fain | fān | archaic

fain | fān | archaic: adjective: 1. pleased or willing under the circumstances, eager. 2. obliged. adverb: gladly

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Eve Sermon

Christmas Eve, 2011
There is something undeniably palpable about Christmas Eve night.
You can just tell, you can just sense that ... it is different from other nights.

You first notice it at about 4:00 in the afternoon, as the Sun begins to set. Winter light has a special and discernible quality to it at the end of the day. Long shadows spread out across the landscape,and the last rays of the sun’s departing light are seen now only as they make the tops of the trees to glow.

Even in Augusta,the temperature begins to drop noticeably,as winter air, deprived of the warming sun, quickly cools and the sky darkens. The first stars begin to appear, poking holes in the darkness as one poet has written; and soon the sky is filled with a seemingly uncountable number of stars.

The nearest star to us, is Alpha Centauri, which is actually three stars that appear as one to the unaided eye. It is 4.37 light years away from the sun. A light year, I’m sure you will remember, is roughly about 6 trillion miles. So, it would take the space shuttle, which orbits the earth at 18,000 mph, 37,200 years to travel one light year.

I love looking at the night sky and like the carol from the Appalachian mountains . . . I wonder as I wander out under the sky -- wondering what it was like for those shepherds out in the fields, keeping their watch a sweeping horizon spread before them, a huge dark blue canopy overhead filled with stars, maybe a bright moon, light from their small campfires dotting the hillsides ... smoke curling, wafting skyward, with a stillness and quiet one can hear.

On any December night, you can imagine that night, 2000 years ago by our counting, perhaps two days ago by God’s, and if you pause for a moment, you can almost hear the angels sing . . . Glory to God! Glory to God! Glory to God in the highest!

It is easy enough to see how the psalmist, or anyone for that matter, might look up at the heavens and write: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what is man that you are mindful of him, mortals that you care for them?”

The universe is so astronomically huge and time so, well, long . . . infinity so incomprehensible . . . as to be simply unbelievable. It bedazzles the mind. Just trying to comprehend it makes your head hurt.

Now, there is nothing that is as readily accessible to every person as the night sky, and nothing, other than perhaps the vastness of the open sea, that so puts one in mind of the smallness, the nothingness, of human beings.

How could we possibly matter in a universe that is so astoundingly large ... or so old? Yes, the scope and complexity of the universe challenge the meaningfulness of our lives, as they mock our imagined sense of importance.

Look at the night sky and you will inevitably, at some time, wonder who you are ... wonder what is the point of all this? and wonder is there a god out there?

And just as soon as the sheer size of the cosmos overwhelms us and convicts us of our smallness, almost simultaneously, it also reveals an intelligence, a creativity, a purposefulness and an attention to detail and integrity that is equally startling.

Science has revealed to us a number of unique, unlikely, exceptions to the norm, odds astronomically against them happening, sorts of things ... without which you or I, or anyone else would not be here tonight, or ever. They are the unique circumstances that make life possible on our planet . . . like the rotational speed of the earth, or the 23̊ tilt of the earth on its axis, or the amount of water in the oceans,

Now take something close at hand, like the moon, for example. We would not be here if it were not for our moon. Roughly 25% the size of our planet, we are the only planet in our solar system with a moon big enough in relation to the earth to positively affect our planet. Why is that? How did that happen?

If we did not have a moon the size of our own, the earth would loose that little 23̊ tilt it steadily maintains as it orbits the sun at 67,062 mph.

Mars, without a lucky moon like ours, wobbles anywhere from 0̊ - 90̊ on its axis. Because of this, the Martian polar ice cap moves all over the place. Without the stability that the moon provides, the earth would wobble and even tumble, playing havoc with our climate. The earth could begin to careen around the inner solar system like a drunken sailor.

Just a 1̊ alteration in the tilt of the earth a long, long time ago changed what we know today as the Sahara Desert from lushness to desert, and set off a mass migration of people.

Without the moon, our planet would turn much faster on its axis, so that our days would only be 6 hours long, making our planet much too cold for us.

The moon is a big player in the set of unique circumstances that allow life to exist on, as far as we know, our planet alone, in all the universe.

So, where did our moon come from? At the height of the Apollo moon missions, it was realized that the prevailing theories about the origins of the moon did not work, that the math and evidence would not support these theories. As a result, one astronomer asked: Why are we going to the moon? It should not be there. But it is. Why? A mere accident or something else?

The accepted theory today is that, early in the earth’s development, it was struck by something the size of Mars, which came hurtling through the solar system, colliding in a glancing blow with the earth, gouging out a chunk of earth debris that became our Goldilocks moon . . . not too big, not too small, but just right!

And, by the way, the moon is leaving us . . . moving out of its earth orbit at the rate of about 1.5 inches per year. In some couple of hundred thousand years
it will leave earth’s orbit. I don’t think I’ll be here to see that.

Well, in response to the questions we’ve been raising here tonight – like the questions of meaning, purpose and identity that come from looking at the night sky –or the questions that science raises as it reveals the unique, exceptional, unlikely facts, without which there would not be life on our planet, well, in response to all these questions and more, the astounding claim Christians offer is that there is a God who does indeed care about us. Deeply. He has made each of us on purpose and for a purpose. We matter to him and the clearest, most definitive expression of this claim that God cares is that God himself, the Creator of the unbelievable universe,
would unbelievably come among us,literally pitch his tent with us, by becoming one of us in Jesus Christ.

The child born in Bethlehem is conceived as a result of God’s own initiative, God’s own agency. Nothing else, save the help of a young Jewish woman who responded to God,“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your Word”; nothing else, made him to be flesh and blood, only the love and will of God made it so.

Now, if you believe God created this universe in its great expanse with its mind-boggling exceptions . . . with all of the unlikely factors necessary for you and me to be here tonight, and even though they scientifically established facts, they are nonetheless unbelievable!!;

If you believe God started it all, then is it really all that great a stretch to believe that the same God entered into time, space, history in a unique, unbelievable event known as the Incarnation or simply as the birth of Jesus?

It is a birth that expresses God’s steadfast love and intent to redeem, restore, and set right, all that is amiss. To do for a lost and confused humanity what it is incapable of doing for itself, mainly and namely saving us from the disastrous, cumulative consequences of our collective human failures.

Madeline L’Engle writes of this night that the transcendent, beyond our comprehension, Creator of the Universe is “cribbed, cabined, and confined within the contours of an infant.” As this child, God takes upon himself our humanity and all our human situations in order to redeem them, to bring meaning, purpose, and hope to us and to our lives through his own transforming and self-giving, sacrificial love.

Martin Luther referred to it as the Great Exchange. He wrote “Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, I am your sin. You took on you what was mine; you set on me what was yours. You became what you were not, that I might become what I was not.” and this is, what we know, what we call, the Gospel -- the Good News of God in Jesus Christ for all people.

Is there any better time than tonight to greet the One born for you ... to welcome and invite him into your life, not only as your constant companion and good friend,
but as Lord of your life?

That is to say, as the One on whom you constantly think, as the One whose own example you attempt to initiate, as the One whose mind you strive to know, and as the One to whom you give your own life in response to the giving of his own life for you?

Is there any better time than tonight to take that leap . . . this leap of faith, to believe and trust in God? It is a big step but not so great, or so unreasonable, or as intellectually untenable as many would have us think. A missionary martyred in Ecuador before his death put it just a bit differently as he wrote in his journal: “It is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

The universe is filled, filled with so many unbelievable, incomprehensible things. The several factors which allow us to exist on this planet are themselves unique, exceptions to the norm and beg for explanation and in that way they hint at the unique and exceptional way that God will answer all the questions that really matter by making himself known to us in Jesus Christ:

God from God
Light from Light
True God from true God
Begotten, not made
Of one Being with the Father

And we have seen his glory, glory as of the One and Only who came from the Father full of grace and truth.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Money is the most indispensable thing in life…right?

In the climactic scene from the movie A Few Good Men, Navy lawyer, LTJG Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), questioning Marine Corps COL Nathan R. Jessep (Jack Nicholson), shouts, “I want the truth!” to which Colonel Jessep explodes, “You can’t handle the truth!” The truth we cannot handle is that, despite what we say, we believe and therefore act, like money is the most indispensable thing in life.

Truth is, everything we need … food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and medical care … is obtained with money. Things we want, like healthier food, finer homes and furnishings, luxury automobiles, more fashionable clothes, trips, and other luxuries, are obtained with money.

Many important relationships simply do not even begin or cannot be sustained without money. We live in a cash economy. Money is the medium of exchange and the measure of value in that economy. A cash-based economy allows more people to engage in commerce with others than bartering allows. We give our time, energy, and abilities … in sum our life … to some enterprise for which in return we receive cash. We then take that cash to provide for the basic needs we have and, if there is enough, to meet the desires that are unique to each of us.

Given the necessity of money for every person then, is it any wonder that its place in our lives, in our thinking, and in our behavior is so skewed? Is it any wonder that it is easier to act as if we have put our trust in money, rather than in God, to provide for us?

Those who follow Jesus Christ hold a very different understanding of, and relationship to, money. First, they believe that their money is not their own. It is all God’s. It is given to them by God to provide for the needs that God knows every person has. It is entrusted to their individual management so that they may make their way in the world, provide for the common good, and provide for God’s purposes in the world.

Next, followers of Jesus Christ are grateful for all they have received, be it income, liberty, health, family, the list could be quite long. They understand that, while some of these blessings are attributed to their own industry, discipline, or good habits, nonetheless, more of it is attributable to factors not of their choosing, such as their genes, parental support, education, and so on. As the great hymn Old 100th proclaims, “Know that the Lord is God indeed, without our aid he did us make.” But, most of all, they are thankful for incalculable value of God’s grace gift of Jesus Christ in redeeming and renewing their lives.

Therefore, followers of Jesus Christ tangibly express their gratitude as they honor God with their lives (measurably and concretely represented by their money) by undertaking an intentional practice of giving. This disciplined approach puts money back into its appropriate place. The followers of Jesus Christ are masters over their money, not mastered by it, and when money is put into its right place in our lives, then God may have his. And the truth is, He will not settle for anything less.

Waiting for the Messiah

This Sunday marks the beginning of a new Christian year and our entry into the season of Advent. Advent challenges us to prepare ourselves for the three-fold coming of Jesus Christ into the world.

Its first emphasis is on Jesus’ coming again at the end of human history, or at the end of your life, whichever comes first. Scripture warns us that either one of these events can come quickly and without warning, so don’t be unprepared! Get your house, your business, in order! Don’t put it off!

While attending to the business of the previous paragraph, with urgency by the way, Advent also invites us to hear again the story of God’s loving purposes as he became incarnate in this world, entered into this reality in Jesus Christ to save and redeem all the world. Whatever else the culture wishes to maintain about different religions and other spiritual ways, the scandal of the Christian proclamation is that the only God that there is, is in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.

Born in Bethlehem, lived in Palestine, up and down the dusty roads teaching,
preaching, and healing, crucified in Jerusalem, buried there, raised from the dead, now at the Father’s right hand, Jesus is either who he claims he is as the Son of God, or he is a calculating, manipulative liar.

This Incarnate Christ is always coming into this world making himself accessible to us in the scriptures, through preaching and holy communion, through friend and stranger. A kind word, a simple gesture, care, and concern for others, any act that makes life easier for others … all of these and many more become the avenues by which Jesus continues to come to us.

Open your hearts, your wills, your imaginations, and welcome him in. For the Messiah that has come, is coming, and will come again. Come, Lord Jesus!

Monday, July 18, 2011

What’s Going On at Good Shepherd? Final Report in a Series

“Get up, let us be going”
After the last supper, on the night that he was betrayed, Jesus and his disciples retreat to the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus undergoes an agonizing time of doubt and struggle prior to his trial and execution. That time of uncertainty ends however, with a clear, decisive, resolute and imperative command to his disciples: “Get up, let us be going.”

With these words, Jesus fully embraces the way of self-giving love that will redeem the whole world and bear witness to the amazing grace of God the Father and he calls us to follow his own example.

For all of its sophistication, complexity, antiquity and ambiguity, sometimes Holy Scripture can be blindingly clear in what is expected of God’s people:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind . . . and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . and remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Our time of discernment and prayer regarding God’s call to us in this particular place and time is at end. It is time now for us to get up and be going. While we do not presume to possess the kind of clarity that marked Jesus’ own times of prayer and discernment, nonetheless we go forward, if not confident in our discernment, then confident that it is Jesus who calls us and goes with us.

Becoming a Missional Congregation
The word used to describe those congregations that are attempting to shift their emphasis from program to people, from being church focused to kingdom focused, moving from Christendom1 assumptions about ministry to those suited for the new apostolic era2 is “missional.” Missional congregations are preparing the people of God for caring service to others motivated by God’s love and for sharing Good News of Jesus with others as the Holy Spirit leads and gives opportunity to do so. Good Shepherd aspires to be a missional congregation.

Taking it out on the road
We have had our eyes opened to see clearly that our world and the world our children and grandchildren will inherit has changed substantially from the world we have known. Ways of being the church that have served the cause of Christ well enough for 1,600 years are no longer working and we believe the Holy Spirit has been nudging us to try other ways of joining with God in his redemptive work in the world.

This fall we begin responding to some of those Holy Spirit nudgings, trying some other ways, emphasizing some other aspects, of being Christ’s people in this place.
Look for these first steps this August and beyond:

Unrolling the Scroll
The bible Jesus knew, read and quoted was made up of the books we call the Old Testament or Hebrew scripture. The writings of the Torah and Prophets were carefully and painstakingly copied by scribes on parchment and rolled up as scrolls for storage and safekeeping. These texts, though copied by hand, have been faithfully transmitted over centuries with a high degree of accuracy and few scribal mistakes.

In the synagogue today, this scripture is read in Hebrew from scrolls which are reverently displayed in the Ark, which occupies a place of honor in the synagogue, much like the altar in a church. Much ceremony attends the removal of the scroll from the ark for public reading and it is a great honor and responsibility to be selected to read from the Torah. Carefully and reverently is the scroll handled and unrolled and the reader uses a pointer to keep place rather than touching the scroll with a finger.

This is all in keeping with the belief that God still speaks to his people through his written word. Given this understanding one experiences a sense of anticipation as the scroll is unrolled: perhaps God will once again speak to his people or even speak to me!

To be intentional about sharing Good News of Jesus requires us to know and experience that Good News in our own lives. Knowledge and familiarity with the scriptures is essential to this ministry. The lack of basic knowledge of the bible stories is well known in our time and widespread across all denominations. If the people of God at Good Shepherd are to engage God’s redemptive mission in the world by sharing Good News of Jesus it will require us to become more knowledgeable of our story as it is recounted in the bible.

To this end and beginning on August 21st, we will begin a fourteen week program of reading in sequence the key stories of Hebrew scripture. These stories will be our sole focus in worship, preaching and study until Advent where we will turn our attention to the story of Jesus. The whole parish, across all ages, will undertake this study together. We are calling it Unrolling the Scroll as our focus for the fall will be on the Old Testament.

Service Sundays
The parish gathers and prepares people for caring service in Jesus’ name. Good Shepherd as a congregation has a long tradition of generosity when it comes to community and world ministry. This will continue and increase! But caring service will increasingly become a part of the ministry of smaller parish groups like Sunday school classes or the men’s group, or youth. Individuals will look for ways to serve each day. Families will seek their own opportunities to share God’s love with others together as a family.

To hold this emphasis before our parish, the whole parish will be invited periodically to join the procession from church to go out into the world to serve together. Sometimes service can be offered on our campus. Other times we will load the buses and go somewhere in the neighborhood, returning to the parish after an hour or so for lunch and celebration.

The first Service Sunday is August 14th following the 10:00 am service.

Sharing Good News of Jesus
We will begin to be more intentional as a parish and as individuals in our willingness to talk about our faith experiences with each other and with others. Once or twice throughout the year we will invite the whole parish to meet in parishioner homes again for fellowship and sharing using the “thin place” model used at the start of this process. We will offer classes and other opportunities that help us to find our own “voice” that allows us to share Good News of Jesus.

This September 20-21, we will partner with other congregations in welcoming Anne Graham Lotz to Augusta for a retreat of refreshment and renewal with women of our community. Anne is a popular speaker and writer and the daughter of Billy Graham.

Formation: the main work of the church
Decades ago when the Episcopal Church decided it was time to get serious about financial giving, it adopted the tithe as the standard of giving. It adopted a slogan too: Stewardship is the main work of the church. In this new apostolic era, formation is the main work of the church and parishes, individuals and families had best get serious about forming ourselves as followers of Jesus if we are to withstand and critique the barrage of cultural assumptions constantly coming at us, subtly subverting Christian manners.

To enter that wide-open marketplace of competing ideas, ideologies and philosophies, Christians must know our life shaping narrative well enough to give an authentic and inviting account of ourselves and of our faith if others are to consider following Jesus themselves.

Good Shepherd will begin to steadily emphasize our own formation efforts preparing our parishioners to live as Christ’s people in this culture. This year’s Parish Retreat Weekend at Kanuga, September 9-11, will have some time set aside for exploring with parents and others, ways of nurturing our faith lives in our own homes.

Wait a minute!
You may be thinking “Episcopalians don’t do this!” “Other Christian denominations may talk or act this way and that’s why I joined the Episcopal church in the first place!” If so, then terrific! You also, are beginning to awaken to the realization that has taken hold of the Vestry and Staff, namely that old ways of thinking of ourselves and of our ministry are signs in and of themselves of how captive we all are to Christendom assumptions about the world and consequently, how we minister in that world. We have to regularly remind ourselves that world no longer exists, and we have to discover the adjustments to be made so that we may be faithful in our ministry in the new situation.

All will be well
Julian of Norwich was born around 1342 in England. Thirty years old, she was gravely ill, even given last rites, when suddenly on the seventh day her pain left her and she experienced fifteen visions of Jesus’ suffering that brought her great peace and joy. Her writings can be found in Revelations of Divine Love, a tender and touching reflection on God’s love exhibited in the life of Jesus. Often Julian refers to Jesus as “our courteous Lord.” Many people have found strength in the words Jesus gave to her:

“I can make all things well; I will make all things well; I shall make all things well; and thou canst see for thyself that all manner of things shall be well.”

Even though the world has changed so quickly and profoundly as to be disorienting and disheartening, and even though the church, not even Good Shepherd, can escape this vortex of change, may our courteous Lord give us eyes to see that in him all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things shall be well. God is on the move. Get up, let us be going.

1 The word “Christendom” is used throughout this series as short hand to describe a number of assumptions (see Part One) about the culture that have shaped and formed Christian practice and mission over the last 16 centuries. The church has been slow to recognize that a Christendom culture no longer exists which presents significant challenges and opportunities for Christians today.

2 The expression “new apostolic era” is short hand for those assumptions (see Part One) being made about the present culture and their implications for Christian practice and mission today. Some use the expressions “post-Christendom” or “post-modern” to describe this culture. “New apostolic era” reminds Christians that the first four centuries of the church’s life and mission took place in a culture that had much in common with today’s context and therefore may provide guidance for how the church goes about its mission today.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What’s Going On at Good Shepherd? Part Ten in a Series

Good Shepherd has now completed a two year process of discernment and is committed to making those shifts of emphasis necessary to be an effective congregation for Jesus Christ in the early years of the 21st century. One of our many learnings has been the recognition that in the post-Christendom context of the new apostolic era, it is the People of God, deployed and dispersed in their homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and communities, who are the primary vehicle of sharing the Good News of Jesus in the world. This represents a shift from the Christendom model in which the physical place of the church, through its programs and clergy, in an attractional model, is the primary vehicle for sharing the Gospel in the world.
What does this look like for Good Shepherd?
Hopefully this picture can sum it all up memorably and succinctly. Click on the picture for a larger image.

First, the Church of the Good Shepherd, specifically meaning the People of God gathered in this particular place, are directed, pointed and focused on the task of engaging God’s redemptive mission in the world. As recognized in the opening paragraph, it is our individual members who are now the point of the spear so to speak, rather than the place, or the clergy professionals, or the program that is offered on site. The work of the staff becomes coaching, encouraging, and preparing people to answer God’s call to them at this moment in history so that they may be sent into the world.

God’s redemptive mission is first and foremost, nothing less than “restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (Book of Common Prayer, page 859) Many Christians are awaking to realize that God is already about this work in the world with or without the church! Rather than starting ministries and asking God to bless them, God’s people need to get out of their churches and meet God in his world to discover what God is already doing there. Congregations then discern ways to partner with God in his mission (not the Church’s emphasis added).

Engaging God’s redemptive mission in the world takes place around three equally important and equally supported areas of ministry and action:

-Building up the Parish Community
-Caring Service in the Community
-Sharing Good News of Jesus

The notes on the illustration say a bit more about each of these three foci of action.

Building Up the Parish Community
Since the end of the Second World War in America Building Up the Parish Community has received the vast amount of time, energy and resources from Christian congregations. All you have to do to be convinced of this is to drive around our community and see all the buildings, with their construction costs, maintenance costs, and staffs busy creating programs and ministries to attract and retain members (Good Shepherd included!). Truth is Building Up the Parish Community became an end in itself rather than a means to ends, those ends being offering caring service in the community and sharing Good News of Jesus.

Churches are beginning to rediscover their first and true callings again expressed in service motivated by agape and a desire to invite others to follow Jesus Christ.

Caring Service in the Community
For over two decades now Good Shepherd has intentionally devoted itself to making a difference in other people’s lives in the name of Jesus Christ through community and world ministry. Since 1992, somewhere between 23% and 29% of annual giving in any year has been given through the parish budget for caring service in the community. That is a total of $5,308,342 given for God’s work in the wider world since 1992. Mainly through COGS and Interfaith, parishioners have also engaged in hands on ministry for others.

All and all through God’s grace and blessing we have tangible evidence of our desire be a Great Commandment (Matthew 22:34-40) parish.

Sharing Good News of Jesus
Despite saying for many years that we aspired to be a Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) parish, we have not tangibly demonstrated that we are serious about the work of inviting others into life giving, life changing relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Yes, like almost all other Episcopalians and mainline Christians, we have implicitly shared Good News of Jesus by hoping others would be attracted to him through our worship, fellowship, programs and service. We are very comfortable with this Christendom, low key, low commitment, attractional approach to evangelism.

Yet, in the new apostolic era characterized by a wide open marketplace of loud and competing philosophies, and ideologies demanding people’s loyalty and allegiance, we shall have to taken a different approach. The attractional model may have worked in its day, but that day is now past.

Marching Orders
Well, there you have it! As best we are able to figure, in conversation with you and with others in other churches, prayerfully and with humility, we believe we now have our marching orders. If we are mistaken in any of our working assumptions, no harm can come to the parish. If we have rightly read the signs of the times, then by God’s grace and almighty providence we may have just set Good Shepherd on a path, in 10 - 20 years time, to be a vital, useful and continuing place for God’s purposes in the world and to the glory of his incomparable Son, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. May God make it so. Amen.

Next: Part Eleven: Get up, let us be going.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Witness to the Sacrifice

Andy Menger, Assistant Rector at Good Shepherd and Vicar of St. Mary's reflects on his weekend retreat with families who have lost a family member in Iraq or Afghanistan.

This is Holy Week and millions of Christians are following the path of Christ as he enters into his Passion and Resurrection so that we might be saved. In all honesty, as powerful as the words of the gospels are in our ears, there is a disconnect between this glory and our experience. Neither I, nor any of you, have ever witnessed a crucifixion. We hear about the sacrifice of life but we seldom if ever have the actual experience incorporated into our actual lives.

Well, I am here to tell you that I have just been a part of such an experience and it was one of the most powerful and challenging times of my life. Weeks ago I was invited by Laurie Ott and the Wounded Warrior program to help staff a retreat supported by the Georgia National Guard and the SOS (Survivor’s Outreach Services). My response was immediately in the affirmative. However, as time passed I realized with some trepidation just whom I would be speaking to. My area of expertise is grief and loss and I am fairly well versed in the process of nurturing and guiding those persons who have lost a loved one. The fact hit me directly in the face that I would be confronting persons who had loved ones killed in the service of our country. My words would be shared with the family members whose loved ones had made the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of our nation. All of the military personnel who had died were young. All were part of a family structure. All wore the uniform of our country, took an oath, and were faithful to that oath in a manner very few of us can even fathom.

Of course, I was not an actual witness to the deaths of these persons. What I was a witness to was the ongoing struggle still waged by wives, children, parents, to whom these soldiers were not just statistics but an integral part of their lives. As I listened and shared with the survivors I heard not one word of bitterness or histrionic anger. I did hear words of love, compassion, and most of all concern that the death of their loved one would not matter to the American people.

It is a bit disconcerting that the average American probably does not think nor pray about those men and women who every day in faraway places, put their lives in harm’s way for mission, comrades, honor, duty, and country. While we are concerned with the antics of Hollywood types or highly paid athletes who have been busted for drugs or tax evasion, American military personnel, the vast majority of them young, are concerned about what the pile of dirt on the roadside hides, or does the next hill or farm harbor a sniper? While we here at home focuses on what matters most to us, those young men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan are honed in on their comrades and their buddies. They know far better than any of us the value of true friendship and the price of being faithful unto death. For those incredible Americans such words are not high flung oratory; they are the real stuff of life.

What can we do for the families of Americans who have made that ultimate sacrifice? What they seem to want is not pity or trite words. If you read this blog, respond by seeking out those who still walk our streets and come to our churches and work alongside us, but who bear every day a vacant spot that was once filled by someone they loved and who died in this nation’s defense. Tell them that their loved one mattered. Ask how they are doing. Offer to help in simple ways, take a child to a baseball game since his father will never do so again. Cut the grass if it is a bit too high. Show up with groceries if needed. Best of all, just love them and show as well as tell them that the great sacrifice of their son, daughter, father, husband, mother, sister, or brother mattered and matters still. Pray for them in your faith community in every service. Welcome home those who come home and who often feel like the elephant in the room.

As a priest of the church, I have been enabled by my experience with those wonderful survivors of sacrificial death, to better understand the emotions and power of this Holy Week. I will approach the Cross and the empty Tomb with a bit more awe because I have truly been in the presence of persons for whom every day is both a crucifixion and a resurrection. These persons are living proof that death is not the final word. Many of those I met at the retreat were stumbling and struggling to put life back together, but others were already starting to soar. The winds of life are giving them lift and power to move into lives of service and productivity.

I cannot help but think of that rag tag group of Jesus’ family and friends who were certain that in his traumatic death that their world had ended. They were crushed by injustice, stunned by cruelty, and sickened by what they saw inflicted upon their beloved Jesus. They had to have asked, “Does any of this mean anything? Or, is it just all human cruelty and utter degradation?”

Military survivor families often go through identical questions. They must make sense of a death that often seems senseless and void of meaning. They must find new ways to “live” again. Overwhelming and shocking sadness, the lack of understanding from the world around them, and a recovery of hope and new ways of being are all part of their journey. All in all, these resilient and embattled persons have grasped well the meanings of sacrifice and resurrection. God bless them all.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Were You There?

Some of you will be interested in the recently released movie The Conspirator. It is about the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination and particularly focuses on Mary Surratt, the only female charged as a co-conspirator in the trial of those accused of murdering the President. It premiered at the scene of the crime, in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln on the night of April 14, 1865.

Robert Redford, the director of the film, has commented on the profound silence that hung over the event as guests viewed the film’s depiction of the assassination of the President just mere feet from the VIP box where Lincoln sat. Can you imagine having been at the premier yourself and experiencing this moment? It is almost overwhelming to contemplate how the momentousness of that event could cross 150 years into the present moment in palpable fashion.

Something like that is what Holy Week liturgies attempt to create for us as we re-enact what is arguably the most momentous event of all human history, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, brought out of 20 centuries of time into the present moment. In fact, this is what happens at every Eucharist when we begin the recitation, "On the night he was handed over to suffering and death." The technical term for it is anamnesis, which means remembering, and can be remembered as the opposite of amnesia, a kind of forgetting.

Much of Christian life involves remembering some key things about God and ourselves, and much hardship and heartache comes from forgetting those same basic truths.

Whether on any given Sunday or in Holy Week, the goal of our worship is to recall these events from the past into the present in some sort of way that allows our own participation and incorporation into the event itself.

Long before the advent of film, with its powerful, evocative visual images, Christian choreography has had to rely, by comparison, upon the humble tools of word, music, and symbol to awaken and engage the imagination. The African-American spiritual "Were You There" is sound evidence that such resources are good enough for the past to speak to the heart of the present.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Beating the Bounds

In medieval England, when maps were rare, it was customary to make an annual perambulation of the parish boundaries on Ascension Day or during Rogation Days, days that were set aside to pray for the planting of crops in the spring and early summer. This annual event took place in a context where the parish was a geographical area, whose inhabitants were entitled to receive the ministrations of the parish church. Fixing the parish boundaries then, identified who was entitled to these ministrations, charitable and other, and who was not. Young boys were often taken along and bumped on the boundary stones to make sure they remembered the boundaries and to ensure that there were witnesses to the boundaries for as long as possible into the future.
With the exception of the state of Louisiana, no one refers to parishes as geographic areas any longer. There is no established church in America and Augusta isn’t medieval England, but nonetheless, it is a useful and usable image for us as we continue to discover what God is up to in his redemptive mission to the world and how we might be part of that.

To focus any effort that our parish might undertake that would make a difference in the lives of others, we have taken a map of Augusta, drawn parish boundaries on it (the 30904 zip code) and now we need to go and beat the bounds to see what’s out there.

If you are interested in an outing to take a look at our "neighborhood," to catalog the public schools, other churches, and see what’s up out there, then come go with us on Sunday, May 1st at 11:00am. We'll go from the church and take a box lunch with us. If needed, we'll get a bus! Make your reservation for a lunch by calling the parish office at 706-738-3386.

Friday, March 4, 2011

What’s Going On at Good Shepherd? Part Nine in a Series

Are We There Yet?
Everyone can recall from either being a child, or having a child, the trip where the parents are constantly asked: “Are we there yet?” We are all going from one place to another in a myriad of ways, from the mundane to the metaphysical. The experience of taking a trip or journey then, becomes a handy metaphor to talk about the evolving, unfolding nature of daily life, business, raising children, career, marriage, relationships, or many things, as well as our experience of God.

The Kingdom of God
The Kingdom of God is defined and described in many ways. We are using this expression as shorthand for a life that is conceived of, lived and ordered with God and his gracious rule at its center. Jesus talks a lot about God’s kingdom that is coming, that is here now and yet, is still to come in God’s good time to its perfect fulfillment. Jesus compares it to many things; he encourages some with their closeness to it and challenges others, suggesting they are further from it than they think. But always, the Kingdom of God is an unfolding thing, completely under God’s control and rule with a sense of urgency about it!

Good Shepherd is a gathering of people seeking, discerning, and hoping to experience God’s presence, power and grace in their own lives. We are on this journey individually with God, and we are on this journey together as a parish. However, what now makes this journey both exciting and disconcerting is our realization that we are making this trip in a time of great change and transition. (See Part One)

So, Where are We?
A group of about 45 parishioners, staff and vestry have reviewed all of the information gathered from the five exercises (See Parts Four - Eight) that the parish began in Lent of 2010 with the Thin Place Exercise and concluded with the other four exercises this past fall. We have sifted through many pages of newsprint. All of the wonderful post-its with the gifts people want to give to God (over 1,500 of them!) have been entered in a computer database where they can be accessed and put to use for God’s purposes.

Now after all of that, this statement of purpose summarizes the key points that we have gleaned from the wisdom of the people of God at Good Shepherd and that we can use as a compass to guide us on the journey we have begun together.

The People of God of the Church of the Good Shepherd desire to join with God in His redemptive mission in the world. We humbly and prayerfully seek His grace in this journey which honors Jesus Christ as the center of our communal, familial and individual lives.

We understand that our life together is shaped by these signs gathered from prayerful and guided discernment:

1. We will grow in our discipleship and in our willingness to encourage others in their own discipleship of Jesus Christ.
2. We offer our lives as active partners in God's mission remembering that we are people blessed with an amazing array of gifts and abilities to bless others.
3. We seek out those who are lost or left out for caring service and to hear Good News of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
4. We stand on an Anglican heritage and traditions that guide and shape our common life, ministry and mission for today.
5. We sustain children and young people and their families, and those of every generation, striving together to know, love and serve our Lord Jesus.
Key Points!
Sometimes a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. This illustration helps me to “see” what we have discovered and where we are headed.

The two pyramids illustrate the shifts in emphasis that are taking place and must take place in order for the church, the Christian people of God, to realign ourselves with the redemptive mission God is already, even now about in God’s world.

Yesterday: For 1700 years all churches have ordered and organized their life and ministry with a mainly “top down” approach. Certainly church life in America since the start of the 20th century has seen vast amounts of time, energy and resources be applied to the building up of the institution of the church. This is a model that works by attracting people to come and join the church to receive all that the church has to offer. In all honesty, significantly smaller portions of resources were directed to outreach if any at all. Again, in all honesty, the Episcopal Church almost has an aversion to any explicit ministry of evangelism to those who have not heard the Good News of Jesus.

At least since the 20th century we have, at the end of the day, acted as if the building up of the church were an end in itself, rather than a means to ends, chiefly offering caring service in the community and pursuing an intentional mission of conversing with others about Jesus.

Today: This pyramid illustrates the shift that is taking place as we become more kingdom centered rather than church centered; more externally focused than internally focused; and as members become missionaries, or if that word is problematic, disciples. In this model the emphasis is on the people of God dispersed and deployed in their homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and community to build the reign of God through caring service and evangelism. Clergy and other church leaders provide vision, guidance and equip the people of God for their individual missional callings.

Sometimes hyperbole can serve to make a point more clearly as this drawing illustrates. The Christendom model over time became fixated on attendance, money, and involvement. Someone has named this fixation, hyperbole granted, as exploitation! The model for the New Apostolic Era emphasizes building up people, discipleship and nurture, and is named as edification to strike the clear contrast.

This illustration applies these points to what is already happening at Good Shepherd. The bottom box represents our ministry, our parish life. From it we move out into the world for caring service and to share the Good News of Jesus with others.

Some explanations:
The four classical signs of the church’s ministry are, using the Greek words, koinonia (fellowship), didache (instruction), diakonia (service) and kerygma (proclamation). At Good Shepherd we have articulated and applied these as Connect with us, Grow with us, Serve with us and Worship with us.

We are doing a fair job with our ministry – by which we mean specifically that which happens within our parish and on our property. We have made outreach a priority for decades as part of our mission, or that which specifically takes place outside of our parish. Please note the upper right hand box is empty. Beyond our public worship, we do not do anything intentional as a parish in the area of sharing the Good News of Jesus with those who do not know him.

What’s Next?
A couple of things: Beating the Bounds, Stop Hunger Now and the 1 Diocese 1 Book study for starters.

Beating the Bounds
In medieval England, when maps were rare, it was customary to make an annual perambulation of the parish boundaries on Ascension Day or during Rogation Days – days set aside to pray for the planting of crops in the spring and early summer. This took place in a context where the parish was a geographical area, whose inhabitants were entitled to receive the ministrations of the parish church. Young boys were often taken along and bumped on the boundary stones to make sure they remembered the boundaries and to ensure that there were witnesses to the boundaries for as long as possible into the future.

With the exception of the state of Louisiana, no one refers to parishes as geographic areas any longer. There is no established church and Augusta isn’t medieval England, but nonetheless, it is a useful and usable image for us as we continue to discover what God is up to in his redemptive mission to the world and how we might be part of that. To focus any effort that we might make to have significant impact in the lives of others, we have taken a map of Augusta, drawn parish boundaries on it (the 30904 zip code) and now we need to go and beat the bounds to see what’s out there.

If you are interested in joining a small group to go out and take a look at our “neighborhood,” catalog the public schools, other churches, and see what’s up out there with a mind to shaping caring service in this “parish,” then please give me a call.

Stop Hunger Now
On Sunday, March 27th, we’ll be acting missionally when we roll up our sleeves and pack 15,000 dehydrated, high protein and highly nutritious meals for hungry people in our schools and around the world. Stop Hunger Now is an international hunger relief agency that coordinates the distribution of food and other life saving aid around the world. Serve with us!

1 Diocese 1 Book
Good Shepherd is participating in this Lenten study. Together with others in the parish and around the Diocese of Georgia we’ll be reading and discussing 40 Day Journey with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer thought long and hard and wrote powerfully on the nature of Christian discipleship. A leading spokesman for the German Confessing Church, the Center of Protestant resistance to the Nazi’s, Bonhoeffer was implicated in the plot to assassinate Hitler, and was arrested and imprisoned. He was executed on April 9, 1945. Grow with us as we learn more about this remarkable man’s Christian witness.

So, Are We There Yet?
Well, in classical Anglican fashion we would say yes and no!

Yes, in the sense that the process of discernment that we have been involved with for two years has come to its conclusion as summarized in the statement of purpose at the head of this article.

No, in the sense that although this process has given us direction and a compass, the journey still needs to be taken. Beating the Bounds, Stop Hunger Now and 1 Diocese 1 Book study are but the first baby steps of Good Shepherd’s entry in the New Apostolic Era, a journey that generations who follow us will still be making when the time of our stewardship of Good Shepherd is past.

And all of this mirrors and reflects to some extent the ongoing, unfolding nature of the Kingdom of God. God’s saving, redeeming initiative in Jesus Christ is both a done deal and an unfolding reality. Each of us will spend the rest of our days on this journey of incorporating more fully this grace gift into our lives. Only when we die and leave this world, can we in any meaningful sense say that we have reached our final destination: seeing face-to-face the Triune God in his incomparable glory and enjoying this communion and that of all the saints forever.

Pray that the Lord of the journey will bless, provide and guide the people of God at Good Shepherd on His way.

Godspeed to all!