November 29, 2014

Arm’s Length Generosity

Filed under: Children and Families,Social Gospel,Time and Talent,Uncategorized — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 1:56 pm

My latest inner journey began quite innocently. There was nothing particularly unusual about the Sunday morning: I settled into my pew, opened the bulletin, and began to sift through the various inserts that would shape a good portion of my calendar for the next few weeks. The announcements were things I already knew about, but a special green half-sheet offered something new, “Sign Up for Christmas Giving Opportunities.”

It’s been quite a while since we have been part of a congregation that had an active Angel Tree sort of ministry. This is going to be fun!

There were two invitations to choose from: We could provide gifts for a family in need through our relationship with one of the local food pantries, or we could provide gifts for children of incarcerated people as an extension of our parish jail ministry. Aside from some differences in the details, the guidelines were pretty standard for this sort of outreach…until it came to the delivery instructions:

Gifts are to be wrapped and returned to the church office by Wednesday, December 10th. Please put the recipient’s first name on the gift and use the Family # in place of the last name.

Pretty standard. I can do that.

Gifts are to be wrapped and delivered to the children’s families several days prior to Christmas. If you prefer not to deliver the gifts yourself, we can arrange delivery for you.

Are you kidding me?! My reaction was immediate and visceral: Not. gonna. happen.

I would love to be high-minded and claim that I was living into the tzedakah, the Jewish practice of generosity that places a higher value on situations in which the giver and the recipient are unknown to one another. But that’s not my truth this time.

I could also claim that it’s somehow more “Christmas-y” for the recipients to receive anonymous gifts. It’s a little more magical, and it preserves the recipients’ dignity. But, again, it’s not the truth.

No, it’s not the face of poverty that’s the problem here. It’s the face of generosity. The real reason that I recoil from the notion of personally delivering gifts to the homes of children whose parents are incarcerated is not because of their situation; it’s because of mine. Abundance is embarrassing. Admitting to my share in Lady Bountiful Syndrome is simply too big a risk, too raw a truth, too real in its disparity. I drop gifts off in the church office for the same reason that I buy neatly wrapped cuts of beef from the grocery store—it tidies up the reality.

Perhaps it would be appropriate, therefore, on this First Sunday in Advent, to make a New Liturgical Year’s Resolution: I am challenging myself to live openly as a generous person, in spirit and in practice. I will learn to put a face on loving my neighbor as myself, to stop hiding from the light of genuine engagement. Will I be ready to deliver the gifts myself next year? I don’t know. I can’t promise that. I can only promise that I will, somehow, be changed.

In the meantime, I’m off to buy “Jenny, Family #16” that sturdy lidded stock pot she’s wishing for.


August 18, 2013

Backpacks and Baptism

Filed under: Children and Families,Social Gospel,Time and Talent — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 2:54 pm

I don’t know how to say this without sounding selfish. I know we’re shopping for donation and I know that my backpack is in good shape and I don’t need a new one. But I can’t help it—that tie-dye backpack is awesome.

And thus it was—right there in the middle of Target—that she encountered her baptism.

 You know what, Sweetheart? I’m glad you love that backpack. The fact that you love it tells me that it’s the perfect choice for our donation shopping. One of the things we talk about a lot in church is the dignity of all people and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Today that means picking out things that we would like to have for ourselves, not just choosing the one that’s least expensive, one that’s just OK. It means that we believe that just because someone’s family relies on the food bank, they shouldn’t have to settle for an ugly backpack.

Teachable moments aren’t just for kids. Mike Piazza, Co-Executive Director of the Center for Progressive Renewal, has one very strict rule for the congregations he pastors: In the back-to-school and holiday seasons, he does not permit financial contributions toward backpacks or food baskets. Anyone who wants to participate must take the shopping list provided in the bulletin/newsletter/website and actually do the shopping.

Piazza’s purpose is not to make giving harder. His purpose is to engage the congregation in hands-on baptismal thinking—he has a genuine pastoral desire for them to experience that moment in the aisle of the grocery store, when they reach for the cheaper store-brand stuffing and think, “I buy the name brand for my family’s Thanksgiving, but this is good enough for the food bank.” He wants them to wrestle with their truth-in-action when loving their neighbor as themselves would add up to a few extra dollars at the check-out.

In my effort to live as a whole and healthy steward of my own baptism, I have certainly wrestled with that truth myself…and with its counter-argument, “If I choose the less expensive one, I can donate more.” But even then, the answer is already contained in the covenant itself: I am vowed to love my neighbor as myself. So yes, I do choose an awesome backpack and I do buy name-brand stuffing for the Thanksgiving boxes. And during our Lenten mac-and-cheese challenge, I buy the same cheap stuff that Mallory’s friends gobble down at every sleepover—not only can I afford to give more that way, but it’s so much fun to watch the mac-and-cheese mountain grow each Sunday!

As many of our congregations are blessing backpacks and looking ahead to holiday baskets and giving trees, think about how these ministries invite us go grow in our baptismal journeys. What truths do you—or your congregation—need to wrestle with? Where does loving your neighbor as yourself trip you up? How do you practice whole and healthy stewardship, right there in the middle of Target?

June 29, 2013

Risky Business

Filed under: Congregational Development,Leadership,Lectionary,Time and Talent — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 2:40 pm

What more does Elijah want?!

Just the other week he was moaning that he was the last of the prophets of Israel…the last of his kind…the end of an era. Who was left to speak the truth of the goodness of Lord to the people? Who would challenge power and authority with the eternal truths of a God so great as ours? What would happen after he was gone?

When he meets Elisha, when he finds the one whom God would favor with the gift of prophesy, he’s absolutely thrilled—he throws his cloak over Elisha, symbolizing that he would be the chosen one. But then Elijah seems to pull back. Elisha becomes a servant rather than a student; his commitment is tested at every turn.

And when Elisha does reveal his discernment of vocation, does Elijah embrace him? Does he express joy and gladness at seeing his own vocation pass into capable hands? NO! He builds in yet more conditions, yet another test. And in the end, even Elisha doesn’t know if he’s “passed” until he strikes the water with Elijah’s mantle.

Does anyone else feel incredibly frustrated by all of this? Does anybody else want to shout, “Come on Elijah, mentor the kid! You need to raise up the one who will come after you. Your work needs continuity. Give the guy a chance.”

But if I step back and really look at it, I see Elijah as incredibly human. I suspect that if we are honest with ourselves, we can all relate to that sense of worry about our life’s work, our community involvement, or some aspect of our baptism. I don’t blame Elijah for sending mixed signals: It’s hard to think about “when I’m not able to do it anymore.”

I can tell you honestly that in my ministry with congregations, the one thing that I hear even more often than “Where will the money come from?” is “Where can we find new people? How can we raise up new leaders? On whom can we throw the mantles of our baptism?”

And so in this morning’s reading from Second Kings, I hear a reminder that part of our own spiritual discipline must be the discipleship of others who might assume our mantles.[i]  By taking joy in mentoring others in the faith, we make one of our most precious offerings: The offering of invitation.

So let’s look at what we can learn from Elijah and Elisha.

First, where do we even find people who would be open to a deeper life in Christ?

Those who study congregational development tell us that most Seekers do not know that they are seeking. Think about that: Most Seekers do not know that they are seeking. That makes them a little hard to reach, don’t you think?

Elijah would completely understand this conundrum. It’s not like Elisha just walked up and said, “I’m thinking about becoming a prophet of YHWH. Do you have any thoughts on how I go about that?” No! Elisha was out plowing his field, minding his own business, when Elijah ran up and threw his mantle on him. That’s exactly the risk that we are called to take when we talk about “doing church differently.” It’s hard. It’s awkward. It feels funny. I’m sure to an on-looker Elijah looked like a nut case. And we know that Elisha was completely caught off guard—“At least let me tie up some loose ends at home! I need to let my parents know I’m leaving!”

But they both took the risk…one reached out and took a chance on a possible apprentice…the other allowed himself to be surprised by joy…and we live today as heirs to the history they shaped.

Second is the invitation itself. We don’t run around throwing cloaks over people any more. Such grand gestures are not particularly suited to “the way Episcopalians behave.” But invitation is nonetheless a powerful—and intimate—offering.

In her book Christianity Beyond Religion, Diana Butler Bass tells the story of being invited to join the Altar Guild of her local parish.[ii] They asked her because they knew she liked to arrange flowers.

Instead of saying yes or no, she asked, “Why?” Here’s what transpired, in Butler Bass’s own words:

“Because I’ve been doing it for thirty-five years,” (the woman) said impatiently, “And I’m really tired. It is time for someone else to do it instead.”

Not exactly an appealing invitation. I turned the offer down.

I suspect that the woman had a rich faith life. I always wondered what might have happened if she had answered the question this way:

You know, I’ve been serving on the altar guild for thirty-five years. Every Sunday, I awake before dawn and come down here to the church. It is so quiet. I come into the building and unlock the sacristy. I open the drawers and take out that altar cloths and laces, so beautifully embroidered with all the colors of the seasons. I unfold them, iron them, and drape them on the altar. Then I go to the closet and take out the silver, making sure it is cleaned and polished. I pour water and wine. While I set the table for the Lord’s Supper, I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to set the table for Jesus and his friends. I’ve meditated on what it must have been like to be there with him. I’ve considered what it will be like when we eat with him in heaven. And I’ve learned a thing or two about service and beauty and community. You know, I’d like to share that with you. I’d like you to learn that too.

I know I would have responded, “Sign me up!”

Invitation is a powerful—and intimate—connection. Offered from a place of faith and discipleship, it invokes the Holy Spirit and strengthens the fabric of community across all that would divide us in time and space.

It is in that presence of the Holy Spirit that we find our third lesson from Elijah’s example.

Of course Elijah knew that Elisha would be his successor. He also knew that the moment of clarity and affirmation was not his to give. Elisha had to claim his mantle. YHWH had to bestow the gift.

And yet, I have to believe that Elijah smiled as we was caught up in the whirlwind. I have to believe that over the roar of chariots and horses of fire his heart was glad when Elisha cried out. I have to believe that Elijah was at peace as his life’s work passed into Elisha’s hands.

So let’s take the risk. Let’s find those people who least expect to be called. Let’s invited them into the joy of discipleship through our baptismal lives. I have to believe that our hearts—and theirs—will be glad.

Let us pray:

Beckoning God,
as you moved in the lives of Elijah and Elisha,
move in our lives,
inviting us to journey to unknown territory,
to listen for your voice,
and to speak your prophetic word
in a world that does not want to hear.
Empowered by your Spirit,
grant us the courage we need
to journey, trust, listen, speak,
and accept your commission
to be your faithful servant people.[iii]


[i] Mitchell, Carrie N. In Bartlett, David and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 176.

[ii] Butler Bass, Diana. Christianity Beyond Religion. Harper One, 2012. p. 153

June 13, 2013

Flat-Out Mission

Have you met Flat Stanley[i]? If there’s an early elementary student within your orbit, you’ve probably been asked to include Stanley in a family event, take him on vacation, or share in one of his adventures…and take lots of photos along the way. For those of us who have not had the pleasure of his company, here’s a little background:

He’s a perfectly normal boy until one morning he wakes up flat. After his parents peel the incriminating bulletin board off of him, Stanley must adjust to life as a pancake. Ending up four feet tall, a foot wide, and half-an-inch thick, Stanley discovers that being flat is not only novel (he can slip under cracks), but also exciting. He is mailed off to California in a large envelope; he can be flown like a huge kite; and one night, disguised as a shepherdess, he hides in a painting in the art museum and foils some thieves.[ii]

Earlier this week I found out that in the Diocese of Texas, Flat Andy (a cutout of Bishop Andy Doyle) travels with members of Christ Church Cathedral, helping them stay in touch with one another over the summer. This sparked an idea: How could Flat Saints help our congregations engage in mission and ministry, get to know one another better, improve communication, and bring a little fun to our lives?

How might Flat Patrons bring to life what Wayne Scwaab describes as “member mission”:

We know about “congregational missions” at church or under the church’s “banner.”  Beyond church, the other kind of mission work begins. “Member missions” are what church members do daily on their own at home, at work, in their communities, in the wider world, during their leisure, and for their spiritual health, as well as what they do in their church’s life and its outreach. Since the members go everywhere in the world each day, what they do can have far greater impact on the world than what they do together as church.

We share in God’s mission by what we do and by what we say. We draw on our church life and each other for the support, the guidance, and the power we need to do God’s work.[iii]

So here’s what I’m imagining as a mash-up of Flat Stanley and Member Mission:

Provide each member of your congregation with a cutout of your parish’s patron saint on a piece of cardstock—and be sure to put a printable pdf of same on your website for seasonal members, others who might want to participate, and fellow lay leaders who might want to steal the idea. Encourage people to include Flat Patron in their baptismal lives and make provisions to share and celebrate their ministries in real time on a church bulletin board and a photo gallery on your congregation’s web site. For something like a youth mission trip, your Flat Patron could even tweet the highlights of the day!

It might take a little a time for people to warm up to the idea that “the stuff I just do because I do it” is in fact ministry. But once it catches on, once people start to look at their every day lives through a baptismal lens, I predict that Flat Patron will be very busy.

Before you know it, Flat Mary will join the Little League team for ice cream. Flat John will be sewing Quilts for Valor while Flat Andrew poses for a picture outside the local prison. Flat Ambrose will tweet from the finish line of the walk for mental health awareness and Flat James will share his week as a camp counselor.

As we continuously discover and rediscover our baptisms, we will get to know one another in our Monday-through-Saturday dimensions, enriching the fabric of our Sunday communion. Newcomers will have a user-friendly way of getting to know the life of the congregation and make connections with individual members. (Be sure to include Flat Patron in your newcomer welcome packet—it’s a meaningful invitation and a great ice breaker!)

So is anybody up for trying it? So far I’ve only thought it through on the congregational level, but how much fun would it be to gather up a slide show for diocesan convention showing the incredible breadth of member mission among all our congregations? How cool would it be for a confirmation class to use this as a vehicle for engaging the vows they are preparing to make in their own voice? How might a regional fellowship that meets only a few times a year use their own Flat Saint to stay in touch, or to catch up when they reconvene?

The possibilities are endless—I can’t wait to hear your stories!

[i] Brown, Jeff. Flat Stanley: His Original Adventure. Harper Collins (reprint edition), 2009.

[ii], Flat Stanley: His Original Adventure


May 9, 2013

Heaven Can Wait

“I wish I could go to heaven. I don’t want to die; I just want to see what it’s like and then come back. I wish people could go to heaven without dying.”

The good news was that my five-year-old didn’t want to die. The more urgent concern was that her mother had to think of a response.

“Well, you know Sweetie, there are stories in the Bible about people who went to heaven without their bodies dying in the way that we think of dying. It’s called ascending.”

Really? Now we’re on to something. How does one go about it? Could Charles Branson add this to his long-range plan for Virgin Galactic? We know the bishop; could she help?

“But it’s pretty rare. In the whole history of people we only know of three who have done it. Remember when I told you that after he was on the cross, Jesus died for three days, and then he came back and spent some time with his friends, comforting them and helping them know what to do next? Well, when he was done with that part he ascended.”

Of course she wanted to know who the other two were. (Why do I talk myself into these corners?) Elijah for sure. Who was the third? Moses? Possibly—all we know was that his body was never found. Or was it Enoch? I don’t remember…and her attention span has expired anyway.

So many years later, this conversation stays with me. I revisit it on this Ascension Day to ask, If I could go to heaven without dying and then come back, would I want to?

Remember Plato’s allegory of the cave? A small family group has lived their entire lives in a primitive cave, their backs to opening so that all they can see are the shadows of things, playing on the back wall of the cave like a puppet show from the street above.

What would happen if they were to leave the cave. What would it be like for them to discover that everything they know about the world is but shadow? And once they had discovered the light and color and vibrancy of the real world, could they be content going back into the cave? Having seen face-to-face, could they settle for a mirror dimly?

Which brings me back to the question: If I could go to heaven without dying and then come back, would I want to?

Could I stand to just for a moment join my voice with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, singing and proclaiming the glory of God’s name, then return to the life I love?

I’ve decided on “no.” I prefer to be a steward of the here and now, to delight in all that is, seen and unseen. Our pleasure in what God has created, our discernment of how God would have us be in this time and in this place, are calls to stewardship as surely as our commitment to tithe or our practice of the baptismal vows. God delights in the joy I take in my family, in exploring new places, discovery the little nooks and crannies of the Earth. God wants me to love every minute of this life, to use my talents as a good and faithful servant.

I live into the assurance that the life of the world to come will come…in due time.

Today, heaven can wait.

February 26, 2013

Way Opens

Filed under: Congregational Development,Leadership,Lectionary,Time and Talent — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 11:24 am

In this third week of Lent, Marian scholar Tim Perry asks his readers to consider how Mary models trust as an aspect of unreserved discipleship.[i]

What does Mary do immediately after hearing this remarkable news? She goes to visit Elizabeth. Note that in his annunciation to Mary, Gabriel gives no specific information as to time or timing; all he tells Mary is that she has found favor with the Lord and will at some point conceive the child of whom he speaks. In sharing Elizabeth’s news, however, he is very specific; Mary has concrete information, so that’s where she heads. When she arrives it is Elizabeth (or more accurately, a fetal John the Baptizer) who discerns immediately what has been accomplished.

Through it all, Mary is calmly accepting, not in a “blind faith” kind of way, but in a trusting way. When she offers herself as a servant of the Lord, she takes part in a rich history of faith and faithfulness. Like her forebears Abram, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah, when Mary utters the words, “Here am I.” she tells us in the simplest, most elegant way that she doesn’t need to know when, where, or how. Her deep peace that way will open is enough.

That’s not to say that she is a passive figure, a servant in the “just tell me what to do” sense. Far from it! I am in love with this marvelous blend of acceptance and courage that I see in her—she accepts the call to vocation, while at the same time taking responsibility for what she will do next. She doesn’t sit around thinking, “Well that was interesting…” and wait for something to happen. She takes what she knows, does what makes sense, and trusts that the next steps will come clear in their time.

In my own life, I refer to these periods as “requiring more faith than I think I have.” Through prayer and study, through worried nights and moments of letting go, I have learned to embrace the truth that way opens. It’s not easy. It is, however, deeply true. And it’s good stewardship. Good discipleship.

How are you called to offer yourself as a disciple, without reserve, in this season? How is your congregation called to fulfill a mission that requires more faith than you think you have? With the season of annual meetings, elections, and budgets having passed, with new vestries settling in to the call at hand, how will we, as clergy and lay leaders, find that right balance of faith and action, of “Here am I” and “Here’s what I’m going to do next”?

I invite you in this third week of Lent to get in touch with your inner Mary. Embrace the journey that is only being written as you walk it. Give thanks for grace as way opens.

[i] Perry, Tim, Blessed Is She: Living Lent with Mary; Morehouse.

January 31, 2013

No Excuses

Filed under: Lectionary,Social Gospel,Time and Talent — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 8:36 pm

O God of all the prophets, you knew us and chose us before you formed us in the womb. Fill us with faith that speaks your word, hope that does not disappoint, and love that bears all things for your sake, until that day when we shall know you fully, even as we are known by you. Amen[i]

It’s a pattern:

God announces himself and calls the prophet to his or her vocation.

The would-be chosen one responds with a flurry of excuses, all designed to avoid the call—I’m halt of speech; I’m shy; I’m too young; I’m too old; I’m not really a leader; I’m already on a different committee; I think I have a root canal that day.

And God replies as only the Author of All Creation, as only the one who knew us in our mother’s womb, can: Get over it.

It happens every time: Moses…Isaiah…Ezekiel…Jeremiah…me…and you.

Prophecy, it seems, is the gift no one wants.

In First Corinthians, Chapter 14, the passage immediately follows the Epistle reading in this week’s lectionary, Paul names “prophecy” as the most desirable of spiritual gifts. This would have made sense to his hearers. The church at Corinth was made up mostly of pagan converts whose Hellenistic background would have given high honor to prophets, especially to those who were given to “ecstatic” prophesy.[ii]

So why is it such a hot potato?

Well, first of all, it’s dangerous—the people were going to throw Jesus off a cliff for goodness sake! Speaking up, speaking out, being the voice that says what needs to be said isn’t something that many of us want to do.

Second, it’s kinda nutty.

The first time I met with a Spiritual Director was about six or seven years ago, shortly after I had experienced what can only be described as a clear visitation from the Holy Spirit, a distinct and unmistakable call to vocation. He was the second person I had confided in after this happened—the first being my bishop—and after listening thoughtfully and reflecting for a moment he spoke:

I believe that what you describe really did happen. I believe that you are called. And furthermore, as I sit with you I am discerning in you the gift of prophecy.

I literally choked. I think I started laughing. Prophecy? Seriously? I don’t even know what that means! And I’m certainly not going to go around telling people “I have the gift of prophecy.”

I mean…Try it: I have the gift of prophecy.

How does it feel? How do those words feel in your mouth?

Now try it again, and this time really claim it.

I have the gift of prophecy.

Because the truth is, every single one of us is called to be a prophet. Maybe not individually, but as a community we are called to listen deeply to the Holy Spirit’s calling and to respond collectively in the exhortation of Christian truth through mission and ministry.

In this season of Annual Meetings and vestry retreats, I have the pleasure of working closely with a variety of vestries. During this time that we spend together, I often feel the abiding presence of faith, hope, and love in our midst, the greatest indeed being love—love for our God, love for our church, and love for one another.

Richard Rohr defines true love as the moment when giving and receiving meet. “Receiving is not experienced as disempowering—something that makes you lower—instead, it is empowering. Your deepest power is received by letting someone else grace you, gift you, love you.” And it is in the receiving that our response, our own giving, is born.[iii]

At this point you would be justified in wondering how love is going to get the work done. How is love practical enough for the tasks at hand, especially in these times of shrinking attendance, decreases in pledge and plate, and care for aging buildings?

I return to our reading from Paul: Without love, everything else is pointless. It is love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love never ends.

And so each of us, called now as prophets in this generation….in our communities…throughout Judea and Samaria…to the ends of the earth.

 …will come to the Lord’s table mindful that true love is where the giving and receiving meet.

We will proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ with confidence that true love comes in that place there giving and receiving meet.

And when the difficult moments are upon us, when the questions of discernment weigh heavily, the true love born of giving and receiving will strengthen us to seek and serve Christ in one another, to love our neighbor as ourself, and to respect the dignity of every human being.

So go ahead…Whether you are a recently elected Warden, a vestry or bishop’s committee member, or a faithful communicant, follow in the footsteps of all the reluctant prophets. Hold close the reassurance of your baptism and accept God’s call to prophesy.

No excuses.

[ii] Plutarch, The E at Delphi 387B in Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the new Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986. P.29.

January 19, 2013


Filed under: Financial Commitment,Lectionary,Social Gospel,Time and Talent — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 3:02 pm

When I was 10 I badly wanted a chemistry set. I even asked Santa for it. I can only guess that my mom was gesturing wildly behind my back when he asked me how old I was, then thoughtfully commented that he usually gave chemistry sets to 12 year olds, but he would think about it.

The chemistry set did appear under the tree that year and I promptly set up my basement laboratory.

My favorite “experiment,” the one I did over and over (and over) involved two small beakers of water, each with a different powder of some sort stirred into them. When the beakers were combined, the water turned red.

The experiment was called “turning water into wine.” In truth, however, it was little more than a magic trick. The result wasn’t wine at all, of course. And stirring up some powders and pouring two liquids together contributed nothing to my understanding of science.

Jesus, on the other hand, takes a look at some jars, has a word with the servants, and voila! Great wine.

Is this magic, too? Is it possible that this first miracle, this beginning of his public ministry, is little more than a parlor trick? Or perhaps an apocryphal tale, pieced together from unrelated facts?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t think it matters.

What matters to me this Gospel reading is that six stone jars, holding water for the Jewish rites of purification—wash water, foot water, head and neck water, totally unfit for drinking water—were transformed into the best of the wedding wine—the wine that should have been served first, when it would be appreciated most.

In this first miracle at Canaan, we see directly how God takes what is at hand, and transforms it into what is needed.

This transformation of water into wine is the baptismal image that I hold fast on those days when my life feels…well…when my life feels like wash water, when I feel ill-equipped, if not completely overwhelmed, by the need at hand. I remind myself that in baptism I am transformed. I’m not wash-water; I’m wine. I’m good wine. With God’s help, I have what it takes to be what is needed.

I am not going to pretend that it’s easy. Some days it takes a lot of convincing.

But whether or not I buy my own story, it’s true.

And it’s true of each of us: God created us to be his best stuff. No matter what our starting point, by continuing in the Apostles teaching, and the fellowship, and the breaking of the bread, we have what it takes to live as God’s best stuff.

Because we are God’s best stuff, the second message of this Gospel lesson is equally significant: The best is brought to the table first.

When we bring our glad gifts to the feast…to the celebration of the Holy Eucharist…we bring the offerings of our hearts, our prayers, and the fruit of our labors from what we have…not from what we have left over. Like a bridegroom at his wedding feast, when we commit a tithe or a percentage of our income to the mission and ministry of the church, to seeking and serving Christ in all persons…we make that offering first. We delight in sharing our abundance, that others may also know joy.

With many of our congregations wrestling together with the questions of the present and the challenges to its future, I find in this Gospel three questions, three invitations to prayer and discernment:

How is God working in you and in your midst to take what is at hand, and transform it into what is needed?

How are you called, through your baptism, to be the best wine, the symbol of abundance and celebration?

What glad gifts will you bring, first, to the feast that we share by faith, with thanksgiving?

January 4, 2013

By Another Road

Filed under: Lectionary,Social Gospel,Time and Talent — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 12:51 pm

Hidden God, whose wisdom compels our love and unsettles all our values:  fill us with desire to search for her truth, that, becoming fools for her sake, we may transform the world, through Jesus Christ, your word and wisdom made flesh, to whom be glory for ever.1 Amen

I find myself incredibly frustrated by the lack of detail in the Gospel reading for the Epiphany. Who are these people? They are simply “wise men.” They come from somewhere vaguely “east” of Jerusalem. Did they even know what they were looking for when they each set out? Or did they just have a gut feeling that compelled them to seek something?

There’s a saying in congregational development, “Most Seekers don’t know that they are seeking.” Was it like that for the wise men? Were they, like many of us, on a spiritual journey, moving from a vague “somewhere else,” across unpredictable and unfamiliar terrain, looking for an unnamable something? And are we, like them, overwhelmed with joy when we see that the star we are following has stopped?

Eugene Peterson describes this moment of conversion as “both as simple and significant as stopping, doing an about-face, and walking (or running) down the Road of Life.” He continues, “Following Jesus is the “Yes” that follows the turnaround of conversion.”2

Each of us, through our own conversion story, knows that after they had paid their homage and presented their gifts, these wise men did not go home by another road because they were creeped out by Herod, or because they had each had a weird dream. Encountering Christ changes us. It puts us on a new road. Having come face-to-face with the Christ child, it was simply impossible for the wise men to go back the way they had come.

Celebrating the Epiphany invites us also to celebrate the many responses we make in coming face-to-face with the Christ child. What are the unique gifts that we bring? What offerings do we make? How do we invite others to take their own first steps on the “other road” to which those who encounter Christ are called?

As we step out of what is familiar and embrace the freedom to be the disciples God is calling us to be, we will enter and re-enter the house time after time, and from many directions, encountering the Christ child differently each time. We will find Christ in every nook and cranny as we nourish one another on our spiritual journeys, celebrate our love for ourselves and for our neighbors with open and humble hearts, and join in doing God’s work in the world.

In the words of Richard Kautz3:

“Our walk to Bethlehem is over, but our true journey is about to begin. The Christ Child no longer lies in a manger in a land far away. He is playing with the other children down the street. He is losing at checkers at the senior center. He is laughing and singing in the rush of a new love. He is weeping with those who are suffering. He is in the face of your spouse, your child, your parent, and the stranger who passes you on the street. Listen for God’s voice in your dreams, in the words of crazy old men and women, and in the depths of his holy Word. Listen, for God is calling you to draw close. Go and see. Go and hear. The King is waiting for you.”

1        A Prayer Book for Australia

2        Kaai, Anneke and Eugene H. Peterson. In a Word: The Image and Language of Faith. Paraclete Press. Pp. 33-34

3        Kautz, Richard, A Labyrinth Year: Walking the Seasons of the Church; Morehouse. p. 23.

November 9, 2012

Bring Me a Morsel

Filed under: Financial Commitment,Lectionary,Time and Talent — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 7:44 pm

I love it when familiar readings say something completely new to me.

That’s what happened earlier this week, when I browsed the lectionary to see what sort of message might jump out at me as the season of annual financial commitment is moving toward its conclusion. In this week’s alternative reading from the 1 Kings, I found a richness of themes that made me glad the passage will come around again in another three years.

Today, I’m choosing to focus on how both the surrender to scarcity and the miracle of abundance seem to be lacking in passion. Listen to the widow’s words, as she responds to Elijah’s request for a morsel of bread:

As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug. I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.

Not a hint of self-pity. Not a word of appeal. It is a simple fact that she has run out of resources. She is at the end of her stores. She and her son will eat the last of what they have, and they will die.

By the same token, when the meal and oil miraculously carry not just the widow and her son, but the entire household through the drought, through to the time when rain falls on the land, there is no celebration, no gratitude, no acknowledgement of the power of the Lord. Where is the leaping and praise that we see in Jesus’ healings? Where is the thank offering? Where is the conversion from “as the LORD your God lives,” to realizing that surely Elijah has come to her from a God who desires a relationship with her?

They ate well and didn’t die.

The end.

I want more.

I want the widow of Zarapheth to understand how offering what she had was transformed into having what she needed. I want her to be filled with the same sense of wonder and possibility I experienced a few weeks ago at our diocesan convention.

In the pre-convention “Stewardship Toolbox” workshop, I invited clergy and lay leaders to spend an unscripted hour offering whatever was on their minds, in any area of financial or non-financial stewardship. As a community, we shared our experiences, asked questions, explored possibilities, and offered insights our own and one another’s expressions of stewardship ministry.

One participant captured the imaginations of everyone gathered when she introduced herself as a lay leader from one Maine’s most isolated and impoverished coastal communities. She beamed as she shared her tiny congregation’s success in transforming the time and talent of a largely unemployed or retired population into the funds the church needs for operations and mission by serving meals to the study groups that frequent the area. She burst with joy when someone asked her what sort of income this ministry generated, “We work with donated food, so the whole $400 per meal supports the church! We are even working toward the possibility of a part-time priest!”

This is a community that could very easily have baked a cake from the last bit of meal and quietly faded into the decline of mainstream denominations and the ever-steeper struggle to remain viable in an unsustainable economy. It happens all the time, in small rural communities and formerly thriving urban neighborhoods. We read about it in the press and study it in ecumenical gatherings.

But not here. Not on this widow’s watch.

I watched in awe as the Holy Spirit moved through our gathering, as the light in her eyes jumped like a flame of Pentecost to catch in the imaginations of her fellow lay leaders. I saw wheels turning as people processed the conversation, relating her story to the possibilities in their congregations. I saw the usual boundaries geography and socio-economic difference melted as ideas bounced around and questions and suggestions fed into one another.

And yet for all her success, this lay leader shared in the same question that challenges all of us: How do we inspire people to give? How do we conduct an annual pledge drive when we are asking not for money, but for the time, talent, effort, and dedication to transform that which we have into that which we need? How do we engage the transformative power of creative abundance?

And there we find another lesson in our reading: Ask.

Elijah is hungry. He needs a drink of water and a morsel of bread. When the widow explains that she can’t, what does Elijah say? “Do it anyway.”

When it comes to resourcing our parish from the abundance (or scarcity) in our community, asking for what we want can open an array of unforeseen opportunities.

So what if this church were to invite an ingathering of time pledges? Talent pledges? Effort and Dedication pledges? What gifts and graces might we discover if people were to “commit ___ hours to the mission and ministry of St. Swithin’s, to be given ___ weekly ___ monthly” just like we traditionally do with our financial pledges? Where might we see vitality bubble up when lay leaders are equipped with a treasury of time, time that will be transformed into whatever is needed for mission and ministry to thrives?

How would the fruits of such an ingathering be celebrated in the offertory? What would the invitation and dedication look like when we lift up what we can accomplish, as a community, with what we have to work with, as people of faith?

How might such a jar of meal not be emptied, nor such a jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord?

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