Friday, September 30, 2016

by post

When was the last time that you went to the mailbox and found, slipped in between the bills, the circulars and catalogs, a personal letter… addressed to you… from an old friend, family member or classmate?  It is becoming, more and more, a rare occurrence.

The art of letter writing has been eclipsed by more immediate methods of communication; emailing, texting and the use of social media are the more common methods of making contact, today.

And still, who doesn’t love to sit down on the front step, tug at the corner of that hand-addressed envelope, unfold a sheet of paper and read, with warm curiosity, the message inside, written just for you?

This fall, a niece and a nephew of mine have started college.  One is at school in North Carolina, 979 miles away from her home in Maine, and the other is in the wilds of New York State, 5 1/2 hours from his home in Connecticut.  My niece and nephew are smart, hard-working, lovely kids.  I remember my own early days at college, feeling a little untethered and longing for the familiar.   My college days took place long before email (I took a manual typewriter to college with me in the pre-PC days) and in order to be in touch with my family I had to wait in line on Sunday nights to use the pay phone in the closet on the third floor of my dorm.  I saved up quarters all week to feed into the telephone so that I could talk, briefly, with my mom, brothers and sister.   My mother wrote to me every day.  Every day.  I would make my way across the quad, cut between a few faculty houses on a well-worn shortcut and arrive at the Post Office, hoping to see that shadow of an envelope leaning, diagonally, in P.O. Box 747.  I was rarely disappointed.  My mom wrote about the daily goings-on at home, her committee meetings at church, the gardening that my father was up to in the back yard, my brothers’ and sister’s adventures and… everything… and nothing, in general.   I have decided to write to my niece and nephew every Monday this year, as a spiritual practice and discipline.  While they are enjoying school and seem to be doing just fine, I want them to know that they are connected, solidly and deeply, to their big family.  And I have it in my head that a slim envelope containing a few words about my travels around Central PA every week and silly things like what I’ve been cooking in my kitchen or where Glenn and I have been hiking, might serve as an icon of our love and support for them.

In the Episcopal tradition, we have a custom of writing Ember Day letters. Those who are postulants and candidates in the ordination process are required to write to their bishop on a quarterly basis reflecting on their academic, spiritual and personal growth and, generally, to just check in.  I love to receive these letters.  I receive about six of them each quarter and work to respond to each one with the same faithfulness and care that the seminarian has given to the process of this correspondence.

I remember when I was first in the ordination process as a postulant and was instructed to write Ember Day letters.  I couldn’t wait.  I had a romantic image of sitting down at my desk in a softly lit room with a sheet of ivory colored stationery and a smooth gliding fountain pen, ready to wax on, eloquently, to my bishop about the joys of formation and the wonders of seminary.  It wasn’t long before I realized that it was more likely that I would be struggling to find time to write a missive that would do justice to the intellectual, spiritual and social upheaval in my life.  I tried putting into words about what it was like to have started seminary at age 42,  and finding myself enrolled in a school more than an hour away to which I drove in my mommy-van every morning after dropping my children off at their own schools.  I don’t know what my bishop made of my ember day letters that were usually late and generally sported a few coffee stains and that sat, sometimes, for days in the bottom of my backpack before I could locate a stamp to affix to the envelope-  but he was kind.

For those uninitiated about the idea of Ember Days, here’s some information from that great internet source of some-times credible information, Wickipedia.  This info actually looks pretty credible, so I include it here:

The term Ember days refers to three days set apart for fasting, abstinence, and prayer during each of the four seasons of the year. The purpose of their introduction was to thank God for the gifts of nature, to teach men to make use of them in moderation, and to assist the needy.
Possibly occasioned by the agricultural feasts of ancient Rome, they came to be observed by Christians for the sanctification of the different seasons of the year. James G. Sabak argues that the Embertide vigils were "...not based on imitating agrarian models of pre-Christian Roman practices, but rather on an eschatological rendering of the year punctuated by the solstices and equinoxes, and thus underscores the eschatological significance of all liturgical vigils in the city of Rome."

As the Ember Days came to be associated with great feast days, they later lost their connection to agriculture and came to be regarded solely as days of penitence and prayer.  It is only the Michaelmas Embertide, which falls around the autumn harvest, that retains any connection to the original purpose.

The Ember Weeks, the weeks in which the Ember Days occur, are these weeks:
                between the third and fourth Sundays of Advent (although the Common Worship lectionary of the Church of England places them in the week following the second Sunday in Advent);
                between the first and second Sundays of Lent;
                between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday; and the liturgical Third Week of September. According to an old way of counting, as first Sunday of a month (an information important to determine the appropriate Matins readings) was considered the Sunday proximate to, not on or after, the first of the month, so this yielded as Ember Week precisely the week containing the Wednesday after Holy Cross Day (September 14), and as Ember Days said Wednesday and the following Friday and Saturday.

The English name for these days, "Ember", derives from the Anglo-Saxon ymbren, a circuit or revolution (from ymb, around, and ryne, a course, running), clearly relating to the annual cycle of the year. The word occurs in such Anglo-Saxon compounds as ymbren-tid ("Embertide"), ymbren-wucan ("Ember weeks"), ymbren-fisstan ("Ember fasts"), ymbren-dagas ("Ember days").

And so, on this rainy Friday morning, in which I intend on answering the six Ember Day letters that I have received, I would invite you all to a bit of reflection on how it is with your soul.  Were you to pen a letter to a spiritual mentor or, as the Celts says,  to an “anam cara” or “soul friend,” what might you include?  How is it with your soul?

And maybe this blog entry will encourage you to take up pen and paper and craft a letter to an old friend, family member or someone whose heart would leap to see a hand addressed envelope leaning sideways in their mailbox.  What do you think?

Friday, September 23, 2016

a week in Detroit

The Wedding Dance  Pieter Breugel the Elder circa 1566 Detroit Institute of the Arts

One week.
Seven days.
One hundred sixty-eight hours.

When we are on vacation- sipping cold drinks under a beach umbrella; sleeping under the stars; exploring new cities, museums, restaurants; hiking new trails- the time seems to fly. It is over as soon as it has begun.

When we are away- engaged in the work that we have gathered to do, but missing the work that and people that we left at home- it can seem like a long, long time.

I do admit to being somewhat of a homebody.  I like to sleep in my own bed, am fairly picky about the quality of my morning coffee, and figuring out what clothes to take on a trip is an exhausting enterprise that makes me want to stay home in my gym shorts.   I love the rhythm of my work, as fast-paced as it can be, and the connections that I make week-in-and-week-out with lay leaders, clergy, civic leaders, ecumenical partners, and parishes is fulfilling and exciting.

So it is hard to leave.  If just for a week.

But so good.

In this past week, about 125 bishops of the Episcopal Church  (representing 109 dioceses -99 dioceses in the US and 10 in other countries) gathered in Detroit for the fall meeting of the House of Bishops.  The House of Bishops meets twice a year. In the fall, the meeting is located in one of our dioceses that has been selected with some intentionality; the impulse to gather in Detroit this fall had to do with the re-birth of that city and the recent water crisis in nearby Flint.  I like that the site for this meeting was chosen with an eye to how we, as a Church, might lend support and join in celebrating the good things that are happening in and around Detroit.  The spring meeting is usually held at Camp Allen (TX) or Kanuga (NC).

The agenda this time was a mix of business, public witness and education, worship, committee reports, challenging discussions about culture and change, the election of a Bishop Suffragan for Federal Ministries (a process completed, canonically, by the House of Bishops), and updates from associated Episcopal agencies, like the Pension Group.  We had opportunities to engage in learning events discovering the city of Detroit and, besides the scheduled trips to Flint, the newly re-configured waterfront, four different churches on Sunday morning and the Charles Wright Museum of African-American history, some of us made pilgrimages to see the Detroit Lions at play and to the Detroit Institute of the Arts, a fantastic museum that is home to Diego Rivera’s amazing room-sized murals depicting the industry of “Motor City” and a cultural commentary, painted in the early 1930s. (I was one who made a side-trip to the museum).

About day 3, the “grippe” hit the House, sweeping rapidly through our ranks and causing the hotel kitchen and gift shop to sell out of ginger ale, soup, saltines and Gatorade.  It was estimated that around 80 of us were affected by this illness.

But our spirits ran high and it was heartening to receive inquiries about each other’s health and to see the Body, taking care of each other.

In fact.  In fact, while the business was good, the education enlightening, the witness inspiring and the worship reviving, it was just being with each other, sharing the stories of our work and life, that was the best.

And that’s no surprise-  we are a faith that values the Incarnation and that places a premium on relationship, each-to-each.  Our stories (the “delivery system” for our personal experience) is material that we use to build the relationships and, it is these relationships that strengthen us for the work ahead.

We spent a lot of time talking about the Jesus Movement.  The Jesus Movement has 3 new adjectives attached to it, by our Presiding Bishop: “loving, liberating and life-giving.”  We worked in our table groups to further define the movement and to indicate concrete action steps to further the movement and enhance our communication of the movement.  It was an exercise that gave us the freedom to talk more deeply and personally about the Jesus Movement but, in my mind, it was a little ironic:  If the Jesus Movement is a movement, then it is up to the people living it to identify it, not up to us, the hierarchical leaders of the Church to direct it.  That is not a criticism of our efforts to find facility for the elected leaders of the Church to talk about our work, but a reminder to myself that, really, it is the work of the shepherd to gently guide the sheep, not to pick them up and carry them to place that the shepherd wants them to go.

And so- the Jesus Movement.  What I’d like to support in our effort to engage the movement is not to institutionalize it, or to narrowly define it, but to find ways that we can all be engaged in living it and then pointing to it when we see it at work.  How is the life that you live loving and liberating?  How, as a Christian, do you express love for your neighbor?  How do you help to bring others to places of freedom- freedom from self-doubt, shame, despair, addictive and unhealthy behaviors- how do you work as Christ’s liberating hands in the world?  That’s part of our call.  How do you find new places to shine the light of God’s love, helping others to see that there is new life possible, in Christ.  That might not mean “bringing someone to Christ” (Lord knows, we have work to do amongst ourselves learning the skills of classic evangelism) but how can you be a life-giving agent for another?  I see this all the time:  in people who tutor children, feed the hungry, give a home to a refugee, clothe the naked, stand up for the oppressed and offer hope to the downtrodden.  We’re doing it.  That’s the Jesus Movement.  And, by our work, I am encouraged -in the strength of our people and God, moving in us…. in you.

I am sitting on the tarmac in Detroit. 
There’s so much to do when I get home:   a Convention gathering in a couple of weeks, new committees to build, a School to support, programs and retreats to plan, sermons to write, clergy transitions to effect, agendas to create and documents to sign.  None of it is more important than meeting with and caring for all of you.  Most of it has to do with meeting and caring for you.  All of it has to do with celebrating and sharing Jesus’ love.

It’s a direct, 84-minute flight.
It will be good to be home.

(this entry was written on Wednesday, 21 September, 2016 for posting on Friday, 23 September, 2016 in anticipation of  a very busy re-entry in Central PA) 

Friday, September 16, 2016

from the back of the room

Table 17.

We’re the last table on the left in the back of the giant “Venetian” ballroom in the Detroit Westin Cadillac Book hotel where the fall meeting of the House of Bishops is gathering.

No, it’s not ‘cause I’m new ( and, really, there are 4 bishops here younger than I am in “bishop-years” this time), and Lord knows, it’s not ‘cause my eyesight is so keen that I can see the screen from so far away... No, it’s just the luck of the draw.  Table 17 is in the back.

Our tables at the House of Bishops are assigned to us and the folks who plan our meetings do a wonderful job of mixing up the table populations among seniority, geography, gender and ethnicity.  I really love my table. I sit with Mark Bourlakas (SW VA), Andy Dietsche (NY), Barry Beisner (N CA), Oge Beauvoir (Haiti), George Counsell (NJ) and Michael Smith (ND).  For all of our differences, we do well navigating the work of the House.

This is my second HOB meeting.  The agenda at this meeting is a mix of receiving reports (Human Synergistics, a consulting firm from IL has issued a word on their study of the culture of the Episcopal Church Offices (815) in NYC and the PB has offered his plan in response to the report, striving to shift the culture  in the workplace to one that  is productive, dignified and puts Jesus at the center. )  We’re learning more about how to give the Jesus Movement some legs ( what does it really mean when we talk about this “movement?”) and later today we will hear from Senator John Danforth (also an Episcopal Priest) on “Our Ministry to America.”  Sen. Danforth’s  remarks will be followed by a panel discussion including Bishop Budde of Washington, DC.  So-  we’re not at a loss for things to talk about.

There are a few side trips planned- (I’m hoping to get to the Detriot Institute of Arts on the recommendation of several folks ‘back home) and we are making our way around the city enjoying the different restaurants that Detriot, in the middle of a renaissance, has to offer.  I also intend on making my way to the River Walk to see how it stacks up against our lovely Susquehanna...

The work here is important.  It draws us out of our parochial settings, increases our fellowship and collaboration among members in the House, raises up new ideas and hope and strengthens the work of the Episcopal Church as we build God’s Kingdom.

The Jesus Movement has a new tag line:  “loving, liberating, life-giving.”

I’ll be working at that for a few more days and bring it back to Central PA for us to work on together.

From Table 17-  where the air is clear and the people on the dais are tiny-


PS A thrill for me will be to act as celebrant at tomorrow’s Community Eucharist.  I was invited some weeks ago to preside among my brothers and sisters.  I am honored.

Friday, September 9, 2016

new oatmeal

My younger brother Courtney loves to cook as much as I do.
Raising three school-aged boys, his weekly shopping list looks a little bit different than mine -he buys gallons of milk and multiple loaves of bread every week, I buy a token quart of milk every other week just to have it on hand and our bread is best kept in the freezer because with just two of us it is a race against staleness when it comes to consuming a whole loaf-  but beyond the basics, my brother and I share a love of finding new recipes, trying new cooking techniques and introducing new things into our diet.

Last week, in the “back-to-school” and “hearty breakfast” category, Courtney told me about an new oatmeal recipe that he was going to try:  Mix up rolled oats, Greek yogurt, almond milk, a sliced banana, vanilla and some honey. Put it in a mason jar and refrigerate overnight. 

I sent him a text  in return and said, “Cool… I’m sure it tastes great the next day when you warm it up in the microwave.”

He replied, “It’s eaten cold.  Like a pudding.”


Cold oatmeal.

Never done that.

The next morning my brother sent me a text with a photo of the oatmeal and this message: “Definitely a stick-to-the-ribs-affair.  And 1 quart of oatmeal is a lot of oatmeal.”

His lukewarm review only egged me on to try this for myself.

And so last night, when I got home from The Rev.Canon Nelson Baliira’s Celebration of New Ministry, I got out the oatmeal. 

I didn’t have all of the same ingredients that my brother listed and so I substituted coconut sugar for the honey and regular milk (see? That  handy quart, waiting) for almond milk … stirred it all up and put it in the fridge.  It’s in there, now, waiting for me to try it out in a couple of hours when breakfast time rolls around.

Cold oatmeal.  It’s a little bit of a mind-bender for those of us who grew up with steaming bowls set before us, just waiting to be topped with a pat of butter, some brown sugar and a small pool of milk, maybe some raisins if we were lucky.

 Cold oatmeal.  It’s not what you’d expect.

Cold oatmeal.  My brother described it as “pudding.”
Who doesn’t like pudding?

At this year’s Convocation meetings, the Staff, Treasurer, Finance Committee and I have been touring around our diocese talking about some changes, some new initiatives and some new ideas that we will be introducing at our fall Convention.  Much of the program that we propose looks like business as usual:   continuing committees, the same rhythm to our diocesan calendar and year, opportunites for leadership in familiar capacities like Standing Committee, Disciplinary Board, the Council of Trustees.  But there are changes. And some new ideas.  New initiatives:

  • There is an increased focus on developing the Stevenson School for Ministry as a resource in our diocese, expanding opportunities for lay Christian formation as well as ordained ministry-

  • There is an initiative to offer more support and programming for Children, Youth and Young Adults-

  • There is an  invitation to increase the Council of Trustees in number in order to better support and develop ministries that people in our parishes are passionate about –

  • And there is a shift in the way that we understand the role of diocesan leadership- from being, formerly, the initiators of program and locus of information- to supporting, encouraging, and empowering the 13,000 Episcopalians in Central Pennsylvania to do God’s work.

This year our Convention will include legislative action to enact these changes (in the form of resolutions during our business session), some new activities to encourage trying-on something new (the Convention center includes a sports venue to encourage family participation; come climb the rock wall with the Bishop on Friday afternoon) and a mix of traditional worship services (Saturday’s Holy Eucharist) with some fresh ideas in liturgy (Friday night’s Compline service featuring our Youth and a story-telling circle.)

Some of it will be as comfortable as a bowl of warm oatmeal.
And some of it will encourage us to try-on some new ideas.  Like chilled oatmeal pudding.

I invite you, in these intervening weeks, as we prepare to gather, to pray about the things that you hold dear about our Church  and to give thanks to God.  And I also encourage you to wonder and pray about the places where you might imagine trying something new- for the sake of growth and health- with an enlivening spirit.

I’m looking forward to seeing you all in October in Lancaster.
And I’m looking forward to breakfast, just a short hour from now.