First Lent, First Step

If it is easier for you to listen to this post instead of reading it, here you go!

 

Luke 4:1-13

After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

 

Step 1: We admitted that we are powerless [over alcohol] and our lives have become unmanageable.

 

I want to start this by explaining a little bit of my own connection to the 12 Steps. When I was 20 years old I started attending Alanon meetings. Both of my parents were alcoholics, and as I was trying to navigate adult relationships (specifically one of a romantic nature) I was starting to feel like perhaps my upbringing in an alcoholic family system was starting to play a role in my thoughts, feelings, and actions.

While I had been exposed to the 12 Steps through family members before, I couldn’t believe the impact they had on me as I started going to meetings myself. I can say without hesitation that I would leave a meeting, and for reasons I couldn’t even totally explain life would just be a little bit easier. I learned about how I can’t control other people (in Alanon we often change “alcohol” to “people, places, and things” in the first step), I learned the importance of keeping my side of the street clean, and I learned about putting my whole life in God’s hands. It was truly life changing.

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure I should also mention that I haven’t been to a meeting in a long time. So I want to reiterate what I said in my last post. I’m doing this because I believe that the 12 Steps are wonderful tools to draw us closer to God and to set the stage for a spiritual awakening. But I am not an expert and we are not working the 12 Steps together during Lent. I simply want you to know more about them, so you can do with them as you please.

So that’s where I’m coming from when I say the 12 Steps have had a profound impact on my life. I grew to love them through family members who changed their lives through AA and NA, and I experienced them myself. The tools I learned in Alanon still inform so much of my life today.

This week we’ll begin with the Step 1 and only Step 1. Honestly we could spend all of Lent on this step but I thought I’d mix it up a little. The very first part of this program is as follows: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and our lives had become unmanageable.

 I think it’s important to reiterate that “alcohol” can be filled in with almost anything else. For a long time for me this was most useful by substituting “people”. I was powerless over other people. It’s so easy to believe you can change someone else, and so hard to fully realize that the only person you can change is yourself. But again –it could be anything. You could be powerless over sugar, shopping, social media, drugs, food, alcohol…the list goes on and on. I’m not suggesting everyone is an addict, but I am saying that it’s part of the human condition to think that we can be in control of things when really we just can’t.

Trying to control things we can’t control though – well that’s when we wind up in the wilderness. Which is where we find Jesus in our scripture this week. Here he is for forty days and nights with no food and he is constantly being tempted by the devil. The devil wants him to believe he has the power, constantly trying to lure him in.

Now I want to stop for a second and say that I get a little tripped up when we talk about the devil because I’m not actually sure if I believe in evil as one being the way we talk about it in scripture. So because I’m not sure about that, I try not to speak definitively about Satan. But I do think that evil is real, and that temptation is real. And I know all too well the feeling of being exhausted and overwhelmed trying to get out of the wilderness when suddenly some kind of short cut pops up and causes me to believe that there’s an easier way out rather than doing the hard work. How many times have I tried to calm myself down at the end of a tough day with a new outfit, a glass of wine, or a tray of brownies? And I’m not saying one glass of wine is Satan – but I am saying that if we aren’t careful and we constantly rely on these outside things to make us well, then suddenly life might start to look a little unmanageable.

That’s where the second half of this Step helps us to determine if we are in the wilderness. Because we look around and see that life is starting to look really unmanageable.

Unmanageability can be a slippery subject too. There are certainly lots of very real reasons why life can become unmanageable. But we have to be cautious about always having excuses for why our lives continue to unravel. The beauty of the first step is that it can help us to identify when life is unmanageable because of our own behaviors and choices. Maybe life is unmanageable for me because I have a baby right now and he doesn’t always sleep well. But maybe life is unmanageable because I stay up really late every night because I need “me” time because my attempts at caring for myself during the day aren’t really all that caring. Time on Facebook does not help me to feel deeply connected to God the way exercise, meditation, or even a nap does. But damned if I don’t scroll my newsfeed in the few quiet moments I have every day. Friends – I am powerless over Facebook and it is causing my life to become unmanageable.

So our work is to take a look around and see where our lives might be unraveling. We might not be as strong as Jesus who is able to so quickly see through Satan’s allure and point only to God. But with practice we might be better able to recognize the temptation for a quick fix that will only serve to make us feel worse about ourselves in the long run, and maybe that recognition can help us to make a better decision.

This week, I want to invite you spend some time thinking about the two parts of this step. First, what are you trying to control in your life that you simply cannot control? And second, where are you seeing glimpses of unmanageability? If you are seeing glimpses of unmanageability, maybe consider whether or not the two might be connected.

This work might lead you to a major “aha” moment in your life. More likely, it might help you to realize something new about how you try to make people, places, and things fill the space in your life that only God can fill.

Next week we’ll spend more time talking about how God can fill that space. But this week, take a look around and see if maybe you find yourself in the wilderness. Then consider how you might have gotten there.

 

 

 

 

 

Lent and the 12 Steps

If you’d rather listen to this blog post (a large part of which was my Ash Wednesday Sermon) instead of reading it, you may do so here:

 

On Tuesday night of this week I had the honor of being the guest preacher at St. Augustine’s Church on the URI campus for their monthly Recovery Eucharist. The Archdeacon of our Diocese, Jan Grinnell, created this service to provide a church experience for people who have experience with the 12 Steps. The liturgy is a lovely blend of Episcopal language and the language used “in the halls” of meetings. Because I have been blessed by 12 Step Programs personally and through my loved ones, I have been invited to preach on a couple of occasions at this service.

The service uses the readings from the previous Sunday, and so we were once again hearing the story of the Transfiguration with Jesus, Elijah, Moses, Peter, James, and John. In my preaching I talked about what it’s like to have a spiritual awakening of that magnitude and then have to come back down off the mountain. I talked about how hard it is to recreate our mountaintop experiences as much as we try, but if we keep at our daily connection with God after those experiences we inevitably set ourselves up for another awakening down the road.

You can watch the sermon here https://staugustineuri.org/sermons/. I wish my stole wasn’t crooked, but this is a chronic issue for me.

One of the ways I weaved recovery language into my sermon was by talking about the 11th and 12th Steps as part of how we keep connecting with God after our spiritual awakenings. The 11th Step is as follows:

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of his will in our lives and the power to carry that out.

 Now I was still digging the Transfiguration at that point, but I also knew that I was on the eve of Ash Wednesday and the start of our Lenten Season at church. And I have a haaaaaard time with Lent as much as I love it. Anytime we start talking about things like “discipline and “repentance” and “self-denial” I start to get a little wigged out. It feels like the kind of oppressive religion that I have tried to so desperately to get away from – a religion that is laden with guilt and obligation instead of joy and abundance.

As a result of my uncertainty about Lent I am constantly searching for other language to use around this time. I need to re-invent Lent for myself in order to live into it more fully. As I preached on Tuesday night about the 11th Step, I couldn’t help but think that it offers us wording that can help to broaden and enhance the language the church uses. Because when I have taken on a Lenten discipline, this is exactly what has happened to me: I have improved my conscious contact with God. Giving something up for Lent jolts me out of my complacency and reminds me that I am in a different season. A season where I am invited to be more connected to God and less connected to the things that distract me from God.

Last year I posted Brené Brown’s video about the power of vulnerability. In it she talks about how she noticed in her research that people who believed they were worthy of love and belonging had something in common: they lived whole-heartedly. And what allowed them to live whole-heartedly was their willingness to be vulnerable. She talked about how because we are afraid of vulnerability – or bad feelings in general – we tend to numb those things out. But when we numb out the bad feelings, we can’t help but numb out the good ones too.

There are so many ways that we can choose to numb ourselves to our feelings and what is happening around us. I love Brené’s call to be vulnerable. It echoes the Invitation to Lent that we read at our Ash Wednesday service. Lent invites us to stop what we are doing, to take stock of who we are and what our relationship with God looks like. Lent invites us to REPENT: to turn back to God who yearns to be close to us. Admitting the ways that we have let down ourselves and others takes vulnerability. But that vulnerability offers us the opportunity to bask in God’s loving mercy and forgiveness. This process of repentance allows us to be whole-hearted – and why wouldn’t we want that for ourselves?

Last year I spent some time inviting the folks I go to church with to take on a Lenten discipline (even though the word makes me cringe every time!). I will invite my church family to do that again this year, as I have had such positive experiences taking one on myself. But this year, in addition to just asking people to take something on, I’d like to offer a concrete way for people to improve their conscious contact with God during this Lenten season.

So I have a plan. Because my life has been so profoundly impacted by the 12 Step Program, and because those steps have helped me improve my own conscious contact with God, I’m going to spend Lent explaining and unpacking the steps in my sermons on Sunday. Call it a “Lenten Preaching Series” if you will, except that sounds a little too fancy for me.

Each week I’ll talk about one or a few of the steps as it pertains to our scripture readings. And then….wait for it… I’ll offer some homework.

WHAT? Homework in church?

I know, but it won’t be that bad. It will be an invitation to think about something, reflect on your life and your behavior, and try to grow yourself a little bit. My hope is that the homework will help you improve your conscious contact with God.

For anyone who can’t be at church during Lent I’ll go ahead and post a version of the sermon and the “homework” here on the blog, so you can participate even if you can’t get yourself to Pascoag.

A couple of quick things about this idea:

  1. I am not doing this just for people who have addictions. The Steps are applicable to every part of life and I am quite sure they have something to offer you in your life right now.
  2. To be clear, we will NOT be working through the 12 Steps over 5 weeks of Lent. I encourage anyone that wants to work the Steps for real to do so, in a program and with support from other people in that program. It will change your life. But it takes way more than 5 weeks.

So the purpose of this activity is simply to give you a Lenten project that’s a little more tangible. Because I mean it when I invite you to a Holy Lent.

I invite you, through prayer and meditation, to improve your conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for you and the power to carry that out.

doubt

Like many priests and Christians, Easter Sunday is my favorite day of the whole year. One of my top two reasons for wanting to be ordained was so that I could proclaim “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!” on Easter morning. (If you’re interested, the other reason was so that I could say “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” These remain two of the best parts of the priesthood for me).

As much as I love Easter Sunday, I love the Sunday after Easter just as much.  Considered a “low” Sunday in the church (because after everyone exhausts themselves with Holy Week and Easter services attendance is often low the week after) Easter II provides us with what I consider the only appropriate passage of scripture to follow the news of Christ’s Resurrection.

On Easter II we hear the story of Thomas, who had evidently stepped out of the room where the disciples were locked after Christ’s crucifixion, and upon his exit misses the first appearance of the Risen Christ to the disciples.  He comes back from wherever he was and his buddies try to tell him that Jesus is back. Like any clear-thinking, rational, and sane human being, Thomas replies with a variation of: “Yeah, right. I’ll believe that when I see it”. 

The telling of this story is such a gift to all of us the week after Easter. As much as I love proclaiming the Resurrection, the reality is that this story is unbelievable. Resurrection is impossible – the idea outrageous. And as humans we struggle to wrap our heads around the fact that Jesus comes back to life. So I always appreciate that Thomas responds to this event with a hefty dose of skepticism and disbelief.  He was a disciple, after all. He saw Jesus do all kinds of crazy things. And he still isn’t buying Resurrection.

I encounter a lot of doubt in my work with teenagers at ECC.  Many of the teens that come to camp are exploring their faith, asking questions, and trying to figure out what they believe.  When I ask them straight out what they believe I get a variety of responses, but what I can generally glean is this:

– most of them believe in some kind of higher power

– some of them believe in Jesus

– few of them believe in the Church

These are hard truths for me to share, especially as a leader in a church that is facing fears about our viability in a secular world. We talk a lot about wanting young people to be more involved in the church, and we brainstorm how to get them to come to church. Admittedly, teenagers are in a particular stage of life where doubt and questioning are really common parts of development, but I think it’s important for us to acknowledge this reality.

I work with teenagers who devote their whole summer to living and working (for hardly any money) in Christian community. We celebrate the Eucharist every day. We talk about God all the time. And even these most involved and committed young people can’t make a definitive statement about whether they believe in Jesus.  They are extremely skeptical about organized religion. And with good reason! We haven’t always have the best reputation.

I can get a little freaked out when I talk to these teens. I can be tempted to do a whole song and dance about how great the church is. I find myself wanting to make a hard sell about why they should believe, and how real Jesus is in my life, and how much the church has done for me and so many others. But instead I have to take a deep breath and just keep listening to them. Which is when I hear this:

– “This place is a second home for me.”

– “When we sing the songs at church in the barn I always feel my heart swell.”

– “The friends I have made here allow me to be completely myself with no judgement.”

Then I consider the second part of Thomas’ story. The part when, despite his disbelief, Jesus appears before him and reaches out his hand, allowing Thomas the very thing he said he needed: a chance to put his finger in the wound in Jesus’ hand.

This story could have ended a lot differently. It could have ended with nothing. Thomas could have been punished for his doubt, and because of it could have been robbed of the opportunity to stand in front of the Risen Christ. But he is not punished. Instead he is given the experience of the Divine. He gets to stand in the presence of the Resurrection. He knows new life, and God the Son reaches out to him in love.

It’s so freeing to know that we aren’t punished for doubting. I don’t struggle with doubting the existence of God in my life, but when I’m not inappropriately hyper-focused on someone else’s spiritual journey (or lack there of), I can pay attention to my own enough to realize that I certainly doubt whether or not God is going to show up for me.  I’ll give over some aspect of my life to God, praying for God’s will to be made clear and then I’ll change my mind and try to take back the control because probably my ideas for my life are better anyway. Yeah, right. I’ll pray for God to transform something in my life and then, convinced transformation won’t happen, I’ll try to manage it myself (which always totally works…).  Or one I’m really proud of, I’ll decide since God has come through for me so many times before I’ve probably used up all my chances and he’s getting bored with me and has better things to do. So I’ll be convinced that the bottom is about to fall out of whatever life thing I’m trying to navigate.

But here’s what I’ve learned: God always provides. God does not give up on us. God does not punish us for doubting. We are invited, again and again, to stand in the presence of the Risen Christ and put our finger in the wound. We are given the opportunity over and over again to experience the transformative love of God. We get to feel our hearts swell when we sing songs together. We get to find a second home with people we love. We get to be our authentic selves and be celebrated.  No matter how much we question or doubt or fail to show up for God, God shows up for us. And that’s an Easter message I can get behind.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

 

still-doubting-jn-granville-gregory

John Granville Gregory’s Still Doubting

An Invitation to a Holy Lent

Well friends, Lent is a-comin’.

February 18th, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of this 40 day (plus a few Sundays) penitential season in our church where we remember Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness before celebrating his resurrection at Easter. This time in our church is meant to be set apart. It is meant to be different.

In the Ash Wednesday service we we are invited to observe a Holy Lent with the following words:

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great
devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and
it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a                                                                   season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided
a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy
Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of
notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful
were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to
the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation
was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set
forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all
Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

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. And, to make a right beginning
of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now
kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.  – Book of Common Prayer

It’s pretty heavy, right? Being this serious always makes me a little uncomfortable. I am, after all, the priest that started a church in hopes that the community would be informal and joyful. So entering a period of “fasting and self-denial” seems a little severe.

But in church the last couple of weeks I’ve been talking (perhaps incessantly) about this season and about how important it is. Hence this blog post. At Church of the Beloved we try to make a point of being flexible and laid back. We try to really understand that people have a whole lot going on on their lives, and we don’t want them to come to church motivated by any feelings of guilt or obligation. We want people to come for the community, and the love, and the transformation. In an effort to be flexible we do things like change the time of our service on Superbowl Sunday when the Pats are playing.

That said, while we are flexible about many things, I want us to be very serious about spiritual growth and our relationship with God.  And for this reason I’m something of a Lent junkie. I love giving up something for Lent and examining what happens in the absence – in the wilderness, if you will. This practice allows me to make space for God and I always find that I experience self-discovery and a closer relationship to God when I make a Lenten vow.

So I’ve invited my congregation to join me in taking on a Lenten discipline. Perhaps you will add a practice that brings you closer to God – 5 minutes (or more!) of meditation every day, for example. Or perhaps you will eliminate something that takes you away from God like, say, Facebook. (And yes I’m showing my cards here – if I had more meditation and less Facebook in my life I’d be a totally changed woman!)  My hope is that my congregation (and you, if you are reading this and not a member of my congregation) will take a few days leading up to Lent to really examine what practices in your current life bring you closer to or further away from God. And decide on your Lenten discipline intentionally. Lent is not an opportunity for a divinely sanctioned diet! But if eating sugar is a problem for you – even an addiction – then by all means give it up as your discipline. See what happens without it.

I’m going to leave you with a Ted Talk to watch that has nothing at all to do with Lent, but has everything to do with Lent. Brené Brown is a researcher who has studied what qualities open-hearted people have. Pay close attention to what she says about vulnerability, and about how we as a culture numb ourselves to feelings. Because that’s what I’m hoping we can examine during this Holy Lent. I hope we can figure out where we might be numbing out, and accept God’s invitation to live with hearts wide open.

So friends, join me in observing a Holy Lent. I look forward to hearing about your time in the wilderness!

Remembering AJ

Last weekend we learned that a former camper and counselor, AJ (Aharon) Klum, died unexpectedly and far too young.  He was a full counselor in 1993.

While it was deeply sad for all who knew and loved him, the outpouring of love and support both for AJ and for our ECC family was significant. We remembered AJ during an event at ECC on Saturday. A celebration of Holy Eucharist took place in the barn.  Rick Rapp offered a remembrance of AJ, and I offered a homily.

There were many who wanted to be there to celebrate AJ’s life and were unable to, so we wanted to make audio tracks available for those folks. The first track is Rick’s offering of his beautiful and emotional words about AJ. The second track – a little harder to hear – is my homily.

 

The ECC Prayer

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives with one another that all we do effects, for good or ill, all other lives; deliver us from the service of self alone, that we may do the work you give us to do in truth and beauty and for the common good; for the sake of Him who came among us as one who serves, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Good Friday

This is the Good Friday service from the Book of Common prayer. Feel free to just listen, or to follow along and say the responses with the text below. Click on the Scripture passages to be taken to a link with the readings. I’ve broken the podcasts up into three sections: the Opening Prayer and readings from Scripture, the Sermon, and the Solemn Collects and Final Prayer. 

Immediately before the Collect, the Celebrant may say

            Blessed be our God.
People     For ever and ever. Amen.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your
family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be
betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer
death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and
the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Old Testament
     Isaiah 52:13–53:12

Psalm    40:1-14
Epistle     Hebrews 10:1-25

The Passion Gospel is announced in the following manner 

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John

John  19:1-37

The Sermon follows.

The Solemn Collects

Dear People of God: Our heavenly Father sent his Son into
the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world
through him might be saved; that all who believe in him
might be delivered from the power of sin and death, and
become heirs with him of everlasting life.

We pray, therefore, for people everywhere according to their
needs.

Let us pray for the holy Catholic Church of Christ
throughout the world;

    For its unity in witness and service
For all bishops and other ministers
and the people whom they serve
For Nicholas, our Bishop, and all the people of this diocese
For all Christians in this community
For those about to be baptized.

That God will confirm his Church in faith, increase it in love,
and preserve it in peace.

Silence

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole
body of your faithful people is governed and sanctified:
Receive our supplications and prayers which we offer before
you for all members of your holy Church, that in their
vocation and ministry they may truly and devoutly serve you;
through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.


Let us pray for all nations and peoples of the earth, and for
those in authority among them;

    For Barak, the President of the United States
For the Congress and the Supreme Court
For the Members and Representatives of the United Nations
For all who serve the common good

That by God’s help they may seek justice and truth, and live
in peace and concord.

Silence

Almighty God, kindle, we pray, in every heart the true love of
peace, and guide with your wisdom those who take counsel for
the nations of the earth; that in tranquility your dominion may

increase, until the earth is filled with the knowledge of your
love; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Let us pray for all who suffer and are afflicted in body or in mind;

    For the hungry and the homeless, the destitute
and the oppressed
For the sick, the wounded, and the crippled
For those in loneliness, fear, and anguish
For those who face temptation, doubt, and despair
For the sorrowful and bereaved
For prisoners and captives, and those in mortal danger

That God in his mercy will comfort and relieve them, and
grant them the knowledge of his love, and stir up in us the
will and patience to minister to their needs.

Silence

Gracious God, the comfort of all who sorrow, the strength of
all who suffer: Let the cry of those in misery and need come
to you, that they may find your mercy present with them in all
their afflictions; and give us, we pray, the strength to serve
them for the sake of him who suffered for us, your Son Jesus
Christ our Lord. Amen.


Let us pray for all who have not received the Gospel of Christ;

    For those who have never heard the word of salvation
For those who have lost their faith
For those hardened by sin or indifference
For the contemptuous and the scornful
For those who are enemies of the cross of Christ and
persecutors of his disciples
For those who in the name of Christ have persecuted others

That God will open their hearts to the truth, and lead them to
faith and obedience.

Silence

Merciful God, creator of all the peoples of the earth and
lover of souls: Have compassion on all who do not know you
as you are revealed in your Son Jesus Christ; let your Gospel
be preached with grace and power to those who have not
heard it; turn the hearts of those who resist it; and bring
home to your fold those who have gone astray; that there
may be one flock under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.


Let us commit ourselves to God, and pray for the grace
of a holy life, that, with all who have departed this world and
have died in the peace of Christ, and those whose faith is
known to God alone, we may be accounted worthy to enter
into the fullness of the joy of our Lord, and receive the crown
of life in the day of resurrection.

Silence

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look
favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred
mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry
out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world
see and know that things which were cast down are being
raised up, and things which had grown old are being made
new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection
by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus
Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity
of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

O Savior of the world, who by they cross and precious blood hast redeemed us: 

Save us and help us, we humbly beseech thee, O Lord. 

And now, as our Savior
Christ has taught us,
we are bold to say,

People and Celebrant

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy Name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to set your passion, cross, and death between your judgement and our souls, now and in the hour of our death. Give mercy and grace to the living; pardon and rest to the dead; to your holy Church peace and concord; and to us sinners everlasting life and glory; for with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, now and forever. Amen. 

questions

This past Sunday at church I borrowed an idea from another clergy friend of mine, and instead of having a typical sermon I asked people to write down questions they had on index cards and hand them in for me to answer.

We do this at camp in the summer on occasion too. We call it “ask a priest” and we give the teenagers a chance to ask any question they want to. The same was true for the congregation on Sunday – they could ask about God, scripture, the church – anything. I always love the questions that are asked, and the conversation that results.

I enjoyed answering the questions on Sunday, and thought they were wonderful. But there were a couple that I didn’t have time to get to – in fact, I didn’t even see the questions until after the service was over. And they are really important questions. So I wanted to take a few minutes to address those questions in this blog, in hopes that whoever asked them will see this!

Here are the two questions I missed, and my attempt at answers:

I’m not even sure if I believe in God, and I’m embarrassed to admit that…what do you have to say about that?

Well first, I am SO impressed that you asked this question because I think it takes a lot of courage. Especially when you are sitting in a church surrounded by (potentially) a whole bunch of people who believe in God. So I’m really impressed with your bravery, because even though this was an anonymous question, it’s still a really hard one to ask.

Second, I have had experience after experience in my life where I have felt God’s presence or action SO CLEARLY that I can be nothing but absolutely sure that God exists. I mean – I’m a priest – so obviously I’m on board with the whole God thing.

But even despite all of that – despite that I believe that I am where I am because of God, despite that I work for God, and despite that pretty much my whole life is based on God… I’m also still a human. With a brain that loves things that are logical. So I still find myself in certain moments (usually when I’m alone in my car) wondering:

“What if this is all a sham?? What if we made up the idea of a God so we would feel better/have a scapegoat/convince people to be good/convince people to give away their money/etc, etc, etc…  WHAT IF MY WHOLE LIFE IS BASED ON SOMETHING THAT’S COMPLETELY FAKE??”

Then I just turn on the radio really loud and start singing really loud.

All of this is a long way of saying: I think it’s completely normal and perfectly ok to not be sure if you believe in God. It just means that you have a brain that you are good at using. And for what it’s worth, I think it’s a lot better to question and wonder and be skeptical about God than to jump on the bandwagon and believe in God just because that’s what everyone is telling you to do.  What good is a belief in God if it doesn’t come from your own experience and from your heart being touched or changed?

That said, just because you don’t necessarily believe in God doesn’t mean you can’t pray, or be open to the ways that God (if God exists) might work in your life. In fact, that might be a way for you to clarify what you believe – by inviting God into your life and seeing what happens.  I’d also encourage you to talk to different people and ask them about their experiences with God – I think having a broad understanding of the way God works in people’s lives will help too.

That said – if after all that you just firmly decide that you can’t jump on board with the God thing, I totally get it. And you are still more than welcome to come to this church.

 

How does God know when I need help?

When I was in college I shared an apartment with my friend Rachel (you might know Rachel, she comes to our church.)  Rachel had a cat that became a regular part of our lives in our apartment. I’d never been much of a cat person but I remember getting used to having her cat around. It was a pretty great cat.

One day the cat was walking along the coffee table and he slipped and fell off the table.  It took us both by surprise – he didn’t ever do anything like that.  We kept paying attention to his behavior and we realized that he was just acting off. Something wasn’t quite right. Rachel took him to the vet and sure enough he had an ear infection that was causing him to lose his balance. A little medication and he was back to normal.

It’s hard to know when something is wrong with our animals – especially cats (who can be kind of stand-off-ish) because they can’t exactly tell us what’s wrong.  But if we spend enough time with them, and we know them well enough, we can tell when something is wrong. Even if it’s just a subtle change in their behavior.

I like to think that’s how it works with God and us. I think that God spends so much time with us, and knows us so well, that God knows when something is wrong with us and we’re a little bit off.

Sure, it’s great if we are aware that we need help and can ask God and the other people in our life to give us a hand.  But sometimes we don’t even know that we need help ourselves – we’re so lost or stuck or upset that we can’t even see clearly. But I think that God knows us completely, and sees when we stumble – even when it’s so subtle that maybe we don’t even notice ourselves.

I think that God is helping us all the time, and sometimes we just don’t even see it. I hope you can trust that God knows when you are hurting, or in trouble, or just a little bit off.  If you realize that you need help, there’s no harm in asking for help as well. Being able to verbalize our prayers helps us sometimes to figure out what we need. But I don’t think God needs words. I think God knows us, and notices us, and sends along help before we even know we need it.

 

Thanks for asking your questions, friends. It’s an honor to hear your thoughts!

 

 

 

 

Go

This past Sunday we read one of my most favorite passages of scripture. It’s Genesis 12:1-4, and it’s real short. Here is is:

The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. 

This passage has been particularly special to me for a few years now because it’s the passage I clung to when I left my job in North Carolina and started on the journey back to RI (a long, unexpected journey).

I loved the parish where I was serving in North Carolina. I mean, loved it. Probably a little too much because I was working myself into a tizzy about all the things I thought I should be doing, and I had a whole bunch of self-imposed stress (why do we do that to ourselves??).  As much as I loved it there, about three years in I kept hearing God telling me it was time to go.  God has been right about everything else in my life so I like to listen when that happens, but every time I would ask for clarification – “Go WHERE??”- my question was met with resounding silence.

So naturally, I ignored the nagging to go.  Sporadically I would try to honor the still small voice by applying for another job, but then I would just pull my name from the search like and idiot because it didn’t feel right. It wasn’t until about a year later that I was at a conference in California and I finally realized what God was telling me to do. I had to just GO. No destination – I just had to not stay where I was.

Luckily for me I have a husband who’s a good sport, and agreed to pick up and go with me. I wrote all about it here.  We traveled, we embraced the unknown (which is not to say there weren’t several bouts of anxiety along the way) and we ended up back in RI, with me working as the director of ECC. I totally had to live with my mom for a year (I don’t want to romanticize this whole story – there’s still a credit card bill lingering from that little leap of faith) but I feel strongly that we are just where we are supposed to be.

We talk all the time about taking “calculated risks”.  Because it’s ok to try something that might fail as long as you can be assured you won’t totally land on your face.  But I’m just not sure God calls us to take “calculated risks.” Abram certainly didn’t play it safe. This guy was a million years old already and happily settled into retirement when God told him to pick up and go – and living at his mom’s house was just not on the list of alternatives. And yet God did bless him, and Abram’s long-abandoned dreams came true.

I feel like it should be noted that Abram’s journey was not all butterflies and rainbows either. A couple of times in there while he was waiting for God to fulfill God’s promise Abram (now Abraham) took matters into his own hands and things got a little hairy. But what I love about Abraham’s story is that he wasn’t punished for having a total control-freak moment – God continued to guide and bless him along the way.

I have a good friend who always says that when she’s discerning God’s will God only says three things to her: YES, NO, and WAIT. That has been a terrifically helpful tool for me in my life.  But I think I’m realizing – through scripture and my own experience – that God says four things: YES, NO, WAIT, and GO.

I’m not sure where God might be telling you to GO right now. It might just be that you are supposed to go to the gym, or to visit someone you haven’t seen in a while. Maybe you need to go on a trip or a retreat that’s going to push you outside of your comfort zone. Maybe you need to pick up and leave a relationship that just isn’t healthy for you anymore. Maybe you need to quit your job and leave for a foreign land – calculated risk be damned. I don’t know what your calling is, but I beg you to listen to it. The blessings that result are just too good to miss.

new church

new church

One of the very cool parts about being the director of ECC is that it allows me to spend Sunday mornings visiting churches all around the Diocese.  Sometimes I go as a guest preacher.  Sometimes I’m filling in as the “substitute” priest. And sometimes I just go and sit in the pew. I have loved getting to know the churches in our Diocese and seeing the ministry that we have happening in RI. I love being able to participate in worship in so many churches and with so many people.

I think that’s why I’m surprised that I feel nudged to start a new church.  First of all, I never wanted to start a new church. I always had a ton of respect for people who do that, but I was perfectly happy in a well-established parishes that had been in place for years. Second, we have plenty of churches in RI.  We have even closed churches where the congregations were so small that they couldn’t pay the bills.  So why try to start something new when there seems to be a significant chance that it won’t take off at all? And finally, am I nuts? I’m kinda busy running a camp and conference center, and helping with Diocesan youth ministry. I’m not bored.

I probably would have ignored the nudge (at least for a little while longer) if it hadn’t been for the Bishop, who while visiting ECC one day casually said “sometimes I just think we should start a church here.”  I don’t know if he meant to plant a seed in my brain, but he did.  And I’ve been thinking about it since.

I guess ultimately I want to offer a church that’s just a little bit different from what our churches in RI are already offering.  For me that means having our primary worship service in the evening.  We have lots of RI churches that offer evening services, but their main gig is in the morning. I want a church where the main gig is at night. I also want to worship in a style similar to that of our worship at ECC.  For those of you not familiar with church in the barn, here are some of the elements of that worship:

– Worship is informal (which does not mean it is “casual” or “irreverent”. It’s just informal.)

– We worship in the round (or the rectangle, as it is in the barn). We are all on the same level and the space is not like traditional church architecture.

– Our singing is most often accompanied by guitar or we sing with no instrumentation at all.

– Sometimes we are a little bit loud and rowdy. Other times we are really quiet and reflective, but most of the time we are a little rowdy.  If I were using a more churchy word to describe it I’d say “joyful” but I want to be honest – some folks would just call it rowdy.

For years people that have loved worship at camp have had trouble loving worship at traditional church services.  While the language of the Prayer Book is the same, the feeling can be different. As a priest in the church I’ve wrestled with this myself, and I wrestle with it as the director of the camp now.  A large part of me wants people to realize that camp is different and it’s impossible to have the same kind of worship at Sunday church that you have at camp.  A large part of me wants people to value the different experience that is offered in our churches on Sunday morning.

Another part of me, however, longs for the feeling that I have when I worship at camp throughout the rest of the year. I go to countless churches where I hear the organ play and the choir sing and my heart cracks open and I feel closer to God.  But there are also times when I want the option of a different kind of worship experience. One where I can reach out and grab the person sitting next to me because I’m so close to them. One where I can hear the dreadful singing of the person beside me because even though we stink at singing we just want to shout along with the rest of the group anyway. One where I can go in my jeans or yoga pants and be sure that no one is going to look at me like I just don’t love God enough to dress up.

All of this is a long way of saying that I’m going to try and start something new.  The Bishop has given me his blessing to fail miserably if it means that at least we’re trying something. So I’m just going to stand on a cliff and throw myself off – hopeful to fly or at least parachute, but aware that I might face-plant. And I want to invite you to jump and maybe face-plant with me. (Do I know how to make something sound compelling, or what?)  But seriously, if you don’t have a place to worship right now and you are wanting a spiritual home I’d love for you to come and be part of this – whatever “this” may be.

We’re going to start meeting in the church that was formerly Calvary Church in Pascoag.  I live next door to it now, and this church has been empty for five years and needs a little TLC. We might move to the barn at ECC when the weather is warmer. We might become a traveling congregation. We might meet once and decide to never meet again.  But we’ll start at 158 Broad Street in Pascoag.  For now we’re just calling it “New Church”, and we’ll see what happens from there.

On February 23rd we’ll worship in the church just as it is now (a little musty and dirty and with the pews still in place) and then we’ll head next door to my house for a pot luck dinner and start talking about dreams and possibilities.

After that, I’m hoping we’ll start regular worship on Sunday evenings at 5pm at the start of Lent.  I love Lent because we remember Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness, and planting a new church is pretty much wilderness in my book.  There’s going to be LOTS of good scripture to grab onto while we try to figure this thing out. I’m also hoping we can share a meal together after church because I’ll want a little more time with you, and it’ll be a long drive for some folks to get all the way out here. I don’t want you to have to worry about dinner.

So if you need a church, if evenings are a better time for you to worship, if you are a camp person that never could manage to make the jump to church on Sunday, if you like to get a little bit rowdy sometimes when you praise God – come join us. Bring a friend.  Email me and let me know you are coming so I have enough paper plates.

Please, if you already have a church but think you want to be part of New Church, be in touch with me so we can talk. I don’t mind if you want to come to extra church, but I don’t want to take you from your current church. They love you there.

Ok, that’s enough rambling from me. Can you tell I’m nervous? I’m nervous. But God has never called me to my comfort zone before, so probably won’t start now. Given that, I hope to see you in the wilderness!

reaching for God

I know it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to pull out my iphone and start taking pictures every Sunday while I’m passing out Communion at the altar rail, but I admit to wanting to do it sometimes.

Yesterday was definitely one of those days.  I was the guest preacher at St. Luke’s Church in East Greenwich, which was one component of a full and incredible weekend of music, worship, and friendship that I was a part of while we welcomed Fran McKendree to RI for the weekend. Fran led a workshop at the church on Saturday, and then we went to see the Prism of Praise gospel choir perform on Saturday night. After such a wonderful Saturday by the time church rolled around on Sunday I was feeling particularly warm and happy and aware of God’s presence. Maybe that’s why church was so good yesterday. Maybe it was because Fran played his beautiful music again at church. Maybe it was because St. Luke’s is just a truly joyful place to worship.  Probably it was all of those factors, but I’m not even really worried about the reason. It was just really good church.

When it came time for the Eucharist, Tim Rich (the rector) asked me to help distribute Communion and I happily agreed.  I began to go through the motions but then – as often happens especially when I’m feeling as I described above – I found myself taken with the way all of the individuals and families came bounding forward to receive Communion.

The first Sunday I ever served as priest I remember being struck by the way people look when they reach out their hands for Communion. More often than not in the Episcopal Church people come forward and kneel on cushion around an altar rail.  As the priest I end up standing above them looking down at their outstretched hands.  What I noticed that very first time is that there is something about the position we take to receive that acts as a great neutralizer.  When kneeling and reaching forward for the bread, suddenly we all look child-like.  And I don’t mean that in a patronizing way.  I mean that regardless of the age and station and experience of a person coming forward to receive, I see nothing but a pure and innocent longing for God in the humble kneeling and outstretched hands.  A longing that I’m not always sure we even recognize or realize when we come forward to receive.  But from my vantage point, that longing is all I can see.

Yesterday in addition to watching countless adults come forward to receive there was also an abundance of children guided forward by their parents. I love watching the parents instruct the children as they receive, often whispering “say Amen” in the children’s ears after the bread is placed in their hands.  One family in particular came forward yesterday, and the dad positioned his toddler directly in front of him, his arms surrounding the child on both sides, so that when I looked down I saw the father’s adult hands cupped to receive, and just inside where his hands met, two little hands reached out – the child’s fingertips resting along the bottom of his father’s palms.  I placed bread in their hands and said the words I utter again and again “the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven” but I’ll admit that what I wanted to say was:

“Can you just hang here for a second while I run and get my phone to take a picture? Because this is about the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Thankfully every once in a great while, my common sense prevails, so instead I took a mental snapshot and I plan to hold onto it for some time. Writing about it helps me to remember.

Here’s what I keep thinking though, as I revisit my snapshot of those two hands stretched out to receive: how is it that we teach our children (biological and in community) to reach for God?

For those of us who attend church regularly we have this very concrete way to instruct them to reach for God.  Kneel on the cushion, hold out your hands, say “Amen”.  But when we walk away from the communion rail, or if we don’t ever visit the communion rail – how is it that we instill in them a deep desire to reach for God, to seek out God’s love and will in their lives, and to share that love with others?

Yesterday afternoon we had our final event of the weekend, and Fran performed for a church surprisingly full of people (given a certain football game that happened at the same time).  Once again, all ages were present, and there was singing and dancing and laughter.  A handful of children gathered in the very front row and they listened and participated with everyone else, sometimes becoming distracted with one another or a ladybug that made a special appearance.  As we celebrated together I thought again of the hands – large and small – cupped at the communion rail that morning.  This is how we reach for God.  We gather, we sing, we dance.  We set time apart and away from the craziness of our lives to listen for God through songs and words and poetry and images and one another.  We spend time in community and we spend time alone.  We try to help and encourage and feed one another.  And as adults, we make sure that we are doing more than just instructing our children on how to do it – we need to make sure that we are reaching for God and offering a whispered (or shouted) “Amen” – we believe.

If you find yourself needing to reach for God (and for me that would be always) I encourage you to listen to Fran’s music. His music is on his website and on itunes.  He has an incredibly gentle and joyful way of bringing God to life through his music, and you will be blessed for having heard it.

If music isn’t your thing, I hope you’ll reach for God another way.  Go to the communion rail, or take some time for silence, or dance in your kitchen.  Read scripture or a blog you love or book of poems.  Or maybe just sit for a little while in the quiet of your room with your hands cupped in front of you, open to whatever it is that God might offer you.  It doesn’t matter how you reach for God, just put extend your hands and be prepared to receive.

Amen.

Here’s a little bit of Fran, and the children, and the ladybug:

 (ps. Just so I don’t get in trouble with my mom – and that’s a real thing, by the way – here’s a link to the St. Luke’s Facebook page where you can hear my sermon from yesterday.)