Advent is Different

What we Americans call “The Holidays” begins on Thanksgiving (or before) and continues through New Year’s Day. It is a time of eating, drinking, and spending, with distinctive decorations, sounds, and stories, and with a seemingly endless round of activities. It is also a time of generosity and service to those in need. It puts before us images and expectations of happy families and friends, with everything coming together just right, maybe even a “Christmas miracle.”

While some of us do experience such happiness, or some of it, many of us are painfully confronted with other realities – loneliness, loss, family tension, stress, exhaustion, and a sense of disappointment, if not failure. “The Holidays” are probably a mixed bag for most of us. How welcome, then, is the gift of Advent.

Advent is different from “The Holidays” even though it happens at roughly the same time. It looks, feels, smells, and sounds different. It holds off the Church’s celebration of Christmas until December 25, a celebration that is then kept for Twelve Days, continuing past the time when “The Holidays” have been packed up and put away. Thankfully, the Episcopal Church does a pretty good job of keeping Advent in all its difference, because we need it.

I used to be quite Puritan about all this, wanting the whole world to keep Advent and to keep Christmas away until the 25th. But it is a losing battle and only leads to frustration and needless isolation. “The Holidays” are our culture’s way of marking the end of the year and I join in, trying to make the best of its joys while being sensitive to its difficulties.  Advent in the Church, then, becomes a welcome space apart and away from what is going on all around us. It offers something different, something which allows for reflection and perspective.

That would be welcome enough in itself, but Advent also provides us with an opportunity to be honest about life’s difficulties. The readings, music, and prayers put us in touch with the prophets, with John the Baptist, and with Mary and Joseph before Jesus was born. They allow us to see and admit that all is not right with the world, including with ourselves, and they also invite us to hope in a God who will put things right, even if that is hard to see at the moment.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu often told how, during the Apartheid years in South Africa, he would go around telling suffering people that God was in charge. Then he would go to his prayers and ask God, “Why can’t you make it more obvious that you are in charge?’ That is the spirit of Advent. And that spirit will take us to Christmas with honest and open hearts, remembering that the baby of Bethlehem became the young man who was executed on the cross and rose from the dead, filling us with Holy Spirit, inviting us to trust that God is love.

 

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

 

Advent Resources for 2018

Ordinary time is now behind us, and December 2 marks the beginning of the Advent season. Time flies in this busy world of ours! Since Advent is a time of waiting and preparation, we’ve gathered a few resources below to help us slow down and prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of the Lord. Feel free to share your Advent preparation recommendations in the comments!

Videos

What is Advent? – a short explanation of Advent (from Concordia Publishing House)

Advent in 2 Minutes – What is Advent all about, and how is it different from Christmas? (from Busted Halo)

The Most Popular Advent Carols Ever Written – a 3 hour compilation of classical choral music for Advent

Online Devotionals and Articles 

#AdventWord – Create a global Advent calendar using your phone! A full explanation of how to participate is available here. (from the Society of St. John the Evangelist)

The Joy of Waiting – An Advent reflection by the Reverend David Sellery (from the Episcopal Cafe)

Advent and Christmas Resources – A collection of resources for both individual and congregation use (from The Episcopal Church)

Advent Reflections from the Forward – reflections from Advents past from the DioNWPA blog

Activities for Home

7 Advent Calendar Crafts for Kids – Sometimes homemade is more fun! Seven different ideas for Advent calendars, including a Blessings Jar made with popsicle sticks. (from The Spruce Crafts)

Printable Advent Activity Cards – includes 60 ideas for family participation in Advent, including attending a nativity play, donating to a local food bank, and reading from the Gospel

Ask the Bishop #13

The latest installment of our “Ask the Bishop” series has arrived! Bishop Sean discusses making history at the joint convention of the Diocese of Western New York and the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, his upcoming sabbatical, and preparing to move into the future.

The bishop will be on sabbatical beginning in December until February 23.  While he is away, the diocesan staff is prepared to manage the day to day workings of the diocese and meet your needs. They can be reached by phone at 814.456.4203, or by email at the individual addresses here.

Make Quiet Happen

Every time I have made a big decision without pausing, listening and waiting, it hasn’t worked out too well. Each time I’ve rushed into a solution, forced a solution, demanded a solution right now, I find myself disappointed, frustrated and stuck.

But when I make room for the Holy Spirit, when I allow myself the time to get quiet and listen for the “next right thing,” I am energized, satisfied and on the move to where it is God wants me to go.

Getting quiet – easier said than done! In our 24/7 world, being quiet is tough. But even if you get the external noise to abate, shutting down the internal noise is a whole other proposition. Internal noise is cunning and relentless.

I have experienced anxiety my entire life, and one of the enemies of anxiety is quiet. If there’s background noise—music, the tv—my anxious brain won’t engage in the “what ifs, how about this, what about that, why can’t I, why did they….” dance. This dance leaves no room for the Holy Spirit to move and no space in my heart for discernment.

I need to “make quiet happen.” This can be driving without the radio playing so that I am alone with my thoughts enough to stop the internal talking and begin the deep listening. It can be taking the dogs out for a walk and never looking at my phone; it can be setting my phone to a quiet mode from 9 at night until 6 in the morning; it can be taking a moment every hour to breathe deeply and to stretch out my back. It can be standing outside, feet firmly on the ground, arms out-stretched and face turned toward the sky. It can be a nap.

I have worked hard to find out what works for me, and I encourage you to find what works for you.

Whatever takes you out of the distractions and places you into the here and the now will open you to the working of the Holy Spirit.

I find that getting myself out of my own head and reorienting myself as one small piece of the vastness that is God’s creation helps, a lot. When I realize that I am just one piece of a much greater whole, when I can breathe deeply and stand firmly, when I allow the quiet to envelop me, the Holy Spirit speaks to me, my imagination is engaged and the possibilities for my life are unleashed.

I guess my message is to hurry up and slow down! Make being quiet part of your routine, and then prepare yourself to be prodded, poked and enlightened by the Holy Spirit. For it is when we can receive the message of the Holy Spirit that discernment happens.

It is there and it is then, that we discover just who it is our gracious and life-giving God intends us to be. Enjoy the ride!

The Rev. Canon Cathy Dempesy-Sims is Canon for Connections in the Diocese of Western New York. 

A Message from Bishop Sean

Dear Friends,

As we approach the season of Advent and look to a new Church year, I want to take this opportunity to share some news with you about our future together with Western New York and a time of sabbatical for me.  As you know, I completed four and a half years as Bishop provisional of the Diocese of Bethlehem in September. I am so grateful for the experience and for the gifts our diocese shared with our brothers and sisters in Eastern Pennsylvania.

Last week, our two dioceses approved an arrangement whereby I will serve as the Bishop provisional of the Diocese of Western New York and remain bishop in this diocese for five years beginning April 5, 2019. This move made history in The Episcopal Church as the first such experiment structured in this way. Leave it to the good people of our region to take a risk in leading the Church.

In preparation for this new season, I will take a time of sabbatical beginning December 3 and ending February 24.  This will be a time of reflection, prayer, discernment, and continuing education. I plan to disconnect from the life of the diocese during this time and appreciate your understanding.

As you are aware, the diocesan administration is in good hands.  The diocesan staff is prepared to address the day to day operations of the diocese and meet your needs.

These past 11 years as your bishop have been a joy-filled privilege. I look forward to the next season with great anticipation.

Warmest regards and prayers for each of you,

+ Sean

Convention 2018 Wrap-Up

It was a historic convention this year in Niagara Falls! Following fourteen months of prayer, meetings, and discernment, the Diocese of Western New York elected Bishop Sean to be their bishop provisional for the next five years, officially embarking on a collaborative relationship with the Diocese of NWPA.

Prior to voting on Friday afternoon, keynote speaker the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, talked about embarking on an unknown future and how the church can meet the challenges of what comes next, including her Top Ten List of things for church leaders to remember in times of change (the full text of the address is available at the House of Deputies website). After President Jennings spoke, the election was held and, when the final tally was announced, the crowd gave a standing ovation.

Bishop Sean addressed both dioceses Saturday morning to discuss our shared future (a full video of the speech is available here). The bishop also announced that, in preparation for this new season, he will take a time of sabbatical from December through February.

Following the address, the two conventions separated for business and elections for offices and voting on resolutions occurred. The Rev. Dr. Mary Norton and Craig Dressler were elected to Standing Committee, the Rev. Melinda Hall and Jeff Mills won seats on Diocesan Council, the Rev. Canon Brian Reid and Kathy Rogers were elected to the Constitution and Canons committee, and the Rev. Geoff Wild, Anne Bardol, and Matthew Ciszek were elected to represent the diocese at the Provincial Synod.

The 2019 budget and assessments, as well as the 2019 minimum stipends for clergy, were passed as presented, and the resolution to establish a drug and alcohol committee was passed as edited to be in compliance with the Constitution and Canons. A special resolution was also passed in memory of Lois Tamplin, long-time member of St. John’s, Sharon and known to many at convention for her efforts in supporting the Church Periodical Club.  The convention raised $369.50 in her honor, which the bishop matched, to make a total donation of $739.00 given to the CPC in her memory.

It was announced that convention next year will be held at a time and place to be determined after conferring with the Diocese of Western New York.

Many thanks to all of the staff and volunteers who made convention possible, and to the delegates for taking time out of their busy schedules to conduct the business of the church.

All of the passed resolutions and materials from other presentations can be found on our website.

As Bishop Sean says: It’s a Great Day in the Kingdom!

A Head Start

At our fall retreat in September at Chautauqua, ECW got a head start on “working together to deepen relationships” as Bishop Sean said in his presentation at the joint Convention with the Diocese of Western New York. The ECW Board sent invitations to the retreat to New York’s southern tier churches.  To our delight, eight women, lay and clergy,  responded and attended our event.

Barbara Sheakey, assisted by Sharon Kestler, presented a program about women’s role in American Indian spirituality and gave us a first person view of Native American customs and beliefs from Alaska, the Midwest, Canada and Mexico, illustrated by many artifacts that turned the living room of the Episcopal Cottage into a virtual museum.  Luncheon was also inspired by Native American food.  At the end of the day, Barbara ushered us through making a Hopi Indian “prayer stick.”

One woman from the Diocese of Western New York asked if she could sign up ahead for next year’s retreat.  That was what we were hoping  for – a renewed enthusiasm in learning, loving and living with God, which is what our guests brought to our retreat.

Diane Pyle is secretary of the Episcopal Church Women of DioNWPA. 

Bishop Rowe’s Statement on Tree of Life Shooting

Dear People of God in the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania:

On hearing the news that a number of people had been murdered during Saturday morning services at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh by a gunman shouting anti-Semitic statements, my friend Elizabeth Drescher took to Twitter, where she offered these verses from Psalm 55:

My heart is in anguish within me,

the terrors of death have fallen upon me.

Fear and trembling come upon me,

and horror overwhelms me.

The words of the psalmist—indeed, any words—are inadequate to express my deep grief and condolences to the Jewish community of Pittsburgh and to Jewish people across the country who are reeling from this hate-filled attack on peaceful people at prayer. There is no place in our churches, our communities, or our country for anti-Semitism.

The verses speak not only to this latest mass shooting, but also to the reality of our daily lives in a time of increasing ideological and partisan violence. Earlier this week, a gunman shot two black shoppers at a Kroger’s near Louisville, but did not shoot a white man, to whom he said, “Whites don’t shoot whites.” News of this outrage competed for airtime with another, as pipe bombs were mailed to prominent critics of President Trump.

My friends in Christ, we are in the grip of a spiritual sickness. This illness manifests itself in our debased civil discourse, which is rife with charge and countercharge but lacks individuals willing to take responsibility for the violence their rhetoric spawns. It makes itself known both in the massacres of innocent people and the cowardice of a Congress unwilling even to consider legislation that would keep weapons such as the AR-15 used in today’s shooting out of the hands of hate-filled ideologues. And while the sickness demeans and endangers every one of us, it presents a particular threat to religious, racial, ethnic and sexual minorities whose lives are held cheap by those whom reckless politicians and pundits incite.

In circumstances such as these the church has a mission: to comfort the afflicted, to sow seeds of peace, and to advocate for justice. In prayerful humility, let us be about it.

Faithfully,

 

Here and Now

The Holy Spirit blows where she wills, upsetting old patterns and blowing life into old adages we wear as badges, like “Careful what you wish for…you might just get it.”  Such has been the case in my life. When the first note of a priestly calling began to ring in my heart at the age of 24 years old, I was an NYU Grad Student living in Brooklyn.  The single note resounded to the core of my being and wishing to be a priest more than anything, I entered the discernment process.

Discernment requires copious research and reflection…so I read many books about the vocation; I talked to countless priests about it; and I imagined and dreamed about how becoming a priest would meet all of my desires both for service and identity.  I would be something—complete with a title, a uniform and role.

So as I began the discernment process with the requisite internship at a neighboring parish, and endured a barrage of psychological testing, all seemed to fall into place.  I even found a job working for the Episcopal Church Center (aka 815) while I waited to go to seminary.  When the time came for the interviews with “the powers that be”, all went well, and I was granted postulancy and seminary loomed on the near horizon, I thought I had it made.  I delayed going to seminary because I was learning so much working on the staff of the Presiding Bishop.

And that’s when things started to go sideways.  I was young in the ways of the world and didn’t realize how power is wielded.  It never occurred to me that the Bishop might not be the one calling the shots.  Unfortunately, as it turned out the Bishop was terribly sick and falling completely under the sway of alcoholism.  And although to my eyes it looked like he was in charge, it was his Canon who ran the diocese.  And so instead of listening to the suggestions of the Bishop, I should have paid more attention to the woman behind the ‘episcopal’ screen.  I didn’t and for that I was given an opportunity for correction.

My permission to go to seminary was revoked and I was quasi-kicked out the ordination process.  I had no status, but as my obedience still being observed, I was still being told where I should go to church and I was required to spend Saturdays doing local theology and bible classes at a local school of theology.   I’ll spare you the retelling of the anguish I experienced during this three-year period—of my scheming to find a new diocese and bishop, of my decision to nearly give up on becoming a priest and the sorted dealings through which the “powers that be” finally sent me off to seminary.

The discernment time at seminary became one of intentional formation and I grew as a one-day priest in training.  And at yet, as I finished seminary and the time for ordination approached—some 8 years after the desire to be a priest emerged in my heart—the notion that I should “Be careful what you wish for” finally struck home.  Throughout all of this time, I had expected becoming a priest to feel magical.  And while the day was very affirming…and my wish was finally fulfilled, being a priest didn’t make me feel any different.  I was still me.  No extra-significant sense of calling, no special illumination from the Holy Spirit.

You see, once we arrive at the wished-for reality and it almost never ends up being not for what we hoped.  As so, the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to here and NOW.

That is precisely what I learned after my ordination…I realized how many years I had fretted and worried, schemed and agonized. In the end, very little of it really mattered.  It only served to distract me from the really priestly work that all of us are called to participate in.  The truth is that God is not really interested in our wishes for significant and pronounced service—God simply wants us to open our eyes to the need around us NOW and to serve:  “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. “

Actually, this was the lesson I learned on the day of my ordination. You see a new bishop had been elected and when he arrived at the church, he found me changing my then three-year-old son’s VERY poopy diaper.  We were chatting and getting to know one another as I worked.  It was when I wrapped up the diaper, that I realized, much to my horror, that the bishop was standing between me and the trashcan.  He must have seen the panicked look on my face and without missing a bit.  He silently coaxed me into handing him the diaper and he quickly deposited it in the trash—without missing a beat in the conversation.

It was this simple act that truly taught me what it means to be a priest…what it means to be truly human.  If you want to be great, you must serve.  Whatever journey we are on…whatever “wish” we are working to make reality, let us practice true discernment and listen for the Holy Spirit.

The Rev. Luke Fodor is rector of St. Luke’s Church, Jamestown, NY.