A Good Work Begun

Given the baptismal theology of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, that is that baptism is “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church,” it has often been said that Confirmation is left as something of a vestigial service, a liturgy in search of a theology.  While I’ve not done the deep research to confirm, I have it on good authority that in the months leading up to the 1976 General Convention, it was thought that Confirmation would not end up in the final draft of the revised Book of Common prayer.  Evidence in the book suggests that even as it was inserted late in the game, its placement in Pastoral Offices, rather than the Episcopal Services, betrays the fact that many thought that it was unlikely Confirmation would stick around as the thing bishops did when they showed up in a parish.


Deep within this vestigial liturgy, tucked way behind eight graders looking to graduate from Sunday school and that certain kind of person who actually takes changing traditions seriously enough to mark it liturgically by way of Reception, is the possibility for one to reaffirm their Christian faith.  It gets nary a mention in Concerning the Service or the Additional Directions, so we’ve had to kind of make up what it means.  Still, I think it is actually the most useful portion of this service, and we ignore it to our detriment.  Although it only gets less than three lines of text, the prayer that the bishop is to pray for those who are reaffirming their baptismal promises is a powerful one:

N., may the Holy Spirit, who has begun a good work in you, direct and uphold you in the service of Christ and his kingdom. Amen.

If you’ve been reading ahead to Sunday’s Second Lesson from Philippians 1, you might recognize these words as being grounded in Scripture.  In the opening acclamation appointed for Advent 2C, we hear Paul doing his normal thing by heaping prayers and praises upon the heads of the Christians in Philippi.  Included are these words, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

In the Greek, the words translated as “completion” has its root in telos, which means something deeper than simply checking a task off the list.  Instead, the telos of God’s good work begun is its perfect end.  It is Paul’s prayer for the Church in Philippi, and while the Reaffirmation prayer doesn’t include the full text, I believe it is what we are praying for in that service as well.  Those who come to make a public reaffirmation of their baptismal promises do so for a reason.  It might be because they are coming back to the Church after time away.  It may be because they’ve found a new calling in lay ministry.  Whatever it is, the prayer we offer to God on their behalf is that whatever good work has begun, whether 9 weeks or 90 years ago, might be brought to its perfect end, to the benefit of the Kingdom, through God’s direction and upholding.

The Bishop won’t be coming for several months, but this Advent 2, my prayer for each of you, dear readers, is that God’s good work begun in you might be sustained and fulfilled by its perfect completion.


Living into our calling – a sermon

Today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or you can read it here.

Christ Episcopal Church is a community of Christ’s servants who seek to worship God with joy and wonder, learn and grow together, and radiate God’s love to all.  This is how we describe ourselves.  It is also who we believe God has called us to be in this time.  As many of you will recall, this mission statement was developed out of a series of community conversations in which more than one-hundred-fifty members of Christ Church turned out to reflect on the same three questions.  What keeps you coming back to Christ Church?  When have you experienced Christ Church at its best?  And, What additional programs or activities would you like to see added over the next three to five years to help us more fully share the love of God with each other, our community, and the world?  Your Vestry took the notes from these gatherings and in prayerful conversation, tried to discern what themes and images seemed to come to the fore.  Three areas of ministry came into focus: worship, discipleship, and outreach, and from there, our mission statement was born.

Mission Statement Slide

Now, mission statements are, more often than not, absolutely useless.  They get printed on letterhead and published on websites, and are never thought of again.  Many are made up simply of buzzwords and vague ideals, leaving them to be nothing more than drivel taking up space on a hard drive somewhere.  We didn’t want our mission statement to fall into the abyss, and so the vestry completed its retreat by setting three vision goals to help us more fully live into who we say we are and who we think God is calling us to be.  Each ministry area mentioned in the mission statement got a goal.  For worship, our goal is to explore opportunities to enhance our worship of God.  In discipleship, we hope to broaden participation in Christian formation.  In outreach, we want to reestablish the Outreach Ministry Team.  That was August.  It is safe to say that while I believe our mission statement continues to stay at the forefront of our minds, our work toward implementing these goals has been very slow going for a variety of reasons.

Earlier this week, I wrote a blogpost entitled “Motive, Means, and Opportunity.”  In it, I reflected on what I have learned from years of watching cop shows, which has, as you might imagine, made me something of an expert in criminal investigations.  With my keen eye, I never fail to have no clue who committed the crime, while Cassie usually has it figured out before the first commercial break.  One thing I have pieced together is that for an investigation to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt, the detectives must show motive, means, and opportunity.  Motive is, of course, the reason a crime was committed.  Means is the ability to do the crime.  Opportunity requires it be proved that the suspect was present at the scene during the time in which the crime was committed.

I found myself coming back to that post again and again this week, especially as I thought about today’s annual meeting, our Mission Statement, and the lessons appointed for this morning.  As I’ve thought more about it, I’ve become convinced that it isn’t just crimes that require motive, means, and opportunity, but everything we do comes down to these three things.  Take, for example, the story of Jonah.  This morning, we only hear a small piece of a larger story that is all about motive, means, and opportunity.  God first came to the great prophet near the city of Joppa.  God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, an Assyrian city, to declare God’s judgment upon them.  It seems reasonable to assume that Jonah had the means to perform this important task.  He was most likely already a trusted prophet of God.  He had shared difficult news of God’s judgment before.  And even if he wasn’t, in stories of faith like these, God’s grace ensures qualification.  Even if Jonah had never before spoken a word from God, simply in being called, Jonah was made qualified.

It is also clear that Jonah had the opportunity to preach the message God had given him.  As the story unfolds, we hear that, clearly, Jonah did not have another, more pressing matter, to attend to.  Jonah could have easily made his way to Nineveh to proclaim the message of God’s judgment upon that evil and violent city.  Jonah had the means and the opportunity to follow God’s call.  What Jonah lacked was motivation.  Immediately upon receiving the word from the Lord, Jonah made his way onto a boat sailing in the opposite direction.  Even with God providing the means and the opportunity, the very human part of following God’s call is the motive.  Jonah didn’t want to bother with Nineveh because he knew that God was compassionate, and that God would show mercy even upon a city that was the enemy of Israel.  So, Jonah fled.  God pursued Jonah; creating a massive storm that threatened to destroy the boat.  When the crew threw Jonah overboard, God appointed a fish to swallow and protect Jonah.  Three days later, Jonah was returned to dry land, and God once again called him to go to Nineveh to proclaim judgment.  Jonah relented, made the prophecy of God.  Just as Jonah had suspected, the people of Nineveh repented, and God forgave them their sins.  When Jonah finally put motive, means, and opportunity together, the will of God that all people might be restored to right relationship with God and one another came into being.

Everything we do requires motive, means, and opportunity, even our mission and vision here at Christ Church.  As of Thursday evening, with Becca’s ordination to the priesthood, and for the first time in several years, Christ Episcopal Church is fully equipped with means and opportunity.  We are fully staffed, more so than ever before in fact, with two priests, a deacon, and four lay employees.  Our 2018 budget of more than three-quarters of a million dollars is within seven-hundredths of one percent of being balanced.  Your willingness to offer your gifts of time and talent mean that we are well equipped to meet whatever challenges God might place before us.  We have the means.

In the late 1980s, the members of Christ Church made the decision to embrace fully what it meant to be a downtown church.  Being a downtown congregation, whether it is in Foley, Alabama, Chicago, Illinois, or Bowling Green, Kentucky means that the opportunities for ministry are endless.  Seven blocks in that direction is Dishman McGinnis Elementary School, where every child receives free breakfast and lunch, and dozens still wait on a list, hoping to be assigned a mentor.  Seven blocks the other way are hundreds of middle-class and upper-middle-class families whose lives are so busy, they can’t figure out how to eat dinner together or even begin to imagine finding time to come to church.  With Western’s Campus only few blocks away, we hear clearly a call to serve its students, faculty, and staff.  Across the street, many of our neighbors living in the Towers are barely hanging on to the first rung of the American Dream, while right next door, the homeless line up, waiting to warm up in the library when it opens this afternoon.  Opportunity abounds.

As we heard in Becca’s ordination service, priests are called to care alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.  We can’t do it alone.  Instead, I see my job as the Rector of Christ Church to be one of motivator, encourager, and cheerleader.  With great means and plenty of opportunity, the coming year will be one of growing motivation to live into our mission, to attain our goals, and, above all, to spread the Good News of God’s salvation for all people.  As I wrote in my annual report, “with a full staff, a healthy budget, and an empowered and excited membership, there is no telling what God might have in mind for us.”  I look forward to continuing the journey God has planned for us as we worship with joy and wonder, learn and grow together, and radiate God’s love to all in 2018.  May God bless us in this work.  Amen.


What is a Congregation? An #Acts8 BLOGFORCE Challenge

I’m a day late and a dollar short in answering this week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge, but since it is the first of a three-part series, I figure I should go ahead and write this post in order to be ready for what is to come.  This week’s question is What is the mission of the congregation?  A follow up question is added to raise the level of difficulty: How should it be structured to serve its mission?  Here goes.

I can’t answer “What is the mission of the congregation?” without first thinking about the mission of my congregation.  Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Foley, Alabama is part of God’s mission, as the Catechism says, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP, 855).  We do that in a very particular way because Christianity, especially Anglican Christianity, is very much an incarnational religion.  Our work is specific to the particularities of who we are and where we are.  Building on the more generic mission statement of the Church, Saint Paul’s makes this claim:

Saint Paul’s is a ministering community: reaching up in worship; reaching in to serve; reaching out in love; to the glory of Jesus Christ.

2015-02-07 09.27.02

Pill packing for the Diocesan DR Medical Mission Trip is a verb.

The mission of the congregation is to be a verb: actively participating in God’s mission in the world.  So it is that Saint Paul’s is a ministering community.  Ministering is a verb, it is something we do, specifically, we “attend to the needs of others.” In order to attend to the needs of others, we actively seek out those who have needs.  Before we do so, however, we first find our strength and our hope in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We worship: in word, song, bread and wine, we find ourselves tied in with the mission of God throughout the generations in order to find unity with God.  We are nourished at the table, through fellowship, discipleship, and by being cared for, genuinely loved, by others in our community in order to find unity with one another.  Then, and only then, are we properly equipped to reach beyond our walls to love and serve the wider world.

The follow-up question is a difficult one because every context is different.  The structure that suits a congregation of 500 wouldn’t match well for a Mission of 30 or a parish of 3,000. Again, taking my congregation as an example, for 50 years, Saint Paul’s has been a Pastoral Size congregation.  Add to that a long string of only male priests, and you have a strong “Father knows best” mentality at work, even though, historically, it has been strong lay leadership that founded, built, and sustained this place through lean years up through the second World War and some pretty crummy priests in the 1960s and 70s.  We are attempting to reignite lay leadership in this place, but it isn’t easy.  It isn’t easy for the clergy to give up control and it isn’t easy for the laity to work muscles that have been at ease for a while.  Ideally, the structure is relatively horizontal: with clergy and lay leadership working together to facilitate mission activities like worship, discipleship, fellowship, and outreach, but as we all well know, there are plenty of ways to make sure that ministry happens on the local level.

Stay tuned for posts pondering the Diocese and the Churchwide structure, and be sure to join the Acts 8 TweetChat, Monday, February 9th at 8pm, Central.