Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Ekklesia

            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!"

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Easter Means No Separation

This past Sunday was a wonderful day for us Advent-ers. More than 400 of our friends and neighbors joined in the Palm Sunday Procession as we began our “close approach” to the most sacred of mysteries in God’s love of us and all creation. When God raises Jesus from the dead there is a difference made that lasts throughout eternity. Paul writes
“For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38, 39, RSV.
“In all creation” is not just a spatial designation. Because the list includes "nor things present, nor things to come" Paul is talking about the reach of salvation extending throughout all TIME, too. The past is within the reach of God’s saving, Jesus-born embrace. The future as well. It’s ALL connected. NONE is separated.

So we as the human players in this drama, bound by time and space have to play our parts differently than that one who is eternal. Annually we repeat the steps, tell the story, join the narrative that is the ending of separation.

The Palm Sunday Procession is the best way I can imagine for us to start demonstrating the understanding that the story which is soon to unfold again for us is unfolding for “all creation.” All Presbyterians, all Baptists, all Methodists, etc, etc.

Granted, we are drawn into the story individually as well as corporately. Lent and Holy Week offer ample opportunity to confess our sins and admit our complicity with the darkness, “the powers and principalities.” We cannot say each other’s confessions but can at least kneel beside each other in those moments to act out the “un-separatedness” of God.

Like my hero Carlyle Marney said, “The name for who we are in relationship to God is not Presbyterian, Jehovah’s Witness, Baptist, etc, etc. The name, the noun for who we are in relationship to God is “human” and the pronoun is us!”

In the same ways that we confess individually but together and in so doing act out the particularity AND omnipresence of God we can join all creation specifically AND generally, denominationally AND universally, personally AND corporately.

There is no substitute for worship during Holy Week. Not because we are bean counters or worried about our numbers or are the only ones doing it the way we do it but because we are compelled to repeat and repeat and repeat the drama as a way to remember how to live in a world that has more divisions than unions, that prefers darkness to light, that confuses power for freedom.

In the days toward our Easter celebrations and then beyond let’s live with our friends and neighbors as if they too are not separated from the God whose love we crave. Let’s not confuse our differences with some sort of disqualification, or our denominations with the greater joining of us all within the reach of Christ’s saving embrace. The pronoun is “us.”

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Palm Sunday Ends on Good Friday

In just a few days we will be joined by most of downtown Madison's Sunday morning crowd as we follow a cross, a piper and a donkey from the Cultural Center down Main St. over to Academy to arrive at our church.  The Procession -- some of our friends call it "the donkey walk" -- is counted on by many to properly stage the varied entrances each of our other denominational kindred will make in their particular Easter celebrations.

Some years the crowd has numbered more than 400. This year we'll return to Advent's churchyard for The Liturgy of the Palms and a recollection of the entry made by Jesus into Jerusalem.  We'll pray together and then send our friends back to their respective houses.  We will turn ourselves toward the next distinctive moment in the drama that is the Sunday of the Passion of our Lord.

A collection of readers will take turns as their parts require and help us to hear the story that moves rather poignantly into the days immediately after Jesus' triumphant "donkey walk."  Mark's gospel relies on a familiar cast of disciple and soldier, priest and governor, bystander and passer-by.  Included in the voices are ours as all those attending worship are expected to repeat the horrible command "Crucify him!"

The crowd is not just a mob remembered from that first century lynching but it is each and everyone of us as we admit our complicity.  We are expected to "play the part" because it's true.  By our lives of "things done and left undone" we are just as much the ones who require a sacrifice.  Our sin cannot be undone by simply observing the drama that unfolded over 2000 years ago.

In every way we can, we must confess and name ourselves as members of the mob who leveraged the collusion between Rome and Jerusalem.  Every time we enjoy a privilege of class or color, every time we scurry under the wings of secular powers, -- heck, the church is not exempt -- every time we act out of selfishness and fear we are joined to that horrific chorus.

But we must go there because Good Friday makes no sense without our confession. And so the narrative continues and we are there mocking Him and finding out too late what we have joined.

You could ask that obvious question, weren't we just outside, singing "Hosanna in the highest"?  Yes, we were.  And that was necessary as well.  The tragedy of His dying is just as much or more caught up in our duplicity, our contradiction, the abject hypocrisy of which we are all guilty.

Palm Sunday ends on GOOD Friday.  And we call it good because we are the broken ones, we are the hypocrites, we are the mob.  And he is good. Good enough to be our king, to lead us triumphantly, to see to the repair of all our broken-ness, the exposure of all our hypocrisy, the undoing of all our sin.

The drama we join and annually enact goes all the way to his breathing his last breath.  Goes all the way to a silence that informs all our prayers uttered with and without words.  Goes all the way to Good Friday.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

God’s Real Estate

            I’m still in the Sabbath/Sunday mindset and under that larger heading I want to make a comparison between realty and reality.  That is to say that one of the ways we understand ourselves as a parish or a people gathered is by the spaces we inhabit and within which we practice our Sunday worship, our Sabbath observances, and that silence that is made so special by its being shared. 
            Our lovely worship space -- both its interior and exterior -- give a setting and shape to our use that is unmistakable.  Our processions, our singing, our reading, our prayers and our coming to the altar each take their cues from the walls, the floors, the pews, and how we sit, stand and kneel from within what I have frequently called “a great box for sound.”  Heck, I get to preach in the peripatetic way that I do because it is what the building allows. 
            Even the exterior helps.  Walking to worship along Academy St. is it’s own experience that if not filled with prayer still nearly equal to prayer.  Now that the weather is warming Ginger, Susan and I will probably start sitting out in the churchyard to meditate and share thoughts with each other while the building provides backdrop and focus. 
            So here the reality comes-in that is different from the realty.  Simply, our properties are not enough space for all the ways that we are expected to observe Sabbath or worship on Sundays.  We are joined to our neighbors in Madison’s presentation of itself and it’s history.  Resultantly, we are constrained by standards that protect the character of our block and beyond but clearly we have a vantage point and leverage to move out and create other ways to be inclusive, other “spaces” that are NOT part of our landscape or architecture. 
            Outreach is one of those space makers.  Every time our outreach committee meets we are considering how to grow and reach through the resources this parish shares so that others may find comfort, food, safety, or support in some other place away from our historic properties, outside our hallowed walls and most importantly away from their own pain and struggle.  The best example is to think of the little bit of Sabbath that goes out with every Panda Pack. Not only are those we serve embraced in what our Bishop likes to call a widening circle but those who join the effort to serve also find a place that becomes sanctuary. As my friends in Clarkesville would say “grace-filled.” Outreach extends a reality that is more than equal to the realty of 338 Academy St. Madison, GA 30650. 
            In this reality we are responsible for a long list of extensions and embraces that begin and are nurtured in Sunday worship and Sabbath prayer but simply cannot be allowed to stay there.  On that list with every one of our outreach ministries is every one of our Advent-ures events and participants, every yoga class, piano student, counselee, person in recovery.  Indeed this is true for every ride to the doctor, every foyer, every casual greeting at the supermarket, every Cultural Center event, every Conservancy Ramble, every County Commission meeting. 
            Everywhere “we live and move and have our being” we are part of expanding God’s realty of Sabbath and Sunday.  Everywhere we go we can find places and create spaces for others to become members of Christ’s body.  Everywhere can be a space for what we do on Sunday.  Everywhere can be a place for Sabbath observance.  The reality is that all of it is God’s real estate. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Fear Itself

            I wrote last week about the effect of fear.  The fear of the Israelites that triggered a 40 year addition to their wilderness wandering.  I tied fear to how our hope for change is dependent on trusting God and not on our ability to first think outside the box.  Innovation is good but limited because it cannot see the future and can only forecast from one’s current successes in increase or failures in adaptation.  In the end without a hope born of trusting God we are stuck in work that preserves more than it changes.  Some of our best efforts to preserve the church we know and love end up serving those very fears. 
            Part of trusting God is setting aside one’s ego or need for being credited with being wise custodians or insightful planners so that the new thing can emerge to be appreciated and accepted.  Otherwise we’ll just keep perpetuating the systems that have ranked us above others or allowed our banking or fed our self-justifying fears. 
            Maybe if we understood the value of Sabbath-making to our whole world, to everyone around us. rich and poor, back or white, educated or not, then maybe we’d be less prone to be selfish, rigid, and fearful.
            Here’s how my hero Brueggemann says it
“. . .  Ours is a time of scattering in fear. We are so fearful that we want to fence the world in order to keep all the others out:
– Some of the church still wants to fence out women.
– We build fences to keep out immigrants (or Palestinians).
– The church in many places fences out gays.
– The old issue of race is still powerful for fencing.
We have so many requirements that are as old as Moses. But here is only one requirement. It is Sabbath, work stoppage, an ordinance everyone can honor— gay or straight, woman or man, Black or White, “American” or Hispanic— anybody can keep it and be gathered to the meeting of all of God’s people. Sabbath deconstructs the notion of being “qualified” for membership.
Later on, John the Baptist dealt with the professional insiders. They were so proud of being qualified insiders. They bragged about their pedigree, their entitlements, their ancestors, their primacy, children with family trees back to Father Abraham.
And John scolds them and rejects their pedigree: Do not presume to say to yourselves , “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. (Matt. 3: 9)
Brueggemann, Walter (2014-01-31). Sabbath as Resistance: (pp. 55-56). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
            Yes, even in bucolic Morgan County we are afraid.  You can hear it when we justify not helping someone who has a nice car or LCD TV or iPhone.  You can hear it in the questions people ask about some of our outreach efforts.  Yes there are good hearts in each of us but so often that goodness has to work its way out.  You can hear it in the concerns raised about budget and attendance, even when the news is as good as ours is these days.  It’s hard not to sound like I’m advocating a kind of carelessness or recklessness, so I’ll whisper, “It’s OK to share.” 
            That’s really where our fears are often found; in worry and fretting that we will not have enough for ourselves.  Fear is a filter that keeps us from seeing who we are and so without the perspective of the truth we shrink into passivity.  But Sabbath making is NOT a passive accident or hiding place from ridicule.  It is a movement of one’s self into a future where God provides, where God defines, where God inhabits.
            It is the irony of our age that our money – so symbolic of safety, of having our needs met, and of our stations in life -- is stamped with “In God We Trust.”