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
April 11, 2019 Put Cynicism Aside
The last two weeks, I’ve been meticulously avoiding writing anything about my alma mater’s men’s basketball team. You see, last year I wrote a piece about my admiration for the University of Virginia team, whom I have rooted for since my childhood. And then they promptly lost their first round game in historic and humiliating circumstances. Now that they’ve won the national championship this year, I feel safe in writing something! This was a team I could root for without cynicism: they are upstanding young men (as far as I know) who truly play as a team, coached by a man of faith who values their development as human beings as much as the final score. They showed their character in taking last year’s loss, which Coach Bennett called their “painful gift,” and growing from it, maturing as a team and learning life lessons about what matters most. I’m beyond thrilled that they won, but even more so, proud of the way they handled adversity in the process.
It is difficult, in our day and age, to put cynicism aside. I’m not naive; I know that college basketball is, in some respects, a cesspool of cheating and manipulation, a sport of amateurs and student-athletes (on the surface) that is, at times, corrupted by a greedy underworld that seeks to exploit those who actually play. I’m sure not all is perfect even with my favorite team. But I was able to believe in them, and cheer them on, not because they were perfect, but because they were courageous.
Which brings me to Holy Week, which begins this Sunday with Palm Sunday. I was blessed in 2016 to go to the Holy Land and walk in the footsteps of Jesus. It is easy to be cynical as a pilgrim in Israel: holy sites of pilgrimage are surrounded by buses, packed with tourists, and overrun by gift shops and street vendors selling trinkets. And the political situation seems cruel and intractable. And yet, I was able to put cynicism aside and be awestruck by the realization that gospel events happened right there. Jesus was there.
As I mentioned in my sermon last Sunday, Holy Week is an invitation to give to Jesus our most precious resource: our time. I’ve never known anyone who worshipped often in Holy Week, who regretted their decision. The more time we give, this holiest of weeks, the more we enter into the heart of Jesus’ passion. Let us put cynicism and distractions aside, take up our cross, and follow him.
April 4, 2019 Integrity, Hypocrisy, and the Example of Jesus
Last Saturday, our Vestry and staff (including the clergy) gathered for our annual retreat. This retreat is usually an opportunity, towards the end of the program year, to think strategically and “big picture.” Organizations (and, for that matter, individuals and families) need periodic, scheduled time to step back from the “day to day” and consider larger questions of mission and vision, calling and opportunity. Our retreat leader was parishioner, former Vestry member, and organizational consultant Ken Mosesian, who brought to us concepts from his excellent new book “The Power of Promise: How to Win and Keep Customers By Telling the Truth About Your Brand.” I left the retreat feeling immensely grateful: for Ken’s valuable insights, and for the dedication of our Vestry and staff in giving most of a Saturday at a busy time of year for the sake of this church that we love.
Ken’s book and presentation on the promises we make with our brand got me thinking about integrity. The word “integrity” comes from a root word meaning “whole.” To have integrity is to be whole, undivided, with actions that are consistent with what we say and believe. Jesus was the perfect model of integrity: he exemplified what he taught, even to the Cross. And Jesus had particularly harsh criticism for those who said one thing, but did another, those “hypocrites.” The opposite of integrity is “hypocrisy,” and there is very little more damaging to an individual or organization than to proclaim one thing and practice the opposite.
Again and again, one of the most frequent and potent criticisms of Christianity by those who do not believe has been that many Christians are hypocrites, reading and even preaching what Jesus taught, but failing to do it. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” I’m somewhat more optimistic: I think many, many Christians do live with integrity, doing their best to practice Christ-like lives, often in confusing and difficult circumstances. But failures of integrity, especially by leaders, get a lot more attention than the quiet, faithful lives that bring God’s light into dark places.
None of us is perfect. Individuals, churches, and other institutions all make mistakes, occasionally doing things that are not consistent with our best selves. But do we have integrity most of the time, and when we do slip up, do we have the humility to admit our fault without self-justification, and try to make the situation right? When I looked around the tables at our retreat, I saw a room full of Vestry and staff with integrity. And that makes it more likely that our church will be the same. But the most important asset a church has in its quest for integrity is our Savior, who throughout his life but especially towards the end, embodied integrity under the most agonizing pressure imaginable, yet did not waver. When we follow Jesus, God gives us grace not only to say that we will carry our own cross, but to do so.
March 28, 2019 Second Wind
This Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent, is called “Laetare Sunday,” from the words of the traditional introit of the day, “Laetare Jerusalem." “Laetare” means “rejoice,” and in some churches the penitential character of worship is lessened a bit this Sunday, for example with Rose instead of Purple vestments, and the adding in of organ or other joyful music that may have been removed for Lent. In some places it is called “Rose Sunday” or “Refreshment Sunday."
I like to think of it as “second wind Sunday.” Athletes speak of the second wind, the burst of energy that sometimes comes after an initial period of exhaustion in a race or game. At this point in our Lenten journey, we rejoice, and feel energized, knowing that Palm Sunday is just two weeks away, and Easter Day just three. Lent is not yet over, but the finish line is in sight. We begin to pivot our attention, like Jesus, towards Jerusalem and the holiest week of the year.
It is also a good time to look candidly at our Lenten practices. It’s probably too late to start over if we’ve given up, but if we have been keeping a challenging practice, we may feel encouraged knowing that its culmination is coming. And if we have fallen away from our plans recently, there is still time to modify them to something more possible for the weeks that remain, reassured by the promise of God’s love and mercy. Our gospel reading this weekend is one of the most profound and hopeful stories in the Bible, and a preacher’s favorite, the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). It reminds us that, whatever our shortcomings or mistakes, God will always run out to embrace us when we come to Him.
March 21, 2019 Centering Prayer: Judge It By Its Fruits
Don’t judge centering prayer on the basis of how many thoughts come or how much peace you enjoy. The only way to judge this prayer is by its long-range fruits: whether in daily life you enjoy greater peace, humility and charity. Having come to deep interior silence, you begin to relate to others beyond the superficial aspects of social status, race, nationality, religion, and personal characteristics. (Father Thomas Keating)
When I was serving at Saint John’s Cathedral in Denver as a young priest, I used to go on retreat to Saint Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. It was there I discovered the Trappist monk Thomas Keating, and the form of prayer that was his life’s passion: Centering Prayer. Keating died this past October, but the Centering Prayer movement that he helped start (drawn significantly from the Catholic contemplative tradition going back to St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and others) has grown strong and broadly ecumenical, with followers in almost every denomination.
Centering Prayer is not without its critics. Like the labyrinth, the enneagram, yoga, and other spiritual practices that find intersection with non-Christian faith traditions, Centering Prayer is seen by some as a pagan activity dressed up in Christian trappings. Of course, if we eliminated everything that has pre-Christian origins from our Christian faith practices, we would have to dispose of some fairly popular things, like Christmas. Many of our Christian traditions were once Jewish or even pagan, before Christians adopted and reinterpreted them. After all, our two most important sacraments, Baptism and the Eucharist, both predated Christianity. But they took on quite different meanings when interpreted by Jesus. Jesus transformed everything, and he continues to transform everything. Nothing and no one can encounter Christ and emerge the same.
For me, I find two principles to be useful in evaluating whether Centering Prayer, or any form of prayer, is right for me or for someone else.
First, not all prayer is equal in our tradition. Our Book of Common Prayer prioritizes weekly Eucharist and the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer as the bedrocks of our Anglican spirituality. Beyond that, we have flexibility to add other forms of prayer as may be helpful to us. Think of the old food pyramid: the Eucharist and Daily Office are our essential spiritual nutrients in our Episcopal tradition, our fruits and vegetables at the bottom of the pyramid. We can benefit from adding other nutrients, like Centering Prayer, the Rosary, icon prayer, Cursillo, journaling, lectio divina, walking prayer and so on. But they are not the most important. And so we need to keep our forms of prayer in balance. If I practice Centering Prayer or icon prayer every week, but don’t attend the Eucharist, our tradition would say I am missing out on essential nutrients. I would certainly survive spiritually, in the same way that the man who ate nothing but potatoes for a year survived, but it would not be a well-balanced prayer diet!
Second, as Keating says in the opening quote, pay attention to the fruits of prayer in your life. I appreciate Centering Prayer (even though I am not very good at it - my mind wanders a lot) and when I practice it, I notice a difference: the silence gives me a greater sense of peace within and compassion for others. But, as the saying goes, your mileage may vary. Try it over several weeks and see if it affects you, and your relationship with God and neighbor. Experimentation with evaluation, reflection, and re-experimentation: a useful process in almost anything, including prayer.
Curious about how to do Centering Prayer? Our Centering Prayer group meets every Saturday at 8:30am in the chapel. And this Sunday at 7:30pm, before Compline, we are offering a brief instruction on Centering Prayer, with a practice session (the total time of our Centering Prayer and Compline will be about an hour). You can also read a description of how to do Centering Prayer here: https://www.contemplative.org/contemplative-practice/centering-prayer/
March 14, 2019 Reflections on the Consecration of our New Bishop
March 9th was the ordination and consecration of the new Bishop of Arizona, the Right Reverend Jennifer Reddall, at Church for the Nations across the street (because no Episcopal church in the diocese had the capacity for the roughly 2,000 people attending). It was a grand and moving event, with participants and elements that represented the rich diversity of our diocese, from traditional Episcopal hymns to Sudanese singing and dancing to Native American rituals. At the ceremony, I found myself filled to overflowing with gratitude, for a number of reasons:
Now, we look forward to welcoming Bishop Reddall to All Saints’ for her first official visitation on Sunday, May 12th at the 9 and 11am services. Mark your calendars!
March 7, 2019 Saint John’s Bible Sunday
Ever since All Saints’ was able to acquire, thanks to generous donors, a 7 volume set of the illuminated Saint John’s Bible, we have tried to make these beautiful, museum quality volumes as accessible as we reasonably can. In order to ignite the spiritual imagination, they need to be seen. And so, we use the Gospels/Acts volume on Sundays, and we keep a different volume on display in our church library, turning the pages regularly. We use digital images from the books on our bulletins on special occasions. And we have also started a tradition of bringing out all 7 volumes one Sunday a year, the second Sunday of March, which we call Saint John’s Bible Sunday. We chose a second Sunday of the month to include Evensong.
This Saint John’s Bible Sunday, we offer guest speakers on the topic in the morning at 10:10am (Susan Rose and Marge Woods from the Franciscan Renewal Center). And after the 9am, 11am and 4pm Evensong services, all are invited to come up in front of the altar, and see the books, with their stunning calligraphy and illuminations, up close. It is always a particular highlight when children see these books for the first time. Bring a friend to this rare, once a year event.
As it turns out, this year’s Saint John’s Bible Sunday also happens to be the first Sunday in Lent. The two are a better match thematically than we might think. In the Invitation to a Holy Lent on Ash Wednesday, our Prayer Book says: I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. Lingering with our minds on the sacred words and images of the Saint John’s Bible is a compelling way to read and meditate on God’s holy Word as we begin our Lenten pilgrimage together.
February 28, 2019 This Lent, Do Small Things
We cannot all do great things. But we can do small things with great love. (Mother Teresa)
After a long season after Epiphany, Lent is at last upon us, beginning with Ash Wednesday on March 6. At All Saints’, we’ve been doing what we can to help our members prepare for this holy season. In our adult Christian education, we had three classes on the ancient spiritual practice of fasting. This Sunday, I am offering a class on “Keeping a Prayer Book Lent,” in other words, sharing what our Book of Common Prayer has to say about keeping Lent in our tradition. As usual, we have a wide range of Lenten programs in the weeks to come, including our traditional evenings with potluck supper (this year’s speaker is our own Reverend Emilie Finn teaching on Paul).
If I have one piece of advice for us as we think about what we are going to give up or take on this Lent, it is this: do something small, and keep at it. Like New Year’s resolutions, the most common mistake in Lenten practices is to try to do too much. Pick something small, and do it every day (if you like, you can take off Sundays) or every week. And following the advice of Mother Teresa, try to do that small thing not with selfish pride, vanity, or grumbling, but with love for God and/or your neighbor.
Looking for some ideas for small things to do in Lent? Here are a few:
• commit to attend worship every weekend, and add one weekday service or prayer practice per week (ie a Wednesday Eucharist, Evening Prayer, Centering Prayer, or Rosary Prayer)
• commit to one act of kindness per day
• come to our four Lenten evenings
• join The Path of Discipleship (our Adult Confirmation class, which is open to all, even those already confirmed)
• take on some kind of fast, with a partner (i.e. avoiding meat on Fridays or another day, limiting social media or other screen time, or fast from gossiping or negative comments)
• write a note each week to someone who has been important to you
• fill a bag each week with clutter and give it to ICM
• pray some or all of the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer using the Forward Movement website or app
• read the Gospel of Mark (it’s the shortest!)
• add 10 minutes of silence to your day. Close your eyes and just breathe, or concentrate on a sacred word, like “Jesus” or “peace."
• take a daily walk with a friend
• make a private confession with one of our priests
You get the idea. Do something small, with love, and stick to it. May this Lent make ready our hearts for the amazing and unexpected joys of Easter.
February 21, 2019 The Greatest Generation (and the Church)
Recently I was driving back from a pastoral visit to one of our longtime members who is nearing death, and I was thinking about how many faithful seniors we have said farewell to over the past year or so. Every lost life is precious and evokes grief, as well as, for Christians, the “sure and certain hope” of resurrection. But we have undoubtedly lost to death this year a remarkably large number of dedicated members of this congregation, who have been pillars of this faith community for a long time.
I have said and heard others say that it feels as if All Saints’ is going through a generational change. Some of that feeling comes from the reality that ours is still a relatively young church, historically speaking. All Saints’ first service was March 4, 1951, almost 68 years ago exactly, and so many of those members in their 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s have been at our church since its early days. We are burying not just our beloved friends, but our founders.
Tom Brokaw coined a term, “The Greatest Generation,” for those Americans who grew up in the Depression, defeated tyranny in World War Two, then returned home to build a prosperous, safe, and strong country. They weren’t perfect: Brokaw notes that the Greatest Generation, like all generations, had its blind spots, especially to racism and sexism. But they were, for all their flaws, truly great: frugal, hardworking, humble, and idealistic, laying a foundation of which our nation, our institutions, and our families are justifiably proud. Many of that Greatest Generation, our first Rector Father Urbano among them, built All Saints’, both church and school, from the ground up, and we owe them our sincere, grateful thanks.
Every generation has its gifts, weaknesses, variety and diversity, and we ought to use caution in overgeneralizing any group of people. If we believe what we read, the Millennial Generation, those born from 1981-1996, has killed nearly everything, including home ownership, marriage, breakfast cereal, cash, and mayonnaise! My own generation, Generation X (born between the mid-1960’s and 1980), often feels forgotten entirely amidst the massive (in numbers and influence) Baby Boomers and Millennials on either side. Conversations about generations often devolve into unhelpful finger pointing and self-justification.
Maybe the calling of those of us who are here, who are being entrusted with these wonderful institutions like the Church, whether we are Boomers, Gen X-ers, Millennials, or the latest generations, is not to try to replicate the remarkable success of the Greatest Generation, the full churches and offering plates, unsullied idealism and institutions at the giddy heights of their worldly powers. That time, for better or worse, has passed. It was lightning in a bottle.
Maybe our calling is to look back even further, to the early Christians in the time of Jesus and the Book of Acts. Their world was a lot like ours: indifferent or even hostile to their faith, diverse, confusing, with some people prospering and many others barely scraping by, with selfish individualism and tribal hatred on the rise and communities fragmenting. A small group of people had a vision, a radical one taught to them by Jesus, of what he called the Kingdom of God: life on earth as it is in heaven. Love of God and love of neighbor over love of self, holiness and compassion, support for the vulnerable and reconciling with our enemies. It worked then, began a movement, and it has worked at various times in the past, when Christianity kept our eyes on Jesus and didn’t get distracted by power and prestige. And it can work again.
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?