Pay It Forward

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Luke 19:1-10


Our sons were in elementary school when the film Pay It Forward introduced a powerful concept into popular culture. It told the story of a young boy, Trevor McKinney, being raised by a single mother with a drinking problem. His social studies teacher gave the class the following assignment: to think of an idea to change the world for the better, then put it into action. Trevor’s idea was to do a good deed for three complete strangers, who, rather than paying him back, must pay it forward, by doing good deeds for three other people, thereby creating a kind of goodness pyramid scheme. Not only did he affect the life of his struggling single mother, he set in motion an unprecedented wave of human kindness which, unbeknownst to him, blossomed into a national phenomenon.


Pay it forward became a mantra in our house, so we could talk to our young sons about a way of living in the world that starts with the capacity to receive everyday blessings and small acts of kindness with gratitude, and then commit to passing those blessings and kindnesses along. Every once in awhile, when one or both of them realized how incredibly blessed they were, they understood the power of passing that blessing on, so others might know something of the goodness they had received.


We are all the benefactors of those who made generous, sacrificial decisions for our sake, not only in our immediate family and circle of community, but countless generations of people who imagined and created the very social structures we have the luxury of taking for granted, and criticizing if they no longer meet our standards.


In my own life, I am especially mindful of the times I have received forgiveness and  kindness when I least deserved it–when I had done something truly foolish or had made a terrible mistake. There have been many such times, and when someone responded not with anger, but in love, I have felt both overwhelmingly grateful and humbled. My capacity to be that kind of person has grown as a result, for when I’m mindful of all that I have received, I’m less interested in keeping track of who might or might not be worthy of my forgiveness or my gifts. I think about this when people talk about privilege in our society–how far can we fall and still be caught in the embrace of love and forgiveness?


Last summer I had a heart-to-heart conversation with a young man whose mother works at Washington National Cathedral on the housekeeping staff. Every day she cleans floors and bathrooms, empties the garbage, polishes brass. It’s hard work and it’s taking a toll on her health, but her eyes are fixed on her son and his future. He’s very bright, as she’s doing all she can to help him pay for his community college tuition. But last year three things happened at the same time: her husband lost his job, her hours were cut at the Cathedral, and her son’s tuition costs went up.


My husband and I offered to help out financially, something we can do now that our sons are out of college. But this is a proud family and the mother didn’t want charity. So we couched it in the form a scholarship for her son, given his intelligence and aptitude, as an investment in his future. The mother agreed, under those terms. But then her son, who had a rather inflated view of his capabilities, chose not to study very much that semester and his grades were terrible. In fact, at the last minute he dropped two classes, something he had to acknowledge not only to his mother, but to me.


So we sat down in my living room and talked. I had to say to him, “Look, we believe in you and want to help you get an education, but we’re not going to throw money away, if your heart’s not into it.” I saw a flash of panic in his eyes, as he realized the gravity of his mistake. I also saw, mirrored back to me, some of my own foolish mistakes, financial and otherwise, and that of our children. I thought of all the times I had been spared the consequences of my mistakes because of the kindness of another or because there was a buffer of protection around me that this young man, the son of a housekeeper, did not have. “Everyone makes mistakes,” I said him. “Let’s try again next semester. You’re an intelligent young man. Do your best.”  He took a deep breath. “Do you want me to pay you back for last semester’s tuition?” he asked. “Don’t pay me back,” I said to him. “Pay it forward. Get your grades up. And remember this moment when the time comes for you to give someone else a second chance.”


Jesus, you know, was a second-chance, pay-it-forward kind of guy. Time and again he said things like “Love others as I have loved you. Forgive as you have been forgiven. If you have been shown kindness or mercy, go and do likewise.” And in his presence, people felt his grace and love. It softened them, opened their hearts, and moved them to share that love with others.


Case in point: our hero for today, Zacchaeus, the tax collector who wanted to see Jesus. Keep in mind that this is but one of several stories of Jesus helping people to see, and that there are many forms of blindness in biblical narrative, as there are life, and many ways of having sight restored. In the verses just preceding those telling Zacchaeus’ story, we read of a blind beggar who, like Zacchaeus, hears that Jesus is passing by. He doesn’t climb a tree,  but rather yells out at the top of his lungs, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Against the disciples efforts to stop him, Jesus goes out of his way to speak to the blind man. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asks. The man responds, “Lord, let me see again.” In that moment, Jesus restores his sight, and the man responds with overwhelming joy that is contagious to those around him.


Zacchaeus, while not physically blind, had trouble seeing, not only because he was short, but also due to a moral impairment. You see, he was a chief tax collector, which means that he was at the top of a corrupt economic pyramid that encouraged tax collectors to extort money from the populace. We’re told that Zacchaeus was rich, which meant that he had stolen quite a bit, and the people around him knew it. Small wonder they grumbled when Jesus expressed kindness to him.  


But his moral impairment wasn’t the thing true about Zaccheus. Yes, he was despised and resented in this community for the harm he had done. But thinking of Zacchaeus, I’m reminded of something that the civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson has said. Stevenson  works every day to spare convicted death row inmates from the death penalty and to correct the racial and socioeconomic disparities of our criminal justice system. When speaking about the people he defends, he says, “Every person is more than the worst thing that he or she has ever done. Just as you and I are all more than the worst thing we have done, a thief more than a thief and a murderer more than a murderer, and a politician is more than a politician. In God’s eyes, Zacchaeus was more than a tax collector. He was a child of Abraham. And he wanted to see Jesus.


Jesus saw him, just as he had heard the blind beggar, and he loved them both. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked the blind beggar. “Come down from that tree,” he said to Zacchaeus. “And come down from your position of unearned privilege. I must stay in your house today.”

It was a powerful moment of earned kindness, and it melted Zacchaeus’ heart. As a result, he pledged to pay it forward and backward, giving half of his wealth to the poor and paying back four-fold all that he had previously stolen.


That’s what the love of God can do. That’s what the love and forgiveness we offer one another can do. It can change our hearts and inspire us to share something of that unearned, amazing grace with another.


But first we need to know that love for ourselves. Do you? Do you know how much God loves you? Can you call to mind a moment when you were shown mercy, acceptance, and forgiveness when you least deserved it? It’s important to start there, because we cannot share what we ourselves have not received. And sometimes, truth be told, we don’t want to receive it.


In the final scene of the film, Pay It Forward, a journalist interviews young Trevor about his efforts to change the world for the better. Until the journalist had tracked him down, Trevor had no idea how far the deeds of kindness he initiated had spread. In the spheres that mattered most to him, it seemed as if his plan had failed. That’s probably true for most of us–we rarely see the impact of our efforts.


In the interview he pondered the fact that most people don’t want to make the effort to bring goodness in the world, and that they no longer believe they are capable of such goodness. “I think some people are too scared,” he said, “or something. I guess it’s hard for people who are so used to things the way they are–even if they’re bad–to change. ‘Cause they kind of give up. And when they do, everybody kind of loses.”


My word to you, good people of Trinity Church, Upper Marlboro: don’t give up. Don’t give up on other people. Don’t give up on our country. Don’t give up on yourselves. Never underestimate the power of love and forgiveness to change you, to change us all, to soften our hearts and renew our hope. Open yourselves to the grace and mercy of Jesus that none of us deserve but that he freely gives. Remind yourself everyday of the goodness and love you have known, the people who have gone the extra mile for you.


Then do your part to pay it forward.




A Garden Grows in Bowie

A Garden Grows in Bowie


By Kathleen Moore 

When Holy Trinity, Bowie junior warden Thomas Sykes first read an article about church gardens, he knew right away this ministry would be a good fit for his parish.

“I just thought ‘wow, our parish already has land and a kitchen—two things other parishes would almost die for,’” says Sykes, who envisioned the parish garden as a way to reach out to the community and as a bridge between the parish and the Holy Trinity Episcopal Day School.

“Over the years, the school and the church communities have become distanced,” Sykes explains. “It’s a common story—there are no longer many parishioners who have kids enrolled at the school, and many students’ families don’t realize there is a connection—that the school is our parish’s largest mission.”

Sykes got to work immediately. “I talked to the rector and senior warden about the feasibility of doing this, and they were both on board,” he recalls. “Then, I did a lot of homework. I researched materials and costs, and more importantly, I started thinking about the reasons for building this garden.”

In February, Sykes presented the idea to the vestry. Bishop Mariann Budde happened to be present for the meeting, and heard the presentation as well. “I look at that as a Holy Spirit moment,” Sykes says. “Bishop Mariann came up with the tagline ‘Come grow our church as we grow our garden.’” The parish had a sign made up with Bishop Budde’s tagline that now sits in the garden.

The next step was forming a steering committee to get started on the work of realizing the vision. “I was hoping to get four volunteers, but we got ten right away,” Sykes says. “Once again, the Holy Spirit was saying, ‘it’s just a fit.’”

The outpouring of volunteers from the parish has continued through the planning, building and maintaining of the garden. “It’s not always the same volunteers,” Sykes says, “but collectively we always have people eager to help.” The parish reached out to businesses around the area, receiving discounts and donations of many of the necessary materials.

Holy Trinity’s rector, the Rev. Leslie M. St. Louis, credits strong lay leadership with the successful garden project. “Holy Trinity is a parish that is deeply in transition,” St. Louis says. “It’s a 305-year-old parish that is really facing the reality that the way we’ve been doing things—five, 10, 15, 20 years ago—no longer works and hasn’t been working for a long time. Our lay leadership is really taking hold of the question of how we connect to the world the way we are now, and is willing to experiment with a lot of different things, and I think the garden is an expression of that.”  

The completed garden is 20 feet by 25 feet with eight raised beds and a four-foot path down the middle. “It was important the garden be accessible to any visitor in a wheelchair,” Sykes says. “We made sure these guests can get through the gate and into the garden.”

In its first season, the parish crops included peppers, cantaloupes, watermelon, honeydew, squash, and eggplant as well as sunflowers and gladiolas. Volunteers bring fresh produce from the garden to the narthex where community members can help themselves. The parish also makes clear that members and neighbors are welcome to harvest food for themselves. The remaining crops are brought to the local foodbank, the Bowie Interfaith Pantry and Emergency Aid Fund. Between its own garden and the donations from Holy Trinity, the foodbank was able to keep two eight-foot tables filled with fresh produce all summer long.

The opportunity to volunteer in the garden has helped to foster relationships between the parish and its neighbors. “We have one woman who attended a funeral of a family member who had been a member of the parish 20 years ago,” Sykes says. “And I was talking to her about the garden, and now she shows up regularly.” While volunteers describe working in the garden as therapeutic, others “simply sit in the garden and watch what’s going on,” Sykes says. “That’s therapeutic as well. It really is.”

“The garden is a way to reach out into the community and be active with the community in a way that’s really healthy,” St. Louis says. “It’s brought another avenue to authentically talk to people about God, that isn’t just, ‘hello I’m going to talk to you about Jesus Christ.’”

The garden is also playing the role Sykes had hoped in strengthening the connection between the parish and its school by becoming an outdoor classroom for students in grades one through four.

“Last Friday we spent the morning in the garden with three science classes—they came out one class after another,” Sykes says. “That’s when all the hard work of building that garden just goes away. They come out with questions and clipboards. They ask questions like, ‘Why did you decide to build a garden?’ One class was learning about bacteria, so wanted to know all about bacteria in the garden. It is really higher level learning.”

When students asked how tall the tallest sunflower is, Sykes simply pulled it out, roots and all (it was the end of the season) to show not only the height that was visible above ground, but the 8-inch root system below. “That all started from one little seed,” Sykes explained to the students. “Nurturing little things is so important in a garden. And then, they become big things.”

The garden has become a way for students to learn about science, math, food and nutrition, and the importance of creation care. Students have participated in planning, planting, harvesting, and composting. Later this year, students will bring worms they have been watching grow and learning about in their science classroom out to the garden.

“Every time we have a class, the time runs out before questions stop,” Sykes says. “It has fulfilled and exceeded our expectations. It’s so rewarding when the teacher emails to say, ‘They are so looking forward to spending a day with you in the garden.’ And when the new crops start coming in, those students will be able to say, ‘I did that.’

Jesus Loves Me, You, Us and Them

Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Luke 4:14-21

Would you sing with me?

Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong. They are weak, but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.

You sing well. Now, bring to mind someone who is on your mind or in your heart, whom you’re concerned about, and is in need of prayer and the abiding presence of Christ. Let’s sing again, changing the pronoun from “me” to “you,” each one of us keeping that person in mind.  

 Jesus loves you, this I know . . .

Very nice. This time, think about a group of people that you struggle to understand, with whom you may profoundly disagree or who perceives you as an enemy, or who sees you, and perhaps all of us, in the most negative terms:

Shall we sing? 

Jesus loves them, this I know.

And one last time, for all gathered here, and all humankind:  

Jesus loves us, this I know.

In her most recent book, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, African American scholar and Canon Theologian at Washington National Cathedral Kelly Brown Douglas tells of her mother singing this song each night. She wanted Kelly and her siblings to know, deep in their souls, that Jesus loved them, that they were prized in the eyes of God. Her mother knew that they would receive other messages as they went out into the world that would cause them to question that love, question their worth. When she became a mother,  Douglas, in turn, told her son everyday how much God loved him, so he would never believe the lies that would try to convince him otherwise.   

We all need to reminded how much Jesus loves us. And it’s a word we are called by Jesus to share with others.  

Good morning, St. Luke’s–I’m very glad to be here! Bishops can’t have favorite churches, of course, and I don’t, but St. Luke’s has special place in my heart. When Paul and I first arrived in Washington five years ago, we visited St Luke’s before I had begun my work as bishop-elect. You welcomed us with such love. I was still getting used to the idea of a being a bishop, and in all honesty, I was uncomfortable with certain parts of the role, including having to wear such a big hat. But that summer morning many of the women of St. Luke’s were wearing audaciously beautiful hats. I thought to myself, “All right, then. I will be among women who wear hats.”

Today we celebrate the Feast of St Luke, your patron saint. I served a congregation for 18 years that bore the name of another key figure of the New Testament–St John the Baptist. I don’t know why the founders of that church chose St. John as their patron saint, any more than I know what prompted your spiritual ancestors, those who broke away from St. Mary’s Chapel for Colored People to build their own church, chose the name of St. Luke’s. But I do know that there is power in a name and the spiritual mantle that rests upon a community through the sacred memory of a particular saint.

So what do we know about Luke, your patron saint?

Scripture tells us that Luke was a physician, a traveling companion of St. Paul. He was a meticulous writer, not only of the gospel that bears his name but also of The Book of Acts. Without Luke, there is so much we would never have known about the earliest Christian communities, and about Jesus himself.

Luke’s gospel contains many stories and teachings from Jesus’ life recorded nowhere else, and they are among the most beloved and cherished parts of the New Testament. You see, Luke wrote about Jesus with a particular focus on how he related to people on the margins of his society. Luke is, therefore, a particularly important gospel for those whom dominant groups deem as inferior for any reason, such as race, gender, age, or economic status.

Imagine not knowing the story of the Good Samaritan, which tells us of the most unlikely person–a despised outcast– acting as a true neighbor to one in need, while religious leaders past him by. Think of how the Good Samaritan informs our understanding of Jesus and what it means to follow him. Without Luke, we would never have heard him tell that story.

Luke also portrays God in the most accessible ways–as kind, forgiving, with unlimited capacity for love and forgiveness. Think of Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son and his loving father, what it teaches us about God, and of forgiveness and love. Only in Luke do we find that story.

Forgiveness runs through Luke’s gospel from beginning to end, culminating in Jesus’ words on the cross, that only Luke records: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

And in Luke, we learn of Jesus’ close, loving relationship to God, his beloved abba, or father. how he was sustained by his loving father in prayer. Jesus wants us to know God in that same intimate, loving way; to trust that God comes to us. Sometimes God comes in the form of an angel, as Gabriel came to Mary, to tell her she would bear God’s son; sometimes in the form of Jesus himself, as he walked alongside the grieving disciples after his crucifixion on the Road to Emmaus; and through the Holy Spirit, who lived in Jesus fully, and then moved through them, as on the day of Pentecost.

These are the stories and teachings about Jesus that only Luke, your patron saint, tells. I encourage each of you to read the Gospel of Luke, starting today, from beginning to end. In one sitting, it would take you about an hour and a half. Better yet, read a chapter or two a day, pondering the meaning of the stories and teaching you find there. If you do, I’m certain that God will bless you in the reading and touch your heart in life-changing ways.

I also ask you to consider, as you read Luke’s unique expression of Jesus’ gospel, what is unique about you and your life. Think of the gifts God has given you, and the ways only you can speak of what you have known and testify to what you have seen.

And think of this congregation, St. Luke’s in Washington DC. What are the gifts that God has given you? What manifestation of Jesus’ gospel would be lost without you? One of the reasons I am so passionate about the renewal and revitalization of our churches is because each congregation has so much to offer and to share, And I long for you to thrive on this corner of the city where you have been planted, for your sake and for countless others.

For you are ones called by God to embody and share the love of God in a particular way, in this place, inspired by the love of Jesus as you have known him under the spiritual mantle of your patron saint.

In ways large and small, remember you are the ones to live witness to Jesus who loves you; loves whom you love and hold in your heart; loves those you struggle to love and who struggle to love you; indeed, who loves us all. Dare to believe in that love for yourself, and then do all you can to pass it on.

Discipleship Matters Conversation

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Romans 12:9  

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ John 21:5-19.

There are some books that I buy for the title alone, like this one, the one I picked up at a Global Leadership Conference two summers ago: Simplify: Ten Practices to Unclutter Your Soul.1

I’ve made it all the way to page 45 in these two years, not because it’s not a good book  but because it’s so good that the first few pages gave me enough food for thought and suggested one practice so convicting that I knew I needed to master it (or at least commit to it with some consistency) before I could go on to the other nine.  

Last week I started reading again, and again was stopped by a sentence that will part of my prayer life for the foreseeable future. Here’s the lead in:

“Simplicity cannot be achieved without clarity about the big-picture target of your life. To create a schedule that reflects your most important life goals, you must begin with the right question.”

And here’s the sentence:

“The question isn’t, ‘What do I want to get done in the next thirty days?’ (Or more often in my case, ‘What do I need to get done?’) but ‘Who do I want to become in this next season of my life?’”

I want to be a leader clear about the big picture of why it matters that the Episcopal Church writ large, and every expression of the Episcopal Church in our congregations and communities, be a strong, vibrant expression of Christian practice and ministry. I want to be clear why it matters that our people grow deeper in faith and love of God, more confident in their identity as disciples, Christ-followers, people of His way. I want to do everything in my power as a leader to build our collective capacity to occupy with grace and joy our place on the wide spectrum of Christian witness and thereby give God more to work with in and through us.

Now I love spending time with fellow Episcopalians. I get excited when I hear and see examples of what great things others are learning and doing in this tremendous sea-change of a world we’re in right now, when so much of what we were created to do as a church, and all we were originally taught as leaders, doesn’t seem to be what’s wanted or needed now by very many people.

But the people I’m learning from are from other branches of the Christian tree who are, frankly, better at large-scale discipleship than we are, those for whom evangelism and discipleship are their top priorities. We may not agree with our more distant brothers and sisters in the faith on many subjects, and indeed, we may have certain insights and ways of following Jesus that would benefit them. That’s always been my conviction. But evangelism and discipleship–Bishop Curry notwithstanding–are not what Episcopalians are known for. Our seminaries do a good job of lighting fires and deepening the faith and wisdom of those who feel called to follow Jesus, but unfortunately, we’ve created a system in which the only compelling path for those who feel the call to follow Jesus is the priesthood. Which means we have a lot of wonderful disciples in the priesthood, but not very many strategic leaders. And we need strategic leadership now.

I’m assuming by your presence here that you are called to strategic leadership, and in particular, strategic leadership in this important work of discipleship.

We are all surrounded by people, even among family and close friends, who are not Christian, and for whom the word discipleship would have little meaning. We know that we are not better people than they are. We’re not necessarily more spiritual. God doesn’t love us more. Christians are not, as a whole, smarter, wiser, or more compassionate than other people. But for whatever reasons you and I can point to from our personal histories, we heard a call. We heard his voice. We made a conscious decision, or maybe at first it wasn’t conscious, and we realized, looking back, that we had, in fact, chosen this life, or as St. Paul would say, this life, this Jesus, had chosen us.

And we’ve been on this path long enough to know that there are days when our faith is strong, and other days when it’s not. And we know that there’s a pretty wide spectrum of faith experience. And we wonder about that: how does faith in God happen? How does a relationship with Jesus deepen or wane? And what do we mean when we talk about the power of the Holy Spirit?

When Andy Stanley, founder and senior pastor of North Point Community Church in Atlanta was a young pastor, one of his mentors said to him: “For the rest of your life, make sure that you are intentionally learning from leaders who are wiser than you are, and simultaneously, make sure that you are always investing, pouring what you know into those coming up behind you.” So for several years, he met with a group of young men, college age, who were considering a call to ordained ministry. One of the things he did with them was to chart their spiritual journeys. They weren’t that old and they didn’t have long timelines. Nonetheless, they explored what it was that first brought them to faith and what helped deepen their faith. And after a few years, with different groups of young men, Stanley began to notice a few common themes.

Fast forward 15 years when he and others were starting a new church, he went back to those conversations and drew from them guiding principles, ways that God uses to reach people and things that we can do to open ourselves more fully to the transforming love and guiding presence of God. North Point leaders wanted to build their Christian discipleship and formation initiatives consistent with the ways that God consistently uses to reach us, in order to more consciously participate with God in that faith building, discipleship forming process.2

As I tell you what he learned, think about your own faith journey and see if anything rings true for you. And then think about your discipleship efforts in light of these principles, which I think will be both affirming in what you’re already doing, and perhaps shed some light on what you could do more effectively and with greater fruitfulness. At any rate, that’s my hope. The good news is that you don’t need a lot money to do these things–they scale up and they scale down according to your resources and need.

I first shared these five insights, by the way, at a Confirmation Service, and I said to those gathered that if any rang true for them, they would leave church that day with specific things they could do, and in fact, need to do if they wanted to grow in their relationship with Jesus in ways that will change their lives for the better and help them help God change the world.

Andy Stanley makes a clear distinction between those things on the journey of faith that are beyond our control–the things that happen to us from God’s side of the relationship–and those things that are up to us. That clarity is important, especially getting our minds around what is our responsibility.

But let’s start with those things that we can’t control, the things that seem to happen to us as gifts or signs of God coming to us from God’s side of the relationship. Andy Stanley names two:

Number one: Other People, namely the specific people whose examples of faith inspire us, or just as important, who seem to show up at the right moment and say exactly what we need to hear when we need to hear it. It could be anyone-a parent or teacher, a friend or stranger, a mentor or adversary. The faith part of the experience is what happens when, through the example or presence of another person, we feel the presence of God. In or through those people, we experience Jesus’ love in action. We hear a word that for us is charged with meaning. It’s not just a human exchange; it’s an encounter with God.

That’s how God works. Just like those who gathered at the first Pentecost heard other people speaking their language, we hear someone speaking our language, and through them we hear God speaking. For me, it’s often been the person who believed in me when I couldn’t believe in myself; who carried hope for me when my hope was weak; who loved me, and through their love, I felt God’s love. I wonder who those people are for you. And when have you been or will be such a person for another, whether you realize it or not? The implications for a strategic discipleship plan are simple: pay attention to key relationships. How can we help our people share wisdom and love with one another?  

The second way that we experience God coming to us from God’s side is through certain pivotal moments or events in our life. Something happens, and it feels like a gift. It could be something wonderful–like falling in love, discovering that you’re really good at something, being in nature and having an experience that takes you out of yourself. It could be a hard thing: having your heart broken, surviving an accident, or being deeply hurt or disappointed, but somehow through that experience, God shows up with strength to get you through. These experiences are entirely subjective, which means that it isn’t so much what happens, but the meaning that you make of it. It’s in the meaning making process where faith grows or falters, which is a mystery. But if you think back on your life, I’m sure you can identify a time when through something that happened to you, your faith in God and your relationship with Jesus grew stronger.  

I’ve been thinking a lot about Chris Yaw’s question to us yesterday: “How is Jesus saving you right now?” It’s not an easy question to answer, because doing so is an acknowledgement that a part of us needs saving. But I was grateful for it, because it allowed me to name for myself where I am personally in need of saving grace.

There are certain things in my life beyond my control, that I would give anything to fix or change, but I can’t. And I know that I can’t, because I’ve tried and failed, more than once. Not only have I failed; in some instances, by my efforts to make things better, I have made them worse.

And how is Jesus saving me? Much in the same way he saved St. Paul, who at a crucial time in his life, as recorded in 2 Corinthians, was afflicted by what he called “a thorn in his side.” Three times he appealed to the Lord to remove it, and three times the Lord said, no. And then the Lord said, “My grace is sufficient, for my strength will be revealed in your weakness.”  When I hold in prayer my thorn that will not be removed, I don’t have to pretend that it doesn’t hurt, because it does. When the pain washes me over, I let it be, and I pray for grace to be sufficient. And I rise, accepting, for one more day, what I cannot change. And Jesus gives me the grace to live with joy in other realms of my life, because I know that I’m not alone in the hardest place.

So–to review: there are two ways that we grow in our relationship beyond our control: through the people who show up at just the right moment and through the pivotal experiences that change us. Some people call these “God moments,” and that’s exactly what they are. People show up. Things happen. And through them we experience Jesus’ presence and love.  

But those two things–people and circumstances–are not enough for us to grow in faith. Growing in faith is just as important as growing in any other part of life. For us to grow in faith we need to show up. As strategic discipleship leaders, this is where we have real work to do:

The first of these three ways we show up is through wise, inspired teaching. Think back to a time when you read or heard something and a lightbulb went off in your head. Or when you heard someone who just rocked your world. To grow in faith, we need to avail ourselves of that kind of learning, and as leaders helping others to grow, to create as many of those moments for people as we can, in as creative ways as we can. If we’re preachers, we need to preach our hearts out. We need to do more than scold people for not reading their Bibles, but to show them how to read it intelligently, with consistency, in ways that can help them, and change their lives for the better. All the preachers I make of point of listening to via podcast and the internet make an explicit invitation each week to read the Bible, with suggested places or ways to go about it so that they might go deeper in faith.

The second way we can show up for God is in quiet, daily prayer. This is something I’ve had to recommit myself to over and over again in my life. In some seasons it seemed possible, during all those years I was raising two boys while in full time ministry. Or last year, when I had two really big jobs. In those times, God meets me more than half way and I am grateful. But there are other times–and now is one of them–when the call to spend time in quiet prayer is real, but easily drowned out by other things. And I need to be encouraged to come back, not to let the habit of busyness overtake the practices that feed my soul.  

In discipleship ministry, it’s important to give people permission to find their own way. Remind them that they can be creative with their quiet time. Some people like to read; others like to write; some practice yoga. It doesn’t matter. It’s also good from time to time to say “I know that you’re all really busy people, but you if you have time to check your Facebook page, you have time to pray.”

This is how I do it: in the early morning, I sit in my favorite chair, light a candle, and set the timer on my phone for 10 minutes. Sometimes I read a bit of Scripture. Mostly I just sit. Sometimes, if I have to leave early, I drive in silence, or better yet, I ride my bike. I’m telling you that it makes a difference–not every day, not with flashes of brilliant insights. Sometimes, I confess, it’s a little boring. But like brushing your teeth or practicing scales if you’re a musician, little things in faith matter.

The last of the three practices of faith is simply doing something good for someone else, or for a good cause. This is called ministry, and it’s not just for those of us with the title ministers. We’re all on this planet to do good. We are called, by God, in the name of Jesus, to be a blessing to other people. So do something, and if you can, do something that stretches you. That’s when you really learn to pray, and when you can experience what St. Paul described as the Holy Spirit working in you doing far more than you could ask for or even imagine.

When I was 26 years old, my brand new husband and I went to work in Honduras for a year. We were both idealistic and wanted to do something brave and good. So we served in a home for abandoned boys in one of the poorest countries of the world. In the beginning, I had the misguided notion that the boys of this home would be grateful for the sacrifice we were making on their behalf. But they weren’t the least bit impressed, and in fact, they resented us for a long time. Some held me in contempt, or at least that’s how it felt. In the early months of that very long year, I would come back to our tiny apartment in tears and walk laps around our neighborhood reliving every harsh thing that the boys had said. One day, I prayed as I walked. The question I asked God, although I didn’t realize that God was listening, was “Is it always going to be this hard?”

The answer I heard was immediate. “Yes.” That got my attention. Then I heard the same words that Jesus said to his disciples as he was leaving them, “But I will always be with you.” I have never forgotten that moment. When I’m in situations now that seem really hard, I remember his words to me: I will always be with you.

I’ve learned that you can go a long way in this life, and do really hard things, when you know you’re not alone. Jesus wants you to know that you’re never alone. Sometimes we learn that best when we’re stretching ourselves to love another.

Strategic discipleship is an intentional, persistent effort to help people growth in faith. It starts with a conscious alignment of our energies with that of God’s, participating in what God is already doing in a person’s life.   

Let me close by stating the obvious: If you and I are called to this path, and called to help others walk it, we have a responsibility to be robust and spirit-filled leaders, the kind of person through whom others can see the love of Jesus, to be a blessing to the world.

Which brings me to the matter of joy. There is a serious deficiency of joy in many of our churches. Never underestimate the power of your joy, and the joy you bring to this task. Be sure to tend to your heart, and allow love and joy of Jesus to flow through you.

But remember, as important as joy is, joy is not a strategy. Hope is not a strategy. Hope and joy fuel the strategy, as we dedicate our best efforts to this work. And we need them both, because those of us called not simply to discipleship but to strategic leadership in the realm of discipleship, have important, even urgent work to do.

New Website Launches

New Website Launches

The diocese launched a new website and unveiled a new logo yesterday.

The Spanish language site has also been updated and rebranded. It has a new url:

The new website is bright and colorful with a homepage that features more photos and less type than the previous site. The logo retains a variation on the white cross at the center of the previous logo, but surrounds it with deeper, richer colors.

“In interviews with diocesan staff, clergy and lay leaders, the site development team was struck by the emphasis people in our diocese place on living out their faith and trying to make a difference in the world around them,” said Canon to the Ordinary Paul Cooney. “Our website development team set out to create a site that is clean and easy to use, but also one that captures the active, vigorous faith people spoke about–and I think they succeeded.”

Cooney and Mitchell Sams, the diocese’s communications and events manager, were the staff liaisons to the developers.

The site emphasizes the diocese’s commitment to congregational vitality by devoting one section exclusively to parish growth and renewal initiatives. All ministries and networks are grouped under one heading, as are all resources and forms.

The News and Events section contains the diocesan events calendar, newsletters and stories, and links to the diocese’s Facebook page and Twitter stream. A Newcomers section provides introductory information about the Episcopal Church to those whose spiritual explorations bring them to the diocesan website.

Canticle Communications, the diocese’s communications consultants, provided overall editorial direction and project management for the new site, and, with Sams’ assistance, did the writing and editing.  Jans Carton of WebSanity in St. Louis, developed the site’s infrastructure and Martha Hoyle of Martha Hoyle Design in Evanston, Illinois, created the logo and provided art direction.