Facing the Hardest Things

Facing the Hardest Things

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’ Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’ Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Matthew 4:1-11

Taking my cues from the story we always read on the first Sunday of Lent of the time Jesus was led by Spirit into the wilderness, I’d like to reflect with you about the times in our lives when we are led, or forced, to face something big, potentially life-changing or life-ending. Whatever that something is, there’s no getting around it.
These are the times when we need to be completely honest with ourselves about who we are and what’s in front of us.

Let me begin by telling you about friends of mine, Jeff and Mallie, a couple that my husband and I have known for over 35 years. They were members of the first church I served as an assistant priest in Toledo, Ohio. While we all moved on from Toledo a long time ago, our friendship endured, albeit from a distance.

Sadly, Jeff died recently from an aggressive form of cancer. The amazing thing was that he had lived a lot longer than anyone anticipated when he was first diagnosed. His body responded surprisingly well to experimental treatments that prolonged his life well beyond expectancy for people with his condition. During their last years together, Mallie and Jeff both retired. They traveled and spent time with their grandchildren. Nearly every day Jeff did what he most loved in the world, which was to play golf. Life was good for them, and while Jeff knew that he would eventually die from the cancer, they were able to live long stretches of time without having to think about it. Until recently.

A bit of backstory about Jeff. He grew up Roman Catholic. As a boy he attended masses that were still in Latin; he went to Confession every week; and among the sins he was told to confess was whenever he had eaten meat on Friday. Years later, in response to changes in the Roman Catholic Church, his priest told him that it was no longer a sin to eat meat on Fridays and there was no need to confess it anymore. Jeff was puzzled and then angered by the abrupt change. What do you mean it’s not a sin anymore? What about other sins that I’ve been confessing? Are you going to change your mind about them, too?

During our Toledo years, I remember Jeff going on and on about how angry he was that the Church changed its mind about eating meat on Fridays which I thought funny. For him, though, it was a big deal, and it became a barrier that kept him at arm’s length from any form of religious authority. It kept him at arm’s length from church, and it kept him at arm’s length from God.

Back to the present. In the weeks before he died, Jeff wrote me an email, asking if we could set up a video call so that I could bless a saint’s medal that he had been given as a child. In some way that medal represented the healing power of God. I was touched that he asked me, and I happened to be sick at the time. By the time I recovered, he was too sick to talk, Then he died.

Later Mallie told me about something that happened on the second-to-last night of his life, that was for Jeff a wilderness moment.

“He was scared,” Mallie told me. He was scared to die, and scared to face whatever awaited him after death. He lay in bed, she said, shaking with fear. Mallie noticed that there was rosary by his bed that she had never seen before, and the saint’s medal. She asked if he wanted her to call a priest. “No,” he told her. “Do you want me to sit with you?” she asked. “No,” he said. “I need to pray. I need to pray alone.”

Jeff knew that the time had come to face his fear, to face the final reckoning that death represents, and to face His God. He went into the wilderness that night, or maybe the wilderness came to him. Either way, it was a moment of great courage.

The next day he seemed calmer. As the day went on, Mallie was determined to take him to the hospital. Jeff insisted on staying home. “Alright,” she told him, “But if you aren’t better by the morning, I’m taking you in.” In the morning, Jeff was gone.

In retrospect, Mallie realized that through his night of prayer, Jeff came to a place of acceptance of his death that she had not. She would have done anything to keep him alive a bit longer, but something shifted for Jeff. He faced his fear; he faced His God; and he found peace.

Obviously that’s a very dramatic example of a wilderness experience. They come in many ways, not merely when we’re facing our physical death. Yet however they come, they are what some monks like to call “little deaths.” Friends of ours who moved out to the country ten years ago have just signed a contract for an Independent Living apartment. They may not move into it for years, but signing for it was an acknowledgement that they wouldn’t live on their beloved farm forever. It was, she said, like practicing death.

Let’s return to Jesus’ wilderness experience. You may remember that the Spirit led him there immediately after he was baptized by John in the Jordan River. He had just had this amazing experience of rising from the water and seeing a dove descend over him. He heard a voice from heaven declare, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” Then off he went into the desert to fast and pray for 40 days.

In one version of this story, all we are told is that Jesus went out into the wilderness where he faced temptation. In the version we read today, the temptations are spelled out. Notice how Satan tempts Jesus by daring him to prove who he was:

If you are the Son of God, turn these loaves into bread;
If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple;
If you are the Son of God, worship me, and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world.

Jesus doesn’t take the bait.

Some have said that Jesus went into the wilderness to learn what it meant from him to be Jesus.

I wonder if our wilderness experiences help us to learn what it means for you and I to be who we are.

Among the many things this season of Lent invites us to consider is what we learn in those truth-revealing experiences–what we sometimes call “Come to Jesus Moments”–when we need to face a particular truth or situation that we’d rather not face, or that seems so big that we freeze whenever we think about it.

Will God meet us in our wilderness?

I’d like to tell you about two other such moments, one from my life as a young adult and the other from one of our son’s life when he was a child.

When my husband Paul and I were first married, I managed to persuade him that we should spend our first year together living and working in Central America. This was during the mid 1980s, when virtually all of Central America was caught up in civil unrest and warfare. Very few of our family thought this was a good idea, but we were young and idealistic, and so very naive.

We spent a few weeks with Paul’s family before we left, and during that time we got all of our immunizations for the various diseases we might encounter in Central America–typhoid, hepatitis, and malaria. Paul had a serious reaction to one of the shots and one night he got really sick. There I was, barely married, convinced that I had killed my husband.

As Paul lay in bed with a high fever, I sat in a chair in an adjacent room, terrified. I happened to be reading from the Gospel of John as part of my prayer practice then, and that night I came to a passage in which Jesus, facing his fate on the cross, prays this prayer: “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I pray, ‘Father, spare me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to his hour. Father, glorify your Name.” (John 12:27)

Through these words I heard God say to me something along the lines of, “I cannot spare you the pain and fear you are experiencing now, and will likely experience again. But they are not signs that you have made a mistake. They are part of the journey you are on.”

It was what I needed–an assurance that suffering and fear were part of the path we were on. Paul recovered, and we both got sick several times in our year away, along with other calamities that occurred. In my wilderness moment, Jesus taught me to face fear rather than run from it.

Now the story about our son, Patrick. When he was 8 years old, he fell off a retaining wall and broke his arm badly. Bones protruded from his skin when I scooped him up and took him to the hospital. He was prepped for surgery almost immediately, and as he lay on the gurney about to be wheeled into the operating room, he panicked. So did I.

Everything was happening so fast. Just then, the operating door opened and someone we knew from church approached Patrick. “Hello, Patrick,” he said calmly. “It’s me Lynn Christiansen. I’m the doctor who is going to help you go to sleep now. I’ll stay with you during the entire operation to make sure you will be okay.”

Patrick looked at Lynn, and then at me. Then he gulped once and said, “Okay, let’s go, right now!”

I share all these stories with you as encouragement, should you be facing something hard right now, should there be any place in life where you need to be brave and all you feel is vulnerable and afraid. These are the moments that bring us to our knees, and that’s a good thing. For then we have no choice but to be honest with ourselves and with God.

In those moments, it’s good to hold onto something. Think of Jeff and his rosary and saint’s medal; me and my Bible; Patrick looking into the eyes of a friend. Even Jesus had angels to comfort him.

Wilderness experiences, hard as they are, are often remembered as gifts to us, because in them, we felt the presence of God. They are the moments we look back on as turning points, markers in life, that helped make us who we are, and confident that God is real and there for us in ways we can trust.

May God bless and keep you all this Lent–the time we set aside in church to consider the power of wilderness and remember that whenever we’re in one, we are not alone. Most especially, I pray that God makes His presence known to you in a palpable way in your wilderness times, giving you faith and courage to see you through.


Prácticas de fe: Aprender la historia de Jesús y dejar que te hable

Prácticas de fe: Aprender la historia de Jesús y dejar que te hable

Principio del evangelio de Jesucristo, el Hijo de Dios.
Marcos 1:1

Libro de la genealogía de Jesucristo, hijo de David, hijo de Abrahán.
Mateo 1:1

Muchos han emprendido la tarea de escribir la historia de los hechos que Dios ha llevado a cabo entre nosotros… Yo también, excelentísimo Teófilo, lo he investigado todo con cuidado desde el principio, y me ha parecido conveniente escribirte estas cosas ordenadamente, para que conozcas bien la verdad de lo que te han enseñado.
Lucas 1:1-4

En el principio ya existía la Palabra, la Palabra estaba con Dios, y Dios mismo era la Palabra.
Juan 1:1

¿Conoces bien la historia de la vida de Jesús y sus enseñanzas?

Si usted es como muchas personas que asisten a una congregación episcopal (y la mayoría de los estadounidenses que se identifican como cristianos), la respuesta honesta es: “no muy bien”. Has oído leer mucho de la Biblia los domingos por la mañana, y puedes recordar algunos de los acontecimientos de la vida de Jesús. Aun así, nunca has interiorizado el arco de su vida, el conjunto de sus enseñanzas y los matices con que los cuatro autores de los relatos evangélicos interpretan la historia de Jesús. Sin una práctica regular de lectura y reflexión sobre la vida y las enseñanzas de Jesús, es probable que no hayas tenido la experiencia de que Dios te hable a través de las palabras de las Escrituras.

Por supuesto, nada de lo que he escrito hasta ahora puede ser cierto para usted. Tal vez alguna vez leíste la Biblia y oraste con regularidad en una etapa anterior de tu vida, pero por una serie de razones -incluyendo las formas en que algunos pasajes bíblicos se han utilizado para causar daño- dejaste de hacerlo.

O puede que lleves años estudiando la Biblia y practiques con regularidad la oración y la reflexión sobre la vida y las enseñanzas de Jesús. ¿Sabes que cada vez que te sientas ante esas historias familiares, tienen el poder de hablarte de nuevo? También sabes que la vida de fe nunca es estática, que siempre hay un siguiente paso fiel.

¿Cuál podría ser el siguiente paso fiel para ti?

Hemos entrado en el tiempo de Cuaresma, los cuarenta días que Jesús pasó en el desierto antes de comenzar su ministerio público. Cuarenta días para reflexionar sobre su vida antes de conmemorar su muerte en la cruz.

Su vida importa. En palabras de la difunta Rachel Held Evans: “Jesús no murió simplemente para salvarnos de nuestros pecados; Jesús vivió para salvarnos de nuestros pecados. Su vida y sus enseñanzas nos muestran el camino hacia la liberación”.1

Esta es mi invitación para esta Cuaresma: Elige uno de los cuatro relatos evangélios -Mateo, Marcos, Lucas o Juan- y léelo como si fuera un cuento. Léelo para conocer el arco de la vida de Jesús contado a través del lente particular del autor. No te llevará mucho tiempo: puedes leer el Evangelio de Marcos en unos noventa minutos; uno de los otros tres te llevará, como mucho, más de una hora.

Te sorprenderá lo vívido que es Jesús en cada relato, y lo breve que fue su vida. Presta atención a lo que te inspire o te sorprenda. Si te encuentras, como la mayoría de nosotros, confundido o preocupado por algo de lo que lees, pide a tu clero (u obispa) un buen comentario sobre ese evangelio en concreto, para comprender mejor su contexto, su visión del mundo y lo que el autor intentaba transmitir sobre Jesús.

Luego vuelve a leer ese mismo evangelio despacio, una sección cada vez, cada día durante la Cuaresma, hasta que lo termines de nuevo. Acomódate en un lugar tranquilo y pide a Dios que te hable a través de las palabras que lees. Escribe tus impresiones o preguntas.

Lo más importante es que escuches la palabra de Dios para ti a través del texto. Puede que pasen días sin que escuches nada. Entonces, un día, un pasaje o una frase en particular parecerá saltar de la página a tu corazón, y entonces sabrás lo que se siente cuando te hablan a través de las palabras de la Escritura. O días más tarde, una imagen o palabra del texto puede venir a tu mente sin anunciarse, como una fuente de iluminación o fortaleza para algún área problemática de tu vida. Puede que no suceda, porque esas cosas no están bajo nuestro control. No se trata de una representación, sino de una práctica espiritual destinada a abrirnos a recibir lo que pueda venir en un momento de reflexión silenciosa sobre la vida de Jesús.

¿Qué relato del evangelio deberías leer? El que más te atraiga.

Como es el texto evangélico que escucharemos la mayoría de los domingos de este año (excepto el primer domingo en Cuaresma), voy a leer y orar usando el Evangelio según San Juan. En muchos aspectos, el Jesús retratado en Juan es muy diferente del Jesús retratado en los otros tres evangelios, en aspectos sobre los que escribiré más adelante en Cuaresma.

Por favor, hazme saber si aceptas mi invitación y qué evangelio vas a leer. Siéntete libre de compartir tus impresiones y hacer cualquier pregunta que te surja, y haré todo lo posible por responderte. También me encantaría saber si sientes que Dios te habla a través de tu lectura orante y cómo lo hace. Podemos aprender juntos y animarnos mutuamente mientras hacemos nuestro propio viaje con Jesús a través de la Cuaresma.

1Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2018).

Practices of Faith: Learning Jesus’ Story & Letting It Speak to You

Practices of Faith: Learning Jesus’ Story & Letting It Speak to You

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Mark 1:1

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Matthew 1:1

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have taken place . . . I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
Luke 1:1-4

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John 1:1

How well do you know Jesus’ life story and his teachings?

If you’re like many people who attend an Episcopal congregation (and the majority of Americans who identify as Christian), the honest answer is, “not very well.” You’ve heard a lot of the Bible read to you on Sunday mornings, and you can call to mind some of the events of Jesus’ life. Even so, you’ve never internalized the arc of his life, the body of his teachings, and the nuanced ways that the four authors of the gospel accounts interpret Jesus’s story. Without a regular practice of reading and reflecting on Jesus’ life and teachings, you’ve likely not had the experience of God speaking to you through the words of Scripture.

Of course, none of what I’ve written thus far may be true for you. Perhaps you once read the Bible and prayed regularly at an earlier stage of your life, but for any number of reasons–including the ways that some biblical passages have been used to cause harm–you stopped.

Or maybe you have years of Bible study under your belt and a regular practice of prayer and reflection on Jesus’ life and teachings. You know how every time you sit down with those famillar stories, they have the power to speak to you afresh. You also know that the life of faith is never static, that there is always a next faithful step.

What might be that next faithful step for you?

We’ve entered the season of Lent, the forty days patterned after the time Jesus spent in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry. Forty days to consider his life before we commemorate His death on the cross.

His life matters. In the words of the late Rachel Held Evans, “Jesus did not simply die to save us from our sins; Jesus lived to save us from our sins. His life and teachings show us the way to liberation.”1

Here’s my invitation to you this Lent: Pick one of the four gospel accounts–Matthew, Mark, Luke or John–and read it as you would a short story. Read it to learn the arc of Jesus’ life as told through the author’s particular lens. It won’t take long–you could read the Gospel of Mark in about ninety minutes; one of the other three would require at most another hour.

You’ll be surprised at how vivid Jesus is in each account, and how brief his life. Pay attention to what inspires or surprises you. Should you find yourself, as most of us do, confused or troubled by some of what you read, ask your priest (or bishop) for a good commentary on that particular gospel, so as to gain a better understanding of its context, worldview and what the author was trying to convey about Jesus.

Then go back and read that same gospel slowly, a section at a time each day during Lent until you finish it again. Settle in a quiet place and ask God to speak to you through the words you read. Write down your impressions or questions.

Most importantly, listen for God’s word for you through the text. You may go for days without hearing anything. Then one day, a particular passage or phrase might seem to jump off the page and into your heart, and then you’ll know what it feels like to be spoken to through the words of Scripture. Or days later, an image or word from the text may come into your mind unannounced, as a source of illumination or strength for some troubled area of your life. It may not happen, because such things are not in our control. This is not a performance, but a spiritual practice meant to open us to receive whatever might come to us in a time of quiet reflection on Jesus’ life.

Which gospel account should you read? Whichever one draws you in.

Because it’s the gospel text we’ll hear most Sundays this year (except for Lent 1), I’m going to read and pray my way through the Gospel according to John. In many ways, the Jesus portrayed in John is very different from the Jesus portrayed in the other three, in ways that I’ll write about later in Lent.

Please let me know if you accept my invitation and which gospel you’ll read. Feel free to share your impressions and ask any questions that arise for you, and I’ll do my best to respond. I’d also love to know if and how you sense God speaking to you through your prayerful reading. We can learn together and cheer each other on as we make our own journey with Jesus through Lent.

1Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2018)

5 Lenten Resources to Grow in Faith

5 Lenten Resources to Grow in Faith

There is only one church season in which the faithful are specifically invited into a holy observance. That season is Lent. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, February 22, Lent invites us to reflect on the times we have failed to love God, others, and ourselves. After conscious reflection, we are called to return to God.

Many resources are available to assist individuals, families, and congregations in the work of Lent. Below, you’ll find a list with five of my favorite resources. Each resource is a creative entry point into a meaningful Lent.

“40” | Simon Smith
A 4-minute animated video imagining Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Use as a discussion prompt for a formation group, family or congregation about the meaning of Lent.

Bless the Lent We Actually Have | Kate Bowler
Free downloadable guides for wherever you find yourself this season. Bless it all this Lent – the lovely, the garbage, the difficult, the heartbreaking. Guides are available for individuals and groups.

Faithful Families: Lent and Easter Reflections | Traci Smith
Lent and Easter Reflections for families from the first week of Lent, through Pentecost. Each reflection has a scripture focus, a weekly meditation, and a faith practice. The meditations and practices are most suited for younger children (Pre K – Grade 2).

Illustrated Lenten Resources | Illustrated Ministry
Illustrated Ministry offers beautiful lenten themed coloring pages, posters, devotional guides, family activities, Stations of the Cross, and many other illustrated resources based on scripture. This is a favorite for all ages!

Lenten Micropractices | Vibrant Church Communications
A micropractice is a small spiritual practice. Instead of engaging the same spiritual practice throughout Lent, micropractices are meant to give a sample across many different styles of practices. Some are active, some are reflective. They rotate through the lenten themes of praying, fasting, and alms giving, along with additional practices that don’t fit neatly in one of those categories.

Consider engaging one of these practices to deepen your faith life as you observe a holy Lent.

The Rev. Amanda Akes-Cardwell
Missioner for Faith Formation and Development

Fit and Faith: Taking the Next Faithful Steps Toward Renewal at Trinity Mission

Fit and Faith: Taking the Next Faithful Steps Toward Renewal at Trinity Mission

In early 2021, the congregation of Trinity, Upper Marlboro faced a painful truth: that their beloved parish could not survive much longer given the circumstances they faced. Rather than ignore the signs, Trinity’s leaders proactively requested to undergo a Canon 54 Diocesan Stewardship and Parish Viability assessment, becoming the first congregation in the diocese to go through the process after the canon’s approval at a special diocesan convention in the spring of 2021. They hoped to receive guidance around determining next steps for tending to finances and developing strategies for new ministries that would appeal to the people in the surrounding community.

The initial recommendation from the assessment committee, based on the state of Trinity’s finances and the leadership available, was to close. But during the period of the assessment, new life began to blossom in the parish. New leaders stepped forward, the church’s spaces were beautified, and a new ministry for children was planned. With this hard work of the members, Diocesan Council, rather than closing the parish, decided to change the parish to an organized mission status and to explore shared ministry with nearby St. Thomas’, Croom.

Under this new mission status, the Rev. Dr. Peter Antoci, rector of St. Thomas’, would be appointed as part-time Vicar of Trinity for one year with the Rev. Thomas Bauer serving as Sunday Chaplain. The twelve months would serve as a testing period for leadership and for the viability of Trinity, with the main goals being 1) to develop a plan for financial sustainability, 2) to engage the leadership of St. Thomas’, Croom regarding opportunities for coordination and collaboration in ministry, and 3) to commit to a renewal plan for Congregational Vitality. Trinity’s first service as a mission took place on July 31, 2022.

The Rev. Anne-Marie Jeffery, Canon for Congregational Vitality has been working with Trinity leaders on their renewal plans, and says from the first time she met with them, “The people of Trinity were energized and already had a sense of new ministries they wanted to try. They had created the Claggett Cafe, a space to have coffee hour that was near where worship happened, so people could easily be greeted and have a place to connect. A grant had been applied for and received to offer a program for children in the evenings to give parents a break.”

With some teaching about congregational renewal best practices, the Seven Vital Signs of Parish Health, and a study of the demographics of the surrounding area, the congregation’s commitment to the necessary renewal and vitality work deepened. During the fall of 2022, the new mission prepared to host a community event – the dedication of the monument celebrating the 100 year anniversary of Crain Highway. Volunteers at the mission also planned to walk the neighborhood so they could see with new eyes how they might be a blessing to the wider community.

The main focus of their renewal plan is the creation of Fit and Faith, a Friday evening program for children ages pre-K to sixth grade that draws on the strengths of the mission’s many educators and leaders in the surrounding community. The program will include arts and crafts, indoor and outdoor play, cooking, career awareness, and music awareness, with the particular hope that, through their participation in Fit and Faith, both children and parents will experience the gift of being in community – an experience important in the life of Trinity, Upper Marlboro and one its members are eager to share.

After a recent check-in, Canon Anne-Marie is pleased to report that Fit and Faith is well underway and the first informational meeting for parents will take place on February 17th. To get the word out, organizers have been advertising the program with the local school as well as with a large after school program. They are also reaching out to the area churches and have made arrangements with Prince George’s County Board of Education for this program to be a site for junior and high school students to get their service hours. By the end of May, organizers anticipate they will have held at least six sessions.

The Fit and Faith program is an example of what’s possible when a faith community focuses on one of the vital signs of parish health – in this case, blessing our community – with the intention of serving the needs of the people of that community. The members of Trinity Mission are finding hope and sowing the seeds of renewal in their good work.

Trinity has also made progress in their long-term financial planning, another key part of their renewal efforts. They are on track to end 2023 with a balanced budget.

On January 17th 2023, Trinity Mission held its Inaugural Eucharist & Formal Organizing Meeting, followed by a reception. St. Thomas’, Croom was well-represented at this celebration as the two congregations continue to collaborate and share life together.