So here we are in week four-thousand-seven-hundred-and-twenty-three of the Corona virus blues – or did we just start all this yesterday? And if it wasn’t enough to try to live in near surgical cleanliness all the time to avoid a disease that could pass us by or could kill us and those we love or give any of us strange physical and psychological disabilities for months or the rest of our lives, we are also dealing with issues of racial inequality, political upheaval, economic depression and psychological isolation. It is a bit much these days.
So how is your faith helping you through? Where is God for you these days? How are you living out your baptismal vows while keeping social distance? (Your vows are in the Book of Common Prayer, pp. 301-302.)
Fasting on worship in our church buildings, we have been reminded of the theological and biblical truth that the Church is the people who make up the Body of Christ and not a building we attend on Sunday mornings for an hour, nor an institution. Fasting on Eucharist, we have discovered the sacred nature of our own dining tables again.
We are more aware than ever that the people and prayers we have together are very meaningful for us, and we miss the “old” way of gathering deep in our hearts. Hopefully, we are also finding new ways to stay connected with people and also to be deeply connected with God. Our online worship has become a rich source of connection and prayer for me. It took a while, to be honest. At first, I was pushing through all the zoom meetings and preaching to a computer screen because I had to. But I have found you all through these tools and discovered God doesn’t much depend on us being in the same room. I have also found God has a way of connecting us in the divine love in ways that are beyond my understanding – and definitely beyond my control.
Our ministry and worship are not only continuing, we are finding new ways of being faithful in our flexibility and in our deep rootedness in a God who is so much bigger than all those things that we are dealing with these days. I have never known so many challenges in my 30 years of ordained ministry. But I am constantly surprised and blessed with things in these days even as I also grieve what we are missing and have lost. The truth is, were we able to simply turn the clock back and return to the way things were, I would miss much of what I have learned and the ways the church has grown in these days. And, of course, we will not go back to where we were. Instead, God has called us into a whole new future that we are still only beginning to comprehend.
Perhaps you recall that when John the Baptist was in prison he sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask if he was really the Messiah. After all, things were difficult. Surely the real Messiah was going to make it all easy and clear and strong and good. Jesus tells them: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Basically, Jesus is saying: “Sure, it’s not happening the way you expected or even wanted, but God is bringing good things; look!” (See Matthew 11:5 and Luke 7:22.)
We can sit and wait for things to get “better.” We can even imagine that things will go back to the way they used to be. Or we can follow Jesus and do worship and walk in the ways of charity in these days and these times as they are given to us. What I am seeing again and again is that God is doing amazing things in us and through us at Kingston and in our larger church in these days. We may not be doing things the way we always used to, or the ways we always expected we would, but God is bringing the Kingdom still and blessing us with ministry to be disciples of the living God.
“What is truth?” Pilate asks on that fateful day when he allows all the distracting voices of the world direct him to send Jesus to the cross.
The distractions of this world are loud and strong and they are multitude. In these days when we seek to care for one another and the world by separation and isolation, some of the distractions have disappeared. We don’t rush from one activity to the next. We don’t plan one visit with family and friends after another. The church does not have so many activities going on that the calendar has more ink on it than blank space.
Still there are distractions, of course. There are the constant reports of how many sick and how many dead.
And the worries that grow inside us There are the hopes of returning to what was. The list of things on our calendars we cannot do. There are political arguments. There are the worries at home about finances and the worries for our small businesses and the economic well-being of the world. There are all those things that keep us up at night. The CDC and the WHO say certain things as we come to understand more and more about the Corona virus, and others say the opposite. Depending on what news sources you trust, you can find all sorts of “truths.” And I spend much of my time trying to figure out who to trust.
And so we may ask with Pilate: “What is truth?”
Human truth is never 100% truth. We see through a glass darkly. Our own worries, fears, blindness, limited experience, desires and hopes color our world, direct our sight, translate all that is into the language that only we can speak. A friend recently posted an article about masks and handwashing and physical distancing that sounded absolutely factual, yet not a single thing in the article was true. The only source for the article was an author who, if you search for them, seems most likely to not exist at all. But the article said things that my friend wanted to believe, so she did, at least for a while. We see this in our world and perhaps, if we are honest, even in ourselves. We believe the easy answer that we want to believe because the challenge of the Truth is more than we can bear on our own.
Enter Jesus. Enter prayer. Enter faithful waiting on the Lord in patience to rise on wings like eagles.
Jesus stood before Pilate and was the Truth. But Pilate was distracted by all the world’s busy-ness. Prayer, if it is authentic, is not just telling God to fix what we want fixed, to cure those we love who are sick, or to help us to find happiness. Prayer is looking deeply at ourselves and discovering our false motivations that want to believe something other than the difficult and life-giving Truth of God. Prayer requires us to set aside all our distractions and spend time in the presence of the God who is Truth. Prayer calls us to be honest about who we are and our limitations. And prayer calls us to live out our lives in the messiness of a world of distractions grounded not in what we want but in God who is always beyond our understanding even as God is present in you and me and all around us.
There are plenty of quick fixes out there and plenty of easy answers. But there is really only one Truth. Dig deep. Pray hard. Courageously and unceasingly search your life and the world for what is true. Don’t settle for falsehood or answers that make you feel better. Pray. Pray with all that you are.
What is truth? The life God gives us in Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. It is right here, standing before us. Truth. It is a gift from God and yet it costs our lives. We cannot possess it; Truth possesses us. We receive it in God’s Grace and on God’s timetable. And may we work with all that we are to welcome it into our lives and to share it with others. For it is Good News for the world.
] For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: ... a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing ... (From Ecclesiastes 3).
We are in a season we have never quite experienced before. Yet it is still a season under heaven. That is not to say that God ordained this virus. Rather it is to say that God redeems all times and places. And God calls us to be a part of that redemption.
In this season of not leaving home in order to reduce the dangers of the virus spreading to ourselves, those we love, and especially those who are vulnerable because of age and medical conditions, we are blessed with the chance to be faithful by being disciplined at home. Even those of us who are, like myself, introverted homebodies by nature, are finding this discipleship challenging. But this is the season for a love that shows itself by staying home.
This is a season to stop and pray. This is a season to call a friend on the phone. This is a season to clean out that closet. This is a season to bake bread. This is a season to love those in your home with you. This is a season to stop all our busy-ness and face the reality of who we are by God’ Grace rather than what we are by what we do.
Jesus began his ministry by going off alone for a long, long time. Moses spent – according to the people at the bottom of the mountain – way too much time away and alone with God. The great Celtic saints I love, notably Columba, Aidan and Cuthbert each had “hideaways” – places they would go alone to be with God so they could be grounded to do the ministry God gave them to do when the season came to be engaged in the community again. We have long been people who have neglected our time away. If we go to the desert, we go with an RV, picnics and televisions and smartphones. Mount Sinai is quiet not because God is not present, but because we are too busy to stop and wait and watch before the holiness of the burning bush. We don’t want to take off our shoes on this holy ground; we have too many places we imagine we need run.
This is not a season of waste or a time only of trial. This is not a season only for fear and uncertainty, but a season for faith and worship. This is a time for us to engage in the deep and life-giving work of prayer. This is our time to set priorities and discover direction. This is our time to love from afar.
How are you living in this season? How are you being the church of Jesus Christ in this time? (For surely we have had to learn that church is not a building or an hour on Sunday morning, but just as Scripture tells us, it is the Body of Christ doing the work of God in the world; church is us.) May God bless you in this season of not embracing. And may we each bless God in these days also.
God’s Peace, Be Safe, Be Faithful, Be Loving,
One of my favorite saints is a woman whose name we do not even know. We know she lived in Norwich, England and was born about 1343. She eventually took the name of the parish church where she prayed which is St. Julian’s – probably Julian of Antioch who died a martyr sometime in the early 4th century. At any rate, Julian of Norwich, lived in the small cathedral city in the 14th century that was characterized by three rounds of bubonic plague. In 1373, when she was about 30, she became deathly ill. The parish priest came to her bedside and set a large crucifix in front of her. Staring at the crucifix in her fevered state, she experienced 16 visions of Jesus on the cross telling her all manner of things about her, God, and everything. She recovered from her sickness, became an “anchoress” living in the church and offering her constant prayers for the people of the parish. (We have many such anchors among us in our congregation and in our larger church today!) And she spent the rest of her life writing down and wrestling with the things Jesus had shown her from the cross in her sickness. Today we have her book where she grapples with all God showed her.
Sometimes it is in our darkest moments when we see the clearest. There is no doubt in my mind and soul that in the upheavals of these days, God has many new things to reveal to each of us with clarity and, of course, with divine love. Who knows how we may grapple with the life-giving things God shows us in this time for the rest of our lives! Pay attention these days to what you might see. Let the strange newness of these days be grounded in the unchangeable love of God. Look on Jesus and see what he says to you. Anchor yourself in our parish and know you are not only among people who love you but you are in the almighty heart of the one who gave everything to save you.
There are many wonderful images and ideas in Julian’s showings. But perhaps the most lovely image is memorialized in a stained glass window in the little parish church in Norwich. In the stained glass St. Julian looks to Jesus on the cross, suffering, and sees the painful nails and hard wood turn to spring flowers. Jesus smiles. Almost dances even on the cross. He mothers her through her life. And says “All shall be well. And all manner of thing shall be well.” There will be difficult moments ahead. There will be moments of Grace and glory ahead. And perhaps some of the moments will be both. May we see with clarity, our savior, and know with faithful certainty that all shall be well.
Amazing Grace. How sweet the sound.
What sound does Grace make?
In many ways Grace is so rich and full and so quiet and empty at the same time.
As we begin our Lenten Journey toward the Grace and fullness of Resurrection life, we spend time first, in ashes and desert, in mortality and emptiness. There are many reasons for starting there, but surely one of the greatest is simply this: to get to the fullness of a life that is eternal in God, we have to empty ourselves of so much of our self-importance and control. Walking the way of the cross means following Jesus. And if we are honest with ourselves, we usually would prefer to find an easier route. We want to be people of God, but we don’t want to have to live by the flimsy uncertainties of faith. We want to be people of prayer, deeply in relationship with God, but too often prayer ends up a rather low priority and looks like a grocery list of people’s names rather than a banquet in the presence of the divine. We want to depend on Grace, but in our daily lives we feel guilty for not doing enough, getting it right all the time, being more than any human being can be. We want to love like Jesus, but hope it won’t get to be too inconvenient or hurt too much or cost us much.
How can you give up what is between you and God for Lent?
How can you listen deeply in your actions and prayers for the sound that Grace makes?
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+
The Very Rev. Gary Barker