As vaccines become available and the weather warms and the green hope of new life pokes its way through the ashes of Ash Wednesday, we are busy walking towards Jerusalem (our hearts in our throats…hoping against hope) in good company with our new friends from St. John’s and soon, Trinity Portland, only to discover (in the weeks ahead) that we are headed towards Calvary.
This is a gruesome realization, accompanied by the awareness that we ourselves are somehow complicit. We are weighted down with a year’s worth of death and anxiety that even as our fate changes, we must never deny.
And yet there is resurrection. There is Resurrection. It is coming. It has already happened. It will happen again. He lives. We will live.
Join me as we live into this pivotal season in the largest way possible, that makes our own small, yet somehow also enormously important and valued lives make sense as part of a greater whole that surpasses our understanding even as we walk smack dab into it.
Hindsight is 2020 and 2020 is now in hindsight. We are glad to see it go. But the grief we have experienced or put off experiencing in order to get through some difficult days may shake us hard in the year to come. Could we as a country have better prevented these losses? Did we ignore our neighbors or let our own despair go untreated? Did we develop bad habits that will hamper us going forward? Will we blame each other or ourselves in ways that are corrosive instead of enlightening? Have we asked what we have done or left undone and asked for forgiveness?
And going forward: What do we love? Where does it hurt? What do we long for? This is a year to wrestle with these questions as we come back together and chart our course for the future. Who are we called to be? This is an opportunity to become more deeply connected and vulnerable to each other especially in the aftermath of a time of great division. Because our divisions will not destroy us if we stand for something else. Saying we follow Jesus does not seem clear enough anymore. Those words can be twisted to mean so many different things. So what do you stand on? What will we stand on going forward? What can we stand on with both feet without equivocation? This is the way to strengthen our connections to our church and our church’s connection to the world, both of which have been forcefully challenged in this past year. So, who are we called to be? What is essential to you? To us as CHT? And most importantly perhaps, why do we believe that we ARE essential?
I wonder if our faith in the 21st year of the 21st century could be expressed as a way that follows the example and the tradition of Jesus by pursuing truth and love through hope. A hope that doesn’t give up. A hope that doesn’t die. This is a definition that matters to me; because of the persistence of that hope, because of the insistence on that love and also because of the dangerous, life-giving power of that word truth. All year I’ve been wrestling with the meaning of this one word. How to preach it and be clear what I stand for and what I stand against without shunning anyone. One approach is to back off: to say that truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It is relative and therefore un-preachable. But this does not seem adequate to our moment in history or to our savior or the Gospel, although truth be told, there are words in the Bible that can be twisted any which way. This week however I read that describing the world as post-truth is conceding that the world is pre-fascism. If we truly believe that truth is beyond our reach, we will become ever more susceptible to provisional answers thrust upon us by the most authoritarian or attractive or compelling salesman. Or we will become rigid traditionalists intent on returning to a past that is not repeatable. But we have a better method for pursuing truth, don’t we? It’s a path and a practice that pursues truth and love through hope. This is the good news. In fact it has always been the good news. The only always forever good news.
I believe with my whole heart that the future of the church depends on the depth of the questions we wrestle with and are willing, however tentatively, to articulate to each other. When we share our hearts and minds with vulnerability and mutual respect, we will grow closer and stronger as one body of many parts and many charisms. And we will prevail. And we will become more able to articulate and live into what we decide our faith really means and witness to it in the public square.
So, what words would you use to translate your faith into words for not-yet-Christian seekers looking for meaning and commitment in the post pandemic world? And perhaps more important, how might you translate it into simple words for your own use? For me, in 2021, it is actively pursuing truth and love through hope. And witnessing to this with my life. Please help me God.
Now …because hindsight IS indeed 2020, I’d like to share with you my letter from the annual report last year. I thought it was so good I had to share it again. (LOL…we Christians are never supposed to say we actually think we did something well. Let’s get over that. This year has been so hard, let’s learn to acknowledge when something is good, especially in ourselves, before we lose that opportunity forever.) The most uncanny thing about the letter though is that it is still so relevant, even in these unprecedented Covid times, times that were beyond our wildest dreams a year ago. It still holds. Please skim it, see if you agree with my assessment and I’ll meet you again at the bottom of the page.
Dear Friends in Christ, Jan 2020
I have been here 4 months and it feels simultaneously new and strange, and almost like home. While this may seem to make no sense (!), it is a lot like much of my life in God and with God: both familiar and mysterious; close, intimate, and intractably odd. This, I think, is a good thing. It lets me know the relationship is real and alive and open to surprises. After all, stuff that makes perfect sense gets boring after a while. Believing we are all connected to an invisible reality of transcendent love, now that never gets old.
Loving the people here at CHT was a no brainer for me. (I mean, just LOOK at you!) But I have also been so pleasantly surprised by your openness, both to each other and to me and Mary Anne. There is a foundation of good will and trust here that is rare in any organization. So, cherish it and each other and we can only grow deeper and stronger together.
So, it continues. I am finally learning what my 35 keys are for and where to look to find new batteries (ask Valerie) and where the light switch in the flower sanctuary is (ask Valerie). I am deeply grateful to Mary Anne for showing me all the liturgical ropes and for making sure (even at the last minute) that my stole is the right color. And for much, much more. Thank you, Mary Anne. And Pam is good, not only with numbers but with giving out laughs and chocolate, so all is well in the back office.
When I look toward the future, my hope is that we will find ourselves drawing closer together by finding ways to share our faith in more personal ways. Can we articulate why we are precious to each other and what the church means to us and to Middletown? This desire fuels my work both to get to know you and to witness to you in my preaching, but it also inspires my work to reach out to other clergy and non-profits in town. I believe the church is shaped in part by how we see the church. Therefore the church can be as wide and deep and resilient as we say it is; or rather as we are willing to stand up and testify to, by our words and our actions.
Who do we want to be? Who do you want to be? How can we support and challenge each other?
Here are some of my questions:
Could church be nurturing as well as prophetic? Could church be fun as well as challenging? Can we find renewed strength and confidence by being more vulnerable with each other?
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)
And share them.
SO BACK TO THE FUTURE 2021
Isn’t it strange to think of ourselves meeting in the chapel a year ago, silly with laughter, as I remember it, when I thoughtlessly and indecorously flung my leg over the back of a chair to join in the panel, no idea yet of what this year would hold and with no clue of what we would be called on to survive?
Not knowing yet that we would indeed struggle and yes, survive but also suffer great losses and have to give up much of what was dear to us, much that we at the time took for granted. Now, we’d like nothing better than wake up and discover this year was all a bad dream, to have our friends back and to just be back in church and yet our losses are real, we need to grieve them and these times continue to call us to reevaluate our priorities and strengthen our commitment to care for each other. How have we done? How will we go forward?
I wish I had found a way to reach out to every single one of you to see how you are doing and am deeply grateful for the advent of covenant groups that allowed us to reach out to each other. You can still join or start one. I am grateful to my many partners in ministry: to Luke, our summer intern for getting us rolling with digital worship, to Ted, our minister for Spirituality, to Marie, head of our safety committee, my wonderful wardens and vestry, and to Reverend Mo and the people of St John’s for joining their talents with ours in worship. But mostly I am grateful to you for trusting in me as I learn to lead this wonderful parish.
There are so many questions. When the dust clears and the vaccine is out, what will we see? Will some groups of people be left out? Will vaccine distribution be fair? Will we even care as long as we get our own? These are tough questions if we are honest with ourselves. Survival instincts can bring out the worst in us, in me anyway, but when I acknowledge my anxiety and fear, I find reserves of empathy underneath. And that’s when I know who I am again and feel reconnected to the world and to Christ.
And what about the smaller life-sized questions? Will more of us continue to work from home? Retire early? Will small businesses come back or will Middletown’s downtown be permanently changed? How might we respond? Rumor is it that more clergy are retiring. What does that mean for the wider church in CT where there is already a clergy shortage?
And parish-sized questions: How does it feel having a Christ-centered ballet company housed in our building? Does it fit our mission? Collectively we have received 3 grants this year: one for $13,000 for a part-time sexton, $2,000 for upgrades to streaming equipment and we are applying for another grant towards roof repairs. Ekklesia is applying for a grant for a portable outdoor stage that we could use for performances and worship. We have kept pledging up (thank you thank you thank you) and given generously to causes in the community. So we can rest assured that even in the midst of feeling largely powerless, we have made a tangible difference.
So…again… who DO we want to be as CHT: as this particular Episcopal Christian organization in this very particular location? Who are we called to be in 2021 as we return to the world on a Main Street that will surely be changed? What are our gifts as yet under-developed that the world needs now?
I dearly hope our covenant groups are nurturing your faith as they are mine so that we will have the inner resources to be more deeply engaged with these questions and ultimately become prophetic leaders in this congregation and in CT. That’s who I think we are called to be: a vibrant center of faith and action on Main Street in Middletown.
In Lent, we will continue our after-church book study of the Universal Christ and contemplative prayer. Led by Revs. Mary and Ted. (Feb 7, Feb 21, Feb 28, Mar 7, Mar 14, Mar 21) Lent it Go! We will have a joint zoom service with St John’s with distribution of ashes on Feb 17, Ash Wednesday. We look forward to a celebratory service in our cars in partnership with Trinity Portland and ST. John’s. We look forward to resuming outdoor worship when that is viable and will continue to monitor when we can safely return inside.
It is my hope that you will find one of the topics we open up for discussion today (Spirituality and Pastoral care, Social and Racial Justice and community engagement, CHT and the Arts worthy of your time and talent. Help lead us by raising your voice.
Compline is the last of the four services in the Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer. This office originated in the night prayers said before bed at the end of the monastic round of daily prayer. The Rev. Mary and various lay readers will take turns leading compline on Facebook on evenings between Christmas Eve and New year’s Eve. You can find the words to the service online here.
During the season of Advent this year, we will be having some conversations at each of four weeks about the coming of Christ, which we will celebrate on Christmas Day. But the conversations we will be having will be about something more personal, and that is about the coming of Christ in our own lives.
In these times when the whole world is being tossed to and fro by the pandemic, by racism, by climate change, and by political polarization, it’s a good time to get some ground under our feet so that we can move through these chaotic days in a more graceful and self-giving way; and that is where Christ comes in, not as an idea but as a living presence accompanying us each step of the way.
At our conversations (which Mary and I will lead), we will explore Christ’s presence in ourselves, in our relations with others and in the world around us, and in our deepest concerns about the meaning and purpose of life. This we will do not by thinking about it, but through a contemplative awareness fostered by Richard Rohr’s book, “The Universal Christ”. Our first conversation will come by Zoom on Sunday, November 29, after the liturgy. Before leaving, we will decide together about a meeting day and time for the three meetings after that.
You will do well to get a copy of the book to use, not for study so much as for spiritual reading in the couple of chapters assigned before each meeting (for the first meeting it will be the preface, “Before We Begin” and Chapter 1). The following handouts correspond to each week’s study.
Wow, life is challenging. Hope you are all hanging in there. I so wish we could all be together but it looks like the church will be back online for awhile. Middletown is now in the red zone and although we had a wonderful in-person service for All Saints, gathering in person feels increasingly ill-advised. And this week Steve, our preacher and worship leader, has unanticipated pressing family obligations.
But lucky for us, we are nimble and have friends and believe in collaboration and can adjust on a dime. So, this Sunday we will worship again with St John’s. Their wonderful young intern Lizzie is preaching, so we will get the benefit of hearing a vibrant young voice! I hope you will be moved to tune in and join for our own coffee hour on zoom afterwards.
But, regardless of this week’s adjustments, I feel very strongly that going forward, we need some new ways to be the church and grow closer together. Especially now, when the escalating Covid situation and continuing political partisanship threatens to further isolate us from each other. We can push back. So, I am asking for your help.
What I’d like to have happen is the creation of small covenant groups of 6-10 people who will support each other spiritually on a monthly basis. These meetings will start with a short reading of some kind. The text you decide to share could be the scripture for the week (such as in Dwelling in the Word), a Mary Oliver poem, a paragraph from something you’ve read that has moved you in some way, or a favorite piece of music. The point is to dwell in something together and then share thoughts and feelings and questions about it and listen to other people share. I recommend sharing the burden of leadership by rotating who picks the readings every month. The leader for the month then ends with a prayer or a poem or the Lord’s Prayer. This is just a suggested outline. Together you can adjust the rules for your group.
Please include present or former members of CHT. You are also welcome to include people from the wider Episcopal Church or from your own friend or family group. Feel free to invite someone who has nothing whatsoever to do with the church as long you are convinced the group could come to matter to them. The main thing is that these groups matter and are supportive to you. This what I mean by covenant. There is nothing I need from you more than this.
Scheduling can be tough but consider lunch times, breakfast times, Saturday mornings at 8 with coffee, cocktail hour with wine and cheese, Sundays at 5, Mondays at 10 after the kids are in bed: consider weird times. Meetings are only 40 minutes. (That’s how long free zoom meetings last. As the leader you will need to get a free zoom account to open the meeting or pick someone to be in the group who already has one! You can decide to extend meetings if you choose too.)
But these groups are for the least of these which is us.
And listen, if any of this makes you feel ill with apprehension, the first step is just to phone a friend and ask them to help you gather an awesome group.
( Go ahead: Ask ANYONE you feel called to. Ask Valerie, Emily Harrison from Perk (who expressed interest), Maryellen Shuckerow of St Vincent de Paul, someone from work, a favorite member who has moved away, your aunt Marge, Bishop Ian, your atheist colleague, someone who intrigues or challenges you, Pat Jackson…Just pray and ask and find your 6!)
Let me know if I can help in any way. And please send the names of your group members to me ASAP so I’ll know who is set and can reach out to help initiate other groups.
Lord’s Prayer from the New Zealand Prayer Book
Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven:
The hallowing of your name echo through the universe! The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world! Your heavenly will be done by all created beings! Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us. In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us. In times of temptation and testing, strengthen us. From trials too great to endure, spare us. From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and for ever. Amen.
Times before an election are likely to be controversial and chaotic, and this one is no exception. Indeed, the country is so polarized that even a simple conversation with the other side is nearly impossible. In such a climate, offering prayers before the coming election offers us a way to put all this in God’s hands, asking that God’s will be done while expressing our own concerns and hopes. In addition, it can help us to relate more faithfully to the issues that are before us, having prayed about them. Taking sides matters, but that’s not what this is about even if you tell God your side!
Both of us are planning to do this through October. If you’d like to join us in what we will be doing, here’s how:
> Call the church office for a copy of the brief orders of service and prayers from The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, or you can download them from the church’s Facebook page here or below.
> Before you pray, decide what you want to pray for or about, “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” After you have chosen one or a few concerns, see if any of the prayers listed are relevant.
> Then in a quiet place, be still and listen for God’s presence.
> Using one of the orders of service (morning, noon, evening, and before bedtime) offer your own prayers along with any others. You can repeat this once a week, daily, more than once a day, or as the spirit moves you.
> In addition, you could be reading one of the gospels in a prayerful way, and might also keep a journal to record your thoughts and prayers.
>Sometime after the election we all may want to gather (by Zoom, probably) for a time of reflection. And, may we add, when the time comes before that, remember to vote!
What is the Gospel and what is merely partisan politics? I don’t have the answer, but I feel like I am living that question as faithfully as I am able, heart open, willing to listen. As a church, following a higher authority, we are called to be humble and be a light for change in the world: to be aware of our manifold limitations and blind spots and to walk forward without fear, following Jesus. Our church means the world to me. And the world is also part of God’s mission for our church. Where do we stand?
I stand with you looking out together at a world that could use some spiritual sustenance. I know that I too need spiritual sustenance. How might we be that: for each other and for Middletown, even now, especially now, that we cannot gather. We need your creative ideas and your desire to connect; your needs and your dreams. Please join in worship on Zoom or Facebook. YOU DO NOT NEED TO JOIN FACEBOOK TO WATCH. It’s like a TV channel. And please fill out our parish survey when it comes next week. Reach out to me anytime to set up a one to one Zoom call or phone conversation. And call a friend. firstname.lastname@example.org
I look forward to offering at least one outdoor worship service in July.