If you haven’t seen it, a huge tree fell alongside the part
of our driveway that runs by Hudson Hall. The winds last Friday took it down,
and we were lucky how well they placed it. It fell perfectly between the
Memorial Garden (which escaped destruction) and the driveway (which escaped
obstruction). We’re having the tree removed in the next few days, and everyone
who looks at it agrees that we need to take out the tree next to it before it
falls, most likely right in the middle of the garden. After last years
blizzards and this years winds, I’m finally realizing how much of parish
ministry has to do with tree management.
One thing really struck me as I walked along our fallen
friend: the size of the tree and the size of the roots. The tree was quite
tall—about fifty feet by my estimate—and it was busy with branches. It’s an
impressive sight to see it up close. The roots, on the other hand, were quite
small. They weren’t that thick. They weren’t that long. There didn’t seem to be
long tap-root to anchor the tree deeply in the ground. It’s a wonder to me that
the tree fell only now. I’m not clear how the tree thought that it could
maintain those branches and needles in the face of the windy world without
developing a stronger, deeper root system. I guess that’s the thing. The tree
didn’t think about it. It just grew as it did until the world took it down.
I’m afraid that too many of us are like the tree. We all
have so much going on. We’ve grown lives that are tall and wide and busy. Whenever
I ask someone about there life, their answer always involves more…. We’ve grown
great lives, and we’ve stood them up in a world where sixty mph winds are the
norm. That gives us a certain resilience, I think. We’ve learned how to lean
into the wind—but that in itself if exhausting. So we have big lives, and
resilient lives; I don’t know that we have deeply rooted lives, though. I don’t
know that we’ve established ourselves in the soil of life—in the Spirit—in
God’s life. That leaves us vulnerable to the wind, however resilient we are. It
leaves us vulnerable to sheer size of our lives. Sometimes, we’re left to hope
only that when the wind takes us down, it at least places us gently.
We need roots. They not only let us survive the wind, they
let us enjoy it. A tree with deep roots, it can just blow with the wind. It can
let itself sway, trusting that it’s well-planted. We need roots, and that’s why St. Thomas’ is here.
Everything we do here roots us—or at least it should. This is obvious in some
ways. Our worship, our prayer, our music connect us to the Divine and encourage
the Spirit to course through us. Our times of fellowship, whether in book
groups, or youth groups, or breakfast groups, they root us in one another. They
allow us time for love, and love is the sap that feeds our roots. Our work
reaching out to the world is about building roots as well. It encourages that
sap of love to flow and, even more, it helps us find Christ in the world so
that we can root ourselves into him.
At our Annual meeting on Sunday, we will talk about our life
together. We’ll rejoice at the warmth of community that we experience
here---warmth that encourages root growth. We’ll also remember the many
programs that we’ve developed, each of which encourages root growth in its own
right. Just this past Sunday, I spent the evening with fourteen 2nd-5th
graders as we began a new program for our Elementary youth. We played games,
laughed, made cards to send to the earthquake victims in New Zealand, and
planned for more fellowship and service in the coming months. We were rooting.
Again, that’s what St. Thomas’ in about—in this case, rooting our children in
the church, in each other, and in the love of God.
This rooting only works if we are intentional about it.
Without attention and intention, it’s too easy to grow like the fallen tree—all
branch and no root. We have to invest ourselves pay attention to what’s going
on underground in our souls if we want our roots to grow. For St. Thomas’, that
means that we need to commit ourselves to our life as a community—to the
relationships that we share here and the hospitality that we offer. It means,
as well, that we need to commit ourselves to the programs that root us. This
implies, of course, the need to discern which programs are effective and which,
while well-intentioned, need to be discarded.
This will be the topic of our annual meeting. We want to
again consider the question of what kind of church God is calling us to be.
We’ll note the advantages we have in our relatively modest size—it lets us know
one another. We’ll also note the many programs in which we find nurture. Then
we’ll ask ourselves, “Where do we go from here?” We can’t maintain the programs
that develop our roots unless we grow more fully into them. Do we want to support
this growth—be intentional about it? Do we want to invest the effort in
maintaining our relationships and our hospitality even as we grow?
As I think about our fallen tree, I’ve understood this
question in a fresh way. Are the programs that we’re developing here nurturing
our roots or are they just more branches, more things that keep us busy and
cause us to battle the wind. If they root us, then we need to pour ourselves
into them. If they just make us busy, then they’re in our way. They need to be
pruned, so that the simplicity of our worship and our fellowship can open us to
the Spirit. Think about it. Pray about it. We need to discern together.
I think the apostles made a terrible mistake only weeks
after they began their ministry. I guess that wouldn’t be surprising—I’m still
making mistakes—but it was such a fundamental one. They had been at work
preaching the gospel and bringing people into Jesus’ community with great
success. Too much success, really. As the community grew and its needs with it,
there soon was complaining. (Hard to believe, I know, but there really was
complaining in the Church!) When the food was distributed, some felt that they
were short-changed, and they expressed their displeasure. It was a problem that
needed attention, but the apostles didn’t want to give it theirs. They had more
important things to do. They said, “It is not right that we should neglect the
word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among
yourselves seven men of good standing whom we may appoint to this task, while
we will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.”
That was, I think, a bad decision. Basically, as I read it,
the apostles were clear that in their need to “serve the word,” they had little
time to serve actual people—you know, the people that Jesus came to serve. It
was only weeks earlier, John’s gospel reports, that Jesus got up, girded
himself as a slave, and waited on the disciples’ table. Luke, the author of
Acts, reports in his gospel that at the same meal Jesus explicitly calls his
disciples to share this “table-service” with him. The apostles were deeply
mistaken to distance themselves from this servant, table-waiting ministry. It’s
the ministry to which Jesus calls us all. But they, at the same time, did us a
great favor, instituting the order of ministers who came to be called deacons.
Deacons could become permanent icons of Jesus’ servanthood for the Church.
Marty’s upcoming ordination, of course, brings this to mind
for me. He, with a class of four others, will be the first vocational deacons
ordained in the Diocese of Virginia. It has been traditional to ordain those
aiming for the priesthood to the diaconate a few months before they are
ordained as priests, so that they might experience and express Christ’s servant
ministry. Most priests will proclaim the importance of this experience, but
many, I think, soon take the position of the apostles—that they have little
time for “table-waiting” as they attend to more significant matters. (Some of
you hold this same bias, I think, as you wonder why your rector is out toting
pumpkins and not engaged in some more holy endeavor.) I and other priests were
ordained to the “transitional” diaconate—a kind of way-station. Marty, on the
other hand, has had no goal but to serve as deacon in the church. That is the
vocation to which he has been called, and in which he will remain. Hence, the
name “vocational” diaconate.
It’s interesting to see how the Episcopal Church conceives
of this ministry. It is, simply put, a ministry of servanthood. This is modeled
liturgically by the fact that Marty “sets the table” for our celebration of
Christ’s meal on Sunday mornings. It is named explicitly as a call to “serve
all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely,” in the
ordination service. Deacons are to have a ministry to those in need outside the
church, and Marty embodies this in his work with the Mental Health department
of Loudon County. This embodiment of Christ’s servant ministry in the world is
the specific way that deacons are to “preach” the gospel. They are to live it
as they live God’s love for those in pain. As they embody the Gospel in the
world, so they proclaim it in the church (the deacon should read the Gospel
during the Eucharist), and then they send us out to live the gospel when they
dismiss us at the end of our gathering. And to assist us in our service,
deacons are to help us see and understand the needs of the world that call for
At the time of the Reformation in the 16th
century, there was a reminder of the priesthood of all believers—that we all
share in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation in the world. We only understand
the content of this priesthood, however, if we get that it’s grounded in the
diaconate of all believers—that we are all here to serve the world, and
especially those in great need. This call to serve is not peripheral to the
Church. It is of our very essence. It’s telling, I think, that we are only now
remembering to ordain folk like Marty to serve as icons of specifically this
aspect of our calling.
As we move into the next 50 years of the mission of our
church, we need to again and again come back to the question of how we embody
Christ’s service of the world. In our mission statement we talk about the
“spiritual strength of community” that empowers us to “care, reach out, and
include all people in Christ’s love.” The strength of our parish is the spiritual
strength of our community, and that is a great blessing that God has bestowed
on us and our world. But for what caring, reaching, and including has it
empowered us. For what would we like it to empower us? Marty will stand as a
reminder of this question for us every Sunday. I pray that we will give his
question serious attention and honor it with an answer in our lives.
Episcopal Church came into being as the result of the foresight of clergy and
laity comprising of the Potomac Area Strategy Committee of the Department of
Missions of the Diocese of Virginia. The Committee, with the consent of rectors
of the neighboring parishes, agreed that a new congregation be formed and the
Diocese of Virginia purchased the present site for $17,500 in January of 1960.
The history of our parish begins with something called the
“Potomac Area Strategy Committee.” I was interesting in learning more about
this committee, so I googled it. I got one hit—the history of our parish on our
web page. OK. We seem to be what’s left of this committee. We’re the fruit that
they bore—that their insight bore. We aren’t the only church that the
Department of Missions planted in the early 1960’s. There are at least four
others with our distinctive A-frame style. But we do seem to be the only one of
the five that traces its roots back to the foresight of the PASC.
I wish I knew more about this committee. I’d like to thank
them for thinking of us. I’d like to ask them if we turned out as they
imagined. I’d like to ask them what they imagined. Did they have a purpose for
placing us here beyond a generic “we need more churches?” What were their hopes
for us? What needs did they see?
I’m guessing that they couldn’t imagine that our community
would be shaped as it is today, because I’m guessing that they would never have
imagined that peaceful Tyson’s corner would become what it is today. Maybe,
though, the current shape of our community was never a part of their
imagination. Maybe their foresight was less that they were planting a community
to do this or that—though I imagine that they expected us to worship God. But maybe their foresight was to plant
a community simply so that it could engage the world that surrounded it in the
Spirit of the Gospel.
That’s Christian foresight, I think. It’s the foresight to
make room for the Spirit—to make a space for the Gospel. In 1960, that space—it
was five acres that they bought for $17,500—it was relatively inexpensive in
economic terms. But in the succeeding years, we’ve found that space to be quite
valuable. It’s transformed lives. It’s created community. It’s given so many of
us the opportunity to make ourselves the space where God’s Spirit is at work.
If you haven’t noticed the dates in the history, the
foresight of the PASC led Fr. William Opel to form a congregation in 1961. They
held their first service at Andrew’s Chapel Methodist Church in early September
of 1961, and their first service in our present sanctuary on Christmas Eve,
1961. This is the 50th anniversary of that foresight. We have this
year an opportunity to celebrate the holy space that they created for us 50
years ago. We also have the opportunity ask how we will engage in the same
activity that occupied the Potomac Area Strategy Committee in 1960. How will we
look forward into the next 50 years and create space for our community to
engage the world in the Spirit of the Gospel?
As I discussed in my rector’s corner last month, the vestry
is seeking to address these kinds of questions in our time together. We want to
move away from managing the daily life of the parish and towards visioning the
mission and future of our community. As a part of that visioning, we are now
spending some time in Bible study in each vestry meeting. We want to let God
shape our vision.
For this first year, we will occupy our selves with the Acts
of the Apostles. It’s the story of how Jesus’ first followers made a space for
the Spirit of the Gospel in their world. Really, it’s more a story of how the
Spirit made space within and for them. The Spirit tends not to be a passive
player. If the goal of our foresight is to make room for and follow the Spirit,
then familiarizing ourselves with the ways of the Spirit is a first step in
that process. This isn’t just a task for the vestry, however. It’s the task for
all of us. Where is the Spirit leading us? How do we make space for that
movement? How do we look forward to the next 50 years?
What’s the ministry of the vestry? We’ve talked a lot about
our gifts, our calls, our ministries in the past year, so what’s the ministry
of the vestry? Right now, if you look at all the things with which they are
involved, your answer would have to be wide-ranging. Vestry members serve as
shepherds of all our fellowship activities, with responsibilities to see that
everything from coffee hours to Lenten Suppers are organized and executed. They
shepherd our communications, overseeing the Messenger, the web-site, and much
of Kitty’s work. They oversee pastoral care (prayer buddies and casseroles),
worship, Christian Education (children’s programming, EYC, adult formation).
They also take care of the property, the budget, the stewardship campaign, and
bear a good deal of responsibility for the staff. Whew! It looks like the
vestry is responsible for running the whole of the church….
And yet, none of that is the ministry of the vestry, or at
least not principally. They are all ministries that members of the vestry have
taken on, and have taken on in all faithfulness. But the ministry of the vestry
is to work with the rector and the members of his staff to lead our
congregation, not to run it. We’ve been talking about this at vestry meetings
for the past few months. We’ve discovered in our conversations that the vestry
has a fiduciary responsibility for our congregation. That they have been
entrusted with the mission of this church—the mission to which God has led
us—and so their primary ministry is to listen to God to hear where God wants to
take us, and then to discern the present steps that we need to take to move
toward that future. The vestry has charge over our budget, our property, and
the stewardship of our time and talents, as well, for these are the resources
that we can marshal for our journey.
As we have realized that this is our primary ministry, its
been clear to us that the many other ministries undertaken by vestry members
are getting in the way of answering this call. However worthy of a task it is
to shepherd the various ministries of the church, the vestry has difficulty
shepherding its own ministry when it is so busy looking after the ministries in
which the rest of us are engaged. We have little energy left over for vision
after we’ve undertaken all the tasks mentioned in my first paragraph, and we
have little time for discernment and prayerful reflection at vestry meetings if
we have to plan the details of our parish life at that time as well.
Given this reality, I’ve asked the vestry to give up the
majority of their shepherding roles as they enter the coming year. According to
the canons of the church, the vestry should always be responsible for
overseeing the property and finances of the church, and that will remain as it
always has been. The vestry does not need to be responsible for pastoral care
or Christian Education, however. Indeed, in asking them to be responsible for
all the ministries in which the congregation is engaged, we often have asked
vestry members to engage in ministries to which they had little call other than
the call of the rector and the wardens, asking if they would take it on. If we,
as a congregation, want to attend to the ministries to which God has called us,
then it seems that should begin with the vestry attending to their distinctive
call to a ministry of leadership, visioning, and discernment.
That’s not to say, however, that we want our congregation to
give up the shepherding of our ministries. We began having vestry shepherds to
clarify that the ministries of this congregation are, in fact, the ministries
of this congregation. They are not the ministries of the clergy or
staff—ministries that Justin and I do to you or ministries in which you may be
invited to participate. The ministries of this congregation are ministries in
which we all have a share, but a part of that share is that we all may have a
call to lead in some area. We still need shepherds, but we should not look
simply to the vestry to do that shepherding. We each need to ask ourselves if
we might have a call to shepherd our various ministries, or if we perhaps
recognize in one of our friends or neighbors such a call.
I am excited about the shift in the vestry’s focus that we
have put into motion. I look forward to conversations about mission and
discernment. But I am also excited by the potential that this opens for all of
us to more fully recognize both our gifts and the way that God may be calling
us to use those gifts. We are here at St. Thomas’ ultimately because Jesus has
called us to fellowship with him. A part of that fellowship is the to use our
gifts to share with him in his ministry. What gifts do you have? How might you
use those gifts to lead this congregation more fully into the mission with
which Jesus has blessed us?
We’ve done a number of things well in my first three and a
half years at St. Thomas’, but I have to say that I’m most proud of what we’ve
done with our 8:00 AM Eucharist on Sunday Morning. If you haven’t been to that
service yet, you should come. The 8:00 AM service was always quiet and
contemplative. The time of day really suggests such a service. Last year, as we
pondered whether to change the service, it was clear that we wanted to honor
its contemplative nature. It was also clear, however, that the service could be
The goal of such a service is to create space within our
souls that we then allow God to fill. When Walter, Justin, and I talked about
this early service, we realized that the introduction of simple, quiet singing and
some gentle music would help us to create that kind of space. Music has a
unique capacity to open our souls. Walter suggested that this would best be
done singing a capella, allowing the
resonance of our voices to carry our hearts. With Walter attending almost all
of these early services to lead the singing, this has worked beautifully.
When we allow God to fill us, we are healed. This quickly
became the practical focus of our service, and so we not only use a litany of
healing for our Prayers of the People in the early service, but we also have a
time for specific prayers for healing. Individuals who would like such prayers
are invited to stay at the altar following the Eucharist, and either Justin or
I anoint them, lay hands on them, and lift up their concern to God in prayer.
Some come seeking prayers for themselves. Others come seeking prayers for loved
ones. In either case, our liturgy offers an opportunity for divine healing.
Our 8:00 AM service has taken this format for over a year,
and I find it quite beautiful. The service is still a very small one, and I
pray that it will grow, but I don’t worry if it doesn’t. It’s clear to me that
God has called us to this worship and ministry of healing, and I’m content to
just be faithful in heeding that call. God can do with our faithfulness what
One way, of course, that we will be faithful to this service
is by seeking to draw new folk to it. The welcoming committee has spent much of
our last two meetings discussing how we might do this, and we’ve hit upon a
number of ideas. A simple but profound idea is printing up flyers about the
service and taking them to places where people are in search of healing—to
hospitals, AA meetings, food banks, and the like. One member of the committee
warned us that we should take care in doing that. You never know who will show
up if you take the Gospel to the highways and byways. We all decided that we
were okay with that. Our job is simply to be faithful in sharing the grace
we’ve found in this service. Who God chooses to send our way—that’s up to God.
The vestry has drawn up an initial draft budget for 2011.
You will hear more about this in the coming weeks. The budget is lean, we
think, but we have allowed it to grow from the previous year’s budget. It
restores some of the cuts that we’ve made to staff benefits and to caring for
our property. It also asks us to make a small but substantial increase in our
giving outside our parish.
To meet this budget, of course, we will need to increase
pledge income about 6%. Once again, as we start our stewardship campaign, we
are looking for more. The vestry struggled with the decision to ask for more.
We raised our pledge total significantly last year in tough economic times. Can
we ask ourselves to do so again?
I have a few thoughts about that, and they all revolve
around giving faithfully, and trusting God with the result. Given the pain in
the world around us, I hope that we always challenge ourselves to do more.
That’s a faithful response to the world. If we are faithful in challenging
ourselves, then we can trust God with our response. Likewise, as we ponder our
giving for the coming year, we can each only give faithfully. For some of us,
we are stretched thin and we can’t give more. We may even need to give less. That
may be the faithful response. Others of us can give more and feel called to do
so. That may be the faithful response. Others didn’t pledge last year, but may
be able to pledge this year. Again, that may be faithful.
None of us can meet a 6% increase in our pledge totals by
ourselves, nor are any of us called to. We are simply called to be faithful in
our giving. It is our community as a whole that will seek to make the budget
that the vestry proposes, to stretch ourselves into the ministry that it embodies.
We do this simply through the faithfulness of each of us, and the faith in God
to use our faithfulness to God’s purpose, whether we meet our goal or not. That
is the adventure of the Christian life, trusting our faithfulness to God in
faith. This adventure stretches
us, but in that stretch, we create space for God. I’ve always found that a good
thing, however uncomfortable it may be along the way.
I bought a new
guitar a few weeks ago. It’s not really new. It’s several years old, but it’s
new to me. I’ve had my guitar for more than 20 years. It’s a nice guitar, but
it’s huge by guitar standards. I didn’t realize this when I bought it. I just
went in the story and asked for a good guitar. This is what they sold me. It’s
size ended up being an issue though. Wrapping my arm around the guitar, I would
get a sore shoulder in just a few minutes when I practiced. It meant that I
didn’t practice as much as I would like.
My new guitar is a Martin 001 15M. Now there are three
things significant about that combination. It’s a Martin. Martin guitars are
famous. They show up in songs—most likely songs sung by people playing Martin
guitars. I’m old enough to know that playing a Martin guitar doesn’t make me
any better or any cooler, but in the privacy of my house, I feel cooler. That
counts for me.
It’s an 001. It’s a smaller guitar. Martin’s big guitar is a
dreadnought. It tells you something about the size that they name it after a
battle ship. (My first guitar was significantly bigger than a dreadnought.
That’s what I mean when I say that it was huge.) Martin’s 001 series is smaller
than their dreadnought. It’s still big enough that you could hear it if I
played it in church, but it’s small enough that I can practice without pain. As
I age, I find minimizing pain to be a significant life-goal.
It’s a 15M. The 15 isn’t so important. It’s means that it’s
a bottom of the line Martin, so I didn’t have to sell a child to afford it.
(Cyndi appreciated that.) But the M means that its entire body is made of
mahogany. That looks cool, but that’s not why I bought it. I actually did
research this time before I made my purchase. The “walk in the store and ask
for a guitar” routine hadn’t turned out so well the first time. Everywhere I
looked, I found folks commenting on the warm sound of the Martin mahogany
guitars. That sounded very nice, even spiritually comforting. I was attracted
to a warm sound, though I’m aware that I’m not that musically inclined and
probably wouldn’t hear a difference. Just knowing that it was warm when I
played it would make a difference, I figured.
It turns out that all of these details about the guitar have
been more significant for me than I could have imagined. The guitar simply
sounds beautiful. I’m not a musician, per se, but even I can hear the warmth, the clarity, the depth of the sound.
It makes me smile just to strum the chords and feel the vibration. And the size
lets me sit with the guitar and play at it as I haven’t before—and I can relax
while I play. No more of my football days and playing through the pain. I love
my new guitar.
And that’s important to me. As I grow older, I find myself
drawn more to those things that enrich my life, that ground me and put me in
touch with what I’ll call the depth of being, for lack of a better word. I want
activities to fill my time, but I want them to be rich---I keep coming back to
that word, “rich.” The Christian tradition never wants to dissuade us from
pursuing riches; it only wants us to recognize where true riches lie. I find
the simple soulful sound of my guitar rich because it connects me to life, and
not to just any life, but to a life that courses within me. The sound of the guitar
resonates with my soul, and its lovely for me to be able to participate in that
resonance. I don’t just feel it. I’m playing the guitar. I’m a part of the
This is all a very long introduction to the quiet singing
that we’re now doing at the beginning of our services. We’re taking a few
minutes to sing or chant a song. Presently, we’re doing songs from the
ecumenical monastery at Taize, France, but we’ll draw from other traditions as
well. We’ve decided to do this in part to give us an opportunity to quiet
ourselves at the beginning of our service. It allows us to become more fully
present to the fellowship with God into which Jesus invites us. But if all we
wanted to do was have a time for quiet, then our best approach might have been
simple silence. So quiet isn’t all that we’re looking for.
We’re also looking for warmth. We’re looking for spiritual
depth. We’re looking to the capacity of music to open space within our soul—to
find that place within us where body resonates with emotion. Chant does that.
In its simplicity, it’s like a river that slowly eats away at the soft rock of
our busy world and opens a wide canyon, a vista on the eternity within us.
Chant is effective in this way in part because of the
instrumentation on which it draws. My guitar is soulful, but not nearly as
soulful as the sound of the human voice. I suppose that’s obvious, but if it’s
not, I’m not sure how I would explain it. The simplest explanation, I guess, is
that a voice draws from our own vibrations, and so it plays us. “Deep calls to
deep,” the psalmist cries in one place, and that’s our experience of the human
voice. This experience is more powerful when we lend our voice to the song.
It’s more powerful within us, for then it’ truly drawing on our own vibrations.
It’s also more powerful among us, for we are sharing our depth with one
another, and that calls us all to a richness that alone we can barely imagine.
I hope that you are enjoying the experience of our chanting
before the 10 AM service. Even more, I hope that you are enriched by it, and
that you will be drawn to sharing in this richness that surrounds you.
Last year, Cyndi and I decided to
enroll Andrew in McLean Preschool—the preschool that shares the space in our
Sunday School wing. Although I had known Karen ___, the director of the
preschool, for two years, and although I had seen children out on the playground,
dancing and singing in Hudson Hall, and tiptoeing through the hallways like a
herd of quiet mice, I knew little about the school. Others assured me, however,
that Andrew would do well there, and Cyndi, Andrew, and I all thought that it
would be fun if Andrew and Daddy went off to work together every morning.
The year turned out better than I
had ever hoped. Andrew and I did enjoy driving to work together, though I never
knew how many mistakes I could make in a 15 minute drive until I had a four-year
old to instruct me. More importantly, though, Andrew formed wonderful bonds
with his teachers and classmates, learned more than I thought his head could
hold, and every day looked forward to going to school. Even if it meant driving
with such a mistake-prone daddy.
Our church has been blessed by the
presence of the preschool. Outside of our Sunday morning services, there is no
more significant ministry within our four walls, than the ministry of those
teachers to the 50+ children who spend most mornings of the week having their
minds and hearts shaped and their lives changed. This, in fact, was the
conclusion of a committee charged by the vestry to explore our relationship
with the preschool. (The committee consisted of Sally Hack, Wendy Newman, Susan
Gardiner, Becky Bray, and Scott Newman.)
The members of the committee began
by asking themselves what we as a church would hope to achieve by hosting a
preschool, and we soon realized that our relationship with McLean Preschool
offered us an excellent basis to achieve these goals. Indeed, we concluded that
we would be best served by deepening our relationship with the preschool, so
that the fruits of our relationship might multiply.
A simple example of this involves
the mundane but significant matter of financial support. The preschool already
contributed around $17,000 to our budget, and the rent they pay us is very much
in line with the market in this area. But if we work to strengthen the program
of the preschool by making sure that they have the physical space that they
need, then their program will further flourish, which would strengthen their
bottom line and ours. We saw this in action this summer. The preschool decided
to run a summer camp during the month of June in response to a need of parents,
but their decision also provided us another month’s rent, helping us pay the
winter snow-plowing bill.
More significantly, there is a real
synergy between the ministry of the preschool and our parish. The preschool
began from a conversation 15 years ago between John Morris, our previous
rector, and Vicki Anderson, a member of the parish who directed an area
preschool. St. Thomas’ was trying to decide if it should start it’s own
preschool, but the task seemed to great at the time. John instead encouraged
Vicki to start the preschool that became the McLean Preschool. Their first
year, they had only four students, and they met in a small room in the old
North Hall, just as the work was beginning on Hudson Hall. (The children were
always excited when a bulldozer would bump into the classroom’s exterior wall.)
Soon, though, the new education wing was completed, and the preschool had a new
home, as did our children’s Sunday School program. The construction of the new
education wing paved the way for the great emphasis that St. Thomas’ places on
children’s ministry. In the parish profile produced four years ago, the rector
search committee wrote,”….” There was clearly an energy to build a ministry for
young families with children 15 years ago at St. Thomas’, and the preschool is
very much a product of that energy. It seems clear that we will further both
the ministry and community of the parish and of the preschool if we live more
fully into this synergy.
As we talked about our relationship
with the preschool, both in the committee and in the vestry, we were clear that
we wanted to offer the children of the preschool a spiritual component to their
educational experience. Not anything complex. We would simply want to instill
in the children a deep gratitude towards the world’s creator and a growing love
of their neighbors. I would also hope to offer them a chance to be quiet and to
be in touch with the wonder of the world around them. McLean Preschool offers a
special opportunity for such formation. The preschool draws a multicultural and
multi-faith array of families, and our offering would need to be sensitive to
the make-up of the school. For me, this is an opportunity to bring in leaders
from different faith traditions to spend time with the children and to teach
the children the importance of recognizing the integrity and spiritual wisdom
of faiths different from their own. Again, we’ll be working with four-year
olds, so all of this will be subtle. Primarily, we’ll light candles, ring
bells, sing songs, and tell stories. I can’t think of anything in my week that
will be more enjoyable.
At the conclusion of our
conversation about the preschool in the committee and among the vestry, the
vestry passed a resolution affirming our desire to draw into a closer
relationship with the preschool. We would like to do so for the benefit of the
preschool and the Church, but primarily for the children. God has entrusted to
us the care not only of our children, but also of God’s children throughout our
community. McLean Preschool is a wonderful opportunity that we have to honor
that trust, and I am grateful that we are embracing this challenge.
I bind unto myself
the strong Name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One, and One in Three.
Patrick’s Breastplate, and ancient poem and prayer, is the
basis for one of the most powerful hymns in our hymnal. The hymn is remarkable
in the first place for the variety of melodies that accompany its seven verses.
There’s no simple repetition as we sing. More remarkable, though, is the
thoroughness with which the poet calls to bind God’s spiritual power to
ourselves. We bind Christ’s Gospel history to us, the spiritual powers of the
universe, of Scripture, and of Christian history. We also bind to ourselves the
elemental powers, we finally immerse ourselves in Jesus The hymn offers us a
thorough-going Celtic vision of the Christian faith.
I bind this day to me
by power of faith, Christ's Incarnation;
his baptism in Jordan river;
his death on cross for my salvation;
his bursting from the spicèd tomb;
his riding up the heavenly way;
his coming at the day of doom:
I bind unto myself today.
On the 11th, I’m leaving for Shrinemont to lead
the Diocesan Family camp in an exploration of Celtic Spirituality. The Celts
were a nomadic people who spread throughout Europe, but we know them primarily
as the early inhabitants of the Atlantic isles (encompassing England, Wales,
Scotland, and Ireland). The Celtic understanding of the Christian faith has
been woven into the belief and practice of the Western Church in any number of
ways, but their voice still sounds distinctly as a unique branch of the western
Church. I find their vision of the faith especially suited to the summer time.
Much of Western Latin Spirituality is interiorly focused, as we look for God
within in the midst of the silence—a practice fit for the quiet darkness of
winter. But the Celtic spirituality finds God as much in the world around us, a
practice suited warm, bright sunlight of July and August. It arises from the
experience of an Irish monk repeating the entirety of the Psalter while
immersed in a northern lake, staring an otter in the eye.
I bind unto myself
of the great love of cherubim;
the sweet "Well done" in judgment hour;
the service of the seraphim;
confessors' faith, apostles' word,
the patriarchs' prayers, the prophets' scrolls;
all good deeds done unto the Lord,
and purity of virgin souls.
The Celtic approach to the spiritual life is shaped by three
primary virtues, interconnectedness, humility, and hospitality. Our
interconnectedness is the foundation of the three. Patrick’s Breastplate is an
invocation of power. The prayer offers strength and protection in the face of a
threatening world, and it does so precisely by calling forth the rich variety
of relationships with define a Christian’s spiritual life. The Celtic saint
knows little of the illusion of Western individualism. They are, and they are
powerful only through their interconnection with the power of God woven into
the world around them.
I bind unto myself
the virtues of the starlit heaven
the glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
the whiteness of the moon at even,
the flashing of the lightning free,
the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
the stable earth, the deep salt sea,
around the old eternal rocks.
Thus, the Celtic saint embraces spiritual power in all
humility, or perhaps more to the point, Celtic humility is an embrace of
spiritual power. It’s a recognition that true power is found not in isolated
exaltation of the self, but rather by rooting ourselves in the Spirit from
which our soul’s were born. Humility is the driving virtue of the Christian
life because it recognizes our integral interconnectedness to the goodness of
God’s world around us.
Christ be with me,
Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
What is born of the humble power is a heart for hospitality.
Brigid, one of the two great saints of Ireland, is in many ways the patron
saint of hospitality. She is so rooted in the abundance of God’s world, of
God’s earth and God’s Spirit, that she can’t help but to share this abundance
freely and with confidence. On our
retreat, I’ll invite the participants to learn about Patrick, Brigid, and a
host of others. More importantly, I’ll invite them bind themselves to the
spiritual richness of God’s world, so that the grace of that world might bloom
forth within them. Let me offer that same invitation to you.
David Fontana and Ingrid Slack
illuminate the pressures of being a child when they liken childhood to the
status of most adults during the Middle Ages. They explain:
With the exception of the privileged
few, young children have no real rights regarding money or property. They are
subject to arbitrary and often inconsistent and unjust rules and decisions made
by their elders, and to summary punishments for offenses they may not even be
aware of having committed. They have no votes, no control over political or
judicial processes, and little choice in how to spend the hours from nine to
four. They also inhabit a world where violence in the form of bullying and
intimidation can lurk around every corner. Whether they like it or not, they
have to sit tests and examinations, prepared and assessed by examiners they
have never met, on which their future and their self-image crucially
depend. (Teaching Meditation to
Children, pp. 12-13)
don’t need to tell you about the stress on our children though. Most of you have
told me about that—not only about the stress, but about the manifestations of
the stress and anxiety in their lives. It’s something that concerns a good
number of us.
I came to St. Thomas’, I had a clear vision of at least one component of my ministry.
Fairfax County can be a crazy place to live, and I’ve intended to provide you
the spiritual resources that would allow you to survive and even flourish in
this environment. This concern has guided me in much of my preaching and
teaching, and especially my preaching and teaching on silence and prayer. In
this regard, I’m proud of the service that we’ve put together for 8:00 AM on
Sundays. The mixture of music and quiet at that early Eucharist is healing for
me and for most who share it together.
resources that I’ve offered have been effective, but many of you haven’t been
able to take advantage of them. That’s the problem of a busy life. It doesn’t
offer us time to step back and address the effects of the busyness. At the same
time, most of you are getting by, at the very least. As adults, you possess
within yourselves the resources to battle the stress and anxiety produced in
our lives, even if these resources produce more stress in turn.
it’s become clear to me that there is little distinction between the lives of
adults and of children in our area. All of us have schedules that are too full.
All of us are measured by the highest standards of achievement. All of us find
our mental, emotional, and physical capacities stretched, sometimes to the
breaking point. There is little distinction between the lives of adults and
children here, but we must distinguish the maturity and experience that most
adults bring to this stress from the relative inexperience of our children.
They simply don’t bring the same resources to the battle that we bring, and we
need to be concerned about that.
children’s lives are stressful, and we would like to be a resource in helping
them deal with that stress. Yet, if we’re honest, we are as often a part of the
cause of the stress as we are a part of the solution. In some ways, this is our
duty as parents. Our job is to form our children—to mold their characters.
Molding and forming almost by definition require stress. Living with one
another, moreover, inevitably produces stress. We produce friction as our lives
rub up against each other, so that our children produce stress in our lives as
we produce stress in theirs.
reality (the stressful effect we can have on our children) does not negate our
proper and loving role in helping them to deal with their stress, but they
require equipment internal to themselves, equipment that they can control if
they are to successfully navigate their way among us and in a difficult world.
Thich Nhat Hanh tells the story of returning from an outing to find his hut in
a tumult. A storm had blown up while he was away, invading his home and
strewing things about. Inside it was a cold, dark mess. He was sad, he writes.
But then he set about closing the doors and the windows, lighting a fire, and
tidying up the room, until finally, he could sit comfortably, enjoying a hot
cup of tea in the haven that he had created. This is what our children need.
They need the capacity to create a safe, warm space within themselves—or more
to the point, to find the safe warm space where God already dwells within them.
want to work with you to develop this capacity in our children. Already, in
conversation with a number of parents, I am working with some of our older youth
on meditative prayer, helping them to find and carry this quiet space within
them. I am also working on a short daily or weekly program that I can do with
the 4 year-olds in our preschool that nurtures such a space. (And by short, I
mean two minutes at a shot. I know 4 year-olds.) I’m wondering if there aren’t
times that I can work with you to develop a program of prayer for our
elementary age children, or our youth in junior high. I know how we can do this
with the children (and it will be most effective if we do it together.) But I don’t
know when we can do it, given the busyness of your lives and the wonderful
church school program that Justin and the Children’s Formation committee have
already put together. But I know that I want to do it, and that it would be
exciting for us all if we did. Please talk with me or e-mail me if this
interests you, and we can see where the Spirit leads us from here.
Pentecost (May 23rd) we’ll be baptizing Joseph Cuomo and George
Gardiner into Christ’s body. We’ll embrace them as our own children and pledge
ourselves to raise them in the footsteps of Jesus. Even more, we’ll have the
audacity to pray for the descent of the Spirit upon them, as we pronounce them
dead and risen with Jesus. How do we do that or, more to the point, what
exactly are we doing? How dare we be so bold with these children whom we barely
know? They can’t tell us how they feel about all of this. What is the effect of
I’ve been reading on baptism in the past months, two central tenets of the New
Testament practice of the sacrament have become clear. First, there is no
discussion of baptism in the New Testament apart from faith Baptism is always
an action of God’s grace in scripture. It is God who bears us up to new life.
But this grace is always met with faith. It comes to fruition as believers
embrace the grace and accept it as their own. Second, the fruit of this
marriage between grace and faith is the always bound up with the descent of the
Spirit. Grace and faith change lives through the manifest power of the Spirit
in scripture, and baptism is the sign and seal of this happening.
George and Joseph how will faith be active? Neither of them will know what’s
happening. That of course has always been the question about infant baptism. A
second, related question revolves around our prayer for the descent of the
Spirit. What are we asking of the Spirit with these two infants? What can the
Spirit do with them in this moment of pre-rational innocence?
a curious story at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is in a house, crowded
on all sides because of his capacity to heal. Four men approach with a friend
on a stretcher. The friend is paralyzed, and the men are praying that Jesus
will heal him. When they approach the house, they find that they can’t even get
near the door, much less in it. Ever resourceful, they climb onto the roof with
their friend, remove a grass panel, and lower him through the hole down into
the house—down to Jesus. Jesus, moved by the faith of the friends, turns to the
man, pronounces his sins forgiven, and tells him to get up and walk.
we studied Mark last year, we learned that whenever Mark offers such evocative
imagery, he usually was talking about more than was initially apparent. His
stories often point beyond themselves. So this story revealed itself as a story
of baptism. A man as good as dead is lowered from the light of day, down into a
hole—into the darkness. It’s an image of the grave. There in the grave, he
meets Jesus and is given new life. He’s resurrected. And Jesus specifies the
content of that new life—that his sins are forgiven. This is the event of
baptism: we die with Christ, we’re forgiven, and we’re raised with Christ.
story in Mark is a story of baptism, and in many ways it is a story of infant
baptism. The paralytic who was lowered to Jesus and there raised up by him—he
surely had the capacity to believe in Jesus. He is not pre-rational in anyway.
But what moves Jesus to act, the faith that marries itself to the grace of God
in this story, is the faith of the friends. They are those who in faith carry
this man to font of grace, who struggle to make him present to grace. They are
the ones, if you will, who hold him in the breezeway of the Spirit, so that his
life might be transformed.
four men in Mark are models for us this Pentecost and whenever we baptize
children. If faith is requisite for the fruition of grace in baptism, then
clearly we are the ones whose faith will be active in this sacrament. We are
the ones who will bear these infants by our faith, we are the ones who will
lower them to Jesus through our faith, and we are the ones who with our faith
will take them by the hand when Jesus orders them to rise.
must be mindful, however, that our faith cannot retire after this event of
baptism. If we by faith have led these children to grace and called upon them
God’s Spirit, then our faith cannot rest until Joseph and George themselves can
say yes to the Spirit. When we promise to uphold George and Joseph in their new
life in Christ, we are not promising merely to teach Sunday School, to smile at
them at coffee hour, and to buy pancakes from them on Shrove Tuesday. We are
promising to actively direct our faith towards them, to continue to hold them
in the currents of the Spirit. We are promising to hold them in our love until
they are transformed. It is an awesome thing. Please join us, but please be