TRANSITIONS

Trinity Enews May 25, 2017

In 1980 William Bridges wrote a book entitled Transitions. This brightly colored book has been on my book shelf for years and I automatically reach for it during a life transition. Most recently, when I decided to leave St. Andrew’s and come to Trinity, I opened it again. Given that this move coincided with the death of my daddy, whom I loved dearly, I learned some important things about both transitions and what this time could be for me.

One of the things that helps me the most is knowing that life as a human being IS all about transitions—both inner and outer changes.  Granted some changes are chosen, others are not and yet each has their own rich blessings when we are ready to receive them. Becoming open to these blessings is a process as well, one that almost always includes a time of withdrawal, a time of not being sure who we are any more, a time of feeling like we are in limbo, and a time of confusion and emptiness.  During times of transition we don’t know if we’re going crazy or becoming enlightened. And yet, the point is to let ourselves or others in transition be in this place. (It is also a time to be gentle with ourselves and one another!)

As you may have guessed, the reason I am writing about transitions this week is because, as a parish, we remain in a time of transition.  I knew this when I chose to come here.  I knew additional staff changes would need to be made because we are not the church we were ten years ago, nor is our community. The visioning work helped us to see this and we are still in the process of change. I also know we will need to work together to create something new. I know what I'm doing and I need your help. So, take heart, my friends, we will not always be in this time of transition.  A new chapter is being written.  All is well. God is with each one of us.  Of this I am sure! 

Peace and Blessings, Jenny+

What I Learned About Leadership From White Water Rafting

Have ever been white water rafting?  I’m not thinking of the kind of rafting I did in my youth on the Chattahoochee River in Georgia—tying a cooler on an inner tube and meandering merrily, merrily, merrily down the river.  No, I’m thinking of real, honest to goodness white water rafting—like I did some years ago on the New River in West Virginia.  To give you an idea of the New River, rapids are classified from 1 to 7; a one being the gentle, meandering kind and seven being Niagara Falls.  The New River rapids range between a 3 and a 5.

Exhausted from a week of hard physical labor in Appalachia during a youth mission trip—I was the priest—our group decides to go rafting as our grand finale.  Arriving late for our appointed time, we are greeted with a quick word of welcome and herded off to outfit ourselves with a life jacket, helmet and paddle. There’s no messing around and no time to waste.  The woman in charge, takes charge. 

Standing at attention like soldiers, we pass inspection as she checks our equipment.  Then she commands us to get on the blue bus, which I am sure in previous years was yellow. The kids race to the back of the bus. As leader, I sit in the front and look back at all those angelic youthful faces. I wonder if they’re thinking what I’m thinking.  I want to get off this bus! It’s not too late if I move quickly. But, before I can stand up the take-charge woman jumps on board and we start moving up and down mountain roads.

“Hollywood,” as she is called, sits up front on the back of a seat so she can look us in the eye and begins to instruct us on the harsh realities ahead. “Usually we show a video,” she says, “but because we want to catch up with the rest of the rafters I’ll just tell you what’s on the video.”  She begins…“People get killed white water rafting.”  “You don’t want to get caught in an eddy.”  “If you fall out of the raft, and this does happen, just stick your legs out in front, float to the nearest bank, yell and someone will come get you.”  “Should you get caught under the raft, which also happens, move in one direction only to find your way out.”  “Listen to your guide at all times.”  “I’ll tell you exactly what to do.”

This is all very disturbing. No one mentioned the possibility of dying.  But, now that I am completely petrified, I have no doubt that the only way I’m going to survive this is to trust “Hollywood” and follow her lead no matter what happens.  I decide I’m not leaving her side.

In half an hour we arrive at our launch site.  After a quick tug to tighten our life vests and secure our helmets, we grab our paddles and haul the raft to  the water’s edge.  I step into the raft. From solid ground to no ground.

The first thing Hollywood wants us to do is to practice paddling together.  “Team work.” she says, “It’s all about team work.” She begins shouting commands I’ve never heard before in my life.  “Paddle right!  Paddle left!  Backwards left!  All Forward!  Drift!  Hold on!”

We sort of get it. At least we’re no longer going in circles. Slowly we set our raft straight and head downstream. I begin to relax. This isn’t so bad. Dying now seems somewhat less likely.

This actually is fun. Hollywood is good. She knows the river. She knows we need to gain some confidence before navigating the rough waters ahead.  So she keeps guiding us.  Encouraging us.  Praising us.

“We’re coming to our first rapid,” she shouts, then turns to me as the priest and says this would be a good time to pray.  (I’m way ahead of her—I haven’t stopped praying since we got on the bus.)  Hollywood reassures us by explaining what to expect.  She tells us the classification of the rapids, what turns we’ll take and how we’ll get through it.  The rapids have names and she says the first one is Whale’s Back.  I am ready.  I know exactly what to expect.  My left foot is secured tightly under the Velcro strap.  My right knee is firmly against the inside divider.  With paddle in hand I’m braced for action. My ears are tuned to Hollywood’s voice, and we’re off.

The next thing I know I’m flat on my back, at the bottom of the raft, arms and legs flailing.  It’s not a pretty sight. This is not the image I have of my dignified, adult, in-control self.  And, it was like this for most of the day!  But I learned some valuable lessons from this experience of white water rafting. I learned to trust the voice of our guide, to follow her lead. And, I learned to depend on others—more than once my team hauled me up and encouraged me to keep trying.

Of greatest value was what Hollywood taught me about what it takes to be a strong leader.  She was not afraid to use her authority and own her   own voice.  Like a prophet she warned us what would happen if we did not heed her words. Like a shepherd she was ever present, calling out commands so we could hear her voice above the roar of the river.  She gave us permission to fail, but reassured us we wouldn’t be left behind.  She helped us take a risk and try something new.  She pushed us beyond our comfort zone!  She helped us lean into our strengths. She had fun and encouraged us to have fun as well.

What I saw in Hollywood was the epitome of a non-anxious leader.  She was someone who could manage her own response when surrounded, bombarded by the reactivity of others. She was calm and assured—an expert at self-regulating her emotions in the face of reactive fear.

While fully present to us, she was not co-opted by us. Presence, I found, does not mean being passive, it means being unafraid of getting your feet wet, it requires staying in touch without getting soaked by the anxiety around us.  A well-defined presence—someone who has clarity about her own goals—is able to separate from the surrounding emotions while remaining connected.  The trick is to be both non-anxious and present simultaneously.

I know that as a catalyst for change, leaders must not be quick to quit difficult situations but to stand firm with what we know as truth. In order to mature the system, rather than simply fix it, leaders must be able to take stands even at the risk of displeasing others. To be effective leaders we must have persistence for the goal, relentless drive, and stamina to stay the course. It is, after all, the nature of the leader’s presence that is their real strength. 

In summary, leadership is about:

·         Having the energy to make a positive impact.

·         Giving the work to the people to whom it belongs.

·         Allocating adequate resources others need to do their work.

·         Removing barriers that limit the work and effectiveness of others.

·         Being a conversation partner where creative ideas and learning can be generated.

·         Keeping the work of everyone aligned with the intended outcomes and mission of the group so that efforts are not diluted or misdirected.

·         Creating a context that nurtures gifts, generosity, accountability, and commitment.

·         Initiating conversations that ask the right questions to shift people’s experiences.

·         And, above all, listening and paying attention.

It is this last point that moves us into the spiritual dimension of being an effective leader.  What is needed in the church today are courageous leaders who are willing to look deep within themselves and acknowledge what is there—both light and dark. This connection leaders have to their inner life—discovered through listening and paying attention—is foundational to effective spiritual leadership. For when a leader is able to delve into the depths of their own being and acknowledge authenticity and acceptance for themselves, they are better equipped to lead with credibility and clarity.

Now, I have no idea whether Hollywood is an Episcopalian, Lutheran, Baptist, Buddhist or atheist but one thing she sensed was that I am a person of prayer.  Prayer is foundational to being grounded in God, and in order to be strengthened for the journey of leadership in the church we must pray and pray often.   Just as with Jesus, it is in prayer that we are sustained for our journey, our ministry, our call—and we are reminded that our leadership isn’t about us but about the one we serve and those given to us.

Leonardo DaVinci said that “When you put your hand in a flowing stream, you touch the last that has gone before and the first of what is still to come.”  Thanks Hollywood for getting me down the river, for the lessons in leadership, and for being a bridgebetween what has gone before and all that is now to come.

 

Sources:  Ed Friedman, Failure of Nerve…Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix; Gil Rendle and Susan Beaumont, When Moses meets Aaron:  Staffing and Supervision in Large Congregations; Peter Block, Community:  The Structure of Belonging; Parker J. Palmer, Leading from Within: Reflections on Spirituality and Leadership

 

Controversy and Inclusion

My Personal Statement regarding the Blessing of Same Sex Relationships   November 30, 2012

In 2003, returning from General Convention in Minneapolis, I was surprised that several in my parish expected to hear from me, on the following Sunday, a statement about what had happened at Convention.  I was not an elected deputy from my diocese, but worked for General Convention as a Coordinator.  I had no voice or vote on any matter.  But, my mere presence there generated the expectation that I should take my own stand on the issue of the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.  This is the article I wrote in 2003: 

"As Christians we are called to a higher standard of human behavior.  As part of that standard, if we choose to live life partnered with another adult rather than remaining celibate and single, we are to commit ourselves to a monogamous, mutually supportive, loving and caring relationship.  Testimony from Gene Robinson’s family and friends indicated to me that he is a gifted priest, elected by his diocese to become their bishop and is, as well, a loving, committed partner and father.  So, if I had had voice and vote at General Convention I would have voted in favor of Gene Robinson’s election as the Bishop of New Hampshire. 

To me homosexuality is not sin.  The clear and consistent witness of Scripture regarding sexual ethics is that sex is a gift from God, given to be an expression of love and enjoyment between two equal and faithful partners.  Whatever its expression, it is not to be expressed promiscuously, or to dominate, manipulate, or to use another person for self-gratification.  (I believe this is what the Apostle Paul is speaking against in Romans 1:18ff and I Corinthians 6:9-11.  Paul had nothing to say about homosexuals in a committed, caring monogamous relationship; and, Jesus had nothing at all to say on homosexuality. What Paul insists on, as seen in his writings in I Timothy 3:12 and Titus 1:6, is faithfulness in sexual behavior among Christians.)  I believe that the determination of whether or not homosexual behavior is sinful, is the same for heterosexual behavior—is the sexual act one that is devoid of commitment and is promiscuous and manipulative, or is it an expression of love within a faithful and committed relationship?  I believe God condemns the first and honors the second.

I do not believe this election has to split the Church.  Change is always difficult—no matter what the change.  We say it every Sunday in our invitation to the Table, “the Central act of worship at St. James’ and in the Episcopal Church…is the Lord’s Supper.”   I am absolutely convinced that if we can continue to come to the Table together we will remain unified as a church, as a diocese, as a denomination.  All of us need to practice humility—none of us knows all the answers.  All of us need to practice hospitality—we need to welcome each other; our differences are so small compared to what we all hold in common. 

My hope is that the doors of the Episcopal Church will now be open even wider to those who have not before felt welcome.  You heard the actions taken at General Convention that call us to open wide our doors—to all.  And, specifically, we are called to follow Jesus in embracing and loving those who may be outcasts—those outside the institutional church and conventional norms. 

Related to this, I believe the Church showed wisdom in waiting to authorize common liturgies for the blessing same-gender unions.  My guess is that this resolution will pass in 2006, but we need time to pray, to be in conversation with one another, and to come back together as a Church before we push ahead. 

Personally, I’m not sure I’m ready to perform a blessing.  I haven’t been asked (yet), and haven’t had to make that decision.  When I am asked, it will depend on the individuals requesting the union, it will depend on this church, it will depend on our Bishop’s direction, and it will depend on the Spirit’s leading." 

It’s now hard to believe that I wrote this article almost ten years ago.  In this length of time I have changed churches and have become ever more convicted that the way forward for the Church is in legitimizing the blessing of same-sex relationships.  Further, I feel the call of making my voice heard in the matter of full marriage equality for all persons. Therefore, in making application to the bishop for permission to bless the relationships of same-sex couples, there are some aspects of my earlier statement I want to flesh out more fully in my own mind and heart. 

The first is the belief that as Christians we are called to a higher standard of human behavior.  I continue to uphold this belief and would now add the mandate that, as Christians, we must work for justice and peace for all persons.  We proclaim this each time we renew our Baptismal Covenant—but, too often we fail to take action to live out this mandate.  Seeking to be holy people we must live out our faith by the standard set by Jesus who was always advocating for those on the outside of the circle.  Remaining silent for too long on the matters of full inclusion and marriage equality, I want to be counted among those clergy who are actively engaging in processes inside and outside the church to ensure justice and equality for all, especially the LGBT community.  To this end, I have attended several clergy gatherings this fall in support of “Marriage Equality Virginia” and participated in a conference on how to help lead my parish in welcoming the LGBT community.

Parker Palmer, in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, talks about the importance of individuals exhibiting the human characteristics of “chutzpah” and “humility” when speaking out for the common good.  To have the courage to speak out and take a stand, coupled with the humility of knowing that I don’t have all the answers, is the position I am taking on the issue of blessing same-sex relationships.  I don’t know if it was the marriage of my niece to her lesbian partner in Vermont last year, or the courageous (albeit uncomfortable) questions raised by our lesbian partnered seminarian last year about our parish’s openness to the LGBT community, but I can no longer pretend this issue isn’t relevant to me or to the church.  It is, and it matters.

To expound further on scriptures that often are used to prohibit the blessing of same-sex couples, from my perspective the verses in the Holiness Code  (specifically Leviticus 18:22, 20:13) are referring to homosexual behavior that was characterized by promiscuity, prostitution, domination and manipulation. As I understand it, ancient cultic religious practices to elicit the favor of the fertility gods often resulted in illicit sexual practices.  Referencing the Old Testament account of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah it is my interpretation that the text focuses more on violence and rape by the men of Sodom than it does on homosexuality.  And, in the Gentile world of the first century, it was commonly accepted practice for older men to cultivate and use young boys for their own satisfaction—a practice known as pederasty.  Further, masters often raped their male slaves as an act of power over them.  Homosexual prostitution—both male and female—flourished and was even practiced in temple worship.  All of this is this abhorrent behavior that, I believe, is condemned by scripture as unacceptable, and especially for Christians. 

Instead, what God seeks is that we love one another as Christ loves us.  In the church we often call this relationship to God and one another a covenant—a sign of God’s love expressed in our commitment and faithfulness to the other.  This covenant is based on seeing the face of Christ in one another.  This covenant is based on the recognition that each of us, male and female, is made in the image of God.  And it is based on the belief that in our Trinitarian understanding of God, we are created to be in relationship with one another.

 In our Episcopal tradition, one of the ways we experience this covenantal work of God in our lives is through the sacraments.  Sacraments, being “the outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace,” allow us to see multiple ways in which God’s grace is manifested in our lives.  For example, in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony as vows are made before God by the couple, an inward grace is bestowed to help them fulfill these vows.  Traditionally we have imagined these vows to be strictly between a woman and a man.  But, matters of love are not always dictated by tradition.  Sometimes God decides to do a new thing, a surprising thing.  Sometimes cultural norms and values shift the traditions of the church, pushing the church to re-think old ways of seeing and acting.  That a man and a man, or a woman and a woman can profess their love, commitment, and fidelity to one another is a new way of understanding this vow.  I’ve seen this with my own eyes and been moved in my own heart as I witnessed the marriage of my niece to a woman. 

For those who contend that marriage is for procreation, we are all aware that, even in heterosexual marriages, children are not guaranteed.  But, when children are desired, there are always children who need loving parents.  That my niece gave birth to a daughter who now has two mommies is a new way of thinking about procreation—as is adoption.  One has only to watch the television show “Modern Family” to see the many configurations in which families are not only imagining but accepting variations of home life and relationships in new and diverse ways.    

If the church has any hope of maintaining a relevancy to our culture we must open our hearts and doors to everyone.  We must be intentional about offering hospitality to the stranger and outcast.  And we must work for justice and peace in concrete ways. 

Changing minds and shifting systems takes time.  It’s taken me ten years to come to the place of taking a firm stand on the issue of blessing same-gender relationships.  If permission to do so is granted by my bishop, and if I am asked by two persons who are able to make their vows before God and the church, I will bless a same-sex relationship.  How timely it is that the liturgical resource for Blessing Same-Sex Relationships, authorized for provisional use by the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, is now available for use beginning on the first Sunday in Advent of this year, December 2, 2012. 

As a final note, as I become more informed and connected to the LGBT community, I am aware there is more to the acronym than lesbians and gays.  I am just beginning to hear more of the pain and struggle of the bi-sexual and transgendered community.  Here again, a family member is helping open my eyes and heart to the need for compassion, understanding, and acceptance. 

In conclusion, let me say that we must do these things not simply because we are progressive or enlightened or because the times have changed, but because we believe it is demanded of us by the Gospel of Jesus—in whom we see, as Saint John says, grace upon grace upon grace.  Why now? Because whenever we seek to do the right thing, it is the right time.  As we work to become unstuck from our turbulent past, the Blessing of Same-Sex Relationships is one aspect of living into our vision statement of St. Andrew’s being a joyous, growing, inviting and caring Episcopal Church.  Establishing clarity about publicly welcoming and affirming LGBT people, including the priest’s ability to bless same-sex relationships, will assist us in answering the question “what is it that we want to create together as St. Andrew’s Church?”

Crowded Spirit

 

Like the sound of a distant train coming our way I can hear Advent fast approaching.  To say that I have to get out of town to prepare for it is not an exaggeration. Thanks to the generosity of the Diocese in providing clergy two free nights at Roslyn, our diocesan retreat center in Richmond, that’s exactly what I am doing. With the demands of church life this fall and having had family visiting for three weeks I can think of little else but how much I need peace and quiet.  My dad says I go on retreat more than anyone he knows and that may be true but I can’t hear myself think, much less God speak, without silence. 

So it is that I begin this two-day respite at Roslyn by resting.  The first night I sleep for twelve hours and the second night, ten!  I run in the mornings and in the midst of resting during the day I read.  Early on I come across this quote from Karl Rahner which begs for contemplation: “In Advent we should really ask ourselves in complete intimacy and concreteness if the spirit and heart in us still have room for novelty and future beyond the present.” 

Reading this quote several times I begin to wonder in my crowded spirit if there is any room for yet-to-be imagined possibilities for St. Andrew’s Church.  I wonder if our hearts are open enough to be church in a new way; to let in a greater amount of joy, awe, and transformation.  I don’t know about you but I get so caught up in the present concerns of having people sign up for Coffee Hour, recruiting enough Sunday School helpers, getting more choir members, finding someone to organize the blood drive and cajoling someone to coordinate the Christmas Eve party, not to mention worries over whether the pledges will actually come in to meet our 2010 budget that I forget our future is in God’s hands.   I forget not to be afraid.  I forget the reassurance of comfort and hope and joy and promise that come from trusting that God is with us.  I forget Emanuel. 

Advent means “coming”… the coming of Christ in our celebration of the nativity and in the anticipation of the second coming of Christ.  In Advent we set our sights toward the horizon of God’s future both now and in the age to come.  As a prayer for all of us during Advent I share this hymn text by Thomas Troeger with you in the hopes that each of us will come to count on and claim the presence of Christ more fully in our church.

View the present through the promise, Christ will come again.
Trust despite the deepening darkness, Christ will come again.
Lift the world above its grieving through your watching and believing
in the hope of past hope’s conceiving:  Christ will come again. 

Probe the present with the promise, Christ will come again.
Let your daily actions witness, Christ will come again.
Let your loving and your giving and your justice and forgiving
be a sign to all the living:  Christ will come again. 

Match the present to the promise, Christ will come again.
Make this hope your guiding premise, Christ will come again.
Pattern all your calculating and the world you are creating
to the advent you are waiting:  Christ will come again.

Looking Back

In writing my last newsletter article as I make my way from St. James’ to St. Andrew’s I am curious about what I might have written in my very first newsletter article entitled “The Way I See It”.  I’ve kept every article, thinking if I ever write a book, I’m going to use these musings.  So looking back, here’s the short version of what I had to say… “The way I see it, God is at work in you; we have some great opportunities to grow in our ministries with youth and children; we have much for which to be thankful; and lastly, God is not done with us yet.”  Interestingly these things are still true.  So what has God been up to for these past seven years?

The way I see it God has been growing us as individuals and as a faith community.  We are not the same parish we were in 2002.  For one thing we’re all older—that’s a given.  But for another thing we’ve been intentional about sharing in mutual ministry—and that is not always a given!  Some models of ministry evoke a top down approach where what the Rector says the people do.  (Clearly this is not me nor is it you!)  Instead, together we have shaped ourselves into the body of Christ in this place that has encouraged baptismal ministry and prayerful deep listening with one another.  I have seen this time and time again in our vestry and ministry group meetings, in the various spirituality groups, in Via Media and in the Living the Questions series.  I not only have seen Christ in you but heard you speak words of love, care, encouragement, forgiveness and mercy over and over again. 

The way I see it God has also been at work growing us into a congregation of generous people.  The list of all the capital improvements that have taken place are truly amazing from drainage ditches and gutters, to state-of-the-art new heating, to renovating the parish kitchen, to refurbishing the brass to replacing the front steps, to remediating the mold in the Lewis House and last but not least to putting on a new slate roof on this 147 year old church.  These projects could not have taken place without your generosity.

The way I see it God has also blessed St. James with children and youth to nurture and grow in Christ.  I counted and there have been 36 baptisms and 29 confirmations of our youngest members.  This is not only a sign of a healthy parish but one with future generations!  Which means God is not done with St. James Church. 

The way I see it, you now have a wonderful opportunity before you to truly be transformed—to venture forth into becoming a church in the 21st Century where worship is joyful and authentic, where deep connections are made with this community, where people tell their faith stories with openness, where all are welcome and all are growing in faith.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… it has been such a privilege to be your Rector!  I look forward to our finale celebration of mutual ministry on Sunday, May 3rd at our potluck supper and to our last celebration of Eucharist on May 17th.  

“For Everything There Is A Season”

That two seemingly insignificant conversations occurred on the same day inform this writing.  In the first conversation I’m walking on Marvin Street and see a woman with some age on her looking up.  A dad and his two school age children on their bicycles have stopped and are also looking up.  Then I hear the honking.  Overhead are at least a hundred Canadian geese. They are purposeful in their flying.  They know where they are going.  They are returning home after the long winter.  The five of us stand there for a moment mesmerized.  Then the dad says something like “Isn’t it amazing how the geese have this radar inside them that tells them when and where to go.”

The second conversation was also two days before spring and the day after Dorothy Fox’s burial service here at St. James.  Some of us are talking about our funerals and one of our older members asks me if she can have the well known reading from Ecclesiastes read at her burial service.  Knowing it is not one of the options listed in the Prayer Book, but as her pastor, I say “sure!”  For what better burial reading than “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…”

By now you know that I will be leaving St. James toward the end of May to serve as the next Rector of St. Andrew’s in Arlington, Virginia.  Like the geese Joe and I are returning to a place we have known before as home. Also like the geese it has been a long winter but that is not why we’re leaving!  We have loved living in upstate New York and (if I say so myself) we have weathered winters well!  But like the geese there is this radar inside of me.  For me it is the call of God.  It is the stirring of the Holy Spirit calling me to a new ministry.  It is my commitment to follow Jesus wherever I’m led. 

Please know this has not been an easy time of discernment because both Joe and I love the churches we serve.  But again, like the geese, staying put forever goes against how we understand our call to serve God through parish ministry.  For as scripture teaches us…For everything there is a season… a time to come and a time to go.  There is also “a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance” and I hope we will do all of this in my remaining time with you. 

You have my heart.  It is hard to leave.  But as a dear friend always reminds me, “God’s got this!”  I have no doubt there is a hopeful bright future for St. James and I have no doubt that I am called at this time to lead St. Andrew’s to their bright and hopeful future.  I love you all.  I will miss you.  And I am very, very grateful for having served as your Rector for these past seven years.  

Ready for Take Off

In search of a new place to walk our dog, Ruby, we found ourselves one morning at Gravelly Point. Located just a few hundred feet from the north-end of the runway at Regan National Airport, this is a great spot for dog walking and plane watching.  After taking a long walk along the Potomac, we make our way back to the runway and stand there watching plane after plane take off.  I am mesmerized not only by the thunderous noise overhead but by the ability of that huge aircraft to move off the runway and up into the air with seemingly such ease.   Knowing virtually nothing about aerodynamics, I’m sure it’s all scientifically explainable but I still find it amazing that an airplane can fly.  Loaded with people crammed into those tiny seats with a cargo bin filled with luggage, it looks as though the plane is somehow carried away by the wind.  And I love this image.  With grace and ease and power and might that huge jetliner bursts into the air, carrying all those people to new destinations, new experiences, and perhaps even new adventures.

Standing here watching these planes take off makes me think about the church—specifically St. Andrew’s Church.  This summer has been a busy one in getting ready for our church to take off in the fall.  Day, our Christian Formation Consultant, was brought on board.  John, our new Parish Secretary, was hired to help.  David, our seminarian, is eager to begin his ministry with us.  We’ve been interviewing musicians.  Bob was elected Senior Warden.  Priscilla is coordinating Congregational Care and Ruth is taking on Outreach.  And knowing that God would have us grow this church and restore it to vitality the Vestry of St. Andrew’s has been diligent in making decisions to unify this parish.

You’ll read more about these exciting changes inside this newsletter but be forewarned you may feel a bit like sitting on the runway waiting for take-off.  You’re buckled in, the engines are revved up, the propellers are spinning, and the plane is picking up speed.  The way I see it, the momentum in this place for moving forward is great.  Wonderful opportunities await us as we grow and become more fully the church God would have us to be.  But we don’t do so with our own power.  We do so with the wonder working power of the Holy Spirit, under girding us with wisdom and vision and hope and courage. 

It may look like being the church of St. Andrew’s simply happens but it takes many people using their many gifts and much prayer to fly.  Please know how very grateful I am to be your new Rector.  As one who loves to travel I can’t wait to see what new destinations, new experiences, and perhaps even new adventures await us as we journey together in mission and ministry!

Ruby the Evangelist

Ruby the Evangelist is a dog—our new dog.  She is a nine-month old black lab mix (with perhaps a bit of flat coated retriever in her) that we rescued from the Herkimer Animal Shelter.  To say that Ruby is an evangelist (one who brings good news) is not an exaggeration. In the few short weeks she’s been part of our family I have met more people in Clinton than ever before.   On our walks around the village her sweet nature invites many opportunities to stop and greet people of all ages.  I now know the names of a paraplegic and his friend who sit outside Mojoz.  I’ve seen them for years but never stopped to say “hello”.  With Ruby by my side I’m much more aware of loneliness and loss, grief and sadness in this community as strangers come up and easily share their stories with me of loved ones they have lost.  On the other hand I’ve seen tentative children, like cute little red-headed Ella, garner the courage to pet Ruby and then break out in a huge smile as she overcame her fear.  Yes, Ruby is teaching me a great deal about being available to hear the hurts of others and not being afraid to respond with love and care.  By creating space in our home and hearts for her she is opening me more fully to what it means to offer hospitality to the stranger and loving my neighbor as myself.

In his book on a compassionate, nonviolent approach to dog training, Paul Owens surmises that surely Jesus or Buddha or Moses had some four-legged friends hanging around them and with this notion imagines how they would have treated a dog.  “Sit, you miserable cur!” doesn’t sound very plausible nor does swatting a dog with a scroll.  What Owens does believe is that our capacity to love opens the door to compassionate dog training, all under a spirituality of nonviolence using gentleness and positive reinforcement. 

The way I see it, this treatment of a dog—using gentle persuasion based on kindness, respect and compassion with a flexible yet uncompromising attitude—is a pretty good approach for us to take as Christians with others.  To be an evangelist is to share the Good News of Christ with the world with compassion and kindness.  It’s not about hitting people over the head with the Bible or condemning others for differing beliefs.  Rather it means we stake our claim on the saving grace of God for all people and live out that love in tangible ways—loving our neighbor, greeting the stranger, respecting the dignity of every living thing, listening with compassion, working for justice and peace.

It is just amazing to me how God can and does use all creatures for good in the world.  When we are willing to open our hearts to others, they in turn are open to us.  The way I see it Ruby the black lab is a God-sent evangelist eager to greet everyone, making them feel special and loved.  (But not to worry if you are afraid of dogs or evangelists, with all Ruby’s exuberance we are keeping her on a short leash!)

Spiritual Spring Cleaning

I don’t usually like those catchy little phrases you often see posted on church signs when you’re driving by but I have to admit one caught my eye last week and it has stuck with me.  In fact I’ve been thinking about it a lot.  It said “Does your spiritual house need spring cleaning?”  Maybe it’s because IT IS finally spring and I’m so ready to put away the winter blankets, heavy drapes, and extra rugs or maybe it’s the beauty of creation all around me but I’m ready to do some spring cleaning.

I’ll not bore you with all the details of spring cleaning the rectory, just to say Joe has issued an ultimatum… “No more throw pillows to brighten things up a bit!”  But I will say something about spring cleaning our spiritual house.  Sometimes I think we are reticent to really sweep out the clutter.  For example, I like my trinkets of self indulgences, self importance, pride and ego.  Who would I be without them?  Interiorly I have the furniture all neatly arranged—saying a prayer here and there, reading the Bible now and then, being a pastor as needs arise, writing a sermon on Friday, taking a Sabbath day on Monday.  I like the rhythm.  It’s comfortable.  On the surface things look pretty good.  No one but me knows about the cob webs of resentment, the dust bunnies of jealousy, the finger prints of envy, the smudges of grudges.  So why do any spring cleaning of my spiritual house?  Because God knows and I know. 

If we are honest with ourselves, I’ll bet we could all do a little spring cleaning of our spiritual house.  We get stuck in a rut.  We become complacent.  We don’t want to exert the effort to change and grow.  But changing and growing and blooming and becoming are what spring is all about.  So just for fun do some spring cleaning.  Open the windows of your soul.  Sweep out the dust of despair.  Take up the old rugs of resentment.  Give God the clutter of envy and jealousy.  Read an inspirational book.  Take a walk in the woods.  Spend some time in prayer.  Begin a new spiritual discipline.  Start volunteering in the community.

And if all else fails…buy a throw pillow!

Writing the Icon of the Sinai Christ…a bridge of healing between heaven and earth

It has been said that an icon is written in the heart of the iconographer before the brush touches the board or the pencil touches the paper.[i]  Sacred psychology invites us to allow our wounds to stay open, to take off the Band Aids and cover-ups in order for a new story to be known in and through us. [ii] 

The year is 1993.  In July of that year the Bartow County Clerk declares by divorce decree that my marriage is over.  It’s hard to say which was worse, the years leading up to the divorce or the years that followed.  Nineteen years of being married to my high school sweetheart were bitter sweet.  We were young to begin with and crazy in love to boot.  He was dashingly handsome and charming, not quite a prince but almost.  He didn’t have to steal my heart; I gave it to him freely when I was just a girl.  And I wanted nothing more than to be his wife.  So it was that we were married on June 8, 1974 and divorced nineteen years later.  To sever such a love was devastating.  Looking back it is unclear to me exactly how we came to that place of parting.  I suppose it was years of me being over responsible and he being a dreamer.  For him happiness was always just around the corner with one more scheme, one more move, one more great opportunity for making millions.  For me happiness was being a wife and a mom and desperately wanting to go to seminary to be an Episcopal priest.  It is not an unfamiliar story to many women who go to seminary but it is part of my story and it was my heart that was broken.  That my ex-husband, Dale, was killed in a motorcycle accident two days before Christmas in 2006 is an important part of this story as well.

Fast forward to January 2008.  I am very happily re-married and have been for seven years.  Time heals all things, right?  I am at my friend Anne’s church in Jacksonville, Florida attending my third icon-writing workshop with Teresa Harrison. The icon we are to write this time is of the Sinai Christ.  I’ve read a little about this icon and particularly like the reflections of Frederica Mathewes-Green about these eyes of Christ. [iii]   She suggests using an index card or piece of paper to cover one half of the face and then the other.  By doing so the difference is notably dramatic.  The right side of the face shows a challenging, penetrating gaze of ChristOne where he might be saying, “Oh, I’ve got your number.”  But as Mathewes-Green observes there is also a bit of humor here, a lift at the corner of the mouth, perhaps a slight smile.  On the left side of the face there is tranquility.  This is a listening patient eye, one that is waiting for us to pour out our aching heart.  And as is pointed out, we need both sides of Christ.  We need the challenging side that calls us to move more deeply into our souls and we need the understanding compassionate side that loves us deeply just as we are.  And so it is with this awareness of the icon that I begin on day one to write this icon of the Sinai Christ.

On day two, Anne, as our chaplain, begins morning worship by offering to anoint our hands with water because later in the day we will be painting the hands of Christ.  This surprises me a bit because I thought the hands didn’t come until the third day but I’m open and step forward for Anne to bless my hands, which she does.  After Eucharist we move to our worktables and I begin mixing paint to do more of the detail work on the gospel book and fill in the background.  After lunch we work for a while and then Teresa asks the class to come up for a demonstration on the hands.  I wash my brush and hover over her along with the rest of the class.  She starts by taking what’s called “flesh 2” paint and with small short strokes begins to establish the knuckles and then adds flesh to the hands of Christ.  The left hand is holding the gospel book and the right hand is raised in blessing. With the other two icons I have done, painting the hands has been a very powerful experience but at the moment these hands don’t feel particularly significant.  Almost mechanically I move to my seat, dab a bit of the flesh 2 paint onto my pallet, thin it out with water, swirl it to the tip of my brush and begin to make the small strokes onto the left hand of Christ, the one holding the gospel book.  Not even two strokes are made before my eyes begin to fill with tears.  I can’t believe that I am crying.  I sit still for a moment trying to collect myself.  I try again to paint but the tears flow unchecked.  More out of embarrassment but also because I cannot see to paint, I go to the bathroom to blow my nose and dry my tears.  Believing that tears are the language of the heart the desire to sob is overwhelming and so rather than try and suppress the tears I let them flow.  I go into Anne’s study and sit there sobbing.  Being the wise spiritual friend that she is, Anne simply listens and lets me cry.  My heart feels like it is breaking in two but I do not know why.  As we talk what begins to emerge is the significance of the right hand of Christ being raised in blessing.  I had not even begun to paint this hand but talking about it now makes me sob even harder because part of what I know of my priestly ministry is the power of blessing.  Seemingly out of the blue a parishioner who died two years ago comes to my mind.  It is almost as though Bobbie is in the room with us.  And maybe she is because Bobbie as an artist and being a deeply spiritual person would have loved this icon-writing workshop.  As her priest I was invited to walk the way of death with her and toward the end of her life she told me how much she loved the blessings I would give at the end of worship.  She said she always wanted to reach out and catch them.  Anne then wonders out loud if Christ, perhaps, wants to bless me, which, of course, makes me sob all the more.  Clearly I’m not in any shape to go back to work on my icon today so Anne suggests that I take a walk outside, oh and why don’t I take that book of prayers that is on the table beside me, In the Hand of God.[iv] 

So I go outside to sit in the sun and open the book to the first page.  Here is what I read:  “I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’  And he replied:  ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.  That shall be to you better than light and safer than any known way.’” And that is how it came to be that I placed my hand in God’s hand and together we continued to write the icon of the Sinai Christ. 

Later that night in the darkness of my room as I was praying before going to sleep I began to get a glimmer as to why my heart was breaking.  I began to understand the tears and what the need for healing was all about.  You see there was this very old wound in the depths of my heart I didn’t even know was still there that needed to be healed.  Years of therapy and prayers and going on with life had not completely healed this wound.  It was the wound from my divorce, from the betrayal, from the loss of that innocent sweet youthful love.  This brokenness in my heart was from that place where intimate love emerges in its purest form and if it was to heal I knew I had to keep the wound open long enough so that a new story could unfold.  I knew this healing had to do with Dale and my guess was that even in death he too was still in need of healing.

Returning to the workshop the next morning I finished both hands of Christ and began to work on the eyes.  After a quick lunch I headed outside in the warmth of the sun to take a long walk.  After a few blocks it felt like someone was walking with me and oddly I sensed it was Dale.  I immediately became incensed.   Someone watching me would surely have steered clear of this crazy woman shaking her head and talking to no one.  But I didn’t like it one bit that my ex-husband, who I thought was long gone out of my life, had returned, from the dead no less, asking me to open my heart to him.  Besides that, icon writing is something I deeply enjoy as a spiritual practice and I did not want him to be any part of this holy work.  But as God does with compassion, grace and mercy, my heart began to soften and I conceded that Dale could look on as I returned to class to complete the eyes of Christ.  You will not be surprised that painting the eyes of Christ had just the effect on me as Frederica Mathews-Green had written.  Those knowing gentle piercing eyes looked straight into my heart—my broken heart.  And through those eyes of Christ my heart was healed.  Somehow through those eyes of love a bridge was built between heaven and earth so that Dale and I could forgive and bless one another forever.  Somehow that thin veil between heaven and earth, here and there, was mysteriously brushed aside long enough to heal both our hearts.  I have no doubt that if I looked deep enough into this icon I would see heaven for what looks out at me is light and love, mercy and forgiveness.

This is the Good News of God in Christ—that Christ will draw all persons to himself and that through him all things will be made new on heaven and on earth.  This is my new story—an Easter story of reconciliation.  And every time I look at this icon I receive a blessing and want to reach out to catch it.

[i] “Icon of Christ the Healer” article by Mary Katsilometes, January 3, 2008 EnVision Church website

[ii] The Search for the Beloved by Jean Houston, PhD, second edition 1997, p. 107

[iii] The Open Door by Frederica Mathewes-Green, 2003 pp. 15-22

[iv] In the Hand of God by Minnie Louise Haskins (1875-1957) Oxford England

No Whining Allowed

Yesterday I called my son, Ben who lives in Virginia, to check on some minor surgery he’d had on his shoulder.  Emma, my almost four year old granddaughter, answers the phone which is a new thing for her to do.  After she tells me about their recent trip to Disney World and all the princesses she had seen I ask Ema if we could come and see her.  Very politely she says she will ask her daddy.  I then hear her say to Ben, “Can my Gigi and Pop come over?”  Excitedly she comes back to the phone and says to me “Yes, you can come over.”  I then explain we would see her in two days, on Monday when we are planning to drive down to see her.  Well, this isn’t at all what she wanted to hear.  She wanted us to come right then.  She was ready for us to walk into her house “now”.  Waiting is not something Emma does well and she began to whine (which she does very well!).  To be honest there was a strong part of me that wanted to jump in the car right that very minute but I didn’t think my absence at our Annual Meeting would go over so well!  So I reassured Emma that Pop and Gigi couldn’t wait to see her and that we would be at her house in two days and would take her to the park.   

My conversation with Emma got me to thinking about how instantly I want God to respond to my needs.  I hate to admit it but Emma does get some of her impatience from me.   If my prayers go unanswered for very long I begin to doubt that God has heard them.  When I don’t feel God’s immediate presence I question God’s love and care.  It is hard to keep believing in God’s goodness when I don’t see instant results from my petitions and prayers.  But there’s one verse in scripture that has helped me many times in my life when God didn’t instantly show up or my prayers went unanswered for awhile.  It is Jeremiah 29:11—“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  Verses twelve and thirteen also give me reassurance—“Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.  When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.” 

I know without a doubt that God loves me and that God loves you.  Just as Emma knows that I love her but can’t always come when she wants me to come, each of us can rest in the assurance of God’s unfailing, unconditional love and care for us.  Each of us can trust the plans that God has for us and know that God’s plans are always for our welfare and for a future with hope.

As we enter into the season of Lent the days can be dark and God’s presence hidden in this wilderness time.  Down the road toward Good Friday, doubt can cloud the way. But take heart my friends.  Easter is coming!  No whining allowed!!

Faithful Living

The way I see it today is just too beautiful a day to be inside writing this newsletter article.  It is one of these great upstate New York summer days that has low humidity, lots of sunshine, a gentle breeze and temperatures in the 70’s.  Who wants to be inside on a day like today?  Oh, I know, I could write this newsletter article tomorrow when there’s a chance of rain but then there’s this weekend’s sermon to write and the house to clean with family coming in on Friday for Paul’s graduation on Saturday.  There’s food to go and buy and a cake to order for his party on Sunday.  And even if I waited to write the article on Monday that wouldn’t work because that’s my Sabbath day and our granddaughter, Ella, will be here and I will want to play with her.  On the other hand I suppose I could be the one to hold up mailing the newsletter and procrastinate a few more days but that doesn’t seem fair to the folders who have arranged their time to come and get it in the mail.  And so it is with a desire to be outside taking a walk or kayaking that I am inside as the spiritual leader of this congregation plumbing the depths of my soul to write something inspiring and uplifting.

In thinking about this, what strikes me most powerfully is the reality that the only thing I can really do as a spiritual leader is to try and live my life as faithfully as possible.  No heroics are required.  There are no magic words to say or great mysteries to unlock.  The life we are given is meant to be lived as fully and faithfully as we know how.  And that’s just about all there is to it.  How I treat my husband, my children, my step-children, my grandchildren, my parents, my friends, and you is the most important way I can offer any significant spiritual guidance.  What I do with my time reflects my priorities and the depth of faithful living is seen in how I live my life, day-to-day. 

Admittedly, there are times that faithful living comes so naturally it’s like breathing.  I don’t even have to think about being kind or generous or loving or gentle, I simple am.  But at other times staying faithful in the midst of conflict and turmoil feels like I’m gasping for air.  I can so easily slip into despair and discouragement and feel so disgruntled that it’s like I’m drowning.  Since none of us ever really know what each day will bring on the days I do make it into the chancel to say Morning Prayer I always pray this resolve from Forward Day By Day.  Maybe it will be helpful to you.

I will try this day to live a simple, sincere, and serene life, repelling promptly every thought of discontent, anxiety, discouragement, impurity and self seeking; cultivating cheerfulness, magnanimity, charity, and the habit of holy silence; exercising economy in expenditure, generosity in giving, carefulness in conversation, diligence in appointed service, fidelity to every trust and a childlike faith in God. 

In particular I will try to be faithful in those habits of prayer, work, study, physical exercise, eating and sleep which I believe the Holy Spirit has shown me to be right.  And as I cannot in my own strength do this, nor even with a hope of success attempt it, I look to thee, O Lord God my Father, in Jesus my Savior, and ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

Dividing Issues Don’t Have To Be

Recently I was asked how St. James Church has dealt with the conflicts confronting the National Episcopal Church.  In response I said I didn’t think we were greatly affected but that following the 2003 and 2006 General Conventions an Adult Forum was held.  Both were well attended, indicating at least some interest.  To facilitate these conversations a handout was distributed noting many of the resolutions that were passed at Convention regarding mission and ministry.  But we also talked about the on-going debates about sexuality which resulted in some honest open exchanges of opinions, fears and expectations.  Following the election of Gene Robinson I also made available a personal statement about my own understanding of homosexuality. To follow-up there were several private conversations and I’m always glad to talk with individuals at any time.  Responding to this question made me aware, and once again appreciative, that the issues that divide the National Episcopal Church do not divide St. James.  The issues haven’t gone away but somehow we are able to hold in tension our differences and celebrate diversity.

Like the subject of sexuality and religion, discussing politics can be just as controversial.  For example, at a recent Fellowship Dinner the conversation during dessert at my table turned to politics.  Clearly there were differences of opinions about the war, about the current administration, and about the Christian response to terrorism.  Admittedly when this topic was broached I began to twitch a little.  But as I sat there listening I marveled at the awareness that each person at the table is part of this parish.  Each one is part of this one body of Christ.  In fact, on Sunday mornings some of these same voices of very differing political persuasions somehow blend their voices together in the choir singing praises to the same God.  And together they come to the Lord’s Table.  Imagine that!

Wondering what Jesus would be saying had he been sitting at our table I was filled with gratitude for the diversity of political perspectives. The conversation was made rich from the diversity of perspectives and energizing because individuals spoke from their hearts out of passion for what they believe to be true.  No one left in a huff.  No one raised their voice.  No one was verbally disrespectful.  And everyone showed up for church on Sunday.

The way I see it St. James Church has something to teach the National Church.  Bolted to the inside front door of our church are two pronouncements.  Best I can tell they’ve been here quite a long time.  One states, “People of all races and nationalities are welcome in this church.  This is none other than the House of God.”  The other says “We pray that to this church all Thy children may ever be welcome.”  The following wording is a bit archaic but the practice still holds true… “that the poor and needy find friends, the sorrowing find comfort.  Here may they who fear be encouraged.  Here may the oppressed and striving souls be assured of mercy and receive help to go on their way rejoicing.” 

Granted these pronouncements were bolted to our church doors well before the current controversy over sexuality but I have to believe that what we said before, we still mean today and that ALL are welcome here.  

Listening Hearts Meditation

Today it is very cold in upstate New York.  The outside temperature has remained in the single digits all day and tonight the mercury is to drop down well below zero. It’s the kind of cold that makes you hurt. The frigid air makes it hard to breathe.  In addition to the cold, snow blankets the ground in a thick cover just outside my study window.  Everything is frozen. Everything is cold. And this makes it all the more compelling to stay inside. 

With the door to my study closed it is warm and quiet in here.  The ticking of the clock calls me to slow down, listen, and it reminds me to breathe easy.  It invites me to enter a quiet place within.  This interior space is familiar to me.  My prayer life often takes me into this place of stillness and contemplation.  Yoga practice also guides me into these interior spaces of peace and quiet.  But recently something inside has shifted.  My heart has been strangely warmed.  Let me explain.

Believing that discernment is foundational to the work and ministry of our Commission on Ministry, our Episcopal Diocese of Central New York is participating in the Listening Hearts training with Suzanne Farnham.  Six persons from our Commission are taking the training and I am the “extra” person who observes and will coordinate some of our diocesan training.  So on the third day of our training session when a “seeker” is invited to come and work with the group of six discerners my part is to pray.  Suzanne and I move our chairs close to the circle but just outside it.  We can see and hear but we do not verbally enter into the conversation.  Instead we surround the group with prayers and pray silently for the three hours of this discernment session. 

As I mentioned, prayer is something I do regularly but I have never prayed for this long in one sitting and with such intention.  It was an amazing experience.  It was a though I was drawn into a very deep place of listening.  The listening was soft and warm.  Words spoken by the group resonated within but did not attach themselves to any part of my mind and if the words did linger it was not for long.  It was as though the words, spoken both as questions and responses, floated in and out like the tide.  Through my heart I was hearing them, receiving them and then they were being bathed in prayer.  It was listening at a level to which I am not accustomed.  Clearly the Spirit of God was present, known and unknown, in a powerful way. I was being transformed through listening and my heart was being strangely warmed. 

Once in a while, however, a question would be asked by someone in the group that seemed to jolt me out of a Spirit-filled place.  I would even say it hurt.  Not that it was a hurtful question and was intended to startle anyone but it seemed to be out of sync with the Spirit.  Either the timing was off or the silence shattered much too abruptly.  (Let me quickly say this was our group’s first practice session with the seeker. We were just beginning to learn this approach of discernment and with practice our group became comfortable and proficient with whole process.) But what was surprising was that by praying I could feel the difference in the kinds of questions that were being asked.  With a listening heart I could feel the gentleness of the Spirit guiding the discernment group to ask questions and helping the “seeker” as she responded to them.  I could feel the presence of God moving among the group and it was filled with healing and hope and love. And afterwards it was affirming to hear others in the group say they could feel our prayers and knew they were surrounded by God’s presence during that discernment session.

Listening Hearts is more than a discernment training program.  It is a means by which we as participants are invited into a deeper place of prayer and, with it, a deeper way of listening.  Several days after that first training class I realized I was hearing other people in a new way.  I was more apt to linger in conversations at Coffee Hour and listen more deeply to my family at mealtimes.  I felt less impatient with superficial talk and curious about what more needed to be said than wasn’t being said.  After spending those three hours in silent prayer and listening, my heart feels bigger and more open to others—perhaps even more loving.

Living in upstate New York I am quite aware that I cannot stay inside this warm quiet place of my study forever. Church and family responsibilities beckon me to bundle up and brave the cold.  And in the same way, I cannot stay in that warm interior space of prayerful listening at all times.  But it is very reassuring to know that deep within God is there and I am strangely warmed through listening with my heart.

Praying the Icon of St. Francis Into Being

The board upon which I am to write my icon of St. Francis sits on the table in front of me. It is blank like a clean slate. Prepared with prayer, layer upon layer of plaster gesso has been applied to this board made of birch wood and sanded to a smooth silky finish. White as snow, the board is unblemished and the work of creating a beautiful icon on it is daunting. Daunting because I am not an artist. Daunting because I know the story of this saint. I know that Francis was called by God to rebuild the Church. I fear that call and the demands of it. From my reading I know that Francis was converted through the power of the cross and that through prayer the sign of Christ’s suffering appeared on Francis’ hands, feet and side. I shiver at the thought and do not want to feel the suffering of Christ’s passion in such an intimate way. I also know that Francis transformed those around him with sacrificial love but I am afraid to love so deeply and with such abandonment. So it is with fear and trepidation that I sit at this table waiting.

The time to begin arrives. The class reads together the ancient rules for icon writing. “Before starting work, make the sign of the cross. Work with care on every detail as if you were working in front of the Lord. Pray in order to strengthen yourself physically and spiritually. Avoid above all useless words and keep silence. Pray to the saint whose face you are painting. To choose a color ask the Lord’s counsel. Do not be jealous of your neighbor’s work. When your icon is finished thank God for his mercy and grace to paint the Holy Images. Have your icon blessed on the Altar and be the first to bless it before giving it to others.” After the rules and to begin writing our icon we then say the prayer iconographers have prayed for centuries. The petition to “guide the hands of thine unworthy servant” resonate deep within me. At the end of the prayer silence fills the studio. I linger for a few more minutes mustering the courage and faith to begin writing this icon.

Taping the sketch to my board I take pencil in hand and using carbon paper begin to trace a broad outline of this ancient icon of St. Francis. Experience from writing my first icon last year has already taught me that this step of tracing the lines is important. I take my time. A thin ghostly outline begins to appear positioning the saint in the middle of the board. The shape of his head, the narrowing of his waist from the cincture, the length of his robe is now clearly established. Lifting the tracing to see the image I pause and take a deep breath. Before me lies the holy image of St. Francis I will paint and pray into being.

Icon writing is more like taking pen to ink than paint brush to palette. The strokes are small and intentional. Filling the brush with water and paint, a thin line of paint at the tip of the brush is desired. Layer upon layer of paint is applied with subtle strokes adding depth and dimension. And just as with the gesso, prayer soaks through it as well. Swirling my brush into a dab of paint the robe of St. Francis is the first to receive color--a dark earthy brown, mixed from black and red earth. The color Sankir is applied to the face and hands casting an ethnic hue. The shadowy figure lays flat and one dimensional. Teresa Harrison, our teacher, guides us through the next step of using varying shades of brown to give the robe texture and definition. Folds in the fabric start to appear. The marks of the stigmata in his side become faintly visible. From dark to light the robe begins to breathe. I can see the bend in St. Francis’ elbow. The collar of his robe brushes against his neck. The sleeve of his robe falls just above his wrist. This faceless icon is slowly coming into being.

The following day details of St. Francis form more fully. The gold oxide and Napthol red applied to the book of Holy Scripture Francis is holding in his left hand is a sharp contrast to the earthiness of his robe. Painting the cincture around the waist is challenging, the knot difficult. The twists and turns of the rope created from small “s” strokes do not allow the cincture to fall naturally against the robe. Mistakes are made. I forget to pray. I see no way out. But one of the great teachings of icon writing is that every error can be redeemed. It is possible to paint over your mistake and try again which is what I do. By doing so I remember and give thanks for the many times in my life when I have been given the grace to try again. With the gentle guidance of Teresa the cincture finally falls into place. A prayer of gratitude is said and I smile with satisfaction.

Choices about the halo now need to be made. Pondering my theology of suffering and glory I have to decide how much glory and how much suffering I want to see in this icon. I decide both are equally significant to the life, death and sainthood of St. Francis. The halo will be prominent and the stigmata obvious. Tracing the lines for the halo also establishes the borders and boundaries of the gold leaf that will later be applied. My hands tingle at the thought of applying the gold and hurt at the thought of painting the stigmata.

On the third day of icon writing our hands are blessed by Anne Bridgers, our Chaplain, and special prayers are said because on this day we will be painting the hands and face of our saint. This is the most holy of work and Anne reminds us of this. We start with the hands. Shades of flesh are applied giving them substance. Five fingers form as thin strokes of black oxide paint separate the thumb from the index finger, the middle finger from the ring finger, the ring finger from the little finger. Subtle bones appear beneath the flesh as faint lines of warm white and yellow light paint are applied to form knuckles and the wrist. I use my own hands as a model for how human hands are made by God. Stroke upon stroke the hands of St. Francis come to life. They are gentle and strong. The left hand holds Holy Scriptures. The stigmata on the palm of his right hand is visible as it is raised to bless. I feel this blessing and can sense the presence of God in these hands.

After tracing the lines of this saint’s face to establish hair, beard, nose, mouth, eyes and ear a smaller brush is used to distinctly define his features. The nose is straight and the mouth is closed. Hair, moustache and beard are neatly trimmed. The eyes which are the window to his soul open when careful strokes of paint are applied to the upper lid, lower lid, and iris. The brown of the iris, the whites of his eyes and the black of his pupils bring the eyes of St. Francis into focus. Gazing into these eyes it is as though St. Francis can see me and I can see this saint. Such awareness takes my breath away and causes my hands to hurt. Several tears fall unchecked down my cheek. This icon of St. Francis is beautiful and I cannot help but be captured by it. Whether I desired it or not I am being drawn into the life of this saint.
The remaining two days of icon writing are spent adding the details of shading, defining and applying the gold leaf. Black paint has been applied as a base for the halo so the glue for the gold will adhere. The way I see it there’s something theological about this. The gold when applied brings richness to the icon and burnishing the halo with a cotton ball makes it shine with glory. Five circles form the halo and when thin lines are etched deeply into the gold leaf with a sharp pick a black outline of each circle emerges.

The black of suffering and the gold of glory surround St. Francis in his halo. Based on Teresa’s icon I then create my pattern of a bird’s head which when repeated encircles St. Francis’ head and upper body. The effect is powerful. This saint who is famous for blessing animals is so identified by these birds. With thought and prayer I now know to choose antique green with swirls of pine green for the background. Adding the green sharpens the effect and adds the dimension of nature that I am also looking for in this icon. The color of raw sienna is applied to the edges and sides of the icon and Teresa adds a straight pencil thin black border with her special tool to perfectly frame it.

As I understand it an icon is not complete until it is named. I have some options but decide that name and place are important so I inscribe this icon with gold lettering “Saint Francis of Assisi.”

My usual tendency is to continue tweaking and working with something to get it just right but with this icon I have been prompted by the Spirit all week to seek simplicity. The icon does not need any of my finishing touches. By making fewer non-essential modifications and unimportant corrections this icon is done. I have done my work with it, prayed it into being, and now I must put down my paint brush and stop. This is harder than it sounds but I discipline myself to simply sit still and be with this icon as it is. It is good enough. It is finished. Before sealing it with a coat of polyurethane I offer this icon to God and give thanks for the mercy and grace experienced while writing it.

On the final morning of our workshop we gather in the Transfiguration Chapel to bless our icons and share together in receiving the body and blood of Christ at Communion. We place our icons before the Altar. Each one is holy and each one is unique. As our gift to one another and to God words of thanksgiving and affirmation are spoken aloud. Truly this week of icon writing has been transformational. We would all like to stay on this mountain top forever. But this is not the work we have been given to do. We are being sent out into the world. We must go back to being whoever it is that we are, wherever it is that we live. But we will not forget this week.

Now back at home my icon of St. Francis sits on a shelf in our living room. I place a votive candle in front of it. I light the candle. Flickers of light illumine the face of St. Francis. I sit gazing wondering what this saint has to say to me and my church and how God will speak through St. Francis to us in the years to come. The answers don’t come instantly and for now I know it is enough to simply sit and pray with St. Francis.
 

A Week With an Angel

I recently spent a week with an angel.  Not just any angel but the Archangel Michael.  Meaning I spent a week writing an icon of St. Michael.  It’s the first icon I’ve ever written and it’s called writing an icon for a couple of reasons.  The strokes used are calligraphic as one writes the word of God with line and color and because in the Russian language writing and painting are the same word.  The experience of writing this icon of St. Michael was deeply spiritual and deeply prayerful, especially as I worked on the hands and face.  Icons, as I am learning, are designed to be open doors between us and God and are meant to communicate Christian truth in a visual way. 

Writing this icon has made me aware that I’ve never given much thought to angels.  Why, I’m not sure.  But it’s set me on a quest of sorts to find out more about them.  Coming into the season of Christmas we will hear lots about angels as we sing... “Angels We Have Heard on High”, “Hark the Hearld Angels Sing”………   And we will hear the Angel Gabriel say to Mary, “Greeting favored one.” But did you know the word angel or angels appears 329 times in the Bible and almost fifty times in the Book of Common Prayer.  Looks like according to scripture and our prayers angels are all around us, all the time.  Even ancient liturgies make mention of the holy angels.  The early Church Fathers and Mothers express adoration of angels.  St. Leo the Great said to make friends with the holy angels and we will find them to be most loving companions in our earthly pilgrimage.  St. Bridget, who was favored by God with heavenly visions, tell us that if we were to see an angel in all his beauty, we should be so ravished with delight at the sight, that we should die of love.  And St. Augustine writes about angels that “they have compassion on us and at God’s command they hasten to our aid.” 

Angels are messengers.  Messengers of God.  They are all around us.

Table Manners

The topic for my November newsletter article is almost a “no-brainer”.  It is after all the month of Thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving, if you don’t know it, is my favorite family holiday.  And this year we will be at my parent’s for the holiday.  Joe and I were engaged the last time we were in Atlanta for Thanksgiving, so it’s been six years and I can’t wait.  And as much as I want to tell you it’s more about the people around the table than the food, I can already taste my Daddy’s cornbread dressing, my Mother’s cranberry salad and my sister’s pecan pie (which is our grandfather’s recipe).  As with most of us it will be a feast!  But before we feast we will stand around my mother’s beautifully decorated table, hold hands, and each one of us will say something for which we are thankful.  This is our family’s sacred time.  Since we’re not a particularly demonstrative family or one known to emote about our feelings this is our special time of saying thank you to one another and expressing our love.  So in anticipation of what I will say to my family, I’ve been thinking about what I want to say to you in thanksgiving for the gift of being your parish priest.

Something I am keenly aware of right now is not only the joy I have as serving as your priest but the gift you give to me in allowing me to grow as a priest, as a rector, as a person.  I find I am continually reshaping my thinking about church as we journey together and am discovering things about myself that I didn’t know until becoming the rector of St. James Church. 

One place of learning at the moment is at the Altar Table.  Presiding at Eucharist is one of my greatest delights as a priest.  But recently I’ve been rethinking my role at the Table.  The canons of the church place the liturgical life of a congregation in the hands of the priest in charge.  But I have always understood my responsibility as one shared with others and while I may lead us in these prayers, we are all celebrants of the Eucharist.  As host I believe it is my job to make sure all feel welcome, the table is properly set and there is sufficient bread and wine, just like any host would do when serving a meal.  So then, I ponder this question, “In what other social setting would the host eat first?”  Now I know what the rubrics say and I know that traditionally the priest has always consumed the bread and wine first, but why?  I can’t really come up with a good reason so as you might have observed for the past several weeks I’ve been waiting to eat last.  It just seems right to serve others first, as any host would do.  And you won’t see me consume all the leftovers while at the Altar either.  To me that’s just not good Table manners.  That’s not to say we don’t reverently clean up later because we do.  And at least on this point the rubrics clearly permit the consumption of whatever remains of the consecrated elements after worship has ended. 

So I guess what I want to say is “be patient with me as I continue to grow as a priest and ask questions of myself in my role as your rector.”  After all, we are all in this together.  And God is not finished with any of us just yet.  I trust that just because we’ve always done something a certain way doesn’t mean there isn’t room for rethinking it, studying it in a new light, praying about it, and changing it as we seek to be more fully formed in Christ.  

Unbridled Welcome

For those of you who have been reading my newsletter articles for some time now, you probably know I enjoy writing them.  Unbridled by feeling the need to compose a serious doctrinal statement or expound theologically upon a pressing issue in the church or present the gospel in a compelling way, I pretty much write these newsletter articles from my heart.  I sit and ponder what’s going on with me as your rector and what’s going on with you as the church and then, I don’t know, somehow the words just flow.  It is relational writing with the hope that something I say will be meaningful to you and helps guide you in your spiritual journey. 

But here’s what’s different about writing this article.  I know it is going to a wider audience.  The words that I write are not just to you, the people I know and love and serve, but to strangers.  With our new website (www.stjamesclinton.org) up and going, this monthly newsletter article will be part of it.  And while that’s certainly not a bad thing, it is different.

The faces of the readers are unknown.  Their names are unknown.  And I know nothing about them.  So I wonder, what will a person who finds our website think about St James Church?  What kind of impression do we make as a church?  Clearly we are the quaint little yellow church on Williams Street in Clinton but are we inclusive, open and welcoming to all?  Clearly there are lots of things happening at St. James but do we reach out to others here and around the world?  Clearly we are a faith community who worships regularly but are we a people who are growing in our faith?  As a church our mission is to welcome all, reach out to others, and grow in faith.  Will our website cause others to want to come here to church?  And if they come, will they feel welcome? 

Recently the last page of our guest registry here at the church was filled and we had to start a new one.  But before putting the old registry away for safe keeping, I began flipping through it.  The first entry recorded is dated August 1, 1986.  Robin Putnam is the first name entered.  He or she indicates they are from New Hartford but do not have a church home.  I do not know if this person ever came back to St. James or ever found a church home but there are other names recorded in the registry of persons who, in the past twenty years, were here for the first time and I know did come back…Brian Collett, Randy & Jan Wilson, Terry Neil, Bob Redfield, Steve & Judy Sweet, Sue & John Hecklau, Marcia Williams, John & Barbara Soggs, The Havlovic Family, Todd, Nancy, Anna & Jenny Rayne, Steve Ellingson & Jennifer DeWerth, and Alan Lee.  All these people came for the first time and keep coming back!

And so in closing, if you’re reading this on the website and have never been to St. James, please come.  The first time is the hardest, but please know that you are welcome.  And if you are reading this in the newsletter you receive at home, the way I see it, through our new website, we have a wonderful opportunity to welcome any and all who come to St. James as a result of it.  Do you remember when you walked into this church for the first time?

Fresh Ideas

Joe and I are invited to have dinner with friends on Friday night but it is not your usual “dinner with friends” kind of evening.  Oh, there’s sure to be great food and lots of laughter.  We know some of the people and they’re all interesting.  But there are stipulations in this invitation as to what can be talked about and what’s off limits.  For example, we cannot talk about the weather or how unprepared we are for the coming church year.  We cannot complain about how hot it’s been this summer or how much rain we’ve had.  What we are being invited to talk about are fresh ideas for ministry, things we want to work on to change the world, creative things we’re doing, and how we are open to new possibilities and opportunities to make a difference in the world.  Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?

Since I can’t just show up with an appetizer or bottle of wine, I’ve been thinking what I will bring to the table conversation on Friday night.  I’m excited about a lot of things at St. James this fall with the spirituality groups beginning again, the youth confirmation class starting up, the Clinton Youth Group forming, our choirs returning, (and especially the beginning of a “tiny tots” choir) and I’m energized by the possibilities for the Lewis House that will be emerging in conversations with the congregation.  But, the way I see it, outside of Clinton, the world is in pretty sad shape.  To be honest I cannot even watch the evening news.  To see all the war torn areas of our world is heart breaking and it makes me angry.  I’ll listen to NPR in the morning but that’s about all I can take of knowing how horrible things are in the world.  I don’t know what I can possibly do to change it but I know I need and want to do something. 

This leads me to the very stimulating conversation we had this morning in the Tuesday morning Spirituality Group.  Using articles from the Weavings journal as our jumping off place for conversation, our article for today was “Graceful Neighboring—Dancing with our Diversity”.  Sounds delightfully engaging but one thing led to another and we found ourselves confronting each other with the turmoil in the Middle East.  The questions seem to be unanswerable—why are we really there, what’s behind our motivation, what can we do to stop the terrible devastation, are they really our neighbors and, perhaps mostly importantly, what would Jesus do? 

I wish I could tell you we came to some definitive conclusions but we didn’t.  Mostly I think we left with our minds spinning because such conversations can be draining and leave one feeling helpless.  I said I admire the woman named “Ebbie” who stands out on the village green on Sunday evenings with a sign that invites drivers to honk for peace but I’d be too embarrassed to do that.  So I’m not really open to that idea—and besides, it’s her idea.  But I do wonder is there a new creative possibility we could undertake as a parish to take a stand for peace?  Is there anything we can do together to make a difference in the world?  I am certainly hopeful and excited about the future of St. James but I am not so sure about the state of the world.  Any thoughts?

More Will Be Revealed

The change in the chapel is striking. No, not just striking it is breathtaking.  Let me explain.  The Chapel of the Sacred Heart was constructed in 1894.  It is part of what is now known as Richmond Hill.  For the past seven years Richmond Hill has been a place of prayer for me.  Moving to Richmond, Virginia in 1998 I quickly discovered this old 19th century converted convent which is now an ecumenical retreat center.  Over these years I have said many prayers in this place.  Prayers for healing, prayers for guidance, prayers for strength and courage.  I’ve said prayers of confession, of thanksgiving, of intercession.  This sacred space has heard many petitions of my heart and it is, by the way, the place where Joe and I met.

Recently I was back at Richmond Hill for an overnight retreat and was amazed at all the changes that have taken place.  We gave to the Capital Campaign so I knew the renovations were happening but this was my first time to actually see the transformations.  Walking into the chapel I could not believe my eyes.  The once small enclosed chapel now revealed a second story complete with eight original stained glass windows, a beautiful 33 ft. barrel-vaulted ceiling and intricate hand-stenciled gold-leaf borders. All this had been completely concealed by a dropped ceiling and vinyl wall covering that were put up by the Sisters of the Visitation in 1975.  All the beauty that was above the fake ceiling had been there all along but had been concealed.  No one knew of these treasures because they were completely blocked from sight.  In time more would be revealed and was revealed when the dropped ceiling and vinyl wall covering were removed.

Which brings me to my theme for the new year…”more will be revealed.”  It is amazing to me how little we really know of the future.  Oh, we can presume to believe that we will go on living just as we have, that no surprises will come our way, and that life will go on in 2006 just as it has in 2005.  We can assume broken relationships will remain broken, that hurts will not go away, that limitations will always be limitations.  But I hope this is not true.  I hope that for all of us and for St. James Church more will be revealed in 2006.  That somehow the temporary ceiling of our life and church will be removed and more will be revealed.  More of God’s purpose for us, more of God’s love for us, more of our care and concern for one another, more of who we are called to be as the people of God.  Yes, it is my hope that more will be revealed in 2006 and when we see what has been hidden, it will literally take our breath away.  I hope we are so amazed and grateful for God’s goodness and mercy that we will stand in awe of God’s love and respond in ways we have never done before. 

The way I see it changes will surely occur in 2006.  Good changes.  Surprising changes.  And through them more will be revealed.  May we remain faithful to the task of looking for new horizons, new challenges, and new opportunities to serve God.  Happy New Year!

The Wise Men see a baby.  One day in the future more will be revealed.  Beyond the cradle there will be a cross and an empty tomb.