Archive for the ‘Church Life’ Category

Celebrate The Whole of It, Part Two

September 16, 2017

Since returning from my visit to the Community of Celebration which I wrote about in this blog on August 16 (“Celebrate The Whole of It!”), I have spent some time re-reading some of the literature covering the birth, growth, and development of this modern-day religious community. That would include two books by the founder, The Rev. Graham Pulkingham, Gathered For Power and They Left Their Nets which describe the early days of charismatic renewal at the Church of the Redeemer in Houston and the community which began to develop out of that movement.

The third book was This Is My Story, This Is My Song by Graham’s wife, composer and musician Betty Pulkingham, providing her perspective on those years as did community member Maggue Durran in her The Wind At the Door documenting their time in England and Scotland. The final book I read was a fine summary of their whole history up to the present day. It is called Following The Spirit by an English priest, Philip Bradshaw. He and his wife Margaret are still members of the Community of Celebration and live in London, keeping the community’s witness alive in the U.K.

This history, covering nearly half a century, reminds me of some my own, being introduced to the charismatic movement in the late 1960s and early ’70s, continuing to grow spiritually and thereby shedding some of the more fundamentalist tendencies which accrued to the movement (though not so much the Community of Celebration) but always appreciating the renewed worship, disciplined prayer life, and the family and community-centered emphasis of this band of pilgrims.

I experienced their music first in the Diocese of Central Florida and later invited them to lead the worship at a diocesan convention and conduct missions in the Diocese of Iowa while I was bishop here. I kept up with them over the years and some fifteen years ago was asked to serve as their Bishop Visitor now that the community was based in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania being a praying, witnessing, and prophetic community in the heart of this rust-belt former steel town and assisting in its restoration and re-birth.

Like many monastic and religious communities, Celebration has seen declining numbers in recent years. They no longer expect a restoration of their community life as it once was, but have begun making plans to transfer the work to others in Aliquippa after they are no longer able to keep things going. For the present, they still work hard, worship together three times day and in a joyous Saturday evening Eucharist in their beautiful little chapel. They continue a ministry of hospitality and are involved in the neighborhood, the diocese, and even the national Episcopal Church.

I believe their contribution to the liturgical life of the Episcopal Church is often under-appreciated or even unknown. They were ahead of the times in liturgical renewal, involving lay persons as well as clergy in worship leadership, experimenting with contemporary language and music but always within the structure of the Eucharistic liturgies and the Daily Offices. Without groups like The Fisherfolk (their traveling music  group’s name) I do not believe there would be musical resources like Wonder, Love, and Praise, Lift Every Voice or even supplemental liturgical texts such as Enriching Our Worship in the Episcopal Church.

One need only look at the 1982 Hymnal of the Episcopal Church to see music (“Alleluia, alleluia, give thanks to the risen Lord” and “I Am The Bread Of Life”) and even service music like S-247, a setting for the Magnificat) written or arranged by Betty Pulkingham. There are beautiful ballads by Wiley Beveridge and Psalm tones by Kevin Hackett still being used Sunday by Sunday in the U.K. and here.

They were on the cutting edge, but always occupied a position Richard Rohr calls today  being “on the outside of the inside,” fully recognized as congregations or communities in the Anglican Communion, but pushing the boundaries in helpful and challenging ways.

I am grateful this day for the Community of Celebration’s witness in my own life and in the life of the wider Church.

Be My Guide To Know Your Path

September 4, 2017

When I was elected Bishop of the Diocese of Iowa in 1988, I knew that my world was about to change in more ways than one. I was moving from a growing diocese in Central Florida to a demographically challenged one in the Midwest. I was coming into a totally different ministry than anything I had ever experienced before (contrary to what some believe, being bishop is not like being rector of an even larger parish; it is much more complicated than that). And, I was leaving a wonderful support system of friends and colleagues and, most of all, a trusted spiritual director.

Among the first things I did was to contract for monthly sessions with a young clinical psychologist whom I had met while he interviewed me as part of the screening process and medical/psychological exams required of bishop candidates. I liked him very much and he agreed to let me check in with him regularly to see if being a bishop had made me any crazier than I already was! The next search was for a spiritual director.

One of the priests in the Diocese of Iowa suggested Sister Mary Dingman who was then about seventy years old and a sister of the School Sisters of St. Francis out of Milwaukee. For a number of years then, she and a series of Jesuit colleagues ran something called “Emmaus House” in a struggling urban neighborhood in Des Moines. Mary and her colleague opened the house for retreats and quiet days, offered a daily mass, and often provided a simple lunch for their guests. They also engaged in spiritual direction and led retreats and conferences all over the Midwest.

I made an appointment to see Mary and we hit it off immediately. She was one of those deeply-grounded, gentle, progressive spirits which one can find in so many Roman Catholic women’s Orders. For the next twelve years, I made almost monthly “days of recollection” at Emmaus House. I would arrive early in the morning, be assigned a simple room, and spend the rest of the day reading, sleeping, praying, journaling or whatever else I needed to do to refresh my body and soul. In the afternoon, I would meet one-on-one with Sister Mary and she would gently listen, guide, encourage, and sometime challenge me to take the next steps on my spiritual journey.

Mary walked with me through diocesan crises, dealing with clergy sexual misconduct and putting in place procedures to handle such tragedies, wrestling with whether or not I should let my name be submitted as a candidate for Presiding Bishop (I had been asked by several as Ed Browning’s tenure came to an end), and finally — most significantly — the sudden death of my wife of thirty-two years, the grieving period that followed, and the putting back together of my life in a variety of ways in the following years.

I lost touch with Sister Mary a bit during the nine years that my new wife Susanne and I lived in New York, but got back in contact with her (now officially “retired”) when we moved back to Iowa as part of the “regional-ization” of some staff positions at the Church Center in 2009. We did not resume the same spiritual direction relationship, but simply met together, as dear friends, every so often when I would drive down to the little town of St. Paul, Iowa for coffee and conversation.

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by a niece of Mary’s and told that she was very weak and might not have long to live. The next morning I drove to St. Paul and found her sitting up in her recliner with a nasal oxygen catheter, but strong enough to have a brief conversation, a prayer together, and a gently kiss as I departed. On August 26 at 1:15 in the morning Mary’s spirit-filled heart gave out and she died.

Again, I was notified immediately by the family and was able to attend a Memorial Mass for her at St. James Catholic Church in St. Paul on Saturday September 2. Her funeral and burial the day before had been in Milwaukee at the Mother House of her Order. In St. Paul, I was welcomed warmly by the family who seemed almost as glad as I was that I had been able to see her and tell her how much I loved her and valued our friendship in those last days. The priest who presided at her Memorial Mass was kind enough to mention that “the retired Episcopal Bishop of Iowa” was among the many ecumenical guests and colleagues in the congregation.

I quite literally do not know what I would have done without the ministry of this devoted sister. Perhaps this prayer from the School Sisters of St. Francis which graced her service bulletin says it best:

Be my guide, God of love/ Lead me daily to search my heart.

Be my guide to know Your path./ That I may follow You each step of the way.

Grant me courage to trust and risk/ That I may have peace on my path to You.

Amen.

 

 

This Is The Gate of Heaven!

August 24, 2017

I did part of a sabbatical years ago at our Anglican College of St. George in Jerusalem. One of the courses I took was called “the Desert Course” and it entailed spending time in the Sinai tracing ancient pilgrim routes to St. Catherine’s monastery at the foot of the supposed site of the biblical Mt. Sinai. We took three jeeps with Bedouin drivers and an Egyptian guide, alternating nights spent in monasteries with camping on the desert floor.

One evening, as we sat around the camp fire on a crystal clear night, our guide pointed up to the endless night sky and said, “Welcome to the Sinai. One moon…ten million stars!” I believe that I could have counted each one. Later, as I unrolled my sleeping bag, I found a smooth stone to serve as a pillow and had very much the same experience as Jacob in this morning’s reading for St. Bartholomew’s day:

“Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending upon it…(When) Jacob woke from his sleep (he) said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place…How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.'” (Genesis 28:10 ff passim)

I cannot sing the hymn “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place” without remembering that experience and giving thanks to God for the privilege of spending those weeks in the “Land of the Holy One” as the Anglicans in that part of the world call it, reminding us that the land is holy only because it is a gift from the Holy One. I doubt that it is possible for that same course to be offered in the Sinai today because of the troubled politics of the region.

When we pray for the “peace of Jerusalem,” let us remember all the people of God in Israel/Palestine and throughout the Middle East and hope that one day that part of the world will find the promised peace and become an international meeting ground for all of us who await that Day when “all nations and races may serve (God) in harmony…” (Book of Common Prayer, page 815)

May it one day be so!

The Kingdom, The Power,and The Glory Are Yours

August 18, 2017

New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan has written a book on The Lord’s Prayer entitled The Greatest Prayer.  And I have often thought how true that sentiment is. This ancient prayer (whether or not it goes back to the historical Jesus) seems appropriate for almost any occasion or situation one may be facing. In these troubled times:

Our Father in heaven — acknowledging what some may hear as patriarchal language in a three-story universe — this opening phrase can remind us that we are all sisters and brothers of the one Parent/Creator whose vision and reach far exceeds our little blue planet floating in space.

Hallowed be your name — reminds us that the very name of God is holy and unspeakable really, that no words can adequately described this Ground of our Being, this “Yahweh,” this One who is Being and Existence itself. “Holiness,” wholeness itself.

Your kingdom come — while we live in the midst of various empires, systems, governments and indeed owe a certain allegiance to them as long as they proved order and stability in society, we yearn for a day when they will all pass away and when all the peoples of the earth will be united in the one God whose Commonwealth will be for ever, and for all.

Your will be done on earth as in heaven — the very universe(s) in which we dwell seem marked by cosmic cycles of birth and death, of advancement and retreat, of contraction and expansion. Yet all seem “held together” by some unitive force which some of us can only call “love.” Our prayer is that the very yearning of our Creator for harmony and reconciliation, for balance and justice will one day be found on earth as we see it mirrored in the cosmos.

Give us today our daily bread — That really is all we need. Our bread for today. We do not need to hoard wealth and possessions, the very fact of which widens the gap between rich and poor and will always lead to the “haves” and the “have nots” which is the source of most of the violence and war all around us. We need only food for today.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us — there is a connection here. We can only expect to be forgiven by others if we forgive them. It is the very height of arrogance to expect forgiveness and yet fail to be forgiving ourselves.

Save us from the time of trial — perhaps originally intended as a prayer not to cave in during the early days of the persecution of Christians, this plea today is that we may be spared the greatest of all difficulties but, if we have to experience the worst, to stand strong and courageously.

And deliver us from evil — poverty, war, terrorism, racism, sexism, misogyny, anti- Semitism, environmental degradation, and so much more. This is our cry for “Help” from that power which is greater than ourselves for deliverance.

For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever — God is sovereign and we are not; all power in the universe(s) ultimately come from that one Source; and the splendor of this Reality fairly shines in the darkness of our world and of our minds. And it will do so for all eternity…to the ages of ages.

Amen – So be it!

Celebrate The Whole Of It!

August 16, 2017

I spent several days last week visiting the Community of Celebration in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania (See http://www.communityofcelebration.com).  I serve as Bishop Visitor (a kind of official adviser) to the Community and have for many years. My relationship with them actually goes back decades.

When charismatic renewal swept the mainline churches back in the 1970s, my home Diocese of Central Florida was deeply affected. Our bishop, William H. Folwell, was quite supportive of the movement which he saw as opening some doors and windows in what had been a basically conservative and pretty Anglo Catholic diocese.

Many of us were part of prayer groups and Bible study groups, explored the ministry of healing and deliverance, and prayed in tongues (often privately due to the lack of an “interpreter!”). Mostly we became comfortable sharing our faith, praying easily and extemporaneously (no small feat for Episcopalians!), and singing “renewal music” some examples of which was better than others it must be said.

Some of the best came from the Celebration Community and their traveling music group, The Fisherfolk, out of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Houston. This community was led by Graham and Betty Pulkingham and consisted of extended “household” made up of single folks and married people with children who, in early church fashion, shared all things in common and celebrated all of their Christian lives lived in community.

As things developed the Community grew and spent some time in the south of England as well as later on in Scotland. They wrote music, sold tapes and later CDs, traveled and led worship in countless venues across the church. Eventually, they were invited by the Bishop of Pittsburgh to move to Aliquippa which was a devastated, rust-belt community ravaged by the collapse of the steel industry and filled with racial and economic tensions.

One of the things that characterized their musical offerings and set them apart from so many of those in the renewal movement was that most of it was designed for worship, and Eucharistic worship at that! There are songs and hymns, yes, but also Mass settings, psalm antiphons and chants, seasonal music to enhance the church years from Advent to Pentecost. Almost no one else did this…or did it as beautifully.

The Community of Celebration’s vocation in Pittsburgh was to “incarnate” themselves into this urban neighborhood and become a praying and singing and witnessing presence seeking to bring the love of Christ to people who desperately needed to experience it. They purchased a bank of row houses both to live in themselves and to provide affordable housing to others.

When they were told that they shouldn’t put potted plants on the porches because they would be stolen, they lavished such beauty on their porches, planted beautiful gardens on their property, and rejoiced as plants appeared on other porches and the neighborhood slowly began to take pride in itself again.

Over the years, they have joined community organizations for the improvement of the area and supported the Common Grounds Cafe which has become a safe haven for poor and young people of all races and backgrounds. Priests of the Community have also served as chaplains to the police and fire departments, Civil Air Patrol, and even the F.B.I. !  Most importantly, they built a beautiful chapel in which Morning, Noonday, and Evening Prayers are offered everyday and a Vigil Mass on Saturday nights followed by a common meal to which all are invited.

Like so many intentional religious communities and the charismatic movement itself (at least in this country), Celebration has declined in membership from scores to only five professed members, but they are strengthened by many official Companions and unofficial friends of the Community throughout the U.S. and the U.K.  And they continue to make solid contributions to Aliquippa and are clear-eyed in their determination to make plans for the ministry to continue even after they are no longer able to carry it out.

I am proud of my association with this faithful band of brothers and sisters and rejoice to sing with them their “Celebration Song:”

For our life together, we celebrate/ Life that lasts forever, we celebrate/ For the joy and for the sorrow,/ yesterday, today tomorrow, we celebrate/. For your great creation, we celebrate/ for our own salvation, we celebrate/. For the sun and for the rain/ through the joy and through the pain, we celebrate/. Ah! There’s the celebration/ Ah! There’s the celebration!/ Celebrate the whole of it!!! (C-213, Come Celebrate! songbook)

Indeed!

 

 

TRANSFIGURATION DAY

August 6, 2017

I’m always surprised when I discover how many Episcopalians don’t know that we have communities of monks and nuns in our church! Everyone knows of Religious Orders in the Roman Catholic Church, many are aware of Eastern Orthodox monastics, but it seems few realize that there are similar Anglican communities.

I was fortunate in that, growing up, a Franciscan brother made regular visits to my home parish. I still remember his brown toes peeking out from his sandals and rough habit as I knelt at the rail to receive communion from him!  Those same Franciscans made regular appearances at Seabury-Western where I went to seminary and helped me develop my very first Rule of Life, a pattern of spiritual disciplines and practices…most of which I still observe to this day.

I made annual retreats in monasteries over the years and actually became an Associate of the men’s Order of the Holy Cross, based in West Park, New York.  But my deepest connection with such communities came when I was asked to become the Bishop Visitor (a kind of official advisor) to the Sisters of the Transfiguration in Cincinnati.

I had been scheduled to lead their long retreat one year when, as it happened, they were looking for a new Bishop Visitor. My name was added to the pool and I ended up being selected and serving in that capacity for some 25 years!  The Diocese of Iowa even added to their number as Diana Doncaster (whom some of you know), a professor of communications at Loras College in Dubuque, tested her vocation there and took life vows maybe fifteen years ago.

Over the years, this Community of around thirty sisters have had teaching ministries in China, founded and continue to run Bethany School in Glendale, Ohio, oversee a recreational center in Lincoln Heights (a predominantly African American community near their Mother House), and provided a small nursing home for older sisters and their families as well as a medical clinic and school in the Dominican Republic. Recently, they converted the nursing home into a first-class retreat and conference facility called the Transfiguration Spirituality Center.

The Community of the Transfiguration takes its name and primary vocation from the experience of Jesus we heard about in the Gospel this morning and which we celebrate on August 6 each year.  Some New Testament scholars believe this is a “misplaced” Resurrection appearance like perhaps the accounts of Jesus “walking on water.”

But I’m convinced that this was likely an historical recollection of an experience in the earthly life of Jesus. An intense mystical experience he had while wrapped in prayer on the top of Mount Tabor.  It was an experience which changed him, and his disciples’ perception of him, forever.  It’s described well in the traditional Prayer Book Collect appointed for this day which reads like this:

”O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty…”

The Sisters pray this collect every evening at Compline and it sums up their vocation. Quite apart from their many good works and amazing ministries (in fact, the source of those ministries) is their choice to be delivered from the “disquietude” of this world by living in a community of poverty, chastity, and obedience in order to “behold (Christ) …in his beauty.”

One way they monitor their progress on this journey is by keeping the three words of their community motto ever before them. The three Latin words are: Benignitas…Simplicitas…and Hilaritas – Kindness…Simplicity…and Joy!

The Sisters seek, first of all, to be “kind”… to treat one another and everyone with whom they interact as “kin,” as members of the family – “kin-dness!” Next, they seek to live in simplicity, as free as possible from worldly attachments, the “stuff” we so easily surround ourselves with and which can equally easily distract us from the truly important things in life. Finally – and I love this! – they seek to live with Hilaritas…with hilarity…with joy! (You only have to listen to them kid each other and banter back and forth in their brief chapter meetings after dinner to know that these women live together, not only mostly happily…but more importantly with real joy!)

We don’t know exactly what happened to Jesus on that mount of transfiguration; as I say it was likely a mystical union so intense that his friends noticed it.  It transfigured him…and them! My 25 years as Bishop Visitor for the Community of Transfiguration allowed me the privilege of watching them undergo something of that same Transfiguration as they have grown in kindness, and in simplicity, and in joy.

Of course, such transfiguration experiences are not limited to monastics! All of us are called to be gradually transfigured into the image and likeness of Christ. And it happens to us in much the same way as it has happened to those beloved Sisters – by experiencing Christian community (much as we strive to be here at New Song), by a disciplined life of prayer and study, and by living that spirituality out in lives of service and commitment to the wider world.

Are we on that journey of transfiguration, my friends? Well, we could do worse than measure our progress by the motto of those Sisters –

Benignatas…Simplicitas…Hilaritas. Are you kinder this year than you were last? Do you live more simply? Are you more joyful? If so, you’re probably headed in the right direction.

If not…maybe  it’s time to find ways to spend a little more time on that mountaintop with Jesus — by recommitting yourself to this community,  in prayer and study, and in corporate worship.

 

And then, get ready to follow Jesus back down the mountain into the valley of this broken world. Where the real work waits to be done…

The Prosperity Of The Wicked

August 4, 2017

What family comes to mind when you read these words? Be honest now…

“Because I envied the proud, and saw the prosperity of the wicked:

For they suffer no pain, and their bodies are sleek and sound;

In the misfortunes of others, they have no share; they are not afflicted as others are;

Therefore they wear their pride like a necklace, and wrap their violence about them like a cloak.

Their iniquity comes from gross minds, and their hearts overflow with wicked thoughts.

They scoff and speak maliciously; out of their haughtiness they plan oppression.

They set their mouths against the heavens, and their evil speech runs through the world.

And so people turn to them and find in them no fault.

They say, “How should God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?”

So then, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase their wealth.”

(Psalm 73: 3-12)

And what is their future? Well…

“When I tried to understand these things, it was too hard for me;

Until I entered the sanctuary of God and discerned the end of the wicked.

Surely you set them in slippery places; and cast them down in ruin.

Oh, how suddenly do they come to destruction, come to an end, and perish from terror!

Like a dream when one awakens, O Lord, when you arise you will make their image vanish”

(Psalm 73: 16-20)

May it be so. Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus!

 

The Profane White House

July 29, 2017

I am not a prude. In fact, most days my language could use some cleaning up, especially when I hit my proverbial thumb with the proverbial hammer or experience frustration at some task. I grew up in a home where such profanity was common, if not frequent. It is a hard habit to break.

However, I must admit to being frankly appalled by the kind of language used quite publicly by members of the Trump administration. Of course the tone is set by our fearless leader himself. His campaign style of telling large audiences (of young people as well as adults) what he would bomb out of ISIS or just where in eternity undocumented immigrants or protesters might go, or where he is likely to grab women shows no sign of abating now that he has somehow (still unbelievably to me!) been elected President of the United States.

In fact, the least offensive thing he said to a recent jamboree of the Boy Scouts of America was “why the hell” he would want to talk about politics at such a gathering. (Just before proceeding to do just that for a large portion of his speech). The man seems incapable of monitoring his language no matter what audience he is addressing at any given moment.

The foul-mouthed fascist, Steve Bannon, appeared to be topping even his boss in the profanity department until last week. And then, Anthony Scaramucci appeared on the scene. Days after being appointed Communications Director for Donald Trump’s administration, Scaramucci decided to “communicate” in an even coarser style than his arch enemy, Bannon.

After a vulgar tirade about Trump’s Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’ mental stability the former Wall Street executive assured us that he did not have what the New York Times called Steve Bannon’s “dorsal flexibility” in describing his attempts at self-promotion. And then, of course, he concluded by telling us that he was going to “f—ing kill the leakers” in the White House.

Now, I know that this is a pretty trivial matter compared to what this constitutional democracy is facing under a President Trump or what new danger the entire world is in by having such an unstable leader with access to the nuclear codes. But I have long bemoaned the “coarsening” of society, seen in everything from the language used in movies and on TV, the lack of discretion in advertising footage, and in the misogynistic lyrics in contemporary “music” particularly much rap and hip hop.

It has been such a blessing over the last eight years to have a class act like Barack Obama as our chief role model for young people. This handsome, eloquent gentleman no doubt lets a curse word or two fly from his mouth from time to time. But at least we were spared hearing it on an almost daily basis from behind the presidential seal.

Yes, we are in less danger from the profanity emanating from the White House than we are its policies. But it would be nice not to have to remove my grandchildren from the television before the nightly news.

 

 

Vacation Or Holiday?

July 17, 2017

This evening Susanne and I will board a one-way flight to spend a couple of weeks in our little condo in Daytona Beach. A one-way ticket, not because we are leaving Iowa and moving to Florida full time, but because we will drive my Dad’s car back to Iowa at the end of our time there. He has decided that, at 96, he is unlikely ever to drive again (!) and, because his granddaughter Amanda totaled her car in an unfortunate run-in with a deer, he is giving her his relatively new Chevy.

The little place we have overlooks the Halifax River (which is what the Inland Waterway is called in Daytona) and we were so pleased that Amanda, her daughter Courtney and her boyfriend Ryan were able to spend a long weekend there just recently. It had always been my hope to have a permanent place in our “home state” of Florida that the kids and grandkids could use for vacations and where Susanne and I could perhaps get out of the worst of the Iowa winters. Now, circumstances have allowed us to do this while still keeping our primary residence in Iowa City, a wonderful university town in a state we now both call home.

Being still fairly new in this time of life called “retirement,” I am still trying to figure out what a “vacation” is when basically our whole life is a vacation now! Well, not really. Susanne is heavily involved in some ministries and activities here in Iowa and I do some supply work and consulting both for the Diocese of Iowa and the Diocese of Chicago when asked. But clearly, out time is more our own these days and we are free from the multi-tasking and busy-ness which consumed so many of our years in the past.

Some light has been shed on this dilemma recently by considering the word “holiday” rather than “vacation” to describe time away from work and responsibility. Vacation indicates an “empty” time; while a holiday suggest a “holy” time. Holiness bespeaks healing and wholeness and appreciation of the sacred. Long walks on the beach, watching the endless tide and waves will be coupled with seeing the sun set over the river from our balcony as the sail and power boats return from a happy day of cruising or fishing to nestle in their slips for the night.

We’re looking forward to a holy time rather than an empty time in the days ahead.

May your summer provide such experiences as well!

 

Shaken By The Wind, Speaking With Boldness

July 3, 2017

It was an honor and privilege last weekend to participate in and address the 22nd DIAKONIA World Assembly meeting at Loyola University in Chicago. This quadrennial meeting brings together some 400 deacons, deaconesses, and diaconal ministers from a variety of Christian communions and from 26 countries including Germany, others in Western Europe, Africa, to the the U.S. and Caribbean, right across the globe to the Philippines.

The diaconate is, of course, an historic Christian ministry tracing its roots to those seven “proto deacons” in the Acts of the Apostles who were selected to “serve table” (feed the hungry) leaving the apostles free for prayer and the ministry of the word. Across the centuries, diaconal ministry has included the likes of Sts. Stephen and Phillip, Phoebe, Lawrence, Francis of Assisi, Nicholas Farrar, David Pendleton Oakerhater, Harriet Bedell, and in our own day Deacon Ormond Plater.

As my wife, Susanne Watson Epting (who is also a deacon), has demonstrated so clearly in her book Unexpected Consequences: The Renewal of the Diaconate in the Episcopal Church, this ministry has been a constant down the history of the church but has involved and changed over time and in different places. She traces some seven waves of development at least as we have experienced them in the Episcopal Church.

The theme of this recent DIAKONIA Assembly was “Shaken By the Wind” and various speakers and workshops explored just how it is that the diaconate itself, the church it serves, and the world in which it exists are being shaken by the wind in some quite surprising ways today. In my talk “Shaken By The Wind: Speaking With Boldness” I tried to trace some ways the diaconate itself has been shaken by the winds of change, but how deacons, deaconesses and diaconal ministers are called to respond to two particular “windy challenges” facing the the world and the church today — declining church membership and the simultaneous rise of right-wing extremism we see today in the United States, Europe and indeed in other parts of the world such as in the Philippines. I concluded my address with these words:

I hope that deacons, and those they form and lead in the church’s diakonia, will increasingly see their primary ministry as incarnating themselves in our changing and often troubled communities, listening deeply to the voices of need and concern and yes sometimes hope, and being bold enough to try and interpret those voices in ways the church will be challenged to respond to. Do not be afraid, dear friends, to tug on the sleeve of those in authority in church and society and to demand that those voices be heard! It’s your ministry.

It is challenging and perhaps even risky ministry in the context of the world in which we find ourselves. A world which is increasingly frightened by, and suspicious of, “the other” – the one who looks different, speaks another language, has unfamiliar life experiences, worships in a different tradition (or not at all). But this vocation is nothing else but the proclamation of the kingdom of God which is the church’s essential role. The Realm of God looks like this! It looks like a community of diversity which finds its unity in the worship and service of the one, true God.

Nationalism, xenophobia, sexism, racism, and unbridled greed must be named for what they are – sin! Sin is that which falls short of the values of the gospel and which separates us from God’s purposes and impedes the in-breaking of the kingdom which Jesus came to inaugurate.  Deacons, and the church they serve, must be clear about this kind of sin, and willing to confront it whether it appears in the world or in the church.

That is indeed a challenging and risky vocation. But we must know that it is the vocation into which we were baptized. For we were baptized in the Name of the Triune God we heard about in our scriptural readings for today: the One who created this good earth out of the formless void and called it Good (Genesis 1:1-5); the One who is the mediator of a new covenant and a kingdom which cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:18-29) ; and the One who filled the apostles (after the house in which they prayed had been shaken by the wind!) so that they spoke the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31)!

Pray for that boldness, beloved. The times we live in…cry out for it!

I don’t think I was telling the wonderful multi-hued, deeply spiritual, and hard-working assembly at Loyola anything new. But I hope I encouraged them to rededicate themselves to the witness of “the diakonia of all believers” for the sake of the church — and the world!