Bishop Mariann preaching on The Gospel of Your Life at Washington National Cathedral on Sunday, August 29
When the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The title of this sermon is “Discovering the Gospel of Your Life.”
Throughout I will be posing a number of open-ended questions, each of which are invitations into an intentional exploration of your life and your faith that you can always do on your own, or you can take part in one of two offerings this fall through the Diocese of Washington’s School for Christian Faith and Leadership. One of the offerings is a six-session series called Discover, designed for a small group or entire congregation to take together; the other, called Explore, is a self-guided, online course. Information about both is on the School for Christian Faith and Leadership website.
I make this invitation well aware that — amid all that your life demands of you, how busy you are, the challenges you face, and the enormity of suffering we see all around us (and this was a particularly difficult week) — personal faith exploration can seem like a luxury that you simply don’t have time for. If that’s true for you, I understand. Yet questions of faith and self-awareness, while not always urgent, keep coming back to us. They are the questions, as the poet David Whyte suggests,“that have no right to go away, for they have to do with the person we are about to become; they are conversations that will happen with or without our conscious participation.”1 They are the questions that determine what kind of person we will wake up to be tomorrow.
Let me clarify what I mean by “Discovering the Gospel of Your Life,” word by word, starting with the first.
When we discover something, it’s helpful to remember that nothing has changed in the material world. What changes is our awareness of something whose existence had been there all along. In most cases, what we discover others have long known about — a common observation among the people whose ancestors were in the Americas centuries, if not millennia, before Europeans discovered what was for them a New World. In our personal lives, what we discover about ourselves is generally not news to those around us, which is why increasing our self-awareness always involves allowing others to tell us what they see in us that we cannot.
One of my favorite examples of this is an exchange between two characters of a movie that came out about twenty years ago entitled The Legend of Bagger Vance. Matt Damon plays Rannulph Junnah, a professional golfer in the early 20th-century, who is attempting a comeback after his life hit rock bottom as a result of what he experienced in the trenches of World War I. Will Smith portrays Bagger Vance, a mysterious man who befriends Junnah when he was all but lost to alcohol and despair and slowly helps him heal, while serving as Junnah’s golf caddie and coach. In one scene, Junnah is playing in an important golf tournament, and he is way off his game. He turns to Bagger Vance and says, “This is getting embarrassing.” “Oh no sir,” Bagger Vance replies, “It has been embarrassing for some time now.”
It’s good for us to have truth-tellers like this, especially when the truth is hard to hear.
While what we discover about ourselves is sometimes embarrassing or even shameful, at other times the discovery is unexpectedly affirming of the good in us that we can’t see or tend to minimize. When others name our goodness, it can feel like a revelation to us, a new discovery. Conversely, one of the easiest ways for us to bless those around us is to take the time to point out their goodness. For they may not see it, or allow themselves to accept and live more deeply from that part of who they are.
So first question: what do you suppose that others see in you that you don’t? And what might change for you as a result of your knowing what others know about you?
There is a lot of energy being expended in our country now — and in our churches — to better understand aspects of our history, specifically the roots of the persistent, pervasive racial inequities in our society; and there is an equal amount of energy being expended actively trying not to know these things, or teach them to our children. There are implications in what we, as individuals and a society, choose to know or not know about who we are. But the process of discovery only affects our awareness of what’s true about us. The truth exists, whether we choose to know it or not.
Now let’s skip over to consider the last two words of this sermon’s title: your life.
The parts of your life that I’d like to focus on are these: first, the arc of your life story and where you see yourself on that arc; second, the recurring patterns and stories through which you interpret your life; and lastly, the aspects of your life that you cherish most — what you love about being you.
Starting with the arc: Picture in your mind’s eye the image that shows up when you’re on an airplane, telling you where you are in relation to your final destination. Imagine that arc represents your life. Where are you on that arc in any given part of your life? Are you at the beginning, in the middle, or near the end? Having some sense of that puts a lot of other things in perspective.
Years ago, after dropping one of our sons off at college in Chicago, I gave the slightly older son of a co-worker a ride from Madison, Wisconsin back to Minneapolis. It’s a four-hour drive, so we had time to talk, and I asked him about his life. He had graduated from college a few years earlier, and admittedly, he was struggling, as is common in young adulthood, with loneliness and vocational drift. At one point he said, a bit tongue-in-cheek, “I think I’m having my quarter-life crisis.” He expected me, as someone nearly twice his age, to smile at this, and I did, but I could tell that his struggle was real. I was also struck by his awareness of where he was in life–at the end of the first quarter. As in a football game, there is a lot of life ahead at the end of the first quarter, and he knew that. He also knew that the clock was ticking and that he wasn’t an under-grad any longer, with professors and parents telling him what to do next. It was time to make some important decisions, and they were his to make.
No matter where we think we are on our life’s arc — and of course we don’t really know — we don’t have time to waste, do we? I’m reminded of a story Anne Lamott tells of going shopping for clothes with her friend Pam, who was undergoing cancer treatment at the time. When Anne asked Pam if the dress she’s tried on made her hips look too big, Pam slowly replied from her wheelchair, “Annie, I don’t think you have that kind of time.”2 No matter where we are on our life’s arc, some things are worth pursuing and some are not.
The second aspect of your life that I invite you to consider are the recurring patterns that you have come to recognize as part of your life story. Think, for example, of when in casual conversation you hear yourself say, “Well, that’s the story of my life” to describe certain things that always seem to happen to you. In my case, for example, why it is that whenever I choose a check-out line in a grocery store, I always seem to wind up in the slowest one? Or when I have a biking accident, as I did last week, why is it always my fault and when I’m within walking distance to my destination? I need to discover the answer to that question before I get back on my bike!
Incidentally, our younger son, Patrick, like his mom, was accident-prone as a kid, to put it mildly. But some of his accidents truly defied explanation. They were so bizarre that by the time he reached high school, his friends began to refer to them as PRIs, or Patrick Related Incidents, which to this day is what everyone in his life calls the mishaps that seem to find him.
So what are the patterns of your life? Are you the person who never wins at anything, or do you always win? Do you make friends easily, or does it take a long time? Would you say that you are a glass half-empty kind of person, or a glass half-full? And what would others say?
While some of these patterns are relatively harmless and tend to be exaggerated, others are quite powerful and have real implications for how we experience and interpret our lives. Once a pattern is ingrained and the story is set in our minds, it takes considerable effort to change it, even if the data supporting it is suspect, or when what was once true about us isn’t anymore. The desire to make a change in a life pattern is often a sign that change is coming, perhaps because we’re tired of a given storyline that doesn’t fit us anymore. Or it could be that the Spirit of God is beginning something new.
The third aspect of your life that I invite you to consider is what you love best about being you — what you love to do, the things that cause you to lose track of time, the people who make your hearts sing, the places that speak to you of home, or adventure, or joy. Another way to identify this part of your life is the deep sense of purpose you feel when you’re doing what truly matters to you, the fulfillment and satisfaction of knowing that the gifts God has given you are being put to their use — even when, or perhaps especially when, the effort involved requires real sacrifice on your part. (This morning’s Washington Post tells the story of Nicole Gee, age 23, one of the 13 Marines killed at the Kabul airport this week. A few days before she died, she had posted a photo of herself on Instagram holding an infant of an Afghan refugee family. Her caption read, “I love my job.”) Your dreams show up here, what you hope for, what you really want for yourself and for others, so much so that you’d give up a lot of other things for that one pearl of great price.
That goodness in you, the part of you that you love, brings me now to the central word of this sermon title — gospel. Derived from the Old English, god-spell, it’s root meaning is “good story,” translated from the Latin, evangelium and the Greek euangelion, also the root of our words evangelist and evangelical. Christians are those who come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was born into this world “as good news of great joy for all people.”
The Bible contains four gospels of Jesus’ life, but what about the gospel of yours?
Part of your gospel is revealed in your innate goodness, your good story, the good news you bring to others simply being you. One of the first Christian theologians famously said that the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” “I have come that you might have life,” Jesus said, “and life in abundance.”
But another part of your life’s gospel may be, paradoxically, where you have experienced, or are experiencing now, your vulnerability, or life in its harshest terms. The good news isn’t in the sin or sorrow or pain, but in the good that can be wrenched out of it, or the ways that grace and goodness shows up for you when you least deserve it, or as you are walking through a long, lonesome valley. Even a fleeting moment of grace can carry you a long way, giving you just enough to keep going.
Do you have that kind of good news story to tell, I wonder? These are our resurrection stories — not of dramatic rescue, but of new life rising from the ashes of what was lost. Sometimes we don’t even have that story to tell, but somehow it can be enough to allow ourselves to feel what we feel, with no need to pretend that it doesn’t hurt, and to experience something of love in the midst of the pain.
Nothing I have said thus far has been explicitly Christian. Intentionally so, because what I am attempting to describe is universal. What makes your life story, or mine, explicitly or intentionally Christian is when we find ourselves drawn to the story of Jesus, through which we come to interpret and go deeper into the meaning of our own. For a Christian, Jesus’ life becomes, in the words of a Christmas carol, our life’s pattern. His teachings inform our worldview. Jesus Related Incidents become our own. Admittedly, this takes time, and effort. This isn’t drifting or dabbling on the spiritual path; we’ve made a choice. But there’s mystery involved, because more often than not, it feels for most Christians as if He has chosen us. The invitation to follow comes from him, or as often, from the compelling example of another person who is a Jesus follower who inspires us and we seek to emulate.
I’m reminded here of something the late Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, is reported to have said to the priests under his charge: Your life may be the only gospel that the people will ever know. I’m fairly certain that what he meant, if, in fact, it was Romero who said it, is that when working among subsistence farmers, the priests in El Salvador needed not merely to preach the message of Jesus, but to embody it for those who might never be in a position to read about Jesus for themselves. St. Paul writes a similar exhortation in his letter to the Philippians: “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (Philippians 1:27) Live, in other words, in such a way that people know who Jesus is by your example. This is the vocation of all who call ourselves Christian.
What I know about living the gospel, however, is that it is as much a revelation to me as it is to those around me. I don’t mean this abstractly, but in the most concrete terms. From time to time, a gospel story or teaching moves from something I’ve read and know in my mind to something else entirely. It takes up residence inside me and becomes, for a time, the lens through which I see and understand my life and through which I experience God. It becomes the gospel of my life.
I could give you any number of examples — the stories of Jesus that have most shaped my life, but to demonstrate how the process of seeing our lives through his teaching works, let me simply point you back to the gospel text we just heard and that’s printed in your bulletin.
In the text, Jesus is having an argument with a group of people referred to as the Pharisees, who were among the most disciplined, rigorously observant Jews of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees are often Jesus’ sparring partners. He admired them for their diligence in religious practice, for Jesus himself was an observant Jew. But he differed with them, sharply at times, whenever he felt that their outward expressions of faith did not reflect an inner humility before God and compassion for their fellow human beings. Like the Jewish prophets before him, Jesus hated religious elitism and the hypocrisy of religious leaders who kept up the appearances of piety while failing to love God and neighbor, which is at the heart of the Torah. His invitation here is to a life of integrity — of an inner life consistent with outward appearances. In the gospels there are numerous examples of Jesus related incidents demonstrating and teaching us the importance of “walking our talk.”
Discovering the gospel of your life is thus an invitation to go deeper into the mystery of your life’s story — its arc, patterns, and essential goodness — in conversation with Jesus’ story. Over time, the conversation frees you to become more fully you. For the change isn’t an external rearranging of your life’s circumstances, at least not a first. Consistent with how Jesus lived and taught, it is an internal experience of being given new eyes and ears with which to see and hear what’s all around you that’s been there all along.
So I end with where I began, inviting you to consider a few questions on your own or in conversation with others: Where are you in the arc of your life? What time is it, and what don’t you have time for anymore? What patterns and themes do you notice and are there any you are ready to change? What do you love most about who you are and when has love shown up for you when you needed it most?
And should you sense that Jesus is inviting you, for the first or the hundredth time, into a deeper conversation with him through the stories of his life and teachings, I hope that you accept it, so that his arc, his life patterns, his good news might inform and deepen your own. Then, through your life, others will see and know the love and mercy of God that has been with us all along.
May it be so. God bless you as you discover and wholeheartedly live the gospel of your life.
1 David Whyte, What Questions Should We Be Asking Ourselves.
2 Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor Books, 1995).
And who is my neighbor?
I write to you in a moment of crisis, when Afghan refugees are beginning to arrive in our region. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, will land at Dulles International Airport and Fort Lee in coming weeks. Some refugees will arrive with some financial support from the US government; others will arrive with nothing. All have lost everything.
In times like these I am reminded of something Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said on the night before he died. He was reflecting on Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, in which, you recall, two religious leaders passed by a wounded man on the side of the road, while a despised foreigner stopped to help. King said that when the two religious leaders saw the wounded man, they asked, “If I stop to help, what will happen to me?” In contrast, the Samaritan asked, “If I don’t stop to help, what will happen to him?”
If we don’t help, what will happen to those fleeing Afghanistan? That question is causing people across the country and in our region to do whatever they can to advocate for and prepare to welcome those desperate to escape Taliban rule.
Several EDOW congregations have already begun organizing themselves to help in ways large and small. I am grateful for their efforts and encourage all who can to join them to do so.
There are several ways you can help.
In our region, the primary refugee resettlement agency is Lutheran Social Services National Capital Area. You can go directly to the LSS website to donate much-needed financial support or to volunteer.
If you’d like to join our diocesan efforts, you may contact Anne Derse, co-chair of a newly-established EDOW Afghan Refugee Response Team. Organized by our deacons, its mission is to work with LSS and others to match our desire to help with immediate refugee needs, such as shopping for clothes, helping furnish apartments, assisting families as they adjust to their new environment, all the way up to sponsoring a family for a year. The Response Team stands ready to help congregations interested in exploring refugee sponsorship.
Advocacy is also needed. The Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations is monitoring the situation in Afghanistan and provides information and ways for us to advocate on behalf of those whose lives are in danger. You can sign up to receive Episcopal Public Policy Action Alerts for ways to effectively advocate for just and compassionate public policy.
We’ll have more information in the coming weeks. This is both a fast-moving crisis and one filled with chaos and confusion. Thank you for being among those willing to ask the compassionate, courageous question, and like the Samaritan, to step up to help those in need.
If you would like to learn more about the situation in Afghanistan, here are several resources:
- OGR/EMM Webinar Recording: Doing Well by Our Allies: An Overview and Recommendations for the Biden Administration’s Evacuation of Afghan Allies of the U.S. Armed Forces
- EPPN Action Alert on Resettling and Evacuating our Afghan Allies
- EMM: Support our Afghan Allies page
- Lutheran Social Services National Capital Area
Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
The working title of this sermon is “How Do We Know When It’s Time to Go or Time to Stay?”
It’s a topic I’ve been pondering for most of the summer, as part of a long-term writing project. I’m trying to better understand and articulate what’s at stake for us, and what God might be doing within and around us, when we need to make a big decision, and in particular, the decision either to go or to stay.
Apparently I’m not alone in this thinking. Surveys indicate that as a result of the pandemic, as many as 30% of the American workforce is considering or has made a change in their vocation,1 that an equal number of people has made or is considering a geographic move.2 You may be among them. Or someone you love may be asking questions like “Do I quit school or go back?” “Is it time to leave my apartment or house and look for another?” “Is it time to leave my faith community for another or perhaps no community at all?” The drop-out rate in religious affiliation is alarming, particularly among young adults. The Barna Research Group published a study about the exodus of young adults who had been raised in the church with the haunting title, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith.3 What is it that causes some of us to stay in the faith we were raised in, while others choose to go?
In whatever realm of life, these are big decisions. How do we make them, and how does God show up for us in the decisive moments, if at all?
I tend to believe that if I really listen, in one way or another God will tell me what to do. My job then is to be obedient to what I determine is God’s will in my life. Sometimes, however, God is frustratingly silent on the matter I’m struggling with, or I can’t hear God. Perhaps a part of me doesn’t want to hear, and yet the decision looms. My husband Paul tends to relate to God differently, on the assumption that God is too busy to micro-manage his life, and that God is curious to see what Paul, and all of us, will do at the moment of choice.
Either way, the process of deciding, or to use a term with spiritual overtones, of discerning is rarely immediate or completely clear, at least not for me. A theologian and Episcopal priest named Urban Holmes wrote several books on the Christian life in the 1980s. In one of his books, Spirituality for Ministry, he defined discernment this way: “The ability to intuit God’s will by casting a particular question the Christian faces in a given situation before the judgment of the deeper self. The result of discernment will be a willingness to risk decisions and take actions whose surety is enigmatic at best.”4 The result of discernment, then, is a greater capacity to act in the face of uncertainty, and willingness to risk failure in the service of what matters most.
On the global stage, we are witnessing the consequences of President Biden’s decision to keep to the timeline he established for the withdrawal of American troops and military personnel in Afghanistan. Honestly, I don’t know what to make of that decision, and for that matter, the multitude of decisions our leaders have made regarding Afghanistan in the 20 years since 9/11. Except to state the obvious: the humanitarian crisis is devastating and demands our compassionate response. The grief, worry, and survivors’ guilt is palpable among those with friends, family, and former colleagues caught in the chaos. They and countless others are doing whatever they can to help and to advocate. If you are among them, thank you. Later this week, I’ll share the ways we are organizing ourselves across the diocese to assist Afghan refugees who are arriving in our region.
For today’s purposes however, suffice it to say we have many global examples of how our decisions to stay or to go affect other people, and that’s true in every realm of life. Imagine the conversations taking place right now in Afghan homes across that country–do we stay or do we go? How do we stay or go? For them and for us, the process involves making decisions and taking actions whose surety is enigmatic at best. That is to say neither staying or going is always the right decision, nor the same decision for everyone.
I spent a big part of my early adult life on the go. Almost like clockwork, every 2-3 years I made a significant change that involved leaving some place or endeavor for another. I wasn’t always happy about the move. It often felt that I had to leave just as I was learning how to thrive where I was. But the pattern established itself such that when the rhythms of life eventually slowed down a bit, it didn’t feel right, as if something was wrong because nothing was beckoning from the horizon. It took me time to realize that staying put didn’t mean staying the same; that there was a deeper call involved in deciding to stay, and that at certain times, the most courageous decisions we make are the ones that no one sees.
In those years I read a novel by Anne Tyler entitled St. Maybe, which is about a young man named Ian who at age 17 feels responsible for his brother’s accidental death. With the subsequent death of his brother’s wife, he decides to drop out of school to help his parents raise his brother’s three young children. It’s a slow-moving story on the surface, with a lot happening emotionally and relationally within Ian as the years pass.
At one point, Ian tells his minister that he thinks that it’s time for him to go back to school and get on with his life. His minister asks him to say more. Echoing the words of one of the several young women who broke up with him because of his commitment to the children and his church (and the church, made up of every kind of social misfit, plays a sweet role in this story), Ian cries out to his minister, “I am wasting my life!” To which his minister quietly responds. “This is your life, Ian. Lean into it. Accept it for the gift that it is.”
This is your life became a mantra for me as I learned what it meant to stay in place long enough to grow up inside, and to create the kind of foundations that would allow others to thrive. In recent days, I’ve heard resonance of that same sentiment from people slowly coming to terms with some aspect of their lives that is theirs not only to accept but embrace.
We’ve just read, and you have printed in your bulletins, a passage from the Gospel of John. It comes from the end of a long section in which Jesus is expounding upon an event that shows up on all four accounts of Jesus’ life, which biblical scholars would tell us make it a really big deal. The event itself came after a long day of teaching and healing, when after the disciples urged Jesus to send the gathered crowd home, he insisted on providing them food. In John’s version of the story, a young boy offers what he has, a few loaves of bread and some fish, and from that offering Jesus provides food for the multitude, with enough leftover to fill 12 baskets.
In the other three gospel accounts, the message of this story is that God will provide, that Jesus cares for those who are hungry, and that we can participate in Jesus’ concern for others by offering what we have, even when we know that our offering isn’t enough to meet the needs before us. I love this story. Nearly every day, I feel that my offering isn’t enough, but Jesus invites me to offer it anyway and let him do with it what only he can do.
In John’s version, the take-away from the loaves and fishes story is different: Jesus asks those listening to think less of physical food, and he speaks of himself as the food that can sustain our souls. “I am the bread of life. Those who eat my bread and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” It sounds rather strange, put starkly like that. What lies beneath those words, however, is a growing understanding among first-century Christians that even when their physical hunger and other forms of suffering persist, even when their initial expectations of who Jesus was and what he was going to do for them were disappointed, even when they found themselves in situations that were hard or dangerous and it was clear that God wasn’t going to rescue them, even then Jesus was with them. They felt his presence, in a spiritual, mystical way. They felt called to abide with him, to trust in his presence. The question for them became, would they stay with him in this new way, or would they go?
For everyone raised in a particular faith tradition, or who chooses to be a part of one, this is something we’ll all experience eventually. Whenever being part of our tradition, or following Jesus, or belonging to a particular church turns out to be something other than what we originally thought, had hoped for or imagined, or when something happens that causes us to doubt what we once had no reason to question, we come to a moment of decision–do we stay or go?
Some of Jesus’ followers, John tells us, decide to leave. “This teaching is difficult,” they say. “Who can accept it?” While John, the Gospel writer, judges these people harshly, I doubt that Jesus did, or that he harshly judged anyone who chooses another spiritual path, or no path at all. Here’s why: Jesus’ love is unconditional. Such love isn’t withdrawn when people don’t do as we want. Jesus can no more stop loving us when we walk away than we can stop loving those who reject us.
But you can hear the poignancy when he turns to his closest friends to ask, “And what about you? Do you also wish to go away?” He truly wants to know: Then Simon Peter responds with words that can’t help but make us love the guy, “Lord, to whom shall we go? We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” They had come too far to turn back now.
Simon Peter and the others had come to one of life’s sweet moments of clarity. They don’t come often, but when they do, they have a settling effect on us. We become increasingly at peace with whatever we decide, no matter what happens next.
Their decision wasn’t merely to stay with Jesus, but to do deeper in their relationship with him. It wasn’t a choice between actively leaving and passively staying, but between two active choices–to leave (a conscious choice, not merely drifting apart and pretending not to notice) or to stay with greater depth and intentionality.
I leave you with this thought: rest assured, wherever you might be in the process of discernment about leaving or staying, that this is a particularly sacred time. Whatever you discern or decide, I pray that God gives you enough clarity to feel settled as you take what is for you is the next faithful step. As you act on your decision, may you be given grace and courage either to go or to stay wholeheartedly. And afterwards, should you begin to question your decision or feel that you need to change it, know that God’s grace will be with you, whatever happens next.
May I pray for you:
Lord, this is a time of change and transition and decision-making for so many on so many levels. Hold these your beloved ones as they discern and decide–give them the gift of wisdom and understanding and assurance of your abiding presence. Help all of us, Lord, who feel the call to follow Jesus to be given eyes to see him more clearly, hearts to love him more dearly, and desire to follow him more nearly, day by day by day by day. Amen.
1 Nearly a third of U.S. workers under 40 considered changing careers during the pandemic – The Washington Post
2 Pandemic Forces Moves for Many Americans, Survey Shows – Credit Union Times
3 David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids, MI:Baker Books, 2001).
4 Urban T. Holmes III, Spirituality for Ministry (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1982), 138.
This letter was emailed to diocesan leaders on August 25, 2021
We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayer, remembering before God your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Thessalonians 1:2-3
Dear EDOW Colleagues and Friends,
As all in the diocese finalize preparations for the season of ministry before us, I write to thank you for your continued commitment to the health and safety of those in our congregations, schools, places of ministry, and the communities we serve in Christ’s name. Given rising infections and hospitalizations in our region, and concerns for highly contagious variants of the virus, it is imperative that we pay close attention to the instructions and mandates from local public health and civic leaders. In speaking with leaders across the diocese, I am once again inspired by your creativity and resilience.
Several clergy and lay leaders have asked me if diocesan policies will change this fall. The short answer is no. We are all required to follow the guidelines and mandates of our local communities. When those policies change in your region, you are free to relax your own practice as you deem best.
At the moment, there is near uniformity in policy across the four Maryland counties and the District of Columbia, with mandated masks in indoor settings and renewed emphasis on physical distance and encouragement to gather outdoors whenever possible. Churches are no exception. There is particular concern for unvaccinated children, and yet schools are reopening with safety measures in place. I would encourage all who are able to gather children safely in church to do the same.
Regarding in-person worship, I am impressed with the creativity of Eucharistc practice across the diocese. Several have asked me when we might resume sharing Eucharistic wine by common cup, which I raised with epidemiologists in our diocese and at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The unanimous consensus among them was that now is not the time, and thus that restriction remains. The simplest alternative is to distribute wafers only. Some congregations offer individual paper cups; others purchase portable individual communion sets.
I am delighted that singing in church, provided that all are masked, is no longer restricted by health officials. I have enjoyed singing once again in my visitations, and hearing the beauty of choral music!
If you haven’t yet opened for in-person worship, I encourage you to consider it in the coming months. While maintaining an online presence going forwards is a high priority, so is being together, safely, in Christian community. Please reach out to your colleagues or to those of us on diocsesan staff for support and suggestions.
Finally, let me say a word about vaccinations. This week the FDA fully authorized the Pfizer vaccine, and other vaccines may soon receive that same encouraging endorsement. As you well know, an increasing number of businesses and governmental bodies, including the military and school districts, are now mandating vaccinations for their employees and personnel. After speaking with the diocesan chancellor, Mr. John Van De Weert, I am persuaded that as bishop, I do not have authority to mandate vaccinations for employees of our congregations or schools. But vestries, boards of directors, and rectors do have that authority, and I encourage you to consider exercising it if you haven’t already done so. I recognize the concerns some feel regarding vaccinations, but the risk of not being vaccinated, and the cost to the wider community, makes vaccination, in my estimation, both a civic responsibility and act of Christian discipleship.
If you have specific questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact us in the diocesan office. While you may speak to any of us, Canon to the Ordinary Andrew Walter leads our COVID response efforts.
Again, thank you for your leadership, faithfulness, and prayers for all those adversely affected by COVID-19. May God bless and protect those working tirelessly on behalf of us all.
The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde
Bishop of Washington
Above: We’ve created sets of playing cards with questions for each practice of the Path of Discipleship for children, youth and adults to help in their spiritual formation.
We grow as followers of Jesus throughout our lives, growing evermore fully into the stature of Christ. But what are the catalysts that cultivate that growth?
Twelve months ago, more than two dozen congregational leaders in the Diocese of Washington gathered in small groups to share experiences of people, events, and practices that deepened their faith and drew them closer to Jesus. For some, pivotal moments such as an illness, the loss of employment, or the birth of a child drew them closer to God. Others found their faith grew through faithful ministry with others. Still others found Jesus’ love in the abiding love of a grandparent. These rich and varied experiences affirmed that following Jesus is a life of continuous turning toward Jesus, a journey of experiencing the holy, of finding oneself, of searching, and of making commitments.
The purpose of the work of this group was to discern a path of discipleship for congregations in the Diocese of Washington–a pathway with a core set of essential practices that congregations can invite those new to faith and those with maturing faith to take in order to grow as followers of Jesus. Through a time of listening, prayer, and reflection on Scripture, we discerned five essential spiritual practices of discipleship:
Pray – Talk, listen, and respond to God
Learn – Learn the story of God and God’s people
Serve – Take part in God’s mission by serving others and creation
Give – Give generously from God’s abundant blessings
Share – Invite others to come on the journey with God
We invite every congregation to use these practices as a framework to review their formation offerings, their ministries, and their life together to help all people–newcomers and long-timers, young and old, weekly and monthly worshipers–take their next steps to grow in faith and deepen their commitment to Jesus
The life of faith is not a one-time event. It is a lifelong journey of growth and maturing as we are drawn more deeply into the heart of God and community and back out into the world. It is both individual and community oriented and changes along a growth path.
Knowing where those you serve are along their path will help you be more effective in helping them grow in their faith. Those new to faith grow in faith through opportunities to know the love of Jesus through experiences characterized by love, trust, and acceptance. As their faith grows, they soon begin to feel at home within a particular faith community and enjoy participating in experiences of awe, wonder, and mystery. Many people’s faith, at some point, is challenged by new circumstances, a crisis, or relationship. This is a time of doubt, questioning and experimentation that can lead to growing clarity and commitment to particular faith claims and an awareness of what nurtures the spiritual life. The hope is that we grow in commitment to following Jesus with our hearts, hands, and heads, putting faith into personal and social action and being willing and able to stand up for what we believe.
The journey described above can be identified as four styles of faith along a path of discipleship:
- experiencing faith
- belonging faith
- searching faith, and
- owning faith.
The description may sound linear, but styles of faith are better understood as the rings of a tree. Each expression of faith is whole, yet there’s always room to grow. And as a person grows in faith, they don’t let go of previous capacities or affinities. Instead they build on them. While experiences of awe, wonder, and mystery are a primary marker for belonging faith, God meets us all in the realm of mystery. Those with an owned faith continue to yearn for such experiences. Lastly a person can exhibit multiple styles of faith simultaneously–for example, questioning in some areas and being fully committed in others. Faith is a lifelong process.
Knowing the predominant expression of faith, however, is helpful in discerning our next steps in faith and how we might grow in faith. Someone new to faith needs to feel a sense of belonging and might welcome prayer or reflecting on Scripture in a small group, or serving alongside others. Those with an owned faith could be invited to find ways to share their faith with others.
To help congregations adopt this path of discipleship, we have developed:
- A set of posters that can be displayed in your buildings and website that describe each practice. (Download here)
- A set of playing cards for children, youth, and adults with questions for each practice. Send a deck to households. Use them at congregational gatherings, online or in person. (Print your own: Adults | Youth | Children; Print-on-demand decks coming soon.)
- A path of discipleship app for iOS and Android devices to help individuals to grow faith on-the-go will premier in September.
We will continue to develop and curate spiritual formation resources using these five practices as a framework to help you along the way.
The Rev. Jenifer Gamber
Director of the School for Christian Faith and Leadership
and Tending Our Soil Thriving Congregations Initiative