Monday, December 7, 2015

Seeking Safety

Where do we look for safety? 

Everywhere we look we find reasons to be afraid. Terrorist attacks in Paris and in California. Mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia. In fact, there have been more than 350 shootings this year where four or more people were killed or injured. And that doesn’t even touch the more run-of-the-mill violence that fills the nightly news. 

It is perfectly understandable that we would seek safety in a frightening world. It is perfectly understandable that we are afraid of those we perceive as being dangerous. It is very human that those dangerous others are always the people we do not understand, the people not like us — refugees, Muslims, immigrants, people of color, the mentally ill, people on the fringes of society, people whose actions and reactions we cannot predict.

But when we give in to this very human reaction, we seek safety in the wrong places. We seek safety in rejection and hatred. We seek safety by turning our backs on the suffering of the world, by demanding that those others be kept at arms length. But it is never enough, because safety cannot be found in fear and rejection.  We build ever higher walls, but we soon discover that we have walled our fear in with us.

“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it,” Jesus tells the disciples. It’s a strange thing, but safety cannot be found by seeking safety. Indeed, we fail again and again because we are seeking an assurance of security that this world can never give. In our broken world, there is no where we can go where sin and death cannot touch us.

So what are we to do? There is only one place we can turn: to the One who has overcome sin and death. In dying and rising again to new life, our Savior demonstrated once and for all that God’s power is greater even than death. “In this we are conquerers and more than conquerers through him who loved us,” St. Paul writes. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,  nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

It’s not that followers of Jesus do not have to face death. It’s that we do not have to be afraid of it. 

And that’s where we find our safety. Not in systems or plans or walls intended to keep death at bay, but by our willingness to walk through death, if necessary, trusting in the love of God to save us.

And it’s a strange thing, but when we seek safety not in the promise that death cannot touch us, but in the Gospel’s assurance that death cannot overcome us, we are filled with life and love. We discover we now possess abundant life, eternal life. We discover that even though we die, we live in Christ; that even though we lose our life, we have found it. 

People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken,” Jesus warned the disciples in our lectionary reading on the first Sunday of Advent. “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

So walk in love and courage. Welcome the stranger, heal the broken, and set the prisoner free. Do not be afraid. For we have been given tidings of great joy, which shall be for all people.  Our safety is to be found in our Lord Jesus Christ, a safety that can never be taken away.  “My peace I give to you,” Jesus tells the disciples on the night before he is crucified. “My peace I leave with you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Our safety is found in the Lord. 


Rev. Suzanne Wade

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Dear Friends in Christ,

I have taken up the practice of starting each day with the daily devotional from The Upper Room.   Here is this morning's post that graced my email inbox along with many messages about our participation in the wonderful Westford Community Garden.  We are sowing and reaping a lot more than vegetables!  We are building community, developing relationships with our neighbors, and fulfilling God's call to invest in those relationships as we put our faith in action and share the Good News.  

Happy gardening everyone!

Jody Clark
Senior Warden

You reap whatever you sow.
- Galatians 6:7 (NRSV)

Today's Devotional
Getting acquainted with neighbors can be an adventure. Across the street lives a lovely 91-year-old woman, a widow, who is almost totally blind. The first time we talked, she ended our visit saying, “God bless you.” My ears perked up. Later, she told me she was a Christian but she didn’t go to church because of her vision impairment. She is also unsteady on her feet from sciatica and another problem with walking, so being in crowds is dangerous for her. I offered to visit her once a week and read to her from the Bible. I wanted to help fill the void left by her inability to attend church.

I’m not sure now whether God opened the door so that I could minister to her or so that she could minister to me. As I read scripture to her, her positive attitude and love of the Lord become an inspiration to me. When she found out that I write Christian literature, she asked me to read some to her. She always responds with encouragement or a challenge.

God took a situation I thought was for my neighbor’s good and brought joy to both her and me. How blessed we are that God makes all things work together for good for those who love the Lord! (See Rom. 8:28.)
Shirley McCoy (Florida, USA)

Thought for the Day:
God calls us to invest in relationships with our neighbors.

Prayer: Thank you, dear God, for the many ways you bring peace, joy, and a sense of purpose to our lives. Amen.

Prayer Focus: MY NEIGHBORS

The scripture quotation, unless otherwise indicated, is from the NEW REVISED STANDARD VERSION of the Bible, copyright © 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

"I want to be a sheep."

Today was a festive day at St. Mark's.  We celebrated the Feast of St. Mark with a wonderful Italian-themed potluck lunch.  We blessed the new doors to our sanctuary.  We welcomed a larger than usual congregation of friends, neighbors and extended family.  We welcomed our rector, Suzanne, back from her week away on vacation.  All in all, it was a wonderful way to mark 50 years of St. Mark's ministry in Westford.  

Today is also the Fourth Sunday of Easter, traditionally recognized as Good Shepherd Sunday.  The readings for today spoke about Jesus as our Good Shepherd.  We read the 23rd psalm, sang a hymn based on that psalm, and our Gospel reading from John 10:11-18 was as follows:

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes[a] it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

We were treated to the guest preaching of one of our parishioners, Nancy MacDonald, who spoke about the role of the Good Shepherd in her life.  She described the reasons she follows Jesus, our Shepherd.  I, too, want to be a sheep in God's marvelous flock. With Nancy's permission, her sermon is printed here.  Thank you, Nancy, for your inspiring testimony. 

~ Humbly and faithfully yours, Jody Clark, Senior Warden

Nancy's Good Shepherd Sermon:

Jesus proclaimed, “I am the Good Shepherd."  Good, meaning pure, of good character, blameless.

Why did Jesus use a shepherd to illustrate who he was?  In Psalm 80: God was called the shepherd of Israel.  In the 23rd Psalm King David said the Lord is my shepherd. The Prophet Ezekiel, in predicting the coming of the Messiah, called him a shepherd. (Ezekiel 34:23)  So, Jesus stood before the religious leaders of Israel proclaiming very clearly “I am the Good Shepherd”. He used a term or profession that was readily understood by the people at that time.  In Bible times, at the end of the day the sheep were gathered from the fields and put into pens or folds made of stone or rocks. The walls could be quite tall (up to 10 ft) to deter predators such as wild animals or men (robbers and thieves) from climbing over the walls to kill or steal the sheep.  The only correct way to get into the fold was to go through a very narrow gate. The shepherd would sleep across this gate at night. He was willing to die for his flock, but the hired hands who aided in the herding of the sheep they were not willing to die. They worked for money to live on that’s all. So, in the morning, the shepherds would go to the gate one by one calling their sheep. They had a certain call or whistle that only their sheep knew.  This is still true in modern sheep farming. 

There was a story about a man who lived in Australia who was accused of stealing a sheep from another farmer.  So, the case was taken to court. It was presented in front of the judge.  He heard both sides and then; he decided to settle the case in a very non-traditional way.  He had the plaintiff go out of the courtroom, re-enter and call the sheep. He called to the sheep but sheep did not come. He acted afraid and nervous.   The second man entered (the defendant) and he called to the sheep.  The sheep ran to him gleefully. Case dismissed.    

The shepherd was to guide his flock through many obstacles. When crossing a body of water, the shepherd would have his obedient well seasoned sheep cross first. He would just have to raise his crook and across they would go leading the others.  The challenging sheep who really didn’t want to cross he would gently nudge along with his crook.  The last group was the young lambs who got separated from their mothers. He would have to go looking for them for hours. He would carry them back to the flock. Something interesting would happen. The sheep would circle around the shepherd holding the lost sheep and they would bleat loudly as if to say “thank you”.   

I have heard many sermons on “The Good Shepherd”. Many of the sermons illustrated how dumb sheep are.  It irritated me because I knew I was one of those sheep. But as I researched what a shepherd actually does. Here are more examples: He protects the sheep vigilantly, heals their wounds by rubbing olive oil on them and my friend Dorothy told me in Bible Study last Friday night that the shepherds would put the olive oil on the sheep because they would have these flies or gnats that would get into their eyes and mouth, so the shepherd would put the oil around their nostrils and head to protect them from getting to them (King David may have alluded to this in the 23rd Psalm: He anointed my head with oil), a shepherd will never give up looking for his sheep, he shears, feeds and waters the sheep,  he keeps watch over them day and night.  I imagine living in that herd, you didn’t have to worry about being fed, protected, healed and that shepherd loved you so much he was willing to die for you. I don’t know about you but I want to be a sheep. I want to follow the Good Shepherd and I have been following the Good Shepherd for a long time…sometimes I’m that little lost sheep He had to carry back, I’ve been the challenging sheep that needed poking and prodding, I hope I’m moving into that seasoned sheep where the Good Shepherd has just raise His crook and I’ll go…

I know my Shepherd’s call.  For me, it’s a reoccurring, persistent thought that just won’t leave me. The thought or action usually has something to do with serving or helping others.  I remember one call while I was living in Texas.  I was a preschool teacher at our church Living Word.  They started a preschool and they couldn’t find a teacher for the 2 year-old class. Guess who volunteered. It was fun. I had a great teaching partner her name was Nancy, too. But at that same time, I got another call for a really great volunteer job. I heard about the Therapeutic Riding Ranch in Justin. They work with children with special needs. I was so excited. I got to work with children and horses! My two favorite things to do!  So, I set-up my orientation visit and because of my experience with horses I could start that day after orientation. I had a map quest print out (text only) but as soon as I turned off the major highway on to the secondary roads I became very lost.  I almost turned around but something rose up inside of me and I pulled into a gas station. No, I didn’t ask directions. I prayed to The Good Shepherd for help.  Lord, I am so lost. I really want to go to this ranch but the evil one is trying to discourage me.  Please guide me to the ranch, I’m listening. I’m sure I said a quick amen.  I had lost it a little, so I wiped the tears from my eyes pulled myself together. I had a strong urge to go right, out of the driveway I went and turned right. Keep driving (I heard another thought). I drove for another half hour until I saw a sign for Justin. I road three more miles until I saw the Therapeutic Riding Ranch sign on the right, I turned right and then another right into the ranch. Thank you, Lord for guiding me safely to the ranch. I had the best day ever. I missed a little of the orientation but that’s okay.  I knew what I was doing. I groomed, saddled, and bridled the horse for my student. I learned about the mounting block and how the student was to mount the horse. I loved my little 3 year old student.  I lead her around the ring about 3 times when she started to get a little bored so I started singing to her some of our preschool songs. This little light of mine, Barney songs; we were having a great time.  At the end, I helped my student dismount back at the block and hugged her good-bye. 

After I finished grooming my horse, I went to the main barn to sign-out. I saw a man sitting in a wheelchair. He had Cerebral Palsy. He was a mess. His seat belt wasn’t holding him in his chair well. He was having trouble controlling his movements but he waved me over to him. There were some women standing around him. They introduced me to Jim. He was the founding Director of the Therapeutic Riding Ranch and he competed in Horse Shows. They told me you cannot tell Jim has special needs when he rides a horse because something happens when he mounts the horse. The horse senses his special needs and accommodates for him.  Jim started to speak to me. I had to listen very carefully but I understood what he said. “I like that you sing to your student, please come back.”  “Oh yes, I will. I enjoyed working with my student.” I don’t know what possessed me to ask but I wanted to know how Jim got to work every day?  The ladies laughed and pointed to a car that was parked very crookedly outside the barn. That’s Jim’s car. He has hand controls and drives in every day. I was amazed.  I decided right then and there that day, that I would never say I couldn’t do something or it’s too hard.  I can do all things through Jesus Christ who strengthens me.  I will live this Bible verse. If Jim can overcome all of his difficulties and challenges to start a riding ranch that will help hundreds of children then what’s my excuse.  I was completely humbled.  The Good Shepherd had led me to a very special place where I learn a very valuable lesson. My faith was growing in leaps and bounds (no pun intended).

I want to be a sheep. I feel great comfort in knowing my Shepherd is watching over me day and night. He is providing me with everything I need to live a purposeful and abundant life.  Sometimes I feel His love so immensely it overwhelms me. My prayer for you is this that you will hear the Good Shepherd’s call. When the call comes you will go and have a great experience. Your faith will grow! I pray you’ll feel the Good Shepherd’s abiding and abundant love now and forever.


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Maundy Thursday Devotional : "Take up a Towel"

This morning, I am sharing the Devotional posted by The Upper Room.  As we make our way through the events of Jesus' final days on earth, toward the cross, and then to his glorious resurrection, let us become the hands and feet of Christ in the world.  Let us develop a servant's heart.  Let us "take up a towel," and get to work.
How will you serve others?
~ Jody

Jesus said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.”
- John 13:14 (NIV)

Today's Devotional
Recently, I realized that what keeps me spiritually grounded is serving other people. When I face tough times in my own life or when I have more questions than answers, I want to “take up a towel” as Jesus demonstrated in John 13. Jesus was facing crucifixion. But instead of taking up arms or calling 12 legions of angels (see Matt. 26:53), Jesus wrapped a towel around his waist and started washing his disciples’ feet.
When we face trials, it’s easy to focus on only our own problems. While we wait on the Lord to answer our prayers or while we search for answers, we often become impatient and ask God when, why, or how? Instead, we could simply search for opportunities to serve and bless others. When we take on a “towel mentality” and humble ourselves, we become the hands and feet of Christ.
Brad Richardson (Georgia, USA)

Thought for the Day:
Thought for the Day: Whom can I serve as Christ’s hands and feet today?

Prayer: Dear God, develop in us a servant’s heart. Help us to be sensitive to the many ways we can serve others at home, work, school, and church. Amen.

Prayer Focus: For A Humble Attitude
The scripture quotation, unless otherwise indicated, is from the NEW REVISED STANDARD VERSION of the Bible, copyright © 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Copyright ©2015 by The Upper Room, a ministry of GBOD. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce or redistribute without written permission from the publisher.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Being Present

Once a month, St. Mark’s holds a worship service at a local memory-care assisted living center. We bring communion and sing hymns, say the Lord’s Prayer and the Collect for Purity. Each month, I invite people from St. Mark’s to join us: usually there are four or five people from St. Mark’s there. When people consider coming for the first time, the question they ask me is usually, “Do you need me, or do you have enough people?” My answer is, “We have enough people, and we need you.”

Running the worship doesn’t really take that many people. I do a nursing home worship by myself every month near my home in Mansfield, so I know it’s certainly possible to do a worship service with just one or two people. But our worship service at Bridges isn’t simply about saying a few prayers and handing out the Bread and Wine. It’s a ministry of presence. It’s a ministry of being the Body of Christ, of all parts needing one another.

Our presence sitting among the residents for weekday worship reminds us that the people that gather at St. Mark’s on Sunday morning aren’t the entire Church: our prayers and our worship connect us to those who cannot be with us as well, whether they are prevented from attending by illness or work or even a soccer game. Our prayers are lifted up for the whole world, those who are able to join us on Sunday morning, and those who can’t. In prayer, we are joined together despite time and distance; we are even joined to those who will never worship with us on Sunday, but who are in desperate need of God’s love.

Our presence sitting alongside the residents reminds them that they are not alone. They are still members of the Body of Christ, not merely people for whom things are done, but people who do things -- people who pray, who worship, who lift up those in need and share God’s love. Even now that they are no longer able to volunteer to run the Easter potluck or the stewardship campaign, they remain equal members of the Church, because no member of the Body can say to another, “I don’t need you.” We sit alongside one another, because before God all are equally welcome and loved. We receive communion together, because we are all equally in need of God’s grace and salvation.

In this busy and hectic world, where we all have to-do lists that stretch to the horizon, efficiency points us toward sending only as many people as might be required to lead the worship -- a priest or a lay eucharistic minister, perhaps. But while worship would be accomplished efficiently, our ministry would be diminished. Being present just for the sake of being present makes a difference -- for both us and our brothers and sisters in the assisted living center. Praying alongside one another reminds us all that we are One Body because we share the One Bread.

What do we accomplish? I don’t know that we accomplish a thing: indeed, some of the residents will probably not remember our visit past the evening meal. But we are present to one another, and we remember that Christ is present to us.

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This Cup is the new covenant is my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

Thanks be to God.

~ Suzanne

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Power of Prayer

I am sharing today's Devotional from The Upper Room.  The author, Monica Andermann, provides thoughts on prayer that reflect some of my own as I have been striving to be more intentional about praying daily during this Lent.  The form of the prayer is not what matters.  God knows our hopes, fears, and desires.  All we need to do is take a few minutes of each day to open our ears, our minds, and our hearts to God, and He will provide answers to our prayers.  

"Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. " Jeremiah 29: 12 (RSV)

            As a person who leans on the Lord daily, it has been my personal experience that no one particular style of prayer is superior or inferior to another. In the past, I have prayed the rosary and offered Novenas at the urging of Catholic friends and family with good result. People of many faiths sometimes utilize prayer beads. The important part of such a practice is that it promotes concentration, commitment, and focus to one’s time in prayer. Certainly, one would expect the more time spent in prayer, the better the result. It’s my opinion, though, that’s not necessarily true.
            In today’s devotion, I assert that even a sincere cry of “Lord, help me” is as effective as prayer on one’s knees in church. For me, this has and still continues to be true.
            Right now I have moved into my father’s home so I can act as his primary caregiver whiles he recovers from a lengthy illness. What was initially expected to be a temporary situation of a few weeks duration is now going into its ninth month. I am required to tackle the responsibilities of work, caring for my Dad and his home, and caring for my own home and family. Daily, I must make several decisions on how to prioritize and best handle my many tasks. Those are not always easy decisions and though I might like to, I can’t always sit down with my Bible or rosary beads and go into an in-depth meditation to find my answer. Sometimes a cry of, “God help me,” or “Lord, lead me” is all that time allows. Does God answer those prayers? Of course.
            While more time in communion with God does allow us to get closer to our Lord, God is not counting the hours and minutes we spend in prayer. We are not required to punch some type of cosmic time-clock until we accumulate enough prayer time to earn God’s response.  God knows our heart and God knows our need. Our Lord desires only that we turn sincerely toward him and ask with an earnest spirit open to receive his answer.
 Gracious, Loving Lord, Thank you for hearing my prayers. Amen.
- Monica Andermann

Thought for the Day:
Thought for the Day: God hears — and answers — our prayers.

Prayer: Dear Lord, how comforting it is to know that prayer, in any form, is powerful. Thank you for hearing the needs of our hearts. We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Prayer Focus: Those Who Have Given Up On Prayer

The scripture quotation, unless otherwise indicated, is from the NEW REVISED STANDARD VERSION of the Bible, copyright © 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2015 by The Upper Room, a ministry of GBOD. All rights reserved. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Blessing of Unanswered Prayers

"I asked for strength that I might achieve;
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy;
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I had asked for,
but everything that I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered;
I am, among all people, most richly blessed."

~Attributed to an unknown Confederate soldier

This was the benediction last night to conclude our weekly Lenten study of "Understanding Poverty." The lesson centered around Jesus' statement that "The poor will always be with you."  In the Gospels, Jesus tells this to His disciples after He has been annointed with expensive oil by an unnamed woman.  The disciples scold the woman, telling her that the oil could have been sold to provide money for the poor.  Jesus tells the disciples to leave the woman alone for she is paying Him homage just days before He will die on the Cross.  (Mark 14:3-9; Matthew 26:1-13; John 12:1-8)

Jesus, in fact, is referring to an Old Testament law stated in Deuteronomy that commands the remission of debts every seven years.(Deuteronomy 15:1-11)  This law of remission commands that you release your debts, giving generously and whole-heartedly.  "Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, 'Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.' " (Deuteronomy 15:11)  This is not an excuse to ignore the poor, but to open our hearts and help as we are able.

Sometimes, as individuals, we feel powerless to combat the poverty around us in our community, in our country, and in the world.  At times, we feel so needy ourselves that it is impossible to feel that we have anything left to give.  We struggle to earn a living, make mortgage and tuition payments, pay our loans, and still give charitably to the church, the food pantry, and at least a few of the many other organizations that ask for donations.

The truth is that there are always others less fortunate than we are.  That is why I feel hopeful when I read the anonymous Blessing of Unanswered Prayers. 

"I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I had asked for,
but everything that I had hoped for."

These lines, in particular, are powerful reminders that what is truly important is not the accumulation of possessions or material things, but the enjoyment of all that we have in our lives: love, people, talents, grace.  God blesses us each with so much.  From our blessings, we always have something we can share with others.  Sometimes we are able to give money or food or clothing or shelter.  But at the very least we are able to give a smile, a kind word, or a prayer.

Dear God,
Thank you for the many blessings you have given me.
Thank you for reminding me that I have everything I have hoped for.
Thank you loving me completely.
Thank you for providing me with opportunities 
to share my abundance
with others who are less fortunate.
Thank you for your Son, Jesus, who is always worthy of my love and devotion.
Help me to live my life according to His word.
Help me to live into my Baptismal promises:
To strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being;
To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving my neighbor as myself;
To proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
I ask this in Jesus' name.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Today's Prayer

Lord Jesus,
Forgive those things I have done
which have caused You sadness,
and those things I should have done
that would have brought You joy.
In both I have failed
and You.
Bring me back to that place
where my journey began,
when I said that I would follow
the way that You first trod.
Lead me to the Cross
and meet
me there.
I ask this in the name of the Father,
the Son, and they Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

More thoughts on Ash Wednesday: Practice giving to someone in need

Paul Ackroyd shares these words from today's "Upper Room" reading:

Isaiah 58:1-12
58:1 Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.
58:2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.
58:3 "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.
58:4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.
58:5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
58:6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
58:7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
58:8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
58:9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
58:10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
58:11 The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
58:12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

God said, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?” - Isaiah 58:6-7 (NRSV)

I have always thought of Lent as a time of fasting in the sense of “giving up” something, either a lunch or some daily treat such as candy or coffee. The customary question in my faith community is, “What are you giving up for Lent?” I had never thought about doing anything else as a Lenten practice until one morning when I read the passage above from Isaiah, then later that same morning encountered a divine example of that passage.

While I was driving to work I noticed a drably dressed, bearded man standing at a busy intersection. He held a sign that read: “Homeless Veteran, need help!” Instantly, I recalled the words of Isaiah about what kind of fast God desires: “to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house.” I gave what help I could to that man.

My Lenten practice changed that very day. Now during Lent, my practice is not to give up something but to give something to someone in need.

Thought for the Day
When we fast, God helps us to identify with — and reach out to — those in need.

Dear Lord, help us during this Lenten season to look beyond ourselves and give to those in need. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Prayer focus:  The homeless in my community

The Author
Edward L. Kelly, Jr. (Iowa)

Ash Wednesday

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the 
earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our 
mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is 
only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen. 

Today is Ash Wednesday, and we have been invited to observe a Holy Lent. For some, this may mean abstaining from something like wine or meat or candy. For others, this may mean taking on a new project such as writing in a journal or organizing a closet or completing photo album. Others may elect a more spiritual practice such as reading daily from Scripture. As Suzanne reminded us in her Ash Wednesday sermon, the objective is not to make ourselves feel more pious, but to acknowledge and accept our failures, then repent and find ways to bring ourselves closer to God. Through repentance, we commit to a personal change and resolve to live more responsibly and humanely. In our lives as Christians, we try to respond as Jesus calls us.

I have always struggled with prayer. It does not always come easily to me. This year for Lent, I am resolving to devote more time to prayer each day. I will be praying for my family, my students, my colleagues, and everyone at St. Mark's. I will pray for the homeless, the hungry, and the mistreated. I will pray for my friends and for my enemies.

I will post some of my prayers here on this blog, and maybe you, too, will find new ways of growing closer to God on your journey through this season of Lent.

Dear God,
You have inscribed upon our hearts,
the maker’s mark,
the Word of God,
beautifully written,
that all God’s people
might know
that we are precious
of a heavenly Father
becoming family together.
May our eyes lift upward
as we listen together
to hear angels worship.
We ask this in the name of your Son our Savior,
Jesus Christ.

(This prayer is adapted from one I found here

What will you be practicing as your Lenten discipline? Will you be giving up something or taking on something? However you decide to make your way toward the Cross this Lent, I hope it brings you closer to God.

Jody Clark
Senior Warden of St. Mark's

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Episcopal Church - what's not to love about us?

I stumbled across this blogpost by Ben Irwin and thought it worth sharing.  
Yesterday at the Annual Meeting, Suzanne spoke about our Mutual Ministry goal of sharing 
stories of finding God in our lives.  Many of the things mentioned here are many of the 
things I love about the Episcopal Church.  So many good things are happening at St Mark's.
Let's make sure that folks who may be seeking a faith community know what we are about.

Jody Clark, Senior Warden

11 things I love about the Episcopal Church

My faith was saved in a gutted-out shopping mall.
I had reached a point where I no longer believed in God’s love—or rather, I didn’t believe it was meant for me. I thought it was something reserved for God’s “chosen ones,” and I just couldn’t imagine myself as one of the lucky few.
It was a trendy church with a famous pastor and a hip worship band that helped me reassemble the pieces of my faith. I will always be thankful for that church.
At that time, I had no idea my journey would lead from that gutted-out shopping mall to an old red door. But it did. Today it’s the Eucharist, the stained glass windows, and the liturgies of the Episcopal Church that are breathing new life into my faith.
I’m not alone, either. Lately I’ve been sifting through the stories of fellow travelers like Rachel Held EvansJonathan Martin, and Lindsey Harts. We’ve all found something meaningful in the Episcopal Church, something disorienting and comforting all at once, something that feels vaguely like… home.
That’s not a term disaffected evangelicals like me are quick to use. But that’s what the Episcopal Church has become for me: a new spiritual home. Here are some of the reasons for that…

1.  The way the liturgy soaks into your being.

The first few times I walked through those big red doors, I didn’t know the code. I didn’t know when to sit or stand. I didn’t know how to use the prayer book. I didn’t know how to cross myself.
While others have sought to make Christianity as accessible as possible, the liturgy of the Episcopal Church feels other, like a strange artifact calling us into a different and slightly foreign reality. Learning the liturgy was like learning a new language.
These days, I’m having to rely less on the prayer book. After months (and now years) of repetition, the words and movements come more naturally from within. Rachel Held Evans described it like this:
At first, the liturgy of the Episcopal Church captured me with its novelty… But we’ve been showing up for nearly six months now, and so it is a different sort of beauty I encounter on Sunday mornings these days—the beauty of familiarity, of sweet routine. I know the order of service now. I know it well enough to have favorite parts, to skim ahead when I’m hungry or restless, to get the songs stuck in my head.
We are products of a culture that demands everything is new and fresh. We frown on repetition and ritual. But these ancient patterns have a way of soaking into your bones. The prayers and songs stay with me throughout the week in a way no sermon ever has.

2. The way the liturgy invites me to worship with my whole being, bridging the false divide between body and soul.

Genuflecting in the aisle. Crossing yourself. Kneeling. Episcopalians worship not just with their hearts or their voices but with their bodies.
Not that it didn’t take some getting used to. It was a few years before I could bring myself to make the sign of the cross. Now I appreciate it for what is: a prayer. It just happens to be one you pray with your body.
And why not? God made us whole persons. We are not disembodied souls stuffed into human shells. We should worship with our whole being. Our heart and soul and flesh should cry out together, as the Psalmist wrote.
It should be said we’re not the only ones who embrace the notion of embodied worship, and our way is not the only way to do so. Pentecostals practice embodied worship when they lift their hands in praise or dance in the aisles. Whole-person worship, as I’ve learned from the Episcopal Church, can be faith-deepening. That’s because, as Elisabeth Grunert once commented, “We learn with our bodies.”

3. The way it anchors my faith when no act of will on my part can.

I don’t always believe the words of the Nicene Creed. But I say them anyway. Sometimes they’re more a confession of desire than conviction, a statement of what I desperately hope to be true.
When I struggle to believe, the rhythms and patterns and prayers of the liturgy are like an anchor. It’s as if the rest of the community—those around me and those who came before me—are saying, “It’s OK. We’ll carry you through this part.”
Faith is no longer dependent on me willing it into being. As Jonathan Martin writes:
With my own world feeling disordered and untethered, I am quite happy to be told when to kneel and when to sit and when to stand. I love that there is almost no space in the worship experience to spectate, because almost every moment invites (but not demands) participation. I have been in no position to tell my heart what to do. But because the Church told my body what to do in worship, my heart has been able to follow—sometimes. And that is enough for now.

4. The way it embraces orthodoxy without rigidity.

The other day my priest (who takes Scripture and theology about as seriously as anyone I’ve ever heard preach), referred in passing to Adam and Eve as our “mythic forbearers.”
No one broke out the pitchforks. There were no murmurs or protests. No angry blog posts. No one accused him of “getting the gospel wrong.”
For many of us, it’s a refreshing change. As Lindsey Harts wrote after hearing an Episcopal homily on God’s sovereignty in relation to the Big Bang, “It was the first time I hadn’t heard the Big Bang being bashed in a church setting.”
Anglicanism has long been known as the via media, the “middle way” between two traditions. The Episcopal Church has also helped me navigate the middle way between unbelief and dogmatism. Ours is a faith handed down from the apostles, but not one so fragile that it cannot cope with science, with new findings about the origins of the universe, ourselves, or whatever else we might discover.
Ours is not a fear-filled faith.

5. How it makes room for those who’ve been burned out, worn out, or otherwise cast out.

I love how one of my favorite preachers, Jonathan Martin, describes what drew him to an Episcopal church:
I went out of sheer, bold-faced desperation for someone to preach the gospel to me, someone to lay hands on me, and someone to offer me the Lord’s Supper. There was no motivation more noble than hoping to not starve.
A lot of us have burned out on our faith at some point—or been cast out. Maybe it’s because we grew tired of always having to pretend we have it all together. Or maybe someone’s gender or some other part of their identity excluded them from service. Maybe we were told we had to choose between science and faith. Or maybe we were just beaten down by the relentless drum of condemnation.
The Episcopal Church is a refuge, a respite, a place where we can come as we are and learn to receive grace again.

6. The way you can simply be, if that’s all you can do.

You feel it sometimes when you visit a new church. The hungry looks, sizing you up as another potential cog in the church wheel. The pressure to join this program, sign up for that group, volunteer at this event… all before anyone’s even learned your name.
I’ve been part of two Episcopal churches now, and neither one has been like that. They’ve given me space to just be. They’ve let me move at my own pace. To quote Jonathan Martin again, they’ve been places where “I can love and be loved as a human being, without my gifts or my life being commodified in any way.” Or asLindsey Harts put it, “It’s the only place I’ve ever stepped foot into that didn’t seem to expect something of you.”
It’s not that the Episcopal Church won’t invite you to become more deeply connected. They will. But they seem to get that each person is different—and, more importantly, that people are not commodities.
(That said, if you hang around long enough, watch out. They might ask you to join the vestry when you least expect it.)

7. The way their worship can be deeply moving without resorting to emotional manipulation.

When a church tells me how I should feel (“Clap if you’re excited about Jesus!”), it smacks of inauthenticity. Sometimes I don’t feel like clapping. Sometimes I need to worship in the midst of my brokenness and confusion—not in spite of it and certainly not in denial of it.
In contrast to the standard worship formula of so many churches, “the liturgy does not try to coerce everyone into the same emotional experience,” as Jonathan Martinwrites, “but in its corporate unity strangely creates space for us all to have a very personal experience of God.”
Sometimes when you stop trying to manufacture a particular emotion, you stumble into something even more profound and beautiful than you could have imagined.

8. How the “shared cup” matters more than “shared dogma.”

I have spent a lot of my life trying to get my theology right. I’ve spent years believing all the “right things” in order that I might belong. So it was jarring when a good friend explained to me that the sermon (the meat!) was not the center of Anglican worship. It’s the Eucharist, the common table around which we all gather.
We belong so that we might find a common faith together, not the other way around.
Jonathan Martin writes:
The problem in Protestantism in general, historically but much more profoundly now, is that have we far too much emphasis on getting the beliefs right. No wonder we now have over 40,000 denominations—the search for perfect doctrine is endless… At St. Peter’s, we recite the Nicene creed every week. But the practice of the liturgy… and the shared experience of the Eucharist is what holds us together. Beyond that, there is plenty of room for difference. The emphasis is not on sharing dogma so much as it is sharing the cup.

9. The way everyone is welcome as a full participant, even children.

My 4-year-old is welcome at the table every week. She is able to receive the bread and the cup even before she’s made a profession of faith. This sends a powerful message: God’s grace is for her, too. She is no less a part of the body of Christ just because she doesn’t fully understand yet what that means.
One Sunday shortly after our daughter began receiving communion, we were milling about during coffee hour. (If there was a number 12 on this list, it might be coffee hour.) As we were talking with our priest, our daughter began solemnly placing a goldfish cracker into each of our hands. Our priest picked up on what she was doing, and he played along. She was reenacting what she’d just been part of in the sanctuary.
The Episcopal Church is a place that nurtures those first small, occasionally faltering steps of faith—and welcomes the full participation of those who take them.

10. How it reminds me that I’m part of something bigger.

My first real experience of liturgy was in the UK. We lived for a short time in a village an hour north of London, and we began attending the parish church. Every Sunday on our way into the 700-year-old building, we’d walk through the churchyard, past the weatherworn graves of long-dead parishioners who’d prayed in the same pews, whispered the same prayers, and sang the same songs for centuries.
I need to be reminded that my faith does not begin or end with me—that, to quote a comment from Rachel’s blog, it’s “something that you don’t really own.”

11. How at the altar, we’re all the same.

It’s been said the ground is level at the foot of the cross. I don’t think I’ve appreciated that quite as much anywhere as in the Episcopal Church.
At the altar, we all kneel, as Lindsey Harts put it. We all receive what we cannot do for ourselves. We all confess our weakness—that even the gifts we bring were God’s gifts to us in the first place. We all receive the same body and blood.
We need to do a lot better at cultivating and embracing diversity in our midst…but the altar is as good a place as any to start.
Many of these things can, of course, be found in other traditions as well. But for me, it’s been the Episcopal Church that has nurtured my faith, breathing new life into me. May you find beauty in whatever tradition you call home. May God breathe new life into your faith—wherever you are.