Living Stones

 

Iyad Qumri, presenting pilgrims with an overview of Jerusalem

Dear Friends,

Many of you know that I recently returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Traveling through Israel and Palestine, we saw places both ancient and modern, visiting sites associated with the stories of the Bible, all the while seeing and experiencing how this region is deeply divided.

Our guide for the tour was Iyad Qumri. Iyad describes himself as a Palestinian, an Arab, and a Christian. He is accustomed to people being surprised that he is both Arab and Christian. Our preconceptions and stereotypes are often broken apart when we travel, and that is one of the great benefits of a pilgrimage such as this.

The challenges faced by Christian communities in the Middle East has caused many Christians to leave. Many Palestinian Christians live in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, and opportunities for work and freedom to travel, which we take for granted, are limited. Bethlehem, which in 1947 had a population that was 85% Christian, is now only 15% Christian.

What so impresses me about Iyad, his family, and others we met who are living under such challenging circumstances is their deep faith and resilience. Christians in the Holy Land are sometimes referred to as “the living stones.” Their faith is indeed alive, and a witness to us.

I look around us and see the divisions within our own country. I wonder if we can overcome them. And then I remember Iyad, and the way he faces even greater challenges,  faithfully bringing the Gospel alive for pilgrims with patience, confidence, and even laughter. And I am given hope.

Faithfully,

Tom

 

Seeing God’s Beauty

Church StepsDear Friends,

On Saturday evening, St. John’s offers a wonderful gift to the larger community, our Service of Nine Lessons and Carols. It is a St. John’s tradition, and also part of the larger tradition of the Anglican Communion. Each Christmas Eve, persons all over the world listen to the service that originates from Kings’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England.

The beauty of such liturgical offerings is one of the gifts that the Anglican tradition offers to the larger church. We see God’s beauty in all the elements of this service, as the scriptures, anthems, and carols reveal once again the mystery of God’s love made known to us in Jesus Christ.

There are times when one may wonder if our efforts to create such moments of beauty should be directed elsewhere. I remember that four years ago, our service took place just days after the shootings at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut. Today, the reality of the suffering in Aleppo and so many other places around the world is before us. At such times, it may feel that  stepping into the beauty of a candlelit church can be more an act of denial than of worship.

The poet Mary Oliver reminds me of how our efforts to see beauty are essential in such times.  The writer Parker Palmer recalled being at a reading by the poet several years ago. After the reading, someone in the audience asked her, “What is the purpose of beauty?”

Mary Oliver replied, “We need beauty because it makes us ache to be worthy of it.”

Our coming together in candlelight, our listening and singing, are  all ways of evoking that poignant ache – to be worthy of the beauty and love that God has already given us. We gather, knowing in the words of the carol that “the hopes and fears of all the years” are met in this person of Jesus Christ.

I hope you can join us to hear again the wondrous story of the One who himself is the embodiment of God’s beauty, and who awakens in us the ache to be worthy of love and life.

Faithfully,

Tom

 

 

Rivers of Grace

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There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God. Psalm 46:4

Dear Friends,

Down below, at the bottom of this newsletter, you will read of the efforts being made to ensure that the dirt basements “down below” us stay dry and free from any accumulation of water. For years, after heavy rains and wet seasons, there have been occasions when streams of water have been running beneath us. Not good, as everyone knows, for the general health of the buildings – or for those who work and worship in them!

I’m grateful for these efforts, but it made me think about the fact that upstairs, in our classrooms and in our church, we are seeking to do quite the opposite – seeking to increase the flow. It’s not water that we are seeking (unless you consider the waters of baptism). Rather, we want to create channels for grace – the means by which we can experience more fully the abundant and outpouring love of God.

Channels for a river of grace: we create them every time we introduce a parable or biblical figure to our children in Living the Good News or Godly Play classes. In the Word spoken, we hear afresh the Spirit speaking to us, and we are changed.

We create riverbeds for God’s grace every time we lift our voices in song, or listen to one of our choirs offer an anthem. “The one who sings, prays twice,” St. Augustine once wrote. How many times has a moving piece of music enabled us to hear and glimpse God’s beauty in a new or deeper way?

Every time we celebrate Holy Communion, we receive the grace of God – the church traditionally refers to the sacraments as “means of grace.” I love the way my Eucharistic theology professor spoke of what happens at communion: “The miracle at the altar is not so much that bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ, but that ordinary human beings like you and me are being transformed into the living body of Christ,” – and, I might add, being nourished to go from the altar to go out into the world and to act in love.

This Sunday, we will be introducing one more means of grace: the sacrament of healing. If you wish to have prayers of healing for yourself, or for another, after receiving communion you may proceed to the back of the church (on the organ side). One of our priests will ask for your prayer intention, and then pray with you, anointing you with the healing oil that was consecrated by Bishop Gates at our anniversary service.

We are introducing this sacramental act on this Second Sunday of Advent. During Epiphany, it will be offered twice a month, and then during the seasons of Lent and Easter, it will be offered each Sunday.

I am praying for no more rivers in our basement. And I am praying for more and more rivers upstairs where we want to see them – in our classrooms, in our church, and in our lives.

Faithfully in Christ,
Tom

One Voice

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Dear Friends,

Several of you wrote to me or spoke to me about the letter I sent out on Wednesday. It seemed important then, and important now, to continue speaking with each other about how we can move forward as a nation. Of course, the recent election reminded us that each of us has but one vote and one voice. And that voice may seem inconsequential.

When I doubt the capacity of my own voice to make a difference, I hear another voice. It too was only one voice. But it was so powerful, and so compelling, that it resonated even from a tomb. The Spirit of the risen Christ is still heard. Jesus Christ is still transforming lives, and giving us the power to speak and act, especially in times of anxiety, uncertainty, or doubt. We hear that voice through prayer, yes, but also through those conversations with each other, and in our willingness to reach out to those whom we see as an opponent or even an enemy.

I’m not sure I can change a nation. But I can let the Spirit’s voice resonate in my life – especially when I feel I have lost hope. I can  let my choices and my actions be guided by all that Jesus has taught me – and continues to teach me. I will l listen for that voice in my heart, but also in each of your voices – voices that I cherish. Together, may we hear the Spirit.

Faithfully,

Tom

A Post-Election Message

St. John’s Episcopal Church

A Post-Election Letter from the Rector

November 9, 2016

Dear Friends,

Yesterday, our nation elected Donald Trump as the next president of the United States. As the election approached, we prayed for an end to the rancor and division that has characterized the campaign. Now that the results are in, we have before us an opportunity.

One of you sent me an email this morning, expressing your faith in the Constitution and in our country. Those words reminded me that we have the opportunity, and indeed the responsibility, to be faithful citizens, always working for the common good. If you supported Donald Trump, doing that work may seem easier today. If you supported Hillary Clinton or another candidate, the way forward may seem much more challenging. And yet we commit ourselves to working for the common good.

We commit ourselves, not only as citizens of the United States, but as citizens of another realm, the realm of God – the gracious reign of God which Jesus proclaimed, and in which we, as brothers and sisters in Christ, have promised to be faithful servants. What does it mean to be faithful in that realm? Among other things, it means being faithful to our baptismal vow – to always strive for justice and peace, and to respect the dignity of every human being, with God’s help.

Bishop Alan Gates, who so graciously led us this past Sunday in the celebration of our church’s anniversary, sent a letter to the clergy and lay leadership of the diocese this morning, and I believe his words speak very much to this moment in our nation’s life:

“Now is not a time to live out habitual behaviors of winners or losers. Now is a time to rededicate ourselves to the Christian ideal of breaking down the dividing walls of hostility which divide us (Ephesians 2:14). Now is a time to rededicate ourselves to the American ideal of liberty and justice for all.

Forbearance is a virtue tested not when we are in harmony, but when we are divided. Sacrifice is a discipline called for not in the face of prosperity but in the face of adversity. Hope is a manifestation of faith rendered meaningful not by certainty but by anxiety. Christ calls us, in this moment, individually and communally, to forbearance, sacrifice and hope.”

Forbearance, sacrifice, and hope – all part of a faithful response. All part of what it means to be a Christian, at all times and in all places.

I look forward to seeing you all on Sunday, as we gather to praise God, to share our joys and sorrows, our gratitude or our lament, to be nourished by Christ’s presence, and then to go forth as faithful citizens of our country, and of God’s realm.

Faithfully,

Tom

The full text of Bishop Gates’ letter can be found here.

The Rededication of a Church

Easter Day at St. John's

Dear Friends,

A little over five years ago, before I was called to be your rector,  I was preparing for my first  interview with the Search Committee. I did what I could to learn about the parish. I was told by more than one person that St. John’s was a beautiful church. Through my interview, and then my after my arrival, I certainly discovered the truth of that statement. I also noticed right away that you had a beautiful building.

“A beautiful church.” Each of us may have an image of St. John’s that comes to mind when we hear those words – perhaps the stunning stained glass image of Jesus behind the altar, perhaps the nave lit by candlelight at a Lessons and Carols service, perhaps the way the morning light streams through the Victorian windows creating dancing patterns of color on the walls.

When we use the word “church” so often we think of a building. In the New Testament however, the original Greek word often translated as “church” is “ecclesia,” – an assembly of people. Long before Christians ever constructed and set apart buildings for worship, they gathered as “the church” – a body of people gathered in Christ’s name to worship God and serve the world.

This Sunday, we will be rededicating the sturdy and beautiful building that is our inheritance – a 175 year old structure that still inspires us today. But in so doing, we will also be rededicating ourselves. Giving thanks for the faithful before us, we will commit ourselves to living as Christ’s disciples – hearing the Spirit, seeing God’s beauty, and acting in love. We will recognize and give thanks for the beauty of this community – persons old and young, strong and frail, devout and doubting, who gather week after week, offering their worship to God and their service to the world.

We will welcome Bishop Alan Gates, who will lead us in our worship and in the celebration of the Eucharist. And as we look around, yes, we will see a beautiful building. But even more beautiful will be the gathering of God’s people, united in our gratitude and praise.

Faithfully,

Tom

From a Refrigerator Door…

A lit candle in the Advent wreath Nov. 29 at St. John Vianney Church in Prince Frederick, Md., marks the first Sunday of Advent. The wreath, which holds four candles, is a main symbol of the Advent season, with a new candle lit each Sunday before Christmas. (CNS photo/Bob Roller) (Nov. 30, 2009)

Dear Friends,

With the approach of Advent, I am happy to make available this year’s Advent devotional calendar. We will have copies on cardstock available at church this Sunday and in the weeks to come. You can also download it below if you would like, and make copies on your own.

In 1988, it was about this time of year when I was visiting with a friend, Merry Watters. I noticed a whimsical Advent calendar on her refrigerator door, placed there in anticipation of Advent. As pastor of the Essex, Vermont United Methodist Church. she had designed the calendar for her congregation. Using a typewriter (remember those devices) she listed a scripture reading for each day, and a suggested devotion. I asked if I could use the calendar for my congregation. A year later, we decided to collaborate – I  created a design, and she chose the scriptures and devotions.

Little did we realize at the time that we would still be working on this annual endeavor over 25 years later. And what was once shared with two congregations, now goes far and wide to many people and many congregations. It has been a discipline of joy, and yes, sometimes frustration when the words of a poem will not come or I cannot think of a new design. Ultimately, it is a gift we seek to share each year, and one that we hope enriches the season of many.

Once again, I will be offering a daily email devotional based on the calendar during the season of Advent. If you received the devotional last year, you will be on the list for this year. If you did not receive it last year and would like to this year, or are unsure i you are on the list, you can respond to this newsletter with the word “yes” and I will add you.

Advent approaches. May we see signs of God’s grace wherever we look – even on a refrigerator door.

Faithfully,

Tom

Click below to download this year’s calendar:

advent-calendar-2016

 

A New Way of Seeing Ourselves: A Mission Statement for St. John’s

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Dear Friends,

Hear the Spirit. See God’s beauty. Act in love.

Those words may be new to you. I hope they will become familiar in the next few months, and that you will be able to share them joyfully with others.

Over the last few months, we have been taking time as a parish to assess where we are in our life together, discerning how it is that God is calling us to be the Body of Christ in this time and place. Many of you filled out a parish survey this summer. The questions and answers were meant to help us collectively draw a portrait of what we value at St. John’s, as well as identify our hopes and dreams for what God is doing in our midst.

In September, your vestry took the results of those surveys, along with other comments and insights gathered over the last few years, and met on retreat. Our hope was to create a Mission Statement, as well as an accompanying vision for our parish in the years to come. As we prepare to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the consecration of our church, I am delighted to share with you the Mission Statement that the vestry has just adopted. Read these words again:

Hear the Spirit. See God’s beauty. Act in love.

The Mission Statement is meant to express what we believe God is calling us to be  in the world: a community that is always listening for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that continually sees and celebrates the beauty that God has created, and joyfully responds to what we have seen and heard by acting in Christ’s love.

You will be hearing much more from me and your leaders about the meaning of these words in the months to come. And in the weeks to come, we will be sharing with you the accompanying vision of what our parish and its ministries will look like as we embrace and embody this mission.

For today, I simply invite you to read and reflect on these words in your own heart and mind. What will it mean for you, and us, to hear the Spirit, see God’s beauty, and act in love? I can only begin to imagine how we will answer those questions together in the days to come.

Faithfully,

Tom

Acting In Love: a Report from Maureen Lavely

img_1892I was privileged to spend October 7th through October 9th at the Mexican/Arizona border area as part of a gathering of hundreds to express our concern over the many reports of abuse of human rights. Absorbing the history and trying to understand the reasons for the numbers of folks trying to enter the United States was also part of my goal. Some of what I heard was difficult and so very sad. However, I left hopeful and pleased to have been there.

Our first event was a vigil at the Eloy Detention Center, which is a privately owned, for profit institution in which “survivors” say they had spoiled and inadequate food, poor health care, and were treated very roughly, including beatings. They can be held there for months or even years awaiting a hearing. Along with the first-hand witnessing there was chanting and singing led by leaders of the event. These include Tom’s sister-in-law Chris and behind-the-stage support by Tom’s brother Craig.

Saturday was a march from the headquarters hotel to the border wall (a few miles). It was wonderful to be part of this long line of folks along the sidewalks of Nogales bearing banners and chanting and singing, while horns honked in support. Some of the group went over the border and walked along the wall for a few blocks and past the corner where a young boy was shot by a border guard for suspicion of throwing a rock. My buddy didn’t have her passport with her so we stayed on the U.S. side and progressed on our side of the wall to the point where there were stages set up opposite each other along the wall. It’s possible to see through the wall and to get your hand through. It was coordinated that speakers and performers alternated from one side to the other and there was a positive feeling of connection. Some on either side of the wall had long poles with huge cardboard hands on the end and they dramatically “came together” and touched high above the wall.

The afternoon was seminars at the hotel covering many issues relative to mass incarceration in the U.S. and Mexico, unequal economies, the human rights crises and increased militarization of our borders.

Sunday was the vigil at the wall with more speakers including Roy Bourgeois, who began the School of the Americas Watch with a hunger strike at Fort Benning, GA. He had been a Maryknoll priest in El Salvadore when four nun friends of his were murdered by graduates of the School of the Americas. Finally, there was the haunting reading of the hundreds of names of the known and documented killed or “disappeared” people of Latin America. From the stage would be chanted a victim such as “Louis Garcia 27 years old”…. and the masses would raise their right arm and chant back “presente”…. meaning we were recognizing our togetherness and they were with us. Very moving.

Please check out the website: SOAW.org for pictures and other reports.

Maureen Lavely

A Time for Prayer

Dear Friends,

As I mentioned several weeks ago, the bishops of the Dioceses of Massachusetts and western Massachusetts are inviting us to participate in a prayer vigil just prior to the election. The vigil will last from noon on Sunday November 6 through noon of Election Day, Tuesday, November 8th. Parishes throughout our diocese will be participating in a variety of ways.

Here at St. John’s we will hold a vigil service, primarily of silent prayer, on Monday evening, November 7, from 6-7 pm. The church will remain open from 7 to 9 pm that night, and then will be open for individual prayer and meditation from 8 am to 5 pm on Election Day.

Of course, you can pray wherever you are throughout this time, and for particular concerns that are borne in your heart. Regarding the election, our bishops are asking us to  keep before God three particular concerns:

-that there will be a peaceful transition no matter what the outcome
-that there will be no further stoking of demonizing language
-that all who are elected be moved and strengthened to lead us all through this fractured time

I know that for myself, as much as my prayers may be directed outwards toward and for others and for situations that concern me, there is an inward transformation that blesses and sustains me. Whatever the distractions and challenges of life, whatever burdens are weighing upon me, when I pray I discover that I am brought to a place where I can hear, see, and act more clearly. And for that I am always grateful to God.

Faithfully,

Tom

The full statement from the bishops can be read here.