Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Innocence and Suffering

Today the Episcopal Church remembers the “Holy Innocents,” the subject of the “Coventry Carol” so often heard at Christmas time.  We remember the slaughter of “every make child two years and under” by King Herod because of his well documented ego and paranoia.  Afraid that the “newborn King of the Jews” would usurp his throne, he had the children killed to eliminate his competition. 

While in all likelihood, the children suffered little (a swift death is often merciful), the agony of the parents is without parallel.  Even though I do not have children, I have been assured by members of my own family that there is no greater loss to be experienced than the loss of a child, regardless of their age.  In many ways, the death of one’s child upsets the natural order – children are to outlive their parents – or so it is our common wisdom. 
The fact remains that infant mortality has declined greatly in our society.  The great pandemics (influenza, typhus, cholera) seem almost non-existent to most of us.  These diseases claimed many innocent lives only two generations ago, before the advent of modern antibiotics.  Nonetheless, while the death of children may have been more common and even expected, the sense of loss is no less poignant. 
The message of this day, however, is that out of such horrible suffering, God can change things.  Even though these parents suffered such tragic and profound loss, God delivered the Christ Child by a dream message to Joseph, who took the Child and his mother to Egypt to escape the tyranny of Herod.  When the Child returns, he will be the salvation of the world and proclaim a kingdom of justice and truth that would outlast any attempt by Herod to assure his own power.
That hope must be ours today – as many children suffer needlessly because of greed, prejudice, and the lust for power in nations throughout the world.  We listen to the promise of Christ and carry the message of his kingdom into our world.  If we remain faithful to its values and its promise, we, too, may see the “mighty cast from their thrones” so that the lowly, the powerless and voiceless innocents of our world might then be “lifted up.”

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Day After the Day After Christmas

Well, today is the day after the day after Christmas.  Most of the wrapping paper has been gathered up, the leftovers wrapped and refrigerated and family and friends have returned home (well, most of them anyway).  This is the time when, as after most significant events, the big letdown comes.  After weeks and weeks of preparation and intensive celebration on the day in question, the time after all the hoopla is often all too quiet for us, as we realize that all of the celebrating and the trappings brought great joy but for a fleeting moment and that all we are left with are daily challenges from which we sought refuge in the first place. 

It’s the moment after a wedding when a new couple realizes that romance isn’t everything and that the intense work of building a home and relationship is only now about to begin.  It’s that still quiet moment after the intense grief and sadness a funeral, when all the mourners are gone and all the sympathetic friends seems to have faded away, and we are left with the realization that we will never hear that voice again and that our life has been quieted in some permanent way.  

Yes, it is the day after the day after Christmas and the poinsettias are still fresh, the tree still sparkles, and there are still dozens of cookies on the counter but there is a nagging feeling that it’s all over and that soon will be dismantling what we had built for weeks and days.

At first it may seem quite depressing, but for some reason it’s always been an important part of my Christmas celebration: to take some time in the still quiet moments when all the fuss is over, really look at the Christmas tree, survey all the greeting cards, and sit in the quiet splendor of it all to realize that it is all done for love.  Perhaps it was the love of parents for their children who want them to have a joyous day when dreams come true and promises are fulfilled.  Or, it was the love of a husband and a wife who see in their first Christmas tree still another promise for a long and bright future.  In all of it, it is genuinely a sign of God’s love for the world as in the middle of it all we remember that the purpose of our celebrating is the gift that only God could give -- to become one like us to experience our life in every way so that the promise of salvation and the fullness of life can be ours.

It is in moments like this that I realize that God is at the center of it all.  It is God “who sends this song upon the air to ease the soul that’s aching, to still the cry of deep despair, and heal the heart that’s breaking.”[i] These are all works of God.  They are the works of peace.  They are what the angels prayed when they declared “Glory to god on high and peace on all of good will!”

[1] Sally Stevens & Dave Grusin, “Who Comes This Night,” performed by James Taylor, © Emi Gold Horizon Music Corp.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

More Complex than It Should Be?

My . . . how time flies by especially at this time of year.  Here we are in the middle of the Third Week of Advent and Christmas looming at the end of next week.  So much to do . . .  how complex our lives seem to have become.

Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning (of blessed memory) reflected on this a bit in his small devotional "A Year of Days."  For December 15, he wrote: "When we look at the complexity of modern life, we envy anyone who can claim innocence.  Life can force us into some pretty ambiguous situations.  But some of our complexities -- the harmful ones -- are not forced on us.  They are things upon which we insist."

Bishop Browning goes on to tell the story of a man who had become involved in an extra marital love affair.  The energy that went into keeping both his marriage and his affair going and keeping the two lives "separate" became more and more unworkable and, in the end, resulted in more pain than comfort.  By becoming involved with another, he thought he could by-pass the hard questions that he and his wife needed to confront about their relationship.  His affair ultimately increased the man's pain and loneliness.  What he really needed in his life was to find and walk a straight path through his wilderness.

Although we may not do it in such a dramatic way, all of us at times make our lives more complex than they need to be, chiefly because we want to avoid the implications of the straight path.  I know this has been true for me and for many I have loved in life.  I am sure you can identify as well: Is there something we're spending more energy avoiding than we should spend facing squarely?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Saint Nicholas Day - December 6th

St. Mark’s will hold a special celebration of St. Nicholas in the parish hall on Sunday evening.  It is rumored that there might even be a visit from the venerable saint himself!
Nicholas of Myra, (c. 342) was a Greek bishop from Lycia, now modern-day Turkey. He may have been one of the bishops that participated in the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 (The Nicene Creed). Legend gives him a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, thus becoming the model for Santa Claus, whose English name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas.
There are many traditions and myths surrounding Saint Nicholas, whose liturgical feast day is December 6th. One legend tells how a terrible famine struck the land and a malicious butcher lured three little children into his house, where he slaughtered and butchered them, placing their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Bishop Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, not only saw through the butcher’s horrific crime but also resurrected the three boys from the barrel by his prayers.
Another legend holds that during the great famine, a ship was is in the port at anchor, which was loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Byzantium. He invited the sailors to unload a part of the wheat to help people in their time of need. The sailors at first refused the request, because the wheat had to be weighed accurately and delivered to the Emperor. Only when Nicholas promised them that they would not suffer any consequences for their kindness, the sailors agreed.  When they arrived later in the capital, they made a surprising find. The weight of the load had not changed. The removed wheat in Myra was even enough for two full years and could even be used for sowing.
However, the most well-known legend is about a poor man who had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them.  This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the poor man’s plight, Nicholas decided to help him but to save the man the humiliation of accepting charity, he went to his house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the man’s house. One version has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throw the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes “of age.”
In yet another version, Nicholas drops the third bag down the chimney instead to preserve his anonymity; another variation holds that one of the daughters had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking. It is easy to see how today’s customs surrounding Santa Claus and the night journeys on Christmas Eve might have come from these stories.
St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children, sailors, fishermen, merchants, broadcasters, the falsely accused, prostitutes, repentant thieves, pharmacists, archers, and pawnbrokers. The historical Saint Nicholas is remembered and revered among Catholic and Orthodox Christians. He is also honored by various Anglican and Lutheran churches. He is the patron saint of Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Barranquilla, Bari, Huguenots, Liverpool, and Lorraine. In 1809, the New-York Historical Society convened and retroactively named Santa Claus the patron saint of New Amsterdam, the historical name for New York City
There is even a St. Nicholas Society in Canterbury, England.  You can find out more about the society and about the saint at

Friday, November 26, 2010

Patience, People!

Thanksgiving is now past and we turn our focus toward Christmas.  In between now and then, in the Church we move through a sacred time called Advent.  In the business of our holiday preparation, though, Advent can be relegated to a few moments around the Advent wreath, which in turn can become just another adornment of the holiday season. 
If we take just a moment, though, we can see Advent for a reminder to sanctify time.  The season’s message focuses on our experiences of preparation and waiting: like the time between discovering one is with child and the advent (coming) of that child at birth; the expectancy and hope that fills a high school student who waits eagerly for advent of a letter of acceptance at college or university; or even the repeated looking out the window when we hear a car park when expecting the advent of a loved one on a journey home.
In our culture of cell phones, microwaves and e-mails, patience is a virtue very much on the decline.  How good are you at waiting?  While many might give lip service to patience as being a virtue, too often people act as if those who wait patiently are misguided or lazy or uncommitted. Who wants to wait? Wouldn’t we rather have fast food, quick service, rapid turn-around and instant results? Don’t we admire the people who just get out there and get the job done - now?
We appreciate the season of Advent for raising that question for us each year and forcing us to acknowledge that we are powerless before the slow, relentless passage of time. We can neither rush the days of Advent nor delay them. They will come and go at their own reliable pace. Christmas is immovable, no matter how we would like to hurry it into existence. Just ask any child who wants to hasten the coming of the day.   At the start of the season of Advent we realize that we MUST take time to prepare and WAIT for the advent of the Savior.  Whether we succeed in undertaking the wait patiently or impatiently says something about our development of the virtue of patience.
But why work to develop the virtue of patience?
If we can learn this lesson in Advent, it is a lesson that can carry over into our faith lives well beyond the season. There may be real virtue in humbly acknowledging that some other aspects of our lives are not subject to our pushing and prodding them to fulfillment too early, either. There inevitably will be occasions when we must wait for a diagnosis, for an apology, for a resolution to a problem, for forgiveness. We can wait impatiently and anxiously. Or we can learn the lessons of Advent and wait patiently and trustingly.
How good are you at waiting? Now is a good time to practice.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Clive Staples Lewis

C.S. Lewis
On this day in 1963, (the day more often remembered for the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy) C. S. Lewis died.  An Irish-born British novelist, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian and Christian apologist, Lewis was one of the intellectual giants and one of the most thought-provoking and influential Christian writers of the twentieth century. I first read his work as a college student but continue to find insight and inspiration from his articulate view of God's interaction in the world and in our lives.
More recently a new generation has become acquainted with his work through the movie serialization of The Chronicles of Narnia. Among his other enduring works are The Screwtape Letters, and The Space Trilogy.  Close friends with J. R. R. Tolkien (of Lord of the Rings fame), Lewis was a leading figure in the English faculty at Oxford University and in the informal Oxford literary group known as the "Inklings."  
According to his memoir Surprised by Joy, Lewis had been baptized in the Church of Ireland at birth, but fell away from his faith during his adolescence. Owing to the influence of Tolkien and other friends, at the age of 32 Lewis returned to Christianity, becoming "a very ordinary layman of the Church of England."  His conversion had a profound effect on his work, and his wartime radio broadcasts on the subject of Christianity brought him great notoriety.
In 1956, he married the American writer Joy Gresham, 17 years his junior, who died only four years later at the age of 45. That relationship is chronicled in a tender movie entitled Shadowlands. The story follows Lewis as he meets an American fan, Joy, whom he befriends and eventually marries. The story deals with his struggle with deep personal pain and grief: Lewis, who once intellectualized that one should endure suffering with patience, soon found that such simple answers no longer applied when his dear Joy became afflicted with and succumbed to cancer.
Lewis' works have been translated into more than 30 languages and have sold millions of copies. The books that make up The Chronicles of Narnia have sold the most and have been popularized on stage, TV, radio and cinema.
If you are looking for a great gift for a young, inquiring mind, consider the works of CS Lewis!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Saints and Souls

Saints and Souls
“. . . and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place in the heavens.”
(Book of Common Prayer, “Commemoration of the Dead,” p. 382)
I recently returned from a visit to Buffalo, NY where I visited what little family I have left on my mother’s side – my uncle and aunt, a cousin and my cousins’ children.  During an afternoon conversation with my aunt, I realized that she remains crushed that her younger son, Michael, “passed on” just last May. He was only 55.  I guess I should not have expected anything else since I had gone through that experience with my own mom and dad when my younger brother died thirteen years ago. 
Aunt Sophie could barely speak about Mike without getting teary eyed.  The normally jovial eyes turned deeply sad in a way I had never seen.  Mike suffered debilitating and chronic pain that resulted from an auto accident over 15 years ago.  At the time he died, we consoled ourselves that he was finally free from such suffering and at peace.  But that is really little consolation for those who look for, but cannot find, his face.
Those of us who have lost someone we loved know the emptiness and hopelessness that can sweep over us in the first months of mourning.  The loss carries such pain with it that we wonder if we can go on in this life ourselves, and sometimes we even wish for death to come and take us, too.  We find ourselves fascinated in a painful way with the moment our loved one experienced death, reliving it again and again in our mind, wanting to go back to it.  Maybe hoping we can reverse it. 
For those who mourn, the lost one is frozen in the moment of death and for a while that is all we see.  But that’s not the really true.  Our loved one is not frozen like a statue that covers a crypt – perfect but lifeless.  The one who is loved and lost has passed through death to the other side.  We who remain may be stuck like statues in that terrible moment, but the one who was loved is not.  We may come to glimpse this now and then, and the glimpse itself brings comfort.  Life goes on, for them, as well as for us.  It remains painful to miss them so.  But they live, still.
“ . . . and I believe in the resurrection of the dead.
And the life of the world to come.  AMEN.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

106 Years Later

Photo by Rev. Lisa Schoonmaker
Today marks the 106th anniversary of the consecration of St. Mark’s Church at 21 South Main Street, Lewistown.  The consecration of a church marks an important moment in the life of a faith community since, according to canonical tradition in the Episcopal Church, once a Church is “secured for ownership and use by a Parish,” the community acquires certain rights, privileges and protections.  In recent years, because of some of the divisions that have arisen, church property has become the vehicle by which individuals and institutions “stake their claim” since, in our common culture, property ownership was always seen as a symbol of power.  In America’s earliest history, only property owners were able to vote.  This was gradually extended but the concept of universal suffrage (where all people could exercise this important power of citizenship) came into existence years AFTER St. Mark’s was consecrated!  It is no wonder, then, just who owns and who controls church property has become such a huge issue.

Breaking Bread Together Dinner at St.Mark's Church
It is too easy, then, to forget that the Church proper is more than its holdings, its buildings, its accounts.  The Church is most fundamentally, the Body of Christ, the presence of God within our created world as expressed in the “more perfect union” we form not necessarily as a political nation but as a family in faith.  Secular politics focuses on power – who has it and who does not.  Sacred politics must help us to focus on love – who loves and who is loved.  That all begins with the fundamental principle that every human being is made in the divine image and therefore, deserves the love and respect that we “reserve” for God.
For Episcopalians, to be housed in a consecrated building is a reminder that we are the living stones of Christ’s Church, and that as the building provides us with warmth, shelter and security from the elements of a seemingly cold and heartless world, we must strive to provide that shelter for all would seek refuge. 
We are grateful for the love and support that our walls proclaim from the generations before us.  To meet their expectations, we must continue to make these walls bastions of hope and joy!

Happy day to all our parishioners and friends at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Celebrating a building or a Church?

In the calendar of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, today recalls the dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. As Episcopalians, we are rather unaccustomed to celebrating feast days in honor of buildings.  Days like this, however, are usually more than mere anniversaries of historical events. 

St. John Lateran is important to Roman Catholics because it is the Cathedral Church of Rome.  Many people mistake St. Peter's Basilica in Rome as the seat of the Roman Catholic Church because it is associated with so many papal ceremonies.  But if we look more carefully at ecclesiology (study of the church), St. John Lateran outstrips St. Peter's in importance.  As the Cathedral Church of Rome, it is where the Bishop of Rome presides AS Bishop of Rome, that is, as pope.  The Lateran (as it is often known) is to Roman Catholics as Canterbury Cathedral is to Anglicans.  It is the seat of the prime leader of the communion (with all deference to my Roman catholic friends).  To celebrate the anniversary of its dedication, then, is not merely to recall an historical event (which is interesting in its own right) but to call to mind the unity of the Church that we profess in our creeds ("one, holy catholic and apostolic"). It is an occasion to recall all the things we have in common rather than all the things that divide us.

Perhaps that is the challenge of this celebration to us in the Episcopal Church, and indeed, all Christian people.  When our society seems so divided by so much rancor and insults are hurled at one another like so many stones because we may differ on a point of doctrine or practice, we need to recall that we share one tremendous gift: "the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mk 1.1).  All Christians possess that knowledge and have the capacity to use its power to change (not dominate) the world.   

Scientists that study human genetic make-up tell us that there is so little genetic material that separate us from one another that it can hardly be put into understandable numbers (way less than one-tenth of one percent).  Why then are we so hell bent on fighting about what makes us different rather than celebrating what makes us the same?

Maybe we can look at one another differently if we recognize that the person we are looking at us is almost an exact copy of me.  Maybe we can look at each other differently as Christians when we realize that it is Christ that we have in common and that the Church is our way of celebrating that presence in and among us. By remembering the buildings in which we gather, we put down our differences as we walk the aisle: "Let us go up to the altar of God. The God who gives joy to my youth!" (Ps 43.4).

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Richard Hooker and the "Middle Way"

Four hundred ten years ago, one of the most influential voices in what we call the Anglican movement died.  During his prodigious life, Richard Hooker became one of the strongest advocates of the position of the Church of England and defended its "Middle Way" between "Puritanism" and "Papalism."  His most well known work, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity resulted from a series of controversial debates and has served as a touchstone for Anglican theology ever since.  Hooker demonstrated that the Anglican way was as deeply rooted in the Scriptures as it was in Tradition and affirmed continuity with the Ecclesia Anglicana (The English Church) but that it was now both catholic and reformed.  

Among other things, Hooker's thought made very clear that while things theological deal with ultimate questions and issues for humanity, it has special relevance for one's manner of life and therefore for the social mission of the Church.  

He argued there were good monarchies and bad ones, good democracies and bad ones, and good church hierarchies and bad ones, what mattered was the holiness of the people. At the same time, Hooker argued that authority was commanded by the Bible and by the traditions of the early church, but authority was something that had to be based on piety and reason rather than automatic investiture. This was because authority had to be obeyed even if it were wrong and needed to be remedied by right reason and the Holy Spirit.

This insight remains a focal point of ministry at St. Mark's.  Since I have had the privilege to be involved in this parish community, I am continually struck not only by the deep spiritual holiness that exists among its members but also the deep dedication to the social well-being of its members and the members of the community-at-large.  In many ways, it is a most healthy balance and accurate reflects a "middle way" -- clearly demonstrating how Christians can remain faithful to the life of the Spirit and not be "so heavenly minded as to be no early good!"

Thank God for Richard Hooker.  Thank God for the people of St. Mark's Church!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Stewardship Campaign Ends With a Bang!-

The people of St. Mark's Episcopal Church deserve more than a pat on the back.  After its four week stewardship campaign, the parish celebrating its in-gathering this morning (Sunday) with Eucharist and a tasty festive brunch.  One mark of the generosity of this parish community is its common meals -- always more than enough and always delicious.

Even more importantly, St. Mark's parishioners completed the drive with some great statistics.  As of this morning, pledging units numbered 33 with some pledges still outstanding. The total amount pledged thus far is $55,556 and increase over last year's total pledges of 12.9%!!!  That means that St. Mark's will have increased its pledging base (total last year was 33) as well as the amount promised by those pledging.  In a stagnant economy, this extra outpouring is certainly heartening.  While most families do not have more to draw from, they still give more.  This is a great vote of confidence and an investment in the future ministry of St. Mark's.

As another sign of its vitality, St. Mark's was introduced to Mrs. Loretta Collins.  Loretta will be ordained to the vocational diaconate in the Episcopal Church next Sunday (October 31) at St. Stephen's Cathedral, Harrisburg.  Deacon-elect Collins will serve at St. Mark's beginning on November 7th when the parish will celebrate the great feast of All Saints.  What a great day to highlight not only diversity in ministry, but also the diversity of our parish family as a communion of saints even as we remember those who have passed before.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

All Hallows Even [Hallow-e-en]

A lot has been said about Halloween of late – questioning its purpose or its religious (or anti-religious) perspective. Here is some information about the holiday – how it started and how it transformed into the only holiday that is a bigger retail bonanza than Christmas!

Halloween, celebrated each year on October 31, is a mix of ancient Celtic practices, Catholic and Roman religious rituals and European folk traditions that blended together over time to create the holiday we know today.  Straddling the line between fall and winter, plenty and paucity and life and death, Halloween is a time of celebration and superstition.  It has long been thought of as a day when the separation between the spirit world and the world in which we live thins.  Consequently, it was believed that the dead could return to the earth.  The ancient Celts would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off any of these roaming ghosts.  The Celtic holiday of Samhain, the Catholic Hallowmas period of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day and the Roman festival of Feralia all influenced our modern holiday.  In the 19th century, Halloween began to lose its religious significance and became a more secular community-based children's holiday.  Although the superstitions and beliefs surrounding Halloween may have evolved over the years, as the days grow shorter and the nights get colder, people can still look forward to parades, costumes and sweet treats to usher in the winter season.

Trick-or-treating is a customary celebration for children on Halloween.  Children often go in costume from house to house, asking for treats such as candy or sometimes money, with the question, "Trick or treat?"  The word "trick" refers to a (mostly idle) "threat" to perform mischief on the homeowners or their property if no treat is given.  In some parts of Scotland children still go guising. In this custom the child performs some sort of trick, i.e. sings a song or tells a ghost story, to earn their treats.
The practice of dressing up in costumes and begging door to door for treats on holidays dates back to the Middle Ages and includes Christmas wassailing.  Trick-or-treating resembles the late medieval practice of souling, when poor folk would go door to door on Hallowmas (November 1), receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day (November 2).  It originated in Ireland and Britain, although similar practices for the souls of the dead were found as far south as Italy.  Shakespeare mentions the practice in his comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593), when Speed accuses his master of "puling [whimpering or whining] like a beggar at Hallowmas."  The custom of wearing costumes and masks at Halloween goes back to Celtic traditions of attempting to copy the evil spirits or placate them, in Scotland for instance where the dead were impersonated by young men with masked, veiled or blackened faces, dressed in white.

So, as you see, Halloween has religious origins. Like many of our holidays, it pre-dates the Christian experience.  But like others, it was “baptized” and transformed into a religious observance – and, sadly, like the same other holidays, continues to diminish its religious references in favor of commercial and secular understandings.

St. Mark's will participate in the Lewistown community's Halloween Parade on October 27.  Our presence there seeks not so much to make a statement about Halloween (pro or con!) but about our continuing presence in the community and our desire to participate fully in its life.

[Information gleaned from vairous sources including The History Channel]

Monday, October 11, 2010

New Member - Interested OR Know Someone Who Is?

Bishop Baxter's office recently announced that he will make his biennial visitation to St. Mark's Parish on SUNDAY JANUARY 16, 2011.  This is often the time for members who were baptized in another religious tradition to be received into the Episcopal Church by celebrating the Sacrament of Confirmation or by a Profession of Faith.  It is also an appropriate time for Episcopalians who have not been confirmed to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation.

If you are someone who has been with St. Mark's and would now like to make your personal commitment to the Episcopal Church and to the parish community in this way, please contact Father Zwifka at or by calling the parish office at 717 248-8327.  In either case, we need to get to the business of preparing individuals for this important event in their Christian journey by forming an Inquirers' Group by early November.

Even if Confirmation of a Profession of Faith is not in your personal horizon, consider joining our class when it is organized to learn more about the Episcopal Church!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Core Values

In a recent issue of The Living Church, David Hyndman wrote that there are four core values for priests: a passion for the Gospel, a heart for the lost, a willingness to do whatever it takes, and a commitment to one another.  I couldn't agree more.  My experience of priestly ministry over the last 30 years moved me away from a more functional notion of the priesthood -- i.e. what I could do for others to one that was essential (the old terminology was "ontological"), namely, what one is for others.

More recently I have been more deeply convinced that these core values should not only characterize the priest in a community but also each and every member of the Faithful.  Close examination of the baptismal covenant used by the Episcopal Church makes this very clear.

Having passion for something is not so much about how one talks about something but how one "walks the talk."  It isn't about acting perfectly but about struggling perfectly - by genuinely struggling with the hard questions and the hard choices that life throws at you and seeking the face of God in it all - even when it is not pretty.

Having a "heart for the lost" presumes that one knows what it's like to be lost, not to know which end is up.  Perhaps the frustration that so many young people have with established religion today is that they really experience being lost. Perhaps we too often give the quick and easy answer when there really is no answer, hoping that the challenge they present will go away and leave us in our comfort zone.  Having a heart for the lost is having the capacity to move beyond our comfort zone and experience the real darkness that is faith by moving forward when we have no answers.

The world around us is horribly complex.  Find our way involves hard work, time to reflect, and development of genuine understanding.  Doing whatever it takes is not the same as "any means to an end." It is about developing a high capacity for empathy and for discernment.  It demands that we sort things out and make decisions.  It demands risk taking.

Perhaps most importantly, the fourth of Hyndman's core values is a commitment to one another.  This is chief among all.  One of the most dramatic moments in John's Gospel is when, after the resurrection, Jesus asks Peter, "Simon Peter, do you love me more than these."
"Of course, Lord, you know that I love you."
"Then feed my sheep."
Jesus makes clear here (as he does in so many places) that love for God without love for others is not possible.  The two are identical.  They may be two faces of the same coin but they are the same coin.  This reminds us of the value and the challenge of the Church: to be a loving community where all who seek God's love are welcome.

If we maintain these core values as a community, we cannot go wrong.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A busy Sunday at St. Mark's

The parish began it's 2011 Stewardship Campaign today.   We spoke about two important concepts: perspective and priorities.  We can have two persepctives about our resources: they're mine and I control them all OR all things come from God and we are stewards of those resources ("All things come from thee, O God; and from thine own have we given thee!").  By making ministry and mission (and the resources needed for them) a top priority, we can find the resources we need to meet all necessary obligations.

At Noon we gathered in the courtyard next to the church to bless our pets!  A beautiful sunny day complemented our reflections on the treasures we have in our innocent and loving companions that show us the unconditional love of God!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Putting First Things First

During the month of October, the parishioners and friends of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church are asked to give greater attention to what is commonly called “Stewardship.”  While considering how to give from the three T’s (time, talent and treasure) wisely and thoughtfully is a year-round activity and an integral part of our life of faith, October is when we as a community will consider this more deeply as a community of faith. On October 24th, all will be invited to respond to the invitation to be a part of our vision of “Putting First Things First” by making a financial commitment to the ministries of St. Mark’s for the coming year.

As I write this, I am particularly mindful of our circumstances. Talk of money is in the air in unprecedented ways, and many of us are doing an extra review of our budgets to make sure that ends meet. While talk of Stewardship may seem insensitive, especially when so many are having a difficult time, please consider these weeks as an invitation to consider how our faith and our resources relate to each other. Committing a portion of our financial resources to the Church is an important way to recognize the connection between what we believe and what we live. If you have been especially hard hit by current financial circumstances, please consider this an invitation to receive the love and concern of our parish and whatever the pastoral support that we, as a family of the heart, can offer you.

Our Stewardship theme—“Putting First Things First,”—sums up a critical aspect of what it means to participate in a community of faith.  Through our learning and response to Scripture, through our sharing the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and through sharing life’s ups and downs, we become able to reach out and offer Christ’s love, the greatest of all gifts, to our community.  While pledging is about giving money, it is also on a deeper level about giving of ourselves. Pledging is also the primary way that we address the very real needs that must be met in order for St. Mark’s to continue its vital ministries.  Every pledge towards this end helps, big or small. In advance, I personal thank you for taking the time to consider how you can make a difference by committing to the continuing ministries of St. Mark’s.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Happy Michaelmas!

Michaelmas Day — the Feast of St Michael and All Angels — was once one of the most important days of the year. Falling on September 29 it differs from most other saints’ days in honoring a spirit and not a human being. 

Saint Michael is considered an “archangel” in Hebrew, Christian and Islamic tradition. He is viewed as the field commander of the Army of God and is mentioned by name in the both the Old and New Testaments.  In the Book of Revelation, Michael leads God's armies against Satan's forces during his uprising.  In Hebrew, the name Michael means "who is like  El (God)", which in Jewish tradition is posed as a rhetorical question: "Who is like God?" to imply that no one is like God.
St Michael is usually depicted as a winged young man clad in white garments or in armor, carrying a lance or shield.  In the late Middle Ages, Michael, together with Saint George, became the patron saint of chivalry. Michael was the patron of the first chivalric order of France, the Order of Saint Michael around 1470. In the British honors system, a chivalric order founded in 1818 is also named for these two saints, the Order of St Michael and St George. St Michael is also considered in many Christian circles as the patron saint of the warrior. Police officers and soldiers, articularly paratroopers and fighter pilots, regard him as their patron. He is also a patron of Germany, the City of Brussels and Kiev.
During the Middle Ages Michaelmas became a great religious feast and many popular traditions grew up around the day. Coinciding with the end of harvest, the feast was celebrated with a traditional well-fattened goose fed on the stubble fields after harvest. 
Michaelmas also marks the beginning of a new farming year when rents are due, although the quarter day falls later in Suffolk and Norfolk — 4th and 11th respectively. Many landlords used to hold goose feasts for their tenants, and eating a goose then was supposed to protect against financial hardship for the coming 12 months. 
The Michaelmas goose is also known as the ‘green' goose because it is reared on grass, as opposed to the Christmas goose which is a larger, older bird brought into the farmstead later in the autumn to be finished on corn. The Michaelmas goose is associated with leaner and particularly tender eating quality with a flavor of its own.
In more recent times, angels became the focus of many individuals’ spiritual quest.  Moving outside of traditional religious observance, these seekers turned to angels to represent the “higher powers” experienced in their lives. While angels have always been part of Christian tradition, devotion to them or reliance upon their power should never replace a direct and faithful relationship with Christ.  Christ is the self-revelation of God “in-the-flesh.”
Any system of prayer or devotion that brings us to a more intimate relationship with Christ is good.  May the honor we give to Michael and All Angels, make us more in tune with the Good News announced by Jesus.  
Happy Michaelmas!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Yom Kippur - The Day of Atonement

This evening, Yom Kippur begin.  At this time, members of the Jewish community seek to amend their behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God and against other human beings. The evening and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt . At the end of Yom Kippur, one considers one's self absolved by God.  

Yom Kippur is probably the most important holyday of the Jewish year. Many Jews who do not observe any other Jewish custom will refrain from work, fast and/or attend synagogue services on this day. Yom Kippur occurs on the 10th day of Tishri. The name Yom Kippur means "Day of Atonement." It is a day set aside to "afflict the soul," to atone for the sins of the past year. In Days of Awe, a ten day period that began on Rosh Hashanah (New Year's Day in Jewish observance) individuals seek to atone for sins against other persons by seeking reconciliation with those persons, righting wrongs committed against them if possible. It is at this time that God inscribes the fate of each person for the coming year.  

Yom Kippur is the day to atone for offenses against God's righteousness.  On that day, the judgment entered at the outset of the Days of Awe is finalized.  Yom Kippur is, essentially, one's last appeal, the last chance to change the judgment, to demonstrate one's repentance and make amends.the day is marked by fasting and prayer. 

On the first evening of Yom Kippur, the service begins its long confessional statement with some transgression almost anyone can identify with. It asks for forgiveness for "the sin we have committed before Thee by hardening our hearts" and goes on to mention "sins we have committed before Thee in speech" and "the sin we have committed before Thee by wronging our neighbor." Most people can relate with confessing these kinds of transgressions because they can think of numerous times when they have done them.
But then comes a part of the prayer that can be puzzling. Unlike most Christian confessions of sin, the prayer asks God’s forgiveness for the sins committed "unknowingly."  This challenges our Christian sensibilities somewhat.  We know that while on the cross Jesus asked God to forgive his executioners because "they know not what they do." Still, most kindergartners can persuade their mother that he or she didn’t mean to break a sibling's favorite toy. Our usual understanding of guilt says that we cannot be responsible for things we did not mean or for things we knew nothing about.

The foreign logic of confession for unintentional transgressions becomes a little more clear when we realize that during these holydays, Jews do not just repent for their own sins. They repent for the sins of all the people. This is a hard concept for us to swallow: to take responsiblity for something we were not personally involved in. The concept of collective repentance has been, until recently, quite foreign to most of Protestant Christianity. True, in Roman Catholicism there are whole communities of monks and nuns who intercede every day for those who do not have the desire or the capacity to pray for themselves. But the Protestant tradition, with its strong emphasis on the responsibility of the individual person before God, has not ordinarily looked favorably on these practices. As Martin Luther once put it, every person has to do his own repenting and his own dying. No one else can do either one for you.

Eventually, however, contemplating the confessional prayers of Yom Kippur provides deep insight to our own faith.  First, with regard to confessing sins we do not know about and did not do intentionally: in fact, do often hurt other people without intending to and sometimes without even knowing. Sometimes we learn later how something we did or said wounded someone painfully. But there may be many other times when we do such things and never hear about them, even though the sting still afflicts the other person. This is why I have come to believe that asking for forgiveness for the hurtful things we have done without even knowing them is important.  It makes us think carefully about what we might have done in the past and remember to be more careful in the future.

The observances and devotions of Yom Kippur can help us find insight into many questions concerning the social nature of sin (and grace) corporate (and individual) responsibility for injustice and for the reconciliation that can bring peace. It gives us wonderful food for thought as we assess our blessings in the coming harvest time especially as we face hard times in our nation and society, still one of the richest and most blessed in the world.

(Thanks given for insights found in A Christian Observes Yom Kippur by Harvey Cox.)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

On Work

The Wedding of Tim and Trish Wilt went off wonderfully.  The couple celebrated their union with family and friends at a service of Holy Communion at St. Mark’s Church on Saturday, September 4th and at the Elks Club, Lewistown.  We wish them the very best as they begin a new phase of their life together.
Labor Day has also come and gone.  We usually think of Labor Day as the unofficial end to the summer season.  It is a day, however, to reflect on human work and the important part it plays in our spiritual lives. 
Through work we contribute to the advancement of science and technology and, above all, to the enrichment of our culture and the society within which we live. 
Our individual lives are built up every day from work. It can also present many tensions and conflicts. How we deal with these stresses must emerge from our identity as disciples of Christ. 
Work then must also be reflected in our spirituality.  Through work, we come closer to God, the Creator and Redeemer  as we participate in God's plan for us and the world.  We share in the work of redemption and deepen our friendship with Christ by accepting, through faith, a living participation in His mission.
Therefore, Labor Day is a time to honor those from whom we have received so much through hard work. It is a time for us to reflect on how we can see the wonder of God in the work of our hands. 

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Wedding At St. Mark's

  1. St. Mark's eagerly awaits the celebration of marriage between Tish Carter and Tim Wilt this Saturday at the parish Church.  A wedding is an occasion of great joy both for the families involved and for the parish  in which the couple chooses to live out their marital covenant.  It is also a time when individuals and the community undertake a grave obligation to love, support, and nurture a new family, especially since it is in the nuclear household that faith is first given and received.  It is here that we learn of God, His love, and the wonderful works that the Lord accomplishes in our midst. 

    Tish and Tim's wedding gives an opportunity to reflect briefly on the practice of the Episcopal Church for marriage. 

    Marriage is one of the seven sacramental rites performed in the Episcopal Church.  Therefore, it is crucial that a couple that wants to be married in the Episcopal Church recognizes the significance of the sacrament and the level of commitment to God and to the Church that its presumes.  

    We have long established that within human society, individuals have a right to marry.  For the baptized, we also acknowledge that Christians have a right to be married in the Church.  However, as with all rights, there come obligations!  Because the Church understands marriage represents the union of Christ with the Church, baptism and Church affiliation become an important consideration.  So that the couple's mutual faith can be nourished through the love and support of a faith community, the Episcopal Church encourages those who wish to marry to participate actively in a local congregation. 

  2. Similarly, couples intending to marry in the Episcopal Church must be prepared to undertake premarital counseling sessions with the parish priest. More than likely, there will be two or three private, one hour sessions. If the parish priest believes it is necessary he or she may refer you to other professional counseling services. And if there are a number of couples undertaking this responsibility within a close period, group session can be extremely helpful.

  3. The wedding ceremony is the last thing to consider with the parish priest and the parish music director. Using the liturgical resources of the Church, there are a number of scripture readings, prayers, and vow formats to choose from. Depending on circumstances, the priest will also discuss with you whether or not to  to incorporate the sacrament of the Eucharist into the marriage ceremony.