Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Good Church

From Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, Volume IV
God is a spirit; consequently worship of God should be in spirit and in truth. The customary Sunday service these days, however, is rather strongly designed for a sensate effect. Even more so, on the great festival days of the Church, on precisely these days the worship service moves even farther from the spiritual. Trumpets and every possible appeal to the senses are used – this is because it is one of the great festival days of the Church. What nonsense, what an anticlimax! 
And from our lessons for this Sunday, the Feast of Pentecost:
And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Acts 2:6 RSV 
Between these two readings could be an important lesson for us these days. Especially as we muster our best for the Ponders, hear the new non-pipe organ voices and celebrate with Dick Cottrill and Diane Sebba, all in the space of just slightly less than 48 hours.

My own inclination will be to work hard so that when the dust has settled I can utter my happy phrase, “that was good church!”

Maybe another way to get at that moment between the readings is to use the famous line about making God laugh, “Just show God your plans.”

Pentecost is just one of those “great festival days of the Church” that seemingly begs us to strive for a “sensate effect.” The multiple languages referred to in the reading often find their sensate effect by members of the congregation reading portions of that and the surrounding verses in as many foreign languages as can be found from within the parish population.

Specific to our current setting is our using this multi-lingual Sunday to introduce the work done by Dan Jubelt and others to add by way of the built-in electronic components twenty new voices to what has been for us up to now “just” a pipe organ. Like a C.F. Martin is just a guitar or a Stradivarius just a violin.

But before I create an anticlimax we do not desire or deserve let me ask this: what else are we to do? If God is a spirit to be worshipped in spirit and in truth, then what are we to do in these few moments we set aside on Sunday mornings but to add as many voices as we can? Heck, we have our second ad hoc choir singing, too! 

Part of our answer should come from understanding Soren’s setting. Copenhagen’s churches were state churches. Bishops were paid through offerings AND taxes. Sundays were days for politics, socializing, “being seen,” fueling the rumor mills, and patting one’s self on the back.

The sensate effect Kierkegaard derides was like a junkie’s heroin, a fix of “good church” so that one could follow one's urges and one's less-than-holy inclinations during the week.

We need not be bewildered. Maybe the “what else we are to do” is to strive for a balance of God’s spirit and truth Monday to Saturday. When the music dies down and the many voices are not singing, when the families are home and the flowers are alone something remains.

Not by addition but by subtraction, not by exuberance but by vulnerability we can put our hearts and minds into a space between the trumpets and foreign tongues, between our orchestrated worship and evocative flowers.

God’s laughter is not AT us as much as it is FOR us. God loves us so that our Mondays through Saturdays can be with God as much as our Sundays should. God is already and always with us in spirit and truth no matter how we enfold and elaborate our worship and call it “good church.”

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Rallying Deacons

Most of you know that I have some coaching experience in my background.  I started in 1980 when I was living in California.  Through some luck I became the Cross Country coach at Acalanes High School in Lafayette.  Soon I was offered the chance to assist the legendary Bob Warren with the Track program that following spring and in between I was asked to coach the JV Girls' Basketball team.

Having competed in high school and college provided me with most of what I needed to know in terms of training options, racing strategies, and even some of the logistical concerns of team management.

One of the things that I had to learn was how to deal with injuries, other people's injuries.  My own competitive career had taught me about the struggle of healing, recovery and training again back to that level last enjoyed when healthy.  As a coach I had to learn how to help the injured take the time it takes and not rush back just to risk worsening matters.  Among many things it meant helping the whole team rally around to fill-in for the missing team-mate.

As in so many life moments when one is hurt or grieving there is that tendency -- sometimes it's an urgency -- to race again before one is ready to go full speed.  Especially when fear is a part of the formula we talk about things like "getting back up on the horse."

Our team does not have someone in the role of deacon.  What is not happening is most obvious to us on Sunday mornings.  Some of you may have already noticed the extra chalicist coming forward at the invitation to help with serving during communion.  There are other ways that our missing Deacon Charles manifests itself.  However we know it, that he is missing from the team means that we are being called to rally around.

Part of our response -- more long term -- will be to apply to the Diocese for another person to serve this parish as deacon.  We are not in a hurry to get back up on the horse but we do believe that a deliberate and timely request will help us return to being that part of the larger team that is the Episcopal Church in Morgan County.

Another part of our long-term response is going to be to invite our own parishioners to begin saying their prayers that God might be calling them to consider service as a deacon.  Granted this consideration will feel much like being invited from the JV team to the starting 5 on the Varsity.  It should.  But it is a consideration that needs the same kind of time and attention that nursing any athlete back to competition needs.  So we will begin that now, too.  

Just like in my coaching days -- when calling an athlete back to the team -- both our request to the Diocese and our invitation to the parish are taking the risk that we may be trying too hard, too soon. Mind you, there is just as much risk that someone will miss an opportunity to serve.  

Take a look at the information linked here: https://www.episcopalatlanta.org/Clergy/Deacons/ 
and here: https://www.episcopalatlanta.org/Customer-Content/www/CMS/files/Deacons_General_Guidelines_0613.pdf,  then join me as we pray the following pray together. Let's take the time that it takes and rally together to be faithful to the calling to serve that this team already knows so well.  

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of your faithful people is governed and sanctified: Receive our supplications and prayers, which we offer before you for all members of your holy Church, that in their vocation and ministry they may truly and devoutly serve you; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. BCP 256

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Batting Clean-up

I have had some great privileges given to me in the last couple of years not the least of which is coming to serve solely (soul-ly?) in Madison.  Some of these privileged moments came by way of hardship or sad news.  It wasn't easy but I was honored to help bury my friend Charles, and more recently to see to the interment of Eulalie's remains.
It wasn't long ago that we laid to rest Frank Kelley.  I loved the stories his sons told.  Just as beautiful was the way Bud Osborne's sons took their turns in focusing our memories as they honored his passing.
In preparation for those events I have found comfort in the Easter proclamation that we have been repeating to open and close our Sunday worship. We celebrate with extra Alleluias, even in the midst of our grieving that God has raised Jesus from the dead.  What I have told these families is that we can accommodate all sorts of eulogies, remarks and remembrances as long as we let that Easter song be the last thing we "sing."  
One time I told the family that since there were going to be three speakers, my job would be to "bat clean-up."  I wasn't thinking it at the time but looking back now I see my role as providing some comfort.  They could relax in their comments because of the cover provided by closing with a version of our Easter song.
I think the comfort they found came from realizing that there was an even greater hope than the one that could be secured by their emphasizing the goodness of the one now gone because God would still care for the one they were remembering and releasing.  Some of the memories that have come with that assurance of God's mercy and grace are more freely shared, enjoyed, and in a few cases laughed at more heartily.  
Those were golden moments made brighter by God's promise.  That same promise, the one we proclaim intentionally, especially in this season makes all kinds of thing possible.  Things that would at least discourage us if not shrink us into despair can be met and managed when we remember that God is good, so good as to raise us from the dead, too.
My imagination is of a church, that is bold and fearless, happy and hopeful, forgiving and graceful because it is so sure in that promise of resurrection.  
One of the little ways that I get to demonstrate that assurance is to do some of the clean-up.  Not only to speak the Easter proclamation in my funeral homily but also to say thank you when volunteers have stepped up, to recognize milestones, to bless offerings, to connect people in their similarities and complementarities, to encourage, and to celebrate even in the midst of grief.  
Especially when things are hard to do, it is important for us to get to the Easter promise as anchor, as frame, as foundation.  Alleluia! Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

PS: While I've got your attention let me clean-up some errors and omissions.  In recalling how everyone had helped so well to make our farewell to Deacon Charles a celebration fit for Madison to join I failed to point particularly to the incredible work done by our Flower Guild.  Both Easter Sunday and Charles' memorial service were blessed beyond believing by the flowers.   
Here are a couple of pictures.  Wow!  Thank you! 

PPS: For sure there are other missed moments in recognizing the efforts of so many.  We need to say a bigger thank you than the one we wedged into Sunday's 10:30AM service to Bunny Lawton for having designed the visitor and prayer cards which the Newcomer's Committee have just revised and replaced.  Thank you, Bunny!

PPPS: All those who attended 10:30AM this passed Sunday were party to the scheming of one Brian Lehman and Ginger Kroeber his accomplice.  For those who missed, we each sat in the same pew on the opposite side of the church from where we normally sit.  A good joke that brought a new perspective to many.  It was fun! Thanks!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A People of Purpose

That phrase has become the way in which you will find all intentional characterizations of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Augusta expressed.  It is a natural growth from learning -- like we have just learned -- that they are engaged in an enterprise much larger than the one someone would first assume based on their physical plant. 

As we said goodbye to our friend and brother, Deacon Charles we were lifted with him to a higher seat of honor and sharing.  Honored to host as much of Madison as we could host and with our friends from beyond our membership to share our grief as it turned into alleluias. 

We had a very focused purpose and it carried us through on one of the hardest days many of us have known.  So when Good Shepherd says they are a “people of purpose,” I have to wonder how hard that is sometimes for them.  They, like us have a beautiful, compact physical plant, one that is often stretched to accommodate larger gatherings. 

Part of how I see that phrase borne out in their lives is in how some people come and go.  Seems like there’s always someone new on staff.  Whether fresh from seminary as I was in 1993 or raised-up through some parish discernment process.  New people caught up in a grand and holy purpose. 

We have not adopted that phrase but it is still true about us as well.  The pieces change as vestry rotate on and off, as new members join us in worship and activities, as outreach ministries grow from birth to autonomy like Matthew 25 and Joseph’s Coat.  

The people come and live and grow.  Sometimes we get to share a final salutation, other times we must rely on a liturgies and benedictions to say our goodbyes. 

The purposes are more constant than the people, and in reality more constant than the property, too.  The Prayer Book says it this way,
“Almighty God, you sent your Son Jesus Christ to reconcile the world to yourself: We praise and bless you for those whom you have sent in the power of the Spirit to preach the Gospel to all nations. We thank you that in all parts of the earth a community of love has been gathered together by their prayers and labors, and that in every place your servants call upon your Name; for the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours for ever. Amen. BCP, p. 838

And so we give thanks that we are sustained by a purpose given to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, to reconcile, to praise, to bless, to preach, to love, to gather, and to serve. 

This “purpose stuff” matters for us in a special way because we are still a small church.  Our average worship attendance is increasing these days to more than 80 per Sunday and you can tell when just a handful are missing.  Sure summer will see its relaxation and rest have some effect but our purpose remains.  (There’s that Sunday/Sabbath thing again!)

Even on those Sundays when I’ll be out of town we are still being sustained in love and service.  Those are things we do on purpose.  Please continue as I will be absent on Sunday May 17 while I visit Indianapolis to help a dear friend get married.  Don’t just continue, bring your friends to hear and worship with Martha Sterne, celebrated author and preacher. 

Martha is new to retirement and excited to be visiting Advent.  She comes to us after having a significant tenure as Associate Rector at Holy Innocents’ which followed her time as Rector of St. Andrew’s, Maryville, Tenn. She also served as Assistant Rector at All Saints’ in Atlanta. 

She has written three books the latest of which is a collection of her sermons while serving Holy Innocents’, Tell Me a Story.  You can also hear her several sermons as the preacher for Day 1.  Just link to http://day1.org/246-the_rev_martha_sterne

Martha’s visit is a gift to us and will allow us to move and grow into even more of that purpose that makes us a “community of love, gathered together by their prayers and labor.” Thank you, Martha. And Thanks be to God we too are “a people of purpose.”

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


            First things first:  Thanks to every member of the Church of the Advent and many of our neighbors and friends.  The way in which we were able to honor the passing of our friend and brother Deacon Charles Baldwin is a testament to the truth that we don’t just go to church we are the church. 

            Saturday was one of the hardest days of my 20+ years of priesting and it was by sunset one of the most gratifying.   I was pleased to share our wonderful properties with Madison as we hosted the whole town’s gathering.  I was made keenly aware of how much effort it takes not only to bring together 400 or so given the limited capacity of our worship space and parish hall but also to see so many coming together to meet the needs of Sue and the Baldwin family and guests these past few days. 

            Thank you, thank you, thank you!

            Secondly, the truth that we are church we don’t just go there is a recently reinforced reminder that I need to keep learning over and over.  We have the nearly unique charge to care for our historic properties so that all of Madison and Morgan County can count on us.  But our life together as church needs also to be understood as so much more than a prudent and generous use of facilities. 

            Maybe some of my Sunday v. Sabbath musings have been getting at this same understanding.  I guess there will always be a tension between doing and being, between resting and rejoicing, or between going to a church and being a church.  All are healthy tensions but ones that shouldn’t let us satisfy our selves with seeing worship attendance as the best measure of our well-being. 

            Becoming that church starts with a calling.  From the Greek,  ekklesia the New Testament term is the one that gets translated most often as church.  Its built on the root word kaleo - to call.  The church is that assembly that is “called out.”  Distinguished from within the world to become something that the world simply cannot become on its own. 

            When Genia and Ray Bennett drive to Amelia Island; Brian Lehman delivers a casserole cooked by Patsy Aldridge; Bob and Mary McCauley make signs to designate parking for the handicapped; Susan Kurtz calls the caterer; Allison Waldrip, Bill Abbott and Anna Marett fold bulletins Friday at 6PM; Ginger Kroeber lends me her iPad on a moment’s notice; or Alex, Kate and the Branches squeeze into the balcony we are answering  God’s call.  Doing that is a greater testament to who we are than any gorgeous historic structure well inhabited could be.

            Saturday’s events and gatherings were answers to a call.  In response to the loss of our friend and brother Charles we were asked, invited, challenged, encouraged, in a few cases required and in all cases called out to be the church.  It is a high calling and one that should have us not only thanking each other but thanking God even more. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Make Room

            When I came to serve Advent those first Sundays five years ago I was told just a little about what necessitated Bishop Alexander’s call.  The story of the Rev. Reed’s departure was sketchy and disjointed yet full of urgency and resolve.  Minds were made up and hearts were broken and soon up walked a gentleman who had not been introduced to me during my first visits.  It was Deacon Charles. 

            Looking back I’m pretty sure he introduced himself to me because he saw how much help I needed.  He didn’t say that but instead talked about how he’d stepped away from serving and had even written a letter of resignation to Bishop Alexander.  A letter that to this day is unacknowledged.  What I experienced in that conversation was Charles’ gentle and humble hope for another turn at serving.

            I thought I was being generous by saying “bring it!”  I didn’t know the whole story but I believed in the deaconate – I still do -- and I believed in that order being well represented in the life of our congregation. 

            The next Sunday or two Charles was there asking me questions about what I wanted and how things ought to be done.  It didn’t take long for my intuition to pick up on a subtext in his questions.  He knew what to do but was making sure not to hurt my feelings while he guided us Sunday after Sunday.

            It ended up that we had the same understanding of his role both ceremonial and actual.  When I learned of his deep involvement with the community I celebrated that Advent had real deacon. 

            Over the years Charles and I grew into a pretty good liturgical team.  One that only suffered in his absence when he and Sue were gone to Amelia Island or spectating soccer games and tennis matches.  Wait . . . that’s not true.  Our team suffered when I didn’t check with Charles first.  That’s the truth. 

            It is so true and I had it confirmed this passed Sunday, when the acolytes assembled and looked at me for direction with a clear message in their eyes, “You’re not Deacon Charles! Boy are we in trouble!”  But we instinctively made room for each other and muddled through thanks to what they remembered from Charles’ instruction and constant care. 

            Charles and I were a good team because in humility and grace he made room for the crazy Prayer Book lover that I am.  He came back and humbly made room for me to stay in service to this parish that misses him now more than ever.  Like the deacon should do as a “holy housekeeper,” he made room for me.  Sunday in and Sunday out he made room for every new acolyte and every acolyte who aged out of service.

            And that might be the best lesson for us to learn as we grieve and proceed so carefully and without great confidence: how we make room. 

            How do we make room for each other in our different temperaments of grief and sadness, for the memories he gave us and lessons he taught us, for those strangers as they meet us in our feeling a little lost and hurt, for those who will come to serve this community in leading so many benevolent efforts and rise to leadership in service like Charles, for the next person that God calls to serve as deacon to this parish?

            Let’s make room for each other and honor Deacon Charles in the making.  Let’s make room for each other as we build the occasion of our honoring and remembering him.  Let’s make room for celebrating as well as the sadness.  Let’s make room for this community to join us in our grieving AND celebrating.  

            Jesus said “in my Father’s house are many dwelling places. I’m going to make room for you”  Let’s give thanks that we saw how God can use his servant to make room, sing Alleluia and take our turn to make room.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Passing the Test

We chose as our theme for the 40 days before Easter, "Lent is for Learning."  What we had in mind was to frame our combination of fund raising for ERD (Episcopal Relief and Development) and of joining in Lent Madness - voting our favorite saints through a tournament bracket.

The shortest read on this effort is simply SUCCESS!  We raised well beyond our goal of $750.00 and saw Francis of Assisi through to the championship vs. Brigid.  It was fun, instructive and added to our energy and interest throughout the season.  But the question remains: "what did we learn?"

For sure we know more about the basics of ERD; that as the outreach wing of the Presiding Bishop's Office they see to ministry and mission around the world and pass along dollar for dollar all the money we and every parish donate for that work.

We learned about some obscure and some less than obscure witnesses from Christian history.  More than one or two among us actually voted for Hadewijch. Many of us voted for Francis.  And in between those saints was an array of witnesses to which we have now joined our lives.

For sure we learned something from the way we altered our worship for Lent.  Every Sunday entering in penitence with litanies, suffrages, decalogues and confessions then exiting from under the Solemn Prayer over the People insured a proper seasonality and sobriety to our Sunday celebrations. Removing the "alleluias" and "glories" helped create a little hunger in each of us for the lifting that is their use now that we have joined the rejoicing that Jesus is raised from the dead.

We learned to value the cross as a sign and our lives as the next best places for sacrificing after the example of Jesus' "obedience unto death."  First we heard those stories from Mark and John and then we met those who witnessed through the sacrifice of martyrdom.

We learned how to visit our quaint and holy space more regularly, with prayers on Tuesday, Friday and throughout Holy Week.  Our walking the Stations of the Cross was its own learning more and more about the depth of our Lord's efforts on our behalf.

So . . . we learned a bunch and Lent brought us to the good end of a glorious celebration with a church full of families, friends and all the faithful.  Yes, we counted the 120 of you who worshipped with us at 10:30, along with the dozen from earlier that morning, and the 25 who sang the first of our Easter alleluias and like us all renewed our baptismal vows.

You can say that we passed the test because each of us reclaimed our belief in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit and promised to demonstrate that faithfulness with God's help given to us through Jesus Christ.

We can recall this success each Sunday in the 50 days of Easter.  First by our standing together in all our prayers as we act like believers whose salvation is assured and then by beginning and ending all our celebrations with the familiar  "Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!"