Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christ Church: the wedding photographer's dream

As I write this column in my church office, I'm glancing outside at a bride and her bridesmaids, together with the groom and his groomsmen. They're shivering in the damp, gray cold of this fading year while a photographer takes pictures of them in the beautiful cloisters of Christ Episcopal Church.

And now, the wedding party has jumped back into their stretch limousine and sped away toward downtown. Perhaps the bride and groom are off to be married at a restaurant or other venue or, if they've already had the ceremony, to enjoy a lavish reception.

This young couple will begin the new year as husband and wife. They'll face the future with one another and their love. As they left the church, they were smiling, laughing, and full of excitement. I said a prayer for them, whoever they are, asking God to bless them.

And the next time I see a bride and groom having pictures taken in our cloisters, I'll leave my office and invite them to come to church on Sunday. Christ Episcopal Church is far more than a building and a lovely backdrop for wedding photos; we're also a lively community of faith.

May God bless you and your loved ones in 2010.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Is our good news really good?

Over early morning coffee the other day, a Christian friend and I were talking about evangelism.

The average Episcopalian shutters when the word evangelism comes up, as if he's just eaten a lemon, which is too bad, because it's a good, New Testament word. It sums up what was happening in the church of the apostles after Jesus' resurrection.

In its denotation, evangelism is sharing the good news of God's loving and saving presence among us in Jesus. Those first evangelists knew the risen Christ and his love, which changed their lives. Naturally, they wanted to share that life and love with others. As they did, the church grew and spread throughout the world.

And yet in its connotation, evangelism means a preacher standing on a street corner or in a studio in front of a TV camera, haranguing people about God, who'll hurl them into hell unless they repent.

My friend calls this "turn or burn" evangelism.

There's no good news in this message for me--nothing that would draw me to Christ if I didn't know him. Indeed, I'd flee from that preacher. I'd change the TV channel.

And that's exactly what many people are doing today and what they'll continue to do, unless we Christians understand what evangelism really is and how to practice it as part of our baptismal ministry.

At a conference last year, I heard the speaker talk about how the 23rd Psalm expressed the Good News of God's love in Jesus. He invited us to reflect on how the Lord had been our shepherd, how God had fed us and led us to water, how God had seen us through the valley of the shadow of the death.

When Christians know God's salvation directly in our lives--and I have known it again and again--then we know the Good News, and that's news worth sharing with others, because it's real and relevant to others who are seeking love, joy, hope, peace.

As the church moves from the Christmas celebration of Christ's birth, we Christians enter the season of Epiphany, which is that time of God's shining forth the light of his great love for all people in Jesus Christ.

I'm thinking about how I've met Christ's love in my life, how his light's saved me in my darkness, and I'm praying for opportunities to share this good news with others.

Not on a street corner or in front of a TV camera, but with someone over coffee or lunch or even in a column like this.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The imitation of Christ

The other night, my grand daughter June Elizabeth and her Grammy were going to make Christmas sugar cookies.

Penny pulled out the cutting board from the counter and placed June's little footstool in front of it so she could reach the surface.

"Ken," Penny said. "Come look."

June was standing standing on the footstool, making the sign of the cross, and babbling the words, "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

At the cutting board, two-year-old June was imitating me as I stand at the beautiful wooden altar at Christ Church, as I make the sign of the cross, and as I say those holy words that priests have said for ages as we celebrate Christ's offering of himself for the salvation of all.

"Perhaps we'll have another priest in the family," I said to Penny.

Children learn by imitating. June Elizabeth and her sister, Christa Marie, are learning about worship--and faith in Christ--by being part of this church. This is their family of faith.

They see what others do at church and elsewhere, how we're all trying to live the Jesus life, call it, and they imitate us in doing so.

That's how June and Christa are learning; it's how we all learn to follow Christ.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Real Deficit

Many church boards, including vestries of Episcopal churches, are approving budgets this month. And they're often doing so in the face of reduced giving because of the Great Recession.

Attend a church board meeting, and you're likely to hear a lot of anxiety being expressed.

Looking at deficits, many boards panic and start reducing or eliminating ministries--those programs that make God's love known to others. Boards start focusing on maintaining the institution at the expense of the church's mission, the only reason the church exists.

And when maintenance becomes the church's reason for being, that church begins to wither and die, like that fig tree in the gospels that does not bear fruit. Who wants to be part of a church that is retrenching--dying?

And God weeps.

Facing deficits, other church boards trust God to provide. These boards are grounded in the story of God's saving love--how God provided for the Jews in the wilderness during those 40 days; how God provided for those early Christians, giving them resources, including courage, to spread the Good News of God's savior Jesus to the whole world; and how God met the needs of that particular congregation throughout its history.

And those church boards act, approving budgets with deficits, sometimes without being sure how they'll fund all their ministries and pursue their vision of mission.

And God smiles.

This past week, my church's vestry met to approve the church's ministry budget for 2010. After much discussion, and a lot of anxiety, the vestry decided to approve a deficit budget.
This was the second time in as many years that we did so. And a few people expressed the fear that we were adopting a dangerous precedent. "When will it stop?" one person asked.

Last year, the vestry also approved a deficit budget, trusting that God would provide. And he did. We conserved money by being careful about our spending, while not neglecting our ministries or reducing staff; we saw a big increase in our non-pledge giving. And we anticipate ending 2009 with a budget surplus.

As I told the vestry this week, I believe that God will do for us in 2010 what he did for us this year: he will provide for us, abundantly. I trust God and his word.

In the gospels, Jesus promises that when we focus not on our fears, but on our faith in God and do the work of mission, expanding the Kingdom of God, God meets our needs.

When we take God at his word and act, as Jesus did, we demonstrate our trust in him and discover that he provides. We needn't worry about anything, because we're his beloved. Worry is for unbelievers, not for us.

Yes, church boards need to be concerned about budgets and deficits; we must be good stewards of God's gifts, making every dollar work fully in mission.

But the most important deficit about which church boards need to be concerned is a deficit in faith. That's the deficit that matters the most, because that's the only deficit that destroys the church.

And then God really weeps.

But with faith in God, who does the impossible, even raise Jesus from the dead, we can do the impossible. We can be the church: a faithful, not fearful, body of follower's doing the Lord's work.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The privilege of priesthood

I got a call last night that I was needed at the hospital ER. A woman was close to death. She and her family needed a priest. So, without hesitation, I went, praying for as I drove to the hospital. In the patient's room, her family was gathered around her bed, while nurses and other medical personnel tended to her. The woman's sister was stroking her arm and head and whispering comforting words to her, urging her to let go "and go toward the light." Her mother and father were with her, in tears of loving presence. Surely, this woman knew she was surrounded by love. I anointed her for healing. And God answered our prayers in the way that was best for her; he granted her that ultimate healing, which comes in death. The ER doctor, who was kind and gentle, said that she "had passed" and that the time had come to turn off the ventilator and let her go. And so the machine was shut off. Now, this woman is with God--no longer suffering, but alive as never before in our eternal spiritual family, the Communion of Saints. As I said my goodbyes to the family, a nurse came over to me, her arms out to me. And we hugged. She thank you. "Thank you for being here." Nothing like her response has ever happened to me before. It felt good--not just because of the hug, but good because I knew I was where God wanted me and doing what God called me to do, making his love known in a time of profound need. This was a holy moment. I am reminded what a privilege it is to be a priest and to share in times of great joy and great sadness with God's people.