Rector's Ramblings May 22, 2019
This past Sunday I preached about the ongoing need to support Burroughs-Mollette Elementary School (BMES) in Brunswick. BMES is still the poorest school in Glynn County, and actually for several counties around (based on the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches). When compared with all the elementary schools in Glynn, Brantley, McIntosh, and Camden Counties, Burroughs Mollette is the poorest by this measure. And, as research has shown over and over again, poor schools, where the majority of students are poor, have worse outcomes academically. It’s not so much that children in poverty can’t learn and can’t excel, but rather that when a school is predominantly poor, there is a strong negative correlation between that widespread poverty and performance on standardized measures. [Photo Credit: The Brunswick News]
On one hand, I could not care less about standardized test scores. I think standardized testing is ruining education in many parts of the country. We tend to lay a lot of our complaints at the feet of the Common Core standards, yet teaching for standardized tests has a long history before the current standards became the measuring stick. This leads to an unhelpful system of awarding teachers, principals, schools, and school districts based on the standardized scores that are recorded each year. The anxiety that accompanies such systems is palpable all the way from Atlanta, down to my dining room table. This might ultimately be a way to get some special attention for schools like BMES in the end, but I doubt it. When we realize that poor schools will rarely measure up on achievement measurements, maybe we’ll decide to change the school make-up or change the way we measure the students.
I say this because there is research that shows that poor schools can measure the same growth as wealthier schools, maybe even better growth. That is, when the measure is not a standardized universal instrument that puts all children of a particular age in the same category, but is instead based on individual achievement and growth over a period of time, poor schools canhold their own. In some cases, poor schools are able to achieve higher growth scores than their wealthier counterparts, yet such results are rarely quantified or rewarded. Poor students tend to start behind their peers, which means they finish behind their peers, which means they will often lose out on comparative systems of reward. The standardized scores of poor schools will always lag, sometimes dramatically. That helps explain why BMES’ GA Milestone scores (the GA standardized tests for 3-5thgrade) range from 2.5 to 15.2 on a scale of 100 for the various grades and elements of testing. This compares to scores that range from 66.3 to 88.2 at the county’s wealthiest school, Oglethorpe Pointe Elementary. Keep in mind that students from similar neighborhoods to BMES students tend to perform better at the wealthier schools they are bused to. It’s not an ability issue, it’s a poverty issue.
To overcome the poverty challenge in education takes a great deal of resources, commitment, and creative thinking. It can be done. When I mentioned Lebron James’ efforts in Akron, OH, on Sunday, it was a prime example of what creative approaches can achieve. While the kids in the school he supports still lag behind wealthier schools in standardized test scores, 90% of the kids in the school outperformed 99% of students nationally, when measuring individual growth (when comparing pre and post-test scores). If those efforts can be replicated semester over semester, year over year, grade over grade, it is feasible that students once written off as lost causes could end their public school careers on par with their peers who face far fewer challenges in academic achievement. It’s a hope, and it’s a start, and we have to start somewhere.
And what does this have to do with us? It means we need to get active and creative, and most importantly, hopeful about what is possible for BMES in the future. To that end, we are going to continue our efforts to support the school overall, recognize teachers, and continue facilitate tutoring for afterschool and dyslexia spectrum kids, among other outreach initiatives. We are going to reward kids for their standardized test scores, in part to celebrate high achievers, and also to help others learn that (even though many of us don’t like them) standardized test scores matter to the school and the future success of their school. Think of it as apathy-busting and excellence-rewarding at the same time. We’re also going to start a reward program at the school through Glynn Episcopal Ministries. Borrowing ideas from what works in better resourced schools, I think we can establish an instant reward program that incentivizes achievement in reading, math, and behavior all at the same time.
When children are rewarded as they do something, research shows it can be a huge motivator. Grades and test scores aren’t big motivators for most kids, especially those who know that they tend to get more wrong answers than right ones. Finding ways to celebrate the small successes and small gains is not a throwaway; it is the only way. We’ll need some volunteers to help put the program together and support teachers in using it. We’ll also need some financial resources and donations to provide the incentives. If we are able to create a “Tiger Dollar” system, the kids can accrue dollars for successes, and then use them to buy things in a “store” that would be open once a quarter and offer everything from toys to books to candy. Every child has a chance to earn rewards, not just the high achievers.
I’m going to put it on the calendar right now: Sunday, June 23, I am going to host a meeting at 12:30 pm for those who want to help think through how we can facilitate such a program. Please join me if you have ideas or interest in something like this. And if this isn’t your thing, consider being a mentor or a tutor. You need to attend a training session in order to go into the schools, but these programs change lives. Te Boles’ dyslexia tutoring outreach is also a good place to invest your energy. She will train volunteers how to administer the Barton Method, and the more tutors we have, the more kids we’ll be able to help.
This past week I spoke to the entire student body at BMES as a part of an end-of school assembly. These are kids who are more than numbers and test scores. These are kids who, in some cases, are living in situations I can scarcely imagine. The heartbreaking thing is that you can see it on some – not all – of their faces. But I won’t let myself see a gymnasium full of kids for whom there is no hope. I want to work with the school; with teachers and staff; with the parents who are able to raise the bar; with a community that cares for these kids, as if they are their own, and give it everything we’ve got to make it better. I don’t think we can eliminate the poverty in the near future, per se, but a generation or two of better-educated children will certainly help. Kids who grow up to have options, real options for a better life, whose own kids will then have options for more success, is where my hope lies. Hope, with a lot of love and a lot of hard work, is really all we need.
God of knowledge and wisdom, we pray to you for all the schools across this country. We remember them in their variety, in their differences, and in what they share. Give us open doors, open minds, and open hearts that we might accept, learn, and love everything and everyone whom you give to us to teach. Help us to share our lives and what we have, and to learn from all those who are in our schools. We pray in the name of Jesus who opened his arms to all, young and old. Amen.
Adapted from a prayer by John F. Smith
Rector's Ramblings May 15, 2019
A few years ago, I rambled about a game I used to play on my cell phone, Clash of Clans. My nephews had gotten me started on it, and I stuck with it; we were in a “family clan,” and it was a way to interact with them. Over time, we all basically stopped playing the game. It got old. In some ways, it was a passive game; when you were battling someone, it was your troops going up against their preset defenses. There was no other person actively playing against you, not even a computer. That may be why the company that created the game created a spin-off version, as play of the original, at one time the highest grossing game in the iTunes App Store, began to trail off.
Their successor game, using many of the same ideas and figures, is Clash Royale. Unlike its older brother, CR is a live action game. Each player builds a battle deck of eight cards. You might choose to have wizards, giants, goblins, barbarians, Valkyries, dragons, and a host of other options; there are more than ninety cards available. Each card costs a certain amount to play, they have unique ranges on the board and have varying degrees of speed, strength, and durability. The object is to destroy more of your opponent’s castles than they destroy of yours. You start with three, and if someone gets all three, they win. Oh, and you only have three minutes per game to win.
Without going into all the details, (there are too many to do so here), this is a fast-paced game of strategy. It’s like chess on steroids. You have to know what each of your cards can do and try to anticipate how your opponent will play theirs. You can only see four of your cards at a time, and they rotate through as you use them. There are combination plays that can be very effective, but every attack meets an equally effective defense at some point. I love playing the game. It’s addictive, and it hasn’t gotten old the way the predecessor game did, and it shows in the level of play through the app. The global participation is as much as 100 million at the moment. The game’s creators have created a gold mine. At the end of last year, it was reported that they were making over $1 million per DAY.
I’ve been playing the game to some degree since it launched, so I’ve gotten pretty good at it. I win more matches than I lose and I tend to float near the top of my “clan” even though I don’t play nearly as much as some others. Some folks play it throughout the day, all day long. I can’t do that. At any rate, for all that I know my cards and their abilities, for all my experience in seeing all sorts of combinations and decks, sometimes it all comes down to luck. Sometimes the cards don’t come in the “right” order, meaning that whatever I play, my opponent seems to have predicted and counters right away. Or, whatever they play, I can’t seem to defend because the card I need hasn’t rotated up yet. It’s frustrating to know what needs to be played, yet I’m unable to play it. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes the cards come perfectly timed to dominate a match, but of course, in those moments I’m more apt to chalk it up to my prowess than luck. Naturally, right?
Well, darn if life isn’t like that. We tend to take credit for the things that go well; it couldn’t possibly be luck when things go our way. It’s because we’re talented, hard-working, and attractive. Right? It’s like living in Lake Woebegone, where everyone is above average.
But on the other hand, no matter how skilled we are, no matter how well we’ve tried to plan, sometimes the cards just fall the wrong way, and we lose. We may look to God and complain, or we might internalize it and blame ourselves for our failures. Rarely are either an appropriate explanation. Not that we don’t make mistakes, but life is just full of surprises we can do nothing about.
Most of us have been at this life thing for a while. I think many of us win more than we lose, fortunately. But we do face some losses. They are annoying and frustrating, and painful, but there it is. Most of them are relatively minor losses, and we take whatever cards we have and make do as we move ahead. Other losses are more impactful and can cause us to change direction entirely. My only hope is to remind us that sometimes life just happens, and we won’t benefit from trying to assign too much meaning to it, divine or otherwise. The name of the game is adaptation, graceful learning, faithful effort, and daring adventure. If we can embrace those things, we’ll always win in the end.
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thank thee for all thou hast given and for all thou hast forgiven; for thy hidden blessings and for those which in our negligence we have passed over: for every gift of nature or of grace: for our power of loving: for all which thou has yet in store for us: for everything, whether joy or sorrow, whereby thou art drawing us to thyself through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Rector's Ramblings April 24, 2019
Below is an updated Rambling I wrote way back in 2013, as I reflected on a suicide bombing in Pakistan. I was not up to speed on the details of this weekend’s attack Sunday morning with the hectic schedule at Christ Church for Easter Sunday. The Easter attacks in Sri Lanka were equally as shocking and disturbing as I began to learn about them. I hope that you will join me in praying for the victims and their families, for those whose hearts are filled with hatred, and for all those who are persecuted and martyred for their faith. Even in the face of horror and death (and perhaps because of) we raise our Easter Alleluias! Along with our resurrection faith, we pray for peace and God’s mercy. Tom+
“Are you willing to be drug out into the forest and shot for your faith in Jesus Christ?” Get your attention? Yeah, it got mine too. This was a question asked of the congregation assembled in our chapel one day when I was in seminary at Sewanee. We had occasional “scholars in residence” who would attend classes and participate liturgically in the life of the community. We bright-eyed, eager seminarians were not used to thinking about such things, so yes, the question got our attention. You could see people who tend to tune out during sermons (yes, clergy do it too) sit up straight in their seats to find out what in the world was going on.
I do not remember the name of the priest any more or all the specifics of his sermon that day, but I have never forgotten the question he asked us. It was indeed a question I had never asked myself, because I have not had to. A bit over the top, perhaps, but able to get a point across, too. Do we, who are blessed to live in this country at this point in history, really understand the cost of discipleship? Compared to some in other parts of the world and in other times in history, we have got it REALLY easy.
This past Sunday, as some of you know, two suicide bombers attacked Christians in Peshawar, Pakistan as they left church. [This time it was a series of attacks in Sri Lanka that have killed more than 350 and injured more than 500 persons.] Not that it makes it any more disheartening or disgusting, but the church was historic All Saints Anglican Church, a church that has from its beginnings in the 19thcentury been a symbol of interfaith efforts in a majority-Muslim country. More than 85 people were killed and over a hundred more were injured just minutes after they finished offering some of the same prayers that we did on Sunday. Try to imagine what it is like to worry about being attacked when you come to church? That is something that is largely foreign to us.
Persecution is still a reality in some parts of the world, most notably in some places in the Middle East and Asia, although there are other places where Christians profess their faith at great risk. That makes for a different kind of faith. In my estimation, it’s a closer version of what the early church experienced in the years after Jesus’ resurrection, when Christianity was a persecuted minority religion. I think most of us really don’t know what that is like, and I’m happy that is the case. One thing that comes with that reality, though, is that our faith and our profession of it is less costly than for some of our brothers and sisters around the world. This does not mean that our faith is invalid or worthless; it simply means that it is easier to take for granted.
That was the point of that priest’s question to us 10 years ago. Don’t take your faith for granted. Don’t take your ability to worship, or even to serve others as a follower of Christ for granted. If our ability to worship were jeopardized, would we make more of an effort to make it count and to do it more often? If it was so valuable that it was dangerous, how would it change the way we do things? These are all interesting questions for us “easy Christians” to ponder from time to time. And while we do that, we also need to pray for our Christian family around the world – especially those who live and move and have their being in the midst of persecution and in fear. We should remember the people of All Saints and Peshawar, asking God to assuage their grief and their fear. I know that they have already begun to go back to church again this week, and they will need our prayers.
Give strength and courage, O God, by your Holy Spirit to all who bear reproach or suffer for the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Turn the hearts of their oppressors and persecutors; and grant that their testimony may avail for the conversion of many. Keep them steadfast in hope and serene in your peace. Whether in life or in death, number them among your confessors and martyrs who loved not their lives unto death, for the same of him who died for us all, that we might have everlasting life in glory, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. - Massey Shepherd
Rector's Ramblings April 17, 2019
This week’s fire at Notre Dame cathedral was a shock. I was in a meeting at the church when I heard the news. As I pulled up the news on my phone, it was literally a jaw-dropping moment. I immediately felt a wave of emotion overtake me. Having been to the cathedral twice in my life, most recently to share the experience with my children, I know the value it holds as a religious and also architectural treasure. Like many around the world, it was heartbreaking for me to consider that the cathedral might cease to be.
Similarly, I share in the joy of millions as we learn that the cathedral seems to have fared well, all things considered. The iconic stained-glass windows are still intact, as are the walls and many artifacts that weren’t touched by the fire. It turns out that the centuries-old architecture did exactly what it was designed to do; allow the roof to burn without severe damage to the structure. The initial photos looked so terrible as the tinder-dry wood that made up the roof burned, I simply feared the worst. If I had remembered my Ken Follet series, Pillars of the Earth, about the building and generational care of cathedrals, I would have remembered the nature of a sacrificial roof system.
I was also struck by the paradox that exists around such structures. On one hand, we are reminded that losing a church building (or any building) does not mean the community is gone. Churches are people, first and foremost, and even if a building ceases to exist, its people will see the mission carried on. I knew in those first moments that if Notre Dame fell, the people of Paris and France, and those around the world who have been touched by her ministry, would carry the spirit into the future in some form. Indeed, the outpouring of pledges to help rebuild shows that very thing to be true.
That leads to the second reaffirmation. Although buildings don’t matter on one hand, they still matter a great deal on the other. Our religious spaces carry a great deal of significance in our lives, some more than others. Notre Dame has few peers in terms of its significance as a religious space. Millions upon millions have prayed in her walls over the centuries; historical events have taken place under the roof that now lies charred on the nave floor; the building itself has become a true thin place where it seems heaven and earth are barely separated. The question about whether to rebuild was an easy one, I have no doubt. Notre Dame’s witness to the world and the symbolism it offers a city and a nation is worth every penny they will spend on it.
This was an odd reminder for me about the work we’re doing to address our spaces at Christ Church. The meeting I was in when I heard the news about the fire was a capital campaign meeting with our consultant. The very next day, we had a Vestry update from our building committee and capital campaign team. The Vestry is still working carefully and deliberately to discern what God is calling us to do in this regard. More details will be coming in May, but it certainly got me thinking about the meaning and purpose of buildings. They are not the end all and be all of a parish, but they matter a whole lot, too. Imagine this Island without Christ Church and its people, shaped and motivated by worship and formation within her walls? Imagine too, what will happen if and when “the big one” hits, or if the prognostications about sea level rise come to fruition? If the building isn’t here, does Christ Church cease to exist? Certainly not! God forbid we ever have to experience a Notre Dame moment, but if we do, we will carry on and rebuild if it’s feasible. It’s too important to too many. Buildings are extensions of our mission and ministry, and as such, they hold a special place in our lives over generations.
I am hoping and praying that the inspections of Notre Dame demonstrate that it can be rebuilt, perhaps even better built. I also hope we see in this event a glimpse of hope. If you saw the image from the interior of the nave after the fire had been extinguished, you may have seen the pile of timbers smoldering in the foreground while the cross hung, undamaged, over the high altar at the crossing. It is the Gospel in miniature; the darkness does not overcome the light. Ever. The Gospel message is also one of hope and the assurance that with God all things can and are being made new. May it be so.
Almighty God, to whose glory we celebrate the dedication of this house of prayer: We give you thanks for the fellowship of those who have worshiped in this place, and we pray that all who seek you here may find you, and be filled with your joy and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Rector's Ramblings April 10, 2019
The last two Ramblings call for a follow-up. Things don’t always work out the way you expect them to, or the way they are painted in a Rambling! While my stories about a butterfly and a struggling baseball team noted that, they have both continued to prove the point!
Our butterfly friend never did fly. I did some research and learned that once the wings dry crooked, they don’t straighten out. The advice on a website devoted to raising butterflies suggested the options were to euthanize the butterfly or keep it as a pet. We kept it, of course. The butterfly continued to have some issues holding on to branches and plants, however. The fall that led to the bent wings was repeated many, many times. That also meant the butterfly wasn’t able to eat very efficiently. I learned how to hold the butterfly safely above a mixture of honey and water, and then how to gently extend its curled proboscis into the liquid until it began to eat.
I hand-fed the butterfly twice a day. It kept falling off of twigs and plants on our counter, and beating its wings trying to fly. Its wings eventually started to tear and tatter and after a week or so, I made the decision to euthanize it. I read online that one of the easiest ways to do it, for both human and butterfly, is to put it in an envelope and put the envelope in the freezer overnight. So I did. It went into hibernation and never woke up again. Now it’s flying around in butterfly heaven somewhere, I assume. It was a learning experience all around, to say the least. Sometimes, no matter what we do, nature is going to take its course.
Speaking of taking its course, as expected, the Baltimore Orioles have not stayed at the top of the AL East standings, and their winning ways have been more elusive than the first week of the season may have portended. In fact, they not only fell, they fell hard. They followed four straight wins with four straight losses, one of them so decisive it was hard to follow. After winning the first series against the Yankees, the Yankees humbled the O’s the very next week.
In one game, the weakness of the Oriole bullpen was on display. They were so desperate they put a utility infielder (not a pitcher) on the mound to pitch for the first time in his career. His fastballs, while accurate in aim, were topping out below seventy-five miles per hour. If you’re not a baseball fan, that’s tortoise-slow for a major league fastball. The Yanks scored 15 runs in that game, many of them through home runs. They had more home runs in a single game than they have had in over a decade, as it turns out. It is a clear signal that Baltimore is still, indeed, rebuilding a team from the ground up.
There was also the painful news that an Oriole set an all-time record of the wrong kind. Chris Davis, the highest paid player on the roster, just set the record for consecutive at-bats without a hit. Forty-nine of them (so far), dating back to last fall and last season. The guy just can’t get a hit, yet he’s still earning more than $20 million a year per contract, which means there’s no easy solution about what to do with or about him. I don’t think there’s a historical precedent for this situation, and it is another drag on the team at a time when they don’t need anything else slowing them down.
For all the bad news, however, there is good news. The Orioles are one of the best defensive teams in the majors so far. The field has played incredibly, leading to few errors and MLB-leading stats for things like stolen bases allowed. But defense alone doesn’t win games, and certainly not when pitching is this abysmal. While the odds did correct the anomaly in the season’s opening days, there is still light at the end of the tunnel. The foundation of a strong team eventually being built is there.
Things don’t always work out the way we expect and sometimes they do. Sometimes it takes guts to get step up to the plate to pitch for the first time, and it takes a lot to step up to the plate dragging six months of baggage behind you. We can try to do the right thing, and still end up letting go of dreams and hopes we hoped would one day soar. And then we set our eyes to the next ones. Life goes on, even when it doesn’t, as our faith is about to remind us. Things are always in progress, always changing, always being made new. The circle continues, there will be other seasons, and second chances. If we’re lucky, we might even get fifty chances and find that the fiftieth one was the one that did it.
Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever Amen.
Rector's Ramblings April 3, 2019
I have liked the Baltimore Orioles since I was a kid. I’ve been to Camden Yards a number of times, although every time I’ve seen them play in person, they’ve lost. They’ve done that a lot in my lifetime. The American League East has some great teams, notably our nemesis, the New York Yankees, so it’s never been an easy effort to get on or stay on top. Last year was particularly difficult, and it’s safe to say that this year is considered a rebuilding year, with a new coach and a number of new players starting. Since opening day, we’ve also seen a shakeup in positions and pitching rosters too.
If you saw the movie, Moneyball, a few years ago, you know how much statistics and computer models influence the game now. Smart owners employ as much data as possible to run the odds on a player, a team, and many other things. They can tweak things here and there, based on probabilities to put together the ideal team, at least on paper. But for all that such technology is useful, it is not a perfect science, and sometimes odds are made just to be beaten.
It’s VERY early in the season to make any strong predictions, so I’m not getting too excited yet, but the Orioles’ start to this season is better than anyone had hoped. After five games, they are four and one, just behind Tampa Bay, who is equally a surprise at five and one. Except for losing their first game to the Yankees, the Birds have won four in a row – matching their best streak from last year. I don’t think there are many who expect it to last. Almost everyone who makes predictions believes it’s only a matter of time, and perhaps not that much time, until the standings start to fall out in a predictable way.
Even so, the strong start by a team that was written off during the pre-season is a welcome turn of events. It also serves as an example of the disruption of the assumptions and at least a short-term odds-busting anomaly. But those odds and assumptions do suggest things will take a turn south. Although it’s unlikely that the Orioles will finish more games out of first place than last year, they are still predicted to finish last in their division. No one is betting on them to win, for sure. The Yankees and the Red Sox will duke it out for the top spot, and everyone else will play for third. At least on paper. We’ll see what happens.
Maybe it’s a factor of being a fan after an embarrassingly bad year, to be hopeful about this one. It has to get better, and better equals hope. It seems the team has a good attitude so far, from the manager right on down the roster. But it’s easy to be in a good mood when you’re winning. October magic is a long way off, but I’ll take a little April magic right now. Magic is magic. Hope is hope. In the big scheme of things, baseball doesn’t matter, to God, or to most people. I’m not even the biggest fan or a baseball fanatic who follows every stat. I am a big fan of hope, however. If this team can show me even a glimmer of hope; a sign that rebirth and rebuilding is possible in the world around us right now, I’ll take it.
Loving God, by your Holy Spirit inspire me, as I fear losing hope. Give me a fresh vision of your love, that I may find again what I fear I have lost. Grant me your powerful deliverance; through the One who makes all things new, Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.
Rector's Ramblings March 27, 2019
We’ve been raising a butterfly for the last few weeks. Brenda Hartsell shared photos of a monarch from her garden that she took care of and offered us a caterpillar, when she discovered another one (I asked if she might!). It was fun to watch it do its thing. I hadn’t watched a butterfly like that since I was in elementary school for a class project. We kept it in butterfly weed, and it never wandered off. It made its chrysalis and went dormant for a while. Fascinatingly, there were spots on the green chrysalis that turned from yellow to shiny gold. Earlier this week, it emerged, transformed into a butterfly.
This reflection isn’t going to be the standard reflection on transformations, however. Because the butterfly struggled to hold onto the branches and sticks where it hatched, and while its wings were still wet it fell. Donna eventually saw it, stuck by its wet wings, and helped it grasp a branch and get back up onto vegetation. As it continued to dry out and stretch its wings, it became apparent that its wings were now bent, and they haven’t straightened out. It has tried to fly several times, and it always lands on the floor.
Earlier this week, before I knew the wings wouldn’t straighten out, I used the butterfly experience for a staff reflection at our weekly staff meeting. I noted how there are things in our lives that are times of liminality, or in-between times. There are periods where things in our lives are in flux. What and who we are gives way during a time of trial or wandering or struggle, and at the end of it, something new is born; hopefully something beautiful. Yet beautiful is not perfect. Not by a long shot.
This butterfly on my counter is undoubtedly beautiful. It is striking in its coloration and delicate in its construction. I still can’t figure out how it went from caterpillar to what we see now. It’s breathtaking to ponder. But it’s not perfect. Its wings are bent, and it can’t fly. Certainly not what I expected, and no doubt not what the caterpillar expected. (Do caterpillars have expectations? I don’t know…) It’s still beautiful, and it still offers a glimpse of what is possible in this crazy world God set in motion. Flying, however, will not be a part of its life. On one level, that’s just heartbreaking. On another, it’s merely the way it is.
The most helpful thing for me is the reminder that the transformation process doesn’t always have clean edges and perfect outcomes. Our little butterfly is more like the rest of real life. Not all of our challenges transform into a beautiful soaring new life. Sometimes survival is the high point. Sure, we transform and grow, but we are never assured that things will be easy or ideal either. There are seasons in life where being able to walk is not seen as a failure, but seen as a solid win. Flying would be nice, but waking up is gift enough. And life is beautiful on its own, full stop. We may have to work to find the blessings mixed with trials, to seek the light in the darkness, and the grace in second, third, or even twentieth changes. But they are there. I promise.
Gracious God, the comfort of all who sorrow, the strength of all who suffer: Let the cry of those in misery and need come to you, that they may find your mercy present with them in all their afflictions; and give us, we pray, the strength to serve them for the sake of him who suffered for us, your Son Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen. BCP p. 279
Rector's Ramblings March 20, 2019
The news out of Christchurch New Zealand last week was heartbreaking. Anytime an act of terror like that takes place, it shakes us to our core. It can happen anywhere, after all. When I mentioned the shooting in this weekend’s sermon, it was a quick reference, as I made the point that the protection of the “Mother Hen” in Luke’s Gospel does not mean we will be free from suffering and loss. Jesus actually warns us of the opposite.
The first time and maybe the second time I preached it, I added a caveat, explaining why I was linking the shooting of Muslims in New Zealand to the protection of Jesus Christ. I did that because I know that there are persons (in and outside of this parish) who think all Muslims are evil; that they are the enemy of the United States and the enemy of Christianity. Such a mindset is not unlike that of the gunman in Christchurch, and it’s not helpful. It’s also not true.
My caveat was to remind us all that if it catches us off guard to hear Muslims connected to the loving care of Jesus, then we haven’t paid attention to the Gospels and what they tell us about Jesus. The Samaritans are not a direct parallel to Muslims, but there are shared characteristics that allow us to imagine how Jesus would want us to treat them. Incidentally, there are still Samaritans in the world; a little less than 1000 of them. Some are integrated into Arab-speaking Palestinian life and others into Israeli life. They often bridge a gap between Jews and Muslims in the middle east, although they belong to neither.
In the Gospels, there are many examples of Jesus showing concern and love for Samaritans. From the parable of the Good Samaritan, to the woman at the well, to the healing of Samaritans, and rebuking the disciples for wanting to destroy a Samaritan town, Jesus shows care and tolerance. While it is clear he sees the Samaritans as a different people with a different faith, he also invites people to see them as fully human and worthy of God’s care and favor. That was no small thing in the first century. Samaritan was equivalent to a curse word, no doubt because of events like a Samaritan massacre of Jewish pilgrims not long before Jesus’ day.
Muslims do not wish us all ill, nor do all Muslims seek to overthrow or harm Western civilization. Admittedly, there are extremists and terrorists, but the same is true of adherents to our own religion. It is unfortunate and unfair when all Christians are labeled by virtue of the extremists in their ranks, and the same is true with other religions. Those of us who seek peace and reconciliation with others and those who work to support the weak and the powerless are called upon by our Lord’s example to build relationships and foster understanding between all peoples.
To that end, I am planning to go to Temple Beth Tefilloh in Brunswick on Friday, at 7:30 pm, for their regular Sabbath service. A guest speaker from the local Muslim community will offer some remarks in light of the Christchurch shooting. Our local Muslim community does not have a place of worship, so there is no other way to show our support and solidarity with a community that is experiencing grief and vulnerability right now. I think Jesus would want us to do all we can to make sure they feel loved and supported. I invite you to join me if you’re able. At the very least, I hope our prayers are still ascending for all victims of violence and hatred and for God’s grace to heal the hearts of those who only know hatred for others.
Look with pity, O heavenly Father, upon the people in this land who live with injustice, terror, disease, and death as their constant companions. Have mercy upon us. Help us to eliminate our cruelty to these our neighbors. Strengthen those who spend their lives establishing equal protection of the law and equal opportunities for all. And grant that every one of us may enjoy a fair portion of the riches of this land; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Rector's Ramblings March 13, 2019
A few Christmases ago, I rented a trailer to haul a family heirloom home. Donna’s uncle, who lives in his parents’ restored farmhouse on the family farm, also has the original barn. He and her cousin were beginning to clear the barn out, in the hopes that it could be used as an event venue. In the process, they came across the old wood-burning stove that Donna had gotten at the estate auction after her grandparents had both died. The stove had sentimental value; she had stood at that stove with her grandmother for countless hours and had watched her grandmotherly magic worked on that stove for much of her childhood.
After the auction, the enameled wood stove, with six burners, an oven, and hot water reservoir, was put into the garage. Donna didn’t have a place to put it as a kid, and hey, that’s what barns are for, right? So we went over to the farm and inspected the stove. It was pretty much worn out. The years of use and high heat of the stove had virtually burned up much of the interior. All the exposed cast iron had rusted over the years, and the enamel had been chipped in places. Donna was still in love with it, so I rented a U-Haul trailer and brought it back from Pennsylvania.
I did some initial work to figure out what I could do to repair it. I also bought some of the equipment I would need, like an air-powered paint sprayer, for the restoration work. As I began to get into it, though, it overwhelmed me a bit, and it became a part of the landscape in our garage for a couple of years. Recently, however, I dusted it off, literally, and continued to figure out how to bring it back to some form of usefulness and attractiveness, so we can bring it into the house and put it to work. It will never be a working stove again, but it will make a beautiful serving station and conversation piece, for sure.
Rust has been my biggest issue to deal with. I found an iron works in Brunswick that sandblasted all the surfaces I need to restore, while I have painted the other surfaces that will never be seen with rust converting products, to stop the rust process in its tracks. I almost have all the parts primed and ready to go, and I even managed to find a paint product that makes some of the original chrome shine again. Re-chroming isn’t in the budget! Rust, as you probably know, is insidious. It never stops its slow march to overtake its host. Rust is a chemical reaction that takes place between iron, air, and water. When left unchecked, it will gradually convert the base iron to an oxide, which is weak and crumbly. Something once strong can be reduced to a pile of dust, literally.
In this season of Lent, we’re all about dust, but we’re not about destruction. One of the hallmarks of this season of penitence, with its ashen beginning last week, is to remind us that our dustiness is not really the final word. We can claim our sinfulness, name it, and hear the assurance of God’s love and forgiveness that is promised through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The reason it’s so helpful to name it, is so that it doesn’t eat us alive over time. Sin, when ignored, is not unlike rust; it will keep eating away at its host until it leaves us a pile of dust. This is not the avenue for our return to dust that God wants, however.
The worst rust is the kind we don’t see and is therefore easy to ignore. It can work in shadows and behind the scenes where no one sees it, until we fall apart or are broken by it in some way. Sin need not be a source of shame, not the shame that makes us steer away from God, anyway. Our instinct may be to hide in the trees or behind fig leaves like our proverbial ancestor, Adam; however, we must remember that there is no place where we can hide from God. God calls out to us to come to him, not to destroy us or end the relationship between us, but to remind us that even when we screw up and fall short of the mark, we are loved.
There is no spray paint for the rustiness of the Christian life or the human condition. But there are other remedies. Prayer and confession are chief among them. The Church has within our prayer book, the Rite of “Reconciliation of a Penitent.” There are two forms, beginning on page 447 of the Book of Common Prayer, if you want to look them up. Where our Roman roots called it confession, we rightly acknowledge that it is an act of reconciliation between God and us. Our sinfulness is not a block from God’s perspective, so much as it represents one from ours. Our shame and our nature of hiding are what keeps us from God. Jesus taught us that God loves sinners, too.
To reconcile ourselves, however, it can be helpful to intentionally convert our shameful sense of sinfulness once and for all to prevent it from growing and consuming us ever so slowly. The Rite of Reconciliation is a time of sharing, confession, prayer, and forgiveness between a priest and the “penitent,” as the BCP calls them. It is a rite of sacramental confidentiality. What is shared with the priest in the rite is sacrosanct; unless someone confesses a genuinely heinous crime that must be dealt with, the priest cannot and will not disclose anything shared during the rite. We also believe, that once something is confessed in this way, it can help a person to let go of something they’ve held onto, sometimes for decades. It is not a magic pill, but it is a powerful rite, to be sure. To experience it is to find a sense of freedom that is rarely attainable elsewhere.
God loves us despite our imperfections and the places where we’ve burned up, burned out, or rusted away. We’re prized, nonetheless, and worth God’s effort to seek restoration and new life for us. That is the joy of the Good News and the underlying source of the energy of the season. I pray that we can all realize it in the weeks to come. If you have an interest in the Rite of Reconciliation in this season, please don’t hesitate to reach out to one of your priests. The old adage about the Rite is that “all may, none must, and some should.” We’ll walk through it with you, if you think it would be helpful. Regardless, blessings on your journey this season.
…Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Abide in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins. Thanks be to God. BCP, P. 451
Rector's Ramblings March 6, 2019
At today’s Noon Ash Wednesday service, we had two children with us, the grandchildren of one of our parishioners. It is not rare for children to participate in Ash Wednesday services, per se, but these stood out to me because it was their first Ash Wednesday service. As the family came to the rail, I asked the mother if she would like them to receive ashes. Honestly, she was initially taken aback, before responding in the affirmative. It was new for the kids and new for mom, too.
I remember the first time I made an ashen cross on the foreheads of my children. It got my attention. It is a mark of mortality and penitence and there is an element of anguish as your brain connects the dots that your own children will one day die. It’s a painful sting, even though their lives aren’t in any particular danger in the moment. Just thinking about it is enough to worry a parent.
As I made the sign of the cross on the little boy’s forehead, I decided to add a phrase to the standard, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” As I often do, when giving a blessing to small children at communion, I tagged it with, “Remember that God created you and loves you very much.” I’m glad I did it too, because as little kids sometimes need, they stepped out of the service before communion to go be active little kids. For little ones who may not know exactly what is going on in a regular service, it seems the additional explanation around ashes was important.
It strikes me that the tag is also theologically and biblically sound, even if it wasn’t included in the Book of Common Prayer! When I saw the family after the service, I explained to the older child, the little girl, how the ashes and the words we use remind us that we are human and not like God. God creates us out of dirt so we can live on this earth. I also explained that in the story of Adam and Eve, it’s not just a story about messing up, it’s a reminder that even when we mess up, God loves us. As God sent Adam and Eve out of the garden, God also promised to watch over them. We may not think of it automatically when we consider the ashes of Ash Wednesday, but they do remind us that God made us and loves us. I hope we can learn to see them this way; it really puts the day and the season of Lent in a different perspective. So remember, God made you, too, and definitely loves you very much!
Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, [and your love for us], that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen. (adapted from the Ash Wednesday blessing of ashes)