Cathedral of St. James South Bend Francis of Assisi Garrison Keillor Henri Nouwen Ignatius of Loyola Julian of Norwich Meister Eckhart St. Anne's Episcopal Church

The Episcopal Church Saved My Life, Mister

You’ve heard people say this: “Your book saved my life, Mister.” Garrison Keillor has written a great short story with the same name about a reader who meets the author of a life-saving (for him) book. Sometimes people’s lives are moved to change or transformation by a book, a film or other form of artistic expression. What is it about art that reaches down inside and mixes it up for us? I think it is because art speaks wordlessly to deeper things our hearts and minds recognize and to which they respond.

I ventured into the Episcopal Church with serious intent twenty-five years ago. Life had become a train-wreck for me, and only God could pull me through–at least that was my hope then. Good thing to hope in God at that time, because God acted. In the love I experienced from others, God touched me profoundly. When I felt most alone and unlovable God brought accepting, loving friends into my life and proved to me otherwise.

Earlier I mentioned art and its power to transform. When done well, liturgical worship becomes transformational art (this isn’t coming out right!), not JUST or ONLY art, for it is Good News–Gospel! But liturgical worship moved me profoundly those early days in my becoming Episcopalian; something in the way in which we worship speaks profoundly deep within me, and I sense and find God in liturgy in ways that I never experienced God before. I still do.

Looking back twenty-five years, not much in my life seemed headed in a positive direction nor did I feel much to live for. Things felt fatally bad for me then. I lost 15 lbs in two weeks. Slept most of the time. Cried way too much. The only thing that I felt I had going for me was that my mother needed me to drive her around–Dad had just died in January and she simply didn’t feel like driving anymore that winter and spring of 1984–and that I had started going to the Episcopal Church, St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, in Warsaw, Indiana. Through entering that community, God touched me in a new way. I had been a “Christian” my whole life, for as long as I could remember, but at St. Anne’s (and later at the Cathedral of St. James, in South Bend) the love of God touched me like God had never touched me before. I felt as if I had come back to life: resurrected, sort of.

For the past twenty-five years, half of my entire life up to now, I have been feeling pretty blessed beyond belief. I believe it comes from my desire to try to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. I have never done this perfectly, but feel I am getting more proficient at it, all these years later. I know this sounds weird, but I have discovered that He helps me with it. I get better at it when I ask Jesus for help with it. The same is true for all who aspire to be his disciple. When we ask, He helps us. Makes sense when you think about it; all good teachers do this kind if thing, help their students who ask for help.

I have found good teachers in the Episcopal Church, as well, and have read and learned from the lives of saints: Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, Ignatius of Loyola, Henri Nouwen, to name a few. The wisdom gained from these lives, these disciples of Jesus had never been tapped for me before, and I still drink deeply from them. Anglicanism has brought me a sense of swimming in the river of Church history–of salvation history–like no other church had before. From these currents I find much to strengthen and inform my own walk in Christ. Oh, not to mention the heavy emphasis on scripture reading in our worship; never before have I spent as much time in the Gospels as I have since joining the Episcopal Church. And guess what? I know Jesus better! There is actually more to the New Testament than the writings of Paul. Go figure.

So this Easter, I want to say thank you again to God for bringing me this way, screaming and kicking and fighting–and being a knucklehead at times. Thanks for your patience, God. I give thanks because since you haven’t given up on me, it makes it easier for me to not give up on myself. We human beings are so quick to chuck ourselves under the bus with criticism, yet God’s love abides. I’m getting that finally, and applying it toward myself. Less of knucklehead on that one these days.

And joy! The Episcopal Church is the first church in which I ever experienced holy joy in being at church and worshiping with others. Joy in fellowship, joy at coffee hour. Or maybe that’s just me, and the way it hits me being in this freedom that God’s grace provides and gives. Holy freedom. What a life transforming concept. Like… resurrection. And art. May my life be holy art, Lord, crafted in your image with thanksgiving for this freedom.

Alleluia! Christ is risen, indeed! And so am I, Alleluia!


Celebration of A New Ministry in Oro Valley

Part of the joy in our journey in life is sharing it with friends, colleagues and acquaintances. My journey has been especially blessed by people with whom I enjoyed time together in seminary. Rev. Megan Traquair is one of those friends for me; she and her husband, Philip, were part of our seminary community, and they reached out to welcome Beth to The Block in the summer of 1990 when we were just married.

Megan was recently called to be Vicar at Church of the Apostles in Oro Valley, Arizona, in Northern Pima County, just north of Tucson. She asked me to preach at her installation, and I was pleased to do so. Here is the sermon, for your reflection, as well.

Celebration of New Ministry ~ 10:00 AM ~ 9 November 2008
The Rev. Megan Traquair and Church of the Apostles, Oro Valley, AZ
Joshua 1:7-9; Psalm 147; Ephesians 4:7, 11-16; Luke 10:1-2

Few occasions in the life of a church congregation bring as much joy, happiness, and good will for the future as the Celebration of a New Ministry brings to a priest and her people. It is a time of rejoicing, feasting and good feelings. A time to celebrate the ministry we share with other Christians—other Episcopalians—in harmony with our bishop. A time to rise to the occasion and do the work that God has called us to do through Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified and Risen One. Today is no exception, as we celebrate the presence of new clergy leadership working with committed and enthusiastic lay leadership here at Church of the Apostles.

What makes the tone of today’s service unique in my experience, however, is the careful attention given to making this celebration of a new ministry a true liturgical recognition and celebration of the mutual nature of ministry between a priest and a people for the work of spreading of the kingdom in a community. I understood this clearly the moment I opened the envelope and read the invitation for today’s ceremony; it said:

“The Reverend Megan Traquair and the members of the Episcopal Church of the Apostles invite you to join us as we celebrate our new ministry.”

We also heard this emphasis in the presentation, in the litany, and we’ll hear it again in the covenant and exchange of the symbols of ministry, coming up in a few minutes. What all these things say loud and clear to us is that what is happening here today is not just about the coming of a new priest to a congregation, but rather it is about the work of a priest and a people in a new ministry together.

I believe this emphasis is significant, because it places the mission of the church as the priority for effective ministry by all the members in this place, both clergy and lay. And in a mission-minded diocese, I believe it thrills your bishop to oversee a Celebration of a New Ministry when it involves a truly mission-minded congregation, particularly a congregation situated in one of the fastest growing areas long term in the State of Arizona—the Sun-corridor—in one of the fastest growing states in America.

Today celebrates a new opportunity to engage the spiritual hunger of your neighbors in Oro Valley, in Marana, North Tucson and in Northern Pima County; a new opportunity to bring hope and transformation to lives shattered by fear and worry in the face of economic and future uncertainty. For the church, indeed, has hope to offer those who live without hope, or live with no sense of purpose or expectation of the miraculous in their lives.

In the reading from the Gospel according to Luke, we gain a sense of the urgency of mission and ministry of the church; this urgency comes from the fact that Jesus himself sees that the harvest is ready, but the laborers are few. Therefore, we must continue to pray for more laborers to send out to help gather the harvest.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, each one of us is just such a laborer, one being sent into the harvest, as Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians: “each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” By virtue of our baptism, each one of us has received spiritual gifts that build up the body of Christ. Every one of us possesses a unique combination of gifts that can be offered for the work of ministry in so many places, not only around the church, but more importantly in the community, in face to face encounters with those in need of spiritual food and drink, people who seek to be connected with something, or someone, greater than themselves.

Often, that need—to be connected with something, or someone, greater than one’s self—is filled with the false gods of material accumulation and earthly power, or by the devils of distraction thrown up by the sports and entertainment industry. What we have to offer is new life in Jesus Christ, through repentance, reconciliation and renewed daily living through the power of hope found in Christ’s resurrection.

Transitions times in parish ministry such as these are wonderful times to reflect on the past, on where we’ve been in our journey, and more importantly, to discern what God is calling us to be now in a new ministry together. Your web site tells me that Church of the Apostles started in 1992 by worshiping in people’s homes. Then you moved to another facility a few miles from here, until the parking lot overflowed; then you moved to Wilson School on La Cholla Blvd. (In fact, I heard the girl’s locker room there functioned as the sacristy, and the linens were often rinsed out in the sinks.)

Then in 2003, you moved to this location, by virtue of a generous gift of land, and built this lovely worship space and these fine facilities. What a great story! What rapid growth! And here you are today, celebrating that legacy and history as you look to future growth and ministry.

I first met your vicar when she was in seminary, a year ahead of me. She was from Santa Barbara, CA, and I have a brother who lived there (and still does), and that tiny connection led to a friendship. I got married after my first year in seminary, and Megan and Philip helped warmly welcome my wife Beth to what we called “the Block.” Not a cellblock, mind you, but that’s what they called the location of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, for most of it was situated on one large block of the Northwestern University campus in Evanston, IL.

And to think that Church of the Apostles was beginning as a congregation when Megan was starting her priestly ministry. She first served in the Diocese of Los Angeles, and then in Northern Indiana, where I originally came from, and from which I was sponsored to seminary. When I would go home to see my mother and brothers, either from Dallas or from South Carolina where we had lived since graduating seminary, I would hear about Megan and her effective ministry at Gethsemane in Marion, Indiana, a town not at all far from my home town of Winona Lake.

My brother and his children knew her through the diocesan summer camp program. And last October, when I was called to come to Arizona and serve on the bishop’s staff, it heartened me to know that I had a friend already in the diocese, because Megan was serving in Tucson. And now, your two stories have come together, and have become part of the on-going story of new life Jesus Christ for each of you. From time to time, it is important for all of us to reflect on how God has brought us together in this place, because those details tell the story of how following Jesus has transformed our lives, and lives of others we have known and loved.

You see, going into the harvest, working the harvest as Jesus calls it can often be as simple as telling someone else how knowing Jesus has changed your life, how belonging to this community of faith shapes who you are in the world. Evangelism is truly that easy; it has been likened to one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.

Then next thing we need to reflect on regularly is “Who is my neighbor?” This question can truly challenge us, because our neighbor is not only those who are present and accounted for, or those who look like us, talk like us, dress like us and who votes the way we do. Our neighbor is also those not here today; especially those not here today.

Our neighbor might speak Spanish as their primary language, she might be of a different ethnic heritage, he might be a single parent, or recently widowed our neighbor is twenty or thirty something, often single, and trying hard to figure it out; our neighbor is unemployed or underemployed. Our neighbor may look affluent but is deeply in debt or in financial crisis; our neighbor needs a friend, some one to listen, someone to accept them for who they are.

We need to look around us with new eyes and begin to see our neighbors again; we need to befriend them, pray for them, and bring them here, just to check it out.

My favorite evangelistic line in the Bible is Andrew’s line in the Gospel of John. He goes to report to Nathaniel that he has found someone who just might be the One they are waiting for: the One Moses and the prophets wrote about: Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth. Nathaniel balks, and asks his immortal question: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? (By the way, this was a very offensive retort; tantamount to saying, “Can anything good come out of Guadalajara?”)

And Andrew smiles and replies, “Come and see.” That’s the line: Come and see. You say it with a gesture like this: come and see (motion with hand toward yourself, as in ‘come along’) That’s really all you have to do—make the invitation. Come and see. It works better if you then ask, “And what time would you like me to pick you up; for the early service or the late service?” This week, I challenge you to go invite one of your newly discovered neighbors to come and see, come and see the life changing community here at Church of the Apostles. You will see that “Come and see” can truly be that easy.

The last thing we need to reflect upon regularly is “What is God calling us to be?” This is a question that I know your Bishop’s Committee has reflected upon (in more words or less), but it is an important question—for from it we discern our vision for mission, our reason for opening the doors at all. What is God calling us to be?

This is an important question because clearly God has something big in mind for Church of the Apostles, Oro Valley. I recently came across an amazing quote in my strategic planning work:

“The formula is something like this: The Right Task, plus The Right People, plus the Right Setting, equals Unprecedented Actions. That sounds a lot like applied common sense. Why [then], in most institutions, is it not commonly applied?” (Marvin Weisbord)

Today marks the coming together of the essential elements of that formula: The Right Task, plus The Right People, plus the Right Setting. The next step is to realize what comes after the equals sign: Unprecedented Actions. That is the part left up to you, that is the part you and your new vicar have pledged to and in a few moments will covenant with the bishop about.

The Right Task, plus The Right People, plus the Right Setting, equals Unprecedented Actions.

But notice also what is NOT put on you: the results of your actions. That is because we cannot control the results. Ultimately, only God can bring forth the results, but this does not discourage us by any means. It actually frees us and allows us to focus, focus, focus on the one thing that we CAN control: our evangelistic efforts, our apostolic actions. It is like planting seeds for a later harvest; we can plant the seeds, water and fertilize, but only God can produce the harvest.

Brothers and sisters, we ALL are in the planting and watering side of growing and spreading God’s kingdom. But God is interested in seeing true growth take place, and God assures us that if we are faithful in our efforts, in our actions, in our sowing and casting seeds for growing the kingdom, God will produce that growth. God will honor that effort and those actions; God will provide us with growth.

And lives will be changed; people will be transformed; hope will reign in place of fear, courage will cancel out doubt, and joy will eliminate sorrow in the lives of those so touched, and in our own lives as well. For what does Joshua say but “Be strong and courageous, do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

May God grant you all the grace and power to be faithful in your efforts and actions, in reaching out to your neighbor, and in bringing in a full harvest, from this day forward. Amen.

Bishop Kirk Smith Episcopal Diocese of Arizona Ignatius of Loyola Jesuit Order National Cathedral

What’s a Canon to the Ordinary? One Year Later.

It strikes me as almost inconceivable that one year has passed since my leaving Greenville, South Carolina, and St. James Episcopal Church, to join the staff of Bishop Kirk Smith in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona, but today marks that anniversary. My, that year seems to have gone quickly, and in many respects it has. But on the other hand, it has been a slow, deliberate process of settling into this ministry, learning the dynamics of diocesan leadership and how to serve as the bishop’s chief clergy assistant. What a rewarding year and life changing, growing experience.

In rereading my blog posts from last year, writing about when I started, I noticed that I failed to mention that I actually started this new ministry last year by flying to Washington, D.C. and attending the Gathering of Leaders conference (GOL) at National Cathedral. What a surreal experience that was—not the National Cathedral; I’ve been there before and love the opportunity to go any time that I can, and I wholeheartedly commend it to you.

What struck me as surreal was that on Sunday, September 30, 2007, I woke up as rector of St. James Episcopal Church, in Greenville, SC, and the next morning, I was no longer that priest, that rector that I had been for a little over seven years. No, on Monday morning, October 1, 2007, I woke up as the bishop’s Canon to the Ordinary in Arizona, would be representing him and the people of Arizona at this conference, and I wasn’t yet living there, and had only been there twice before, both times during the July and August just past.

It was all a little overwhelming, to be honest—surreal, in one sense of the word, “the irrational juxtaposition of images.” The image I had of myself didn’t match up with the image I had stepped into; I felt a little awkward at the GOL, because I didn’t feel like I knew what the Canon to the Ordinary did well enough to represent Arizona properly.

It didn’t matter; people understood I was brand new, and I relaxed a great deal. Then, on October 6, I arrived in Phoenix, and began my work in the diocese proper.

Now, one year later, I am more relaxed about this role and ministry position, and I have to tell you, I am having a wonderful time doing what I do and with those whom I work on a daily basis. Bishop Smith has assembled a top-flight staff of talented people committed to his vision for the diocese, and together, under his leadership, with the clergy and people of the Diocese of Arizona and with God’s help, we are working hard to bring it about, to spread the kingdom of God in this state.

For this, I give thanks to God. I thank God for the spiritual growth that has taken place in me; for the spiritual growth, maturity, and excited energy taking place in congregations with whom I have had the privilege of working; for bringing my family safely here and having them grow into a new life in the valley of the sun. I thank God for the amazing clergy that I have met in congregations located around the diocese, for the talented and dedicated lay leadership that serve in our churches, and for the many, many committed youth and young adults who want to grow in their relationship with Jesus and want to share his transforming love with others.

Much work remains to be done; I go to bed each night knowing that work will be there for me the next day, but I can leave it alone as needed for the sake of my family and my own health. I have personal goals of improved physical health and conditioning, and for spiritual growth and disciplines, goals toward which I take steps everyday and week—well, most days of the week.

Yet being here has shaped me, has challenged me, and has brought about growth in me in ways unexpected, and in ways I have been praying for over months, if not years. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve here, and for the blessings that have come our way—even amidst the challenges of resettling into a community where we knew no one. Sometimes, it is very lonely still.

Thank you, Bishop Smith for calling me; thank you to Chuck who asked me to consider this ministry; thank you God for asking more of me and my life, for that is really all I want to do—to serve as You would have me serve.

There is a prayer from the Ignation tradition (Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Order) that has been a part of my personal prayers ever since I became an Episcopalian. It goes like this:

Wherever your glory be best served, whenever, however, there, then and in that state let me your servant be; only hide not from me your Divine Love. Help me to trust you to the uttermost. Teach me to serve you as you deserve; to give, and not to count the cost; to fight, and not to heed the wounds; to toil, and not to look for rest; to labor, and not ask for any reward save that of knowing I am doing your will. Amen.

In a nutshell, that’s what my walk with God is about for me. It’s about being that available to God, being responsive to God’s call, being responsible with my tasks given or assigned to me. It’s about knowing that I am doing God’s will. That’s the number one goal I ever hope to accomplish with my life.

How can we know that conclusively? I don’t know how you can know that, it might be different ways we know this from person to person. But one rule of thumb for me is asking: Do I have joy in what I am doing, even in the most difficult and menial tasks? Not joy as in “ha ha!” but the joy that comes in understanding that “this responsibility is yours to do; therefore, do it to the best of your ability.” When we rise to that task, and do it, there is joy there—at least for me there is. Some people might term it as job satisfaction, but I call it joy because I sense that I am doing this for God, to further God’s mission. What better use of my life could there be, really?

So if it means I drive eight hours round trip for an important two hour meeting with a congregation’s leadership in the middle, I have joy if that meeting goes well, and the parish and clergy find it was worth their time to attend and receive something of value from it. Yes, I did spend eight hours in the car, but look what they got in return—real benefit, a renewed purpose or sense of mission, the sense that the diocese knows and cares that they are there and supports them in their work and ministry. Great! Happy to do it to further the missio Dei—the mission of God—for this is what our bishop is about. Extending the mission of God in Arizona. And if that brings benefit to the Episcopal Church in Arizona, well that’s a nice benefit, as well.

It is this striving to do God’s mission first and foremost that we must attend to, while serving our Episcopalians, along with the unchurched who need to know of God’s love and care for them as much as any of us—and in these rough economic times, probably even more so.

It has been a great year here in Arizona, and I look forward to the personal growth and ministry opportunities that await me in the coming year. And actually, I feel that—as “Big Al” said in Scent Of A Woman—“I’m just getting warmed up!”


A Grand Worship Experience

Trinity Sunday, 2008 — For the past seven years, as rector of St. James Episcopal Church, Greenville, South Carolina, one of the annual delights of that ministry was to be a guest preacher for one Sunday each summer at Faith Memorial Chapel in Cedar Mountain, North Carolina. Begun as a chapel of ease in the Western North Carolina Piedmont range for Greenville residents (and other folks from South Carolina) wanting to escape the hot, humid summers at their mountain house, Faith Memorial Chapel has a glorious seventy-year history of summer services. Every Sunday brings a different preacher, usually from a different Christian denomination, to the pulpit there to conduct worship. The chapel is an outdoor, open-sided facility
The founder, the Rev. Dr. Alexander Mitchell, was the founding rector of St. James, and one time rector of Christ Church, Greenville, as well. So the rectors of those parishes have an annual guest preaching “slot” so to speak of preaching at Cedar Mountain. For those seven years I served as rector, it seems our guest preaching time fell on Trinity Sunday, or somewhere near that date. And since so many of our parish went up the mountain to worship on that day, the choir went, as well, with our parish musician, and provided lovely music for the occasion. And afterwards, we went to a nearby park area for a picnic; or we stayed right there at the chapel for our picnic.
It turns out that this year, once again on Trinity Sunday, I was the guest preacher at an outdoor worship location. Only this time, it wasn’t the mountains of North Carolina.
St. John’s, in Williams, Arizona, is one of our diocesan joint Episcopal-Lutheran congregations, and I was invited by their priest, Rev. Ann Johnson, to be the guest preacher for their service this Trinity Sunday at Grand Canyon National Park. The worship space is a stone altar located about ten or twelve feet from the edge of South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and it is just in front of this altar that I stood to preach last Sunday. Incidentally, there is not rail or wall to protect you there; just your own common sense.
Of course, the major advantage of being in a location like the Grand Canyon last Sunday is that I could not think of a more lovely setting in which to hear those lessons: the Genesis reading on creation, and Psalm 8: “O Lord, our Governor; how exalted is our name in all the earth!” And if my words weren’t doing it for the listener, all they had to do was look up behind me!
About twenty people from St. John’s, Williams, made the pilgrimage, including Deacon David Dent. (Beth and Jonathan also came with me—a reminder of our trip here during our Southwestern vacation last summer.) More interestingly, however, was the fact that the canyon trail at that point went right through the worship area. So throughout the service we had a lot of “visitors” who would walk by as the lessons were being read, as I was preaching, or during the celebration of the Eucharist. Several visitors stopped to watch, with one couple even starting to participate—one of whom came forward to receive at communion.
Afterwards, we drove out of the park to the Senior Warden’s home in nearby Valle for a picnic. Reflecting on the day, it seemed like old times at Cedar Mountain, but in a new location: and my what a “Grand” worship experience for all who attended!


Olive Lillian Dombek, RIP

It’s hard to believe that nearly two months have passed already since the home-going of my mother. At eighty-nine years of age, it was something she had been looking forward to for some time, if not her whole life.

We had three services for her on January 14. The first was held at Winona Lake Grace Brethren Church, on Kings Highway in Winona Lake, IN, the church our parents came to help establish in 1948. The co-pastors, Bruce Barlow and Tom Miller allowed me the privilege to preach at Mom’s funeral there, and I thank them for that privilege. After that service, some women of the church fixed a very fine lunch which was served to our family up in the lounge.

Following lunch my brothers and I and our families piled into two vehicles for the three-hour drive to Covington, OH, where we had a second service for Mom. Some family members from Ohio all gathered there, including my adopted daughter Angie and her boy-friend, Rick, a few of our cousins, and my Aunt Maxine. This service was held at the United Church of Christ on Pearl Street in Covington, with the assistance of Pastor Howard Storm. Howard and his wife, Marcia, joined me and a small group of Episcopalians in a pre-trip visit to Central Ecuador back in August 2007. What a joy to have them with us in Quito, and what a friend and colleague he has become to me. He did a fine job with Mom’s Ohio service, including Holy Communion. We then moved onto the cemetery for the graveside service.

By the time we got to the graveside in nearby Pleasant Hill, OH, it was about 4:20 PM, overcast skies hid the sun—well on its way to setting at that point—and it was cold, with a steady wind out of the west. The temperature was in the low 20’s and the wind made it feel even colder. Some snow and ice still painted the frozen ground. As we climbed out of my brother Jim’s van, I said, “I’m going to read the burial office (from the Episcopal BCP), with as much speed as dignity will allow.” It was cold, and standing still at the graveside, you got colder still. I read quickly yet reverently, we prayed, we wept, we hugged our cousins, my aunt and daughter ‘goodbye’ and we got back into our warm vehicles and left for another three hour ride back to Warsaw, IN, stopping for dinner in Fort Wayne, where it began to snow lightly but steadily.

I had a very strange feeling, leaving Mom behind, so to speak. We went there with her body in a lovely wooden coffin, and when all was said that needed saying, we left her behind, in the freezing weather, to be laid into the cold earth, next to Dad and her second son, Johnny. Intellectually, I know that really wasn’t my mother, her spirit, her life, her personality—it was only her lifeless body. But in that body Mom lived her life, loved her family and friends, carried out her life of faith and action in the world—that body begat my body, my life. In a way, I felt I left behind a part of me, my life-giver, my mother, now buried in the earth. Mother Earth; it holds a new feeling for me now.

I’m sure I will think of my mother often and for the rest of my life. All that was ever broken between us matters not now; all that was wonderful between us remains and grows deeper and more meaningful as I dwell on it. For the wake and for use right before the funeral, my brother Dan did a very cool thing. He made a DVD out of over 100 pictures, which played like a Ken Burns slide show over the song “I Can Only Imagine,” by MercyMe. I have watched this marvelous and holy retrospective over a dozen times, if not more. One of the things I have come to realize through viewing this ‘video’ of sorts is that my mother was once a young, pretty, and robust woman. She was tall, she held her family close, and really knew how to handle us boys and her husband, my father. She had a great sense of humor, and lived life joyfully with family and her friends. She loved her grandchildren and the children of our friends. She was a wonderful grandmother, as well as mother. And I miss her.

In many ways, Mom’s life wasn’t so easy, but her faith in God made life good for her—“it’s in God’s hands” was a regular phrase of hers. She really believed that. She trusted God in her life, with her life, with her family, and even though she buried two of her sons before she herself died, she kept trusting and believing and clinging to God in all the times of her life.

I saw Mom alive for the last time in June 2007. Once when we visited her she wondered aloud as to why God didn’t just take her home; she had lived her long life and was ready for her eternal life in God’s presence. I assured her that God obviously wasn’t finished with her yet, that she still had some work to do for God. I don’t think she liked hearing that. I think she felt her increasing weakness and dependence was keeping her from doing things. It may have been difficult for her to accept those creeping limitations.

But I think that in those final years, Mom taught us how to give and care selflessly (though I certainly didn’t live close enough to reap the majority of those lessons), and she learned for herself what it meant to give others the chance to serve God by serving her. At times in our lives, we help others to grow in their faith and action by being a willing recipient of someone’s kindness, compassion and care for her. It can take a lot out of us to learn to give, but it takes even more effort sometimes—after a life of giving—to learn to receive from others. I think that’s what God had in mind, so that Mom could be as opened up as possible by the time her body gave out, so that she could receive heaven and life eternal even more in that space when Jesus came for her early in the morning, January 10.

May we learn to give in our lives and with our lives as generously she did and even more, and after a lifetime of giving, be as willing to receive from others and be opened up by it in preparation for our day of resurrection, as well.

As for you, Mom, I’ll see you again.


OK, Here’s What’s Been Going On…

It’s been a LONG TIME since I’ve posted on this blog—I know, I know, I know. And some of you have let me know about it. Thanks. Suffice it to say that I have been tied up with finding the right middle school and high school special ed. program for Jonathan’s education, and then finding a home to purchase for those schools. What a task!
Well, it has taken the better part of the last month, but all that has happened—thanks be to God! So, that’s why I’ve been a little slack.
Even amidst all that crazy busyness here in Phoenix, I feel very blessed to have found the Middle school and High School, the teachers and house that I did find. And Beth has been taking care of selling the house in Greenville, and all that that entails. So today, while I am flying home for Thanksgiving weekend and to close on our house in Greenville and finally move Beth and Jonathan out here, I’m catching up on the blog by writing on the plane, in the airport—wherever—in the hopes that you’ll feel caught up and still a part of our call to follow God to this new place and ministry. I hope you like the updates!


An Historic Day

Last Saturday, The Rt. Rev. Kirk Stevan Smith, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona, instituted the first ever Lesser Feast of Endicott Peabody, Apostle to Arizona and Educator of Presidents. Peabody was born of blue blood stock in New England, and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, England. While there, apparently he felt a call to Holy Orders, and enrolled in the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, MA. After his first semester, Peabody responded to a call to assist in the start-up of a struggling church in the god-forsaken edge of the country: Tombstone, AZ. He left his comfortable life and environs, and headed west.
It was a long journey, and even longer when he got there. His diary and letters are filled with self-doubt, as well as his keen sense of God’s call for him to be there. He embraced Tombstone. Before he left at the end of six months time Peabody had raised up a congregation of 200 members, mainly by knocking on every door in Tombstone, introducing himself and explaining what he was up to, and then inviting that person to church on Sunday. He also started a men’s baseball team to play the other mining village teams in the area; this, no doubt, made him respectable among the men of Tombstone and endearing to the women. He also raised the money among the residents of the town to build a wood-frame Episcopal church that stands to this day: St. Paul’s, named by Peabody after his favorite apostle, and in many respects, his inspiration for his life and ministry.
Peabody—or “Cotti,” as his family called him—was athletic, handsome, and probably spoke with somewhat of a British accent. In many respects, he was a cross-cultural missionary. He exemplified a brand of “muscular Christianity” popular at that time in America. (My hometown of Winona Lake, IN, nineteenth-century baseball-player-turned-evangelist, Billy Sunday, probably served as another example of a member of the school of “muscular Christianity.”) At any rate Peabody’s success for God came from his fostering relationships with the people of Tombstone, including its famous sheriff, Wyatt Earp, whose family donated the funds for the altar rail at St. Paul’s.
After leaving St. Paul’s, Peabody returned to the east coast, finished seminary, and decided to start a school in 1884 in Groton, Massachusetts for young men of families of means, to instill in them the virtues of character and faith. He was founding Headmaster and chaplain to the Groton School for its first 56 years. His most famous student was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who called Peabody the most influential person in his life, after his parents. Peabody also founded the Brooks school in Andover, named after the famous preacher and Episcopal bishop, Philips Brooks, who wrote the Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
The inaugural Feast of Endicott Peabody was celebrated at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Phoenix, at 11:00 AM, Saturday, November 17, the day that Peabody died; this year also marks the 150th anniversary of the year of his birth. There to help celebrate this historic day was the great-grandson of Endicott Peabody, Endicott “Cotti” Peabody, and great-great-grandson, Endicott “Kit” Peabody. Great-grandson Cotti spoke fondly of his ancestor, whom he never met, but whose life played heavily in his own formation as a man and Christian—how could it not? It probably doesn’t surprise you to learn that both Cotti and Kit are graduates of the Groton School, and delightful men, very proud of their forebear and his impact on Arizona’s Episcopal heritage and history, and in their own lives.
Bishop Smith preached a wonderful sermon on the life of Peabody, quoting extensively from his letters and diary (the Bishop has a doctorate in Medieval Church history, and his notable skills of scholarship easily made it interesting and engaging). Great-grandson Cotti took some time as well to share some wonderful stories of his great-grandfather from the Peabody family’s recollections and legacy.
One of my favorite stories involved the first-time visit by great-grand Cotti to Tombstone and St. Paul’s Church about ten years ago. He said he was absolutely overcome with awe upon entering the church, seeing with his own eyes the wonderful (and little!) church that seemed so large in the stories of his childhood. As he stood there on that Sunday morning before the service began, the priest in charge of the parish came up and seeing that he was a visitor the clergyman introduced himself. Cotti, who was speechless to this point, and whose face showed obvious emotion at being in this holy place of childhood legacy, composed himself and said in return, “Hello, I’m Endicott Peabody,” to which the priest replied, “The hell you are!” Eventually the clergyman believed him, and welcomed him to his forebear’s church.
In addition to the members of the Peabody family present there also was a former Headmaster of Groton School now living in Fort Worth, TX, and the current Dean of Students at Groton School, plus Arizona friends of the family and other friends. The Peabody men were wonderful, gracious and so appreciative as well as completely awed at the idea that the church wishes now to honor his ancestor, with the ultimate goal of having Endicott Peabody added to the Lesser Feast and Fasts of the whole Episcopal Church, thereby becoming the first American Episcopal educator in our church’s calendar of saints.
Having been involved with Episcopal Schools in one way or another for the first fourteen and a half of my almost fifteen years of ordained ministry, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole affair, its celebratory feel, and its sincere gratitude for the life, witness and ministry of this remarkable man. If you don’t know about Endicott Peabody, I hope that this brief article will inspire you to go deeper and learn more, for his method and courage still serves as an example of relational ministry and its effectiveness for us all.


Another Day in Paradise

Back in the 80’s, ex-Genesis member Phil Collins wrote and recorded hit song after hit song. One song that he recorded dealt with a very real, but prior to that, untouched topic and cultural issue in popular music—homelessness. The song tells the story of a bag lady and a passerby that he observes in a city. The chorus goes something like this:
“Oh, think twice, for it’s another day for you, for you and me in paradise;” something to that effect.
Collins puts a human face and feelings to homelessness. He implies—I think—that homelessness is everyone’s issue, and that we personally need to do something about it, because if we did, not only would it have a tremendous impact on the problem, but we might be changed, as well.
In one of my earlier posts on this blog, I mentioned the Arizona Canal system, and how nice it is to walk along the banks of the canal early in the morning to get some exercise, fresh air, and time alone with my thoughts and intercessory prayers.
One October Saturday morning I came across one of my new neighbors in Phoenix I hadn’t met before. Even though it was late morning, probably after 10:00, this neighbor was still asleep on the ground amidst a large, dirty comforter that covered him completely. A shopping cart sat nearby that held his other belongings—stuff that looked like trash to me. His shoes sat nearby, and his socks were carefully tucked in the open tops, yet hanging out somewhat to air out. I walked on by, not knowing what to do, feeling powerless and thinking about the priest in the story of the Good Samaritan.
Over the next few weeks I continued to see the same comforter and shopping cart, but in different places: once, amid some trees and benches near the canal bridge in a little park by the walking and horseback underpass; another time in a culvert between the paved path and the gravel path along the edge of the canal; I always saw him somewhere along the canal. It must offer some safety and relative freedom from harassment by law enforcement—though, to be honest, I have no idea how the police feel about the presence of homeless persons in north central Phoenix.
I have seen other “shopping cart people,” as well. Usually, one can see them in and around the parking lot of the shopping center where I go to rent videos and take my dry cleaning. Actually, there’s a couple who are shopping cart people, a man and a woman. They have a shopping cart filled to overflowing with plastic bags, broken down cardboard boxes and what seems like dozen of empty plastic gallon milk jugs tied to this rolling pile of plastic and personal treasure. Perhaps they are just really vigilant recyclers, but I have seen them early in the morning and late at night rolling the cart down streets and sidewalks, at hours of the day that most people are just waking up or going to bed. I think I’ve seen sleeping bags rolled up on their cart, but can’t specifically remember. Phoenix has very nice weather; it’s not too cold at night or in the morning—yet. Over the past week or so it has been getting cooler in the morning. It will get cold at night here; the desert climate can get very cold when the sun goes down.
I found that seeing homeless people in the part of Phoenix in which I presently live is a real awakening that not everything is perfect here (or elsewhere), even in communities where as much blight and the blighted are engineered or designed out as possible. Things are tough right now in the country, no matter where you live. I read on BBC’s news blog last week (can’t find a link—sorry!) that over the past seven years, real wages for the top five percent of wage earners in the U.S. have gone up a little over 50%, whereas real wages for the bottom five percent of wage earners have actually fallen over three percent the past seven years (clearly meant to mark the era of the GW Bush presidency). If that’s true, that isn’t right.
Forty-five percent of the world’s population lives on less than $1 per day; over half of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. The average US citizen lives on $78 a day, taking in the costs of education, housing, food, insurance, clothing, transportation.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) ask of us to contribute .07% of our income to eradicate extreme poverty in this world, among seven other worthy goals, such as reducing child mortality, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women and other far reaching like-minded goals for the better of our neighbors on this planet. That’s less than one penny per dollar of income; we North Americans spend more money on gourmet coffee in six months than it would cost us to contribute to the MDG’s. I spend more on books, and it causes me to pause now before buying books with one-click shopping. Do I really need another book, or could someone use food, fresh water, pre-natal vitamins, or a basic education more?
I haven’t figured out what to do about the homeless guy who sleeps along the canals in Phoenix, but I can help others like him by contributing to an organization dedicated to funding the MGD’s, such the Episcopal Relief and Development fund. And while I know that in some way I am doing my part, I also know that I still need to meet Jesus face to face in the homeless here in Phoenix, because Jesus in that person has something to teach me.

Canon to the Ordinary Episcopal Diocese of Arizona servant leadership servant ministry

What’s a Canon to the Ordinary?

About the new position: Canon to the Ordinary for the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. The “ordinary” of a diocese is the diocesan bishop; Canon to the Ordinary is “Episco-speak” for “assistant to the bishop.” As assistant to the bishop, the canon offers counsel and support, and performs other duties assigned by the bishop, giving particular focus to the work of congregational development, church planting support, stewardship, conflict management, leadership development, and administration of the Alleluia Fund (a church planting and growth initiative). The Canon also works in conjunction with the bishop to oversee clergy deployment.

Being called to prayerfully consider and be interviewed for this new ministry was as much a surprise for me as actually being called to do it by Bishop Kirk Smith and accepting that call. It came completely out of the blue, and sometimes that’s not so bad. I liken it to a burning bush kind of experience.

In some ways, one could say I was a little like Moses, tending the sheep there in Midian—er, Greenville—minding my own business, when something off to the side captured my attention, and I was invited to turn aside and see what it was. Could it be the voice of God calling? Let me draw closer and listen more intently.

How does one discern the voice of God calling? Good question; difficult for some, especially the inexperienced—like me. You’ll be relieved to know that I do not actually hear God’s voice; God has not chosen to speak audibly to me (yet), but I have no doubt that internally I have heard a voice that is not mine move me, heighten my intuition, and bring thoughts forward that did not originate within me.

It almost feels like a dialogue at times. It certainly felt like dialogue when I discerned the call to enter the process towards ordination, and as I was discerning to “pop the question” to the woman who is now my wife of seventeen years. But what about now?

In accepting the call to leave a parish where for seven years the community and I have grown together and shaped one another into a vibrant, energetic yet prayerful, powerful worshiping community and clergy leader: did I hear the voice of God call me away from that? Well, yes and no, not exactly that. Let me try to explain.

For several years now I have been hearing God woo me to a new place of growth in my Christian faith and expression, to learn and embrace the concept of servant leadership, the ministry of the towel, not the scepter.If you recall in John’s Gospel, on the night before he died for us Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and calls us to “wash one another’s feet. For I have set an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13: 14b-15 NRSV).

I actually don’t believe that Jesus wants us to literally go around and wash one another’s feet (unless that, in fact, needs doing!) but that Jesus does wish for us to serve one another in their moment of need, even in doing the most menial of tasks. Foot-washing was a menial task in Jesus’ day. Servant leadership begins with Jesus, and he is our example, our guide into the way of truly serving the “Other.”

But the idea of servant leadership as a way of life and ministry was first introduced to me several years ago (I don’t remember which year) when the late Bishop Bennett Sims came to Camp Gravatt, near Aiken, SC, to lead our clergy pre-Lenten retreat in the Diocese of Upper South Carolina. That particular retreat was a watershed moment for me, for in two and a half days, speaking off the top of his head, using virtually no notes, this gentle, Godly man explained for me quite plainly what it meant to be a follower of Jesus by being a servant leader, just as Jesus was a servant leader.

Bishop Sims calmly introduced and encouraged me in the direction—the heading, if you will—that will shape the remainder of my ministry in the church; that it’s not about me, and my cause, my agenda, but about Jesus, to further his cause, his agenda. There is a collect for mission (a prayer) in the Book of Common Prayer services of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer that succinctly describes the agenda that Jesus has and our role in it:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on
the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within
the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit
that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those
who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for
the honor of your Name. Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer is full of gems like these, prayers that reset our compass, that sharpen our focus, that remind us of why we are here, and what this life is all about. And prayers that help deepen our relationship with God. To me, this prayer describes servant ministry for we who follow Jesus. It doesn’t get much simpler than that, though it is not simplistic. It is a call to extend the love of God on offer in Jesus to all who need it–our love, not scolding, judging, berating, guilt-tripping others, but loving them into the kingdom.

So, this past June and July, when prayerfully discerning this opportunity to speak with Bishop Smith about the Canon to the Ordinary position on his staff that he needed to fill, I didn’t feel God was calling me to leave parish ministry in order to be a “bishop’s assistant”; rather, I heard God calling me at this time in my life to a new expression of servant ministry and servant leadership.

This call that I have accepted isn’t about me, about having a funky new title, or hanging out with the bishop on a daily basis (though he is fun to hang out with). It’s still all about Jesus, and furthering his cause from this new position of serving a bishop and clergy and the people of a diocese, and furthering Jesus’ agenda as a servant leader in a new place.

For me, accepting this call was embracing God’s higher call to a lower place, the place of a servant, and all the risk and sacrifice that that demands. And it’s still about parish ministry, but this time I’m serving many parishes and helping them improve their servant ministry and reach their goals for growing and sharing God’s love in Christ Jesus.

More than once since accepting this call and resigning as rector of St. James Episcopal Church, in Greenville, SC—a community of pilgrims dedicated to following and serving Jesus that will always remain beloved in my heart—the story of Abram has come to mind. Abram was called to leave his people, his family and friends, his familiar and comfortable setting, and go to a place that God would show him. Later, the author of Hebrews recalls it rather tongue in cheek: “and he set out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8b).

In many ways, we who dare to follow Jesus do not know where we are going when accepting a new call. Clergy accept calls on the faith that God is guiding us and God knows what God is doing (and what we’ll be doing). We also know and understand that if we focus on our ultimate destination—to know God and make known God’s love on offer in Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified and Risen One—then it really doesn’t matter what we find when we get there, wherever it is God that has called us. God is there and has something for us to do. As servants of Jesus, we discern needs and respond to them; we do what we see needing to be done to further the Gospel. We love, we pray, we give away God’s great love in word and sacrament, inviting others to join us on this pilgrimage that we call “life.”

So, having moved to the desert Southwest, it is my privilege and joy to take “the lowest place,” to truly learn what it means to set aside temptations to power and prestige, and daily dedicate myself to serving all others, prayerfully growing into the image and likeness of Jesus, with God’s help.

I don’t know about you, but that’s what I call living fully. And that’s what I’m here to do.

Murphy Bridle Path Phoenix

Greetings from the Valley of the Sun

The weather has been nothing but wonderful since my arrival in Phoenix on Saturday, October 6. Of course, that’s because it’s October; two months ago, I probably wouldn’t have been saying that. But actually, two months ago when Beth, Jonathan and I came to Phoenix for my second set of interviews for this new ministry position, it was hotter in Greenville, South Carolina, where we were living at the time, than it was in Phoenix—an anomaly in the typical weather patterns of the desert Southwest for August, for sure.

I am renting the two rooms on the top floor of a condo in North Central Phoenix, on Central in the North Village area, not far from Sunnyslope High School. It’s an old neighborhood, and all the land used to be farm homesteads. But you know how cities spread; Phoenix is no exception.

One of the cool features of this neighborhood runs north-south along the eastern edge of Central Avenue. It is a one hundred-year-old bridle path that serves as a walking/jogging trail, and sometimes still has horses on it. Made from a combination of sand and gravel and dirt—no concrete or asphalt—it’s suitable for horse hooves. Now, I haven’t personally seen a horse on the trail during any of my morning or afternoon walks, but I have seen (and had to avoid stepping in) evidence of horses being on the Murphy Bridle Path—if you get my meaning. It’s a great area in which to walk, and lots of people use the path.

At the top end of the path, near Dunlap Street, it crosses the Arizona canal in Phoenix, and there are walking and bike paths along each side of it, which make for a nice, quieter walk. I’m not sure yet where the water comes from; I’ll find out and let you know. The city also provides underpasses for bike riders and walkers and horseback riders to walk or ride under the busy mile streets (major thoroughfares), thus avoiding having to cross dangerously busy roads during the morning and afternoon commuting hours. Very nice. Kind of like a River Walk, without the shopping mall along its banks.

I am driving a “company” provided car—a Toyota Prius, one of the very first models of this hybrid car ever sold in California where it came from four years ago. It was a next-door neighbor Prius to a Prius owned by Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston—which tells you how old it actually is, if you know their history. If not, you can look their history up.

The Prius sips gas like an unemployed English major nurses a beer. Very stingy. It runs very quiet, so quiet that at times I think the motor has stopped running—which, in fact, it has. That’s when the batteries take over. One thing I learned about the Prius this week while driving around town is that when the motor shuts off at intersections, the compressor for the AC goes off, as well. So the cool air immediately begins to warm up a bit and it gets a little humid. When the motor restarts, the compressor kicks back on. Now, does the extra work it has to do to cool down and dehumidify the car off-set the fuel savings gained when the motor/compressor kicked off? Is the whole thing a phony, designed to line the pockets of Toyota with your “green” while convincing you that you’re being environmentally friendly, the other “green,” while driving a Prius? Who knows? But still, it’s stingy on gas. So it must actually work, to some degree.

Phoenix is nice, growing, and very different from the Piedmont region of South Carolina. The desert is its own kind of beautiful, and it takes time to appreciate that. Lots of people want to be here. I’m glad that I am here, and can’t wait for the rest of the family to join me, as well.