Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Son-Light in the Darkness

Easter is always on a Sunday, being placed by the Western Christian tradition on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the Spring equinox.  Basically a calculation of sun AND moon can put Easter on any Sunday between March 21 and April 25. But Christmas as a day determined by a solar calculation is seldom on a Sunday.  Instead it is on the day that December 25th finds itself.

The narrative begs this timing.  As Advent -- the season -- has turned our focus to the interplay of encroaching darkness and promising light we need for Jesus to be born within the very first turning of those longer days of winter.

It took a long time for Christians to get all these elements together. Exactly when was Quirinius Governor of Syria?  How interesting that Luke recalls that Bethlehem is the family home of David the shepherd boy thus setting up a comparison with the failures of the city that David the King called home, Jerusalem.  What could be meant by adding swaddling clothes to the set of signs?  And what's with "lying in a manger?" Why are shepherds; dirty, poor, migrant-worker-like shepherds the first to hear the angels' Gloria?

Seems like all these features echo lowliness, humanity's lowliness.  Seems like the same principle is at work in the Annunciation to Mary and her Magnificat sung in response.  Lowliness and darkness are the origins of the Messiah, not Rome's palaces or even Jerusalem's temple.

Christmas is when it is because of what the light shining in the darkness means!  Indeed, has always meant.  God is at work reemphasizing His place in our lives not from the top down like a Caesar but from the bottom up, from the lowliness of a young mother, a manger and swaddling clothes, from within darkness to light.

You don't tell that story from the high noon of Summer's solstice or even the halfway point of Spring's or Fall's equinoxes.  You tell it in the dark of a winter in a hemisphere that was ancient Israel's and is ours today. You tell it so that all the subversion that is the lowly being lifted, the proud being scattered, the mighty being cast down, the hungry being filled gets right something that needs righting!

You tell it now because there is still too much darkness in our lives. Darkness that is ours no matter our rank or privilege. Darkness that persists through every human's, every caesar's, every president's, every priest's, every parishioner's attempt to be rid of it.

Only the light of God, pointed and small can make its way with us and we call him Emmanuel.  Can makes its way for us and He is Jesus.  Can make its way in us just like it did in Mary.  Can make its way through us because there is still too much darkness.

We'll miss grandeur of John's gospel this year.  It has the language in a couple of sentences that it takes Luke three chapters to convey.  It goes like this, "What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." (John 1:4-5 NRSV.)

Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Christ is born . . . for whom?

The title is not a trick question.  The answer is simple: the whole world.  But how we make our way through these seasons of Advent and Christmas and the days after our Epiphany feast speaks volumes to how we understand the direction and effect of the incarnation.
So here are some other questions:
How do the conditions of your birth affect your life, today?
Jesus came into the world in just about the worst of circumstances.  Thanks be to God he had a mother who loved him who had the committed support of a husband.  But Bethlehem was not his home.  How many of us were born into circumstances that thrust meaning and significance onto us over and above joining a family?  How do we understand poverty or wealth as related to our beginnings?  What family histories of health concerns are now ours to consider?
How do you balance society's version with the Church's version?
Ours is a confused mix of symbols and signals.  If we take the first amendment seriously or literally then why is there a display on the post office square of wisemen and the holy family?  How much care do we take to protect the legendary nostalgic Santa Claus from the Christian history of sacrificial saints?  How so we teach so as to minimize what must be "unlearned?"
How do you understand our lives as made better or different by his birth?  We hear "god with us" and many are encouraged toward gratitude and so turn into gift-ers to those less fortunate.  Others understand His birth as indicating God's love and therefore are encouraged toward hope for a darkening and fallen world.  Some immediately feel blessed and joy is their first expression.  
How do we express our claim that God is incarnate -- think "with us" -- when the days aren't a break from routines of school and work?
The incarnation must play out over time, when the decorations are down and the season is ordinary. But will it work to chime, "Merry Christmas!" in mid February's chill?
How do we incarnate God?
If Christ is born for the whole world then how do we participate in furthering his presence, in making him real, helping others to see that greatest gift of God with us?
I'm not suggesting that we leave our trees up into Lent or that we force our Christmas traditions beyond their reach.  Twelves days is too much for many.
I am suggesting that we have a part to play in the emerging of what Christmas capsulizes and capitalizes for us.  Some of it will be to look for ways to make a difference in the world that traps people in the conditions into which they were born. Some of our part will be to disambiguate society's versions from the Church's. Some of it will be to engender hope, joy, gratitude and faith in our own lives. Some of it will be keep asking the questions of how is my life better by way of His incarnation and what difference we can make for others?  
All of it is for the whole world.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Echoing our vows

When I was ordained to the deaconate at Trinity Cathedral in Columbia, SC in June of 1993 I was handed a bible, "The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha Expanded Edition.   It is leather bound, black, heavy, a little floppy (think Billy Graham) and . . . seldom used.
Don't get me wrong I read a Bible everyday, either electronically or from among the other 20 plus translations and copies I own.  I even have another "New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha Expanded Edition."
I seldom read from my ordination Bible BECAUSE it is special.  I want to use it as a symbol as much as a tool, as a milepost as much as a map.  Maybe you have something like this in your life.  A piece of wedding cake?  Some jewelry? An article of clothing?
But the marker IS a reminder that at a specific time and place in my life I committed to those ordination vows, gave up my life as a lay person (including my parish membership), was blessed and with the laying on of hands made a deacon.
There is something about our vows that begs an echo, a reminder, a re-upping.  When we celebrated as we did this past Sunday with Bishop Whitmore's help we all participated in echoing the first vows I made as an Episcopalian. Vows I made in May of 1989.  They are the vows of the Baptismal Covenant.
As Anna, Daisy Jane, Debbie, and Holly and the several others who presented themselves to the Bishop in reaffirmation and as I accepted your call to serve this parish as Rector WE ALL renewed our baptismal vows.  The echoing refrain of "I will with God's help" is just plain beautiful, deeply stirring, consistently encouraging, bright but sobering.
So I will remember this past Sunday without a Bible but with a people.  A people together renewed and committed to:

  • Continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers
  • Persevering in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord
  • Proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ
  • Seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves
  • Striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being

To each of these we aspire "with God's help."  Over and over we recall the promises we made first at our own baptisms, then our own confirmations, and then every time we've welcomed others into this fellowship.
There's a post-it note in the front of that New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha Expanded Edition.  It says, "Please bring this Bible to the ordination May 21, 1994.  [signed] FCB
I was ordained to the priesthood a little earlier than that. January 21, 1994 at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Augusta, GA.  I brought the Bible.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Giving: A Path from the Past to Future

Travelocity has published a list of cities that are good examples of benevolence. Three Georgia cities are on the list: Atlanta, Augusta and Athens.  Having lived for several years in Athens I can vouch for their inclusion.  I remember learning that the annual Relay for Life held on campus raised more donations than any other college-based relay.  That's just one example.  There are many more, UGA Heroes, Dance Marathon, all the Greeks and their service events.  Coupled with what comes out of all the community groups there's probably an opportunity for every week of the year in Athens.
I'll bet Madison would be on the list if we were the size of Augusta or Athens.  This is a very giving community.  Didn't we just raise more than $30,000 for the Boys and Girls Club at the Dancing with the Madison Stars?  How many families were fed by the Thanksgiving dinners Calvary Baptist organized?  Seems like Madison has its own constantly giving spirit.  
I've been thinking about our giving for several reasons.  First because I recall our Dickens "A Christmas Carol" movie viewings last year.  More on that in a minute.
Another trigger is my own finishing out my pledge for 2016.  I'm on track but still have more than 10% of my promise to keep.  
Another trigger is our current and closing pledge campaign. Excuse me for being so direct but it feels like we do not have the same spirit in us this year as last.  I'll take some of the hit for that difference being the one who escaped on sabbatical so abruptly this summer.  Coupled with the accident my absence caused more worry and anxiety than we've ever known together.  
There is a future we have not considered as well this year as we did last and the year before.
So . . . back to Dickens.  Scrooge is visited by three spirits or ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.  The visit to the past saddens Scrooge and the one to the future scares him.  Just remember the cold dark scene in the cemetery as Scrooge's own grave is pointed out to him.  He jumps out of his nightmare-ish slumber and is converted.
For sure there is plenty in his life to fear and plenty to have him say "hold on tight," "don't be a spendthrift," "you never know when things will get worse," and most of all "don't waste what you have on the poor."  My take on it is that the inevitability of his own dying and the likelihood of his being dismissed from loving memory because of his stinginess triggers a conversion to giving.  
I believe in the hearts of each of Advent's parishioners.  I do know that we are among the many in this community who give so well for the benefit of others.  In many ways we are the leaders.  
I also know that at present we are not as confident, not as hopeful, not as ready to embrace the future and to give to each other.  
I'm not complaining.  Instead I'm hoping to build on a truth about our anxiety, our worry, our fears and move through the present moment.  
Ironically, it's the ghost of Christmas present that looks more like we want to be; generous, exuberant, happy, hopeful.  Also, we are NOT Scrooges.  We have not denied that our lives will end and as faithful people we are already doing whatever we can for those less fortunate around us and beyond our boundaries.  
I'm here to say this: We have so much more to do so that a future Advent, and a future Madison, and a future Georgia -- think "ever widening circle" --  can give like we can give, can hope like we can hope, can celebrate like we can celebrate. Our future in God is calling us.  

Monday, November 21, 2016

From the Bishop of Western Louisiana

Hate, Love, and Thanksgiving

The Nazis imprisoned my mother in one of the lesser-known concentration camps. Mauthausen was located about 12 miles from her home, Linz, Austria. More people are familiar with camps like Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka, but Mauthausen and its nearly 100 subcamps was one of the largest labor camps of the Nazi Regime. 

ens-111416_swastikaSlave labor was a slow and agonizing form of execution. People were sent to labor camps to work and starve to death. Somewhere between 122,000 and 320,00 people died in the Mauthausen complex.

A nice if rebellious Catholic girl, my mother entered Mauthausen at around age 15. The American soldiers who liberated the camp found her badly beaten and left for dead in the dirt.

You may be wondering why I have chosen this Thanksgiving week to share a ghastly part of my family story. Well, this is a holiday unlike any I’ve experienced before. The swastika is having a resurgence in our country, and as a Bishop of the Episcopal Church I cannot remain silent.

Vandals marred Episcopal churches in Maryland and Indiana with the Nazi symbol. They added hate speech like “whites only” and “fag church.” 

Political figures are considering forming a registry of Muslims who live in the United States, whether they are citizens or legally resident aliens. And I am reminded of the stories my mother and grandparents told about the Star of David on Jewish shops and clothing. They said nothing, never imagining that a nice Roman Catholic girl could eventually become a target.

My mother always made a big deal out of Thanksgiving. She was grateful to be a naturalized citizen of this country. She understood what freedom means in a way that very few of us born on these shores will ever know.ens_111416_trumpnationwhitesonly

Every Thanksgiving my thoughts turn to my late mother. And this year, I feel the shock and the horror she would feel seeing the resurgence of the hate and the violence she thought she had escaped once and for all. 

Minorities, women, LBGT persons, and immigrants have expressed fear and anxiety. But everyone should be vigilant. In the twentieth century, Germany and my mother’s birthplace Austria were sophisticated, humane, advanced countries. And they succumbed to organized hatred. Especially Christians must speak up and stand in solidarity with the weak and the marginalized. They are always the first targets. But they may not be the last if we do not speak up now.

ens_111416_buddeandvalleIn our Baptismal Covenant, we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons. To love our neighbor our ourselves. To strive for justice and peace among all people. To respect the dignity of every human being. Every. Human. Being. Not just the ones who look like us. Think like us. Believe like us. Speak like us.

This is what followers of Jesus look like. We look like we’re learning to love what he loves—who he loves—in response to the love he has already given us. That is what real Thanksgiving looks like.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

From our Presiding Bishop

"The Episcopal Church Welcomes You," is not just a slogan, it’s who we seek to be and the witness we seek to make, following the way of Jesus.

November 14, 2016
Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop and Primate Michael B. Curry has issued the following statement:

Last week I shared what I pray was a reconciling post-election message to our church, reminding us that 'we will all live together as fellow Americans, as citizens.' Today I want to remind us that during moments of transition, during moments of tension, it is important to affirm our core identity and values as followers of Jesus in the Episcopal Anglican way.

Jesus once declared, in the language of the Hebrew prophets, that God's "house shall be a house of prayer for all nations" (Mk 11:17). He invited and welcomed all who would follow saying, "come to me all who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens" (Mt. 11:28).

We therefore assert and we believe that "the Episcopal Church welcomes you" – all of you, not as merely a church slogan, but as a reflection of what we believe Jesus teaches us and at the core of the movement he began in the first century. The Episcopal Church welcomes all. All of us!

As the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement today, we Episcopalians are committed, as our Prayer Book teaches to honor the covenant and promises we made in Holy Baptism: To proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.

As Christians, we believe that all humans are created in God’s image and equal before God – those who may be rejoicing as well as those who may be in sorrow.

As a Church, seeking to follow the way of Jesus, who taught us, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself," (Mt. 22:39) and to "do to others as you would have them do to you" (Mt. 7:12), we maintain our longstanding commitment to support and welcome refugees and immigrants, and to stand with those who live in our midst without documentation.  We reaffirm that like all people LGBT persons are entitled to full civil rights and protection under the law. We reaffirm and renew the principles of inclusion and the protection of the civil rights of all persons with disabilities. We commit to the honor and dignity of women and speak out against sexual or gender-based violence.  We express solidarity with and honor the Indigenous Peoples of the world. We affirm the right to freedom of religious expression and vibrant presence of different religious communities, especially our Muslim sisters and brothers. We acknowledge our responsibility in stewardship of creation and all that God has given into our hands. We do so because God is the Creator. We are all God's children, created equally in God's image. And if we are God's children we are all brothers and sisters.

"The Episcopal Church Welcomes You," is not just a slogan, it’s who we seek to be and the witness we seek to make, following the way of Jesus.

Presiding Bishop and Primate Michael B. Curry
The Episcopal Church

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

"Fixin' to . . . "

I was born in Harlan, Kentucky.  On Friday the 13th, November 1953 I followed my twin sister Laurie into the world of light and noise and breath and cold.  Before my first 24 hours were done my dad and I were on the way to Baptist Hospital in Knoxville, TN.  The little hospital in that coal mining county seat didn't have good facilities for a newborn with a collapsed lung.
All my other siblings were also born in KY and we brought with us to our new home in Anderson, SC several habits and characteristics common to those Bluegrass climes: accents, interests, and especially turns of phrase.  Even my twin and I took on some of those "things Kentucky" despite leaving and living our childhood within a year of our birth somewhere else.
All the Brown siblings still use and understand  "fixin' to."  Fixin to go, fixin to stay, fixin to read, fixin to fix.  There was always a convenient ambiguity in its definition.  You could stop "fixin to" whatever and it simply meant you had changed your mind or that another course of action had taken the place of that which was being adopted.
More often than not, in our house "fixin to" was a buffer between immediate compliance and autonomous responsibility.  "I'm fixin to rake the yard like momma said" would give the potential raker at least another 30 minutes before real raking must begin or a better plan took its place.  "Fixin to," when announced left the fixer free from any other obligations or entreaties, as well.  "Don't ask me to . . . , I'm fixin to . . ." was a generally allowed use of the phrase.
As November surrounds us at the Church of the Advent we are transitioning into the season of Advent. This time has lots of "fixin to" in it.
We are fixin to:

  • Finish collecting pledge cards
  • Approve a budget for 2017
  • Remediate some Episcopalians
  • Get some of those folks confirmed, received and reaffirmed when Bishop Whitmore visits
  • Take next steps with Tim Pridgen and thank the PCOM for their prayerful discernment
  • Elect a successor for Gertrude Rainwater to serve with Mary McCauley in leading our Altar Guild
  • Nominate for vestry 3 "confirmed communicants in good standing who have made and kept a financial pledge to the parish budget in the year previous to their election."
  • Rearrange our Acolyte teams and ROTA
  • Search for a new organist

I'm sure there's more but suffice it to say that we are always "fixin' to."  We are always moving through compliance to responsibility, always creating buffers so that discernment and planning can happen, always on the way to better version of ourselves and our work in this part of God's realm.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Embraces: Part 7

Every effort should end in sabbath.  Even God's effort in creation came to its fulfillment in "not creating," or in rest.

2:1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. 2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. Genesis 2:1-3 (NRSV)

The blessing that God bestows on the seventh day is not like those that follow the six efforts of creation which end in "And God saw that it was good."  It is a blessing but it is more implied than spoken.  God made the day holy by resting, by letting go and not by any effort of creation or recognition.  

When we ordain in the Episcopal Church there is an embrace of the ordinand in the liturgy.  It is called the laying on of hands and there is special hymn sung that begs the presence of the Holy Spirit, Veni Creator Spiritus.  

Often bishops will prolong the period of silence before chanting and praying.  No matter how long all those elements take what happens last is that we take our hands off the newly ordained.  Our effort ends and we rest in what God has done in making a new deacon, or priest, or bishop.  

It is in that sabbath, that letting go that a blessing begins to be realized much like the blessing of God's rest for all that had transpired in the previous 6 days.  

The same principle applies to our embraces, whether physical, ministerial, missional, or evangelical.  You name it.  There is a blessing in the letting go.  

When we let go of hugging a loved one we are expressing our trust of God and of them and saying that the next moment doesn't need our control or input.  In ministry we are adding to number of ministers at that moment of letting go.  In mission we are joining to the embracers those who were subject to our reaching out to them first.  Now they are part of that team that reaches.  In evangelism we are crediting the Holy Spirit with informing the witness those newest angels will pronounce.  

We let go and in so doing we expand and enhance ours and God's blessing.

Just like sabbaths are hard for a busy people, especially those so highly motivated to keep attending Sunday worship, so too letting go is hard.  What a difference it makes to understand that there is a blessing that waits on our release, our letting go.

A blessing in realizing that God made us AND set us free!  Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Embraces: Part 6

Bishop Wright has led us to understand the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta as of "Middle and North Georgia" and as an "ever-widening circle."   Perhaps you remember the logo.

It says something about the dynamic of humans embracing the world around them in Christ's name especially those bearing the Episcopal brand.  Our embrace is BOTH inclusive and never finished. We can look at who is among us as we reach to bring others in.  We can also see immediately that there are some still to be included among us.

It has always interested me that we call our work of extending God's blesing toward the world around and beyond our parish "outreach."  For Episcopalians that is largely an effort of giving and providing for those who are in need.

We do not usually insure that any informational piece gets delivered along with our gifts.

Some of our brothers and sisters in other denominations are more inclined to include messaging that is not only informational but meant to elicit a response of commitment.  I grew up calling it "accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior."

I rejoice that there are multiple ways to accomplish "outreach."  Some with targeted messaging some without.  No matter.  In the end we all should have a hand in God's widening circle.  Not just Episcopalians in Middle and North Georgia.

At our most recent Outreach Committee meeting I shared something that was news to many at the table.  It was information about who we are as Episcopalians and how our outreach effects an ever widening embrace.

The old name for our denomination was the "Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America."  For a while we reduced and then finally removed from almost all our labeling the word "protestant" and the acronym became ECUSA.

Now we known as TEC - The Episcopal Church.  That is because our circle is not just in the United States of America.  We are in 16 nations other than the USA.

Here is the biggest piece of what was learned by many at the outreach table:  The largest diocese in TEC is . . . The Diocese of Haiti established in 1861,  with over 83,700 members and over 100 congregations.

Some of the "widening" is within our embrace.  Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Embraces: Part 5

I barely mentioned something important in last week's blurb about hugging.  The intentions of the hugger matter but in and of itself the act of hugging is best when understood and appreciated by the one being hugged.  The hugger needs the permission of the hugged.  

It matters here because I failed to include that the kind of hugging tested gains such benefits as lower blood pressure and increased immune response is hugging that last 20 seconds or longer.  

Why 20 seconds?  There is a language to hugging and in the conversation -- the call and response -- the benefits find purchase, take root.

It makes sense, doesn't it?  Otherwise our "hugging" sinks into idiosyncrasy.  Watch the YouTube videos of that young man hugging police officers.  Their eyes meet and the officers often hug back.  It is brief -- less than 20 seconds in most cases -- but a conversation begins into which we in our watching and sharing are also called.  
I remember Eric Berne's "transactional analysis" of the late 60's.  He charted the way we converse in greeting and more.  What he identified is that most of us prefer to keep our transactions brief and shallow.  If someone answers to "how are you?" with a long discourse on some existential predicament we end up knowing more than we want to know.  1 meets 1, then 2 meets 2, then 3 meets 3.  A 1 met by a 5 mostly means the 5 needs help.    

Just like hugging, conversations -- as embraces graduated through an agreed language -- take time to make a difference and require the consent of both parties to go as deep as they can.  

Sundays and their sermons pass through the same agreement.  Our agreement is that I listen to the conversation that is our lectionary readings, the life of the parish in the days and weeks before, the noise AND message of the world's happiness AND trouble and I hope to speak toward the level God is calling us to inhabit.  

I hope that every Sunday no matter the level the sermon approaches the next words spoken are by all of us in agreement reciting the Nicene Creed.  If we understand that God was first to speak then we also understand that when we say "We believe in God . . . " we are in conversation with the first to embrace us and give us permission to love.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Embraces, Part 4

Lots of different reputable sources (here's one) have reported on the health benefits of hugging.  Surely many of you have seen the online video of the young man giving out free hugs to law enforcement officers on patrol during civil disturbances in cities like Dallas and Ferguson.

Apparently hugging triggers the release of oxytocin in the brain.  The effects are both immediate and residual.  Studies have shown that hugging reduces the chance of illness, lowers blood pressure and minimizes the effects of depression and grief.

The benefits of human hugging are apt metaphors for what God's embrace of us accomplishes in the person of Jesus.  Think of the old hymns like "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine" or "I come to the garden, alone."  Disregarding the overly individualistic language, what happens in both songs is a description of blessing that comes through one's proximity to the person of Jesus.  Good feelings, release from torment or pain, simply are the effects of being embraced.

The meaning of this for us is that embraces -- both the ones we extend to each other and especially the one that God offers -- are confirmed by real experience.  In the case of our experiences with each other the research is fairly conclusive.  In the case of God's embrace of us it is known most assuredly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  That is to say it is incarnated by all that Jesus does and all that God does through him.

Nothing demonstrates God's embrace of humanity more than the realities of the incarnation, its fulfillment and most completely in God's raising Jesus from the dead.  Altogether it says "I am with you,"  "be not afraid,"  "trust me,"  "stay close."  Like one cosmic and eternal hug from God.

There is much for us to learn from this gift of divine embrace and there is just as much for us to do in response.  Perhaps most important is that we hug God back; especially in less than ideal moments and in ways particularly meant to help others recalibrate their embracing.

One caveat: hugging people for no reason may not be the best demonstration of God's embrace.  Duh!  It's just like being overly focused on a bread recipe that will not accomplish all that we hope in making eucharist.  That is to say outward and visible signs beg an inward and spiritual grace, an intention, a purpose, a commitment to be real after the hug and beyond the ceremony.

Where are those near us, like an officer on patrol in a tense environment who need a hug.  When might we step into a difficult moment and demonstrate the commonality of our lives as loved by God so well, so warmly, so fully?  Who among us deserves a "blessed assurance" that they are not outside God's embrace.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Embraces, Part 3

Another way that we embrace each other and live into God's embrace of us to be regular at our practice of embracing.  Like learning how many times on which cheek to kiss someone from France embraces have a language behind them, a set of standards to be observed.  We know that value of these sorts of rules when we break them.  Awkward!

There are also special patterns that help us to know when to embrace in love and when and how to accept an embrace.  We greet each other during the Peace in a way that might not always work at Ingles.

It says something about how important a thing is that we visit it at particular times and on certain days of the week.  When we set aside Sunday's for worship and prayer, for being quiet and being observant, for listening and celebrating we are admitting to ourselves and to the world what our focus finds for us, we are saying something about how we share in and value God's embrace of us.

Not all that we can describe of our regular observances and embraces is wonderful.  Sometimes there's a disconnect between our relationship during the Peace and our relationship at Ingles.  The pattern of greeting can become a kind of hiding place.  We'll go through the motions and hope it doesn't last too long.

But it says something, doesn't it, that we come back Sunday after Sunday and practice a pattern of practicing a pattern. Isn't there an implication of hopefulness?  Isn't there a wishing that things would be "Peaceful" all the time?  For sure nobody comes to church because they get to fake their embraces. Our hope and our hunger for God's embrace get us to return to the time and place and to the practices called for within those moments.

Yes, there are the introverted and shy among us and we are often stretching them beyond their comfort levels.  So the pattern and practice hopes to accommodate an overall need for expression AND restraint.  We want people to "tell the truth" AND we want them to come back next Sunday and do the same.

Returning Sunday after Sunday also helps us to learn the language of God's embrace of us.  It helps us get past the awkwardness of first meetings and new customs.  It helps us to find ourselves being sought out, to find a waiting embrace across the aisle, to find an ease after the awkwardness, and ultimately to find the embrace of God's Peace.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Embraces, Part 2

Last week, I named the three ways that re-entry into the life of a parish after a sabbatical can be characterized.  In short they are: "hit the ground running," "honor what has passed," "accept what's new and emerging."

Each one of these responses have a particular action that in one way or another embraces the new reality.  Whether in seizing the moment, or laying to rest, or announcing the birth, each action institutionalizes the reality and identifies each party's role.

My return -- made unique by the unfortunate events of September 1 -- elicited another set of actions that qualify for the title, "Embraces."  So many people that I cannot count helped with my getting situated in Madison and perhaps even more importantly out of Athens.

From the crew that ripped up carpet, began emptying a garage, repaired a fence, trimmed and edged, swept and mopped to those who saw to the repair of the heat pump and moving of a piano and more; each was an embrace.  And I best not forget the casseroles!

I am humbled by how much was done and how much love came along with the doing.  Humbled.

I am also awakened to a greater truth about our lives together, especially our lives from this point forward.  Our embrace of each other has more to it that an expression of deep and soaring gratitude that I'm back, that my sabbatical goals were met, and especially that my life was spared.  It has in it the rest of each and all of our individual lives.

That is, we have embraced a future with each other.  Especially in how my leaving Athens has been incorporated in the process I see us together saying Madison is the address for our future.  Especially as several parishioners have offered housing options for me to consider.  Especially as I am being asked to consider participation in community fund-raising events.

Yes, I've agreed to try my hands (and feet) at the Boy's and Girl's Club's "Dancing with the Stars." At this point I think prayers are more important than donations.

But more importantly I want to say how much I intend to embrace a life with Advent in Madison that has No More burning a candle "at both ends."

I have done what I had hoped and let go of several encumbrances through my time away.  Now I hope to take hold and sustain my embrace of this new life with you.

This trimmed down, focused, singular view is new to me, new to us.  Let's embrace it as a gift and let it hold us into the future of God's embracing us all.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


I read several articles about how to reenter the life of a community at the end of a sabbatical.  All of them, one way or another described a similar set of realities the returnee would likely face.

The first reality mentioned is found in those situations that require immediate attention.  Either something new has just happened or something has been waiting to be noticed by the "right" person -- one bad version is described as festering -- and cannot wait any longer.

A second category are those things that have faded or died while the priest was gone.  The priest was perhaps overly involved and was eventually the main or only reason a particular practice persisted as long as it did.  This often shows up in parts of the worship life of the congregation.

A third category includes those things that were born in the priest's absence.  A new committee is formed, new volunteers step up to serve, or trees are trimmed, for instance.

In each case the returning priest must meet the reality with an embrace.

To the acute health crisis or the festering hurt the priest must say in word and action: I'm here. There is little else the priest must first do.  No magic tricks, for sure.  But also no easy or glib remarks. Instead a new moment of listening to the players and their parts.

Not all crises are immediately evident, some will require the hurt parties to say, "I'm hurt."  But the embrace of the returning priest needs to be ready to reply, "Thanks for waiting, for hanging in there so that we can be together in whatever happens next."

When the new thing is the loss of some previously priest-born reality the embrace is one of a proper farewell.  There may even be mourning but more importantly there needs to be a placement of a marker into the memory of all involved that says "thank you" and that begins an instruction toward whatever may need to come next.

When the new thing is just that, a new thing the embrace is like a baptism where all share in the naming and reception of this emergent necessity.

In every case the embrace of the one returning is important, even necessary and one hopes, life-giving.

So I ask for our first steps forward together to be where we make room, take time, and care for the moments of embrace as each reality requires. I can't wrap my arms and battered ribs around everything at once.

But I'm back, I'm glad to be back and before I can do any new work myself -- work that guarantees our engagement into the future -- I must manage these particular realities and embrace with love as each one calls out to me.  

The important piece in all of this returning is an embrace that we hope reflects our understanding of God's already evident and graceful embrace of each of us. That is how we together can and should move forward, first embraced then sharing that embrace.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Religion is to be Connected: Part 12

I'm still nursing some unfriendly ribs, waiting on new eyeglasses and "picking up pieces" left from the accident.  I hope you all are still holding Shane Robert's family in your prayers.  Our Facebook page has a link to a "gofundme" website that will help with expenses and we hope leave funds to provide for his children in the days to come.
It is good to be orienting to life in Madison despite the unique pieces. I'm grateful for the work done to advance my exit from the house on Wedgewood.  Here's a pic of the team. 
Thanks to all for the work inside and out! I can wait no longer to be bound to that address. 
Excepting the sad news and related conditions all this recent commotion shouldn't be misunderstood as out of the ordinary. That is to say there is lots of love going around.  Love that was going around before I stepped away in June.  Love that sustained me in prayer all the way to Yellowstone's Bridge Bay Campground. Love that has grown -- has been growing -- into the major part of our lives together.  And so the baked ziti, salads, deviled eggs, pimento cheese are confirmations of a love that leaves me gratefully indebted.  All the sweeping, washing, trimming, hoisting, organizing, are echoes of God's calling to me into the priesthood and more specifically into service as rector of the Church of the Advent. 
We are connected, religiously, in love.  I only wish my ribs were as well connected.  

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Religion is to be Connected: Part 11

Here's the text of the letter I wrote to the parish to begin my sabbatical:

Dear Adventers!
Let’s rejoice as we begin a new phase of our lives together in ministry.  I have signed a letter of agreement to take effect July 1, 2016 as Rector of the Church of the Advent!   So much has gone into this moment and I am glad to share with you some of my and the vestry’s deliberations. 

Becoming Rector is the culmination of a long process that began with my coming to serve the parish more than 6 years ago as a long-term supply priest.  Year by year I have carved bits and pieces out of my schedule at the Chapel in Athens until two summers ago when Bishop Wright directed me to make full-time service to Advent as Priest-in-Charge my work in the Diocese of Atlanta.  We hustled to realize that change and I have been serving under a letter of Agreement as Priest-in-Charge that expires at the end of this month of June, 2016. 

When I came on board full-time two years ago the vestry designated the entire month of July as a vacation for me.  That’s when I drove to Yellowstone.  That rest and refreshment was a great gift to me and the ministry we are still sharing.  I have asked the vestry for a similar break to begin this next phase in service with you. Not only do I need the break, I also need some serious and hopeful self-examination and a long overdue health screening, both physical and mental.  My prayer life could stand a return to silence and settled-ness, too. 

I have already addressed some of my physical health matters.  I was proud to have my internist note how much weight I had lost since my last visit, over 35 pounds!  My blood pressure is down to normal levels and my cholesterol numbers are the best they’ve been in years!  I am motivated and already practicing a much healthier diet and activity level.  I believe that another 15 to 20 lbs. needs to go.  When that happens I’m shaving my goatee.  But that is not all I want you to know about me. 

I have had more than one intense emotional demand in the last year.  Notable among them was finishing my divorce.  Many of you know how this process has been prolonged and that it is finally in the judge’s hands is to say the least, long awaited.  In other ways my emotions, self-confidence and attention span have been maxed out.  I am glad to take a deep and long look at my psychological health, at how I form and sustain loving relationships and how I bring to my calling the best of who God has made me to be. 

The image I have is that I have been forcing you all, my friends, my family and so many other good people who have tried to love and support me in these recent months to work with me as if I DIDN’T have one hand tied behind my back.  Sometimes it felt like more than both hands were tied.  And yet I insisted there was little wrong or at least it was something that I could handle.”  That was a formula for disaster and sadly this break will not avoid them all. Worse, I have lost valuable friends, and squelched the support of the very people who tried to love me. 

I need a break because I will not go-all-in” with God and Advent unless I have some comfort, some confidence that I am addressing these shortcomings in an honest, open and finally courageous way.  I will not go-all-in with one hand tied behind my back. 

In order to get to that point of comfort and confidence, I need your prayers and a good therapist who can stay with me and dig deep into the hurt places, the fear, the old angers, wherever there is something binding me, keeping me from being fully engaged, alive and free in my life, my love, my ministry. 

I can’t say much more except that I have already begun that work. I will look forward for the moment when this work is a good and regular habit for me.  This is a longer term re-education of me so that I can live, love and serve with less fear, anxiety, and distraction, with more gratitude, humility and kindness.  I want this for me, for my friends, for us all.  I want to go-all-in because none of us know how much longer any of us have. 

Here’s the agenda for my sabbatical: I will be out of the office this week and as far away as Kanuga between now and July 1.  I am using the time to rest a bunch, to lead a conference, to tie up some loose ends with my house in Athens and to get – in most cases get back – into those disciplines of prayer, study, listening, gratitude and humility that have been a part of my best days up to now. 

I will likely need more time away than what is left in this month.  I may want to visit my daughter in Yellowstone again.  I will definitely need to be in Athens some of the time as the house goes on the market. The vestry has agreed that my being gone as long as September 14th is worth it if it helps me find that sense of balance in life with each other and God. 

I do not believe I will be gone that long.  But that is not my first concern.  My health: physical, spiritual and mental is my first concern.  I want us all to understand that I am not the expert here.  It is my job to be as open to learning, to possibilities, and to deep scrutiny as I can be.

Finally, I want to ask you to pray for me and I want you to join me every day at noon and every night at 9 PM if you can.  Together let’s pray this:

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

In love,


Peace is the way god means things to be.”

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Religion is to be Connected: Part 10

I am beginning an impromptu sabbath for self-examination and refreshment.  It is happening as soon as it is because I want to begin my time as rector as promptly as possible and as emotionally, spiritually and physically unencumbered as I can be.

If you have not had a chance to the read the longer letter sent separately, please do that, too. Copies are available in the parish hall.  These statements, along with the continued conversation that I hope you will have with your vestry can provide at least some comfort for the anxious among us.

So let me be direct and simple:
  • I have accepted the call to serve as Rector.  That letter of agreement takes effect July 1, 2016.
  • This is a sabbatical.  A time designated with a beginning and an end for exactly the things I will be doing.  I'll admit it has begun abruptly.  The better news is that it has begun.  The vestry and I have agreed that it can end as late as September 14th.  
  • While I am away you will be well served on Sundays by one of my colleagues in ministry.  If a pastoral emergency arises Allison and your wardens have the contact information for a priest. 
  • I will stay connected:  you can call or text me on my cell 706-206-0750, you can email me at frdann@me.com, you can friend me on FB, you can follow my blog http://oldmiler.blogspot.com, you can read my continuing installments "A few words from the wilderness" in this blog and on our FB page.  
  • I'll be focusing on my health and looking to develop a trustworthy relationship with a counselor exactly because I want to be my best going forward. 
  • I am not the expert for this undertaking.  I want to listen and to learn from lots of sources professional and personal, private and public.  
  • I want you to pray for me and to pray with me everyday at noon and 9pm:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.