Something of Eternal Value

Each year, the clergy of the diocese gather in late February for a pre-Lenten retreat. It’s a time of reflection and fellowship and learning. Several years ago, our retreat focused on the mission of the Church. We had presentations from a consultant who works with non-profit agencies using business models and asked us to consider our work in those terms as well. We know the church isn’t a business in the traditional sense, but there is no reason that we can’t use tools from that world to be more effective in our work for the Kingdom.

I was particularly struck by her insistence that successful organizations have clarity of purpose and understanding of what their “product” is. In church terms, the question relates to what the purpose or goal of our evangelism is. What are we inviting people to? Are we trying to sell them on our way of worship? Are we trying to get them to join our church the same way other folks might try to get them to join the Bradford Club or Kiwanis? I’m afraid sometimes churches have engaged in evangelism with those very things in mind.

As much as I balk at the idea of “selling” in connection with faith, I realize that if we must use those terms then I wanted to be sure that we are offering something of eternal value. The purpose of our evangelism, of our inviting others to join us in our faith journey, must be no less than to invite them to have their lives transformed by a relationship with Jesus Christ.

As Episcopalians, we believe that the best place to encounter Christ is in community through worship and the sacraments. Our evangelism focuses on calling others into relationship with our church family so that they may share with us in being transformed through a relationship with Jesus. We are not perfect people – we can’t claim perfection in worship or fellowship or discipleship. If all we have to offer is ourselves then we really won’t be terribly successful. But if we remember that we are offering so much more – a priceless treasure, the very Living Water that Christ pours out on us and through us – then we indeed have a “product” that everyone we encounter longs for.

As we move through this Lent toward Easter joy, may we be ever aware of the precious gift we have to share and re-commit ourselves to boldly offering it to others – not for our own, but for Christ’s sake.

The Rev. Stacey Fussell is Rector of Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Bradford. 

Exploring Fasting, Part II

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  Matthew 6:16-18

In Part 1 of this series, I looked at why fasting is important.  In this post, I want to focus on the practical aspects of fasting.  The Bible commends fasting, but does not present a clear set of instructions on the best ways to incorporate fasting into a regular spiritual discipline.  On top of that, certain churches may commend or require a particular fasting discipline for certain days or seasons without providing more general instructions.

Fasting is voluntarily giving up some kinds of food and/or drink for a certain period of time for a particular purpose.  Depending on the fast, someone might give up everything but water, or someone might give up all solid food but drink whatever they want, or someone might give up anything with calories in it, but still drink coffee, tea and water.

Partial fasts are also possible.  Instead of not eating at all, people may eat much smaller meals for a particular period of time.  A partial fast may also involve not eating certain foods, like in the first chapter of Daniel, when Daniel and his companions refused the king’s rations and ate only vegetables and water.  Some Christian traditions refer to times of not eating meat as days of abstinence.

The duration of a fast can also vary.  An initial fast might be giving up a meal for a particular intention.  A day-long fast is a common duration, and can last from midnight to midnight.  John Wesley, and others, recommended fasts beginning at sundown, which was the beginning of the Hebrew day, and going until the next day at 3:00pm.  Generally fasting from after dinner one day until dinner the next day makes for an effective 24-hour fast that is a bit less taxing than going all day without food and then going to bed hungry.  Once people are accustomed to a day-long fast, the Holy Spirit could lead them to a longer fast.

Of course, any kind of fast should only be undertaken if a person’s health can handle it.  Diabetics, people taking medications that must accompany food, or people with certain medical issues should probably not do a total fast.  Everyone can, however, do some kind of partial fast.  For people without a discipline of fasting, the important first step is to start with a small or partial fast and let the Holy Spirit lead them more deeply as time goes on.

One particular instruction that Jesus does give is to wash our faces and not be dismal while fasting.  These directives are important guards against hypocrisy and pride.  At the same time, Jesus knows that a particular danger of going without food is that people tend to get grumpy.  The point of fasting, however, is not to make everyone around us miserable, or to let them know just how much we are sacrificing.  A good rule of thumb is that we are not undertaking any spiritual discipline properly if others want to avoid us while we are doing it.  Instead, we should do our best to look good and act with extra love, care and generosity while fasting.  Then our heavenly Father, who see in secret, will reward us, and our intentions can move forward.

I hope that you will take an opportunity during Lent this year to explore the spiritual discipline of fasting more deeply, and that you will find ways to continue it throughout the year.  In addition to your other intentions, please include our diocese and congregations in your intentions as you fast.

The Rev. Adam Trambley is rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sharon. 

Exploring Fasting, Part I

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  Matthew 6:16-18

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus assumes that regular fasting will be a part of his disciples’ rhythm of spiritual life.  Certainly, he commends fasting with the right intentions and in the right ways, but he also assures us that fasting is rewarded by our heavenly Father.

In this post, I want to talk about how fasting is particularly important to us as a spiritual discipline.  Then the next post will look at some practical aspects of fasting.

First, fasting acts as a particularly powerful form of prayer.  When we fast, we pray with our whole bodies.  We know how to pray with our minds and with our voices, but we are incarnate people and fasting allows our entire bodies to pray.  When we fast, we tell God that as long as we are not eating (or as long as we are not eating certain foods) we are going to be in prayer.  Our rumbling tummy and sagging energy are reminders to us that we are using our entire beings for prayer.  When our focus may be on work, or errands, or even cooking dinner for our family, our bodies are continuing to pray.  We are praying constantly while we fast, because as long as we are not eating, we have signaled to God that we are praying – and God honors that intention.  No matter what kind of prayer we are engaging, when we fast, we supercharge those prayers.  We remember the woman who ceaselessly nags the unjust judge in Jesus’ parable in Luke 18.  Finally, the judge wears down and grants her petition.  When we fast, we become like that woman, offering a constant cry before the throne of heaven for our prayer intentions.

The other important benefit of fasting is that it helps us reign in our appetites.  As 21st-century Americans, we live in a consumerist utopia of immediate gratification.  We can eat dessert at every meal, in addition to between meals.  We can eat more meat than almost anyone in history.  We can have people prepare foods from the other side of the world for us for a couple of bucks, and get irritated if they take too long.  In this kind of world, we need opportunities to tell ourselves “no”.  We need to be able to train our appetites to take direction in ways that are good for us.  If we can deny ourselves food for a day, maybe we can also deepen our self-control in other aspects of our life. Maybe we can control our tongues when a piece of juicy gossip or a harsh word is on its tip.  Maybe we can turn off the TV or the Facebook feed when we should really be saying our prayers before bed.  Maybe we can find the energy to go help someone with something when we might rather stay home and do nothing.  Maybe we can curb our own ego a bit to be more loving and generous with those around us.  Fasting offers us the opportunity to train ourselves to do the right thing.  If we can walk by the Snickers bar when we haven’t eaten lunch, we are in a much better position to resist more harmful temptations in other aspects of our lives.

Both of these benefits are especially helpful in relation to repentance.  Fasting often accompanies repentance because when we are repenting we need serious prayer and the ability to increase our self-discipline.  God doesn’t need us to fast in order to forgive us, but we may need to fast in order to do the work to turn our lives around.  Our prayers of repentance will be strengthened by fasting as we pray for healing and wholeness for those we have harmed and to implore God to lead us not into temptation so that we do not fall again.  At the same time, saying “no” to ourselves in fasting should strengthen us in saying “no” to future sin.  Additionally, just the discomfort of fasting can provide an additional barrier to relapsing.  If the last time we robbed a bank, we felt a need to fast for two days, the next time bank robbery presents itself, even if we don’t decline based on a renewed moral compass, we might pass so we don’t have to give up food for two more days.

Fasting will almost always accompany serious repentance, but repentance is not the only reason to fast.  Any prayer will be boosted by fasting.  Significant prayer efforts, like those for an increase in evangelism, church planting, and church revitalization, will almost certainly require a fasting component.  I hope you will consider exploring fasting more deeply during this Lenten season.

The Rev. Adam Trambley is rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sharon. 

View part II of this series here

Invitation to the Diocesan Prayer Vigil – March 17 & 18

altar-boy-1190759_1920The conviction that praying shapes believing is part of our Anglican heritage.  Prayer is a core practice of our Christian faith and serves as both a foundation and covering for our common mission.

I invite you to join me in prayer for our diocese at St. John’s, Sharon, on March 17-18 from noon to noon.  We will set aside 24 hours to pray for each other, our common life and mission, and our communities.

Please join us as you are able.  I recognize that not everyone will be able to join us in Sharon, but I hope that you will offer prayer from wherever you are during that time.

+Sean

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The schedule for the prayer vigil is below.  As you can see on the schedule, we will be praying from noon to noon with services and events planned throughout the vigil.  All are welcome to join us for any portion of the vigil, whether that be attending a single service, coming just to pray on your own for a time, or being present for the full 24 hours.  There will be food provided throughout our time.

We will also have a form on the website for those who would like to submit prayer requests to be prayed over by our intercessors.  You are welcome to submit as many as you would like.

If you have any questions about this event or submitting a prayer request, please contact Vanessa.

Schedule for Prayer Vigil
March 17-18
St. John’s, Sharon
12:00 PM       Stations of the Cross
2:30 PM         Centering Prayer teaching and prayer time
5:30 PM         Evening Prayer
7:00 PM         Healing Service
10:00 PM      Compline
11:00 PM       Oral Reading of Book of Revelation
12:00 AM      Private Prayer/Intercession over submitted prayers
7:00 AM         Morning Prayer and Praise
9:00 AM        Prayerwalk & prayers for community
11:00 AM       Eucharist
12:00 PM      Lunch with St. John’s Family Kitchen (if you wish to stay)

Allowing the Spirit to Do Its Work

Reposted from the Church Foundation’s Vital Practices. By Jeremiah Sierra on February 8, 2016

light_through_church_windowsWhen you write, you can’t control how others interpret your words. Not completely, anyway.
I was reminded of this after I wrote some reflections for Forward Day by Day. These are daily meditations on the lectionary that go out to Episcopalians all over the country. The responses I receive vary widely. Some people send me kind notes. Others use the reflections as a springboard for their own thoughts. After one mediation that briefly mentioned climate change, I received one long email questioning my belief that climate change is real.
Ultimately, you can only put your work out there and hope that others will find it meaningful or useful, even if the words don’t always come across as you’d intended.
This is true of every word we speak and our liturgy, as well. Take Ash Wednesday, for example. Some understand it as the beginning of Lent, a time of reflection. Some simply stop in the church to get their ashes before heading back out to work, a visible reminder of a deeply felt if not regularly practiced faith. Maybe they only go to church on Easter and Christmas. Others go to the Ash Wednesday Eucharist and will go again on Sunday, as they go every week.

Likewise, some people understand Lent as part of a larger cycle of the year, and others simply think of it as they time they give chocolate up.
We know that Episcopal liturgy is carefully considered. It is part of a long tradition and each element has meaning. The church should take that meaning seriously and do everything it can to teach people about what Ash Wednesday and Lent mean and help them use that season fully to deepen their spiritual lives. But ultimately there’s only so much you can do. Many people will stop by to get their ashes without fully understanding the tradition behind it, but that doesn’t mean that God can’t work with that. And if some people give something up for Lent and do nothing else, maybe their lives will be improved in some way.
The liturgy of the Episcopal Church, the prayers and songs and the theology behind them is a great gift that the church has to offer. Not everyone has the time or inclination to learn about the meaning behind our liturgy or participate fully. We can’t control how people experience and understand Lent, nor should we try. Ultimately, we can simply offer what we have and let go, and hope that others find meaning and hope in it. Occasionally, it helps to ask ourselves: Are we’re holding on too tightly to our traditions? Are we insisting that others understand them as we do rather than allowing the spirit to do its to work?

Lent Madness Brackets Released

2016 Lent Madness Bracket Released

LM-Bracket-Poster-2016-1024x691While much of the world is recovering from the Halloween sugar high, another segment of the population is casting their collective eye toward the church’s season of Lent. It may be more than three months away, but the 2016 bracket of 32 saints has been officially released by the Lent Madness Supreme Executive Committee.

For the seventh year running, people worldwide are gearing up for Lent Madness, the “saintly smackdown” in which 32 saints do battle to win the coveted Golden Halo. This all kicks off on “Ash Thursday,” February 11, but with the bracket release rabid fans of the saints are already picking this year’s favorites.

The bracket is released every year on All Brackets’ Day, November 3. This momentous day in the church year follows All Saints’ Day (11/1) and All Souls’ Day (11/2) to complete this early November trinity of feast days.

In response to a question about why people should think about Lent in November, Lent Madness creator, the Rev. Tim Schenck, says, “It’s all part of our diabolical plan to create a year-round Lent. Why be penitential for just 40 days and 40 nights? And if you can walk into some big box store and see Christmas decorations in August, why can’t you walk into your local coffee shop and see purple lights strung up in November?”

The Rev. Canon Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement and Schenck’s Lent Madness co-conspirator, agrees. “The Lent-Industrial complex is alive, well and thriving. We’re simply tapping into it in order to get people talking about saints throughout the year.”

This year Lent Madness features an intriguing slate of saints ancient and modern, Biblical and ecclesiastical. 2016 heavyweights include Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Clare of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Sojourner Truth, Joseph, Columba, and Albert Schweitzer. It also includes several intriguing matchups including Roch vs. Gertrude (patron saints of dogs and cats, respectively); Elmo vs. Barnabas (aka Elmo vs. Barney); and Cyril vs. Methodius (the Slavic Smackdown).

The full bracket is online at the Lent Madness website www.lentmadness.org.

New to Lent Madness? Here’s how it works: on the weekdays of Lent, information is posted at www.lentmadness.org about two different saints. Each pairing remains open for 24 hours as participants read about and then vote to determine which saint moves on to the next round. Sixteen saints make it to the Round of the Saintly Sixteen; eight advance to the Round of the Elate Eight; four make it to the Faithful Four; two to the Championship; and the winner is awarded the Golden Halo.

The first round consists of basic biographical information about each of the 32 saints. Things get a bit more interesting in the subsequent rounds as we offer quotes and quirks, explore legends, and even move into the area of saintly kitsch.

For those seeking an advanced list of all 32 first round bios along with a personal full-color bracket, the Saintly Scorecard: The Definitive Guide to Lent Madness 2016 will be available through Forward Movement in January.

Like that other March tournament, there will be drama and intrigue, upsets and thrashings, last-minute victories and Cinderellas. Unlike professional and collegiate sporting events, there is no admission cost for Lent Madness, but souvenirs are available in the “Lentorium” part of the Lent Madness website.

So let the saintly games begin! Well, in three months or so.

Forward Movement inspires disciples and empowers evangelists by offering digital resources, books, pamphlets, conferences, and its flagship publication, Forward Day by Day. A ministry of The Episcopal Church since 1935, Forward Movement has offices in Cincinnati, Ohio. Learn more at www.forwardmovement.org.

About Sin and Ash Wednesday; a Testimony!

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Ash Wednesday morning sitting in the chapel of St. Stephen’s, Fairview, watching the beautiful snow fall at different paces, listening to the familiar words of the Ash Wednesday Liturgy I became mystically aware of my own sinfulness. The many patterns of sin true for all of us were true for me as well and stuck out like a beautiful cardinal against the backdrop of a grayish winter day. Just as easily my consciousness wished and willed them to fly away in search of roosting somewhere else, but that wasn’t what Jesus had in mind for Ash Wednesday.

All sin, the monk said, points towards good things. My deepest yearning is for love; a special love desired at a young age and absent; a special love that becomes the object of a lifelong search. The objective of sin is always good. It’s the methodology that causes problems. Throughout my life this yearning, perhaps placed by God; more likely initially placed by God and further fueled with desire in part due to my family of origin; this yearning, this vast sea of emptiness became an obsession in hopes that somehow and miraculously the yearning would be removed through the right therapy, the best spiritual experience, or the perfect relationship. This didn’t come from the outside, however, this all came from the inside and as Jesus says it’s what comes from the inside that causes us difficulty. Imagine the pressure on the people around me.

Sins are old friends. We tend to have the same ones and repeat them over and over again. If you have a yearning as I do, then you know the many ways one might go about trying to satisfy such a vacuum. Mind you; we don’t want to repeat them it’s just that our needs sometimes outweigh our wisdom and we crack; we break and unbeknownst to us we are broken more. That’s what unrecognized sins do: they break ourselves from the inside out.

Once we see the sins we repeat again and again and once we listen to the sins of others we learn that we have much in common with our brothers and sisters in this life and in this world. “All sin and fall short of the glory of God.” One author said these sins are like a rock we carry around with us wherever we go. Others look at us and wonder why we just don’t drop the rock. Well, first of all, we might not be able to see the rock we are carrying; or we may be more comfortable with the rock albeit it burdensome; or we’re convinced no one’s sins are as great as our own. Ironically we can even be special in our sinfulness.

The yearning will not go away and thus the beauty of the ashes. Jesus’ redemption now helps me see that the yearnings of my heart are an essential part of who I am; Jesus actually loves me through and with the yearnings.   And His redemption is that there are other ways to live with the yearnings of the human heart that don’t break us and don’t involve sin. But to get there one must first be honest and while the snow was gently falling outside St. Stephen’s in Fairview the Beloved sat next to me, held my hand, and said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free”. There was a loud sound; beware of falling rocks.

Canon Al Johnson

Lent Madness 2015: Which saint will win the Golden Halo?

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For the sixth year running, people worldwide are gearing up for Lent Madness, the “saintly smackdown” in which thirty-two saints do battle to win the coveted Golden Halo. Calling itself the world’s most popular online Lenten devotion, Lent Madness brings together cut-throat competition, the lives of the saints, humor, and the chance to see how God works in the lives of women and men across all walks of life.

The creator of Lent Madness, the Rev. Tim Schenck, says, “People might think Lent is all about eating dirt and giving up chocolate, but it’s really about getting closer to Jesus.” Schenck, who is rector of St. John’s Church in Hingham, Massachusetts, adds, “The saints aren’t just remote images in stained glass windows or pious-looking statues. They were real people God just happened to use in marvelous ways.”

Lent Madness began on Schenck’s blog in 2010 as he sought a way to combine his love of sports with his passion for the lives of saints. Starting in 2012, he partnered with Forward Movement (the same folks that publish Forward Day by Day), to bring Lent Madness to the masses.

The Rev. Canon Scott Gunn, Schenck’s Lent Madness co-conspirator, says, “Throughout Lent, as we’re having fun with the competition, we are also inspired by how God used ordinary people to do extraordinary things.” Gunn, who is executive director of Forward Movement in Cincinnati, Ohio, adds, “That’s the whole point of the Christian life: to allow God to work in us to share God’s love and proclaim Good News.”

Schenck and Gunn form the self-appointed Supreme Executive Committee, a more-or-less benevolent dictatorship that runs the entire operation. The formula has worked as this online devotional has been featured in media outlets all over the country including NBC, The Washington Post, FOXNews, NPR, USAToday, and even Sports Illustrated (no, really).

Here’s how it works: on the weekdays of Lent, information is posted at www.lentmadness.org about two different saints. Each pairing remains open for 24 hours as participants read about and then vote to determine which saint moves on to the next round. Sixteen saints make it to the Round of the Saintly Sixteen; eight advance to the Round of the Elate Eight; four make it to the Faithful Four; two to the Championship; and the winner is awarded the Golden Halo.

The first round consists of basic biographical information about each of the 32 saints. Things get a bit more interesting in the subsequent rounds as we offer quotes and quirks, explore legends, and even move into the area of saintly kitsch.
This year Lent Madness features an intriguing slate of saints ancient and modern, Biblical and ecclesiastical. 2015 heavyweights include Teresa of Avila, Frederick Douglass, Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Balthazar, and the Venerable Bede. The full bracket is online at the Lent Madness website.

From the “you can’t know the saints without a scorecard” department, the Saintly Scorecard — The Definitive Guide to Lent Madness 2015 is available through Forward Movement. It contains biographies of all 32 saints to assist those who like to fill out their brackets in advance, in addition to a full-color pull-out bracket.

This all kicks off on “Ash Thursday,” February 19. To participate, visit the Lent Madness website, where you can also print out a bracket for free to see how you fare or “compete” against friends and family members. Like that other March tournament, there will be drama and intrigue, upsets and thrashings, last-minute victories and Cinderellas.

Ten “celebrity bloggers” from across the country have been tapped to write for the project including the Rev. Amber Belldene of San Francisco, CA; the Rev. Laurie Brock of Lexington, KY; Dr. David Creech of Morehead, MN; the Rev. Megan Castellan of Kansas City, MO; the Rev. Laura Darling of Oakland, CA; Neva Rae Fox of Somerville, NJ; the Rev. Nancy Frausto of Los Angeles, CA; the Rev. David Hendrickson of Denver, CO; the Rev. Maria Kane of Houston, TX; and the Rev. David Sibley of Manhasset, NY. Information about each of the celebrity bloggers and the rest of the team is available on the Lent Madness website.

If you’re looking for a Lenten discipline that is fun, educational, occasionally goofy, and always joyful, consider this your invitation to join in the Lent Madness journey.

The Reverend Canon Scott Gunn
Executive Director
Forward Movement
www.forwardmovement.org