O Come, Divine Messiah!

advent-policeThe above cartoon recently popped up on my Facebook feed. It’s by the Rev. Jay Sidebotham, and depicts ‘the Advent police’ citing people for putting up Christmas ornaments and singing Christmas carols during Advent. Silly, right? Normally I would just chuckle and keep scrolling, but for some reason this particular image made me stop and really look.

Can you imagine if there really WERE an Advent police? I know for a fact that the dollar store downtown would be awash in violations, since I’m pretty sure I recall the Christmas aisle being set up the week before Halloween this year. Think of all the fines that could be set aside for mission funds! (Just kidding.) Then again, how many of us are really able to go the entire four weeks before Christmas without trimming the tree or humming a few bars of ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ when we hear it played over the store loudspeakers while doing our Christmas shopping?

As a former (recovering?) church organist and cantor, I find Advent to be one of the most fascinating times in the church year. Though the calendar year is drawing to a close, it’s just the beginning of the liturgical year – a time of quiet, preparation, and yes – anticipation of the coming Savior. The days are shorter, the hymns on Sunday a bit quieter than during the season after Pentecost, and the readings talk about waking from sleep and preparing the way of the Lord.

One hymn in particular makes me marvel every year: ‘O Come, Divine Messiah’.  If you’re not familiar with the tune, please do look it up on YouTube. The music is light, just a tiny bit bouncy, but combined with the lyrics it’s an amazing summation of the anticipation and longing of the Advent season. We wait in the dark and quiet of these weeks of December, yearning for Jesus to come to Earth for our redemption and to bring joy and light into our lives.

“Dear Savior haste;
Come, come to earth,
Dispel the night and show your face,
And bid us hail the dawn of grace.”

I finally made a note in pen at the top of my sheet music to tell the choir not to speed up at that point, because every. single. time. we sang that piece they would get so excited it was like trying to hold back runaway horses. “Hurry, Jesus! We’ve been waiting for so long!” Women in their 80s were singing with all the enthusiasm and impatience of my two year old daughter – “Now, Mommy? Now?”

It’s a busy time of year, and many of us have to-do lists as long as our arm, making our physical preparations for the coming of the Lord. Try to take a few moments this week, though, to quiet your mind and enjoy that thrilling anticipation that comes from having to wait.

“O come, divine Messiah!
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away.”

Megin Sewak is Communications Specialist for the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania. 

Ordinations of Timothy Dyer and Jason Shank

Advent is a time of preparation and new beginnings, and so it is in the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania! We are pleased to announce the ordinations of Timothy Dyer to the priesthood, and Jason Shank to the diaconate in the coming weeks.

Bishop Sean will ordain Timothy Dyer to the priesthood on Sunday, December 11 at 4:00 PM at Trinity Memorial Church in Warren, PA. All are welcome to attend, and please keep Tim in your prayers as he begins this next step in his ministry.

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Then on Thursday, December 15th at 10:00 AM everyone is invited to the Cathedral of St. Paul as Bishop Sean ordains Jason Shank of Resurrection Church, Hermitage to the Diaconate. Please keep Jason and all those of the Resurrection church plant in your prayers.

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Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of your faithful people is governed and sanctified: Receive our supplications and prayers, which we offer before you for all members of your holy Church, that in their vocation and ministry they may truly and devoutly serve you; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Receive Advent As A Gift

advent-1812702_1280As we prepare to enter another season of Advent, we are given the gift of waiting.  So often, we focus on what we want, but Advent invites us to focus on what God might give us.  Instead of expending our effort on choosing what we would like and striving to get it, our energy goes into preparing our hearts to be open to what is coming.  This preparation is much harder work, but ultimately more fruitful.

One of the lies we tell ourselves is that if we work hard enough, what we think is best will come to us.  Really, though, however hard we work, we are always handed a jumble of broken leftovers from the pursuits and plans of others.  We can toil desperately to make that mess into the gift we have decided we deserve to be given.  But we cannot create what we truly need to satisfy us.

Advent provides the space for us to strip down our projections and put away our projects so that we can see where the divine gift for us is to be found in the midst of life’s pains and paradoxes.  We shut off the flashing lights and neon beacons so we can simply see the stars around us.  We step out of the buzzing cacophony and make space for silence where the still, small voice may beckon.  We close the Facebook feeds and the commercial messages to open the prophets and the psalms preparing us to recognize what we can’t yet imagine.  We stop jockeying for candles-141892_640position and simply sit beside our brothers and sisters until these erstwhile allies and enemies become nothing less to us than the true image and likeness of God.

Advent helps us hand over our wills, our imaginations, and our desires so that in the crucible of waiting they can be purified into hope.  We cannot learn hope until we have learned to stop and let go of everything except for God’s coming to us.  Then God’s coming will fill every nook and cranny of our being, occupying our every thought and hunger. We will be able to recognize the Messiah come into the world because we will have become nothing more than a Messiah-shaped outline waiting desperately for God to fill us.

The waiting of Advent allows us to recognize and receive the Wonderful Counselor and Prince of Peace amid shepherds and Latin-speaking IRS agents two thousand years ago.  That same waiting allows us to recognize and receive the body of Christ in the gifts placed on the altar and in those gathered around it, as well as in the least of our brothers and sisters for whom whatever we do we do also for Jesus.  Our Advent waiting will also allow us to recognize and be received by the Son of Man in his crucified glory at the last day.

Our souls are saturated with so much stress and striving that we cannot wait to wait.  Receive Advent as a gift and dive into it deeply.  Wait until we can’t imagine wanting anything but Come, Lord Jesus. Come.

The Rev. Adam Trambley is rector at St. John’s, Sharon. 

 

Be Part of the Conversation

yoga-1146280_640I detest pigeons.  But more than actual pigeons, I really detest the pigeon pose in yoga.  It involves folding one leg under you in such a way that stretches your hip, while the other leg stretches behind you and your arms and head rest on the mat.  Ideally that’s what it involves.  When I fold into pigeon, there is nothing ideal about it.  Without fail, my leg goes to sleep, the numbness disintegrates into pins-and-needles, and I begin wondering whether I will lose my leg altogether from a lack of blood flow; by the time I exit this pose, will I look more like the one-legged maimed pigeons of cities than a stretched and rested human?

With such manifestations of yogic skill and grace, you may wonder why in the world I continue to attend the Monday yoga class offered in my town.  It’s twofold, an intertwining of personal spirituality and corporate kingdom spreading.  Engaging with me can be a hyper experience, as I frequently bounce between ideas and exhibit a rather deplorable lack of focus.  Too often my thoughts are racing ahead to the next minute, hour, or week instead of being focused in the task or moment at hand.  It isn’t conducive to really good thinking or praying; it doesn’t foster listening to others or to God- or even to myself.  So along with reading on the topic, I have chosen to take up yoga to practice mindfulness.

To a degree, it is working.  Depending on the pose, I can focus on my breathing better than in the past; I can sometimes translate that skill beyond the studio into the ‘real world.’  But that’s not the sole reason I’m at the yoga class.  Last summer at Holy Trinity, we began exploring our identity and adjusting our programs and worship to live into that identity.  As a congregation, we developed our core values, penned blue-and-brewsthem, refined them, and hung them on the wall; they guide us in all decision-making.  We decided to ‘go public’ about being a congregation that embraces all people and began reimaging and rewriting worship services to include the musical talents of several parishioners and to reflect language we use in everyday life.  Formation activities moved outside our walls, to an arts café and a bar/restaurant; we have embraced learning as a key element of who we are.  Additionally, we began teaming up with local organizations to sponsor events that outsiders may not think churches sponsor, chief among them Blues and Brews with the arts group, but also concerts and our animal blessing.

Great as all that may be for our life together, it is not about us.  It is all aimed at reentering the conversation happening in our town, a conversation about economics and politics, loss and hope, drugs and alcohol, football and wrestling, bike trails and beer, questions and longings and spirituality.  Is this new or different?  No, it is not.  But it is a new orientation for us, one that is exciting and challenging.  Much of it is about listening to people, putting ourselves in different places so we hear many stories and better understand what God is doing here so we can partner with God in that work.  That’s why I torture myself with the pigeon pose: to meet new people, learn about their lives, and listen to their spirituality.  And that is happening, slowly.  Investing in a community and others takes time, more time than I would like.  But hopefully I’ll learn a little patience through the yoga and learn to listen more deeply to the people I meet and to God.  And together with the others at Holy Trinity, we can be part of the conversation happening in our community.

The Rev. Melinda Hall is vicar of Holy Trinity, Brookville. 

Giving Thanks – St. James’ Community Soup Kitchen

img_1709-478x640If you drive through Titusville on a Tuesday morning just before lunch time, you may notice how busy the corner of Main Street and Franklin Avenue is compared to the rest of town. Cars line the edge of the roadway, and people walking singly or in groups of three or four make their way down the sidewalk towards the doors of the St. James Parish Hall. Outside the hall a white sign proclaims “St. James Community Soup Kitchen Today 12 – 1 pm. All are Welcome!”

All are indeed welcome to this particularly busy ministry of St. James, as I came to find out. I spoke with Eda Scales and Noni Stanford, two of the soup kitchen coordinators, last Tuesday as they were preparing to serve over 200 people for the annual Thanksgiving dinner. Even though I arrived at 11 am, well before the usual serving hour, most of the tables in the hall were already full of people chatting and having steaming cups of coffee, enjoying each other’s company and relaxing before the beginning of the meal. Volunteers zipped back and forth, topping up glasses and making last minute preparations, but everyone I passed had enough time to smile and say hello as they went about the business of Thanksgiving dinner.
The food program at St. James has been running continuously since 2001, serving hot meals once a week to anyone who drops in. The first few dinners had perhaps a dozen people in attendance, but numbers have increased steadily to the point that on any given Tuesday there are img_1706-640x478at least a hundred people in and out of St. James’ hall, sharing a meal and fellowship (and double that for the Thanksgiving celebration).  Volunteer participation is both ecumenical and community-oriented: at least four churches in the area send helpers to aid the St. James’ crew, and they are often joined by women from the St. James House – a shelter program run by the local YWCA that is housed in the old church rectory. On the few occasions when Canon Martha Ishman is unable to attend dinners, Pastor Terry Brown of the Methodist church in Enterprise gives the blessing before the meal.

The program was given a jumpstart in its early days with a grant from the Diocese, but between donations from parishioners and support from local groups and businesses like Northwest Hardwoods, the VFW, United Way, and a partnership with the Second Harvest Food Bank, the soup kitchen ministry is now self-sufficient and able to provide hot meals and groceries for people in and around the Titusville area. It is also one of the only regularly scheduled soup kitchens in the area that doesn’t charge a fee for the meal. Eda pointed out to me that not only does the program meet financial, social, and spiritual needs for attendees in general, it is particularly valuable to people with special circumstances: the working poor, people on fixed incomes or Social Security, and others who may not qualify for assistance programs, but still find themselves in need. There are no qualifiers to participate in the food ministry, and everything is on the honor system – if someone says they have a need, they may receive.

The program also encompasses the God’s Abundance Cupboard food pantry, which began on an emergency basis whenever the church was open, and has since grown so that there are now twice-monthly scheduled pickup days where families can come and get a bag of groceries including fruit, cereal, soup, vegetables, and (thanks to a grant from Giant Eagle) two packages of frozen meat. The food pantry now gives out approximately 70 bags of groceries each pickup day.
The financial benefit of the meals and grocery donations is readily evident when you see the number of people who participate in the program. As I walked around the tables and chatted with people the social and spiritual benefits made themselves known. For many of the attendees, the soup kitchen is about much more than a hot meal – it’s an important social space, and a church outside of church. From Noni: img_1689-599x640“If you miss a week or something, they ask ‘where were you last week?’ They feel like this is their church, even if they don’t all come on Sundays.” It’s obvious that the people visiting last Tuesday felt at home. Chatter passed back and forth between people and tables with a familiarity that only comes from regular interaction. I sat down near the kitchen to chat with one young woman and her 14-month old daughter, and she mentioned that she was there because her parents came regularly. Her father was seated further down the table, and he introduced me to his wife, one of his cousins, and another relative (who was one of the volunteers, and not able to sit with them as he was working). He said how much they appreciate the church, and his wife jumped in to tell me a story about how one of the previous priests, after seeing that she had been crying at one of the meals, was able to get them help that saved them from being evicted from their home. Both volunteers and people sitting at tables stopped me as I walked around and asked if I needed a seat or a plate, and there wasn’t a single table where someone didn’t have a story or a joke to share (or a groan about the upcoming snow in the weather forecast). As Eda had said while we talked, “you see the face of God in everyone around the tables.” If the smiles on the faces of the volunteers are any indication, they receive as much joy in giving as the attendees do in receiving.

Noni walked by with a large tray filled with slices of pumpkin pie, signaling an end to the first wave of dining, and I waved goodbye and worked my way back through the tables towards the exit. Knots of people who had finished eating or were waiting for spaces to open up at the tables stood in the entry hall and outside on the sidewalk, and several folks wished me a happy holiday as I zipped up my jacket and headed down the street.

I walked out the doors of the hall that day far more uplifted in spirit than I had been prior to arriving. The weather may be getting colder and the days shorter, but God’s presence in this ministry will continue warming hearts throughout western PA’s people for hopefully many years to come.

Megin Sewak, Communications Specialist for the Diocese of Northwestern PA

Recent Article from Bishop Sean Rowe – “Real Reconciliation”

This op-ed piece first appeared in the Erie Times News on November 17, 2016

pexels-photo-27633In the days after a presidential election, the news is full of public figures talking about reconciliation. Leaders of all kinds are pledging to put a divisive campaign behind them and work together for the common good. Church leaders like myself are particularly given to these sort of sentiments. They appeal to our pastoral instincts and allow us to imagine that we are what the prophet Isaiah called “repairers of the breach.”

It is difficult to oppose reconciliation. Jesus said peacemakers were blessed, and as a Christian, I certainly want to be on his good side, but before we strike up a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya,” I hope we will pause to make sure we understand that real reconciliation requires deep self-examination, an ability to acknowledge both when one has been wronged and when one has done wrong, and the willingness to behave and communicate in new ways. Reconciliation is not a synonym for the silencing of dissent.

Many voters saw this election as a choice between the lesser of two evils. While I don’t find that characterization useful — there are no perfect people, and hence no perfect candidates — it is true that neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton was especially well thought of by much of the electorate. But the country has made a choice. The time for comparing his flaws to hers is over. The time for looking squarely at the person whom we have elected to the highest office in the land is at hand.

Nothing about Mr. Trump’s campaign suggests that he has any interest in uniting our country. He has repeatedly made racist and misogynistic comments for which he has not apologized. He stoked rage against dark-skinned immigrants and refugees — rage that is already resulting in increased reports of hate crimes across the country. And he refused to condemn the worst excesses of his supporters.

It is possible to argue that, despite these flaws, it was morally necessary to vote for Mr. Trump. But it is not possible to argue that voting for him absolved him of these sins. So what does it mean to “reconcile” with such a person? How much repentance or self-scrutiny is it possible to expect? These questions are especially pertinent to white Christians like myself because we provided the votes that elected Mr. Trump.

As a Christian, I believe that every person is created in the image and likeness of God, that God loves each of us passionately and that God wills that we love one another. We are called to love people whose views are profoundly different than our own, even those who espouse bigotry and hatred. To the extent that “reconciliation” means caring for all people, taking their concerns seriously, working together when we can find common ground, put me down as pro-reconciliation.

But if we truly believe that all people are created in God’s image and likeness, then we have a duty to resist any attempt to exclude people from our common life or from the protection of our laws based on race, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation. And those of us in the Judeo-Christian tradition have to be faithful to the unbroken scriptural teaching on caring for the poor and the displaced.

Real reconciliation will require us to follow the examples of Old Testament prophets. They took as their task not so much offering visions of the future but warning their leaders what would happen if they were not faithful to God’s laws. They aspired to be the consciences of their nation. Sometimes that meant working closely with secular rulers, but sometimes it meant standing against them and paying the price. Jeremiah, as you may recall, was lowered into a muddy cistern and left to die by the king’s son.

I am not asking anyone to get themselves tossed down a well, and I hope to stay dry myself. But we must be prepared both to swallow any resentments we might have when the opportunity arises to work together for the common good, and to stand up for the most vulnerable members of our society if they become targets of the new administration or its most extreme supporters.

The Rt. Rev. Sean W. Rowe is bishop of the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, and bishop provisional of the Diocese of Bethlehem.

God Gave the Growth – Church Planting in the Episcopal Church

God Gave the Growth: A Book Review

growthAs our diocese has embarked on its first new church plant in decades, many of us may have questions: Why do we need to plant churches when so many churches around us are failing? What would an Episcopal Church plant look like?  What would it take to help a new church succeed?

These questions, and many others, are answered in Susan Brown Snook’s book, God Gave the Growth: Church Planting in the Episcopal Church.  Susan Brown Snook is the rector of Church of the Nativity in Scottsdale, Arizona, a church that she planted in 2006.  She is also a member of the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council and a founder and steering committee member of the Acts 8 Movement.  (Disclaimer: I work with Susan on the Acts 8 Movement and am in her Doctor of Ministry cohort at Virginia Theological Seminary.)

God Gave the Growth’s first section deals with the basic issues concerning church planting, including specifics about church planting in the Episcopal Church. Two chapters provide reasons for planting new churches, including the ways that new plants can benefit existing churches.  Then the book looks at types and models of church planting, including a discussion of the need to continue doing traditional church plants.

The second section deals with factors promoting church planting success.  Here Susan addresses topics including important characteristics of church planters, discerning a new plant’s mission, the formation of a leadership team, methods of evangelistic community outreach, the launch, the formation of disciples, the worship facility, and finances and stewardship.  Susan’s final section provides wisdom and counsel for diocesan and church leaders who want to see successful new churches planted in their dioceses.  Without the vision and support of current established churches, new plants are much less likely to succeed.

While God Gave the Growth is contains needed statistics, models, principles and explanations concerning different aspects of church planting, part of the book’s strength comes from extended quotations from various Episcopal church planters.  Throughout the book, we hear elements of Susan’s own story, but we also hear stories of Episcopal church planters who have started churches in a working class area in Georgia, in a wealthy area of Los Angeles, with the homeless, with Latino communities, and in other contexts.  We also hear from Bishop Andy Doyle of Texas, whose diocese has planted numerous churches in recent years, and other Episcopal Church leaders.

Overall, God Gave the Growth is a helpful and inspirational book for anyone interested in learning more about church planting in the Episcopal church.  It is an especially important book for our Diocese at this time.

The Rev. Adam Trambley is rector at St. John’s, Sharon. 

Renew the Ties of Mutual Regard

This article is reprinted from the November issue of The Bell, the monthly newsletter of the Cathedral of St. Paul. 

As I write this, Election Day is just a few days away. I am writing, however, thinking of the days which will follow the election. For so many of us, this campaign has been distressing, and often discouraging. As a child and young person, I followed presidential campaigns with excitement. Now parents and teachers are not sure children should even watch the debates. How we got here should not be oversimplified and, while it came to a head in this campaign, the factors are multiple, complex, and were a long time in the making. There will be much to reflect on and learn from for many years, if we are willing and able.

It will be most important, in the aftermath of this election, to take up the work of repairing our damaged social and civic fabric. This damage has touched so many aspects of our lives, form our institutions, to our relationships, to our memories and imaginations. High profile leadership will be important, but the most important work will be done by us, quiet work, person to person, in our homes, workplaces, schools, neighborhoods and communities. Our baptismal commitments point the way – to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself; to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

bcpOne of the prayers in our Prayer Book puts it well. “Renew the ties of mutual regard which form our civic life. Send us honest and capable leaders. Enable us to eliminate poverty, prejudice, and oppression, that peace may prevail with righteousness, and justice with order, and that men and women from different cultures and with differing talents may find with one another the fulfillment of their humanity.”

It is a gift of grace that we can come together with Jesus week by week at the Lord’s Table, and then go forth from there to take up the life of God’s Kingdom in a troubled world.

The Very Rev. Dr. John P. Downey, Dean, the Cathedral of St. Paul