Thanksgiving for Vital Stories

Thanksgiving for Vital Stories

As I reflect on this season of thanksgiving, I find I am grateful for our Regional Gatherings this fall. They were great in helping me get to know the people of this diocese better. I am especially grateful for the discussions we had around the Vital Signs of Parish Health. Developed out of diocesan-wide conversations held in 2020 to identify what areas of focus go into creating a health church, the Vital Signs are now an integral part of all of our revitalization work. At each of the Regional Gatherings, we took 10 minutes in Zoom breakout rooms to answer the following questions.

       Which Vital Sign do you think is your congregation’s greatest strength?
       Where do you think God is calling you to invest your energy?

Watching the expression on people’s faces as they described their greatest strength became a source of growing joy. They lit up with energy and enthusiasm, eager to share that area of ministry in their church. And even as they moved to share what area they felt called to invest in, the energy–and the sense of possibility–remained. I love hearing these stories. Especially amazing are those that came out of this pandemic time. They give me great hope for our churches and how we are going about sharing the gospel in this world.

Last Thursday, the Parish Vitality Working Group and I hosted Sharing Vital Stories through the School for Christian Faith and Leadership, an event inviting the whole diocese to share stories about the ways in which our parishes have experienced vitality in the last 18 months framed by the seven Vital Signs. We did the work in small groups. And while I was a bit worried when we began because many of the people in my group had done this previously in a trial run — Would they tell the same story as last time? — new stories were told. New stories that were just as awe inspiring as those from that first test round. As the evening ended, I gave great thanks for how we have embraced the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in a pandemic time that could have shut us down physically, mentally, and spiritually. As the evening ended, I gave great thanks. This pandemic time could have shut us down, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Instead, we embraced the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And as we continue sharing vital stories, continue embracing the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, continue investing in possibility, we surely will also continue our path toward revitalization.

The Rev. Canon Anne-Marie Jeffery, Canon for Congregational Vitality

Creating a catechumenate at St. Andrew’s, College Park

Creating a catechumenate at St. Andrew’s, College Park

When the COVID pandemic reached the Washington, D.C. area in March 2020, forcing our congregations to cease in-person worship, I immediately sent an email to two adults in my parish who were planning to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. The postponement was particularly difficult since we did not know when we would be able to resume baptisms.

Later that spring, after an adult formation class where we discussed the ancient baptismal preparation process – the catechumenate – one of the two adults in the parish who was awaiting baptism contacted me to ask if it would be possible for her to complete a catechumenal process. The idea of creating a catechumenate at St. Andrew’s had been a dream of mine for quite some time, and after a time of intense planning and preparation, the resulting product was a ten-month catechumenal process that would begin in the fall, with two-hour monthly meetings and supplemental readings. In addition, we also decided to utilize all of the accompanying catechumenal liturgical rites contained in the Book of Occasional Services.

The process was an overwhelming success, and it will be offered each fall, with the intention that lay catechists and sponsors will assume full leadership next year. This fall’s group includes someone who found St. Andrew’s through our livestreamed Sunday services and discovered the catechumenate through our website. The presence of a catechumenate in our parish, along with the celebration of the associated liturgical rites, has created a renewed appreciation for the importance of baptism and prompted the parish to change the position of our baptismal font, taking it off casters and permanently affixing it to a limestone base in the narthex of the church, immediately inside the front doors. The baptismal font stands as a physical reminder of God’s boundless grace and our commitment to follow Christ.

The Rev. Timothy Johnson, rector, St. Andrew’s, College Park

La fe puesta en marcha

La fe puesta en marcha

La fe puesta en marcha es lo que nos salva.

La mayoría de las mañanas escucho dos breves meditaciones de oración mientras me preparo para el día: Pray as You Go, y su versión en español Rezando Voy. Normalmente las palabras y la música se apoderan de mí, pero de vez en cuando una frase me llama la atención y se instala en mi interior.

Eso sucedió recientemente cuando escuché la frase: la fe puesta en marcha es lo que nos salva. Me recordó lo que Jesús decía a menudo cuando la gente venía a él en busca de sanación: tu fe te ha sanado.

Durante mucho tiempo me he resistido a la noción de que nuestra fe es lo que nos salva o nos cura. Pone tal presión sobre nosotros para tener suficiente fe, o el tipo correcto de fe. Tal pensamiento puede conducir a vidas espirituales de auto-rectitud para algunos, e insuficiencia perpetua para otros.

Sin embargo, la idea de la fe puesta en marcha sugiere que la fe es, de hecho, una respuesta a un encuentro que Dios inicia. Algo sucede: escuchamos un llamado; nuestros corazones están inspirados o quebrados; sentimos una presencia que está tan cerca como nuestra respiración y tan esquiva como el viento. Nunca entenderemos completamente el movimiento de Dios hacia nosotros, y no podemos evocar la presencia de Jesús cuando nos lo ordenen. Todo lo que podemos hacer es responder a lo que “extrañamente calienta nuestros corazones”, como John Wesley describió una vez la presencia de Dios.

Esta se ha convertido en mi definición práctica de la fe: nuestra respuesta a esos misteriosos movimientos de gracia que nos llegan. Pueden suceder cosas asombrosas cuando respondemos a esos momentos de Dios con una fe puesta en movimiento. No se necesita mucha fe para comenzar un viaje valiente. La fe del tamaño de una semilla de mostaza servirá.

Últimamente he estado presidiendo una serie de servicios de confirmación, un punto culminante de mi trabajo. En el centro de ese servicio está lo que se conoce como “El Pacto Bautismal”. Comienza con tres preguntas acerca de la creencia: ¿Crees en Dios? ¿Crees en Jesucristo? ¿Crees en el Espíritu Santo? — seguido por cinco preguntas sobre cómo vamos a vivir como resultado de nuestra creencia: ¿Continuarás en la comunidad cristiana? ¿Reconocerás cuando falles y pedirás perdón? ¿Vivirás con integridad, tratarás a los demás con dignidad y lucharás por la justicia y la paz?

Por más esenciales que sean nuestras respuestas a estas preguntas, igualmente importantes son las maneras en que describen cómo Dios se nos aparece primero. Creer en este contexto significa confiar. Antes de que podamos creer, debemos tener alguna experiencia que nos permita confiar en este misterio que llamamos Dios.

Así, las preguntas ¿crees en Dios, en Jesús, en el Espíritu Santo? nos preguntan si hemos experimentado lo que nuestro libro de oración llama el misterio de la fe, para asegurarnos de que hay más en esta vida que lo que podemos ver, y que la fuente de todo es amor. Si la respuesta es no, ¿adónde podríamos ir para tener tales experiencias? Si la respuesta es afirmativa, ¿adónde podríamos ir a tener más?

Las preguntas que siguen describen las arenas en la vida en las que es más probable que experimentemos el poder y la presencia de Dios en Cristo: en la comunidad cristiana, en aquellos momentos en que fallamos o nos falta; en relación unos con otros; y trabajando juntos para crear un mundo justo y pacífico. A veces simplemente necesitamos comenzar a movernos. Jesús promete encontrarnos en el camino.

Recientemente, un colega contó el momento en que decidió recorrer las 530 millas del Camino de Santiago, una antigua ruta de peregrinación cristiana por el norte de España. Había sido gravemente herido por la Iglesia y estaba buscando algún tipo de sanación y paz dentro de sí mismo. Así que comenzo a caminar, poniendo en movimiento la poca fe que tenía. En el camino se encontró con personas de todo el mundo que estaban en búsqueda de los suyos, muchos que habían sido heridos, también, e inciertos sobre sus futuros.

Una noche alrededor de una fogata, sus compañeros peregrinos se dieron cuenta de que era sacerdote y comenzaron a sondear su fe. Háblanos de Jesús, preguntaron. Respiró profundamente y dijo: “Esto es lo que sé: Jesús eligió amar sin excepción. Y con su último aliento perdonó a los que lo estaban matando “. Se detuvo. “Quiero aprender a amar así. Por eso sigo a Jesús “. Sintió una curación repentina sobre él mientras hablaba, y su corazón fue sanado. La fe puesta en marcha lo había salvado.

La fe puesta en marcha también nos salva. Hace mucho tiempo decidí confiar en Jesús por su amor y perdón, y por otros cuya fe me inspiró. Cuando mi fe flaquea, lo que hace, sé que es hora de volver a las personas, lugares y prácticas que abren mi corazón para recibir. Sé que es hora de moverse. A veces la fe que pongo en movimiento no es mucho más grande que una semilla de mostaza. Pero increíblemente, Jesús se encuentra conmigo en el camino, y mi fe crece.

Quiero aprender a amar como Jesús ama y ayudar a crear un mundo donde tal amor es el derecho de nacimiento de todos. Cuando un grupo suficiente de nosotros hagamos esto juntos, pueden pasar cosas asombrosas, y de hecho pasan. Así que sigan caminando, amigos. La fe puesta en marcha es lo que nos salva.

Al acercarse el Adviento, esta es la primera de tres reflexiones sobre los fundamentos de la vida cristiana: la fe, la esperanza y el amor.

La fe puesta en marcha

Faith Set in Motion

La fe puesta en marcha es lo que nos salva. Faith set in motion is what saves us.

Most mornings I listen to two brief prayer meditations as I gather myself for the day: Pray As You Go, and its Spanish version Rezando Voy. Typically the words and music wash over me, but occasionally a phrase catches my attention and takes up residence inside.

That happened recently when I heard la fe puesta en marcha es lo que nos salva. It reminded me of what Jesus often said when people came to him for healing: your faith has made you well.

I’ve long resisted the notion that our faith is what saves or heals us. It places such pressure on us to have enough faith, or the right kind of faith. Such thinking can lead to spiritual lives of self-righteousness for some and perpetual inadequacy for others.

Yet the idea of faith set in motion suggests that faith is, in fact, a response to an encounter that God initiates. Something happens: we hear a call; our hearts are inspired or broken open; we feel a presence that is both as close as our breath and as elusive as the wind. We’ll never fully understand God’s movement towards us, and we can’t evoke Jesus’ presence on command. All we can do is respond to that which “strangely warms our hearts,” as John Wesley once described the presence of God.

This has become my working definition of faith: our response to those mysterious stirrings of grace that come to us. Amazing things can happen when we respond to those God moments with a faith set in motion, and they do. It doesn’t take much faith to begin a courageous journey. Faith the size of a mustard seed will do.

I’ve been presiding at a number of Confirmation services lately–a highlight of my job. At the heart of that service is what’s known as “the Baptismal Covenant.” It begins with three questions about belief–Do you believe in God? Do you believe in Jesus Christ? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?–followed by five questions about how we will live as a result of our belief: Will you continue in Christian community? Will you acknowledge when you fail and ask forgiveness? Will you live with integrity, treat others with dignity, and strive for justice and peace?

As essential as our answers are to these questions, equally important are the ways they describe how God first shows up for us. Belief in this context means trust. Before we can believe, we must have some experience that allows us to trust in this mystery we call God.

Thus the questions, do you believe in God, in Jesus, in the Holy Spirit? are asking if we’ve experienced enough of what our prayer book calls the mystery of faith to assure us that there is more to this life than meets the eye, and that the source of it all is love.
If the answer is no, where might we go to have such experiences? If the answer is yes, where might we go to have more?

The questions that follow describe the arenas in life in which we are most likely to experience the power and presence of God in Christ: in Christian community, at those times when we fail or fall short; in relationship with one another; and together working to create a just and peaceful world. Sometimes we simply need to start moving. Jesus promises to meet us on the road.

A colleague recently told of the time he decided to walk the entire 530 miles of the Camino de Santiago, an ancient Christian pilgrimage route across northern Spain. He had been sorely wounded by the Church and was seeking some kind of healing and peace within himself. So he started walking, setting what little faith he had in motion. On the road he met people from all over the world who were on searches of their own, many who had been wounded, too, and uncertain about their futures.

One night around a campfire, his fellow pilgrims realized that he was a priest and began probing his faith. Tell us about Jesus, they asked. He took a deep breath and said, “This is what I know: Jesus chose to love without exception. And with his last breath he forgave those who were killing him.” He paused. “I want to learn to love like that. That’s why I follow Jesus.” He felt a healing rush come over him as he spoke, and his heart was healed. Faith set in motion had saved him.

Faith set in motion saves us as well. Long ago, I decided to put my trust in Jesus because of his love and forgiveness, and because of others whose faith inspired me. When my faith falters, which it does, I know that it’s time to go back to the people, places and practices that open my heart to receive. I know that it’s time to move. Sometimes the faith I put in motion isn’t much bigger than a mustard seed. But incredibly enough, Jesus meets me on the road, and my faith grows.

I want to learn to love as Jesus loves and to help create a world where such love is everyone’s birthright. When enough of us do that together, amazing things can happen, and they do. So keep walking, friends. Faith set in motion is what saves us.

As Advent approaches, this is the first of three reflections on the foundations of Christian life: faith, hope and love.

Those Who Help Us Live Lives that Matter

Those Who Help Us Live Lives that Matter

I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
Revelation 21:1-6a

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
John 11:32-44.

I recently spoke with a parishioner from the congregation I served in Minneapolis whose name is Cindy. I’m working on a long-term writing project on the subject of courage, and specifically decisive moments in our lives when we learn to be brave. I called to ask Cindy about such a moment in her life–when she decided to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.

This was a really big deal. Cindy had never gone to college, and hadn’t done well in high school. As a teenager, her main objective in life was to get out of her abusive family and live on her own. She started out waiting tables and eventually landed an office job where she stayed for 18 years, working up to the position of office manager. She and her husband married and had three children. It was after she left her job as office manager to care for their children full time that she told me of her dream and decision to start walking toward it.
Cindy began by enrolling for a night course at the nearby community college. She arrived late, and the classroom door was locked. When she knocked, the instructor opened it and said, “In this class, we begin on time.” She was never late again.

For six years Cindy took one class per semester until she was accepted into the nursing program. Then she went full-time for two more years, each day getting up hours before her kids in order to study and resuming after they went to bed. Cindy graduated during the economic recession of 2008, when no hospitals were hiring. For several more years she worked nights for a home health care service, until at last she found a position in a trauma unit at a city hospital. A few years later she applied and was hired for her dream job working nights as an obstetrics nurse.

I contacted Cindy to ask her if she remembered what prompted her to take that first step toward her dream. She did and was happy to talk with me about it (and she gave me permission to share her story). In our conversation, she described three influencing factors, all of which have something to do with what we are celebrating in church today, which is why I’m telling you her story.

The first was the example of her grandfather. He was an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic, and as a child he was one of the first to receive experimental doses of insulin to treat his diabetes. The treatment saved his life, and he resolved to help save others’ lives. “I was fascinated with medicine because of him and inspired by the amazing things he could do to help people,” she told me. “As a teenager, it never occurred to me that I could pursue such a path. But when I decided to go for it, his memory and example was a big factor.”

The second influence for Cindy was a class she took at our church that one of our more gifted lay leaders offered on discerning life purpose. “I’ll never forget what it felt like,” she said, “when he went to the white board, drew a vertical line, and invited us to see it as representing our entire life span. He told us to put the date of our birth at the bottom; imagine the date of our death and how old we thought we might be when we die.” “Then make note of where you are now on the line,” he said. “What do you want to do with the time you have left?”

The third inspiration was the obstetrics nurse who was with her when she delivered her third child. “She was so caring and encouraging, and good at her job. I knew that I wanted to be like her someday, to help other people the way she was helping me.”

I tell you Cindy’s story because it so beautifully underscores some of the ways in which God works in and through us, and how we help one another become the people God created us to be. We just heard the story of Lazarus being resuscitated from death–and what Jesus says at the end of the story is one of the most powerful imperatives in all of Scripture: unbind him and let him go.
I think of Cindy–and of all of us really–bound up, held back, restricted in our self awareness or understanding of our life’s potential, and how God wants to set us free. The dream of caring for others as a nurse came to Cindy early in life, but she dismissed it, because nothing in her immediate circumstances allowed her to believe she could realize it. She was bound in a way of seeing herself and her options that were way too small for her.

But through the inspiration of her grandfather, long passed on from this life, the encouragement of a friend from church to think with courage about possibilities once again, and the example of a nurse whose care for her awakened her long-dormant dream, all coming together, Cindy came to believe that she could, in fact, pursue her dream. She was set free.
We are so connected to one another across time and space, and God works in and through those connections in ways beyond our comprehension. Here we are, on this day when our church invites us to remember those whose lives mattered to us, and the mysteries of spirit and truth that are handed down generation to generation. Cindy’s grandfather, my grandparents and yours, and their parents before them. Others who were and are our inspiration–in both our family lineage and in history. We are their heirs.

This day also reminds us what we often lose sight of in the cares and occupations of our lives–that we are mortal. And of all God’s creatures, we are blessed with consciousness of our mortality. We’re all somewhere on that line that represents our life between birth and death, and we know it. Most of the time, we don’t think about death, for good reason. Death is beyond our comprehension. We’re not meant to understand death.

Without an awareness of death, however, as philosophers and poets remind us, life itself loses its meaning. “Meaning lies beyond the bounds of this closed world,” writes Nicolai Berdyaev. “And the discovery of purpose presupposes an ending in this world.” (Nicolai Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man,(London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1931) pp.268-69. Quoted in Almanac for the Soul, Nancy and Marv Hiles, 2008, p.219.) Now there is also an ancient human intuition, that we just heard the author of Revelation give voice to–that death is as much a beginning as an end. Yet if we are to live fully in this life, we must embrace our finitude, and recognize that life is short, as the blessing goes, and we don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us on the way.

Lastly, today reminds us that we are here to encourage one another and do all that we can to help one another grow into the fullness of who God created us to be. Think of Cindy’s experience with an obstetrics nurse with her as she delivered her child, who showered Cindy with such compassion and was so good at her job that she awakened in Cindy a desire to do the same.

Think of the countless people who are living saints for you, those who see the best in you, even the unrealized potential in you and urge you to live the best possible version of yourself. Think of those whose faith sustains you when your faith has wanted, or has seen you through the toughest times.

We will soon make precisely that promise for the children being baptized today, that we will be there for them, and we will do all in our power to help them grow into the full stature of their potential, and their knowledge and love of God. That promise can only be realized when we recognize that such a posture of support and encouragement is how God longs for us to be with everyone–seeing the best in one another, cheering each other on, showing up in times of pain and struggle, celebrating moments of joy. “I sing a song of the saints of God,” begins a beloved All Saints hymn that we’ll sing at the end of the service, “and I mean to be one, too.”

I leave you with these questions to ponder throughout the day and perhaps the coming week:

Who in your past, or in history, is the blessed saint whose courage and faith is God calling to mind for you now, as encouragement and inspiration? Right now I am immersed in the life of Pauli Murray, the first African American woman to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. She was one of the first African American women to graduate from law school, and she was consistently fifteen-to-twenty years ahead of her time regarding matters of race and gender equality. Pauli Murray is teaching me about perseverance, and how nothing worth doing in regards to social change, or anything else, really, can be fully accomplished in one lifetime. She helped pave the way for the likes of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Eleanor Holmes Norton, and all the black women leaders in our church today.

Who is that person for you?

Second, if you were to draw a vertical line that represented your life, where do you think you are on that line now? Of course we never know what might happen tomorrow, but what is your sense of where you are? And how might remembering that you don’t have all the time in the world bring certain issues to greater clarity for you?

Lastly, who is a living saint for you now, the one who inspires and encourages you to be the best version of yourself? And for whom might you be a living saint, a steady presence of encouragement and love, of faith and never-failing support? Consider these wondrous children, all being brought to God and to us for baptism. What might your role in their lives be, or in the lives of any of the children coming up behind you? Is there anyone nearing death for whom your friendship is a means of grace and courage? Is there someone at work, at school, here in church, or in your community for whom you are an inspiration?

We are so connected to one another across time and space, in family and community, and in ways we can never fully grasp. We don’t have to be perfect to live a full and meaningful life–none of the people we remember today were. But we can resolve to be on the side of goodness and light, in service of all that is of love and joy, and to help unbind others and set them free.

Jesus longs for us all to be unbound and free to live our lives with meaning and joy. Sometimes we’re on the receiving end of all that makes such a life possible; sometimes we help inspire others to take their courageous steps toward their dreams. This day is called the feast of all saints for a reason. All means all, including those who have been saints for us; and the ways we can be, and are, sources of inspiration and encouragement to one another.