The Cost of Vision

The Cost of Vision

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.
John 9:1

There are many ways of seeing and many forms of blindness. Our physical faculties aren’t the only thing that affects vision. Our emotional state influences what we can and cannot see, as does the level of anxiety within and around us, and where we stand relative to whatever it is we are looking at. The norms of the society we belong to play a role in what we see and cannot see, as does the cost of acknowledging what we see.

With vision, there is a choice to be made, and often a price to pay. One biblical commentator, Gail O’ Day, makes this last point regarding the lengthy story we’ve just read:

“The man born blind. . .has nothing to lose in the encounter with Jesus and so is open to who Jesus is and what Jesus has to offer. The Pharisees, in contrast, have much to lose and therefore much to protect, and they fight to maintain their known world.”1

I’m reminded here of a story that Anthony de Mello tells of a monk who died and was buried by his fellow monks in the tradition of their monastery, in a crypt on the back wall of their chapel. After the funeral service, they heard noises from the other side of the wall. They reopened the crypt, and the monk who died rose from the coffin and told them of his experience beyond the grave, which contradicted everything their tradition taught about life after death. So, they put him back in the wall.2

Receiving one’s sight can be life-giving–as it was for the man born blind, and others we read of in the New Testament whose physical blindness Jesus healed. But it can also be a jarring experience, particularly when we now see something that we hadn’t seen before that is upsetting to us, or challenging, or traumatizing.

I was blessed this week to be given an advanced copy of a new biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. written by the investigative journalist, Jonathan Eig. It’s over 500 pages long and I’m just getting started, but the first chapters have been amazing, because it begins by telling the story of King’s grandparents, born in chattel slavery, and his parents. His father was born into a sharecropper’s family, which he left to pursue a call to ministry and a life in the city of Atlanta. He was among the giants of his generation to fight for justice and dignity for Black Americans.

Martin Luther King, Jr.–born in the same year that this church (St. George’s, DC) had its beginnings–had the good fortune of being born and raised on Auburn Avenue, where Black teachers, doctors, business owners in Atlanta lived, and whose children were temporarity shielded from the racial violence that erupted with regularity in the Jim Crow South. He grew up in a loving multi-generational household by educated parents in a stable marriage. His parents were proud of their heritage and instilled that pride in their children. They also taught them to treat all people with respect and kindness.

Across the street from the King home, there was a small grocery store owned by a white family. When King was three years old, he and the son of the store owner became playmates. Three years later, when they went to separate schools, King still sought the other boy’s companionship in the evenings and on weekends. But friendship faded, and King struggled to understand why. “That’s when the boy told the young King that it wasn’t just the start of school that caused the separation; but the color of his skin. The boy was no longer permitted to play with Black children.”3

King was stunned. “For the first time I was made aware of the existence of a race problem,” he would later write. “I had never been conscious of it before.” His mother assured him, “You are as good as anyone,” which signaled for him that there were people who would think otherwise, simply because he was Black. “From that moment on, I was determined to hate every white person.”4

When, as an adult, King told this story of his racial awakening, he used it to underscore the fact that children are not born racist; racism had to be taught. Different skin colors had been assigned unequal values that predetermined what people saw when looking upon a white or Black child. But King refused to see himself the way white society did, and he refused to accept racism as the lens through which to see others. The more people challenged him, the stronger his convictions became. “His determination to hate every white person faded quickly, but his determination to fight racism never diminished.”5

I tell you this story about King’s childhood trauma, as one of the foundational moments of his life, because it highlights the gift and the cost of holding true to one’s vision, one’s understanding of truth, whenever there is great pressure to deny that truth for the sake of maintaining things as they are. This is one of many of the underlying messages of today’s gospel story of the man born blind.

It’s helpful to remember that the author of the Gospel of John always has several things going on at once in his storytelling. On the surface, it’s a story about healing, not unlike other accounts in the New Testament in which Jesus restores sight to the blind. But in this story, one of the striking elements is that after Jesus heals the blind man, he disappears and leaves the formerly blind man to speak for himself. The man was the one brought to the religious authorities for questioning about what Jesus did; and his parents were interrogated. The Pharisees were as upset about this man’s witness as they were about what Jesus did. As the challenges become more harsh and threatening, the man seems to grow in confidence and clarity. So this is a story about healing, but also about how we are called, as followers of Jesus, to give witness to the truth.6

I wonder what truth–what vision–you are called to give witness to in your life, and at what cost. What do you see that those around you don’t, or refuse to see? What is it like for you to hold that truth, to remain true to what God has given you to see?

Yesterday I was at a meeting of lay and clergy leaders in Southern Maryland, to consider ways that we might organize ourselves differently as The Episcopal Church in Southern Maryland so that those called to leadership might have an easier time with the many responsibilities and burdens they shoulder. As is our custom now, we began the meeting with small table conversations reflecting on questions of faith, using these Path of Discipleship cards. The card I chose had this question:

What struggle or doubt or question of faith are you learning to live with without receiving an answer?

What I said to my table group is this: I don’t have answers for all the big questions in my heart about the nature of this world, the suffering of humankind, and the mysteries of the universe, and I can’t pretend that the faith I have in Jesus is large enough to answer all those questions. And so I have great empathy for those who do not believe in Him or want to pursue a life in the church, particularly when so many of our so-called “answers” are too small. But nor can I give up on Jesus. And to quote other Christian authors that I read this week, “I want to be more like Jesus when I grow up.”7 I want to love like Him, forgive like Him, stand for truth as He did, and be willing to suffer for love’s sake.

There’s more to my answer that I didn’t say to the group, but was at the heart of the meeting yesterday and indeed, at the heart of my work among you as bishop for the years I have left. I don’t know what the Episcopal churches in the Diocese of Washington will look like when I’m gone, when all of us are on the other side of Jordan. But I want nothing more than for our churches to embody His love in such compelling ways that others will see something of Him in us, not because we’re so great, but because we allow His love to shine through our brokenness and sin.

I’m willing to live without knowing, but just as I’m not willing to give up on Jesus, I’m not willing to give up on us. I can’t help but believe that we can rise to this moment, face challenging truths and adapt in ways that will allow us to thrive and be part of Jesus’ mission of transforming, selfless love.

Adapting includes reckoning, coming to terms, yet again, with dimensions of our racist past and the enduring embedded manifestations of racism. It includes acknowledging that the ways we are organized now are not as fruitful and life-giving as we need in order for us to be that compelling witness to Christ’s love. It includes recognizing that we, too, are tempted to blind ourselves to the truths we need to face.

So that’s me.

Let me ask again: what vision has God given you, and what does it cost you to remain true to what you see amid the pressures of conformity? Might there be something that you know is true, but that you haven’t been able to acknowledge fully yet, for fear of the cost, and Jesus is inviting you to be brave? Or perhaps part of your vocation now is to support and encourage others to stand firm in what they see. Remember the importance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s family and the legacy of his ancestors. Might we be such a source of courage for those coming up behind us?

Allow me to pray for us all:

Gracious God, we thank you for the costly gift of vision. Help us remain true to the insights you have given us, and remain true to who Jesus is. Forgive us for all the ways we refuse to see out of fear. Give us the courage to grow in faith, so that we might speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, through your beloved Son our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

1Gail O’Day, The Word Disclosed, quoted in A Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, by David F. Ford (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 190.
2Anthony de Mello, Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations (New York: Doubleday, 1988)
3Jonathan Eig, King: A LIfe (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023), 27
5Eig, 28.
6This insight about the formerly blind man’s witness to faith comes from David Ford, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, pp. 189-202.
7Matt Sternke and Matt Tebbe, Having the Mind of Christ: Eight Axioms to a Robust Faith (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2022), 3.

Vital Signs at Work in Our Parishes

Vital Signs at Work in Our Parishes

Parish Vitality Wheel In 2019, the Diocese of Washington gathered together over a series of listening sessions to discern our next faithful steps and craft a strategic plan to help guide our way. We asked: Where is God calling us to show up? How is God calling us to show up? And most importantly, why is God calling us to show up?

During those months of sharing and reflecting, as we narrowed our focus to three primary goals – the revitalization of our parishes, the spiritual growth of our people, and striving for justice and equity in our communities – we realized that God is calling us to this work so that our worshiping communities become a spiritual home for our children and grandchildren, spaces of vitality, connection, and Jesus’ Way of Love.

In order to implement a church revitalization strategy that leads to healthy, thriving congregations, though, we needed to answer another question, “How do congregations grow?”

The answer is that congregations grow – spiritually and numerically – by being attentive to areas that contribute to a healthy church. With this knowledge in hand, in 2020, a group of diocesan leaders developed what we now call the Parish Vital Signs.

While these signs aren’t new – if fact, your congregation may already track them using a different label – we find it helpful to have a common language to describe the various areas of parish health.

No single sign holds more significance than another. You might find your parish is healthy in four or five of the areas while also identifying one or two where opportunity for strategic effort exists. The vital signs are a useful way to engage the question of where to go next in your ministry efforts.

Below you’ll find a definition for each of the vital signs. In the coming months, we will be highlighting parishes in the Diocese that exemplify these vital signs as they share a story about their ministry.

Compelling Mission & Vision. A healthy parish has a clear understanding of its mission, states the mission clearly, and creates ministries which align to that mission. The mission is shared and supported by all levels of ministry leadership, lay and ordained.

Clear Discipleship Path. A healthy parish offers clear opportunities for members of all ages to take next steps of Christian practices to deepen their faith. This discipleship path is clearly articulated, has multiple on-ramps, and provides growth opportunities for all ages to engage in formation and ministries.

Faithful Financial Practices. A healthy parish utilizes financial best practices such as transparency, on-time reporting to the diocese, and forecasting sustainable budgeting. Finances are a faithful conversation, understood as Christian stewardship and formation.

Inspiring & Capable Leadership. A healthy parish invests in continuing education, training, and rest for its lay and ordained leaders, who are nurtured, valued and appreciated.

Welcoming & Connecting Ministries. A healthy parish is intentional and strategic about welcoming guests; it is prepared to invite and provide next step connections. Guests are valued. Welcoming ministries are dependent on the leadership of active lay members.

Uplifting & Inviting Worship. A healthy parish gathers for worship that engages people with inspirational experiences and relevant teaching; it engages and offers full participation for all. While shaped by our Episcopal ethos, worship expresses the cultural and ethnic heritage of members and the surrounding community.

Blessing Our Community. A healthy parish advocates for and partners with the local community and other organizations. This engagement focuses on the welfare of our neighbors and justice initiatives such as food scarcity, racial inequities, and immigration concerns. The parish is invested in the health and well-being of its local community.

We invite you to consider on your own or with your vestry: how does our parish exemplify each of these vital signs? What are our strengths? Our opportunities for growth?

Getting to Know Jesus | NEW Confirmation Module

Getting to Know Jesus | NEW Confirmation Module

Who was Jesus? And who is he to us today? Why did, why does, his life matter? In her 2023 convention address, Bishop Mariann shared that she wants all people seeking the rites of confirmation, reception, or reaffirmation in The Episcopal Church to know Jesus. Specifically, she noted that she would like people to “know His story as it’s told in Scripture, beginning with His birth; a few highlights from His teaching and healing ministry; an understanding of why He was controversial among the religious and political leaders of His day and what led to His crucifixion; and finally, what happened on the day of Resurrection and when He appeared to His disciples.”

To assist those wanting to learn more about Jesus and be able to share his story with others, the diocese has crafted a new module as a part of the online CREATE course through the School for Christian Faith and Leadership. The course, called Getting to Know Jesus, connects learners with visual aids, scripture prompts, reflection questions, and tools to help learners tell Jesus’ story in creative ways. While geared towards youth, the course is also appropriate for adult learners. Consider engaging this course as part of your confirmation process or as a Lenten or Holy Week offering to get to know Jesus better.

Bishop Mariann has said, “Knowing things about Jesus isn’t the same as having a relationship with the living Christ, but we can’t follow Him if we don’t know about Him and His teachings.” The more we get to know Jesus, the more we wonder and engage our curiosity about him, the more we will be able to grow in Christ and follow his way of love.

The spring Diocesan confirmation service is scheduled for Saturday, May 20, 2023 at Washington National Cathedral.

For more information about the service, contact Annemarie Quigley, the Bishop’s Executive Assistant.

For more information about “Getting to Know Jesus”, visit the course website or contact the Rev. Amanda Akes-Cardwell, Missioner for Faith Formation and Development.

Prácticas de Fe: Cuando Llega la Muerte

Prácticas de Fe: Cuando Llega la Muerte

Bendito seas cuando la conmoción disminuya.
Cuando vagamente veas aparecer una línea
que divide el antes y el después.1

Cientos de personas se reunieron el sábado 18 de marzo para celebrar la vida del Reverendísimo Frank Griswold, quien fue Obispo Presidente de la Iglesia Episcopal entre 1997 y 2006. En su sermón, el Obispo Presidente Michael Curry describió a Griswold como “un ser contemplativo y valiente que ayudó a la Iglesia a atravesar tiempos difíciles. . . Cuando no estábamos seguros de si la antigua iglesia navegaría, como Jesús en la barca en el turbulento Mar de Galilea, Frank nos enseñó a mantener la calma en medio de la tormenta.”

Tengo en mi escritorio un archivo de sermones y discursos, y entre ellos está el texto de un discurso de graduación que Griswold dio en el Seminario Teológico de Virginia, en mayo del 2004. He releído sus palabras decenas de veces, en los momentos más difíciles.

En su discurso, él comenzó felicitando a los graduados por sus logros. Tenían todos los motivos, les dijo, para salir definitivamente del seminario con un sentimiento de orgullo por su aprendizaje y sus habilidades; pero les advirtió que su aprendizaje futuro más importante tendría lugar en aquellos momentos y lugares en los que sus competencias fallaran.

“Habrá momentos en tu ministerio”, dijo, “en que las cosas irán increíblemente bien. Entonces ocurrirá algo que te sacará de tus casillas, y te encontrarás confundido. Sin embargo, cuando recuerdes lo que te pareció tan devastador en ese momento, te darás cuenta de que en realidad era el Espíritu quien te abría a algo nuevo, o te empujaba en una nueva dirección.” Espero que cuando tengan estas experiencias, que seguramente las tendrán, recuerden estas palabras de nuestro Obispo Presidente, que no es ajeno a lo que dice.

“He aprendido”, continuó, “que confiar en mi propia competencia es muy peligroso… No es que no debamos esforzarnos por ser líderes capaces y hábiles. Pero más allá de todas nuestras competencias hay un poder que procede del Espíritu del Cristo resucitado. Y sólo en los momentos de impotencia e incertidumbre descubrimos cuán cierto es”.

“Estar abierto a los caprichos del Espíritu es terriblemente importante”, dijo. “Aquí pienso en una frase que utilizo a menudo en el contexto de la dirección espiritual, cuando de repente suceden cosas extravagantes e inoportunas en la vida de una persona que parecen incoherentes con los caminos de Dios. La frase es del libro del Eclesiastés: ‘¿Quién podrá enderezar lo que Dios torció’?”.

“Sabiendo la inevitabilidad del cambio y que el Espíritu bien puede llevarte donde no habías imaginado que podrías ir”, preguntó, “¿qué debes hacer?”. “La respuesta”, dijo, “es bastante sencilla, al menos en su articulación. Estar arraigado y cimentado en tu propia relación con Cristo”.<sup>2</sup>

A continuación, describió lo que significaba ser una persona de oración, no en términos de cuántas horas uno pasa en meditación o en la iglesia, sino más bien en vivir la propia vida con un corazón humilde. “Ser una persona de oración”, dijo, “significa estar disponible de una manera profunda e indefensa al movimiento del Espíritu. No se trata tanto de las palabras que pronunciamos. La oración es nuestra disponibilidad a lo que el Espíritu está tramando en lo más profundo de nosotros.”

Entonces, casi al final de su discurso, Griswold dijo algo casi de pasada que me ha perseguido desde que lo leí por primera vez: “No puedes proclamar la resurrección a menos que la hayas vivido, y no puedes vivir la resurrección a menos que hayas muerto. El misterio de la muerte y la resurrección está en el corazón y el centro del compañerismo con Cristo”.2

A este lado de la tumba, ¿qué significa morir?

Yo no utilizaría la palabra muerte para describir esas percepciones sorprendentes que nos llegan a través de la decepción y la incapacidad. Una experiencia de muerte es una pérdida más profunda, que aunque sobrevivamos nunca podremos agradecer, independientemente de la vida que le siga. En la muerte, la pérdida es demasiado grande y la herida demasiado profunda para cicatrizar por completo. Incluso si conseguimos volver a caminar, la cojera permanece como un recuerdo de lo que una vez fue.

A medida que nos acercamos al final de la Cuaresma, en la iglesia escuchamos historias de muertos que vuelven a la vida: los huesos secos de Israel y Lázaro sacado de la tumba. No se trata de experiencias cercanas a la muerte, sino de una muerte real e innegable, de esas que marcan un antes y un después en la arena. Tampoco son historias con final feliz, porque morir no es algo que se supera. La muerte es algo por lo que pasamos. No se la desearíamos a nadie, pero cuando estamos al otro lado, lo sabemos. Porque, como Lázaro, hemos sido convocados desde la tumba a una nueva vida.

Si tú o un ser querido está pasando por un momento así ahora, que la gracia de Dios lo sostenga y lo apoye. Si no es así, que estos días sean ocasiones de compasión y amor activo por los demás y la seguridad de que cuando llegue tu momento, Jesús estará allí para ayudarte a salir adelante.

1Kate Bowler, Bless the Lives We Actually Have (Nueva York: Convergent Books, 2023), 86.
2Frank T. Griswold, “The 2004 Commencement Address”, en The Virginia Seminary Journal, septiembre de 2004, pp. 12-18.

Practices of Faith: When Death Comes

Practices of Faith: When Death Comes

Blessed are you when the shock subsides.
When vaguely you see a line appear
that divides before and after.1

Hundreds gathered on Saturday, March 18 to celebrate the life of the Rt. Rev. Frank Griswold who served as Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church from 1997-2006. In his sermon, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry described Griswold as “a contemplative with courage, who helped navigate the church through tough, tough times. . . When we weren’t sure if the old church would sail, like Jesus on the boat on the turbulent Sea of Galilee, Frank taught us how to stay calm through a storm.”

I have in my desk file of sermons and speeches worth saving the text of a commencement address Griswold gave at Virginia Theological Seminary in May 2004. I have re-read his words dozens of times, in the hardest of times.

He began by congratulating the graduates on their accomplishment. They had every reason, he told them, to leave seminary with a sense of pride in their learning and skill. But he cautioned that their most important future learning would occur in those times and places when their competencies failed.

“There will be moments in your ministry,” he said, “when things go amazingly well. Then something will happen to pull the rug out from under you, and you will find yourself in confusion. Yet, when you look back on what seemed so devastating at the time, you will realize that it was actually the Spirit opening you to something new, or pushing you in some new direction. I hope when you have these experiences, which surely you will, you might remember these words from your Presiding Bishop, who is no stranger to what he is saying.”

“I have learned,” he went on, “that resting upon notions of my own competence is extremely dangerous…. It’s not that we shouldn’t strive to be capable and skilled leaders. But beyond all our competencies there is a power that comes from the Spirit of the Risen Christ. And only in moments of powerlessness and uncertainty do we discover how true it is.”

“Being open to the vagaries of the Spirit is terribly important,” he said. “Here I think of a phrase I often use in the context of spiritual direction, when suddenly wacky and untoward things are happening in a person’s life that seem inconsistent with the ways of God. The phrase is from the book of Ecclesiastes: ‘Do not make straight what God has made crooked.’”

“Knowing the inevitability of change and that the Spirit may well take you where you had not imagined you might go,” he asked, “what are you to do?” “The answer,” he said, “is quite simple, at least in its articulation. Be rooted and grounded in your own relationship with Christ.”

He then described what it looked like to be a person of prayer, not in terms of how many hours one spends in meditation or in church, but rather in living one’s life with an undefended heart. “Being a person of prayer,” he said, “means being available in a deep and undefended way to the stirrings of the Spirit. It isn’t so much about the words we form. Prayer is our availability to what the Spirit is up to deep within us.”

Then, near the end of his address, Griswold said something almost in passing that has haunted me since I first read it: “You cannot proclaim resurrection unless you have lived it, and you cannot live resurrection unless you have died. The mystery of death and resurrection is at the heart and center of companionship with Christ.”2

On this side of the grave, what does it mean to die?

I wouldn’t use the word death to describe those caught-by-surprise insights that come to us through disappointment and inadequacy. A death experience is a deeper loss, that even if we survive we can never be grateful for, no matter the life that follows it. In death, the loss is too great and the wound too deep to heal completely. Even if we manage to walk again, the limp remains as a reminder of what once was.

As we near the end of Lent, in church we hear stories of dead people returning to life–the dry bones of Israel and Lazarus summoned out of the tomb. These aren’t near death experiences, but actual, undeniable death, the kind that draws a before and after line in the sand. Nor are they happy ending stories, because dying isn’t something a person gets over. Death is something we go through. We wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but when we’re on the other side, we know it. Because, like Lazarus, we have been summoned from the tomb to a new life.

If you or a loved one are going through such a time now, may God’s grace hold and sustain you. If not, may these days be occasions of compassion and active love for others and assurance that when your time comes, Jesus will be there to see you through.

1Kate Bowler, Bless the Lives We Actually Have (New York: Convergent Books, 2023), 86.
2Frank T. Griswold, “The 2004 Commencement Address,” in The Virginia Seminary Journal, September 2004, pp. 12-18.