There are a few things in the Old Testament that are especially loud and clear, and one of them is this: idols are very dangerous and bad! If you are busy with a golden calf at the foot of the mountain, you are likely to miss the power of God up the hill. The Hebrews would evidently often buy little household god statues from the Canaanites, and carry them in the family stash just for “good luck.” I can hear folks today say: “Until God shows up, I am just taking care of myself; I’m covering all my bases.” It is hard to wait for God at the foot of the mountain in the chill of the dark night without any certainty of when and how or even if God is going to show up.
By the time we get to Jesus and the New Testament, idolatry is much more subtle. The idol of the Pharisees is the Torah itself which they have made into a dead rule book that separates the good people from the dirty people. Sadly, I have known a few Christians who have done the same sort of idolatry with the Bible and the Prayer Book. We become so certain of little things so that we don’t have to wait at the bottom of the mountain for the power of God to show up on God’s terms. How hard it is to wait in faith!
We live in a time of rapid change and much uncertainty. It is perhaps a bit like wandering in the wilderness and waiting from Moses to come down off the mountain. It is easy to grasp for easy answers, to make idols of the “good ol’ days” or of whatever quick fix we are sure will make it alright. Our God is not a god of easy answers, but of the grand complexity of the real world. Our God is not a god of yesterday, but of eternity. Our God is not a god of quick fixes, but of crosses and pilgrimages, journeys in the wilderness and transfigurations.
The Celts might call this time of change and uncertainty a threshold, a liminal time that will be full of challenge and also full of great opportunity. The old ways may not work as we walk through this threshold. The church is no longer the social center in peoples’ lives it once was. People no longer feel the need to belong to the institution, but they are searching for something spiritual, for an experience that gives life and points to truth with depth and honesty. I believe that we at Kingston have a special gift to face into this liminal time, to walk the threshold together. May we be up to the challenge. May we hold onto each new opportunity. And may we never simply hang onto old idols that have failed us. There is a new light on the mountain. God is calling. May we wait to hear the divine voice and then be brave enough to say with Moses and so many others: “Here I am, send me.”
2020. Good vision. And the year we shall begin about the time you get this newsletter. We call it a new year and it’s often symbolized by an old man walking away as a new baby takes charge. What will be new in your life? What will be new at Kingston?
God says: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:19) And in many ways the people of God respond with the beginning of Psalm 98: “Sing a new song to the Lord for he has done marvelous things!” You will not find a place in Scripture that says God is just doing the same old same old. Nor will you find a request from God to the people of God to just do what they’ve always done before. God is always wanting us to do something new, different, better. “Change” may be a word that can easily make us uncomfortable, but in God’s ways “change” isn’t often strong enough; the words are transformation, metanoia, transfiguration, resurrection.
What changes might come among us in 2020? Do you have a vision for God’s transformation at our church/God’s church? It is easy enough to see some challenges and blessings:
1. More than 80 % of us look a lot like that old man that leaves when the baby new year arrives. We have been blessed this year with a new influx of young children who we need to build the church beyond us. How do we build the church beyond us? What can we do today, this year, to prepare for what will happen after us in God’s church?
2. Our music program for worship is still in transition. Some of us would like to see our Christ Church organ improved and an organ brought into Kingston Chapel. Some of us have a different vision. What is God’s vision for music in our worship experiences? How do we move ahead? (And is there any way I can get some of you to sing/pray the hymns?!!)
3. Health care seems to be more and more of an issue for our church family. As health care becomes more expensive and we age (so that it becomes more necessary), how does our parish family help? What can we do among us for our own and also beyond us for the larger community where I regularly see folks who must choose between paying the rent or buying a new medicine?
4. We have a beautiful ministry in our Celtic service that reaches many within our congregation and beyond. How do we support this ministry and use it to reach others and build our congregation?
5. Our Christian Formation programs for children and for adults have marvelous teachers, rich program, and a growing commitment of many of our people in the church and others who come from outside the church just for our education programs. How do we celebrate them, support the teachers, and continue or even expand?
While I was on sabbatical, I worshipped at three congregations – one in each location where I was. Each congregation had its strengths and struggles. Each was vibrant in its own way. What I found most powerful in all three was simply this: there were lots of people in these places who did not just come to church to recharge for themselves. They came to support others, to grow themselves, and to build the church. Faith and commitment among these people was such a palpable part of my worship as a visitor in each of these places. How do each one of us support others in the congregation and beyond? How do we grow spiritually and in our ministries as individuals and in groups? How do we build God’s church?
God is always doing something new. Are you a part of it? Is it bringing you fulfillment that makes you sing a new song for all the marvelous things going on? My prayer for the new year is that we each and all find our way into God’s ways for something new, holy, and true!
The commandment most often broken in our day and culture, it seems to me, is the one that calls us to keep the sabbath. Imagine the gall of God to ask us to take a whole day where we don’t prove ourselves worthy by our actions, but simply live in Grace! In the first creation story in Genesis, God works each day and declares every day and all he makes “very good.” But on the seventh day, God rests. And that day he calls not just good, but “holy.”
The next three months will be “very good” and also “holy” for us all. I will be away on sabbatical and Kingston will continue being Kingston on sabbatical – a word that comes from sabbath. How our Sabbatical will end up being holy is really up to us and what we do – and don’t do. How will we depend on God’s Grace and also hear God’s call to bring that Grace to a broken world?
I suggest two basic things we can do as a beginning of this three-month sabbath together. Let’s be sure to take plenty of time to listen for God in our prayer. Perhaps take up a new method of praying or pray through the psalms or?
Second, let’s take some time to each write our own spiritual biographies. When was the first time you went to church, knew God present, doubted, explored ideas of theology, read the scripture? How have you grown in spirit through the years? Did you have a favorite book of the Bible earlier in your life? What might that book be now? What is the shape of your growth into Christ? Has it been a mountain to climb or plenty of ups and downs and periods of being lost and not quite sure which is up and which is down? When did you fall in love with God? Or how do you understand your relationship with our heavenly Father? Write the story of your life – as far as you’ve come – as it describes your friendship with God.
If you will do these two things – and perhaps share them with a fellow parishioner or many church friends – our sabbatical will be off to a grand start!
I have to confess that so much of this sabbath looks unclear to me. We shall see where it takes us. And I also confess that I am already thinking about being back with you all for the beginning of the church year in Advent. But I hope and pray that what I am imagining now about our time in December can’t begin to measure up with where we will be once we have lived into this three-month sabbatical!!! May God bless us all in our sabbatical!
I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.
- Jesus is John 15:15
How are you God’s friend? And how is God your friend? For most of my life, friendship has not been the way I have understood my relationship with God. I usually waffle between “God is my Lord, and I just say ‘yes sir!’” and “God created me and inspires me and it’s my job to make sense of the puzzle of life with God’s help.” The truth is, I often don’t understand what the master is thinking and planning.
Still I do think God has a relationship with us that is strangely best characterized as friendship. One of the earliest images of God is the one Adam and Eve go walking with “in the cool of the evening.” That sounds pretty friendly.
What does it look like to be in a close “friendly” relationship with the divine master of all that is? Strangely, this God of ours wants us to be at his side, not groveling beneath him. While no single image in our own experience is going to make complete sense of God who is always beyond our understanding and wildest dreams, there is also this real sense that God wants to take walks with us, wants to know us intimately like a good friend, wants us to be there for him as he is there for us – not just as an heroic power, but as a person who loves and cares for us.
As we prepare for the Sabbatical that is coming in September, one of the things we all will be asked to explore is what does it mean to have a faithful friendship with the Almighty? Something in us may cringe at the thought of having a buddy in the divine. And there is something right about that cringe. But there is also something strangely wrong about it. When Jesus is preparing for the cross, what he wants is some of his closest friends to pray with him, to stay awake and be there with him.
How odd of God to make us friends. Yet God is odd indeed to our ways of thinking. And we can do few things as wonderful as take some time in the cool of the evening or the middle of the night or any other time to walk and be with the one who gives us life.
One of the most spiritual and important places for me to visit on our recent pilgrimage to the Celtic Holy Land was St. Cuthbert’s Island just a mucky walk away at low tide from Lindesfarne or Holy Island in the Northeast of England. St. Cuthbert (635-687) was Lindesfarne’s bishop and abbot of the local monastery; he would go off to the little island to be alone and pray, to set aside the formidable responsibilities of his everyday work, and to rest in Sabbath peace. I think of this as I prepare to go on Sabbatical at the begin-
ning of September. I wonder if Cuthbert worried about leaving behind his people to be alone the way I am worried about being separated from you all for three months. Like the little island, this time is not forever and will be done in the blink of an eye. And it will be important for you and for me to use that blink for good prayer and rest and whatever else God throws our way. I know you all will continue without me just fine. You will have a very special interim rector in the Rev. Jen Kimball. You have a good, strong vestry to help with the daily life of the parish. And you have an amazing and gifted senior warden in Valerie Lewis. Karen Jones, our parish administrator, will continue to anchor us all as she does when I am here. All shall be well and very well!
We have been blessed to receive a Lilly Grant for this Sabbatical which will allow me to travel away and will pay for Jen’s priestly service and leadership for the three months I am gone. Jen will be here about half -time, offering the regular Sunday services, pastoral care as needed, and some time in the office. I, on the other hand, will be out of contact for the three months. Part of the requirement of the Lilly Grant – and basic good practice for a sabbatical – is to be out of the regular daily and pastoral loop of the congregation. After six plus years with you all, you are a big part of my family, and it will be a difficult spiritual discipline to be out of touch with you all for this time. Still, I know you all will take good care of each other and be in good care with the parish leadership.
The focus of the sabbatical time will be on Christian Friendship. I am not talking about a superficial coffee hour acquaintance, but deep true love and care for one another in the presence of Christ. It is strange at first glance that we will be centering ourselves on that idea by being separated. Yet part of what made Cuthbert a saint among his people even while he was still alive was his ability to separate from them for prayer and centering. He modelled that for his monks and the people of his diocese as Jesus had modelled it before him. And the people also lived their lives centered in the same prayer and peace. It will not be only my charge to go apart and rest and pray and center in God. It is also your charge during this Sabbatical. I will talk more about this in the weeks to come before we begin Sabbatical, but it is good to begin our work ahead of September. How are you in communion with your brothers and sisters in Christ? What does it mean to you to be grounded in the body of Christ? How do you live that out and how might you try something new with that as part of your Sabbatical journey? Perhaps that is as simple as taking some time the next time you have a social dinner with some of your church friends to say: “Let’s talk for a minute about a special experience we have had at church or with God.” Perhaps that is too mechanical and there is something else that would be meaningful. There will be a couple opportunities that Jen will offer in some form in the course of my time away. Perhaps those will give you direction. I prepare for Sabbatical with about equal part excitement and trepidation. But my expectations are high. I expect God is working in us to do things we can hardly yet imagine. And when I return this coming Advent season, I expect that we will all be more deeply and truly friends in Christ and that grounding will make us better ministers of God’s Grace and love.
God’s Peace, Gary+
In just over a week now a group of 12 pilgrims from Wabingston -- 9 from Kingston -- will be beginning a pilgrimage to the holy land of the Celtic Christians in Scotland and Northumbria (Northeast England). While the rest of us will not be getting on the plane, this puts me in mind of the fact that we are all pilgrims. Pilgrimage begins in God and ends in God -- not just in one holy place or another. Pilgrimage is life and death and eternity. And so, especially in these Great 50 Days of Easter, we are reminded we are not
just pilgrims on any journey, but pilgrims of the cross and the empty tomb. We journey with Jesus resurrected with wounds in his eternal body to discover where the darkness of this world and light of Christ become one in God's salvation. As pilgrims we are walking the way that leads us to discover how the pains and struggles, momentary glories and laughter, our deepest loves are all wound up in God's glory. In his novel called Godric, Frederick Buechner has the Celtic saint Godric pray: "be thine wounds that heal our wounding. Press thy bloody scars to ours that thy dear blood may flow in us and cleanse our sins." It is the great Pascal (Easter) mystery, that the cross and hatred of human hearts is redeemed into a sign of eternal love and life. "Laugh till you weep. Weep till there's nothing left but to laugh at your weeping. In the end it's all one," Buechner's Godric counsels. May each of you, my beloved pilgrims, laugh and weep yourselves into the journey to eternal life beside our Lord Jesus this Pascal season and, of course, for forevermore.
What is at the heart of our Christianity? Certainly there is the Grace that welcomes all of us just as we are. Forgiveness. Sacrifice. The ultimate healing and wholeness (shalom) in the salve of salvation. There is God’s love embodied in the way we love others; in the way we know we are in communion with all that is. There is that overwhelming gratefulness we feel and live with as people of God.
As we move into the last few weeks of lent and prepare for the festival that is resurrection, we also know that at the heart of our Christianity is this dark and glorious piece of timber called the cross. It is the place where God’s verticality (heaven’s awesome perfection) meets God’s creation (our half-asleep and incomplete everyday). It is where the immortal and most holy dies in helpless degradation. It is the place where our God of all hopefulness cries out in ultimate despair. At the cross all our hatreds (not forgiveness), all our limited and limiting values (you did wrong Jesus and must pay), all our brokenness (broken? I’m not broken, this little Galilean is broken) meet up with a love that sacrifices everything.
How are you preparing to meet the cross that is at our heart this season? What does it look like to not only stand at the cross in sadness, but partake of the cross until we find the life that is in it? How can we knit ourselves together in such a way that God’s awesome vertical perfection crosses into our everyday lives with a passionate love that changes the world?
Get out there, my friends. Go forth. And carry your cross.
Jesus said to them: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.
Then there came cell phones and the buzz of constant information on screens and cars to race about in. And, for some, retirement without clear definitions of time – no clock to punch.
How do you go with Jesus away to a deserted place? We do it together in worship and in our education programs, I think. But we each need more time than that, time alone with God for Sabbath when we can be still and know God and the goodness of God’s image in us without a list of things to do.
Jesus modelled this for us beautifully. He is forever disappearing to be alone in prayer. And when he is present with people he is PRESENT.
I find this back and forth between action and prayer and reflection always a work in progress. The occasions when I really find it, I am blessed and so are the folks who get to see not just me fully PRESENT, but God working through me.
What does that look like for you? How do you find the balance of grounding yourself in God and stepping out to do the work God calls us each to do?
And a few words about your priest and this Sabbath:
It’s about everything. It’s how you understand yourself and your relationship to everyone and everything – from the trash you recycle or don’t recycle to, well, God. We call it stewardship – the care for all that is from our money, to our stuff, to our bodies and spirits, our relationships with others and our relationship with God.
The longer I live, the more I realize how it all connects together. The way I take care of my time – balance exercise with prayer and work with rest – not only says much about what I value, but it also makes me who I am. I learned long ago that one of the ways I can be a good steward of the work God blesses me with as a priest is to be sure I start each day working on my relationship with God. My morning prayers are not just a nice thing I do because I “should,” they are the ground of my being, my relationship with God and others, my life.
So too, of course, the ways we live with money say so much about our values, our faith, our lives. As one of my theology professors used to put it: “Your check book is a theological document.” How you relate to the abundance God gives you says everything about how you understand who you are in relationship with God.
So stewardship is about so much more than just the pledge card you put in the offering plate and the church budget. How do you understand your financial gifts for the work of the church? And how does that understanding make you a better follower of Jesus? How do you engage your body, soul, and mind into the ministry you are called to perform – not only by financial proxy, but incarnate in your choices and compassion, your hopefulness and engagement?
How much of “your” time do you give to God? How much of your heart and soul and energy? How much are you willing to spend in prayer? How much do you give up so that you can give to God and others? How is your sacrifice like Jesus’? When asked what the most important thing is, Jesus says: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” How does your stewardship of everything reflect that? And how can each of us move closer to Jesus’ ideal this year?
Baptism is death and birth. In the water and by the Holy Spirit, we die with Jesus to be reborn into eternal life. We’ve all heard the theology. And most of us have been “marked as Christ’s own forever.” But maybe the way that works out in our daily lives is a bit unclear – at least some of the time. How do you live as one who is baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection? What does it mean to say you have died and been born again? Easy and pat answers won’t go very far here. It really just takes our daily experience. It’s not something we can describe so much as it is something we live and pray.
This September we are one of a handful of congregations in the Episcopal Church to receive a special grant from the Lilly Grant folks that will allow us to explore what it really means for us to be Baptized for Life as individuals and as a congregation and as part of Wabingston (the three parishes of Ware, Abingdon, and Kingston). Beginning September 16, we will take part in filling out a questionnaire about our spiritual lives. I ask that each of you take the 20 minutes or so to fill out the online questions. (There will be hard copy and a way to do this online at the parish house for those who don’t usually do computers at home.) It will be important to hear from everyone – our oldest members and our youngest, those who attend three times a year and those who are here like they hold the walls up. If you come to Kingston at all, please fill one out! This is not a questionnaire to see if you like the way we do things. It is a questionnaire that seeks to explore with us what it means to be baptized for life. Needless to say, you need not fear that you are going to write the “wrong” answers because the questions will be too big for there to be wrong answers.
The information we receive from these questionnaires (anonymously, by the way) will be used by us, with the help of folks from Renewal Works at Forward Movement (the people who give us our Forward Day by Day prayer booklets) and a few people at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. With the answers, we will seek to understand who we are as baptized people. What are our strengths in God? What are our weaknesses? What might we be called to do in the years ahead as we live into our baptisms? A wonderful group of folks from the breadth of our congregation has volunteered to help with the work of sharing with us the results of the questionnaire and working with us to make sense of what to do next – more on that in October! Then we will spend about three years, working with Wabingston and on our own, to find ways to live into our baptism with special intention.
This is a huge gift to our congregation and a beautiful opportunity for us to give to God as we seek out a deeper experience of our baptisms using this program. It will also be, especially for us as a part of Wabingston, a gift to the larger church as we show the church ways we (three smaller congregations) work together to build up the Body of Christ.
This will be a special journey deeper into Christ for us as the people of God at Kingston Parish. I feel very blessed to be with you all on this journey. In the days ahead, let’s all take the first step and see where God is leading!