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
February 14, 2019 Because We’ve Always Done It That Way
Is there a less satisfying answer to the question “why do we do that?” than “because we’ve always done it that way”? I doubt it. Whether in our families, or workplaces, or churches, this is the answer that is meant to shut down further conversation. On the other hand, as Simon Sinek and others have reminded us, there is something powerful in embracing the “why” of a situation (see Sinek’s excellent TED talk called “Start with Why”). If we understand not only what something is, and how to do it, but also why, we are likely to be much more engaged. This is true of children with their chores, employees working on a project, and Christians living out our faith. Recall that Jesus said to his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer, for the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father” (John 15:15).
Certainly grasping the “why" is important when it comes to participating in our rather complex liturgy. And we are, all of us, participants (if we think of it as a performance, each of us has a role - none of us is in the audience). I’ve heard some suggest that the old Roman Mass in Latin was mystically inspiring and otherworldly, to some degree, because very few people understood it. Maybe. But for the most part, I think we are more spiritually engaged when we understand at least something of what is happening in our worship, even as we believe that there is a massive part of it that is unseen and largely unseeable this side of heaven (the communion of saints, angels and archangels who worship God with us, for example). What we see in worship, and in this earthly life generally, are but the tip of the iceberg, but we can explore our own little patch of it, and in that exploration, learn something of the whole.
There is some danger in overthinking things when we worship God, drowning out our peaceful contemplation with the whirling din of an overactive mind, but there is also danger in going on uninformed “autopilot” because “we’ve always done it that way.” For this reason, every few years, when the season after Epiphany is longer than usual, we have been in the habit of offering “instructed Eucharists.” Over two consecutive weekends, beginning this weekend, the clergy will at all services reflect on what we are doing when we celebrate the Eucharist, and especially why. We focus in week one on the first half of the service, the Liturgy of the Word, and the next week on the second half, the Liturgy of the Table. Hopefully, these reflections will deepen our experience of this ancient practice that Jesus himself asked us to do to remember him. We plan to gather these reflections together and put them on our website, as a tool for members and guests who wish to understand more fully why we do what we do.
This is also a good time to mention that I am taking reservations for this year’s Path of Discipleship group, to begin in March. Teaching this class, alongside parishioner Mike King, is one of the things I most look forward to each year. The 8 sessions serve as the preparation for those adults who wish to be baptized, confirmed, or received (for those confirmed in another tradition such as the Roman Catholic church). But it is also for those already confirmed Episcopalians who seek a deeper knowledge of the “why” of our Episcopal tradition, in the context of a supportive and curious small group. Using the Prayer Book, and the excellent new book “Walk in Love,” we will grow not only our faith, but our friendships with one another. I’ve got 9 registered so far, with room for no more than 15. Our group experience will culminate in the first visit to All Saints' of our new bishop, Jennifer Reddall, on May 12.
• We are blessed to have Andy Andersen and his team always hard at work maintaining our buildings and grounds. We are deciding among several bids to replace our roof, once the money has been raised. And have you noticed Paul Montanari’s efforts on the tile around the altar? He is removing decades’ worth of dirt and wax, and the floor is shining like it hasn’t in a long time.
• We had a good group of almost 20 for our Living Room Conversation on prison and recidivism last week. Over the coming months, we will turn our collective attention to Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, but look for Living Room Conversations to return this summer.
February 7, 2019 Our Haiti Partnership: 10 Years in the Making
There was sad news this week related to our partnership with Saint Paul’s church and school in Gascogne, Haiti. This year’s trip by students, parents, and faculty from our church and day school to Haiti had to be cancelled. The statement from our school can be found by clicking here.
This was a painful, but wise decision.
The last few months in Haiti have been volatile. Anti-corruption protests have been frequent, and sometimes violent. And there is a severe fuel shortage, making it difficult to guarantee transportation around the country. Out of an abundance of caution, after extensive communication with our sources “on the ground,” it made sense not to bring our young people into such an unpredictable situation. We look forward to sending a group next year, and in the meanwhile, we will continue funding and raising money for teacher salaries, student supplies, a generator, clean water and school lunch efforts that have been strategic priorities most recently in our decade-long relationship.
Haiti faces many daunting challenges. It is the poorest country in Latin America, with at least 60% of the population living under the poverty line of $2.41 per day. It is prone to natural disasters. It experiences earthquakes, the most major of which was in 2010, killing an estimated 250,000 people and displacing 5 million from their homes. A magnitude 5.9 earthquake struck in October. Hurricanes are common, including powerful Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Deadly diseases like cholera have hit (sometimes, tragically, brought by UN peacekeepers and others there to help).
The government and private sector in Haiti have a history of ineffectiveness and corruption. Tens of billions of dollars of aid sent to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake went missing or was misused. The current protests are the result of accusations of the theft of funds related to a Venezuelan oil program (Haiti imports all of its oil). Some 2 billion dollars may have been stolen by corrupt business and government leaders. With high unemployment, inadequate infrastructure and supplies, and few opportunities for self-improvement, many Haitians are desperate to escape their homeland; about a week ago, 28 Haitian migrants drowned off the coast of the Bahamas, seeking refuge.
Usually, the Episcopal Church in Haiti has been a source of comfort and hope. Churches are community hubs, helping those in need, and Episcopal schools provide some of the best education in the country, including in rural areas that would otherwise have no educational opportunities (like our partner community, Gascogne, in the rural central plateau). But this has been a turbulent time for the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti, as well. There were allegations of foul play and intimidation surrounding the election on June 2nd of the new bishop of Haiti, the Very Reverend Joseph Delicat. So serious were these allegations, that the majority of bishops and Standing Committees in the wider Episcopal Church failed to ratify his election, leaving the leadership of the Diocese of Haiti in limbo.
With all of these challenges, it is easy to become discouraged. But there are several hopeful things to keep in mind. Our own partnership with Saint Paul’s has been enormously effective over these past 10 years, led with passion at All Saints’ by faculty member and parishioner Dr. Beth Carson and in Haiti by Pere Jeannot and now Pere Alphonse. Because we are working with a specific community and area, we have been able to consult regularly with our Haitian partners there, prioritizing the projects they most need. On our annual trips, we have been tracking the progress of and spending on these projects, in addition to receiving regular email updates.
Together, with buy-in, project management, and labor from our Haitian friends, we have built latrines, and a large school building, funded teachers and students, and most recently worked on clean water, power, and school lunch programs, among other things. This is real progress, with positive economic “ripples” throughout the area. And the experience of traveling to Haiti has been a wonderful blessing to us. Our friend and friend to Haiti, the Rev. Roger Bowen, calls trips to Haiti “soul scrubbing.” I have found that to be abundantly true the two times I have been, and many of our students have had their lives transformed by the friendships they have made and experiences they have had in Haiti. For all of the difficulties there, the Haitian people themselves are faithful, resourceful, eager to connect, and unfailingly generous with what little they have.
It is also easy to project blame onto Haiti. To be sure, a prosperous future for Haiti depends, in large part, on the Haitian people: on their business and church leaders, and on their government finding the will to forge a stronger, more sustainable, and more just society. But it is difficult to stand on your own when a rock is on your back. There is a long history of foreign powers (at times including the United States) intervening with their own, not Haiti's best interests in mind, making it harder for the Haitians to attain self-sufficiency.
We can’t do much about the past, other than learn about it and from it, at times with humility and repentance, but we can surely be faithful friends in the present, helping the people we know best, the church and school of Saint Paul’s, Gascogne, in their efforts to make a better life for themselves and their children, and their children’s children. We will stand with them. We will continue to pray for them, every weekend and during the week at all our school chapels and at Evening Prayer. And as our friendships deepen even further, we will encounter the presence of Christ in the faces we see and the voices we hear. And they will, too.
January 31, 2019 Candlemas, Groundhogs, Gluttony, and Fasting
This weekend, we get to celebrate the feast day called Candlemas, which falls every year on February 2nd. Candlemas is called in our Prayer Book the feast of the Presentation of our Lord, or in some Christian churches the feast of the Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin. Whatever the title used, it represents the story in Luke 2:22-40 in which, forty days after his birth at Christmas, the baby Jesus was brought to the temple in Jerusalem to be dedicated to God, according to the Jewish custom. There, the holy family encountered Anna, and Simeon, who had been promised by God that he would not see death until he saw the Messiah. The poignant Song of Simeon (BCP p. 120) is one of our best-loved canticles, said or sung at Evening Prayer, Evensong, and Compline.
There are many traditions associated with Candlemas, including in some places the blessing of candles to be used in church (hence the name Candlemas or “Candle Mass”). In Germany, there was a weather-related custom, summed up in this proverb: “the badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemas Day, and, if he finds snow, walks abroad; but if he sees the sun shining, he draws back into his hole.” When German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania, there weren’t many badgers, but there were plenty of groundhogs. And so was born, in the 1840’s, Groundhog Day (like Candlemas, on February 2nd), when the groundhog sees his shadow or doesn't, predicting a long or short remainder of winter. It is ironic, though not surprising, that Groundhog Day has become so well known, while Candlemas, the far more ancient holiday from whence it came, is largely forgotten. I’m glad we get to remember it this weekend.
Candlemas is also a time in the season after Epiphany when the Church begins to think about Lent. Some years, Lent comes right on the heels of Candlemas, but this year is rather late (March 6th). As one way of preparing for Lent, I am offering three classes on the ancient practice of fasting. Fasting is a traditional Lenten discipline, but is rather poorly understood. I will explore over three Sundays the history of fasting in Christianity and several other religions, its spiritual and physical benefits, and the difference between fasting and dieting. I’m taking as my title a wonderful phrase that Saint Augustine uses in a sermon about fasting: “to enter again into yourself.” As we participate in one of the most gluttonous days of the American year (Super Bowl Sunday), perhaps we could use some conversation about how fasting, again in the words of Augustine, “cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the Spirit [and] renders the heart contrite and humble”!
• If you have not had the chance yet, do read the Annual Report online. My annual State of the Parish address from last Sunday is also on the website. Short version: the State of the Parish is very good!
• The February 10 Evensong is going to be a special one. It honors the Legacy Circle but is open to everyone, and will feature world-renowned organist and ASU professor Kimberly Marshall, and guest conductor John Abdenour, who directs one of the finest choral programs in New England at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fairfield, CT.
• Speaking of music, I am so grateful to Lori Simmons and Trevor Carolan for stepping up on an interim basis to help fill the void with the recent departure of Ilona Kubiaczyk-Adler for another position. Lori and Trevor are wonderful people and excellent musicians, and will do a great job under Joseph Ripka’s leadership until we are able to hire a permanent music associate sometime later this year.
January 24, 2019 Patience is the Secret
I suspect most of us have seen the large, outdoor sculpture in Civic Space Park, across from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism on the downtown ASU campus. Installed in March of 2009, and designed by artist Janet Echelman, its title is “Her Secret is Patience,” which comes from a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: "adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience.” This work of art was rather controversial in the beginning, not least because of its expense, but I find it beautiful and inspiring. Part of my fondness for it, admittedly, is sentimental; my family and I arrived in Phoenix just a few months after the sculpture made its debut, and so, like it, we are approaching our 10th anniversary here. How the time flies!
Patience is a virtue, the saying goes; it is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-3). And as the Emerson quote reminds us, patience is not passive but powerful. We modern humans get obsessed with big and rapid changes, but incremental change, implemented with patience, is one of the most effective forces there is (think of the incremental change that carved out the Grand Canyon). As your Rector, I take pride in our collective accomplishments over the past year for the sake of the Gospel described in this year’s Annual Report, but also in both the large and more gradual areas of progress over the past almost 10 years. This is the work of many dedicated staff and volunteers, but even more so, the work of the Holy Spirit through us.
Ten years ago, much was healthy and strong about All Saints’ church. But there were challenges, among them: a pattern of large operating deficits, no real endowment, a sometimes strained relationship of church and school, a weak online presence, and what some perceived to be an unwelcoming atmosphere. We have our challenges now, too, but have made a lot of progress on these and many other areas. But the most important change is something we cannot measure, or even know for certain, but that we pray and hope for: to be formed, more and more, into the likeness of Jesus Christ by God’s grace, gradually growing in love for God and our neighbors. That must always be our ultimate goal, individually and collectively. It takes intention, resources, and yes, patience.
January 17, 2019 Dr. King on Forgiveness: A Healing Message in Troubled Times
We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)
One of the many reasons why I am grateful, every year, for the celebration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is that he has left us a banquet of challenging, inspiring, and comforting writings from which to choose. So much of what he wrote continues to nourish us. This week, I’ve been thinking about his profound quote above on forgiveness.
Of all of the remarkable qualities of Jesus, one of the most so was his extraordinary capacity for forgiveness. Jesus taught often on the power of forgiveness. Recall that he said we ought to forgive our enemies 70 times 7 times, and turn the other cheek to those who attack us. He forgave from the Cross those who unjustly killed him. Many of the saints, particularly the holy martyrs such as Dr. King, like Jesus likewise forgave those who hated and killed them.
Forgiveness is very, very difficult. We humans struggle to forgive others, and even ourselves. He hold onto bitter grudges for so long that they poison us from the inside. Part of why I was thinking of Dr. King’s writing on forgiveness was that I also read this past week David Brooks’ insightful column in the New York Times entitled “The Cruelty of Call-Out Culture.” Brooks asserts that, especially because of our online world, the speed and pervasiveness of information flow, and because of what he names the “Call-Out Culture,” when someone makes certain kinds of mistakes, their reputation can be destroyed immediately and irreparably with little opportunity for reconciliation, forgiveness, or growth. Brooks says, “even the quest for justice can turn into barbarism if it is not infused with a quality of mercy, an awareness of human frailty and a path to redemption.”
Each of us will, over the course of our imperfect lives, misspeak, saying wrong or even mean or cruel things many times. We will have blind spots and areas of ignorance, based on our upbringing, experiences, and prejudices. We will do wrong. The Christian gospel teaches us that God forgives us if we truly repent, and that we ought to forgive one another. That leaves room to grow beyond some of our limitations, some of the evil within us, and become more like Jesus. Our prison ministry is a striking example of putting Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness into practice. Following Jesus command, Christians have always visited those in prison, not least because we believe in divine grace that has power to transcend our mistakes, and transform the most selfish and wounded heart from sinful ways to concern and even love for others.
Ours is a God of second chances, and we are called to offer the same. As Dr. King says, we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive, in ourselves, in our communities, in our culture, and in our nation. For if we cannot forgive, we cannot truly love.
January 10, 2019 Thanking Ilona and Next Steps with Our Music Ministries
Like so many of us, I was surprised and saddened to hear that Ilona Kubiaczyk-Adler will be leaving us after a year as our Associate Director of Music. She is a musician of remarkable talent and training, and also a wonderfully warm and delightful person. Ilona has blessed us with her organ playing, choral and bell choir conducting, singing, and training of our young choristers (as a chorister parent, I’ve seen her gift with children up close). And at the same time, I understand her need to have a part-time position that gives her more flexibility with her family schedule and her concertizing. Ilona will remain a good friend of All Saints’, and we will doubtless hear her play our organ as a guest in the future.
Our Director of Music, Joseph Ripka, in consultation with me, is putting together some interim solutions to get us past Easter, while covering as many of Ilona’s responsibilities as possible. This will give us time thoughtfully to consider what we need in terms of staffing to support our music ministry, including our growing chorister and music school efforts, and then to fill that position well. I must say, I have enjoyed not having to fill any staff positions for more than a year, but it is the reality of workplaces that some turnover is inevitable, and that when it happens, we have the opportunity both to celebrate our successes and to consider strategically what staffing will help us best to fulfill God’s mission for All Saints’ as we interpret it.
This program year has seen dynamic evolution with our music ministry, following the arrival of Joseph Ripka in the late fall of 2017. The offerings of our adult choirs have expanded, with additions like Handel’s Messiah this past Advent to a full house, and monthly chanted Compline, to go along with our substantial Sunday morning music and monthly choral Evensong. Our RSCM chorister program with community children has become established, with these young musicians diligently rehearsing three times a week and singing every other Sunday at the 9am service. Their Christmas Lessons and Carols with the adult Schola was magnificent. Meanwhile, our Day School choristers had some 40 students singing beautifully at Christmas Eve this year. Clearly our music programs for children and youth are meeting a need in the Phoenix area, and will continue to be an important mission focus for All Saints’, both church and school, going forward. There is no other program for adults, children, and youth like this in the Phoenix area.
Ilona’s last Sunday with us is January 20th. Please join us as we thank her then for her many contributions over the past year, and wish her well in her new position.
January 3, 2019 Did the Babylonians Keep Their New Year’s Resolutions?
History tells us that making New Year’s resolutions goes back at least to the Babylonians, about 4,000 years ago. There is something deeply human about self-improvement, wanting to leave behind those things that hold us back or make us unhappy or unhealthy, and make a fresh start.
The problem is, humans aren’t very good at change. Scientists tell us that the rate of success for New Year’s resolutions hovers around 10%. Breaking a habit, especially one that gives us pleasure, and replacing it with something better for us but more difficult is, let’s face it, really hard. Vegetables instead of chocolate? Getting up an hour earlier to exercise? Reading the Bible instead of Facebook?
Sure, the experts have devised useful techniques for being more effective at keeping our resolutions, things like: set gradual goals and measure them, don’t try to do more than one or two things, enlist a friend to help and tell people about your goals, don’t be too hard on yourself if you fail but try again, and so on. All good advice. But we’re working against millions of years of evolution with most of our resolutions, and our genes usually win.
I’m not particularly good at keeping resolutions, when I make them (and I usually don’t, saving my energy for Lenten practices), but when I have had success, the most helpful advice I’ve heard is: never rely on willpower. Our willpower is limited. Better to set up our environment so we are less likely to need willpower. No cookies in the house? Then we’re less likely to eat them. The time in my life when I was most physically fit, I was in graduate school, and a group of four of us got up every weekday morning to exercise. We gave each other permission to call, bang on the door — whatever it took to get each other out of bed each morning and to the gym. It wasn’t willpower that got us exercising; it was peer pressure!
Sometimes I wonder if New Year’s resolutions are Christian. If they are connected to vanity, probably not. If they are genuinely about being better stewards of our God-given bodies and minds, perhaps so. But rooted in Christian theology is the idea that we lack the ability to help ourselves; that’s why we need a savior. It is only by God’s grace, given to us in Jesus Christ, that we are able to do those good things that God asks of us. And so, if your resolution is something that you think God wants you to do (pray, read the Bible, be kind to others, be more attentive to family, undo dangerous or gluttonous habits etc.) then ask continually, through prayer, for God’s help. And if your resolution is something that you don’t think God cares about, or worse yet, is something God opposes in your life, why do it?