, for the sake of our children and theirs), it will come over time, through the selfless, courageous actions and example of honorable women and men.
Here are some specific lessons from Senator McCain’s statement that we might adopt, for the good of ourselves, our families, our communities, and our nation.
• Serve. Over and over in his statement, Senator McCain speaks of the honor of serving his country in uniform and in government. To serve others selflessly and humbly, in our family, work, church, community, and civic life, with more regard for others’ good than for our own, is to walk in the path of God. As Jesus taught, “the greatest among you will be your servant."
• Acknowledge Our Mistakes. He mentions having made mistakes and having regrets, but says that “I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them.” It is healthy to admit our mistakes, and to share our regrets, for that is how we grow, and how we are reconciled with those whom we have hurt or disappointed.
• Be Grateful. Senator McCain says that “I have observed that I am the luckiest person on earth…I would not trade a day of my life, in good or bad times, for the best of anyone else’s.” To be grateful for our many blessings, and for the uniqueness of our own life’s path, is a practice that leads to true happiness.
• Love Family. At the base of a good life, second only to our love of God, is the love of family and friends, those who stick by us in the best and worst of times. As he says, “no man ever had a more loving wife or children he was prouder of than mine.”
• Love Country. Ours is not a perfect country, but as Senator McCain says, "We are citizens of the world's greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history.” Love of country, which includes the calling always to improve it and make it more just, is something to embrace and proclaim, not shy away from.
• Seek Common Ground. A famous maverick and often a centrist, Senator McCain sought common ground and common sense. As he writes in his statement: “We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.”
A wise letter, with insights gleaned from a lifetime of honorable service, and a last gift to a grateful state and nation. May we read his words, reflect on them, and live them. Thank you, John McCain.
The full text of Senator McCain’s farewell statement can be found here: https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/27/politics/john-mccain-farewell-statement/index.html
August 23, 2018 Health Ministries: Who, What, and Why
At the end of this month we bid a temporary farewell to Patrice Al-Shatti, our Health Ministries Coordinator, and we welcome Jane Irvine into the role. Patrice is in training to be ordained a permanent deacon, and part of the standard diocesan process is that she leave us for a time to serve as an intern at another parish, in her case Saint Augustine’s in Tempe. Patrice will return to All Saints’ in late spring, and will be ordained a deacon in early June, at which point (pending the Bishop’s approval) she will serve as a deacon at All Saints’, alongside Jim Bade. Permanent deacons are unpaid but vital leaders in our churches, with involvement not only liturgically on Sundays, but also as an important link between the Church and the needs of the congregation, the wider community, and the world.
As Patrice moves into this new phase of ministry as intern and then deacon, we are delighted to have Jane Irvine entering into the Health Ministries Coordinator role. One of the blessings of this volunteer ministry is its flexibility: it has been different depending on the person in it, and their skills and interests: first Marta Smith, then Patrice, and now Jane. Jane’s foci will include pastoral care, ministries with and to our seniors, and opportunities for connection across generations. Jane brings to the position extensive experience in healthcare (including hospice care), and a longstanding and deep relationship with All Saints’, where she has served in numerous volunteer capacities (including currently as a member of the Vestry). The Health Ministries Coordinator will continue to be a point of connection among our various pastoral ministries (the clergy, Community of Hope, Daughters of the King, and others).
What is health ministry and why is it important? One answer is the practical one: so many areas of pastoral need involve health concerns, and health ministry is the intersection of health with spirituality and pastoral care. Wellness, illness and death all have spiritual components. Our health ministries at All Saints’ in recent years have touched on areas as broad and varied as mindfulness, sabbath, loneliness, addiction, healthy eating, exercise, caregiver support, treatment of disease, assisted living, end of life care and much more.
Health ministry is not only practical; it is also deeply theological. God came to earth as a human being in Jesus, in a human body, and in so doing showed the importance of our earthly humanity to God. Jesus healed the sick, the blind, and the lame, and was raised from the dead not as a spirit but as a body. We come from the dust, and to dust we shall return, but we, like Christ, will one day have resurrected bodies (as we proclaim in the creeds). Since God cares so much about our earthly bodies, it is fitting that the Church also care for humans in this transitory life, whether through relief of the poor or pastoral care.
Godspeed, Patrice, and blessings for this next chapter. We thank you for your impactful ministry so far, not only in our health ministries but with our Creative Community of artists and in so many other ways, and we look forward to your ministry among us as a deacon. Welcome, Jane, as Health Ministries Coordinator, and thank you for your willingness to serve those in need with compassion.
August 16, 2018 Why People Go (or Don’t Go) to Church: Some Data and Some Thoughts
The Pew Research Center regularly surveys religious belief and practice in the United States, and their comprehensive data provide valuable insights not only for scholars but for churches. Their most recent report is no exception. “Why Americans Go (Or Don’t Go) to Religious Services,” released on August 1st, confirms some suspicions but challenges others.
What the Report Shows
For the full report, go here: http://www.pewforum.org/2018/08/01/why-americans-go-to-religious-services/. But here are some highlights. Among those who attend church regularly, most do so, not surprisingly, to “become closer to God” (81%), followed by “So children will have a moral foundation” (69%), “to make me a better person” (68%) and “for comfort in times of trouble” (66%). Two things that are often touted as extremely important to church goers were only in the middle of importance: sermons (59%) and community (57%). And the metrics of obligation were quite low: “to continue my family’s religions traditions” (37%), “religious obligation” (31%), and “to please my family or spouse” (16%). Women are more likely to attend worship than men, older people more likely than younger, and Republicans more likely than Democrats.
As for why people do not go to church regularly, the top reasons were: “I practice my faith in other ways” (37%), dislike for religious services either generally or
specifically (37%), not a believer at all (26%), and logistical reasons (22%). A fairly large percentage (26%) could not or would not say why they don’t attend worship.
Some Reflections on the Data
Assuming our congregation is similar to those reflected in the data, we might consider the following:
• nurturing those who attend regularly by prioritizing a solemn but joyful worship experience and spiritual practices that help people feel close to God, offering
excellent programs for families with children, preaching and teaching on how to be a better person, and providing pastoral care in various forms to those in need of support.
• at the same time, being careful not to fall into a self-centered, consumer-oriented faith (what critics call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism) that softens the Gospel’s
call to repentance and sacrificial service to others. Healthy churches keep a balance of comfort and challenge as we follow the narrow path of Jesus as his disciples.
• finding opportunities to reach out creatively to those who “practice their faith in other ways,” a group almost half of whom prays regularly.
• finding ways to reach out to those who are not with us for practical reasons (illness, transportation issues, busy schedules).
Some Final Thoughts
There is not much we can do as a church to appeal to those who are not believers or interested in believing. That work of converting the heart is up to God, though we can, each of us, live lives of Christian joy and compassion that can inspire others. Neither can we any longer count on a sense of obligation to get most people to church. The days of people coming on Sundays solely because of their family or spouse or family history are mostly gone (though the data show that men are more likely than women to attend to please a spouse!).
But there is much we can do, individually and collectively, to invite and assist those who are “spiritual but not religious” and those who have practical obstacles to
attendance. For example, this year we will begin offering monthly sung Compline Sunday evenings. Might this mystical, atmospheric worship appeal to some who are not comfortable with the Eucharist, or who have Sunday morning commitments? How do we spread the word about our contemplative options like “Centering Prayer” on Saturday mornings, and the Rosary, and Evening Prayer? Our Seniors Task Force is considering how to help with transportation for those who can’t get here on their own. How can we get people here more easily and often? Do those who are seriously ill and homebound know that our Community of Hope will bring them communion and a listening ear wherever they are? How might we communicate about our support groups, and special events that are easier points of entry for some than worship?
The Pew study gives us a great deal to think about, as we continue to develop and execute our mission strategy. In all of this, we will need help from every single member of our All Saints’ community. Some ministry ideas are staff-driven, but many of the best ones bubble up from our membership (like our Prison Ministry, and Women’s Breakfast). Above all, ministry growth requires “word of mouth." As you read and hear about the great things that are happening at All Saints’ this year, can you help us spread the word?
• The third and last of our summer Living Room Conversations is on Tuesday. The first two have had good sized and enthusiastic crowds. After this next one, the
Diversity and Reconciliation Committee will consider whether we might offer additional conversations on important topics, building connections across political and other differences.
• This past week was the first week of class at our day school. What fun it was to welcome our more than 500 students to campus, for the start of a new academic year. One of my most significant activities this summer, along with our Senior Warden Tim Haskins, has been with the committee seeking the next Head of School for All Saints’. The new Head will begin her or his service the summer of 2019, after Leo Dressel’s retirement. I am pleased that we have narrowed it down to a small group of three excellent finalists. Please keep this search in your prayers as we seek a worthy successor to Leo, someone who can build on his thoughtful and dedicated leadership.
August 9, 2018 Pope Francis on the Death Penalty
Pope Francis is the most prominent Christian leader in the world, by a wide margin. With the death of Billy Graham last February, it’s hard to know what living Christian leader is the second best known (certainly in the top ten would be our own Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, after his sermon at the royal wedding). When Pope Francis speaks, especially on controversial topics, it makes news. The sense I get is that Pope Francis likes to stir the pot, as the saying goes, getting people talking about things he thinks are urgent or in need of challenge or re-evaluation. I, for one, am often glad for it. Because even though there are some significant theological differences between the Roman Catholic and Episcopal Churches, there are many more areas of similarity between our two traditions. Moreover, when the Pope makes news with a statement, it reminds the world that there are moral and ethical dimensions to much, if not all of life.
We live in a cultural environment that is becoming so pervasively secular and polarized that political affiliation has become an idol. Every issue is interpreted through a crudely partisan, winner take all world view (will it “energize the base” or appeal to “swing voters”?). As Christians, though, whose kingdom is not of this world, we are called to interpret everything through a moral world view, with politics as a secondary consideration. On any issue, we ask ourselves: what would God have us do? Is this consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus? Ideally we answer these questions not governed by our personal feelings, but with humility, through our careful reading of the Bible, through the teaching of the Church’s tradition over time, and, when those are not clear, through our God-given reason.
And so I was interested that Pope Francis recently re-ignited the debate about the death penalty, when he changed the Catechism to say that the use of the death penalty is never morally permitted. The core sentence reads as follows: “the death penalty is inadmissible because it attacks the inviolability and dignity of the person.” Frankly, many people were surprised that this was not already the teaching of the Catholic Church, and indeed the moral teaching has been developing in this direction for some time over recent papacies. But it was not always so. For centuries, the Catholic Church taught that capital punishment should be used sparingly, but was occasionally justified, as a curb to greater evil. The Biblical rationale for this “rare but occasionally permitted” view was found in a number of places, for example Genesis 9:6 (“whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed”) and Romans 13:4 (“if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for it is not without reason that [the authorities] bear the sword. Indeed, they are God’s servants to administer punishment to anyone who does wrong”).
When Pope Francis seemingly closed off the moral justification for the death penalty entirely, it was not without controversy. Not all Christians agreed. For example, Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress, who sits on the President's evangelical advisory board, said that on this issue Pope Francis was “dead wrong.” Some Catholics have said that Pope Francis has altered Church teaching too abruptly and unilaterally in simply changing the Catechism by “fiat." The Episcopal Church on this particular issue is on the side of the Pope, having been against the death penalty consistently and repeatedly since 1958, as articulated by the resolutions of our General Convention. However, as with almost any issue, there are faithful Episcopalians on both sides of the death penalty debate. Where two or three Episcopalians are gathered, there are likely to be two or three opinions in the midst of them!
Given that Scripture on this matter is not unanimous, Christians are likely to continue to differ (though the clear majority of denominations hold the Pope Francis view). My point is not to say what anyone should believe on this controversial topic, but simply to note how refreshing it is to see a serious issue being discussed and debated in the public square from a moral point of view, with human dignity at the center, instead of being based solely on politics and gut feelings. We could use more of that.
You may recall that we collected backpacks, Bibles, and other supplies earlier this summer for children of prisoners who were going to a special camp at Chapel Rock, our diocesan camp and conference center in Prescott. I am happy to report that 21 campers attended Camp Genesis in this, its inaugural year. If you want to experience a story that will warm your heart, read about the camp here and look at the slideshow:
August 2, 2018 Why We Want Children and Youth in Church (It’s Not Why You Might Think)
There’s palpable excitement growing around our ministries for and with children and youth at All Saints’ these days. Last week, Pastor Finn wrote about our reimagined and re-energized youth ministry, the result of conversations she has been having with youth and their families over the past months. This week, members of our community chorister program have been at choir camp at All Saints’, led by our Director and Associate Director of Music. Beginning in mid-September, these choristers will be singing every other Sunday at the 9am service. Other students will be able to learn how to play musical instruments as our All Saints’ Music School expands, and will share their talents in church, as well. And our Christian education program for young children will have some new developments and a new curriculum when it resumes the Sunday after Labor Day.
Ministry with children and youth is perhaps as challenging as it has ever been. Most family schedules are beyond hectic, and expectations of religious practice are shifting rapidly in the culture. There are no longer “best practices” in churches for how to run a successful children and youth ministry, or standard curricula that work well everywhere. Every church is scrambling to determine what approach fits best in its own context. Some churches around the country are even giving up on "Sunday school" for children and youth entirely, discouraged by low and inconsistent attendance. Not so at All Saints’: we are strategizing anew about how to offer our young people opportunities to pray, learn, serve, and connect that are so compelling, useful, life-giving and fun that they will move other commitments to sing, acolyte, learn, play, and put their faith into action with us. And we seek to grow our intergenerational connections also, with our young people getting to know wise mentors, side by side with a wide range of role models.
But why do we want children and youth in church? Not because we need them to keep Christianity afloat in the years to come. The Christian Church is God’s, not ours, and will never die (though it has, throughout history, sometimes seemed to die, only to be resurrected). If we value our young people only as means to an end (full churches and future pledges) we are missing the point. No, we want children and youth in church not for what they will do as adults, but for who they are now. The Body of Christ, in all its wondrous diversity, includes young people, and they are not optional, but essential, as Jesus himself recognized (“Let the little children come to me, do not hinder them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” Matthew 19:14). To have a range of people in our faith community: young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight, of different races and experiences and views, sinners and saints united in following Jesus, is to be the Body of Christ in all its fullness.
But it is not enough simply to have children and youth around. As adults, our responsibility is to model and pass down a true, challenging, and lively faith, not something watered down. Our young people deserve not only fun and connection, but also access to the rich heritage of our tradition: learning how to pray and understand the Bible, and how to use our faith as a steady compass amidst the confusion of life. If you are a family with children, let us know how we can support you in teaching the faith to your kids and to you (since the most important teachers of faith are parents and grandparents), and invest your valuable time, as you are able, in our faith community this year. And if you do not have children at home, please support our children and youth ministries financially in the month of August, and most importantly with your prayers and presence.
• Speaking of our choristers, Elizabeth, one of our singers, represented us the week of July 23rd at the Girls Course at Saint Thomas, Fifth Avenue in New York. To be accepted into this course was a great honor for Elizabeth, and for our choir program here at All Saints’. To hear the girls’ magnificent singing, go to the Saint Thomas webcast page (which is a wonderful resource for those who love to listen to choral evensong, and worthy of bookmarking): https://www.saintthomaschurch.org/webcasts
• I’m putting together the schedule of adult Christian education for the new program year. If you have a topic you would like for us to explore on Sunday mornings, please let me know in an email.
June 28, 2018 Free and Responsible Beings, United in Love
At our foundation, we were a society with strong covenantal attachments — to family, community, creed and faith. Then on top of them we built democracy and capitalism that celebrated liberty and individual rights. The deep covenantal institutions gave people the capacity to use their freedom well. (David Brooks “Our Elites Still Don’t Get It”)
In a 2017 New York Times column from which the above quote is taken, David Brooks makes the argument that, at our best, our nation has balanced individual liberty with a strong sense of community. But in recent years, the trend has been towards greater liberty but weaker community, as the major institutions of commitment (like marriage, religion, community organizations, and government) have declined in influence and credibility. Brooks says that often, when alternate forms of community arise to replace those that have been abandoned, the results are unhealthy, with a kind of tribalism (us vs. them politics, racism, internet mobs and so on). Those who find no sense of community at all, healthy or unhealthy, sometimes fall into extreme individualism and isolation, with symptoms like addiction, malaise, video game obsession, or paranoia.
This week before Independence Day is a good time to reflect on the blessing of liberty, which, as Benjamin Franklin said, is “not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature.” Our constitutionally protected freedoms strengthen our democracy, and serve as a bulwark against tyranny at home, and an inspiration to the rest of the world, even (perhaps especially) in this challenging period in our national life. When we use our liberty to choose freely to bond with others for justice and the common good, that is perhaps the highest expression of our national values and our founders’ intent.
This is one area in which our faith and our national life converge: in both, there is this theme of free people choosing to commit to one another for a purpose greater than themselves. Our collect this weekend has a marvelous image of the Church as community: we are a holy and living temple, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ himself as the chief cornerstone. This temple of God is never coercive, like the great pyramids of Egypt constructed by forced labor. God always gives us the choice, first to be joined with one another and with Christ in baptism, and second, to live out our baptism through a genuine love of God and our neighbor.
We give heartfelt thanks for the liberties we enjoy as Americans, and for the opportunity to gather freely in churches, families, and community organizations to work for the common good. May we fight the temptation either to be too individualistic and isolated, or to affiliate with groups or ideologies (real and virtual) that are hateful, selfish, and intolerant. And we live in hope, for the Bible gives us a vision, at the end of all things, of a perfect balance between liberty and community. As the theologian John Macquarrie so beautifully puts it: “the end, we have seen reason to believe, would be a commonwealth of free, responsible beings united in love.” May it be so, on earth as it is in heaven.
• Summer is a time when we see a lot of guests, both those visiting family and friends from out of town, and those who are looking for a church home. For this reason, it is an excellent time to wear our name tags, as a sign of our hospitality. Really, we ought to wear them every week, all year round, because in a church our size, it is impossible to know everyone by name. But many of us have been getting out of the habit. Church name tags can be left on the metal kiosk after worship, and since they are magnetic, they don’t damage clothes. If you don’t have a name tag, please fill out a form in the narthex, and we will be glad to provide one for you.
• Did you know that 104 members of our church have been involved with our Prison Ministry this year? Many other members of the wider community have been involved, as well. That means that, over the past year, our Prison Ministry has become one of our largest ministries at All Saints’. Well done, and thanks be to God!
June 21, 2018 How to Apply the Bible to Contemporary Issues: Some Basics, and the Crisis on our Border
Since the writing of this reflection, there have been major developments in the story, but many of the essential themes remain relevant.
So anyone who thinks he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them. Saint Augustine (On Christian Teaching)
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. Saint Paul (2 Tim 3:16-17)
Applying scriptural lessons to contemporary issues and events ought to be done with a great deal of humility, even caution, for there are relatively few matters on which the Bible is totally clear. Much of the time when the Bible is invoked in the public square, certain verses are cherry picked to support a political position, which does little to clarify things, but usually obscures them, inflaming rather than informing the situation. We ought to remember that the Devil used scripture when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness. When Jesus resisted the temptation, he used scripture, too, but did so with a deeper understanding of the spiritual themes and core meaning beneath.
This does not mean that we should give up on trying to see contemporary issues through the lens of faith. Indeed, we are called to do so, and as Saint Paul teaches us in the quote above, the scriptures are meant to be used to shed light on matters individual and communal, personal and political. The scriptures are practical tools; they are “useful,” for “training,” helping us to be “proficient” and “equipped.” But, like many tools, the scriptures are not easy to use, and proficiency with them takes serious commitment and practice.
Still, amidst the complexities of the Bible and our interpretation of it, there are major, underlying themes in its pages. As we seek to navigate choppy waters and foggy skies in these tumultuous times in our national life, the Bible is our map, and our compass is the core of Jesus’ teaching: the love of God and our neighbor. As Saint Augustine said, if our understanding of Scripture does not build up our love of God and our neighbor, we have not truly understood. Put to another test: does our Biblical argument produce the fruits of the spirit in ourselves and others: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”? (Galatians 5: 22-23).
There are countless wise teachings in the Bible, and “all scripture is inspired by God,” but not all teachings are of equal urgency. So, for example, the Bible teaches that those "who do not work should not eat,” (2 Thess 3:10), but if someone is about to starve to death, we are called to feed them. A human life is more important than learning a lesson about shared labor. Mercy always takes priority. When we think about the love of our neighbor, the Bible is as clear as it is on anything that we are to start with protecting the most vulnerable. The vulnerable come first, and sorting out the rest comes after.
Therefore, when it comes to any issue, including how to treat children brought by their parents into this country illegally, or seeking asylum, we can assert with confidence, from a Biblical point of view, that we are to treat those vulnerable children with genuine compassion. To me, that clearly means keeping families together as much as is possible, in safe and humane conditions. Care for and welcome of the vulnerable is our most important mandate, for they are our neighbors, made in God’s image. I find it dismaying that not all Christians seem to agree.
At the same time, can we be honest, and admit that most issues that have not yet been solved are incredibly complex, including what to do about our broken immigration system? While less important than the protection of the vulnerable and welcoming the stranger, it is also true that the Bible urges us to obey civil laws and authorities. Well-regulated and secure borders are necessary and keep people safe. We have not yet begun to ask, let alone answer the truly difficult questions on this topic.
Would we prefer to keep these immigrant families of uncertain or transitional status together, but in some kind of government facility? If we release people for later hearing dates, how do we make it likely that they will show up for those hearings? How do we discourage human trafficking and the cruel and unfair manipulation of the system? And, more deeply, what kind of country have we been, and who do we want to be? How do we, as a society, evaluate fairly and with compassion those who come to us seeking greater opportunity and safety, while recognizing reasonable limits on and priorities in immigration? After this immediate humanitarian crisis is resolved, and I pray that happens quickly, I hope some in government and in the media will be willing to explore the genuine complexity of this web of issues, beyond the internet memes and indignant talking points.
What frustrates me most is that there are common sense solutions to the challenges we face in our national life, and I dearly wish there were more people committed to working together and finding them, instead of stoking outrage and sowing division. But until that time when reason prevails, we in the Church ought to focus on the Biblical essentials, especially the well-being and dignity of every human being, with charity for diverse views beyond these Biblical first principles.
• Ever feel like your weekly experience of the Eucharist is unfocused and a bit stale? This Sunday at our summer education time at 9am, I will share some practical tips on how to be more fully present in the Eucharist, allowing it to nourish us more deeply.
• This Monday is the start of our annual version of vacation Bible school, All Saints’ Kids for the Community. Please keep our young people and their mentors in your prayers as they serve those in need in our area, as an expression of their faith.
June 14, 2018 Jesus Never Took a Vacation
“And so we take a holiday, a vacation, to gain release from this bondage for a space, to stand back from the rush of things and breathe again. But a holiday is a respite, not a cure. The more we need holidays, the more certain it is that the disease has conquered us, and not we it. More and more holidays just to get away from it all is a sure sign of a decaying civilization; it was one of the most obvious marks of the breakdown of the Roman empire. It is a symptom that we haven’t learned how to live so as to recreate ourselves in our work instead of being sapped by it.”
--Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941)
Evelyn Underhill, the great Anglican spiritual writer whose feast day falls every year on June 15, wrote brilliantly on many topics. Don’t take my word for it - we have several of her books available for check-out from our parish library. Her work on Christian mysticism, for example, is some of the most insightful commentary on that topic (she believed that all of us are mystics at heart, capable of profound experiences of the living God). But I was particularly taken, as I was reading some Underhill thisweek, with her quote above, on the topic of vacation.
So many of us live under such stress and anxiety that, when we find time for vacation, we are like gasping fish, stranded on the shore, that have been plopped by a merciful hand back into life-giving water. Underhill would surely not say, nor would I, that vacations are unnecessary. We all need the sabbath rest and refreshment that comes with time away from our usual responsibilities (even if it is a “staycation” in our own homes). Vacation is a blessing, and I hope all of us are finding some time this summer away from our usual routines (and from the heat!). Don’t forget, if you are out of town on a Sunday, how rewarding it is to worship in another church, whether Episcopal or not (I love to see bulletins from other churches, if you think to bring one back).
Yes, vacation is helpful, enjoyable, and good. But it is perhaps more important to live daily lives that are themselves rewarding, with pockets of renewal within and around them. A week of vacation is no substitute for a well-balanced existence, grounded in healthy relationships with God, our family and friends, co-workers, and ourselves. Does your daily life include “sabbath” times each day and each week, when you can rest, reflect, and reconnect? If you are seeking to add a spiritual time of refreshment, remember that All Saints’ offers many opportunities for prayer outside of our weekend Eucharists, opportunities that continue in the summer, including two Wednesday morning Eucharists, Evening Prayer now Monday through Thursday, Centering Prayer on Saturday mornings, and Rosary Prayer on Sunday mornings. A spiritual practice is one way to seek more balance and reprioritize amidst a hectic life.
Underhill went on to say, on the topic of vacation, that Jesus never took one! Her rather humorous point was that Jesus, who was busier and more stressed than anyone, never seemed overwhelmed. As she writes, Jesus “knew exactly when the moment had come for doing something, and when it had not.” All of us fall short of Jesus’ example, but in this, as in all things, he is an aspirational model for us: are we using our time wisely and healthily, for our good and the good of those around us, or are we controlled and exhausted by our schedule and our task list? Jesus was busy, but never lost sight of the things that were most important. Something for fathers, and for all of us to think about.
• The church staff held our annual staff retreat and planning session this past week. For our retreat day, we met at the Franciscan Renewal Center, and, amidst our
hard work, enjoyed a tour of their new church building, which is beautiful. We are blessed to have such a dedicated and talented staff at All Saints', and the 2018-19 program year that begins in September is going to be remarkable. Stay tuned!
June 7, 2018 The Widow’s Mite 2018
looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more
than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but
she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4)
Last week, we received a wonderful donation. It wasn’t large - just $15 - but was an act of extraordinary generosity. It came from an inmate at Perryville Prison (I will not use her real name, but will call her “Susan”), issued as an official check from the Arizona State Department of Corrections. Susan wrote a note that was included: “Enclosed is a check for 15 dollars. Thank you for all the cards and prayer throughout the year. Susan. God Bless You.”
Inmates at Perryville make about 20 cents an hour for their work, and, as I understand it, use what they earn to buy from the prison shop the little things that make their environment more humane: gum, snacks and the like. And so $15 represents about 75 hours of work by Susan, a precious resource she chose to donate to All Saints’ in thanksgiving for our ministry there. If ever there was a modern version of the story of the Widow’s Mite, this is it, for Susan gave generously out of her poverty. We prepared a nice thank you letter, with a beautiful image from our Saint John’s Bible, and sent it to her, with our deepest appreciation.
There are a lot of days in ministry that are fairly average, and a few that are discouraging, but there are some that make your heart sing, and the day we received that check was one of those. We are making a difference, a real difference in the lives of the inmates at Perryville: with our card ministry, our Christmas gifts for their children, our recent visits, and the art display by inmates coming to All Saints’ in September. And this past Sunday morning, the backpacks we were preparing for the children of the incarcerated who are going to Chapel Rock for camp this July were snatched up before all the pews were even empty. Something about this ministry at Perryville has touched a chord with All Saints’, and it is joyful to see it. God is blessing us through this ministry every bit as much as God is using us to bless the prisoners there.
The churches that struggle, in my experience, often have watered down faith, low expectations for members, lots of comfort with little that is spiritually challenging, and a constant focus on keeping attendees content. Churches that are strong and healthy are just the opposite: they preach and teach the challenging faith given to us by Jesus, they invite members into deeper faith and involvement, coach the spiritual practices that improve spiritual fitness, and are committed to serving and advocating for the most vulnerable.
When I see the number of our members who have committed to lead Evening Prayer, the terrific group who are showing up on Sunday mornings to learn how to pray the Daily Office on their own, and the passion we have for our ministry with prisoners (who are some of the loneliest and most vulnerable people in our world), it gives me confidence that God will continue to bless All Saints’ for God’s reconciling mission in the world.