Our upcoming Program Year

As many of you know, our focus at St. Luke’s this year will be “Attending to the Presence of God,” and our formation offerings are a delightful invitation to do so. Here’s a brief sketch of the good things coming our way. To hear more, join us at a forum on September 18th. And take note: this year finds us rich with new volunteers, whose names and roles are bolded below. Also, we are still in need of volunteers who feel called to offer their gifts to this year’s powerful offerings. Please see Renee to talk through where and how you might join these new endeavors!

Children’s Sermons:

During the 9:30 Eucharist, we will continue with our summer structure: keeping kids in the pews for the Liturgy of the Word; having them join Deacon Greg for the Gospel Procession; offering them a sermon, music, and art in the library; and then returning to the church at the Peace. This will keep kids closely connected to our worship gathering, and will allow them to sit with us through the mystery, praise, and complexity that is our liturgy. Laura Mercadal will serve as an alternate in leading these sermons, and we’d love to have one more person who might take pleasure in guiding our children this way.  

Children’s Formation:

In addition, beginning September 18th we will kick off a new religious formation program. This program will run from 11am to 12N, will be held on the third floor, and will be divided into nine units based on the topics we want kids to explore this year (and the liturgical seasons in which those topics fit). Some of these sessions will be intergenerational (we’ll bring kids down to learn alongside adults, and once even to teach us!), but most will be designed for ages 4-10. Part of our goal this year is to widen the lens of our children’s religious formation: we don’t want to limit the voices they hear. This is important because we are gifted with a parish full of wise and experienced teachers, scholars, and leaders, which is an immense privilege, and one from which our kids should benefit. It likewise allows individuals to devote themselves deeply for a series of weeks, and then to return to their own formation practices.

The topics we’ll cover include:

  • The Book of Common Prayer
  • The Eucharist
  • Home as a Family’s Spiritual Center
  • Isaiah, Art, & Music
  • The Story of Joseph
  • Matthew & First-Century Nazareth Context
  • Exodus, Art, & Music
  • Acts of the Apostles
  • Ecclesiology (or “What is Church?”)

And I am thrilled to announce our team of volunteer teachers this year. Though we are still searching for two lead teachers and a number of assistants – should you be interested! – so far our spectacular line-up includes Elizabeth Kraatz, Brian Lonberg, Amy Hanson, Becky Edmonds, Jenny Sanderson, Fritz MacDonald, Madeleine Roberts, and Jeremy Sabella. 

Adult Formation:

Adult Formation will also gather from 11am to 12N, and as I mention above will include intergenerational days, as well as content crossover, which will make it exciting for kids and parents to share what they’ve learned. There will be two forums per week, the content for which is being carefully created and cultivated by both St. Luke’s staff and our new Adult Forum Team: Frankie LeClear, Linda Snyder, Caleb Molstad, and Jax Lee Gardner.

Topics will include (but are by no means limited to):

  • Attending to the Presence of God
  • The Rector’s Fall Class: The Eucharist
  • The Home as our Spiritual Center
  • Adult Art Series: Writing Christ Icons
  • Social Justice & Outreach
  • Prayer Practices
  • The Adult Lenten Study
  • Anti-Racism Work
  • Music & Drama
  • History & Community
  • Ecclesiology (or “What is Church?”)

Baptism:

We’ve spent joyful time this summer creating a new structure for baptismal formation. Baptismal candidates and/or their families will prepare via communal exploration of the sacrament’s scriptural precedence, the liturgy in which they’ll make their covenant, and the history of the sacrament itself. Then – in the weeks following their baptism – they’ll experience the fullness of the corporate life of the Church and the mystagogos or “mysteries” of faith as they begin to live into Christ’s death and resurrection. This formation structure, therefore, is designed to make clear that the invitation to baptism is available for all and need never be earned, and that the work baptism initiates is lifelong, mysterious, and communal. As a parish, we are privileged to witness this process, and to consider the catechumens as living examples of our common need to reexamine and reaffirm our baptismal covenant.

I’m also happy to announce that Carla Baublis and Dennis LeClear have joined our new Baptism Preparation Team!

Confirmation, Reaffirmation, & Reception:

We’ve likewise revolutionized our process for confirmation, reaffirmation, and reception.

Candidates will engage deeply with the following topics:

  • Scripture
  • The Anglican Communion
  • Liturgy
  • Rule of Life
  • Discernment
  • Prayer Practices
  • Sacramental Rites
  • Stewardship
  • Safeguarding
  • Social Justice
  • Outreach

Our intention is to offer a flexible program that need not be met in any particular way. Though rigorous, this process is a journey and not a destination. It is an invitation to cultivate an approach for sustaining a rich spirituality throughout one’s life. Please let us know if you might feel called to explore this sacrament with us.

Also, join me in welcoming John Tucker to our Confirmation Preparation Team, and please reach out if you have interest in lending your voice to this new program!  

Fellowship:

Please also join me in welcoming our new St. Luke’s Socializes Planning Team, which is comprised of Laurence Hawthorne, Stacey Marquee-Flentje, and Art McNabb. See these folks with ideas about food and fellowship!

Youth Group:

Finally, our youth group is growing, and we’re looking for an engaged volunteer leader. See Renee if you feel called to offer your gifts to this wonderful community of young parishioners.

The volunteer position will require:

  • 3-5 hours most weeks;
  • strong listening skills, creativity, empathy, and patience;
  • reliability and a talent for organization; experience with social media a plus;
  • the ability to work well with parents/caregivers, and to understand family dynamics;
  • the ability to connect with the interests and concerns of today’s youth;
  • engagement with our youth group principles of scripture, service, and solidarity, as well as our parish identity: “Spirituality in Action”;
  • flexible hours and energy for intensive fundraising endeavors;
  • summer flexibility, and a willingness to help plan and lead our yearly pilgrimage;
  • a likelihood of long-term (two-year) availability;
  • safeguarding certification (which can be completed before volunteer commencement);
  • a background check (completed by us);
  • experience working with youth and/or positive personal youth group history a plus;
  • enthusiasm for the opportunity to work with youth of diverse gender identity, sexuality, and background, and from a variety of family configurations.

An Invitation to Rest

On the Question of Rest:

A thing that has been said to me is that I’m not great at relaxation. And it’s something that worries me because: I believe in rest. I’m not interested in more-is-more life, or parenting, or work. And I’m for sure not interested in busier-is-better spirituality. The people I most admire move more slowly than that. They make more space.

But I don’t move slowly. At least not on the surface. On the surface, I’m not great at relaxation.

I tried to tackle the problem by imagining a way out of some of the work in which I engage. But the truth is, I engage in it because it feels worth doing. And I imagine that’s true for most of us. How I parent. How I labor. What I cook. The walks I like to take and the books I like to read. It’s all important to me. More important than the indulgence I’m supposed to want.

And yet I’m tired. Most of the time. Part of this is because I’m a parent of young children and – ask any of us – tired is a thing. I’m also lucky enough to have deeply fulfilling work, which has the gratifying if exhausting consequence of meaning I long to do more. I stay up late at night because doing more brings me joy. And so: tired.

But I’ve been offering space lately to this question: how might I meet my need for more rest without giving up any of the beloved endeavors to which I offer myself? Without ceding to the notion that I’d be somehow more whole if I binge watched episodes of Orange is the New Black instead of reading theology and listening to sermons once the kids go to bed.

And so I’ve turned to an old practice. Like, Genesis-old. I’m far from alone in this return, of course, though what I see of this practice being practiced is scattered. And it is by all accounts countercultural in contemporary America. So:

The Invitation:

This isn’t a post that extols the virtues of a long-held practice of Sabbath-keeping, though plenty of those exist. It isn’t a summary of the scriptural origins of the practice, though do read those because there’s immense wisdom in what our desert mothers and fathers had to say on the subject. And it isn’t a deep-dive into the theology behind Sabbath-keeping, though Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a pretty gorgeous one of those, if you’d like to read alongside me. Instead, this is an invitation. Because like many of us, I work best in community. And because I’m guessing that lots of you wish you knew how to slow down too. I’m not alone in needing more rest, and I’m not alone in being unsure how to get it.

So (the Tiniest Little Bit) About Sabbath:

The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori teaches here that “Sabbath can be an opportunity to learn more deeply what God asks of each of us — loving our neighbors, each one made in God’s image, as we love ourselves.” And she asks: “How and where will you find time for Sabbath that will stretch and deepen your mind and heart?”

Jane Carol Redmont describes Sabbath keeping as “a regular weekly rhythm of rest, time for reconnecting with the sacred, festive meals with loved ones, the nurturing of community life, study of holy wisdom and sacred texts, attention to beauty and sensuality, honoring intimacy.” But Redmont also writes about how hard it is to get students even to experiment with the practice. I met with such resistance when I tried to get students to do media blackouts: to unplug for forty-eight hours. Lord have mercy; they found even the suggestion traumatic.

Rabbi Heschel writes what is, perhaps, my favorite recommendation. He says, “our goal should be to live life in radical amazement….to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

And then there’s also this:

Sabbath-Keeping as Protest:

Author Stephen W. Smith writes that “when practiced, Sabbath-keeping is an active protest against a culture that is always on, always available and always looking for something else to do.”

It was in talking this through with my wife that the reasons for our cultural resistance to true rest became clearer to me. We’re offered ways to buy rest: television, movies, dessert, alcohol, amusement parks, vacations, prepared food brought to our table. And don’t get me wrong: aside from amusement parks, I dig these things. But really, most of those forms of rest are stimulating, right? They might bring pleasure; they’re surely entertaining; and they offer a passive form of indulgence – maybe even luxury – that might pass for rest. But they aren’t likely to bring us stillness, a sense of enough, or gratitude for what is and not what can be made to be.

Heschel writes: “People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state–it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle…. Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions.” It seems to me that real rest is a form of celebration. And it doesn’t make anyone money. There’s nothing there to market to us, which is probably why we’re culturally discouraged from making space for it. There’s nothing to sell because rest, celebration, means enough. It means more than enough.

Our First Sabbath:

So this week, for the first time, my family kept a sort of Sabbath, which consisted among more nuanced shifts of a commitment to abstain from all internet/media activities. From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday (because church work means I can’t keep Sabbath on Sundays), we put the devices away. We played music from neglected CDs on our old player in the kitchen (instead of our carefully curated playlists on Spotify). That first night, when the kids were sleeping and the chores were done and it was only 9:30pm, I settled in our old glider and read almost fifty pages of a novel in a dark house with no glowing screens. And then I prayed for longer. And then I slept.

The next morning, we went to the farmer’s market, and I didn’t take pictures of my kids’ faces when I said they could have the freshly fried donuts they smelled from the other side of the market. I didn’t take pictures when they saw red sunflowers or tasted the most perfect yellow tomatoes on earth.

When we got home, I cooked lunch slowly, enjoying the sound of the boys playing outside, and the feel of my cool kitchen, and the indulgence of good food. We invited friends over spontaneously, and watched the kids get wet and muddy. I paid a little more mind to my breath, to my posture. I paid a little more mind to my wife. I worked (cooking, parenting, sweeping the floor), but more slowly, with intentionality and joy. I took pleasure even in washing dishes. I worried less about how long bedtime would take. There’s no evidence, but I think I smiled more.

I’m in, at least for the year. At least until next August, some version of this will be our lives from Fridays at sundown through Saturday nights. I’m already looking forward to next week. If you think you might join us, will you let me know? I’d love insight into what you’re reading, or how you’ve kept this spiritual practice in the past, or how your family practiced it growing up. I’d love to know how it works for you now. Even in this new, fumbling stage, I am grateful to be on this road, and I would be thrilled to have company.

scripture, creation, & calm

Last week – with dozens of volunteers and nearly a hundred Kalamazoo-area kids – we held our annual Bronson Park Vacation Bible School. It was an intense and exuberant week, marked overall by much singing, shouting, and joyful noise.

But one session each day – which I was inspired to create during last year’s VBS – sought to offer kids some insight into what to do with all that energy: how to move from enthusiasm to commitment to our scriptures; from excitement to comprehension of the Word; from creative energy to creation itself.

Each day – in groups of twenty – kids entered a small space replete with rich textiles, lamps for light, a small altar, prayer mats, and candles. Each day, I greeted them at the door, whispering hello and encouraging them to greet one another in whispered tones as well. They seemed to understand instantly that the space was different. In that room, they were remarkably still. It wasn’t what they expected to encounter at Vacation Bible School, and so they were watchful, full of curiosity and wonder.

Upon entering, they were invited to find a prayer mat and draw awareness to their breath. I was startled by how well they responded to the work of intentional breathing. Here are the five particular exercises we did to prepare our bodies and minds for each day’s Bible chapters. I encourage you to try them: for yourself or with your kids. They were wonderful for helping us receive the Word, but they would work well, too, in a myriad of other circumstances.

  1. Flower Breathing: Breathe in, imagining you’re smelling your favorite flower. Breathe out, imagining you’re blowing out birthday candles. Repeat slowly, and at least ten times. This technique will help you engage your imagination, become aware of your breath, and calm and awaken your body.
  2. Fire Breath: Interlace your fingers underneath your chin. Inhale and lift the elbows up to frame your face. Exhale, lifting your head up and making a whispered “hah” sound toward the sky, like a dragon breathing fire. At the same time, lower your elbows back down to meet at the bottom again by the end of the “hah” exhale. Do so slowly, and at least ten times. This technique builds strength and heat within, making it a good energizer. It also helps us feel brave when we might be nervous.
  3. Feather Dancing: Hold a feather (a peacock feather, if possible!) two to three inches in front of your mouth and exhale completely, seeing how long you can make it dance. Watch the feather carefully as it moves. Then breathe in slowly to the count of four, and hold your breath to the count of two. Then breathe out again, seeing how long you can push the air out of your lungs, how long you can make the feather dance. Repeat at least ten times. Notice how this feels. Notice any differences in your body or your thoughts.
  4. Sound & Attention: This exercise is particularly helpful for grounding you in the present moment. It is of use when your thoughts carry you into the past or the future. Begin by lying down comfortably with your hands at your sides and your eyes closed. Draw your attention to your breathing: simply notice as your breath enters and leaves your body. You can also place your hands on your soft, breathing belly, feeling it rise and fall. Do this for at least five breath cycles (five inhales and exhales). Then, when you feel ready, create or have someone else in the room create a sound that resonates. This could be a piano key, a meditation chime, a singing bowl, a rain stick, or another sound that will resonate and eventually evanesce. When you hear the sound, focus on it as it gets softer and softer. When you no longer hear the sound, move your hands from your sides to your heart, as if in prayer. Return to five breathing cycles. Repeat this a couple of times.
  5. Weather Report: First, sit up tall and do some breathing. Try one of the approaches above, or simply breathe in for four counts, hold for two, and breathe out slowly. Repeat for at least five cycles. Then close your eyes and ask your body what your weather is. What weather best describes your feelings at this moment? Do you feel sunny, rainy, stormy, calm, windy, like a tsunami? This exercise helps us to remember that just as we can’t change the weather outside, and the weather is not our planet, we can’t change our emotions either, and those emotions aren’t us.

Having finished the day’s breath work, students were handed their art notebooks, in which they created art all week – being artists in God’s image – while listening to each day’s scriptural reading.

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  1. The first day, when the theme was hope, kids drew their understanding of light while listening to Isaiah 9:2-7. Their depictions of light were stunning: some offered it coming in through windows; others drew candles; still others created bright, vibrant skies.
  2. On Tuesday, the theme was courage, and they were asked to draw something they wanted to do but were afraid to try. I was startled by how easy it was for nearly all of them to bring to mind some current fear: jumping off the swing like their older sister; taking the training wheels off their bike; holding their breath and going under water; climbing some structure at the playground. They drew while I read Matthew 14:22-32, in which Jesus commands Peter to walk across the water towards him, which Peter can do it until he remembers his fear, forgets to trust, and begins to sink. Jesus, of course, lifts him up again.
  3. On Wednesday, the reading was the Beatitudes; the theme was direction; and kids drew their own imagined door to God: a door only they would recognize. These were especially moving: some were enormous while others were tiny passageways. Some were full of color, others just space and light.
  4. On Thursday the theme was love. The reading was the resurrection according to Luke, and they created images of themselves offering a small act of love or kindness towards someone in their lives. What was amazing about these was how much they smiled while they drew.
  5. On Friday, the theme was power; the reading was Acts 1; and kids drew one moment of beautiful creation that they had been privileged to witness. They were incredibly precise about these: I saw a small red flower that no one else noticed. There was a moon in the sky even though it was morning. I wanted a baby brother for so long and then I got to hold him. 

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Each day, when their creations were finished, we talked through what they had felt called to draw, and why. Then, together, they would create a prayer that related to the reading and images. For hope, one group wrote: Dear God, we hope for happy children. And we thank you. Amen. For courage, another wrote: Dear Jesus, were you ever scared? We have been scared. Please give us courage. Amen. For direction, a third wrote God, please help us find the door to your house. Amen.

Given the children’s remarkably open, calm, present experience of this process, we will definitely incorporate mindfulness in other aspects of our formation offerings, including our upcoming Music Camp. And if you explore any of these techniques as a part of your spiritual formation at home, please let us know how it goes. Watching nearly a hundred children engage scripture both contemplatively and creatively was well worth the effort.

storytelling

As is always true following devastating acts of violence, these past days have brought questions about how and when to talk with children. When do we introduce them to the knowledge that trauma on this scale exists? When do we pull back the curtain and let them see more suffering than they are required to see in their own lives and worlds? In the case of this week’s tragedy – the destruction of lives in a gay nightclub in Orlando – this question is especially fraught for queer families, who have to ask when and how to tell their children that Omar Mateen wanted to destroy people like their parents. Families like their family.

I don’t have an answer for the question of when to have these talks, and God knows I don’t know how. As I write this, my four-year-old is napping on the sofa next to me. It feels like violence even to imagine telling him that people were shot to death for being like his parents.

But what I do know is that those conversations – the ones about gunmen and body counts and hatred – aren’t the only ones we need to think about with great care.

We are all of us storytellers. Whether we think of ourselves that way or not: we tell stories. And the stories we tell have enormous influence over how we, and our children, and those around us think and behave and practice living.

When a couple in rural Ohio – seeing a bumper sticker on our car that identified us as gay – tried to run my family off the side of a mountain in 2009, they were reacting to any number of stories they’d heard about gay people and the danger we pose. They were reacting to those stories, and not at all to us as humans. Those stories promote violence.

When we tell stories that make us fear our trans brothers and sisters, or followers of other faith traditions, we’re at risk of promoting violence. When we tell stories that insist upon a rigid and narrow understanding of identity, people learn tragic and untrue things about themselves and those around them. For countless humans, stories like these aren’t just stories: they’re death sentences. And even when we’re careful not to tell these stories ourselves, our children hear them elsewhere. So we have to do more than stay silent. We have to tell other stories, different stories. Stories that seek not to shut down questions, but to open them up. That seek not to control mystery, but to illuminate it. Stories that articulate both our humanity and our divinity.

As Christians, we have rich tools with which to do that work.

We have scripture: the stories of our desert fathers and mothers. The stories of Jesus Christ, who told stories to teach us to love God and our neighbor, “on [which] two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).

We have liturgy: space and time for ritual and attention; for Word, song, movement, and sound; for the community of saints and a wide-open table.

We have the liturgical year, which grants us blessed space to move safely through the most inescapable of human states and emotions: surrender, longing, vulnerability, elation, disbelief, cynicism, trust, terror, desperation, devastation, grief, sorrow, loneliness, triumph, fear, grace, compassion, gratitude, reverence, and love.

And we have responsibilities articulated for us in the Book of Common Prayer, and by us at our own baptism and throughout our lives. That we will “renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” That we will “put our whole trust in [Jesus’s] grace and love” (which is to say in ways of being that bring forth grace and love). That we will “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our] neighbor as [our]self.” That we will “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

We are fed spiritually such that we might go forth and serve God’s fragile world. One of the ways we do that is by telling stories. And we have the right stories to tell. Millennia-old stories. Stories of love, grace, and resurrection. Of miraculous birth, mystery, and life following death. Of radical inclusion, rejected dominance, and subverted paradigms.

We are storytellers with some of the world’s oldest and richest stories at the ready. And we live in a world that needs to hear more of them.

 

the covenant as written by our little ones

In preparation for the Pentecost baptisms, we spent some time in Children’s Chapel a few weeks back looking at the Baptismal Covenant. Because so many of our kiddos were baptized as babies, these occasions for renewal and recommitment feel especially rich. For each of us, even as adults, new depths of understanding come each time we make these promises. But especially for our children, the covenant has the potential to serve as an awakening. When they hear us speak these words, children are invited into a relationship with God, and with all of us in Christ. And when they begin not just to hear but to speak these words themselves, they set out on their own path towards God. They begin to grasp how behavior shapes belief. They become Christian not because we are, but because God is calling them into the practice of Christianity.

And so I offered our children only the questions of the covenant, and gave them space as a community to craft their own answers instead of teaching them our collective, scripted responses. They were delightfully thoughtful and engaged with one another throughout this process. Their answers – which I copied verbatim once they’d settled on language they all more or less agreed with – are endearing and witty, and not at all surprising given the vibrant community of children we have here at St. Luke’s. But they are also largely theologically sound, and have the potential – if we read beyond or perhaps into the many amusing barnyard references – to help us deepen our own understanding of this piece of our tradition.

To me, that’s the highest potential payoff of intergenerational spiritual practice: the opportunity that arises again and again to learn from one another. To be, from our birth to our death, at once students and teachers. So as we head into a summer of more shared intergenerational worship, I offer these covenant responses as an invitation. May we tune carefully in to the fruitful truth that our children have as much to teach us as we have to teach them. And may the promises we make to God be both illuminated by and illuminating for those of any age on this path alongside us.

Do you believe in God the Father?
I believe in God, who created us, pigs, chickens, and blankets.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the son of God?
I believe in Jesus the son of God, who lived and died and lived again. He heals people. 

Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
I believe in God the Holy Spirit, who comes like wind or like fire to help us understand the Word of God. 

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
I will keep doing prayers, receiving the body of God, and doing the chicken dance. 

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
I will return to God. 

Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?
I will proclaim that God is happy and loves us.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
I will eat chickens with others and try to see good in them.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will be nice and a good listener, sharing what I have and doing the pig dance.

 

 

 

the fullness of a great program year

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Impossible as it is to believe, we’re only a handful of weeks away from Trinity Sunday, and thus from the end of this program year. Our time in Children’s Chapel has centered on worship, joy, and community. We made murals and prayed our Anglican Prayer Beads. We sang hymns in rounds and other canons. We learned about what we really need to worship in community – bread, wine, water, oil, scripture, people, and a bishop – and we tried to lend our care mostly to those elements. We studied the Books of the Bible in depth: learning their names, their structures, and a little about what they each offer. We carefully located the stories we explored within that sacred library: when we read from The Gospel According to John, for example, we found John in our gorgeous wooden Bible. We parsed the Lord’s Prayer phrase-by-phrase, exploring the meaning of each word, as well as the prayer’s scriptural origin. We moved through the lectionary in pace with you downstairs, reading at turns from the NSRV, a youth version of that translation, and various children’s Bibles. We told stories using Godly Play and a multitude of meditative approaches, with guides reading to children and children reading to one another. We offered context, history, insights, and lots of questions. We memorized psalms, prayed our own Prayers of the People, grappled with the events and emotions of the Triduum, and noticed God in both the snow and the sunshine out our third-floor windows. We worshiping together as a young but mighty community of Christ’s followers.

As individuals and as a community, our parish kiddos embraced the challenge of reverence. I hope the stories the children have to tell will give you a sense of the worship in which we engaged, and the mystery for which we made space. I want to thank everyone who took the time to gather with us upstairs this year: your presence was a gift to our children, and to our parish.

The Summer Ahead

Of course, our kids are not just their own community; they are a part of ours at large. Summer offers a nice opportunity to embrace the fullness of this fact. So beginning Sunday, May 29th, kids will start each liturgy with their family. They’ll be present for the opening hymn and acclamation, the collects, and the readings. Then they’ll join the deacon for the Gospel procession. They’ll follow the torch bearers, who will come down the side aisles and back up the center. This plan was born of our recognition that even before liturgy is words, it is movement. The Gospel procession is a celebration and enactment of Christ’s constant movement towards us.  We see this in Galatians 4:4-5:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

God sent his Son so that we might receive adoption. As such, the Gospel procession is a celebration. Having our children join Deacon Greg is a way of making us more aware of this joy, and of recognizing the important message it communicates. Further, having the kiddos gathered around Deacon Greg as he reads the Gospel will help us – adults and children – stay aware that the Holy Gospel belongs to us all.

After the reading, the deacon will lead the kids out of the church and to the library, where I’ll offer a small children’s sermon, and Jan Tucker (with her guitar) will lead us in song. When there’s time, we’ll also do a little art, a prayer, or some movement. As has been our habit, we’ll return at the Exchange of Peace.

Having the children present for the start of church will no doubt be an adjustment, but it stands to offer a deepening of the spiritual formation they’ve undertaken all program year, and an opportunity for us to worship alongside them, witnessing their spiritual growth and sharing ours with them. I look joyfully forward to a summer’s worth of liturgy, fellowship, and light.

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“love’s risen body”

In the wake of a powerfully intense Holy Week, I am drinking tea and indulging in rich, meandering conversations. I am letting myself rest. But even as I offer space for the exhaustion of Church Work During Holy Week, I sense the ways in which I have been fed, made new, brought a little closer to whole by the journey. Boundaries were surrendered, yet much was gained. I trust that those of you who made space to move through the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter) came away with this sense as well. And I write – for those present and not, familiar and not – to share a sense of the undertaking. Because whatever your faith – however tethered to or skeptical of Christian doctrine you are in this moment – the stories and mystery and magic and intimacy of the Triduum are an offering that could be of service to our intimacy-starved, vulnerability-resistant culture.

Maundy Thursday is when the church remembers the Last Supper. This includes Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, offering them and us a new mandate to “love one another” (John 13:34). The liturgy ends with the stripping of the sanctuary, which reminds us of the empty cell into which Jesus is put for the night; enacts the stark reality of Good Friday; portrays the barrenness we fear in death; performs a kind of letting go; and reminds us that the Body of Christ was stripped. And yet here’s what most startles: whole communities come together and wash each other’s feet. They stand in a sacred place, take off their socks, and gather. They kneel before one another: strangers, friends, acquaintances, clergy, staff, children, parents. And one by one, they take bare foot in hand and cup water in palm. Whether you’re washing or being washed, it is a strange and vulnerable moment. It is awkward and humbling. We expose feet. We allow that covered part of ourselves to be held by another, to be loved. It takes surrender. And it changes us.  

This year, our deacon preached about mandates: his own to the parents of his pediatric patients, and Jesus’s to us. He said: mandates are bossy, but sometimes they’re right. Sometimes it’s right to tell a parent she should stay with her child. Sometimes it’s right to tell us to love. Sometimes it’s right to tell one another what to do. And so – with the Ubi Caritas filling the space around us – I washed a parishioner’s feet. And at first I felt all the usual insecurities: I’m doing this wrong. I’m not getting it right. You know these voices, right? Then I remembered the deacon’s words about mandates and the love that Jesus calls us to in this story. And I thought that kneeling there – foot in one hand and water cupped in the other – I couldn’t fail at that. I couldn’t fail at loving. I kneeled down and loved the woman whose foot I held through the awkwardness and the boundaries I had to put down to do so. The mandate is that we love. And it sets us free because it means we get to let everything else go in deference. And in letting those old stories go – I’m doing this wrong. I’m not getting it right – I discovered new wells of love. For the woman whose feet I was washing. For myself. For God. And it isn’t that it stopped being awkward; it’s that the awkwardness made it possible to get to that discovery: the letting go of my own sense of failure and the taking up of Jesus’s trust in me. Trust that I can love as he loved. And then I did.

Good Friday commemorates Jesus’s suffering and death. The altar is bare, having been stripped at the end of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. The same people who only the day before kneeled down before feet and water now read the story of Jesus’s arrest, indictment, and crucifixion. The words of the angry (fearful) crowd would resonate with anyone in the room who is discomforted by oppression, by history’s incessant grasping for power. In The Heart of Christianity, New Testament scholar Marcus Borg argues that:

this is the political meaning of Good Friday: it is the domination system’s ‘no’ to Jesus. This is also the political meaning of Easter: Easter is God’s ‘yes’ to Jesus and his vision, and God’s ‘no’ to the domination system….Thus the cross…indicts the domination systems of this world. Good Friday and Easter have a political meaning, even as they are also more than political. Indeed, it is striking how much of our religious language was, in the first century, theo-political language. It indicts the way domination systems built on power and wealth oppress the world.

Together, as we read aloud the words of the frightened, human, unconscious oppressors, we at once collectively own our complicity in the systems of oppression that live on in our day, and rend our clothes in mourning over (if we’re following Jesus’s mandate) not just Christ’s unjust death, but the countless unjust deaths of history, and the countless unjust deaths to come. The oppression we enact on Good Friday is timeless.  

Indeed, this Good Friday our priest moved us backwards from the story of the ruling party’s attempted destruction of Jesus to that of his birth, which this year we celebrated only three short months ago. And recalling that new baby in the face of his eventual persecution (re)made fully human the man on the cross. And here’s the magical part: feeling his humanity made all those lives lost to injustice – all those lives we manage to ignore – fully human as well. And the act of seeing those lives made us fully human in turn. In Precarious Life, American philosopher and theorist Judith Butler asks if there might be something:

gained from grieving, from tarrying with grief, from remaining exposed to its unbearability and not endeavoring to seek a resolution for grief through violence….If we stay with the sense of loss, are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some might fear? Or are we, rather, returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another? [Because] to foreclose that vulnerability, to banish it, to make ourselves secure at the expense of every other human consideration is to eradicate one of the most important resources from which we must take our bearings and find our way.  

Though the idea of vulnerability as a critical and misunderstood resource is currently of interest to theorists – and was the basis for my doctoral dissertation – I have never before seen it played out in a community setting. I’ve seen it function in the theoretical and in the personal, but never in the communal. But when we placed flowers on the cross this Good Friday, we did so with mournful eyes open to much that it would be easier not to know: that these precarious human lives are sacred and worthy, and that our most devastating failure is letting ourselves forget that. And in that space, together, we didn’t forget. Even if just for awhile. And it is fascinating to wonder what would happen if we all stopped forgetting, all together. What that might yield, even if we only did it for a day.  

The Great Vigil of Easter is the church’s celebration of the resurrection. It’s when we’re granted the impossible grace to move through the suffering we looked squarely in the eye on Good Friday and into, to recall Borg’s words, “God’s ‘yes.'” Into Jesus’s forgiveness of his persecutors. Into an alternative to power-hunger and intimacy-avoidance and vulnerability-fear. Into an abandonment of the myth of sovereignty. Into the empty tomb. It’s when we’re offered the space to imagine what might come from our willingness to love as God loves. And in that way, it functions as radical cultural resistance.  

We are sold versions of life everyday: versions that are expensive; that cost us the ability to see one another; that teach us to long for power and wealth over grace and compassion. Barrett Lee, who preached at this year’s vigil, writes that in contemporary American culture:

[we] are inundated with a relentless onslaught of guarantees and certainties from advertising slogans, political campaigns, and religious ideologies. And each time one promise collapses under its own weight and proves itself to be a lie, another one is waiting to jump up and take its place. Each ideological idol promises to give us the world, if only we will bow down and worship its golden image. Faith, in this context, is the ability to question these promises, doubt these certainties, and refuse to bend the knee to anything less than the mystery of God’s own self.

Gathered together on this night – telling this sacred, mysterious story that has been handed down to us; having been reminded in the days before of Jesus’s mandate to love; having recalled our own tragic yet deeply human ability to ignore and even induce the suffering of others – we refuse the golden image. We bend down only to mystery and miracle. We remember that Christianity is not:   

preserved in unchangeable dogmas, but is passed down as a story told in poetry and prophecy, in water and oil and light, in bread and wine.

The stories and mystery and magic and intimacy of the Triduum are an offering that could be of service to our intimacy-starved, vulnerability-resistant culture. This is so because the Triduum is an invitation to embrace – even if only for three short days – our own precariousness, and that of others. To imagine what it is to live with the mandate of loving held high above all other demands. To look human cruelty squarely in the eye not as a way of vilifying ourselves and one another, but in an effort to understand. To see. To suffer alongside, and recognize, and uphold, and surrender, and love.  

On Easter morning, in the wake of all this, our priest offered these lines from the R.S. Thomas poem “The Answer”:

There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.

The Triduum works this way, rolling away the artifices of death and power and violence – of destructive cultural conditioning and stagnant questions – and leaving us gathered, in community, around “the piled / graveclothes of love’s risen body.” And it is almost impossibly sweet to imagine what we, together, might go on to do in its wake.