Friday, August 28, 2015

Open the windows of your imagination

Steven Charleston is the retired bishop of Alaska and the retired dean of our seminary in Boston, Massachusetts, and much more.

He lives in Oklahoma where he is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation. He is also among the most powerful, insightful and inspiring preachers in the Episcopal Church today. He posts a daily reflection on his Facebook, and I like to pass these along from time-to-time. Here is the one for today:

“Open the windows of your imagination, for a new wisdom is about to fly into your life. It will be coming unexpectedly. It will appear like a revelation, even though the threads of this story are old and tangled. Like a watchman, you have kept the issues and the personalities before you, considering them over and over. Now they will fall into place, connecting the dots of your hope, showing you for the first time what tomorrow will look like. Be up and moving. Be prepared. A new wisdom is about to fly into you life: stand on the edge of what you know and look for the light just beyond.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Grant us a wise and discerning mind

In this morning's Daily Office reading 1 Kings 3:1-15, a young King Solomon has a dream wherein God says to him, "Ask what I should give you." Solomon does not ask for riches or power, or a long life, or the destruction of his enemies. Rather, Solomon asks for wisdom and discernment.

God is very pleased with Solomon's request, and so grants him a "wise and discerning mind" to govern his people. And he assures Solomon that much abidance will follow.

This past weekend, our Vestry (the governing board of our parish) went on retreat with me and our consultant, Caroline McCall. We did not talk about church business, but instead shared our stories and talked a great deal about discernment and respectful communication. It was my first opportunity as the new priest at Incarnation to hear the stories of our Vestry members and their perspective about Incarnation.

St. Andrew's Mission, Monte Rio
We met at St. Andrew's Mission, in the stunningly beautiful Russian River valley in Monte Rio about 45 minutes from our parish. St. Andrew's is a mission of Incarnation, and I will write more about this on this blog at a later date. It was good for us to see the mission and be in its space.

Over the years, I've worked with several Vestries and talked a great deal about discernment. What does it look and feel like? I've wrestled with the question, prayed about it, listened to others talk about it and read a few books.

What I've learned is discernment begins with a recognition that the head of the Church is the Risen Christ of Easter who dwells within each of us – and a recognition that Christ is able nudge us and guide us. That means that the church governing board is not just any non-profit governing board, but is a circle of spiritual leaders using all of their gifts to discern Christ's direction for the parish.

Discernment must be practical or it isn't really discernment. Let me share with you a few guidelines I've developed over the years about discernment. I shared this with our Vestry. I believe these guidelines are useful not just for a governing board, but for our own personal discernment as we walk through life. Please let me know what you think...

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Discernment decisions

Signs of discernment can include (but are not limited to):

·      Sense of peace about the decision. “All shall be well.”
·      Sense of joy – an interior sense that this is right.
·      Disorientation or perplexity followed by calm and serenity.
·      Sense of clarity.
·      Strands of experiences that seem unrelated now converge and fit together.
·      Persistence – the message keeps recurring.
·      Follows God’s timetable, not our own.
·      Fruits: “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16); It furthers the mission of the parish and the test of our baptismal covenant.

Discernment in community:

·      God is capable of reaching us individually, and we are capable of experiencing God. But Scripture makes a major point that God reaches us especially when we are gathered as the Covenantal community of Abraham/Jacob/Moses, or the “Body of Christ.”

·      God is capable of giving us more than one right answer. We might hear more than one.

·      When we consult with each other, something happens that is larger than the sum of our parts. We can see/hear more widely by listening to each other, and speaking from our own perspective.

·      In diversity is strength: discernment is the opposite of group-think. We need all of our perspectives to have a chance at discernment. Sometimes the “ah-ha” moment will come from an unexpected corner.

·      Requires trust: None of us has a monopoly on truth, but all of us possess some of the truth; we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to each other so that we can hear that truth each of us has. We behave in ways that build trust with each other individually and as a community.

·      Mutually supportive: When I don’t see it, you will. When I falter, you will be there for me. When I cannot pray, you will pray for me. I will support you in your ministry and you will support me.

·      The group tests our discernment together, helping to protect us from our individual bias (and arrogance) and any false sense of knowing God’s mind. “Mutual listening” might slow us down, but might bring a more profound and lasting change.

·      Not consensus: Not everyone needs to agree, but no one feels obligated to resist. There are no protest votes; everything that needs to be said is said before we make a decision. Consensus takes us to the lowest common denominator where we can agree; discernment holds the possibility risk and taking us to the edges.


Discernment requires we support each other in the decisions we make and the tasks we undertake. We cannot carry this load alone. Undercutting our decisions inside or outside the Vestry damages discernment and is toxic to trust. We bring our ideas and concerns to the Vestry; we don’t have side caucuses. We support each other by:

·      Being there with each other in worship and immersing ourselves in the life of the parish.

·      Making it a personal priority to attend meetings and Vestry retreats.

·      Praying for the parish, the Vestry, and the life of the wider Church.

·      Tending to our own spiritual, mental, and physical health.

·      Being honest with ourselves and with the group.

·      Speaking supportively inside and outside the Vestry about the decisions we make and the work we do. We don’t gossip or undercut each other with snide or negative comments.

·      We support with our time, talent and our money the ministries and mission of the parish. We have skin in the game. We don’t use it as leverage to get our way.

We might still get it wrong. We are unafraid to try again. When it is clear we have missed the mark, we analyze, understand, discern once again, and move on without blame or handwringing. We move forward in faith.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Incarnation's Open Table

The Church of the Incarnation has a remarkable ministry called "The Open Table" on Sundays.

I’ve had the privilege the last couple of weeks of being here early enough to see it.

Dozens and dozens of people who live on the streets come through our doors to get breakfast. They come early and are gone before our worship begins.

I am hugely inspired by the commitment and outpouring of love by our volunteers who feed people every Sunday morning.

Many of the people who walk through our doors are struggling to get by, one day at a time. Some have worn the same clothes for days on end. Some have mental health issues, and some are down on their luck. What would Jesus do?

Feed them.

Somehow there is enough food for all. God provides.

I also know that managing the crowd presents challenges for our volunteers. There are some edgy people who walk through our doors. There are risks involved in this effort and it takes creativity – and courage – to meet these challenges.

Yet here is one thing to remember: By feeding people, we are surrounding hate with love and forcing it to surrender. We are showing this community a different way to live than greed and selfishness.

This church is a beacon of hope and love to this community and the world beyond, and that is worth celebrating and strengthening.

At some point, we also need to ask why so many people live on our streets. What is missing in our larger society that causes so many people to have nowhere else to go? Why does the city of Santa Rosa seem so indifferent?

And what is our role as a church in changing the structures that cause poverty and leave people living on the streets without decent care for their bodies and minds?

I was once asked the difference between ministries of mercy and ministries of social justice. Think of this as like a river. When you see someone drowning in the river, you pull them out. That is a ministry of mercy, like Open Table.

But at some point, we need to walk up the river and find out why people are falling in the river. Who, or what, is pushing them in? That is the ministry of social justice. We need to walk up the river in Santa Rosa. We may not like what we see, but we need to go there.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Black Lives Matter and the Episcopal Church

Lately there is much conversation and soul-searching in the Episcopal Church on the topic of race and our national legacy of slavery and segregation (in which our church shares).

It is a long overdue discussion.

Our church history includes bishops who owned slaves and parishes that were very much a part of the system of racial oppression.

We even had a bishop, Leonidas Polk, who resigned his holy orders to take up arms as a general in the Confederate army. As a church, we've never have wrestled with our history and the meaning of these events.

Much of our recent conversation has been prompted by the cascade of racially-charged incidents from Ferguson to Florida. In the Southern church where I've served for the past seven years, our University students pricked the conscience – and memory – of an older generation that lived through the civil rights era of a half-century ago. "Black Lives Matter" has become a mantra not just in the streets but in our pews.

Let us also remember that our history as a church has bright spots worth celebrating. Last week we honored the martyrdom of Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian who was shot down protecting an African American child from bullets in Alabama in 1965. I am also mindful that the bishop who confirmed me, James Pike, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma.

My parish in Charlottesville Virginia stood publicly against segregation in the 1950s when it really counted – and withstood the wrath of its bishop.

Bishop Michael Curry
I am also mindful of several amazing developments just in the last few weeks. Our national General Convention, our highest governing body, just elected the Right Rev. Michael Curry as our next presiding bishop. He will be the first black presiding bishop in the two-centuries-plus history of our church. Currently the bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina, Bishop Curry will begin his nine-year term at the helm of our church in November.

Bishop Curry is a dynamic preacher and a courageous leader. He will doubtless zero-in to those places and practices where we are the most uncomfortable and in need of change. He will challenge us not only to bring people of color into our pews, but will push us to get out onto the streets and into the fields where people are desperate to hear the gospel of hope that Jesus brings.

A day after his election, Bishop Curry marched in Salt Lake City with other several thousand people to protest gun violence in our country. I was privileged to also be in the march. At the end of the march, he addressed the crowd: "Do you know why black lives matter?" he said. "Because ALL lives matter."

Many of our current bishops recently went on a pilgrimage to Alabama to the milestones of the Civil Rights movement. A new wind is blowing in our church.

Finally, the death of Julian Bond is much on my mind in recent days. He was a young, thoughtful, and courageous civil rights leader in the 1960s. Many thought he was intellectual leader of the movement. Decades later he taught history at the University of Virginia, and touched the lives of thousands of students.

I made his acquaintance in 1993 when I was working on a biography of Willie Brown, who was then the Speaker of the California Assembly and arguably the most powerful black politician in the United States.

Bond gave me his perspective on the differences and similarities of the civil rights movement in the West and the South. He was unfailingly polite and patient with my many questions. A friend of mine recently observed that he might have been our first African American president had the country been ready for that in his era.

In the weeks and months ahead, I hope to offer a few other thoughts on these topics and I hope you will join me in this conversation.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Fig trees, passings and new growth

We've arrived.

Our journey across the United States was relatively easy though tedious. We had good weather most of the way except through Indiana. The big monster summer storms in Kansas were in our rearview mirror. We covered 3,077 miles and nine states.

Alas, my mother died while we were on the road. I am so blessed that she phoned me on my birthday. She died in her sleep two days later. She was 90, very frail, and she very much wanted to join my dad. Regretfully I did not get to California before she went.

The Daily Office gospel reading this morning Mark 11:12-26 is about a fig tree no longer bearing fruit, and it sounds a bit harsh (curses and all). The gospel writer doubtless meant this passage as a metaphor for institutional and spiritual atrophy, but it is also a reminder of the cycle of life. Life has a way of thriving, surviving and yet life eventually becomes fragile and frail. Trees no longer bear fruit and die.

And yet life does find a way. Resurrection comes. Life begins anew. Wounds are healed, hurts forgiven. Life and love wins.

“So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”