Sunday, June 30, 2013

Picking Up The Mantle: The Sixth Sunday After Pentecost

Manuscript for a sermon preached at St. Mark's Church in East Longmeadow, MA

Today’s Old Testament reading comes from the second chapter of the Second Book of Kings. (II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14) It marks the end of on era, as Elijah departs on a chariot of fire - but not before his mantle is passed to his disciple, Elisha. It’s a story about transition.

Every three years around this time of year, our Old Testament readings come from First and Second Kings. First Kings began with the death of King David, who is then succeeded by his son, King Solomon. He starts off wise enough, but before you know it power and money corrupt him. The narrator then plows through his successors until we get to chapter sixteen, which is where it begins to get really interesting. That is when Omri (up to that point dubbed “worst king ever” dies and is succeeded by his son, Ahab, who will reign for twenty-two years. (16:25) It turns out the son is even worse than his old man. Ahab forgets the Lord, his God, the only Lord. He marries Jezebel, a worshiper of Baal.

Baal is a god of fresh water, a rain god. Keep that in mind because in the midst of all this political corruption and business as usual, in chapter seventeen we are finally introduced to the prophet of the Lord, Elijah the Tishbite. He issues a challenge: “As the Lord lives, the God of Israel whom I serve, there will be no dew or rain except at my bidding.”  He is throwing down the gauntlet: Ahab has built an altar to Baal because he wants rain. But Elijah’s response is that it will only rain when YHWH says it will rain!

The problem with a drought is that it affects everybody, not just the bad people. Even Elijah will suffer the consequences of this drought. So if you were in church three weeks ago, then you will recall how Elijah showed up at the home of a widow in Sidon who was down to her last little bit of flour and oil and preparing to die. The prophet invites himself for dinner and, amazingly, she welcomes him to her table. In the midst of a serious economic situation, she chooses hospitality and generosity over fear and scarcity. She shares the little bit she has, which as it miraculously turns out, is enough. 

Three years later, with the famine still not getting better, Elijah approaches the people and puts it bluntly, the way prophets are prone to do: How long will you keep limping along between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow God! If Baal, then follow Baal. But make up your minds already! (18:21)It is at this point that Elijah takes on 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. They get a bull and cut it in half for a sacrifice and set up two wood piles. No matches allowed; just prayer. Elijah allows the prophets of Baal to go first and to pick their wood pile and their bull. From morning until noon they shout: “O Baal, answer us!” 

Nothing. So then they perform what one translation calls a “hopping dance.” Elijah is the original trash-talker, because when nothing happens he chimes in: why don’t you shout louder! Maybe Baal is sleeping and you need to wake him up! Maybe he’s deep in conversation with some other god, or maybe he’s detained or maybe he’s away on vacation. Nada. The narrator tells us the 450 prophets of Baal were “still raving;” but still no fire. 

Then it’s Elijah’s turn. To make it interesting he fills four jars with water and soaks the whole thing. And then he says: do it again. Actually you know what—do it a third time until water is running even around the trench of the altar! Until the whole thing is so sopping wet it would be impossible to light it up. And then he prays:

O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel! Let it be known today that you are God in Israel, and I am your servant, and that I have done these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people might know who is God…

And then? Woosh. An all-consuming fire devours the bull, the wood, the stones, the earth, the water—everything goes up in flames! Everybody falls down on their faces and says, “Wow! The Lord alone is God. The Lord alone is God.” (18:39)

But Elijah can’t just let it be. He turns the impressed crowd into a mob and tells them to seize the prophets of Baal and “let not a single one of them get away.” So they seized them, and Elijah took them down to the Wadi Kishon and there he slaughtered every last one. (18:40) The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God. 

That was what happened two weeks ago. In last weekend’s installment of this saga, Ahab reported to his wife, Jezebel, what had happened on Mount Carmel and at the Wadi Kishon. She responds by issuing his death warrant, saying that he will not get away with what he has done. So Elijah does what most of us would do; he runs away to Beer-sheba, where he leaves his servant to go on another day’s journey into the wilderness. To say that Elijah is tired and scared is probably an understatement. He’s alone and isolated and ministry in the midst of an evil empire is hard work for sure. He prays for death. He is at a mountain that the narrator calls Horeb, but that earlier generations called Mt. Sinai. He’s back, in other words, at the very same place where the story of God’s people began, back where Moses got the Ten Commandments and encountered God in the midst of thunder and lightning. But not this time:

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

Now Episcopalians love that “sound of sheer silence” (or as the older translations put it, the “still small voice of God.”) We tend to like our worship and our prayer and our spirituality on the quiet side, tending more toward meditation than speaking in tongues or doing any hopping dances around altars. Fair enough. But I’ve heard too many sermons on that “still small voice” that forget this larger context. The point of the story is not to encourage us toward centering prayer and silent retreats, as important as those spiritual practices may be. The larger point being made here is that being faithful is risky because Elijah isn’t on a spiritual retreat, he’s hiding from the law. Think St. Paul or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela - sitting in prison cells. As discouraging and isolating as that must have felt for them, perhaps they took some solace in remembering Elijah. And perhaps, they, too, were comforted by an awareness of God’s presence in the sounds of silence. I think of what those who have gone through (or perhaps even now are going through) what the mystics have called “the dark night of the soul”—when we feel like we are in a cave, like we are lost somewhere in the wilderness and feeling very afraid. Perhaps we, too, are ministered to by angels in those times.

This larger story is instructive for us on how to be the Church in this time and place. Walter Brueggemann has said that it is the task of prophetic ministry to “nurture, nourish, and evoke an alternative consciousness” to the dominant culture around us. Elijah doesn’t operate in the halls of power and most of us don’t either. His work is done on the edges. I think our world is a lot like the world of First and Second Kings and like Elijah we are called to march to the beat of a very different drummer with different values by putting God and God’s people first, and by living more fully into the Covenant made at Sinai that can be still be summarized in just four words: love God, love neighbor. In doing that—in places like the Dominican Republic and much closer to home—that is what we do: we nurture, nourish, and evoke an alternative consciousness.

In the sounds of sheer silence, Elijah comes to realize that he is in fact not alone. In that loneliest of places, he knows—not just in his head only but in his heart and in his bones that God is present and gives him the strength to go on. The Word of the Lord that comes to him in the wilderness ultimately reminds him that this work is not all about him and ultimately is not dependent upon him. It is God’s work and the mantle needs to be taken up by each generation anew.

I think that is what is going on, then, in today’s reading—in the midst of this whirlwind and this chariot of fire that passes into the heavenly realms. Elijah’s departure does not mean that God’s work has ended. The story will continue. It's up to his disciple Elisha, and ultimately people like you and me, to take up the mantle and do that work that God has given us to do. 

Elijah has vanished from our sight, at least until three years from now when we return to this cycle of readings again. But who knows; maybe we’ll catch a glimpse of him between now and then? Every year at Passover our Jewish friends still set a place at their Seder tables for Elijah, even as they pray for peace “next year in Jerusalem.” And as Christians, we catch a glimpse of Elijah every Advent season when John the Baptist appears in the wilderness proclaiming a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Like Elijah, John points beyond himself to a future that belongs to not to the King Ahabs or King Herods of this world, but to the king of kings and lord of lords, the One who comes to bring peace on earth and good will to all. In the meantime, there is work to be done, and no one ever said that work was easy. May each of us learn to listen in the midst of the journey and especially when the road is difficult for that sound of sheer silence, from which God calls us by name - to do the work that God has given us to do, in the name of Jesus the Christ. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Using Our Words

21st Century Congregations - July 2013

This post went out today from the Bishop's Office to the clergy and vestry leaders in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. I share it here as well for anyone who may be interested. 

For some time now, the clergy in our diocese have received a monthly subscription to a journal called The Parish Paper, a resource self-described as “short articles on congregational development topics for 21st century congregations.” While that resource served a purpose for a season in the life of our diocese, the Rev. Canon Pam Mott and I feel that the time is right to try something new and also to expand the readership by including lay leaders along with the clergy on the distribution list.

Each of us come across a wide array of resources, some more helpful than others. We want to offer some suggestions of those resources that we have found especially helpful and begin conversations that may deepen our resolve to share in God’s Mission. Our goal, then, will be the same as that of The Parish Paper: to develop and build up 21st century congregations. We hope to do this, however, in ways that are more organic to the challenges we face in being Church in our particular context: as Episcopalians living in this part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Our goal will be to keep to roughly the same length of The Parish Paper - about two pages. Pam and I will be rotating this responsibility from month-to-month. Hopefully an added bonus of this new approach will be the opportunity for readers to glimpse what makes each of our hearts sing for the sake of the gospel and this work we all share as servants of the risen Christ.

As we begin this approach I want to commend to you an excellent article by Lillian Daniel that appeared in June in The Alban Weekly, the on-line journal of The Alban Institute. It’s called "The Practice of Testimony." I encourage you to click on the link to this resource and read the article before reading my comments below. In fact, if you read the article and skip everything else I have written, that would be ok with me. What follows from this point, however, are some reflections that this article generates in me.

Years ago I read a terrific book edited by Dorothy C. Bass, called Practicing Our Faith: A Guide for Converation, Learning, and Growth. It seems to me that the language that Daniel is using here assumes an awareness of Bass’s earlier work and builds on it. There were several things I loved about that book. I loved that it represented the breadth of the ecumenical Church and included many different voices. I loved that it focused on practices rather than “beliefs.” Don’t get me wrong: there is nothing wrong with believing. But as Barbara Brown Taylor has put it, “in a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind the willing that faith is a way of life.” Too often the Enlightenment left us with “orthodoxies” that were over-focused on right thinking rather than on healthy practices, and were therefore anything but generous. But a closer examination of the tradition reveals another way. Like their Jewish forebears, those New Testament Christian communities in places like Jerusalem and Corinth and Rome were people of “the Way.” So, too, those who have committed to follow a Rule of Life—both inside the walls of monasteries and beyond them. I believe that our life together is more about cultivating a way of life characterized by a set of distinguishing practices than about intellectual assent to a set of doctrines.

Bass’s book is a terrific one that develops this theme. If you have never read it, I commend it to you. But the reason for sharing all of this background is that one of the chapters in that book is on “Testimony.” I remember when I first read that chapter, I had an almost visceral reaction. All these other practices were so great: hospitality, Sabbath-keeping, discernment, forgiveness, healing and so forth. But testimony? That one seemed scary; a little too Baptist for my tastes!

While other Episcopalians may have a similar initial reaction to mine, this practice needs to be claimed and cultivated proudly by us, too, as members of Christ’s Body. I would even argue that it takes us to the very heart of theology of The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, focused as it is on Holy Baptism and the ministry of all the baptized. Like Daniels, we developed a practice in the parish I previously served of inviting lay persons to write Advent and Lenten meditations based on the readings from The Daily Office. We encouraged lay preaching at youth led services, stewardship season, and other occasions throughout the year. Very often I would be greeted at the door after such “testimonies” were offered by people saying, “You better watch your back or you will be out of a job!” Like Daniel, I discovered what can happen when people “…told stories about their walk with God through the life of our church. Sometimes they were funny. Sometimes people cried…”

In other words, these reflections were amazing. Young and old alike took this seriously and reflected on their own journeys in light of the gospel. Really, as an Episcopalian that’s how I’d prefer to say it: the practice of offering testimony is nothing less than encouraging one another to find our voices as we reflect on our spiritual journeys in light of the Good News.

I have often quoted St. Francis of Assisi as having said “preach the gospel at all times, when necessary use words.” (He almost certainly didn’t actually say those words, by the way, but they sound Franciscan enough to ring true, even if he didn’t.) And most Episcopalians (including me) really like this notion. We preach the gospel without saying anything by building a home for the homeless or serving a meal to the hungry or visiting a friend in the hospital. The danger that I have discovered, however, is that this can become a rationale for never, ever using words. While it is true that the best testimony we can offer to the world of our faith is the way we live our lives, the fact is that sometimes it is necessary (and at the very least helpful) to find and then use our words. We are a people of the Word after all, a people who need to tell our stories.

So how might we work together as diocesan and congregational leaders, lay and ordained, to encourage and cultivate this practice of testimony in our congregations? What are you currently doing that works well? What risk might you take (with reckless abandon or even just cautious optimism) to do more? How can we more vigorously support people in finding their voices and in speaking with authenticity both inside of the church and in the world about what it means to be a follower of Jesus in this time and place? And then perhaps that even leads us to another set of questions: what voices are still being silenced (or muted) and how might the Spirit be coaxing us to hear those voices into speech? How might their testimony change us all for good? These questions don’t need to be rhetorical. Perhaps you can take some time at your next vestry meeting or at an adult forum to discuss them a bit. I’d love to hear your responses.

The Rev. Canon Rich Simpson

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Culture Shock

Recently I attended the tenth wedding anniversary celebration of a friend who is from Nigeria. The invitation I received for this event said that it would be held at a local restaurant from 5:30 p.m to 2:30 a.m.

I knew going in that I would be a racial minority at this event, but I was not really very concerned about that. I have known my friend for long enough to know that on "African time" this party would not really get underway at the stated time, however, so I had the good sense to ask him beforehand what time this invitation really meant. Even so, I was surprised  that when I arrived just before 7 p.m., only about half of the guests were there. It didn't really get going until close to 8.

I made a whole bunch of other assumptions as well, and in spite of the very warm welcome I was given I felt a bit out of place. For one thing, I was dressed all wrong. Everyone else there had gotten the "memo" that the dress was to be formal: either western or African. I was in khakis and a Tommy Bahama shirt. Oops. Most importantly, however, I had assumed not only a more casual event, but a kind of "open house" where people would come and go. It was in fact more like a wedding reception: a sit-down event with a meal served in courses, entertainment, and dancing in between. I had a great time and it really was a wonderful occasion.  But it was a bit of a culture shock and I felt very aware that I had no clue about the cultural norms and expectations.

I grew up in the church. At an early age I learned how to find a passage in the Bible and that everyone was supposed to sing the hymns (even if it was best for some to sing them softly.) I was an acolyte. For twenty-five years now I've been ordained and for the past fifteen years I served the same congregation. I know that if the bulletin says H-295 or WLP 764 that the former refers to the blue hymnal published in 1982 (although it might be red if you are in a parish that has blue Prayerbooks!) and that the latter refers to the thin green hymnal supplement known as Wonder, Love, and Praise.

In my new job as a diocesan staff person, as a man suddenly without a parish home, I now find myself walking into congregations as an outsider. And the truth is that it feels a lot like my experience at that anniversary party. I don't know (as everyone else does) which doors are open and which doors are not. I don't know where coffee hour is or how they pray the psalms or whether or not they think it's okay to laugh or clap in church.

Now if I, as a priest, feel this way, I can only imagine what it feels like for a person who has little to no experience with church culture to walk through the doors of even the most welcoming of congregations. And the point of this post is really to remind myself, and maybe other church people, that it is not a bad thing to get in touch with being an outsider every now and again. As summer unfolds, it might be good if you are out of town on a weekend to go find a congregation that is very different from your norm. If you are a liturgical Christian maybe it's a Pentecostal Church. If you are a free-church Christian then maybe it's an Armenian Orthodox Church. If you are a loud prayer then maybe it's a Quaker meeting. Just go and try to worship God in a place you know nothing about, outside of your comfort zone. And pay attention to what you feel, and what it is like to be a stranger.

And then take that experience - that feeling in your gut - back home with you. Pay attention to it. Reflect on it. And then look around your own familiar place and ask yourself how the stranger might feel in your home congregation.

I understand why people like to talk about their "church family" but that language has never really worked for me. Jesus did use this metaphor of family, of course;  but he reminded people that his family were not those with close biological ties but rather the "ones who did his Father's will." The New Testament communities tended to speak more often about the household of God. In sacramental language we speak of the Baptized. In any event, "families" have code language and history, they tell funny stories that everyone already knows the punchline to. There are really few experiences more awkward than being at a "close-knit family" gathering if you are not part of that family. In fact the closer-knit they are, the more awkward it will surely be.

I don't think most church people mean to be exclusive. Maybe some do, but I think most just forget (if they ever knew) what it is like to be new, what it feels like to be an outsider. It is meet and right to build Christian fellowship with ties that bind, and it is a holy thing to set down deep roots in a congregation. But one of the mandates of the Gospel as I read it is always to be finding ways to show hospitality to the stranger, who by definition does not walk in the door knowing all of the spoken and unspoken expectations. I believe that a truly welcoming congregation is one that is intentionally reflecting on such things, and constantly trying to see itself from the outside in.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Reading on the Mass Pike

I have been doing a fair amount of reading on the Massachusetts Turnpike these days. Last week I read Sebastian Junger's A Death in Belmont. (It's a good read and I recommend it.) And yesterday (yes, in just one day) I read Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea. In addition to my hour-long commute I had a meeting in the Berkshires, so I even had time to spare.

Technically speaking, I guess you would say that Donald Sutherland read The Old Man and the Sea to me. It has been a long time since someone has read to me, and maybe never someone who reads as well as Donald Sutherland. (Although my mother did used to read a pretty good Little Red Hen.)

For the past fifteen years I had about a two hundred yard commute from the rectory to the church. While I had visits to the sick and occasional diocesan commitments in Springfield, I did not spend a lot of time in my car, and when I did I mostly listened to music. Many of my friends spend a lot of time in their cars, however, or in airports - an aspect of their work that I have never envied. One of those friends often shows up at social events and begins conversations like this: "I just finished reading this great book..."

I always interrupt him with my best Mike-Myers-playing-Dr-Evil imitation (using hand motions to make the quotation marks) - so, Brian, what book have you just "read?

No more. Brian is now my main go-to man. I've removed the quotation marks. I, too, am now reading on the Mass Pike. And loving it. I find myself arriving at my destination and wanting to finish that chapter...

I had this amazing English teacher as a junior in high school, a man named Ken Swartz, who taught us (among other things) three fishing stories: Moby Dick, The Book of Job, and The Old Man and the Sea. I have not yet re-read Melville's classic, but I have re-read Job many times since high school. And now, more than three decades later, I have returned to The Old Man and The Sea.

As Santiago sails back home with his great fish in tow, he wonders about all of the great questions of his life: about the meaning of his work, about his love for the boy, about the nature of sin, about his relationship to the created order.  What an extraordinary story, that I'm sure was wasted on me at seventeen.
You did not kill the fish only to keep alive or to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?
Next on my list is David McCullough's The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Thank You, Bill


For more than fifteen years, The Venerable William Coyne has faithfully served the people of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts as a member of Bishop Scruton's senior staff. Since the election of Bishop Fisher a year ago, Bill has been part of the transition process. At the end of this week, he will begin a well-deserved sabbatical, and his own  time of transition from full-time ministry to part-time ministry.

My time as a parish priest in Holden ran concurrently with Bill's time as Archdeacon of our Diocese. From beginning to end, he has been a support to me personally and to the people among whom I was so privileged to serve over these many years. Just this past fall he guided the wardens, vestry, and staff of St. Francis Church through a Mutual Ministry Review that will help the congregation stay focused on God's Mission as they begin to search for a new rector.

But I am even more grateful for Bill's personal support over the past six months or so since it was announced that I would be joining Bishop Fisher's staff as Canon to the Ordinary. When this news was first shared publicly back in January, one of the very first emails I got was from Bill. From that day until now, he has been incredibly gracious to me: sharing with me what he knows and has learned without a touch of condescension, and yet every time also being quick to add: "that is how it worked for us, with Gordon (the previous bishop). It may or may not be helpful for this new team."

I have told Bill in person how grateful I am of his generous spirit toward me and my new partner in ministry, the Rev. Canon Pam Mott. But I also wanted to give a more public "shout out." I am so very grateful for the good work that has been done during the previous "administration" - solid foundational work that we are now humbled to be able to build upon. Thank you, Bill.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The "Nones"

Ever since the Pew Forum on Religious Life declared that "nones are on the rise" church leaders have been talking about them. One in five adults in this country now report having no religious affiliation. Recently I read an interview with Elizabeth Drescher entitled "Listening to the Nones." A link to that interview can be found here.

Who are these "nones?" When asked about religious affiliation, they chose "none of the above."  It doesn't mean they chose "atheist" or "spiritual, but not religious." It means they chose not to identify with any particular label. They chose "religiously unaffiliated." In fact, seventy percent of the "nones" have a Christian background. They have "moved on" to join what Bishop Spong  used to call "the Church Alumni Association,"  In breaking that down even further, the following extended quote from Drescher is worth pondering:
In the Roman Catholic tradition, it’s a bigger deal to give up the religious identity label than it is for Mainline Protestants. It’s almost an ethnic/cultural identification. In the Nones who grew up Roman Catholic, there’s a real theme of feeling hurt or wounded by the church, especially women, whose full identity may not have been honored in that tradition. Lesbian and Gay people have same feeling of being hurt or excluded from their tradition. Whether they were directly affected or not, many are of course deeply troubled by clergy abuse scandal and how the Vatican hierarchy have seemed to respond to that. What they often told me was that they left the Catholic Church not so much due to a theological shift, but because “something happened to me. My identity was not affirmed and that was painful.” 
For Evangelicals, the theme that emerges consistently is anger. Many have felt that conservative evangelical teaching in regards to science, Darwinism, and the environment set them up to look foolish. They feel they were tricked. Some reason brings them to a place where they get more information and understanding about the world, and they feel like they were duped by the teachings in their traditions. They didn’t need to be, but they feel they were set up to look like idiots and it makes them really angry.  
For Mainline Protestants, we know that the data tells us that about 55 percent now of young people raised Episcopalian will leave the church as adults. Among Congregationalists, it’s closer to 65 percent. About 20 percent of those will become “Nones.” Evangelicals are right on their heels at 19%; and it goes down a little bit after that.  
For Mainline Protestants, the theme is neither hurt nor anger, but a sense of ennui. They got it. They get that they’re supposed to be good to people, share what they have, do good in the world. If I had a nickel for how they love, love, love their youth group, or what a great time they had on their mission trips, I’d be a very wealthy woman.  
What tends to happen with Mainline Protestants is that they are deeply affirmed in early formation and then they “graduate” from church. And we let them have that model. Our church schools are parallel to other kinds of schooling. One young woman told me, “I learned everything I needed to know there, I get it. I don’t need this in order to be a good person or in order to make sense of everyday life.” I hear this when I interview parents as well: “Our children will learn good values. Check. They’ve learned this, we can move on.” 
Roman Catholics leave the Church because they have been hurt. Evangelicals leave because they are angry. Mainline Protestants leave because they have graduated. My own anecdotal experience and intuition from twenty-five years of ordained ministry affirms the findings of this research. Not all of those hurt Roman Catholics end up as "nones." Some of them find their way into Episcopal congregations like the one I served for a decade and a half. And not all angry evangelicals end up as "nones." Some of them find their way into Episcopal congregations where, as Robin Williams (an Episcopalian) has put it, "you can believe in dinosaurs."

And yet, fifty-five percent of our young Episcopalians will become "nones." That is a staggering number to me, and one that rings true. Over half of our young people, who loved youth group and mission trips, will "check that off their lists" and move on. And in general they won't leave angry or sad. They will just "graduate." In the old days, the days of Christendom, we didn't worry too much about young people "graduating" from church because we knew that once they married and had children they would return because they needed us. But our context has changed, and marriage is often postponed, and it is increasingly rare that mainline Protestants match up with other mainline Protestants. So it's harder and harder for them to find a way back home even if they have a desire to do so.

I want some of those "nones" in the pews of Episcopal congregations because I think they'd be good for us, and we would be a good match for them. More importantly, I want them to join us in being sent out from the pews to participate in God's mission in the world. Many of them already share a commitment to the work that so many Episcopal congregations are committed to: caring for the environment, working for social justice, slowing down in a fast world. Many of our communities are already emerging as places more focused on being (and becoming) than on believing, belonging, or behaving. Sometimes in the Church we suffer from a kind of attention deficit disorder; yearning for a quick fix, we chase the next "program" that promises to take us back in a time machine to the Eisenhower administration and the last days of Christendom.

But I think what we need to do for now is listen not just to this research but to those "nones." Engaging them is at least as important as ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. We need to listen, and pray.

The wisdom in this research is ultimately, I think, not primarily about numbers but identity: who is God calling us to become? This requires deep change, not quick fixes. But as I read Drescher, I am incredibly hopeful about the future. As a pastor I often told parents whose kids were not connecting in Sunday School or Youth Group not to worry too much but to work on their own adult faith. It was usually not the answer they wanted to hear, but I still think it was the right one. The model of parents dropping kids off for Sunday School, or Youth Group, but not finding time to work on their own maturing faith only reinforces the problem. I figured then (and continue to believe) that if the parents model adult faith that is the greater gift to their children and grandchildren.

Drescher is asked what advice she has for the Church and her response is wise counsel. So I'll give her the last word:
Focusing on nurturing relationships across categories in the community is really important, and finding ways of enriching prayer practice.  
The shame of it is we have these incredibly rich spiritual traditions that many people—Nones and the religiously affiliated alike—find deeply meaningful. That is, they do once they know about things like the Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Compline, Centering Prayer, chanting the Psalms, and so on are and how they can become meaningful, manageable parts of everyday life. These practices can also become more central in regular worship, which is something, for example, that has made the Crossings community in the Diocese of Massachusetts so vibrant.  
St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn is another example of a ministry that connects to the spiritual value people place on sharing and preparing food. They have a full Eucharistic feast each week to which every participant actively contributes. And, though the venue and elements of the liturgy are not conventional, the theology is deeply orthodox—generously, beautifully so. 
The challenge this all seems to me to raise for the church is How can we be open and creative with the riches of our tradition? How can we honor them more deeply and share them more robustly to enrich and extend our communities? I think that’s what we all have to be about. We have to be asking, “What if we did everything differently using everything we have in new, inventive ways?” (emph. mine) 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Widow of Zerephath (I Kings 17:8-16)

Manuscript for the sermon preached at Trinity Church in Ware, Massachusetts on Sunday, June 9 - the Third Sunday after Pentecost 

Imagine for a moment that you are a filmmaker. And forget for just a moment that the Book of First Kings is in the Bible. Think of it as a screenplay that someone has brought to you to read and your job is to convert it for the big screen. As in all films, the opening scene is crucial for the entire story that is about to be told and it holds within it all kinds of possibilities.

I’d start with a wide-angle that allows the audience to see an old man shivering. Well, an old man by Old Testament standards, anyway. The man in question is about seventy according to the narrator. And he can’t get warm. His circulation just isn’t what it once was. As the camera comes in closer on his face we recognize him. Because this is a sequel of sorts and because everybody knows this face—the same way you’d know the face of Abraham Lincoln or George Washington in an instant. It’s King David.

Young women are sent to keep the old king warm. I suppose a prayer shawl would have worked just fine, but this is King David after all. The narrator whispers to us that this isn’t sexual, however. He needs to tell us that because…well, because everybody knows the king’s reputation, because everyone remembers “Bathsheba-gate.”

The world is about to change and it isn’t at all clear who will be the next king. Remember that David is the second king and his succession to Saul’s throne was messy. They are living in a time of transition and even uncertainty about the future and all of the emotions that that brings with it. 

Spoiler alert: the son of Bathsheba and David, Solomon, will succeed his father. We’ll watch in a relatively short span of time, however, how power corrupts him and the nation begins to unravel. And then a whole bunch of kings come after him. It turns out that as imperfect as he was, David was one of a kind and that power corrupts (and absolute power corrupts absolutely) those who follow in his footsteps. 

And so in First and Second Kings we see a whole bunch of monarchs, but none of them are very good, and most of them are pretty awful. By the time you get to the twelfth chapter of First Kings the kingdom has split in two: Judah to the south and Israel to the north.

But I think if you did it right, you could see all of that in David’s eyes in that very first scene. These are not glory days for God’s people. That first scene puts us on alert to all of these things. So that by the time you get to the sixteenth chapter of the story, the king of the northern kingdom is a man named Ahab. And you don’t even have to be a Biblical scholar to remember the name of Ahab’s wife: Jezebel. Now even if you know nothing about who Jezebel actually was (she was a Canaanite worshiper of Baal) her name echoes down through the centuries. It’s not a name you give serious thought to when you find out you are going to have a little girl. Not many people choose to name their daughters Jezebel, which would be a little bit like naming your son Adolf.

The historical Jezebel was no doubt demonized and scape-goated by the men who told and remembered this story. It’s always the woman’s fault, right? If behind every good king is a good woman, then behind every bad king like Ahab there must be an evil woman. The thing is this: we have no way of knowing what the historical Jezebel was like. In truth her character may tell us more about the narrator than it does about her, as an historical figure. What we know in the story we get is that she is blamed for just about everything that has gone wrong since the days of King David. She embodies people’s worst nightmares and fears and anxieties.

Jezebel and the Canaanites who worshiped Baal believed that Baal was the god who brought the rains: in a desert climate, rain equals life. That is important to understand as we are introduced in chapter seventeen to a new character, one of the most important figures in the Old Testament: Elijah the Tishbite. When we meet Elijah, he makes the claim that life is from YHWH alone. It is impossible to overstate just how counter-cultural that claim is. He is laying down the gauntlet: Yahweh, not Baal, is LORD. The Hebrew word for life is used over and over again in these next few chapters and I think that what the narrator wants us to see: that Elijah is willing to stand up in defiance of those who worship Baal by bearing witness to the God of Israel.

So a drought has come over the land to show that Baal has no power. That brings famine and death and poverty, however. The most vulnerable members of that society (and maybe any society) are the widows and orphans. In a time of drought, when even the rich are suffering those at the bottom are in the greatest danger. In such times it makes sense to “take care of yourself first.” Charity begins at home, right?

So that is the background for today's reading, when Elijah shows up at this widow’s home. She is not a Jew, and that is important because this is a time when it is hard to find faithfulness and here as in so many other places in the Bible faith is defined not as right belief but as right practice. That is, it’s about how you treat your neighbor. Elijah shows up and says he’s staying for dinner. And for breakfast the next day, and lunch after that, and dinner…indefinitely. That is a frightening prospect for a poor widow with a child to care for. And in fact she expresses that concern. But in the end she chooses hospitality and generosity and trust. And there is enough bread, and there is enough water.

It’s an old story, rooted in the older story of the Exodus, where there was water and manna one day at a time. It’s a new story, told in the New Testament as the miracle of the loaves and fishes and the water into wine at Cana in Galilee. That is good news. The widow opens up her home to a stranger, and discovers that there is enough. And as the story continues, it is clear when Elijah raises the widow's son from the dead that YHWH, not Baal, is the one who brings life even from death, the one who makes full and abundant life possible. 

What might this story mean for us? I think there is a temptation to make it too magical. Now don’t misunderstand me; I am not saying that there isn’t a miraculous dimension to this story of never-ending flour and oil. I’m enough of a mystic that I don’t need to try to “explain” it away. On the other end of the spectrum, however, there is this temptation to turn it into a magic trick. And when we do that we are tempted to see it as something that happens in Bible-land but has little to do with our own lives. And I think this story has everything to do with our lives, and how we choose to live them.

I think the point is to develop eyes that can see the miracles that are happening all around us.  The first step in that process is to notice with the narrator of First Kings that the national media doesn’t cover this stuff. It doesn’t make it into the headlines in an anxious world led by Ahab and Jezebel. The national media is too concerned with the news that sells, rather than good news that brings life. They run, breathlessly, from Arora to Newtown, to Boston and Santa Monica. 

So you have to know where to look for good news and very often it’s on the edges, on the fringes, in the small places.

The birth of a child is a miracle, for example. It’s not a magic trick but it inspires awe and wonder. The amazing advances in modern medicine are miracles that bring life out of death. How many of you have had cataract surgery? Whenever the blind see, do we praise God—however it comes to pass?  

And so, too, when we choose generosity in a dog-eat-dog world or hospitality in a world of fear—these are miracles as well. Finding another place at the dinner table when you know the cupboard is bare; that’s a real miracle. That’s biblical faith in action.

Anxiety over money is one of the great stresses in too many homes. Maybe yours is one of them. I’ve found in pastoral ministry that the stress people feel over money has very little to do with the dollar amount that gets reported on their tax returns. People who make high six figure incomes sometimes have first homes and second homes and drive the kind of cars that mean more is going out than coming in. That’s a recipe for high levels of anxiety.

Conversely, people with very modest incomes and homes are sometimes able to manage their money in ways that allow them to give thanks for what they have and still live generous lives. I bet you have examples of both choices right in this parish. I suspect that most of us vacillate somewhere in between: we know that even the poorest among us have way more than most people who live on the planet. Yet even the wealthiest among us can feel impoverished when we compare our lives to those of the "rich and famous."

So how do we choose to see ourselves? Some of the poorest people I’ve ever met have been the most generous. I remember spending time in Nicaragua in the 1980s, living with a family that didn’t have indoor plumbing and mostly lived off of rice and beans. But when I was their guest they insisted on a little extra, including some cervasa. There was enough.

Hospitality to the stranger and generosity take us to the very core of Biblical faith—old and new testaments alike. By choosing life in the face of death and hope in the face of despair, this widow bears witness to the power of God at work in the world and to the many ways that the love of God makes all things possible.

Who are the people in your life—your models, who help you to live more like that? Maybe it’s someone in your biological family. But if not, then look to this your baptismal community, the household of God. Find people who choose to relate to money as a means to an end and not an end in itself. Find people who keep things in perspective and give thanks every day—regardless of whether that day brings feast or famine. Find people who live with glad and generous hearts and then try to live like them.

There are two ways to be rich. One is to grasp for it all. The problem with that way is that it will never be enough and no matter how much you accumulate you’ll always be able to find someone who has more. The other path is to begin each day by saying thanks for what you do have and then make the most of it. That choice, I think, is to live a bit more like this widow: counting your blessings, and sharing your daily bread, and trusting that there really will be enough. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Spirit of Adventure

I'm still trying to find my new voice by stepping back and pondering what I have learned as a parish priest that may be of some help to me as the context for my ministry shifts to the diocesan level. In my most recent posts I've been thinking about our post-Christendom context and the opportunities for ministry in this time and place as we seek to envision the Reign of God. If you have not read these previous three posts it may be worthwhile to do so, as I think they set the context for what now follows.

If it was as easy as all of this: to unleash creativity by just singing a new church, then perhaps the Reign of God would already be here not just proleptically but fully. The truth is, however, that what we get are glimpses; or as Eliot once put it, "hints and half-guesses." One reason for this is that we can get stuck, both as individuals and as communities. (Or as the theologians might put it, because of the nature of Sin.)

I am carefully reading Edwin H. Friedman's A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. I am deliberately reading it slowly and trying to mark it and learn it and inwardly digest it, because I think that Friedman is truly onto something crucial. Below is an extended quote from the chapter he entitles "Imaginative Gridlock" that I think is quite relevant to the questions I've been exploring.
Anyone who has ever been part of an imaginatively gridlocked relationship system knows that more learning will not, on its own, automatically change the way people see things or think. There must first be a shift in the emotional processes of that institution. Imagination and indeed curiosity are at root emotional, not cognitive, phenomena. In order to imagine the unimaginable, people must be able to separate themselves from surrounding emotional processes before they can even begin to see (or hear) things differently. Without this understanding, it becomes impossible to realize how our learning can prevent us from learning more. (page 31)
This is a terribly important point. I think of Jesus debating the Pharisees, who did not have eyes to see and ears to hear the new thing he was doing. They were literally blind and deaf to the Reign of God that was unfolding before their very eyes, and so they came to him at worst seeking to trap him  and at at best looking for more information. But it was a lost cause, because they were so clearly gridlocked in their imaginations: they were so certain that nothing good could ever come from Nazareth.

So it is a good thing to sing a new church into being and it is indeed the task of prophetic ministry to cultivate a vision that nurtures and nourishes and evokes an alternative way of being in the world. But that vision falls on deaf ears if the system is imaginatively gridlocked, as are so many congregations in our time. Friedman goes on to write:
Conceptually stuck systems cannot become unstuck simply by trying harder. For a fundamental reorientation to occur, that spirit of adventure which optimizes serendipity and which enables new perceptions beyond the control of our thinking processes must happen first. This is equally true regarding families, institutions, whole nations, and entire civilizations...but for that type of change to occur, the system in turn must produce leaders who can both take the first step and maintain the stamina to follow through in the face of predictable resistance and sabotage. Any renaissance, anywhere, whether in a marriage or a business, depends primarily not only on new data and techniques, but on the capacity of leaders to separate themselves from the surrounding emotional climate so that they can break through the barriers that are keeping everyone from "going the other way." (page 33, emph. mine)

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Vision Promised

"Dare to dream the vision promised / sprung from seed of what has been."    (Delores Dufner, OSB)
"The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us." (Walter Brueggemann) 
If, then, it is the case that we are living through a time of major transition as the Church - even a time of epic transition - then what is required of us? How do we we move from a Constantinian model and mindset of being Church and sing a new church into being?

We begin by really trusting in the resurrection and by becoming more and more a people who are allowing Easter to be not just a creed proclaimed on our lips, but good news that is being lived in our daily lives. We are a people not afraid of death, because we believe that from the seeds of what dies, new life is born.

This suggests to me that the the tradition is not something to be "guarded" as if it were a museum, but something to be planted so that it takes root. The way forward is rooted in the past. But not in "the way we have always done things." Rather, it is rooted in the past faithfulness of the Holy Trinity: for the God who created and redeemed us is the same One who sends the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, and gives us dreams and visions to live into. Wiith God's help.

The mission of the Church is not simply our service to the world around us, as crucial as that is to our identity. But if that is all we are, we might as well be a social service agency, and quite frankly some of those do that work better than we do as the Church. We serve the world around us, and love our neighbor, because Christ has commanded us to do these things. And in so doing we are changed for good.

But the mission of the Church is also at its very core this vocation to "nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us." It is to be a people, empowered by the Spirit, who dream the dream of God together.

Our context is no longer Constantinian. One way to think about the empire that does surround us is to remember that part of the Biblical narrative - of our very own story - that is about how God's people were exiled into Babylonian captivity. They,too, had lived through a time when "church" and "state" were more integrated. It didn't turn out that great for them, either, however.

In Babylon, they began to discover that to live in the midst of someone else's dominant narrative (as we do) can help you to clarify who you are. After all, Babylon was not all bad. The Babylonians had their own creation narrative. I'm sure they loved their children and their grandchildren. They had some great gardens, and a rich culture.

But that dominant narrative loomed so large that God's people were in danger of forgetting their own story - of forgetting who they were - of forgetting about the Sinai and Zion. And so in a time of epic loss and tragic grief, they began to write it down for their children and their children's children. Stories that had been told for generations around the campfire now were written down for generations to come, and shaped into what would become the Bible. They began to re-member who they were, and who they were called to become.

We, too, live in a time when it is easy to forget who we are. It is easy to believe that the narratives that tell us that to be somebody we must be rich, or beautiful, or thin are the only stories out there. But we gather as God's people to encounter Word and Sacrament and to remember that we have been claimed and marked and sealed as God's own forever. We keep gathering to nurture and nourish and evoke an alternative consciousness, and to sing a new Church into being. Always with God's help.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Reflecting on our Post-Christendom Context

I graduated from Drew Theological School twenty-five years ago, in 1988. I am almost certain that I never heard the word "post-Christendom" (or its near synonym, "post-Constantinian") even once during my three years of theological studies.

Just one year later, however, William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas published a little book called Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know Something is WrongI can't remember whether or not I read that book when it was "hot off the presses" in the fall of 1989. But I'm pretty certain that I read it before The Alban Institute published another book in 1991 by Loren Mead called The Once and Future Church: Reinventing the Congregation for a New Mission Frontier

For me it was these two books in particular that gave me a vocabulary to begin to speak about what I was already starting to intuit as a young campus minister about the challenges being faced by the Church in a post-Christendom/post-Constantinian context. It seemed as if an old world order was breaking apart and a new one was emerging. While it is not fair to meld the premises of  these two books together, for me they were inseparable at the time. And if my memory is accurate, I'm pretty sure that Mead even quoted from Resident Aliens in unpacking this notion of a what this post-Christendom context was like.

The premise was and is fairly simple to state: Christianity's relationship with the dominant culture changed in the early part of the fourth century when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Before that time, pre-Constantinian Christianity was a decidedly counter-cultural movement. The early Church cut against the grain of Roman imperialism, offering an alternative worldview. But after Constantine, everything changed -at least for western Christianity in the northern hemisphere. Constantinian Christianity saw a marriage of convenience between Christ and culture. Whether one labels these changes as good or bad depends on one's perspective. And the truth is that it was probably neither unambiguously good or bad. It does seem fairly obvious, at least in hindsight, that something was lost when "everyone" was a Christian. As Soren Kierkegaard famously asked (a man definitely ahead of his time!) - how to be a Christian in Christendom?

Part of what seemed to be lost in those many centuries of Constantinian Christianity was that sense of the Church's particular vocation to be "salt" and "light" and "yeast" for the world. Perhaps most importantly, the mission field became someplace else - "over there" among the "heathens."  Willimon and Hauerwas and Mead (and eventually many others) were noticing that the paradigm was shifting and that our new post-Christendom context bore a closer resemblance to the challenges and opportunities faced by the early Church than to the Church of the middle ages or even the Church many of us grew up in in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States.

At the other end of that same decade, Darrell Guder edited a rich ecumenical collection of essays in 1998 entitled The Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America.  I know exactly when I read this book: it was in the summer of 2001 when I began my studies in the D.Min. program at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. The program I had entered was called "Gospel and Culture" and at the time, Dr. Guder was part of the team that taught the introductory core. If you Google "missional church" now, it's hard to even get to the book mentioned above: it seems like every theological book published in the last decade is, in one way or another, about the missional church! But because of my studies at CTS, we were talking about "the missional church" in Holden long before it was cool! (And even before "google" was a verb!)

All of this is pretty old news. But the point of this blog post is to remind myself (and anyone who may be reading this) that this language is now taken for granted as foundational - regardless of our theological differences. I am a fifty year old Episcopal priest who has been ordained for exactly half of my life.  I can still remember being dismissed on Thursday afternoons from my small-town public elementary school to go to the Methodist Church for religious education. In a real sense my seminary training still belonged to that world, a world that my professors had grown up in and were trained in and in some cases ordained for. And yet my ordained life has unfolded in an increasingly different word: a world more secular, post-modern and yes, post-Constantinian - a world that has challenged so many of those prior assumptions.

Even in a polarized church that mirrors our political divisions, this notion that we live in a post-Christendom context has very little to do with whether one identifies with a political vision on the right or on the left. It just is the reality we all face. Dr. King's work for social equality in the 1960s was in many ways an extension of his preaching ministry, and he could assume that whether or not his hearers agreed with his message, that when quoting Amos or Micah and Isaiah those in the media and those listening to him on the Mall knew their Bibles well enough to recognize what he was talking about. To say we are living in a post-Christendom context is to recognize that most Americans today (and even many Christians!) listening to Dr. King, would be completely oblivious to that Biblical worldview that shaped his ethical vision.

So this notion has huge implications for how we read the Bible. Perhaps no one has recognized this better than my old CTS professor, Walter Brueggemann. This notion also has implications for every aspect of our life together, including how we do Christian formation and how we think about the Church and how we think about the mission of the Church. No longer is the "mission field" on the other side of the world: from a "Christian society" to people who have never heard of Jesus. Rather, those congregations that have a sign at the door that says "the worship has ended, now the service begins" or "you are entering the mission field" reflect the context I've been trying to describe above. The challenge in our time is to pay attention to God's mission: to what God is doing in the neighborhood, and then to try to participate in that.

One of the hardest things, I think, for the Church in North America these days is that many of our leaders (from the House of Bishops to the pews) came of age during the last throes of "Christendom." We were trained for, and in many ways are still organized for mission under the old model. This, in part, explains our nostalgia for the past, and our temptation to confuse the church of our youth with the Christian tradition. The fact is that the way we did it from the 1950s to the 1970s is not how it was always done. Or to put that another way, the breadth and depth of the Christian tradition goes back two thousand years, not a few decades. As a more post-denominational and global Christianity begins to emerge, we are beginning to see just how right Willimon and Hauerwas and Mead and others were about this main thing: that the work we are called to seems to share more in common with the earliest Christians who were a minority movement within the Roman empire than with Protestant Christianity during the Eisenhower administration.

I am ruminating on such things as I begin a new job as Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. It is not only congregations that have been changing and will continue to change to meet these changing circumstances. Judicatories (in my case, as an Episcopalian, dioceses) have also begun to change (and will need to change much more) to meet the needs and challenges of this time and place. In the old days, it was clear what bishops and canons and dioceses needed to do to support the life of congregations. In the (still emerging) missional Church, it is not yet clear what that should look like. What does seem clear is that we will need to rely more and more on collaboration and webs of relationships rather than top-down pronouncements.

This post therefore doesn't have a final point and there is no "lead" here that I have buried. This is old news, at least going all the way back to the 1990s. And yet, in another sense, it takes time for radically new ideas to take hold and in the greater scheme of Christian history, twenty years or so is a blink of an eye.

We all know the Church needs to become more nimble in the ways we do our work. And yet we can get stuck: congregations, dioceses, the larger Church. And we meet resistance - both externally and internally - as we try to respond to this new situation. The reason, I think, is that so many of us (even clergy as young as I!) were formed and trained in the old ways. Yet even now, God is doing a new thing among us. We are beginning to perceive it, but the adaptive change required for our communities to engage in this new mission frontier is still something that is only just beginning.

In such times we need metaphors to help us know that while the challenges and opportunities we face are new ones, God's people have faced similar challenges before. Brueggemann suggests that this time in our life-together is something like the Babylonian exile. Others speak of us being on the brink of a new Reformation. Exploring these metaphors, however, may require another post.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Awaiting Another Voice

My very first post to this blog was written just about  three and a half years ago, on January 3, 2010. I was preparing to travel to St. George's College in Jerusalem, and I thought a blog would be a good way to keep in touch with folks back home, a kind of photo-journal-diary for my trip. 

Upon returning, I found that I enjoyed this form of communication. I am the kind of person who tends to write things out in order to know what I'm thinking. I've never really had the discipline to keep a journal, but for me blogging has been something like what I imagine that would be like. And since I never know exactly who will be reading these posts, I mostly am writing for myself, with an invitation to anyone who wishes to "listen in" to do so.  

For a while I was aware of trying to find my "blogging voice" and even though I often print sermons or portions of sermons here, that that voice was not identical to my voice in the pulpit. What did become clear is that while I have sometimes veered into more personal reflections, the primary context out of which these ruminations have emerged has been as a parish priest in the suburban congregation of St. Francis Church, in central Massachusetts. 

Two weeks ago, on the Feast of Pentecost, I said goodbye to that congregation after having served more than fifteen years as their rector. I've been blogging about that transition for some time. In fact the past year has been a season of one transition after another. Last fall, my wife and I became "empty-nesters" as we took our youngest off to college and this past week our eldest graduated from college. We are in the process of moving out of the rectory we have called home for all these years, after purchasing our first house in Worcester, MA. And while there has been some overlap to this point, today is my official "first day" as one of two Canons to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. For those who are not sure what I just said, I wrote about this back in January. The summary version of that post is here: 
Canon to the Ordinary. A canon who is specific to the Bishop's office; a staff officer who performs tasks as assigned by the Ordinary (i.e. Diocesan Bishop.)
Five months later, as I now officially begin this job,  I know a bit more about what it will entail. Yet like all new adventures, I know there will be some surprises along the way. As I wake this morning, it is with a sense of hopeful expectation. While I've moved most of my office from Holden to Diocesan House in Springfield, I am not actually heading into that office until later this week. Canons to the Ordinary from all of the New England Dioceses (what we Episcopalians call "Province One") will be gathering tomorrow afternoon in Burlington, Vermont for a few days together, as they do semi-annually. I am excited about meeting with them all, including my new partner in this work, the Rev. Canon Pamela Mott. 

People have asked me if I will keep blogging. The answer is yes, I hope so. But what is changing for me is the context of my ministry. While there will be some continuity, I know that working in a diocesan ministry will be different from parish ministry; which means that my questions will be evolving. I'll still be preaching a fair amount, but I'll be in different congregations each week. I expect to continue to post sermons (or portions of them) to this blog. In between, I will be continuing to try to reflect on what it means to be a follower of Jesus in this time and place. 

As all of this unfolds, I am reminded of T. S. Eliot's words in "Little Gidding" - 
For last year's words belong to last year's language / And next year's words await another voice.
I hope that readers of this blog will "bear with me" as I seek to find that new voice.