My dear family in Christ,
A recent exchange I had via social media has brought my attention to a topic that I don’t think we, as a Christian community, talk about as much as we should. A certain individual took issue with a particular phrasing I used in one of my comments (on a thread I had myself started) ~ I had quoted a character from Star Wars/Disney’s The Mandalorian: “I have spoken.” It was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek pop-culture reference in the midst of a more serious discussion. The individual I mentioned above demanded to know if I “talk to my children that way.” I responded to this person by asking “How dare you attempt to use my children in an attempt to shame me just because you disagree with my point?” Personally, I found and still find that tactic to be extraordinarily offensive. This individual replied: “I thought you were supposed to be a pastor. Some pastor you are.”
That response—and let me tell y’all, it is one that’s heard all too frequently by those of us who are in the business of ministry, whether lay or ordained—is evidence on the surface of what I think is a fairly deep issue, both within the Church and beyond, in the larger secular culture. There is a widespread misconception that being a Christian, in general, and that begin a pastor/priest/minister/etc., in particular, means first and foremost being “nice.” Now, nice, of course, is a good and wonderful thing; what makes this expectation problematic is that “nice” gets defined as “never, ever pushing back against any words or actions, no matter how offensive or vile those words or actions may be; never challenging anyone or anything, but instead just being happy and making sure nobody ever feels bad for any reason.” Christians, and especially Christian ministers, are just supposed to smile, nod, and “take it,” no matter what sort of vitriol is directed our way.
Now, to be sure, we are absolutely called to conform our lives to the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who commands us unequivocally to turn the other cheek, to return kindness for malice, compassion for hate, love for fear, and to make of our lives a living sacrifice in service to God and God’s people (i.e., everybody). Beyond that, Jesus calls us to be, ourselves, agents of transformation: when hatred or anger are directed at us, we are called to transform that hate and return only love, to transform that anger and return only peace. We must follow not only the commandments but also the living example of Jesus, every single day.
So I am not even remotely suggesting that any of us ought to “fight back.” To do so is irretrievably un-Christian.
That said, however, Christians in general and Christian ministers, especially, do have an additional obligation, and that is to teach, through word and example, the faith of Jesus Christ. Teaching sometimes requires a bit of compassionate confrontation, a willingness to call people’s attention to the nature of their own actions and those of others … and the courage to offer loving correction when needed. What happens, all too often, is that the expectation that Christians and (again especially) Christian ministers are to be meek and mild at all times gets weaponized: “I can say and do whatever I want, and the pastor has no choice but to allow me to do so, because if he or she pushes back at all, I can accuse him or her of being a bad pastor and not following Jesus … and yet I don’t even have to try to live up to that same expectation myself.”
Folks, in the Christian community, we all have to live up to that standard, together. That’s the piece of the puzzle that’s so often missing in our modern Church and especially in the larger, secular culture that surrounds us: it’s not about individuals’ behavior at all. It’s about the way the entire community is called and commanded to behave towards each other within the community, and towards the larger world outside the community. We’re all in this together. That’s the only way any of this Christian life can work.
That means that I sometimes need to receive—with as much gratitude as I, in my own sinfulness, can muster—a loving rebuke from a fellow follower of Christ. Even, and really especially, when I don’t want to, I have to make myself close my mouth and open my ears and my heart to hear where it is that I’ve misspoken or acted inappropriately, how my behavior has hurt or is hurting someone, and what I need to do to make it right. It’s hard to be on the receiving end of such a rebuke at all, much less to take it in gracefully, but that’s what I’m obligated to do.
It also means that, when I witness someone’s mistreating another person (whether that other person be me or some other individual), I am obligated by my faith to speak up. I can’t let it slide; I have to step in and let the offending party know, as gently but as firmly as possible, that he or she is speaking and/or acting in a way that is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and that such behavior will not be tolerated in my presence. Looking out for each other, taking a stand for each other (or even for ourselves, sometimes), whilst maintaining a humble awareness of our own capacity for harming others (whether advertently or inadvertently)—that’s all part and parcel of the Christian witness that is our obligation and our collective vocation. Again, we’re all in this together. To borrow once more from The Mandalorian: “This is the Way.”
My dear family in Christ,
The short version first:
The longer version:
As you know, it has been a year and a week since the last time we were all together in our beautiful church, praising God, singing hymns, and sharing the sacrament of Holy Communion as the gathered Body of Christ in Appleton. A year is a long time to be apart, even under the best of circumstances, and—regardless of one’s perspectives, preferences, proclivities, or priorities—I think we’d all be a bit hard pressed to describe 2020 as having comprised “the best of circumstances.” It has been particularly difficult to have to fast for so long not only from each other’s presence but also from Holy Communion shared together.
Now, as the season of Lent draws to a close and we look eagerly toward Easter, I have some good news to share. Of course, the greatest good news is that Jesus is Lord! and that we will once again celebrate the Resurrection this Easter! But I have some more immediate, down-to-earth good news to share, as well:
We will reopen our church (in limited fashion) beginning on Palm Sunday!
It’s time. Not because Covid is over—it isn’t! (More on that in a moment.) Not because the risks are gone—they are not! Even so, the overcrowding in our hospitals and healthcare facilities has started to go down, more and more people are getting vaccinated every day, and as long as we continue to mask, distance, and observe the recommended safety protocols, we can finally worship together again in limited numbers. So it is time for us to begin the long process of moving back into our shared, communal worship.
That’s the good news. As you can tell, however, from my careful wording above, there is unfortunately also some bad news.
The bad news is that the return to our remembered experience of full-scale in-person worship, including so many of the things we love about the All Saints experience, is still a good ways off. In other words, we will NOT be “going back to the way things were” anytime soon.
Instead, our return to in-person worship will have to happen in stages, in increments. And this first stage will NOT be ideal. In many ways, it will be awkward and strange. It will almost certainly feel frustrating. But it WILL be a necessary and important first step towards a complete post-pandemic reopening, and that’s not nothing, y’all.
So how is it going to work? What exactly will it look and feel and sound like? What will be different? Here’s a breakdown of some key features of this next phase we’re about to enter into together:
Face masks & social distancing are absolutely required. Until the Covid numbers get significantly better, these requirements MUST be observed. We don’t ever want to turn anyone away from our doors … but as pastor, my responsibility—and my sincere desire—is to safeguard the well-being of the entire flock. So these restrictions are non-negotiable. (We will try to keep a small supply of disposable masks on hand, in case someone just happens to forget to mask up before leaving the house to come to church, but if possible, please bring your own.) As for spacing, we will limit seating to one family unit* per pew, and we’ll have to skip a pew in between each family unit as well. The pews will be marked off accordingly when you come in to the church.
Reservations are required in advance. You’ll have to contact the church office before the close of business on Friday in order to reserve a physical place for yourself and your immediate family* for the following Sunday service. In order to make sure as many folks who want to attend in-person get the chance to do so, we are going to ask that if you reserve a spot and attend in-person in a given week, you then join us virtually/online the following week, to give someone else a chance to worship in-person. If we can voluntarily alternate weeks like that, it will make it easier for us to adhere to the other restrictions we have to follow, and also hopefully calling the office to sign up will maybe feel a little less like trying to get a vaccine appointment. : )
* NOTE: I am using the terms “immediate family” and “family unit” to indicate a small group of people who live in the same space together. If you have family in the parish, but you and they live in separate houses, then you and they would count as different “family units” for purposes of maintaining social distance.
One single service will be offered (to start) at 9:30. As we begin to add in-person worshippers back into our Sunday morning service, we will continue to have a single 9:30 a.m. service that will combine in-person worship and live-streamed online worship. At least, we’re going to try it that way to begin with; if it does not work to combine in-person with live-streaming, we might have to separate the two types of service, but I am truly hoping that we don’t have to do that. I would prefer that what we do be what we live-stream out, in terms of worship, so that we have one communal act of worship, with some folks taking part in person and some folks taking part online, but all of us sharing the same worship together.
In-person capacity is limited. Current diocesan restrictions for in-person worship services limit us to 25% of building capacity OR 50 persons total (including priest & servers), whichever is fewer. With a space as large as ours, that means we are limited to 50 people per service. For comparison, prior to the shutdown a tad more than a year ago, we were averaging between 70 and 90 people between two services. Given that a significant number of our parishioners will not yet feel safe and/or comfortable attending in-person services, it may not be too unreasonable to expect that a single service that allows for 50 people would suffice for us, at least for this first phase of reopening. Of course, if demand is too great, we will add a second service on Sunday morning.
NOTE: Folks who attend in-person on Palm Sunday will still be eligible to attend one or the other (but not both) of our Easter services, either Saturday evening or Sunday morning. But, again, we would prefer that you choose in advance which one of the Easter services you want to attend.
In-person worshippers will receive the Bread only. Diocesan restrictions require that both Bread and Wine be consecrated, that the Celebrant receive in both kinds, and that all other participants receive in one kind (Bread only). Essentially, at this point it is still far better to be safe than sorry, and that is why we will not be sharing a common cup just yet.
In-person singing is NOT allowed. This restriction, I predict, will hit our specific community particularly hard. Music and (especially) singing are so deeply ingrained in the culture and identity of this parish that it’s almost unthinkable to consider returning to worship together … without also returning to our practice of singing together. Overwhelming amounts of research show, however, that, because of the ways that the virus spreads most effectively, singing in groups is one of the most dangerous things we could do. At this time, we simply cannot risk it. Of course, the folks participating in our live-streamed service from their own homes can belt those hymns out as much as they like. : )
Grace will be needed. We will need to remember that a number of our fellow congregants won’t want to, or even shouldn’t, attend in-person gatherings until the rates of Covid infections go down significantly. So we must be absolutely clear that participating in our worship online via live-stream is every bit as valid and meaningful as attending in-person. We can’t have higher or lower “tiers” of worship in our community, and we certainly cannot have “second-class citizens” in our parish.
You will need to dress for the weather. For purposes of maintaining as much non-re-circulated airflow as possible, we will need to open some of our windows and exterior doors. Using recycled air in enclosed spaces pretty much destroys any advantage we gain through social distancing, because it mixes everybody’s air all together and blows it all over everyone in the group. Depending upon the weather on any given day, you’ll want to keep your heavy coats with you in the pew.
None of this process will be easy, at first. It’s going to be awkward and strange and likely rather frustrating to be back in church, but in such restricted and unfamiliar ways. But I have great faith in the faith and the grace that, in my experience, define this parish family. With a bit of patience, continued devotion, grace from above, and a healthy sense of humor (or at least irony), I believe we will continue to be a blessed people of God together during this new phase of our shared life, just as we have during the long separation and isolation of Coronatide. You all continue to inspire me, and you remain in my daily prayers. Please call or email if you have any questions, and God bless you all!
Rearranging Some Spaces
As many of you already know, we are gearing up for a return to in-person worship, albeit in a limited capacity and with a number of safety restrictions in place. And it is so very tempting, in our excited anticipation, to allow ourselves to think of this new phase we’ll be entering into as if we’ll be “finally getting back to normal.” That, unfortunately, will still not be the case for some time. Covid is yet with us, and while more and more people are getting vaccinated against the virus every day, the risks are still far too great for us to jump back into life as it was prior to March of last year.
Even so, grace—and good news—abounds! If we continue to mask, to observe social distancing, to get vaccinated as soon as we are able, and to follow established safety procedures, there is every reason to believe that we will continue to see improvements in the numbers. And one day, we will reach a point at which we can finally come back together in our beautiful church to pray and to worship without restriction. It will happen.
But there is even more good news than that. Namely, that we now have before us an incredible opportunity. We have the opportunity at this time to do more than merely try to “get back to normal”; we have the opportunity to determine with faithful intention exactly what we want our “new normal” to be.
As we finally begin to move through and beyond this time of pandemic, we can explore, imagine, brainstorm, and otherwise faithfully discern what we’d like to get back to … and perhaps also what we’d like to do differently. We have an incredible chance, now, to lay the foundations for an exciting new chapter of vitality and growth in the life of All Saints Episcopal Church. Now, that might sound like a tall order, but I’ll tell you truthfully that I’ve seen this parish accomplish amazing things over the past twelve months, and I’ve seen y’all do that under the worst conditions of this pandemic. Grace does indeed abound in this place!
So on the teeniest, tiniest scale, I have begun my own little experiment in exploring how things might be different as we come back into our church building. In preparing to resume in-person worship, I’ve transitioned from working completely from home, as I have for most of Coronatide, to working two days a week (Tuesdays and Wednesdays) from the church. And when I started coming back into the office on a regular basis a few weeks ago, I suddenly had an idea about rearranging the space in which I was working. Basically, I decided to try switching out the “office” and the “library/conference room.”
At the moment, then, my office is now in the room that used to be the library/conference room. It’s my intention to try out using the old office space as a library/conference room/project room. The transition isn’t complete; there’s more arranging to be done to make it all work. But thus far, I think it’s going to be a good change. The new setup already seems to me to be much more conducive to pastoral care and counseling, for one thing, and with doors that open directly into the hallways, I believe it will also be more inviting to anyone who stops by and wants to talk to the priest. Take a look and see what you think.
Now is a fantastic time for reimagining, for re-envisioning, how we see the treasures and assets that have been entrusted to us, for considering exciting new ways to appreciate and utilize the resources that we have, as well as for remembering and preserving everything we love and cherish about our parish. I invite you all to enter into this period of discernment with faith, joy, and eagerness. God is here, in the midst of our parish; who knows what the Holy Spirit is already working to stir up in us as we come back together and rekindle our shared faith in our shared space?
An Invitation to the Observance of a Holy Lent
My dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
The Lenten season is upon us! As of Ash Wednesday, we bade adieu, for a while, to the green of ordinary time which we’ve enjoyed in the season after the Epiphany, and we have now embraced the purple that ever reminds us of the inner reflection and penitence that are the hallmarks of the journey to Easter.
As you may know, the observation of Lent as a liturgical season has its origins in the disciplines and practices of the early Church. Easter, the great feast celebrating the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus, was understood from the earliest days of the Christian era to be a proper and fitting time for new converts to the faith to be baptized.
Preparation to receive the sacrament of baptism involved a great deal of prayer, instruction, study, prayer, contemplation, penitence, and prayer, in a process that took up to two full years. And the final forty days leading up to the converts’ baptism at Easter marked a period of particularly intensive prayer, fasting, prayer, devotion, prayer, penitence, and prayer (notice a theme developing here?).
As Christianity became culturally dominant, eventually more people became Christian by being born into families that were already Christian than by converting as adults. With that shift, the forty days leading up to Easter became a time of fasting, penitence, and (you guessed it) prayer for all Christians in preparation for the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord. In the modern age in the West, we begin our observance of Lent with the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, which allows for a period of forty days—not counting Sundays—leading up to the Great Vigil of Easter.
(Sundays are not considered part of Lent because every Sunday is a feast day of Jesus Christ and celebrates His resurrection; that’s why we describe each of them as, for example, the “third Sunday in Lent,” rather than the “third Sunday of Lent.”)
In preparing our hearts, our minds, and our souls, as well as our congregation and our community, for the highest of high holy days, the single most important feast in the entire Christian religion, we intentionally observe these forty days as a time for introspection, reflection, discipline (a time for us to be “disciple’d”), self-control, self-denial, and intensive prayer. In particular, we deliberately focus our attention upon our own mortality (right from the beginning with Ash Wednesday), our own heavy burden of sins (our specific individual sins and the collective stain of sin upon our communities, the burden of which we share simply because we are part of those communities), our need for Jesus as savior, and the importance of discipline as we seek be become ever more deeply conformed to Christ in our own lives.
This particular year, however, as many of my friends and colleagues have observed, it hardly feels like Lent is the start of a “new” season; emotionally (and even spiritually) for many of us, it feels as if Lent, 2020, never actually ended, and that this year we are simply moving into some sort of Lent ~ Phase II. That feeling, I think, is quite understandable. The pandemic that has isolated us physically from each other and cut us off from worshipping in community together has imposed upon us an array of sacrifices and disciplines that have significantly changed the way we live our daily lives.
How, then, do we even consider moving into a meaningful observance of a holy Lent this year? What more can God ask of us? … we might cry to the heavens.
We might just as well turn that question around, though: What more can we offer God? Is there anything that we could do that would ever be enough? Coming at the question from that angle might change our calculus somewhat, yes? And we must remember, moreover, that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus ~ there is nothing we need to (for there is nothing we can do) on our own to achieve or earn our salvation. It is a free gift from God.
Discipleship, however, is another matter entirely. That is work, and it is work that is never finished, not in this earthly life. Even something as seemingly simple as prayer is often hard work. One of my favorite stories from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the Fourth Century puts it like this:
The brethren also asked Abba Agathon, “Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?” He answered, “Forgive me, but I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, want to prevent him, for they know that it is only by turning him from prayer that they can hinder his journey. Whatever good work a man undertakes, if he perseveres in it, he will attain rest. But prayer is struggle to the last breath.”
To what works, what struggles, are we called this Lent, coming as it does on the heels of such hardships already?
My friends, as we begin our Lenten journey together, as we make our way this year to the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ, I invite you prayerfully to consider that our work for this year’s Lent may be a true repentance, a true turning. This Lent, let us begin by transforming our hearts and our minds to see the hardships imposed upon us by Covid-19 not as unjust impositions and unfair burdens that we are forced to bear because we’re scared of getting sick, but rather as sacrifices we make and disciplines we willingly take on because we love each other and all of our fellow human beings, we respect the dignity of each and every human being, and we truly desire to serve God by safeguarding the people around us.
In other words, I’m not asking you to take on any additional burdens, to make any additional sacrifices. I’m asking us all to “turn around” how we see all of the hardships we’re currently enduring, to make them into the disciplines and sacrifices of a holy Lent, offered up in devotion and service to the One who sacrificed everything of himself for us on the cross of crucifixion. Let that be the Way for us who would follow Jesus through Lent to the glory of Easter.
Peace and blessings to you all,
My dear friends in Christ,
If you have not yet heard, I’m sure you soon will (especially if you’re reading this message!) ~ Bishop Matt will be granting parishes in the diocese the option of resuming limited & restricted in-person worship services, as early as the first Sunday in Lent.
Essentially, the diocesan guidelines will be what they were back over the summer, before the Covid numbers and hospital overcrowding spiked drastically in the fall, prompting the diocese-wide suspension of in-person worship which has remained in effect till now. Even though the overall statistics have not yet come back down to the levels we saw back over the summer, the more severe hospital overcrowding has, and the bishop and the Covid Task Force have come to the conclusion that limited in-person worship can resume with fairly low levels of risk, as long as all the safety procedures are strictly followed.
As I’m sure you recall, even when the diocese gave us permission to gather last summer, I nevertheless required All Saints to remain closed and our worship to remain virtual. Given the demographics of our particular parish, I felt the risks to our congregation were too high to do otherwise. Now, however, while it is true that the Covid rates in our area are still higher than they were over the summer, even so, I believe that we are in a much better position to begin resuming some forms of in-person worship here at All Saints.
We do not yet have a specific date for our first Sunday on in-person worship. I will be working very closely with the Executive Committee of our Vestry, as well as with our Online Ministry Team, to make sure that when we bring people back into our worship space, we will do so as safely as possible, and as reverently as possible, whilst still providing online access to our worship services for everyone who cannot attend in person and/or who are not comfortable attending in person as long as the pandemic rages on.
So stay tuned! Much more information will be forthcoming shortly as we work out the logistics of this momentous change. It has been nearly a year since we were able to worship together in person last. That’s a long time … and, as Indiana Jones famously observed, “It’s not [just] the years … it’s the mileage” that makes a big difference, too. We’ve been through a lot of miles since last March. It’s time to come back together ~ even if we can only do so in very limited ways, and even if the experience will not yet be what it once was.
Please pray for us as we work out the details to make this happen, and let’s all continue to pray for this incredible faith community that we share.
Yours in Christ,
CHRISTMAS EVE, CHRISTMAS DAY, & THE 1ST SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS
My dear friends in Christ,
We will have two online services on Christmas Eve: one at 4 p.m. and the other at 7:30 p.m. The earlier service will be a celebration of Spiritual Communion with special hymns by and a special message for the younger members of our parish, but of course everyone is both invited and encouraged to tune in and take part. The evening service will be a traditional service of Holy Eucharist offered on behalf of our parish, our nation, and our world, in celebration of the coming into the world of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Ordinarily (and by “ordinarily” I mean “in a year not shaped by the worst pandemic in global living memory”), we would have a third service, as well, on Christmas morning. This year’s being what it is, however, and given the fact that we still cannot gather together in person to worship, we will not be streaming an additional service on the 25th itself.
Our bishop, +Matt Gunter, has very graciously but very firmly encouraged the clergy of the diocese to take a bit of unscheduled time off during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. I extend that very same invitation to all of you: if you can, take this opportunity to rest and recharge immediately after Christmas.
The All Saints virtual-office will therefore be closed during that week. We’ll take a break from regularly scheduled Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline, as well as from our regular Monday and Thursday Bible study and Faith Talk, respectively, in order to have a bit of a Sabbath before we carry on into the new year together.
Now, I won’t be on vacation. I’m not going anywhere (and wouldn’t, anyway, until we’re all nice and vaccinated!); I’ll still be reachable by phone (920.266.9262) and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) ~ especially in the case of pastoral emergency. But I think the bishop’s notion that we ought to lay low and breathe easy for just a bit after Christmas is a good notion, and I think most of us could use the break. Please use the links below to access worship services from Christmas Day through New Year’s Day:
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day diocesan services may be found here, starting December 24th at 5 p.m.: https://www.diofdl.org/events/christmas-eve-christmas-day-at-the-cathedral
For the First Sunday after Christmas (December 27th), please tune in to the livestream service from St. Thomas in Menasha here: https://www.stthomaswi.com/livestream/
Pandemics and shut-downs and virtual reality have made for an … interesting … first year among you as your priest and with you as a new member of All Saints parish. Despite the unprecedented challenges we’ve weathered since last Advent, I want all of you to know that my family and I are still absolutely delighted to have been called here to serve God amongst you in this congregation and with you out in this community. This church has been a tremendous blessing to me and mine. I hope that it will continue to be so for you and yours as we move into the coming year. God bless you all!
My dear friends in Christ,
I know that we are still very much in the process of getting to know each other ~ this pandemic has unfortunately slowed that process down to a fraction of what I believe would have been the case had 2020 been a normal year. And that makes it difficult for me to come to you and say, “trust me” … but that’s what I’m about to do. I’m going to ask you to trust me, because I’m about to take a bit of a risk.
Last week, I received an anonymous note, typed in a plain font and without date, signature, or any other identifying mark, from someone who is apparently very dissatisfied … no, more than that ~ quite upset, actually … at All Saints and (though the note doesn’t mention me by name) at me, personally. I know nothing about the author; I don’t even know for sure that he or she is a member of the parish. All I can say for sure is that it’s someone on our mailing list.
Now, conventional church wisdom, as well as all my seminary training and the advice of many priests who have served for far longer than I, says “ignore it.” And under normal circumstances, I admit I would probably do just that. But that’s just it: 2020 is hardly a “normal” year by any metric, and maybe the fact that this year has been so full of crises … is the best reason not to treat this note like I might in any other year.
I believe that whoever wrote this letter is hurting and maybe afraid. I believe the author feels abandoned, if not outright betrayed, by his or her church. Y’all, it breaks my heart to know that anyone who’s been connected with our All Saints family is feeling that way. And to be prevented from reaching out to this person (because I not only have no idea who wrote the note, but I have no way to find out, either!) breaks my heart a second time.
So … I’m taking a risk. I’m not ignoring this anonymous note. I’m bringing it to all of you, and I’m inviting us to talk about it. Honestly, I don’t hold out much hope (some hope, but not much) that the mystery author will see this response and be willing to talk with me personally. I suspect that if he or she were interested in any sort of follow-up communication, he or she would have left a phone number, or an email address, or at least a name …
But it seems likely to me that if one person on our mailing list is having such thoughts & feelings, then someone else out there is probably having similar thoughts and feelings, too, and I do hold out a real hope that it’s not too late for us to connect, or at least converse, and see what kind of relationship we can build.
So, here’s the thing: you all need to know that each and every one of y’all can talk to me about anything.
If you’re worried about something, tell me about it. If you’re concerned about something, tell me about it. If something in the world has got you scared, talk to me ~ don’t try to carry that burden all alone!
And for God’s sake, if you’re angry, even if you’re furious, holler at me! Especially if what you’re furious about is something that I, as your priest, am doing. Or not doing.
You’re not going to hurt my feelings (and even if you were, that’s no excuse for me not to listen to you!), and if you don’t talk to me about it, it’s almost guaranteed to get worse, whatever it is.
So that’s the general message ~ talk to me! That’s it. Just know that you can talk to me, and that I will listen.
Of course, I cannot guarantee that I won’t talk back.
I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but also with a hint of seriousness, as well. Let me explain…
My vocation ~ my job and my calling ~ here with you is defined by my ordination vows. As the bishop says in the ordination liturgy, I am “called to work as a pastor, priest, and teacher” (BCP 531), and I take those roles very, very seriously. So you might say that fully one third of my job here at All Saints is to teach.
Now, pastoring and teaching are two different things, but my job and calling include both. Part of my vocation (as pastor) is to provide comfort, support, encouragement, counsel, and healing; and part of my vocation (as teacher) is to provide information, inspiration, challenge, and even gentle correction. Sometimes, I have to be pastor and teacher at the same time.
That should tell you two things about me:
First, if you’re concerned, or hurting, or afraid, or angry, about anything, you can come to me and unload everything you’re feeling. When you’re talking to me, you are safe! So get it all out, and say what you need to say.
Second, I will always speak truth with you. The Church is God’s house, and our God is the God of truth ~ our God is Truth. So as Christians, we have to seek the truth, always. So if you come to me and you’re upset about something that isn’t true, I will hear you and listen to you and comfort you … but I will also, always, be truthful with you. I have to. Anything less would be a disservice to you.
I mention the importance of truth because, of the four sentences in the anonymous note I received, all four contained statements or assertions that are factually untrue. Two of them expressed virulent ~ and easily debunked ~ conspiracy theories based upon Q-Anon propaganda.
Folks, that won’t do. Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.” As his followers, we must constantly guard against letting ourselves be taken in by falsehoods, deceptions, lies, or any kind of distortion of truth.
But here’s the thing: even though the author of this anonymous note got his or her facts completely wrong, nevertheless, the underlying pain, fear, and anger are very real, and they cry out for help, for ministering, for pastoral care ~ they cry out just to be heard.
And that is what I am here for. Literally, it’s my job. Beyond that, it’s my calling. It’s why God formed me to be who I am, and it’s why God brought me here to this place.
So if you’re upset, bring it to me, and let’s at the very least share that burden together. Or if you’re upset at me, then pick up the phone, shoot me an email, or ask for a Zoom meeting so you can be upset at me, to my face. Again, when you’re with me, you are safe. So bring me whatever you’ve got, and let’s work through it together.
I love you. I am blessed to have the opportunity to minister among you and to share with you in the work that God has given us to do. And I so look forward to walking with you in faith towards wherever God is leading us next.
Yours always in Christ,
My dear All Saints family,
Grace to you, and peace, in God the Father and our Lord, Jesus Christ!
We are rapidly approaching the start of a new year together. The last Sunday of November will be the first Sunday of Advent, which this year not only marks the beginning of the Church year, but also the 1-year anniversary of my arrival in Appleton and my stepping into the role of rector for All Saints Episcopal Church. Safe to say, I suspect, that the nearly twelve months that have passed since December 1, 2019, have not exactly gone the way that many of us would have predicted last winter. Nevertheless, I want you all to know that my family and I remain overwhelmingly grateful to have been welcomed by you into this parish family, and we continue to thank God for calling us to this place, to this ministry, and to this relationship with all of you. We are blessed!
All Saints is blessed, as well! Thanks to the grace of God and the faithful efforts and hard work of the Vestry, staff, and lay leadership of this parish, we have weathered the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, managing not only to maintain our worship, fellowship, and formation, but also to expand the scope and range of our ministry in totally new ways. Necessity really is the mother of invention: when the pandemic forced us to shut the physical doors of our building and kept us from gathering in person, we created an online ministry and online worship services, and we did it nearly overnight.
It is due to your continued and generous giving throughout this pandemic crisis that All Saints has been able to pay our bills, sustain our payroll, address critical maintenance issues in our building, and at the same time expand our ministries into the online environment. Your ongoing support has meant that All Saints has not had to face a financial crisis on top of the Covid crisis. THANK YOU! It is a sign of your love for this parish and your enduring faith in God that even in a time of global plague you have made your faith community a priority.
As one parishioner observed: “Are you pleasantly surprised that our connection to one another has endured, even though we haven’t seen each other in months? Are you pleasantly surprised that our connection to All Saints Church, our spiritual home, has endured, despite our not having entered her doors in eight months? Apparently, the mystical body of Christ is stronger than we knew.”
I would bet that some of you knew, though. This parish has deep roots in faith. That has been apparent to me since I got here a year ago.
We’ve been through a lot together since December of last year. But one thing we haven’t been through together yet is the annual stewardship campaign. I’m told that, normally, the stewardship drive would have already ended by now, with pledges being gathered in by All Saints’ Day. Since almost nothing has been “normal” about 2020, however, perhaps it isn’t too surprising that stewardship is working a little differently this year. So I’m writing to you all today to invite you to join me in a new way of looking at stewardship and, by extension, an exciting vision for the future of All Saints Episcopal Church.
Each of us is at this moment dealing to varying degrees with feelings of separation, constraint, uncertainty, and/or fear. What if we, as a parish, were to transform our sense of uncertainty into a spirit of inquiry? As new circumstances compel us to enter a new church relationship for a new decade, we need to consider opportunities for flourishing in new ways. What if, as we look forward to a return to in-person gathering, we also work together to plant the seeds for a post-pandemic All Saints Church that preserves all that we love about our church yet allows us to expand the reach and impact of our church in our lives and in our community?
Working with the Vestry and the Finance Ministry Team, and supported by a Stewardship Team called together to help flesh out and implement this vision, here is what I am proposing:
Three phases & three stewardship drives—a unified three-year plan
THIS YEAR: PLANTING THE SEEDS
What we need to do: Sustain the parish.
In a year full of crises and unforeseen changes & challenges, we seek only to maintain what we currently have. We need to pay the bills and keep the church functioning, yes. But beyond that, we need to offer our thanks to God and our gratitude to this church for all the blessings we share together. In that way, we will plant the seeds of future growth.
At this stage, we are primarily concerned with keeping the seeds of our faith and of our All Saints community alive.
What does that mean in practical terms? Well, here is a rough calculation of the daily costs of our three main areas of expense:
Ministry staff $391 per day
Buildings & grounds $209 per day
Current operations $202 per day
These figures are based on a very conservative budget proposal that is aimed at simply maintaining our current ministries and levels of expense. We have benefited somewhat from being shut down during the pandemic, since closing the building has meant lower costs in terms of cooling and heating. Eventually, however, we will return to in-person worship, and that will cost us more than our current, online worship does.
We need your generous support and your faithful giving that has kept us going during this pandemic to continue. We need you to help keep the seeds of ministry alive until we can emerge from this crisis and begin to grow our future together.
NEXT YEAR: TENDING THE GARDEN
What we need to do: Move from maintenance toward mission.
Building upon the solid foundation we have established, we must seek to discover our identity as a community of believers and followers of Jesus Christ, and also to discern God’s specific call to us to act as Christ’s body in this place. We need to ask challenging questions to push us beyond mere maintenance to get us excited about the future and to prepare us for real growth to come.
At this stage, our focus begins to pivot from being primarily internally-focused to becoming more externally-focused as we move beyond securing our own needs and sustaining our own community toward a vision of what we might do for God with the community and stability God has given us.
What does that mean? It means prayer and discernment. It means studying the Holy Scriptures. It means discovering and naming the specific gifts and resources that God has entrusted to us—both as individual members of the parish and especially as a community of Jesus-followers. What do we have to offer anybody who is not already a member of our parish? What gives us joy? More importantly, what are the most critical needs of the folks who live just outside our parish doors?
To paraphrase Frederick Buechner, the intersection of our deep joy and the world’s deep need is where we discover our vocation.
God is calling us to do more than merely continue existing. God has work for us to do. In Year Two, we begin the work of discovering the details of the mission God has in mind for us—the reason God wants us to grow.
These will be challenging conversations that invite us to re-vision how we see ourselves as a parish and how we see our purpose as the people of God in Appleton, Wisconsin. How exciting!
THE YEAR AFTER: WORKING THE HARVEST
What we need to do: Define and enact God’s call to us in concrete actions
Having discovered our identity rooted deeply in Jesus Christ, and having listened faithfully to His call to grow His Church (“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” – Matt. 28:19), we begin to harvest the seeds planted and tended in previous years. We need to discern the specific ways in which Jesus is calling us to be His body here in Appleton—the particular people in our area (and beyond) to whom Jesus is sending us as apostles and ministers.
At this stage, we look to both present and future with excitement, confidence, and zeal, and we offer up to God a stable, sustainable, highly-functioning community of committed believers ready and eager to do the work that God has given us to do in our community, our city, our region, and beyond.
What will that look like? Who can say? But I imagine it looks like a dynamic, engaged parish, full pews on Sundays and Wednesdays (at least), a congregation actively living out our discipleship in many different ways, a presence in the Appleton community that sees us tending the needs of “the least of these” whilst at the same time offering a safe haven and a source of healing and true inspiration for all of God’s children.
Does that sound outlandish? Unobtainable? Not to me. I’ve seen hard proof in my first year of what your faith can do. And I have no doubt whatsoever in the absolute power of God to do great things within, through, and by means of All Saints Episcopal Church. But we do not have to figure out how to get there (or how to fund such a vision) all at once!
All we have to do is commit to God, and commit to God’s Church. We do not, will not, cannot ask anyone to give beyond your means or to commit to more than you can manage. We simply ask you, please, to continue to support All Saints with your generous giving as you’ve done throughout this year. Help us maintain the great gifts we have in this church, and help us plant the seeds this year that will grow into a beautiful, bountiful harvest in years to come.
Thank you, and God bless you all!
On Holy Communion
My dear friends in Christ,
As you know, we have been working hard behind the scenes to figure out the best way to return to celebrating Holy Eucharist as our principal act of weekly worship. Rapidly changing—and rapidly increasing—Covid numbers in our area and our state have made the task … difficult, at best. As I’ve observed in a number of my previous Newsletter columns lately, it has become apparent that, for various reasons, this virus isn’t going away anytime soon.
Because the virus is still with us, and because it is not likely to abate in the foreseeable future, we are left in a tricky spot: we cannot simply “wait it out” before we get back to Communion; we also cannot simply resume gathering together in the church building to celebrate Eucharist, either. What, then, can we do?
Well, the best we can do is experiment a bit within the parameters of our current situation.
Current diocesan restrictions limit us to having no more than four persons together in the church building for the celebration of Eucharist (including the priest). That doesn’t leave much room for physical participation on the part of the parish. Our current Zoom format actually allows greater interaction and participation in the service than we could have if we just switched over to Communion in the church that’s limited to four people.
Given those factors, here is what I’d like to try going forward: let’s do exactly what we’ve been doing for live-streaming, but let’s add actual Communion to the end of the service. In other words, we’ll still use Zoom to connect to social media for live-streaming the service. We’ll still have lectors and intercessors and psalmists join in the service from their homes, thus avoiding having to have groups of people physically gathered in the church space. But instead of concluding the service with Spiritual Communion, we’ll conclude with literal Communion.
Here’s the catch, though: in the Anglican tradition, and therefore in The Episcopal Church, priests are not to celebrate “solo” Mass. In other words, in order for me to celebrate the Eucharist, there must be at least one other person present with me to share in the Communion of Jesus. Now, the experts are telling us pretty clearly that the next six to twelve months are going to be with worst since the pandemic first broke upon us early this year. I am extraordinarily hesitant, therefore, to take the chance of putting anyone at risk in this climate.
So what I’d like to do, again as an experiment, is to offer this possibility to the church: my wife, Anne, and our children, Emily & Elena, already live together with me in the same space (often on top of each other!) and share the same air. Because of that, if I were simply to bring them to the church building with me on Sunday mornings, we would be able to celebrate the Eucharist because there would be people here to share in the celebration with me. We could then live-stream actual Holy Eucharist for our Sunday worship service.
I realize that doing things that way does not offer the larger parish the opportunity to receive Communion, and that’s what we’re sorely missing after all these months. But I’m seeing this proposal as a very temporary “solution” until the Covid numbers allow us to bump up to larger numbers in the church building. If we can get the pandemic numbers down enough, we’ll be able to move to a lesser level of restriction (perhaps 20 people in the building, instead of four). At that point, we would absolutely adapt our practice to make sure as many parishioners as possible could come participate.
So. A temporary solution. Not an ideal situation. But it has been weighing more and more heavily on my heart that, during a time of great strife and great plague, we ought to be saying more Masses, not fewer. As a priest, the centerpiece of my vocation is a call to celebrate God’s holy sacraments. And our entire Christian tradition is very clear that the celebration of the Eucharist brings immeasurable benefits not only to those who participate physically, but to all those on whose behalf we offer the sacrifice, and indeed to the whole world, the entirety of God’s creation. So if we can get back to celebrating Eucharist, even in a less-than-ideal way, sooner rather than later, I think it’s worth it. And we would be doing it especially with an eye towards expanding the scope of the service as soon as it’s at all safe to do so.
So that’s the plan at the moment, and a bit of the reasoning and thought process behind the current plan. Please let me know what you think, what questions you have, what you’d like to see in the future, etc. – I’d love to hear from you and have the chance to talk about our worship in these trying times in greater depth. Please drop me a line at email@example.com and let’s connect!
Yours in Christ,
“But when are we going to get back to the way things were?”
My dear friends in Christ,
Not quite two weeks ago, I wrote these words to you all:
“The truth is that we will never get back to the way things were. We won’t. Because we can’t. Our world is changed, and it cannot be un-changed.”
I was talking about the prospect of our resuming some form of in-person worship at All Saints—in particular, of resuming the celebration of Holy Eucharist.
As if to drive home the point, as soon as my last message was published announcing that we would be resuming in-person worship in the month of October, the rates of Covid infection in Appleton, in the Fox Cities, in Wisconsin overall, skyrocketed. This latest spike in the numbers, significant by any measure, was the sole subject of the latest meeting of the diocesan Covid-19 Task Force. I’m not sure if the decisions made in that meeting will have been published by the time you’re reading this message, but if not then they very shortly will be.
The good news is that the Task Force did not recommend totally suspending all in-person worship until further notice. The not-bad-but-perhaps-not-wonderful news is that the Task Force did recommend, and the bishop has now directed, that in-person worship services be restricted to no more than four people in the building at one time (including priest & servers), masked and spaced at least six feet apart. These stricter regulations are temporary measures, but they will remain in place until further notice from the bishop.
What that means for us … is a bit up in the air at the moment. We do not, at present, have the capability to live stream from our worship space a Communion service that involves more than one person. One priest, one lector/intercessor, and one server leaves room for only one participant in a Communion service that’s restricted to four people, total. Given that we cannot at the moment broadcast such a service, I imagine some folks might feel there wouldn’t be much point in even holding that service at all. If so few people could actually participate, and nobody else could see it, what’s the point?
On the other hand, it has been weighing heavily on my heart and my soul since the shutdown in March that, for spiritual and theological and pastoral reasons, we should be saying more Masses during a time of great plague, not fewer. That even if nobody’s there to see such Masses, they still ought to be prayed and celebrated on behalf of—and for the spiritual benefit of—the whole parish, our whole community, our state, our nation, and our world. After all, if we really believe what we claim to believe, theologically, about what happens in the Eucharist, then isn’t it our bounden duty as faithful followers and disciples of Jesus Christ to celebrate and enact his life, death, and resurrection, until his coming again?
All of which is to say, the announcement I made in the last newsletter must now be modified somewhat in light of the recent surge in Covid cases—and we know from watching this same thing happen in other states that a surge in Covid deaths will inevitably follow—and that our exact plans for how we will move forward with in-person worship are today a bit more up-in-the-air than they were two weeks ago. I will continue to be conversing with our wardens and vestry, and together we will shape our plans both to conform to diocesan policy and to meet the needs of this parish.
In the meantime, I really would love to hear directly from you all. Let me know your thoughts, hopes, fears, and concerns regarding worshipping together in-person and about celebrating Communion whilst managing the very present risks of Covid-19. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. And thank you all for your continued grace, devotion, faithfulness, and commitment to this blessed parish of All Saints. Even in the midst of crisis, it is an absolute blessing to get to be part of your church and share this journey (however difficult this present stretch of road may be) with you all.
My dear friends in Christ,
There is an old joke about a supposedly ancient curse, which says, “May you live in interesting times.” The joke is that it doesn’t really sound all that bad, the prospect of living in interesting times. It sounds, in fact, rather interesting. At least, until one remembers that the most interesting, the most gripping, the most riveting times to read about in history books are times that were full of great strife, upheaval, chaos, conflict, even violence—all the things that also make for interesting and exciting movies and television shows.
That’s just it, though. The exciting events and situations that make all those stories from history or Hollywood really interesting … those are generally not the sorts of experiences that any sane person would ever want actually to live through in real life.
My friends, it would appear that we are, right now, living in interesting times.
I won’t rehearse and rehash the details of the violence and chaos that has been recently and still is being experienced by our neighbors in Kenosha. By now, I’m sure we’ve all seen too many details, too many times. Our own Bishop Matt last Friday issued a powerful and uplifting pastoral letter to the diocese. I commend it to your reading and consideration. I cannot improve upon any of the things that +Matt has said so eloquently, speaking into this deeply troubling moment in our lives together.
I can say, though, with some confidence that the shock and horror of these particular incidents on our doorstep will begin to fade, sooner or later. The 24-hour news cycle will rush to latch onto the next shocking and horrifying headline, in the next town or city, and those of us who have the privilege of being able to do so will start to return to life as normal (“normal” itself, these days, being something of a different concept than it used to be).
But issues of race and racism, of police and policing, of deep, seemingly intractable divisions in our society—divisions that often render us incapable of agreeing upon even a shared set of facts, much less what to do about them—are not going to go away any time soon.
So what do we do? How do we find God in this? How do we find each other? How do we do any of that when we’ve been physically separated from each other, from our church building, from the worship that comforts and sustains us in deeply familiar ways, for half a year?
There are, of course, no simple or easy answers to any of those questions. I do invite us all, however, to borrow an idea from our Pentecostal cousins in the Christian faith: the idea of holy chaos.
Now, that’s a term that takes some unpacking. Let me begin by clarifying what I don’t mean by it. I don’t mean that the shooting of Jacob Blake was in any way, shape, or form a “holy” thing. I do not mean that a teenager’s choice to carry a rifle across state lines and to murder two protestors and wound a third was in any way, shape, or form “holy.” When I call chaos “holy,” I do not intend to imply that God wills the chaos or inflicts it upon us. As the saying goes, God is good—all the time! No, what I mean by “holy chaos” is that God finds ways to sanctify even the darkest, most evil events and acts and circumstances, turning them always to the greatest possible good and the highest possible purpose in the unfolding of God’s will in God’s creation.
This holy work that God constantly does throughout creation is most perfectly demonstrated and exemplified in the broken body of Jesus Christ on the cross, and by the empty tomb on the morning of the Resurrection. It was not God’s desire that Jesus suffer and die, but suffer and die for us Jesus did, and through his suffering and sacrifice God worked the miracle and the mystery of Salvation.
We should note that it took centuries for Christians to work out the meaning of everything that happened on that cross. That is not to say we should expect it to take centuries to find God in the midst of our present chaos. The earliest Christians recognized God’s presence in their midst, even in their experiences of persecution, violence, and death. What I’m saying, rather, is that we must be gentle with ourselves, and we must accept whatever grace we can offer each other, as we all struggle to make sense out of this moment in our shared history and to discern God’s will for us in the midst of chaos.
For grace abounds, and it will continue to abound. God is yet with us. That is the promise God made to us in Jesus Christ—that he will be with us, even to the end of the age. The age is not yet ended, though some days it may appear that we are at the end of all things. Let us lean on each other, carry each other, lift each other up. For whatever divisions may stand between us, we are united by something greater. We are all bound together by God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. Let us remember that, always, and be faithful to God and to each other. Amen.